In the bleak early months of World War II, long before American troops landed at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima, the Allies were supplied by long, vulnerable convoys of merchant ships that braved submarine attacks to carry troops and materiel around the world.
More than 6,000 civilian seamen were lost as 1,554 ships sank, mostly with torpedo holes in their hulls. Those who survived lived a grim, dangerous life: months at sea, in constant peril, fighting gales and icebergs, watching comrades die.
They are old men now, but they are fighting one last battle. They are seeking Defense Department reclassification as military veterans. A formal application for veterans' status, buttressed by thousands of pages of documents, has been submitted to the secretary of the Air Force, who is designated to rule on the claims of all groups claiming veterans status under a 1977 law.
That law allowed Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs), members of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, "engineer field clerks" and other civilians who served the war effort to apply for eligibility for veteran's status.
According to a report to Congress by Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert D. Caudry, chairman of the Defense Department's Civilian/Military Service Review Board, veteran's status has been approved for 2,687 persons in eight groups, including the WASPs and the Navy civilians who "actively participated in the defense of Wake Island."
The applications of 23 groups have been turned down; among them were Pacific employes of Pan American World Airways, post exchange accountants, employes of the War Production Board and military police auxiliaries. The applications of 18 groups are still under consideration. The largest is the merchant sailors, though there are no firm figures on how many men are included in the group.
Joan McAvoy, the Washington lawyer who prepared their application, has submitted thick dossiers supporting the argument that they are entitled to benefits under all programs administered by the Veterans Administration. The material dates back to the early 1940s, and is dotted with quotations from President Roosevelt, Adm. Chester Nimitz and Gen. Douglas MacArthur praising the courage and dedication of the merchant seamen.
"Two million men have been called to the colors," Roosevelt said in 1942. "In far places and near, our soldiers, our sailors, our air pilots, the beleaguered men of the merchant marine, have shown the stuff of heroes. Everything we have asked of them they have delivered. Everything, and more."
Despite such tributes, McAvoy argued, "service given by the Merchant Marines was disparaged because of the fictitious myth that they were overpaid draft dodgers." In fact, her petition argues, they were under military control, subject to military discipline, and exposed to the hazards of combat.
"Their death rate in wartime was second only to that of the U.S. Marines," her petition states.
Historian Dean C. Allard of the Naval Historical Center at the Washington Navy Yard, said the record shows "there were clear distinctions between merchant service and active military service." Merchant seamen were exempt from the draft, he noted, and paid income tax while military personnel were exempt.
McAvoy argues, however, that the merchant seamen at least met the same criteria as the WASPs, who have already been approved. They underwent gunnery training, served in combat zones, were obliged to serve at least for the duration of a voyage once begun, and had a "reasonable expection" that they would be treated as veterans after the war.
If their application is approved, the merchant sailor would be eligible for veterans health care and life insurance benefits and VA housing assistance, but what most of them want, McAvoy said, is the right to be buried in a national cemetery.