Honoring World War II Merchant Marine Veterans | Commentary

A small group of heroes is walking the halls of Congress this week, proudly sharing memories of the work they and friends long gone did more than 70 years ago to help the Allied forces win World War II.

These men from the American Merchant Marine Veterans served our nation courageously, but they have never been properly recognized.

As we prepare for events marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, we should remember — and honor — merchant mariners who delivered vital supplies to U.S. forces and our allies.

Their efforts were so important that they were regarded as “the fourth arm of our defense,” and military and political leaders including Eisenhower, Churchill, MacArthur and Nimitz praised their service and credited the Merchant Marine for its important role in the Allied victory.

They risked their lives, facing attacks by U-boats and enemy planes and traveling through mined waters.

As many as 9,000 mariners were killed, and thousands more maimed and injured, during the war. In fact, the casualty rate among the Merchant Marine was higher than for any branch of our armed forces in World War II.

Despite their dedicated wartime service to our nation, Merchant Marine veterans were not eligible for the benefits others received under the GI bill. This means they never received the college tuition subsidies, the home-loan guarantees or other provisions of the GI Bill that helped millions of veterans transition seamlessly into civilian life and lifted many of their families into the middle class.

Merchant mariners were even excluded from Veterans Day and Memorial Day events.

Only in 1988, following a class-action lawsuit, were they recognized as veterans, entitling them to care at VA hospitals.

In San Pedro, Calif., my hometown, and elsewhere, on National Maritime Day every May 22, we celebrate the men and women of the Merchant Marine who have contributed to America’s security and prosperity and remember the Merchant Marine veterans who died.

However, I believe the World War II Merchant Marine veterans have not been properly honored or recognized for their service, and I have been working to have our nation show its gratitude to them since I arrived in Congress in 2011.

This year, I introduced the Honoring Our WWII Merchant Mariners Act of 2015 (HR 563), which would provide a onetime payment of $25,000 to the surviving World War II Merchant Marine veterans.

My legislation has bipartisan support, with Congressman John J. Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., an original co-sponsor and additional support from both sides of the aisle.

I tried to pass it as part of the Coast Guard Authorization Act and was told it was not allowed.

When the House considered the National Defense Authorization Act last month, I offered my legislation as an amendment, but the Rules Committee did not rule my amendment in order.

Our next step is to try to get it through the Veterans Affairs Committee, and already merchant mariners, their families, friends and supporters are asking Chairman Jeff Miller to support it and encouraging their local representatives to co-sponsor HR 563.

I will keep fighting for Congress to do the right thing: to honor our World War II merchant mariners.

Only about 5,000 — of more than 200,000 who served in the Merchant Marine during the war — are still surviving, men in their ’80s and ’90s.

Time is running out for us to honor them. Now is the time for Congress to act and to pass HR 563! Time is running out for us to honor them.

Rep. Janice Hahn is a Democrat from California.