Some American sailors have been forced to sail into the Persian Gulf without protective gear to shield their skin from the chemical bombs of Iraqi's Saddam Hussein. They aren't the sailors of the U.S. Navy, but they think they are entitled to the same protection.

They are the civilian sailors of the U.S. Merchant Marine, pressed into service in the gulf crisis to carry supplies to U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. It's tough enough that many of the ships they have been assigned to are rust buckets that haven't seen serious action in years. If the sailors are going into a hot spot in less-than-prime vessels, they want all the protection they can get.

Our associate Scott Sleek has obtained a cable from one merchant vessel to the Navy in which the crew begged for proper gear. The cable was from the ship Cape Archway to U.S. officials in Naples, sent as the ship was in the Mediterranean Sea en route to the Persian Gulf. The cable detailed the shortage of chemical-protective gear including gloves, chemical detection kits, masks and decontamination kits. The commander who sent the cable said the equipment was "important to the morale of my crews." Then he ended with a biting reminder. "This is the third request for professional and responsible assistance."

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Maritime Administration, which oversees the civilian fleet, said that the safety gear was finally delivered to the Cape Archway at sea. She acknowledged that during the early stages of Operation Desert Shield, resources were stretched to the limit.

The merchant mariners are low on the priority list for those limited resources in part because they are at the least risk should war break out. For security reasons, the Pentagon won't say where the ships dock to unload supplies. But officials insist that the ports are out of harm's way.

The merchant vessels also have the option of staying out of range of Saddam's weaponry during most of their mission. They shuttle in and out with supplies, while Navy ships must remain in a wartime posture in the gulf. And Saddam is not likely to waste his chemical potshots on moving ships when he can aim for sitting targets in the desert.

But those caveats don't put the merchant mariners completely at ease.

Their role in Operation Desert Shield has been plagued with exceptions to the rules. We reported earlier that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait caught the Maritime Administration off guard. The agency oversees a fleet of reserve ships for carrying cargo during national emergencies.

Mechanical problems and the poor condition of the fleet slowed the flow of supplies to the gulf, including tanks, artillery and basic goods. The delays were compounded by the fact that the Pentagon's cargo-delivery schedule was designed to respond to a threat from the Soviet Union or a war in Eastern Europe, not a confrontation in the Middle East.

The Cape Archway was among the crippled ships. It had to stop in Bermuda for about a week for repairs. Maritime Administration officials said that was normal for ships that have been sitting idle for years.