by Pamela Rogow
My 92-year-old father, Mel Rogow, never talked much about his military service in World War II. For most of my life, all I knew was that he had enlisted in the U.S. Merchant Marines, whose job was delivering supplies to Allied war fronts around the world. Only in recent years did I learn — from other people — how treacherous this job was.
The Merchant Marines faced torpedoes and engaged in battles with German U-Boats. Luckily, when my dad’s ship was torpedoed, the ship was in warm waters, and he and his fellow seamen were able to scramble onto rafts and eventually be rescued. After a few days at sea, they were rescued and shipped out soon afterwards on another warship.
Others were not so lucky. Those torpedoed while delivering supplies to the North Atlantic Russian front generally froze to death in the icy Murmansk Sea. Others died when a mine exploded their ship. Others were caught and beheaded at Wake Island by the Japanese. In fact, the Merchant Marine units suffered by far the highest casualty rate of any American military unit in the war, almost twice the rate in the Army and over four times the rate in the Navy.
The Merchant Mariners had been enlisted by Roosevelt at the start of the war, with assurances of full veterans benefits. Then Congress turned its back, eventually retroactively reclassifying them as World War II veterans but still cutting them out from benefits like the GI Bill that enabled millions of other veterans to attend college and buy a home, securing a foot in the middle class. My dad was pushing 60 when he secured a college diploma and went on to law school. He was able to practice as an attorney for about 15 years before retiring, but he knows other Merchant Marine veterans who were never able to climb into the middle class and who still live in or near poverty.
Why did the military and Congressional elite deny these heroes their benefits? Some think racial prejudice may have played a part. Remember that during World War II, the Army, Navy and Marines were racially segregated. Not so in the Merchant Marines. When Roosevelt conscripted them into service, Mariners of different racial backgrounds were already working together on ships, and they remained the only racially integrated branch of the military throughout the war; in fact, some white seamen served under black command in WWII. Charles Mills, an African-American Merchant Mariner from that time, agrees that the Congressmen and military elite, virtually all white, looked down on the integrated Merchant Marine veterans as second-class.
Whether it was racism or some other form of bias, the Mariners were ignored. Many of these forgotten heroes are now running out of whatever limited savings they had and are living out their final years in or near poverty.
The proposed legislation, HR-563, the “Honoring Our WWII Merchant Mariners Act of 2015,” would finally recognize the roughly 4,400 surviving guys and provide them with a one-time compensation of $25,000 to help them through their waning years. This bill is decades overdue and has support from members of both parties; however, it remains stalled in the Republican-controlled House Veterans Affairs Committee. This past June, even the Pennsylvania State Senate recently gave Congress a kick in the pants. Our State Senate passed a Resolution, introduced by Republican Senator Mario Scavello, “urging the United Stated Congress to pass HR-563.”
According to the bill’s sponsor, Democrat Janice Hahn, adding more co-sponsors will help pressure the Veteran Affairs Committee to move the bill to a full floor vote. Unfortunately, our Congressional representative, Chaka Fattah, has yet to co-sponsor this bill for these longest-waiting veterans.
Opponents have raised several objections to the bill. One claim is that the Merchant Mariners who served in World War II are not bona fide veterans, despite a Congressional act to the contrary. Another concern is that passing the bill would somehow open a door to a range of “citizen groups” demanding veterans’ benefits. (A handful of such citizens operated under military authority in the war; few faced combat danger, and even fewer are alive.) Yet another objection is cost, to which I can only say: Seriously? Morris Harvey, outgoing president of the Association of Merchant Marine Veterans, explains that these men, most of whom are now in their 90s, don’t want Congressional dysfunction to block their last chance at just recognition.
My father writes the obituaries of WWII Merchant Marine vets for their newsletter. He laments, “Every time we lose another guy, I hurt to think that they died without receiving their appreciation from the country they served. Sometimes it seems like they’re just waiting for the rest of us to go.”
Congressman Fattah should join other members of the House of Representatives in becoming a co-sponsor of HR-563. While my dad is still alive, I’d like to hear him finally talk about the years in which he risked his life to fight Hitler and defend democracy, with pride not only in his service but in his country’s response. It’s time for America’s belated thank-you to the World War II Merchant Mariners.
Pamela Rogow founded MaMa (Moving Arts of Mt Airy) 18 years ago. She has designed and produced museum exhibitions, riverwalks, visitor centers and other cultural destinations, elements and events for many years. Her parents still live in the same house in L.A. where they raised their four children.