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Merchant Marine looks back at service in WWII, Korea

Artist Hans Skalagard, 89, a merchant mariner during World War II and the Korean War, at his home in Petaluma on Nov. 8, 2013. Like other merchant mariners, Skalagard was never compensated for his wartime service or received extended GI Bill benefits that were given to veterans of the U.S. armed forces.

(Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Published: Monday, November 11, 2013 at 9:14 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, November 11, 2013 at 9:14 a.m.

Man of-the-sea Hans Skalagard soon will turn 90, no thanks to Adolf Hitler's navy.

All through World War II, German submarines tried their best to blow up and sink the ships on which Skalagard criss-crossed the Atlantic, delivering munitions, fuel, equipment and supplies essential to the Allies' efforts.

“I made 33 crossings,” said the Petaluman and career seaman known internationally for his lifelike, historically true paintings of sailing ships.

Three times, Skalagard went into the brine as a torpedoed cargo ship headed to the bottom. More fortunate than the shipmates killed or maimed, he once bobbed, nearly starved and alternately shivered and baked in the south Atlantic for 21 days before he was rescued.

Skalagard is proud of what he did to help sustain besieged Britain and to help her and her allies win the war. But all these years later, something bitter sticks in the old salt's craw.

He resents that he and the rapidly diminishing band of civilian sailors who in World War II sacrificed greatly aboard Merchant Marine cargo ships were excluded from the government benefits extended to returning GIs.

“I must say I feel bad about it for the simple reason that everyone else got their fair share,” Skalagard said. “We got nothing.”

In 1988, legal action won former merchant mariners Veterans Administration benefits. But many contend that it is a correctable affront that though the civilian sailors performed with valor and suffered a high death rate, they were left out of the GI Bill that helped their armed comrades to attend college or vocational training, start a business or buy a home.

When ex-mariner Ian Allison of Santa Rosa died in August at 93, he had traveled and advocated for years as the leader of a national campaign declaring that simple fairness requires Congress to compensate the surviving Merchant Marine seaman.

A bill labeled the “Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II Act of 2011” would have paid the civilian sailors $1,000 a month.

That legislation stalled in Congress. As an alternate, elderly ex-mariners have proposed that they receive a single payment of $25,000, or even $10,000.

Allison once declared on Capitol Hill, “Many service people who might have dug ditches in Louisiana and never stepped outside the United States got the full GI Bill. But those who sailed the Murmansk run, were sunk in burning oil or frigid waters of the North Atlantic got nothing.”

Allison's death leaves Herman Starnes of Florida as the nation's foremost advocate of “just compensation” payments to surviving WWII Merchant Marine seaman. Starnes, who's 87, dedicated to Allison his newly self-published book, “Torpedoed for Life: World War II Combat Veterans of the U.S. Merchant Marine.”

Allison “was the guy who started the cause,” Starnes said from St. Augustine. “He and I worked together on it for a long time.”

Starnes declares in the new book that the war could not have been won without the service and sacrifice of merchant seaman. He argues that, despite that, the country has for 70 years denied them compensation for myriad reasons that include what he calls unfounded prejudices and perceptions.

Among historic criticisms of WWII merchant seaman are that they were draft dodgers, drunks and, compared to Navy sailors, pampered workers who sometimes sought personal safety behind union rules.

Starnes wrote, “There is a myth — used as a justification for not granting a 'Bill of Rights' package to merchant seamen — that they were overpaid, self-centered mercenaries working for high wages. None of that is true.”

When members of Congress have declared reasons for not approving payments to surviving merchant seaman, they've spoken of budgetary constraints, competing interests and the danger of setting a precedent that might bring requests for compensation from other groups of civilians who helped win the war.

But underlying the issue is a strong sense that payments to former merchant mariners would be offensive and unfair to military veterans.

Ask vets what they think of cash compensation to cargo-ship seaman and many will say those men were not subjected to military life, they were paid and fed and housed better than GIs and they knew or should have known upon joining the Merchant Marine that both the demands and the benefits were different than those of military service.

Many World War II merchant mariners simply don't see it that way. Santa Rosa's Charlie Schelter doesn't.

Schelter is the 86-year-old president of the North Bay Chapter of American Merchant Marine Veterans, founded by the late Ian Allison. He said he was eager to enlist in the war effort as soon as he turned 18, but a medical anomaly kept him out.

So he joined the Merchant Marine and served his country while working aboard cargo ships in the Pacific and hoping not to attract Japanese submarines. Schelter knows what his fellow civilian seamen endured and he believes they deserve to be compensated before they die.

“Frankly, I don't think we're doing to get anything,” he said.

As much as that stings, Schelter all these years later still treasures his time at sea. “Heck, I was around the world before I was old enough to vote,” he said.

And regardless of what anyone says, he and his fellow ex-merchant mariners know that along with their buddies who served in the Navy, Marines, Army, Army Air Force and Coast Guard, they were indispensable to America winning that war.

(Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.)

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