Last week a World War II sailor challenged a recent decision to give veteran status to civilians who served in the merchant marines from 1941 to 1945. The unhappy sailor, WTS of Alexandria, said that unionized merchantmen got better pay, benefits and food while Navy men got beans for breakfast.

His letter produced a lot of flak from the ex-merchantmen who fired these shots across his bow:As an ex-merchant marine I became incensed at your column . . . titled "While the Navy Ate Beans for Breakfast." Please inform WTS of Alexandria I will trade places with him any time . . . .

He was eligible for the GI Bill; we were not. He had free medical attention; we did not. He had a commissary; we did not. He got his clothes free; we did not. We were on very poorly armed merchant ships; he probably was on a ship that at least could fight back. He could purchase a house through a VA loan; we could not. They had movies on board, we did not. They had mail service on board; we did not . . . .

He mentioned that the taxpayers would have to pay for these benefits that are to be extended to ex-merchant marines. I have an idea. Why not close the golf course at Patuxent {Naval Air Station}, sell the land, build some houses on it and sell them to pay for these benefits? When the Navy or any of the military services matches the per-capita death toll, the wounded and missing, then maybe he would have a point . . . . B.K.K., Arlington

Please . . . give an ex-merchant seaman (1937-1958) a chance to reply . . . . There was no double time or triple overtime. When we went to general quarters along with the armed guard that was for Jesus, free! Our hazardous duty was performed in the war zones all over the world . . . . When we were on the beach, unemployed, we got no paychecks. The rule was no ship, no pay . . . .

We fought and died, 6,000 seamen, like the Navy. So where is our equality? Now I know why the Navy was called the crybaby outfit by the Marines . . . . Please . . . print my name, rank and serial number. Today I thank the Lord for having passed my 70th birthday and returning from the gates of hell: Murmansk {Russia} Run. Joseph DiMattina, chief steward, retired

The ludicrous coments by WTS . . . displayed a complete lack of understanding. Forty-three years after the war the merchant seaman was awarded veteran's status. Believe me, we are talking about a small group of survivors . . . .

This group of so-called pampered, overpaid seamen had a higher casualty rate than did the Navy. During the early part of the war the merchant ships were being sunk faster than we could build them. Then Henry J. Kaiser started producing the Liberty Ships. It was a basic, slow vessel with a crew of about 35 . . . . It became our workhorse . . . . They were marvelous ships, and they saved the war for us. However, they had their problems, and when they broke down at sea you were dispatched from the convoy to fend for yourself. If you couldn't maintain convoy speed you lost the warship protection . . . .

I did sail on the Liberty Ships and can assure you that they were not floating gourmet restaurants . . . . We threw these dedicated people a crumb {veteran status} 43 years too late and then have it criticized. Really amazing! E.B.J., Lanham