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Fair play for the Merchant Marine

For most veterans of World War II, the war that began on Dec. 7, 1941, ended on Dec. 31, 1946. President Harry Truman fixed that cutoff date for veterans' benefits, and that, as they say, was that. But in the process of disbanding the armed forces in the immediate postwar period, the government fell into an act of indefensible unfairness: Members of the Merchant Marine were denied veterans' status. More than 40 years elapsed before that unfairness was corrected. After a prolonged battle in court against the Department of Defense, the mariners in early January 1988 won the same general rights that others had enjoyed all along. They became officially "veterans."

This belated act seemed too good to be true, and as it turned out, it was too good to be true. On Jan. 17, 1988, in a shamefully vindictive response to the court decree, the defeated Department of Defense imposed a further act of unfairness on the surviving old sailors. The secretary of the air force, to whom the responsibility strangely had been delegated, arbitrarily fixed the seamen's cutoff date as Aug. 15, 1945, instead of Dec. 31, 1946.

Relatively speaking, only a handful of men were affected by the cutoff decree of 1988. Fewer than 2,500 reportedly are still alive. These are the survivors of 20,000 merchant seamen who were still in training when hostilities ended on Aug. 15, 1945. At that time they had not yet been ordered to ports in Europe or in Asia.

To treat them fairly now, in 1991, would amount largely to a symbolic act _ a flag for their coffins and a marker for their graves. The cost to the taxpayers could be measured in nickels and dimes.

Rep. Jack Fields, R-Texas, has been trying for the past three years to rectify the injustice. The House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries unanimously approved his fairness bill a year ago, but the measure ran into a stone wall named Sonny Montgomery, D-Miss., chairman of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, and there it died. I tried to get Montgomery's side of the story, but he failed to return repeated calls.

Now the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries has again unanimously endorsed Fields' bill. But the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs oppose the bill. The opponents' principal objection is that after Aug. 15, 1945, merchant seamen were no longer subject to military control. The answer to that is yes and no.

All through the war the mariners occupied an anomalous status. Technically they were still civilians, but they were subject to the full panoply of military discipline. .Their casualty rate almost exactly matched the casualty rate of the U.S. Marine Corps. By every imaginable criteria, their service was tantamount to military service, even though they received orders through the War Shipping Administration.

It was not until the end of August 1946 that the War Shipping Administration went out of existence. Over the ensuing four months, awaiting Truman's proclamation that ended the state of war, the merchant seamen remained subject to Navy discipline. It is difficult to understand why they should not receive the same benefits accorded to other members of the armed services.

In the enormous bag of congressional concerns, Fields' bill is small potatoes. The events that led to the unfairness happened a long time ago. Those who were in their 20s then are in their 70s now. They are motivated chiefly by personal pride in the achievements of the Merchant Marine. In the teeth of German U-boats they transported 7-million soldiers and uncounted tons of supplies and ammunition.

These few survivors ask only to be treated as other veterans have been treated. They ask for fair play. I am on their side every inch of the way.

Universal Press Syndicate