Merchant mariners have fought for recognition as veterans since World War II

Seagoing civilians faced war's dangers with nearly 7,000 members killed and 700 merchant ships sunk during the war

When Gerard Driscoll was 16, he changed the date on his birth certificate and tried to join the U.S. Navy.

His amateurish effort didn't fool the recruiter. "He told me to come back when I was older," Mr. Driscoll, 85, recalled.

Undaunted, he left his boyhood home in Versailles -- now part of White Oak -- and signed up as a crewman on a Great Lakes freighter. After he had gained a few months of experience and earned his seaman's papers, he was assigned to a C-1 cargo ship operating on the West Coast. Over the next two years, he and his crew mates faced Japanese submarine and kamikaze attacks while delivering supplies to U.S. troops as they recaptured the Philippines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Mr. Driscoll, who lives in Forward, and other former merchant mariners recently shared stories about their wartime experiences with students at Elizabeth Forward High School. Their local organization, the Mon Valley Chapter of the American Merchant Marine Veterans of World War II, also will sponsor an annual commemoration of National Maritime Day on Saturday in Elizabeth Borough.

Merchant mariners were crew members on civilian-owned ships who faced many of the same dangers as soldiers, sailors and Marines during World War II.

"What we try to do is to give the students a personal perspective of what went on during those four or five war years," ex-mariner Mark Gleeson of Oakmont said.

Mr. Gleeson, 85, grew up in Ford City, about 400 miles from the nearest ocean. "But I always believed there was something romantic about the sea," he said.

By the time he turned 18 in May 1945, Germany had surrendered and the Allies were preparing for the invasion of Japan. Along with four or five of his classmates, he signed up for the Merchant Marine. By June, he was training in New York City in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn, but he was not assigned to sea duty until after Japan surrendered in August 1945.

Battle for recognition

Almost from the day the conflict ended, merchant mariners have been battling for recognition as veterans. Their status, however, has remained murky.

The Merchant Marine Act of 1936 classified sailors on privately owned ships as civilians, and when World War II ended, merchant mariners did not qualify for the education or mortgage benefits that were available to veterans of the armed forces.

The merchant mariners note that, during the war, their ships were requisitioned and armed by the government to carry war supplies. Many were targets of enemy attack. Nearly 7,000 merchant mariners were killed as more than 700 merchant ships were sunk by the Germans and the Japanese.

Since 1988, World War II-era mariners who served in the Atlantic or the Pacific theaters have been eligible for treatment at Veterans Affairs hospitals and for casket flags, headstones and burial in national cemeteries.

Mr. Gleeson said he had no doubt that his service and that of his shipmates made them veterans.

"We were under the control of the War Shipping Administration," he said, referring to the federal agency given the task of operating ocean transport. "We were recruited by the federal government, trained in government camps and outfitted by the government."

In recent years, mariners' contributions to the war effort have been recognized at many veterans memorials. The Merchant Marine medallion, for example, is on display along with those of the armed services in the Hall of Valor in Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh.

Getting out the word

This spring marked the second year that Robert Raffaele, a history teacher at Elizabeth Forward, invited merchant mariners to share their experiences with students learning about World War II.

Speakers like Mr. Driscoll and Mr. Gleeson bring "I-was-there" authenticity into the classroom. "I can tell you part of the story, but these people were actually there and can describe what it was really like," Mr. Raffaele said.

"In 40 minutes, I try to talk about why the Merchant Marine was formed and about what we went through," Mr. Gleeson said.

Time is running out for those stories to be told.

Between 1940 and 1946, more than 250,000 men went to sea with the Merchant Marine. Mr. Gleeson estimated that fewer than 6,000 are still alive.

Membership in the Mon Valley chapter of the organization is shrinking as well.

"We are in our mid-80s and 90s," Mr. Driscoll said. Membership has shrunk from 76 a few years ago to 29 now.

After the war, Mr. Gleeson had a long career with PPG Industries and The Refractories Institute, a trade group for makers and users of heat-resistant materials. He and his wife, Ida, have three children and two grandchildren.

Mr. Driscoll came from a family of 14 -- 11 boys and three girls. Two of his brothers were in the Army Air Corps, another was in the Navy, while he and two other brothers were merchant mariners.

"I didn't want to be left out," he said of his decision to go to sea.

He worked on merchant ships until 1948, when he joined the Army, serving 38 months in post-war Germany. After his Army stint, he returned briefly to the Merchant Marine but spent most of his working life as a millwright at U.S. Steel's Irvin Works. He serves as president of the Mon Valley chapter of the merchant marine organization.

He and his late wife, Mary Rita, have one daughter and two grandchildren.

During the war, he worked below decks as an oiler in his ship's engine room. For the most part, he didn't think about the danger. "You are young and foolish," he said.

Mr. Driscoll did take one precaution. "You would always carry a flashlight," he recalled. "If your ship was hit by a torpedo, you could try finding your way out."

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Len Barcousky: or 412-263-1159. First Published May 17, 2012 4:00 AM


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