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Hon. E. Benjamin Nelson

Hon. E. Benjamin Nelson, a United States Senator from the State of Nebraska

Mr. Chairman, I would like to thank you for this hearing on the “Belated Thank You to the Merchant Marines of World War II Act of 2007”– S. 961.

I would also like to recognize your tireless efforts, Mr. Chairman, on behalf of the Merchant Mariners to provide them with the recognition and benefits they clearly earned and deserve.

I am honored today to also be testifying with a true American patriot, and fellow Cornhusker, Mr. Bert Young, a veteran of the Merchant Mariners.  Without Mr. Young’s efforts, there would be no bill to compensate the selfless sacrifice and service of the Merchant Mariners. 

Mr. Chairman, and members of the Committee, as you well know, World War II United States Merchant Mariners bravely served alongside America’s military.  Inspired by patriotism, despite the harshest of battle conditions, and at great risk to their personal safety, the Merchant Mariners proudly dedicated themselves to supporting the missions and completing their duty to our country, without fanfare.  These brave men volunteered for an essential effort during a time of war, which eventually would help lead to victory.  Unfortunately, for over 40 years, our nation has refused to acknowledge their contributions and sacrifices.

World War II Merchant Mariners suffered a higher casualty rate than any of the branches of service while they delivered troops, tanks, food, airplanes, fuel and other necessary supplies to every theater of the war. Soldiers on the frontlines would not have been able to complete their missions if the Merchant Mariners hadn’t braved dangerous waters and delivered the means to do so.  The Merchant Mariners provided critical logistical support to the war effort and have been recognized in the Oxford Companion to World War II as one of the most significant contributions made by any nation to victory in World War II.

The United States would not have won the war without the United States Merchant Mariners.  Period.

During every invasion from Normandy to Okinawa, they were there. In the most dangerous of waters, in the face of threats and attacks from submarines, mines, armed raiders, destroyers, aircraft, and the elements, the Merchant Mariners were there.

Though the numbers of the Merchant Mariners were small, their risk of dying during service was extremely high.  Enemy forces sank over 800 Merchant Mariner ships between 1941 and 1944 alone.   About 9,300 Mariners were killed, 11,000 were wounded, and 663 were taken prisoner.

At the end of the war, one out of every 26 Merchant Mariners serving aboard merchant ships in World War II died in the line of duty, the highest casualty rate of any branch of the service.

Merchant Mariners casualties were kept secret during the War to keep information about their success from the enemy and to attract and keep mariners at sea.  Unfortunately, to this day, 60 years after the end of World War II, the Merchant Marine remains the forgotten service.

Despite their service in support of the war effort, this country has dealt this class of World War II veterans a great disservice. They were denied benefits under the 1945 G.I. Bill of Rights—benefits granted to all those who equally admirably served in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force or Coast Guard. Only the US Merchant Marine was excluded.

Yet as these images illustrate, Merchant Mariners were recruited much like other branches of service and were regarded as vital service members to the war effort. One recruitment poster calls on mariners to “Man the Victory Fleet.” Another with a mariner behind the stern says, “Let’s Finish the Job.” And the last in capital letters asks mariners to be a ship’s OFFICER in the US Merchant Marine.

Upon signing the GI Bill on June 22, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “I trust Congress will soon provide similar opportunities to members of the Merchant Marine who have risked their lives time and time again during war for the welfare of their country.”

In 1988, the Merchant Mariners did finally receive  a “watered down bill of rights.”  But some portions of the G.I. Bill have never been made available to veterans of the Merchant Marine.

No education benefits were available to Merchant Mariners. No low-interest home loans.  No lifetime compensation for war-related injuries and disabilities. No use of VA hospitals. No priority for local, state, and federal jobs. No Social Security credit for wartime service.

While it is impossible to make up for over 40 years of unpaid benefits, I am proposing a bill that will acknowledge the service of the veterans of the Merchant Marine and offer some compensation for their service in World War II.

S. 961, the Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II Act of 2007, would pay each eligible veteran or their widow, a monthly benefit of $1000, tax free.  Their average age is 83.  Many have outlived their savings.  This bill would provide a small amount of compensation for those who risked their lives to contribute to our success in World War II, only to be forgotten.  I urge my colleagues to join with me in co-sponsoring this bill.

There is overwhelming, bipartisan support for this bill.  At last count, the bill had 14 co-sponsors.  The version of this bill which I introduced during the 109th Congress had 41 co-sponsors in the Senate.  Chairman Filner’s version of the bill, H.R. 23, currently has 96 co-sponsors.  During the last Congress, his bill had 269 co-sponsors.

Those that fought and lived during World War II have been duly labeled as the “Greatest Generation.” The 230,000 strong force of Merchant Mariners are surely part of the Greatest Generation and we owe them a tremendous debt.  For the 9,500 still living, we can never make up for years lost, but we can address the injustice by recognizing their contributions and by passing S. 961 this year.