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Mr. Bruce Felknor

Mr. Bruce Felknor, Author, "The U.S. Merchant Marine at War, 1775-1945", Evanston, IL, as presented by the Hon. Janice D. Schakowsky, a Representative in Congress from

I thank Chairman Filner and this committee for the opportunity to speak for the surviving remnant of merchant mariners of World War II. And I am profoundly grateful to my Representative Jan Schakowsky, the majority's Chief Deputy Whip, for consenting to present my testimony. (Surgery has left me presently voiceless.)

I am proud to be a merchant marine veteran of World War II. Perhaps 10,000 of us remain from the quarter-million men and boys, then aged 16 to the 80s and beyond. Roosevelt and Churchill and their generals and admirals knew how vital was our task and how gallantly and effectively we served and how we delivered. And our lives were on the line every time we left port.

So when the war was won, with our essential help, why were we selected out when Congress created the GI Bill of Rights? A major reason was the myth of merchant marine pay, based on comparisons that ignored navy dependent allowances, freedom from income tax, paid vacation and time between voyages.

Second, because we were so few. The GIs had 13 million sets of parents; we had one-quarter of 1 million. In the folks-at-home department [read "votes"] we were outnumbered 52 to 1.

A third major reason was lack of public knowledge and awareness of what a merchant marine was and what it did. No war correspondents were stationed on freighters or tankers. Outside port cities the news media were generally oblivious to the merchant shipping that carried every engine of war to the front. Only occasionally did a dramatic story about a freighter or tanker or lifeboat trip from a paper in some seaport find its way into the national news wire services.

Wartime motion pictures were a staple of hometown movie theaters--but I know of only one feature film about the merchant marine: 1943's "Action in the

North Atlantic " with Humphrey Bogart. You can't count the feature films about the army, air corps, navy, marine corps, in the Second World War.

So it is small wonder that the small company of men who carried the American war machine across the oceans of the world were unknown to the general public.

A typical freighter or tanker crew numbered about 43 officers and men, plus 22 from the naval armed guard who manned the guns, often assisted by the merchant marine counterparts, whose training included gunnery.

Fast friendships developed among these shipmates, and at war's end it was a major shock for the merchant marine men to discover that they were not even veterans and that the Seamen's Bill of Rights urged on Congress by Presidents Roosevelt and Truman never got out of the House.

I remember the personal bitterness from then that sticks in my craw today. And the mixed emotions that greeted my becoming a veteran in 1989 with none of the life-changing perquisites of the GI Bill of Rights.

Two years ago I voiced these emotions in a poem, "The Song of the Merchant Mariner." It concludes:

The Army and its Air Force were included, The Navy and the Coast Guard and Marines; Alone the merchant seaman was excluded:

The one that fueled and fed their war machines.

He offered his life to his country each time that he sailed.

To thank him his country and congress and government failed.

My heart swells with pride suppressed for sixty years at the response of Chairman Filner and his cosponsors and all who have brought HR 23 to the table. Thank you, and God bless you.


Copyright 2005 By Bruce L. Felknor

Now hear the song of

's merchant marine, Its Herculean deeds in World War Two, Supplying all its country's war machine, Disdaining death as only the brave can do.

A hundred eighty thousand men and boys,
None drafted, ev'ry one a volunteer,
To serve on ships the oceans tossed like toys, Deliv'ring an invading army's gear,

Each knowing ev'ry time he sets to sea
That out of port he's in a zone of war,
Where lurking submarines can plainly see His ship a target, just another score.

Torpedoes' wakes are hard to see at night, But when they hit, the sea's suffused with light.

A hundred eighty thousand gallant souls, From nineteen forty-one to 'forty-five, They sailed across the oceans' seas and shoals, To keep the Allies' chance to win alive.

In old rust-buckets, lumb'ring Libertys, They braved the winter

North Atlantic 's storms, In tankers too, and newer Victorys, Through oceans' rolling, pitching, tossing norms.

And in the far Pacific--misnamed ocean!
Unlike some tropic atoll's calm lagoon-- Epitome of violence in motion:
They faced the fury of a full typhoon.

In convoy, or alone on zig-zag course,
The billows were the U-boat's stalking horse.

A hundred eighty thousand seamen who-
Civilians to a man--confronted death,
From mines, torpedoes, guns, and bombs that flew; Each trip meant facing death with ev'ry breath.

No seaman knew the destination when
A man signed on to make another trip.
(The captain has all secrets in his ken, To be destroyed if they abandon ship.)

But some faced more than others; when you sail With "ammo" or with aviation gas, You know that if one day your luck should fail, Your body won't attend your fun'ral mass

The U-boat captain's dream is realized:
When such a ship is hit it's vaporized.

Offshore, in

Carolina 's latitude,
A stalking U-boat's periscope reveals
A coastal tanker riding deep with crude.
The Unterseeboot sends a brace of "eels."

Explosions, and a viscous pad of oil
Congeals and thickens on the icy brine.
Blown overboard, two swimmers vainly toil Until their strength is gone, and then resign.

Her stern awash, the tanker bursts afire; A gutt'ring flame spreads o'er the oil-choked sea.
Now sinks the stern; the upright bow's a pyre That's quenched in diving to eternity.

A lifeboat head-count tallies who's alive:
But thirty-two of forty-four survive.

A hundred eighty thousand mothers' sons, And thousands faced the U-boats and the planes 'Long Norway's coast: the deadly

Murmansk runs, Where death and ice bestrode the ocean lanes,

Where submarines, torpedo planes, and more, Where German cruisers joined the fight to close The Allies' access to North Russia's door, And thereby

Stalingrad 's relief foreclose.

Far north beyond the

Arctic Circle , and
Bear east and sail across the Barents Sea; Turn south:

Murmansk or Arkangelsk. There's land!
No subs, but bombers, bombers constantly.

Midsummer ice and sunlit nights conspire With subs and bombers: unremitting fire.

A hundred eighty thousand, some of whom
In convoys sailed "the Med" to bring supplies For Sicily's invasion, anteroom To Hitler's

Europe , and to his demise.

A trick when eastbound vessels reach

Gibraltar :
Limpet bombs stuck to the hull by swimmers.
The watch of marksmen downward peer, nor falter To shoot whatever moves among the glimmers.

We're moored at

Bari ; German planes appear, Torpedo, bomb, and strafe. Unloading ships With troops and ammunition disappear, Blown skyward in a small Apocalypse.

A quaint and bustling port when all is well, With bombs can be the hinterland of hell.

On D-Day hordes of men and tons of gear
Traverse the

English Channel to a port
That ne'er existed any other year,
Invented for this day, great tides to thwart.

An artificial port, breakwaters, piers
All made in England, towed to France's door, And sunk in place, so ships could dock in tiers And land their cargo right on Europe's shore.

Then down the channel sailed a bridge of ships, With men and cannons, trucks and jeeps and tanks, Machine guns, pistols, rifles, loaded clips, And ev'rything to arm and feed the Yanks.

All brought by merchant ships and tugs and crews, Without which the Allies were sure to lose.

A hundred eighty thousand; many went
Into the far Pacific and its isles,
To often-hostile beach with armament
And food and gas and medics' goods in piles.

A Liberty moored to a rickety pontoon pier Discharges, using its winch and cargo booms On drums of gas, assorted crates--we hear A0 plane! Guns manned; a friend. The work resumes.

Sometimes the guns of merchant ships were all The antiaircraft weapons at the beach.
Each shell-burst formed a threat'ning smoky pall; And some shots blew up planes that they could reach.

Then Kamikazes: some of them were killed, Their sacred mission ever unfulfilled.

The war was won in nineteen forty-five,
And then began the troops' repatriation.
The homeward-bound in merchant ships arrive,
To great parades and gen'ral celebration.

GIs came home to preference in hiring,
Home-purchase mortgage guarantees, and yet--
The GI Bill of Rights their zeal inspiring--
A college education free of debt.

The Army and its Air Force were included,
The Navy and the Coast Guard and Marines;
Alone the merchant seaman was excluded:
The one that fueled and fed their war machines.

He offered his life to his country each time that he sailed.
To thank him his country and congress and government failed.

A trio who were prisoners of war,
Slave-labor at notorious River Kwai,
Protested their exclusion from the corps
Of vet'rans. They're rebuffed at ev'ry try.

Then forty-two years later, joined by friends,
They take the case to U.S. District Court,
And there the string of slights abruptly ends:
They win a solid finding of support.

They're vet'rans at last--more than half of their shipmates have died--
Old men now, too late for those college and homeowner loans.

Yet forty years late, being vets evokes surges of pride--
And a veteran's marker to label the site of their bones.

Of all branches they died in the war at the paramount rate,
And got grudging acknowledgement finally, forty years late.

(The 180,000 figure is the number of men actually sailing at the end of the war.)