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Opening Statement of Hon. Carol Shea-Porter, a Reprentative in Congress from the State of New Hampshire

I would like to thank Representative Filner for the opportunity to submit a statement to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs for the hearing on H.R. 23, the Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II Act of 2007. 

The U.S. Merchant Marine played a crucial role in Allied efforts during World War II, and Merchant Mariners were at high risk.  So I was stunned when I learned that, in return for their critical service to our country in World War II, Merchant Mariners had received absolutely no veterans’ benefits for their sacrifices and essential contribution to the war effort. 

During World War II the U.S. Merchant Marine provided essential logistical support for our military operations.  Without merchant ships to carry all the personnel, supplies, and equipment needed for the war effort, the Allies could not have won the war.  The role of merchant shipping was absolutely critical to our eventual success, as the availability of shipping determined our military options in a global war fought across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Mediterranean Sea, etc.  The U.S. Merchant Marine therefore had to and did participate in every major action and operation of the war.

Loaded with supplies and soldiers, a merchant ship was a more valuable target for enemy submarines than a corvette, a destroyer escort, a destroyer, or even a light cruiser.  The enemy knew that sinking a merchant ship would prevent it from bringing those supplies and soldiers to combat.  

Serving in the Merchant Marine was as dangerous as it was crucially important.  Merchant shipping faced destruction by submarines, mines, destroyers, aircraft, kamikaze attacks, and the sea itself.  1,554 ships were lost during the war, and in 1942 an average of 33 ships was sunk each week.  In fact, until the middle of 1942, German submarines actually sank more ships than were built. Those who made the notoriously hazardous run across the North Atlantic to Murmansk, Russia, were at particularly high risk.  On this run in the period through 1943, 12 out of every 100 merchant ships were sunk by enemy action. 

After their ships sank, survivors were forced into the sea or onto rafts or lifeboats to hope for rescue.  At least 8,000 Merchant Mariners were killed during the war, many thousands were injured, and over 600 were held as prisoners of war.  One in 26 Merchant Mariners perished in action during the war, a greater percentage than any military service, including the Marines.

From 1939 to the end of the war, more than 100 Merchant Mariners received the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal, awarded for outstanding acts of heroism.  A building at the Merchant Marine Academy at King's Point, N.Y. is named for one courageous Merchant Marine cadet who was killed defending his ship, after replacing an entire gunnery crew.   But our Merchant Marine veterans received no further recognition and no benefits.

The U.S. Merchant Marine was heavily involved in the D-Day invasion.  One thousand Merchant Mariners volunteered to tow derelict merchant ships to the Normandy coast.  The ships were scuttled there to make artificial harbors to replace those the Germans had destroyed.  These harbors enabled the unloading of enough troops and supplies for the invasion of France.   About 700 merchant ships participated in the invasion of France. 

But the Merchant Marine veterans who made possible the successful landings in France received no recognition and no benefits.  In fact they were not even recognized as veterans until 1988.

I had known nothing of this history until one of my constituents, Larry Warren of Brookfield, contacted me on behalf of his father, Joseph Warren of Wolfeboro, a World War II Merchant Marine veteran.  Here’s some of what Larry Warren had to say:

I am writing on behalf of all World War II Merchant Marine veterans but one in particular, my father Fred Warren of Wolfeboro. They need help.

My father served with the Merchant Marines during World War II. His hearing is damaged from working in the engine rooms and his lungs are damaged from the asbestos used in the construction of the merchant ships. He survived typhoons in the Pacific, German U-boats in the Atlantic and Axis torpedo bombers in the Mediterranean. I don't know all the harrowing experiences he went through. He doesn't talk about it.

He was lucky to have made it home. Many didn't. The casualty rate for World War II Merchant Marines was 1 in 26, higher than any branch of the armed services. Merchant Mariners fought and died beside members of our armed forces, some were captured and held POW's. Merchant ships and the crews on them were considered expendable by the Allied leaders. Freedom is not free and the Merchant Marines of World War II paid dearly.

My father has never received help in any form from our government because Merchant Mariners were denied benefits under the GI Bill. No low interest loans, no unemployment pay, no free college training, no help with prescription drugs, nothing. World War II Merchant Mariners were not even considered veterans until an act of Congress in 1988.

I respect all of our veterans and consider them heroes. But I am especially proud of my father. In my eyes he is a hero too. It's time to make amends.

Another of my constituents, Earl Mabie of Hooksett, a World War II Merchant Marine veteran, contacted me and has also encouraged me to support H.R. 23.  He told me of the different course his life took without the various benefits normally received by military veterans after World War II.

In 1944, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower recognized the contributions of the U.S. Merchant Marine in these words:

Every man in this Allied Command is quick to express his admiration for the loyalty, courage, and fortitude of the officers and men of the Merchant Marine. We count upon their efficiency and their utter devotion to duty as we do our own; they have never failed us yet and in all the struggles yet to come we know that they will never be deterred by any danger, hardship, or privation.

When final victory is ours, there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine.

After the war, he noted, “Their contribution to final victory will be long remembered."

It is time to show that we remember and honor them.  It is time to show our gratitude to the Merchant Marine veterans whose sacrifices and perseverance ensured our success in World War II.  It is time, however belatedly, to recognize their key contributions to our war efforts.  It is my honor and obligation to support H.R. 23.