Merchant Seamen to Sail Again - This Time As Veterans
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Merchant seamen who braved submarine-infested waters to keep weapons flowing to World War II battlefields will sail again, finally recognized as veterans of a war that ended four decades ago.
Their voyage today will last only a few hours, but it will be aboard a ship sure to recall for many the hazardous days of their youth. The five-hour cruise will be on the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, America’s last Liberty Ship still in operating condition.
The O’Brien will go out the Golden Gate where wreaths will be cast on the sea in memory of the more than 5,000 merchant seamen who died in the war - they, too, veterans at last.
In January, prodded by a federal judge, the Defense Department recognized the civilian sailors who served on ocean-going merchant ships during World War II as veterans - a title it extended earlier to 13 other civilian groups, including women who served as wartime telephone operators in Europe.
The designation makes the former seamen eligible for certain veterans benefits, including the right to be buried in a national cemetery.
George Tuttle, 72, who will be aboard the O’Brien on Saturday, said the delay in the granting of veteran status stemmed in part from jealousy.
″There was a lot of animosity toward us from members of the other services,″ said Tuttle, who was a captain on a ship that was sunk by a mine off Italy. ″We got a lot more money and our pay went up when we entered a combat zone. Some guys thought of us as draft dodgers.″
But he noted that there were also benefits provided to members of the Army, Navy and other services but not to merchant sailors.
″For one thing, our pay stopped if we were captured,″ he said.
The merchant sailors are old now, and few will use such benefits as the GI Bill, which helped educate so many former sailors and soldiers.
″Most are dead,″ said Tuttle. ″There were about 250,000 members of the merchant marine but only about 80,000 are still alive.″
There’s one benefit Tuttle is particularly glad he is now entitled to.
″There’ll be an American flag given to my relatives when I die,″ he said with pride.
Tuttle, like many former merchant sailors living in the San Francisco Bay area, spends time working as a volunteer on the 441-foot O’Brien, the last unaltered example of 2,751 Liberty Ships built between 1941 and 1945.
Except for the annual cruise, the ship stays docked near Fisherman’s Wharf where it is visited each year by thousands of tourists who want to see the type of ship that was part of ″America’s Bridge to Victory.″
Another sailor veteran, William Krasnosky, 76, recalls voyages during which ″the Germans hit us with everything - subs, planes.″
In one case, his convoy was abandoned by the British destroyer that was escorting it, and 23 out of 33 of the merchant ships were sunk by the Germans.
″But I never got sunk,″ said Krasnosky, who plans to make the trip on the O’Brien. ″I was lucky.″
″The guys at the union hiring hall would all want to know what ship I was going to sign on,″ he said. ″They’d want to sign too ’cause I was so lucky.″