Edward Schumacher was a civilian, but he was no stranger to hostile fire on June 6, 1944, when he watched the first wave of Allied forces sweep ashore at Omaha Beach.

The 21-year-old navigator had survived the invasions of North Africa and Sicily, where three German bombs set his ship afire, and he had eluded the Nazi torpedoes that killed hundreds of his fellow merchant seamen in the months after the United States entered World War II.

Although the merchant sailors played a key role in the successes at Normandy and elsewhere, transporting troops and supplies to far-flung battlefields, the result for Schumacher was victory without peace.

For 42 years, he and others like him have been fighting to win classification as military veterans. The stakes for the aging combatants are mainly matters of pride -- the right to a flag-draped coffin and a plot in a national cemetery, they say. The Pentagon denied their appeals, maintaining that the merchant sailors' wartime service was not tantamount to active duty.

Eleven days ago, a federal judge here sided with the sailors, striking down the Pentagon decisions that barred merchant sailors from claiming benefits.

"This has been a holy grail for me," said Schumacher, now retired and living in Woodbridge, Va. "Pinch me so that I know that it's true."

The battle isn't over, but in the July 16 order, U.S. District Court Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer seemed to pave the way for merchant seamen who participated in World War II invasions to become veterans. The status of other civilian sailors who went to sea during the war remains less certain, although Oberdorfer said the Defense Department has failed to substantiate its ruling against them.

The tortuous legal proceedings come after a 1977 act that gave the secretary of the Air Force authority to confer veteran status on groups that participated in the war effort. Under that law, 64 groups have applied for recognition, 14 of them successfully.

Among those granted veteran status were the Women's Airforces Service Pilots, or WASPs, who flew military aircraft in North America; the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, also known as WAACs; and civilian Navy employes who joined in the defense of Wake Island.

Backed by the AFL-CIO, Washington lawyer Joan McAvoy compiled a voluminous account of the merchant mariners' service -- from the early years of the war, when they kept open the lifelines to Great Britain and the Soviet Union, to the advanced stages, when an estimated 250,000 of them, trained in gunnery and generally employed by the United States, carried critical cargo around the globe.

A year ago, after exhausting their applications to the Defense Department, McAvoy pressed the seamen's case in court. The men, whose wartime casualty rate was second only to the U.S. Marines, had been victims of a stubborn bias -- an unfounded perception that they were draft dodgers and sacrificed less than their military counterparts, McAvoy argued.

"As best I can understand it, there is a mindset against merchant seamen that seems to defy rational explanation," she said.

Veterans groups have lobbied against Veterans Administration benefits for former merchant mariners on the grounds that they were not members of the armed forces, even if they were invaluable.

"It is important to those who are veterans and to the continuing national security that the term 'veteran' should be jealously guarded by those who have the responsibility and authority to bestow it," James P. Dean, the national commander of the American Legion, said in a July 21 letter urging Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger to stand by the government's position.

The government argued that the seamen did not qualify as active duty veterans because of their more limited military training and official obligations.

Oberdorfer found the Defense Department's reasoning inconsistent, writing that merchant seamen have an equal or stronger claim to benefits than some groups that have already gained them. Sailors who accompanied invasion forces performed a military role under military control, he said.

Oberdorfer said the Pentagon decision denying benefits to other former seamen "did not adequately support its conclusion." The judge could declare World War II merchant sailors active duty veterans at this point, or he could order the Pentagon to reconsider their request within explicit guidelines, according to lawyers for both sides, who will submit more arguments next month.

Government officials declined to comment on the substance of the case and said it is too early to discuss the possibility of an appeal.

No one knows how many World War II merchant mariners are alive today to take advantage of federal benefits, or what they would cost the government. Former seamen who contributed to the case said it's too late to seek college tuition funds, and they have no likely need for guaranteed home loans. They said few would meet the low-income qualifications for federal pensions, although many might benefit from access to Veterans Administration hospitals. They said their cause is symbolic.

There are no American monuments to the 6,000 merchant sailors who died in the war, according to survivors, but the Soviets hold an annual ceremony at a memorial in Murmansk to remember those who perished in the treacherous North Atlantic shipping lanes.

Lester Reid, who was in the invasion of the Philippines, hopes to gain a modest monument of his own on an American military grave. "I spent five years in that war. That's important to me," said Reid, now 81 and living in Farmville, Va.

Reid says he won't find peace until all merchant sailors who sailed in World War II win the same appreciation. Those who participated in major invasions were not the only ones whose jobs put them in harm's way, he said.

In 1942, Stanley Willner's army transport was returning from a supply mission to the Persian Gulf when it met a German raider three days off Capetown. The American crew was taken captive and ultimately turned over to the Japanese. Willner remained a prisoner of war until Japan surrendered.

During three years of torture, near-starvation and forced labor in Asia, Willner said, he helped build the bridge over the river Kwai, which was later depicted in a motion picture.

"If it stands, it's a moral victory," the 67-year-old Virginia Beach resident said of the judge's ruling. "I think it's about time we got some recognition."