According to the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs, only 558,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in the armed forces during World War II are alive today. They are dying quickly at the rate at 372 veterans per day, says one source from the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. Those who still remain are in their 80’s and 90’s. As they yield to the inevitability of their deaths, the sights and sounds, the terrors and triumphs of that war will silently recede into history and from our memories as well. It’s up us Baby Boomers, the children of those who fought in that great conflict, to keep those memories alive. My father was only one of a multitude to be remembered.
Dad will have been dead for 23 years come this November. And not a day goes by that I don’t still think of him. I was raised on his stories of WWII and spent weeks of Sunday afternoons by his side watching “war movies”, usually starring someone like John Wayne.
He was a Chief Warrant Officer in the Merchant Marines who were on the front lines the minute their ships left any US port. They were sitting ducks for attack by kamikaze, battleships, torpedoes, bombers, and mines, with little protection as they navigated the Atlantic hauling their cargo of supplies, food, and munitions to the US troops in Europe. They received a higher pay rate than the other service branches because of the risks involved. The enemy figured if they sunk the ships that carried the weapons, ammo, medical supplies, and food to sustain the troops, then they had already won the war. According to the War Shipping Administration, the U.S. Merchant Marine suffered the highest rate of casualties of any branch of the service in World War II. I repeat: the highest rate of casualties.
Dad’s ship, a newly created Liberty ship named the Augustus P. Loring, was anchored at the London docks during the Blitz and narrowly escaped obliteration. The ship docked to the Loring’s right, wasn’t as fortunate. As a kid, I remember him occasionally shut up in his bedroom burning with fever from the malaria he contracted 20 to 30 years earlier during his trips to the South Pacific arena and which sent its parasitic infection coursing through his body every few years. Yes, he had served his country well.
Like the Marines, the Merchant Marines is a division of the US Navy but unlike the Marines, it was not considered eligible for federal benefits like the low-interest mortgages and college stipends available through the GI Bill, hospital care, or burial in a National Cemetery. It wasn’t until 1977 and the passage of two new laws that certain members of the Merchant Marines were granted eligibility for veteran’s benefits. My father was among those who “Served satisfactorily as a crew member during the period of armed conflict, December 7, 1941, to August 15, 1945, aboard merchant vessels in oceangoing—that is, foreign, intercostal, or coastwise—service.” Despite laying his life on the line for his country, he wasn’t a legitimate veteran until then. I remember him and my mother attending public hearings and organizing at a grassroots level from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, to assist in getting those laws promulgated and passed.
As recently as 2017, the organizing continued with the passing of the H.R. 154, the Honoring Our WWII Merchant Mariners Act of 2017, which will provide one-time compensation of $25,000 to World War-II merchant mariners to account for benefits they were not able to access before being granted veterans’ benefit eligibility. My father will not be able to benefit from this, but I know he’d be happy some sort of compensation for them all placing their lives on the front lines, will at least be fully validated.
He was buried in 1995 among his beloved war veterans in the National Cemetery in Bourne, MA to the haunting refrain of taps. He had finally achieved veteran status.
1. United States Merchant Marines.