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Mr. Francis R. Coughlin, M.D., JD

Mr. Francis R. Coughlin, M.D., JD, New Canaan, CT

Mr. Chairman, thank you and your Subcommittee for the opportunity to present our request for favorable consideration of H.R. 23 The Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II  Act of 2005.  As elderly men, we seek recognition and a delayed financial acknowledgement for service as young voluntary patriotic members of the United States Merchant Marine in time of War more than 60 years ago.

Like the members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Corps and Coast Guard who served “in harms  way” between December 7, 1941 and December 31, 1946 - we who served in the United States Merchant Marine have been officially recognized in a  limited way as veterans of World War II through legislation passed in 1988 and finally, in November 1998.  Those men who are alive and were as young as 17 years of age in December 1946 - have now  lived to be at least as old as 75 years of age.  Those who were 17 years of age in December 1941 - have now lived to be at least 80 years of age.  Most of the members of United Sates Merchant Marine were older than 17 years of age when they went to sea during World War II.   Few 17 year olds were able to be trained and perform the majority of duties aboard a ship which served in that “bridge of ships carrying men and materiel from the arsenal of democracy to the far flung battle fronts of the world.”  

At 79 years of age, although I lost the power of my lower limbs last year and must rely upon a wheelchair or a walker, I consider myself fortunate to be alive.   Most of my shipmates are now dead.   We seek passage of H.R. 23 because it is  to honor them and to honor the youthful patriotism which was an almost universal characteristic of our country during the fight for survival of democracy which we remember as World War II.

How many of us can be left?   In World War II, some 250,000 white and black men voluntarily served together in the United States Merchant Marine.  Some six to eight thousand died who went to sea.  Over 600 were prisoners of war.  More than 700 ships were sunk.  The United States Marines and the United States Merchant Mariners sustained the highest casualty rate of all of the services.  Those Merchant Mariners who drowned, burned to death, froze to death, died of thirst in a lifeboat were all volunteers.  They did not go to sea in chains or at the point of a gun - except for the guns and torpedoes of the U-Boats. 

Now, we who are alive ask you to make clear in the record that our country recognizes the role of the United States Merchant Mariners in World War II while there are veterans of this service who are still alive.  Mr. Ian Allison is present today to speak for us and to answer your questions.   I have added some pages to describe my own Merchant Marine experience in order to help you to understand who we were in World War II, who we became as we lived in our free country and who we are at this stage of our lives.  Would we serve again in the United States Merchant Marine as we did in World War II?   Yes! - without a moment’s hesitation we would be glad to serve again in the same cheerful spirit that we did serve and that my son recently served in Army Military Intelligence in Iraq for a year.  We ask that you endorse H.R. 23 better late than never!

Thank you for your serious consideration of our appeal.

Francis Coughlin had completed one year of pre-medical studies at Fordham College in New York City when he joined the United States Maritime Service.  Because of severe nearsightedness (20/400 in both eyes) which required corrective lenses, he was turned down for enlistment in the Navy and the Army at age 17 and classified 4F in the draft at age 18.  Like many of his friends, he chose to serve rather than remaining in the comfort of school and home in time of War.

At the age of 18 years and two months, Francis Coughlin was sworn into the United States Maritime Service in New York City on April 12, 1945.  This was the date on which President Franklin D. Roosevelt died.  On April 24, 1945, Francis Coughlin reported to the United States Maritime Service Training Station (USMSTS)at Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York for basic training as Steward’s Mate 3rd Class.  This rating was  the lowest rating in the Steward’s Department, and arguably, the lowest rating aboard ship.  

Sheepshead Bay USMSTS had 10,000 men serving at this location.  The United States Maritime Service was fully racially integrated, all volunteer and advertised in print and on the radio as:  “ A Federal Uniform Service under the authority of the War Shipping Administration.”  These words were said weekly on national radio in a recruiting program called “It’s Maritime!” which originated from Avalon Training Station on Santa Catalina Island, California.   Captain John L. Beebe, USNR commanded Sheepshead Bay USMSTS and  other Naval Officers were prominent in the  Senior Command.  Trainees lived in 14 Barracks supervised by a junior officer of the Navy or the USMS and by non-commissioned officers.  Trainees were subject to military discipline which included “Captain’s Mast” for disciplinary infractions.  Trainees received routine classroom training in shipboard and lifeboat skills as well as the required military drill, marching in formation and the use of shipboard anti-submarine cannon.  

At the completion  of  three months of “boot training,”   Francis Coughlin was selected for a five-month training in Hospital Corps - Purser School at Sheepshead Bay USMSTS and one month of experience at the United States Public Health Service Hospital in Stapleton, Staten Island, New York.  Upon successful completion of this training to be the responsible medical person aboard ship, Francis Coughlin was sworn in as Warrant Ship’s Clerk - Hospital Corps on December 24, 1945.  On that date Francis Coughlin was  assigned as the Purser-Pharmacist Officer aboard the S.S. Gideon Welles, a 7176 ton, 441 foot Liberty Ship with a Merchant Marine crew of 65 men and a United States Army Transport Service crew of 12 men commanded by two United States Army Captains.  This ship was about to leave Baltimore, Maryland with an outgoing cargo of coal destined for  Venice, Italy at the head of the Adriatic Sea.  After traversing the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea, while steaming to Venice in the Adriatic Sea, the ship identified two floating mines in the seaway.  These mines were reported to our United States Forces by radio.  The mines were fired upon with rifles by our ship’s officers in order to explode them and clear the seaway.  (How many mines we successfully passed at night is, of course,  unknown.  However in November 1945 one United States Merchant ship was sunk by a mine in the Adriatic at Trieste, Italy with a United States Merchant Marine crew loss of life.)

After unloading cargo in Venice, Italy where we met British Army troops, the S.S. Gideon Welles retraced our voyage, returning to  Baltimore for refitting.   On the return in the North Atlantic in late January of 1946 our ship encountered a rare North Atlantic winter hurricane.  Over 3 to 4 days our 441 foot welded and riveted ship moved toward the Virginia capes in 60 foot waves rolling as much as 45 degrees according to the shipboard clinometer. 

Francis Coughlin remained aboard the ship when it arrived in Baltimore, Maryland until March 17, 1946.  At this time and after completing a year of service, Francis Coughlin received a “Certificate of Substantially  Continuous Service” by direction of the United States Maritime Commission for service “having commenced  on April 12, 1945 and terminated on April 12, 1946 within the meaning of the Rules and Regulations  ….  [per] Public Law 87, 78th Congress (57 Stat. 162), as amended.”   (This certificate was dated November 14, 1947.)  Francis Coughlin then returned to his pre-med course at Fordham College in New York City:  without benefit of the “G.I. Bill” which provided free tuition, without F.H.A. loan benefits to veterans who wished to buy a home and start a family and - most stinging - Francis Coughlin and those who served voluntarily in World War II returned to civilian life without being able to call themselves “Veterans of World War ii”  until more than 40 to 50 years later when the title, at least,  of “Veteran of World War II” became available to us in 1988 thanks to a suit in a Federal District Court and in November 1998 thanks to a Bill introduced by Senator Trent Lott in the Senate and Congressman Lane Evans in the House of Representatives.  In 1988 347 Representatives and 73 Senators co-sponsored the Bill which was signed into law by President William Jefferson Clinton.

Francis Coughlin graduated from Fordham College in 1948.  He received the Doctor Of Medicine degree from Yale University School of Medicine in 1952 and the Master of Science (Surgery) from McGill University, Montreal in 1955.   From 1952 to 1960 he did a General Surgical and then a Cardio-Thoracic Surgical Residency at McGill University, Harvard University and the Overholt Thoracic Clinic, Boston.  At the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGM) in 1958 he participated in laboratory testing of  a heart-lung machine and then assisted in the performance of the first 10 open heart operations at the MGH, using that pump-oxygenator.   Subsequently, in 1960, Dr. Coughlin entered private practice of cardio-thoracic surgery in Connecticut.  He has  served as Clinical Associate Professor of Surgery at New York Medical College.  In 1988 he completed law school and he has received a law degree from Quinnipiac University School of Law.

On October 1, 1992 Francis Coughlin, MD, JD testified before the House Subcommittee on Compensation, Pension and Insurance on H.R. 44 - The Merchant Mariners Fairness act.  

Francis Coughlin, MD, JD  has held numerous leadership roles in medicine and the law in Connecticut and New York including: Chief of Surgery, St. Joseph Hospital Medical Center (1970s); Vice-Chair, Connecticut State Commission on Medico-Legal Investigations (1990-2002);  President, Society of Medical Jurisprudence (1996-1998); President, Yale University School of Medicine Alumni Association (2001-2003); Trustee, Whiney/Cushing Medical Library of Yale University (2004-present).      

Previous Testimony from Francis Coughlin.