Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Merchant Mariners Fight for Payments; They Helped Deliver Supplies during Times of War, but Afterward, They Got No Benefits like Other Veterans

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Merchant Mariners Fight for Payments; They Helped Deliver Supplies during Times of War, but Afterward, They Got No Benefits like Other Veterans

Article excerpt

Byline: TIMOTHY J. GIBBONS

Hayes Tate may be 89 years old, but he barely has to pause as he casts his memory back to his days aboard ships helping to deliver supplies during World War II.

There were planes that went to the Russians to fight on the Eastern Front, ammunition for the fighting in North Africa and miles of stainless steel tubing, something he never knew the purpose of.

"We didn't have any armor," the longtime merchant mariner recalls, gesturing at a model of the type of vessel on which he sailed. "Everyone on the ship took gunnery training. You needed to be able to defend yourself."

They were a vital part of the war effort, say Tate and other mariners, handling a crucial job - one that many men died while doing.

The men were part of the Merchant Marine, the civilian fleet of U.S.-owned ships that during peacetime handle commercial shipping. During times of war, such ships can be called into service by the military to act as an auxiliary to the Navy, as they were in World War II.

But in the aftermath of that war, the mariners weren't considered veterans and weren't eligible for things like the education benefits in the GI Bill or medical care.

To make up for that oversight, World War II mariners are now fighting for a sort of pension, a struggle led by Herman Starnes, an 83-year-old retired mariner in St. Augustine.

A bill to provide $1,000 a month for the surviving mariners languishes in the Senate, but mariners say they're closer than they've ever been to achieving their goal. Many are not optimistic, though.

"I'm not convinced there's much of a chance," Tate says. "There's too damn many problems with things happening now."

The fight for recognition has been going on for decades. In 1988, a court ruling led the government to recognize mariners as veterans who served in the war, meaning they could now be buried in national cemeteries and receive Department of Veterans Affairs home loans.

But since the ruling coming more than four decades after the end of the war, the mariners missed out on a plethora of benefits, argues Starnes, who's testified about the issue in Congress.

"What happened for 65 years?" he says. "We have never drawn a penny."

Opponents of the idea say a flat payment like the mariners are looking for isn't fair to other veterans, who don't receive cash payments of that sort, one of the reasons groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars opposes the idea.

"The only people who are getting an award like that are winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor," says Charles Dana Gibson, an historian and mariner who served in World War II. "I don't think the average merchant mariner came close to that."

Mariners who support the bill exaggerate how deadly their job was, says Gibson, who began researching the issue while helping push for mariners to receive veterans status. …

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