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Originally published October 14, 2012 at 7:13 PM | Page modified October 15, 2012 at 6:02 AM

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Senators urged to seek vet status for wartime mariners

A North Carolina man is trying to get veterans recognition for merchant mariners who pulled tugs and barges along the East and West coasts during World War II. So far he hasn't had any luck in Congress, but Washington's senators are sympathetic to the cause.

Seattle Times Washington bureau

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WASHINGTON — Members of the U.S. merchant marine who served during World War II were the second-class citizens of American armed forces, regarded by some traditional military enlistees as misfits and mercenaries who volunteered to ferry fuel and supplies more for pay than patriotism.

It took the merchant seamen four decades and a court order to force the Defense Department to grant them full veterans status in 1988.

But some 30,000 people, including those who pulled tugs and barges along the East and West coasts, never got that recognition. The group — some were men with physical impairments or past draft age as well as women and schoolchildren — lacked discharge papers from the U.S. Coast Guard to prove their wartime service.

A North Carolina man is seeking help from Washington state's two U.S. senators to rectify that.

Don Horton has been pushing — so far without luck — to get Sen. Patty Murray or Sen. Maria Cantwell to introduce a Senate version of a House bill to allow Social Security records or other proof of employment to show they qualify as veterans.

Murray, chairwoman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, and Cantwell are both among the co-sponsors of a separate bill that would pay retroactive benefits of $1,000 a month to merchant mariners who won belated recognition as veterans.

Horton's proposal, by contrast, is aimed at seamen who never got counted as veterans and would entitle them to not much beyond a flag and possibly burial benefits. Horton estimates only 300 such people survive today.

Asked for comment on Horton's proposal, Murray's spokesman said in an email that she "has long been supportive of efforts to recognize the service" of merchant mariners. Cantwell's office said it had been unaware of faxes and emails from Horton.

"Few people have any idea that these people even existed, let alone played such an important part in our World War II efforts. It has been said many times the outcome of World War II would have been different had it not been for the U.S. merchant marine moving all the supplies and equipment," Horton said. "They earned their just due."

But that full measure of recognition has eluded merchant seamen for years. Both the House bill and the retroactive-benefits legislation are once again stuck in committees, despite dozens of co-sponsors.

Now, 67 years after Japan's surrender effectively ended World War II, some weary merchant sailors and their families argue it's time for Horton and others to let go.

Frances Thronson, daughter of a founding member of the United States Merchant Marine Veterans of World War II, called seeking veterans designation for a tiny band of merchant seamen who couldn't document their eligibility "a losing bill." She contends it will dilute support for the competing effort to secure retroactive payments for merchant mariners who couldn't qualify for veterans status immediately after the war.

"I think (Horton's bill) should be sent to its eternal rest. Enough already," said Thronson, whose father, Allen, a 1944 graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy, spent the entire war in the Pacific and Mediterranean battle zones. "The real guys in the real war haven't gotten anywhere."

According to the Congressional Research Service, some 400,000 merchant mariners served during World War II. Various estimates peg their total number of battle deaths at nearly 6,200, about half the casualty rate of the U.S. Marine Corps but much deadlier than the Navy.

But the Defense Department for decades contended the seamen's service — however hazardous — didn't meet the definition of military service. Even other veterans group like the American Legion were opposed. Some viewed merchant mariners as draft dodgers or profiteers.

Finally, in 1987, U.S. District Court Judge Louis Oberdorfer issued a ruling that cleared the way for mariners to claim their honor. Oberdorfer concluded the Pentagon "abused its discretion" in claiming that merchant seamen lacked weapons training and other "vague criteria" while giving veterans status to telephone operators and dietitians.

By then, many of the merchant sailors were seniors, too old to take advantage of college tuition and other benefits offered by the GI Bill. But thousands of seamen were unable to provide proof of service because deck logbooks from tugs, towboats and seagoing barges were destroyed on government orders during the 1970s.

That was the case for Horton's family. After Judge Oberdorfer's court order, Horton applied for veterans status for himself and his family. Horton, as a boy, and his parents, two brothers and a sister worked through World War II on barges hauling coal, scrap metal, salt and other war supplies to ports stretching from Hampton Roads, Va., to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

His oldest brother, William "Billy" Horton Jr., was killed at 17 in 1942 when a German submarine shelled his tug nine miles from the Virginia coast.

Billy Horton's posthumous veterans application was accepted on appeal. But the rest of his family, including his father, who captained hundreds of barge trips, were never recognized for their contributions to the war.

"It's a miscarriage of justice," Don Horton, now 80, said. Coastal mariners "are completely forgotten. They kept us alive. They kept us free."

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com

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