- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Merchant mariners who survived German U-boats and lived for six more decades may finally get a financial reward from legislation approved by the House on Tuesday.

The measure passed by voice vote would provide a monthly benefit of $1,000 to those who served in the U.S. Merchant Marine between Dec. 7, 1941, and Dec. 31, 1946. Of the 250,000 merchant mariners during World War II, fewer than 10,000 are believed to still be alive.

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner, California Democrat, said the bill that he sponsored was “a way to finally give the heroic merchant mariners of World War II the belated compensation they so richly deserve.”

But the committee’s top Republican, Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, voiced opposition, calling it an attempt “to resolve an inequity through discrimination.” He said the merchant mariners were being singled out for payments when some 28 groups that similarly participated in the war effort, such as the Flying Tigers who worked for the Chinese government or the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), were being passed over.

The merchant mariners carried some 95 percent of the tanks, supplies and troops across the Atlantic and Pacific during World War II. Between 1941 and 1944, enemy forces sank more than 800 of their ships. Some 9,500 merchant mariners were killed or died of wounds, a greater casualty rate than any of the military services, including the Marines.

But the mariners were excluded when Congress in 1944 passed the GI Bill of Rights that gave service members education and housing benefits, VA health care and small-business loans. President Roosevelt, in signing the act, said he hoped Congress would soon extend similar benefits to merchant mariners.

It wasn’t until 1988 that three merchant mariners successfully sued for veteran status, entitling them and their colleagues to VA health care.

But, said retired Army Maj. Gen. William Matz, Jr., president of the National Association for Uniformed Services, “they missed out on the GI Bill for their education, the GI Home Loan Program for purchase of their family home, and related earned benefits, not to mention the cost of the medical care they underwent for the wounds, injuries and illnesses they experienced. Their service was shelved and taken for granted.”

The bill passed the House in the last session of Congress but was not taken up by the Senate. This time, Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat., has introduced similar legislation. The cost of the legislation over a five-year period was estimated at $438 million.

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