Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II Act of 2009
- The Pacific Merchant Marine Council supports the Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II Act of 2009.PhelpsPhelps Hobart, President____________________________________
September 23, 2009
Merchant mariners hope Congress passes bill in their honor
Surviving members who served in World War II but were ineligible for veterans benefits would get stipendWhen Bob McGaghie returned to Chicago after traveling the world on cargo ships during World War II, he watched as friends who served in the Army or Navy used the GI Bill to attend college or to secure loans. Because he was in the Merchant Marine, McGaghie wasn't able to access those benefits.
Now 90 years old, McGaghie hopes a bill before Congress will finally give him and his aging comrades the thanks they deserve. "The main thing we want is recognition," said McGaghie, who lives in Orland Park.
The "Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II Act of 2009" has passed the House but is still being reviewed by the Senate's Committee on Veterans Affairs. The bill would establish a fund to pay a $1,000-a-month stipend to about 10,000 surviving members of the Merchant Marine who served between 1941 and 1946. It would cost $120 million the first year and less each subsequent year because many merchant mariners, who are reaching their 80s and 90s, die each year.
Younger generations may not know much about the Merchant Marine, but the volunteer sailors played a crucial role transporting troops and supplies during the war. It was a dangerous job, especially with so many ships being sunk. Many mariners lost their lives.
More than 250,000 served in the Merchant Marines by the end of the war, according to background information provided for the legislation. But because they worked for private shipping companies on civilian-owned ships, they were not considered veterans and so were not able to access the GI Bill and other veterans benefits after the war. It took a long legal battle to win classification as veterans in 1988. Those intervening years were hard for men like McGaghie, who serves on the presidential council of the Midwest chapter of the American Merchant Marine Veterans.
"It took 43 years after the war for us to be classified as veterans so that we could get a flag on our coffin and we could be buried at Abraham Lincoln (National) Cemetery," he said, referring to the VA cemetery in Elwood.
Now the group is lobbying members of Congress to help pass the compensation bill, which has 39 co-sponsors in the Senate, including Sen. Dick Durbin. The veterans group has sent letters to Sen. Roland Burris, who is on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
A spokesman for Burris said the senator respects the service and sacrifice of the mariners but does not support the bill because there is limited funding for such programs. The money would come from a discretionary fund and there are other funding priorities, spokesman James O'Connor said.
But advocates for the bill said funding for the mariners is small compared with the huge costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many advocates point to legislation passed earlier this year in which Filipino veterans of World War II were awarded lump-sum payments of $15,000 for U.S. citizens and $9,000 for non-citizens. The measure was included in the economic stimulus bill.
McGaghie's daughter, Karyn Holm, a nursing professor at DePaul University, said it's frustrating because it feels like the merchant mariners are last in line to be compensated. Her father's story reflects those of many merchant mariners, as told in such books as "They Couldn't Have Won the War without Us: Stories of the Merchant Marine in WWII."
McGaghie wasn't drafted for the war because he was taking care of his invalid father. But wanting to join the war effort, he signed up with the Merchant Marine in 1943 and, after training in New York, set off on his first trip -- to take troops, food and ammunition to New Guinea. He worked on the ship as a fireman and an oiler, helping to operate and monitor the steam-powered engine. He later sailed to Belgium, Saipan and countries in South America and North Africa.
The most unsettling part of the job was not knowing if torpedoes might target the ship at night, he said.
"You're bound to be scared," he said. "Every night, we traveled in a blackout with no lights."
After the war, he was able to return to his job at the printing company R.R. Donnelley, but other mariners had trouble finding jobs because veterans had priority.
William Siffermann wanted to take classes when he returned from the war. Although he was allowed to return to his factory job, he had to take night classes because he could not take part in the GI Bill.
"I was very disappointed," the Plainfield resident said. "I came back and had to pay for my own schooling. Back then, it was hard to find $10."
Siffermann, who turns 84 this month, worked on ships that carried troops to Africa, livestock to Poland and tanks to Europe. He also provided supplies for the invasion of Japan that never took place.
Siffermann said if the legislation passes, he would use the money to help pay for expensive medical procedures he needs. But it's more about respect than money, he said.
Mike Marshall of Western Springs supports the bill even though he doesn't stand to gain anything from its passage. Because Marshall joined the U.S. Navy after serving in the Merchant Marine, he has been able to access veterans benefits.
"I'm not eligible, but the guys who earned the bonus need the money," he said. "They're being treated unfairly. They went into the same enemy waters as Navy men did."
Marshall, who turns 89 this month, serves as a leader of the Midwest mariners group. During the war, he sailed on ships carrying bombs and fighter planes to Africa and India as a merchant mariner. It wasn't just a job. The mariners felt a patriotic duty too, he said._____________________________________________For more on H.R. 23 and S. 663 visit: http://us.yhs.search.yahoo.com/avg/search?fr=yhs-avgb&type=yahoo_avg_hs2-tb-web_us&p=Belated%20Thank%20You%20to%20the%20Merchant%20Mariners%20of%20World%20War%20II%20Act%20of%202009Especially for H.R. 23 http://www.govit.com/vote/congress.aspx?bill=2009-hr-23 and for S. 663 http://www.govit.com/vote/congress.aspx?bill=2008-s-663