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Merchant marine veterans face hurdles on benefits bill

A measure to compensate surviving WWII sailors who had been overlooked in the GI Bill stirs surprisingly sharp opposition from some veterans groups.

June 09, 2009|Richard Simon

WASHINGTON — During World War II, Herman "Hank" Rosen spent 30 days in a lifeboat with 23 other men after his ship was torpedoed. Only five survived.

Stanley Willner was a prisoner of war for three years after his ship went down. Forced to work under slave labor conditions on the infamous bridge on the River Kwai, he weighed just 74 pounds when he was liberated.

By almost any measure, Willner, 88, and Rosen, 90, belong to "the Greatest Generation," risking their lives for their country in history's deadliest war.

Yet when they came home, they did not receive the cornucopia of benefits that a grateful nation bestowed on returning veterans.

Willner and Rosen served in the U.S. merchant marine. And for reasons that remain unclear, they and thousands of others were not eligible for the education subsidies, home loan guarantees and other provisions of the GI Bill -- benefits that helped millions of veterans as they returned to civilian life.

It's an oversight the surviving merchant sailors hope to see rectified. They are lobbying Congress to approve an obscure piece of legislation called the Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II Act.

House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista) said the bill offered a "modest payment for the 40-plus years of lost benefits." It would provide $1,000 a month to the 10,000 surviving World War II mariners.

"It finally gives recognition to those brave guys," Rosen said of the men he sailed with.

The measure recently passed the House but has yet to make it out of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.

Ian Allison, 89, of Santa Rosa, Calif., who served as an engineer aboard a gasoline tanker and is co-chairman of a group called the Just Compensation Committee, thinks the chances of final passage may be improved by the fact that President Obama, as a senator, backed the legislation.

Supporters also hope to benefit from Saturday's marking of the 65th anniversary of D-day.

Congress recently agreed to provide payments to Filipinos who fought alongside American forces against the Japanese after a long campaign by that group of aging veterans.

For an issue involving such long-ago events, the proposal to help World War II merchant seamen has stirred surprisingly sharp opposition.

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Veterans of Foreign Wars have come out against the bill, contending it would give the mariners a monetary benefit unavailable to many who served in uniform. The merchant seamen won basic veterans benefits -- such as the right to be buried in a military cemetery -- in 1988 after a court fight.

The bill's projected $438-million, five-year cost also could be a stumbling block.

Critics say they do not dispute the mariners' contribution to the war effort, commemorated in a memorial in San Pedro and movies such as "Action in the North Atlantic." But Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, the top Republican on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, also has called it an effort to "resolve an inequity through discrimination."

He said that if payments are to be made to the mariners, they also ought to be made to other groups, such as the Flying Tigers and the Women Airforce Service Pilots, an elite group that flew noncombat missions.

In fact, the mariners' bill is one of a number aimed at healing old wounds and righting perceived wrongs from the World War II era, including providing payments to survivors of the Bataan Death March and establishing a commission to review the U.S. government's treatment of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution.

The measures come with a sense of urgency. World War II veterans are dying at a rate of about 1,000 a day.

Filner, the sponsor of the merchant marine measure, said that "Congress has a responsibility to correct the wrongs of the past, and this is one of the grave injustices that deserve rectifying."

Though the role of nonuniformed merchant sailors in World War II may have faded from popular memory, it was one of the most dangerous and important of the war -- especially in the crucial early years.

Defenseless or lightly armed private merchant ships, not U.S. Navy vessels, carried supplies to Britain and Russia, enabling them to sustain the war against Germany while the United States rearmed.

Merchant ships played a similar role in the Pacific.

Hundreds of ships and thousands of men were lost to enemy submarines and aircraft. One of the most dangerous missions was ferrying supplies to a Russian port north of the Arctic Circle.

"Many service people who might have dug ditches in Louisiana and never stepped outside the United States got the full GI Bill," Allison said in a Capitol Hill appearance.

"But those who sailed the Murmansk run were sunk in burning oil or frigid waters of the North Atlantic [and] got nothing," he said.

Congressional hearings on the bill have sounded like history lessons as veterans in their 80s and 90s recounted painful war stories to a Congress whose own ranks of World War II veterans have thinned.

Rosen, who lives in Rancho Bernardo, Calif., told of the 19 men who died during their month adrift in a lifeboat.

"I think of these guys every day," he said.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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