WW2 Merchant Marines Finally get Veterans Benefits

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WW2 Merchant Marine Veterans Finally get Benefits– But is it Too Little, Too late?
by Chris Buckley

In 1988, Michael Kemple received a letter from then-Gov. Robert P. Casey informing him he was eligible to receive state funding to attend school.

It was not the most opportune time for the 61-year-old Elizabeth man to receive such an offer.

“I could have used that when I was younger,” Kemple said.

For Merchant Marines who served in World War II – like Kemple – recognition and benefits offered to veterans of other branches of the service have been slow to come.

Late last month, Gov. Ed Rendell signed into law Act 22 of 2006, which establishes the Pennsylvania Merchant Marine World War II Veterans Bonus program…

     

To be eligible for benefits offered by the new program, an applicant must have served on active duty, including training, in the U.S. Merchant Marines between Dec. 7, 1941, and Aug. 15, 1945; have been honorably discharged from the service, and be a legal resident of Pennsylvania as of April 12.

Applications for the bonus must be submitted to the Veteran Affairs Office in the veteran’s county of residence by Dec. 31.

The bonuses are long overdue, area Merchant Marines said.

World War II veterans in all branches of the service received the same bonuses shortly after the war ended, said Robert Downey, president of the Mon Valley Chapter of the American Merchant Marine Veterans.

“If we got it at that time, you could have bought a car,” Kemple noted.

Merchant Marines served in the same theater of operations as other active duty troops, but without the same kind of recognition. Merchant Marines provided all of the supplies used by the fighting troops throughout the war.

“We were at every landing the Marine Corps made during the war,” Downey said.

But Merchant Marines were not afforded veterans’ status after the war. The government ruled that although the Merchant Marines learned to fire their guns aboard their ship, because they did not received hand weapons training, they were not considered combatants.

If their ship was sunk – as over 900 were during the war – they did not receive pay.

Though they did not fire rifles or handguns, Merchant Marines nonetheless served under fire. One in every 29 Merchant Marines who served overseas died in the service.

That figure was one in 32 for the U.S. Marines Corps.

Still, Merchant Marines were not afforded any of the benefits that World War II veterans received – including the GI Bill, veterans’ insurance, access to the VA Hospitals and no compensation for their families after they died.

But Merchant Marines willing served for their country.

Downey had attempted to enlist in the Navy in early 1945, but was told that he would have to wait six months because their was no room in a boot camp.

The recruiter then suggested Downey join the Merchant Marines. Downey said “sure” and was gone within two days.

Kemple was just 17 when he joined the Merchant Marines in October 1944. He first tried to enlist in the Navy, but was turned down because he was color blind.

After four weeks of training, Kemple was assigned to a ship transporting supplies to the Russian Army fighting the Germans at Murmansk.

He returned home after six months overseas and was drafted into the Army in the fall of 1945. He was sent to Italy to join the occupation forces. He was discharged at the end of 1946.

It wasn’t until 1988, though, that the government accorded Merchant Marines veteran status.

But while the state has finally provided overdue bonuses for Merchant Marines, Congress still wrestles with the idea.

Bills that would provide $1,000 a month bonus for World War II Merchant Marines veterans are pending in the House and Senate.


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