After U.S. Merchant Marine Herb Case returned to Hawai’i from action in the Pacific in World War II, he was delighted to find servicemen and servicewomen qualified for “G.I.” benefits.
In 1945, Congress approved the “G.I. Bill of Rights,” as compensation to American men and women who served in “harms way” during the war.
They were entitled to education expenses, financial assistance for home purchases, job preference, medical assistance and other benefits.
But Case, now a resident of Koloa, and thousands of returning mariners were shocked they didn’t quality for most of the benefits. After all, they reasoned, they had risked their lives transporting supplies to American troops in Europe and in the Pacific.
The main obstacle to their receiving benefits was this: Their war status. By war’s end, merchant marines were still considered civilians.
Because mariners in Hawai’i and across the nation are aging and because they aren’t likely to see a revision of legislation giving them full veteran benefits soon, they are pursing alternate benefits, Case said.
The American Merchant Marine Veterans Association recently drafted federal legislation proposing a “post-war” compensation of $50,000 to mariners 90 days after the measure is signed into law by the president.
With the anniversary of the Dec. 7 attack of Pearl Harbor coming up, the bill has great relevance to merchant marines in Hawai’i who performed their duty in the protection of their country, much as servicemen and servicewomen had done, Case said.
The legislation, drafted by a committee of the association, represents a cash value in place of unpaid benefits of the G.I. bill to the mariners.
Many values have put on unpaid lifetime benefits from the G.I. Bill, with some approaching a million dollars for each mariner, association representatives said.
But association members believe $1 million in compensation is too high and that the $50,000 figure is reasonable.
Returning from an association conference in Sparks, Nevada last month, Case said he was selected to publicize the bill, copies of which will be sent to U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye (Hawai’i) and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) for their support.
Of the 12 or so mariners living on Kaua’i, Billy Fernandes, a former state legislator, and Paul Lemke, a Kapa’a rancher, are the best known.
Under the draft bill sent to Congress, mariners would qualify for compensation if they:
– served at least 90 days of active duty from Dec. 7, 1941 to Dec. 31, 1946.
– served on an ocean-going vessel in a combat zone.
– were detained or interned.
– were honorably discharged.
In lieu of federal legislation that would grant full benefits to mariners, some states are attempting to recognize the contributions of World War II-era merchant marines.
A legislator from Pennsylvania has co-sponsored legislation that would provide $500 to mariners who were honorably discharged. In that state, 3000 mariners would be eligible for the funds if the bill is adopted.
For more than 40 years, mariners were considered civilians. It was not until the passage of Seaman Acts of 1988 that mariners who were on “sea-going service from Dec. 7, 1941 to Aug. 15, 1945, were granted the status of a military veteran.
Mariners became eligible for some medical benefits, but have had to deal with exclusions:
– A co-payment for medical benefits based on the income of a mariner.
– Disability payments.
– Medical payments that were available to dependents of other military branches were not available to families of merchant marines.
The lack of recognition of the contributions of the merchant marines has been a sore point for mariners, historians said.
A handful of mariners, for instance, protested the dedication of a privately funded World War II memorial in San Rafael, Ca. last year.
The critics said they felt the monument didn’t honor them because it only mentioned the four branches of the military.
Representatives for the mariner group said President Delano Roosevelt understood mariners played a major role in the victory of allied forces.
Association representatives said that on signing the G.I. Bill, Roosevelt said he hoped Congress would enact similar legislation for the mariners.
An association petition to Congress to approve the $50,000 compensation fund quoted Roosevelt as saying “no other branch of the services deserved this bill more than the merchant marines.”
According to Web site information, the U.S. Merchant Marines was a vital link between the producers of military supplies and American military forces spread across the globe in World War II.
To respond to the needs of the U.S. military, the number of mariners swelled from 55,000 to more than 215,000 through U.S. Maritime Service training programs, according to Web site information.
One in six mariner aboard merchant ships, in spite of being escorted by military convoys, died in the line of duty, suffering a greater percentage of war-related deaths than all other branches of the U.S. military.
During the war, more than 9,200 mariners died or were missing. The casualties don’t reflect mariners who died after the war, as a result of injuries or exposure while aboard the ships, historians said.
The merchant ships faced threats from submarines, mines and raiders and attack planes.
“We should not be forgotten,” Case said. “Right now, all I qualify for is for some prescription medicine from the veterans clinic and a flag when I die. We deserve more.”
Staff writer Lester Chang can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) and mailto:email@example.com