Gobs of Gaff
Throughout the war the Merchant Marine was the least publicized of all major services contributing to the overall effort. With post-war birth of veterans' privileges, the question of who deserved what and why has exposed the Merchant Seamen to a sustained attack from old-line veterans' organizations and from the conservative press, which would use a drive against the unpopular maritime labor organizations as an opening wedge in a drive to discredit the advances of industrial unionism. Hanson Baldwin, naval expert of the New York Times, last week traced a whole epidemic of wartime sins to the activities of sea-going unions, and continued to east a good deal of doubt over the accomplishments of the merchant fleet. Using charges of bonanza payments, lack of discipline and even draft-dodging, Baldwin and various American Legion commanders have managed to cloud the record of the Merchant Marine and turn an unfortunate public confusion into a glorious stew of red herrings, union-baiting and war-storying.
The fact is that some Merchant Seamen at the very beginning of the war were granted bonuses far out of line with the wage scales of the armed forces. These bonuses covered the trip to Murmansk, a brutal voyage, but a voyage that involved less than 10 per cent of the two hundred thousand men who were active wartime seamen. When losses on the North Atlantic dropped off, bonuses were cut, and the wage scale of the Merchant Marine, figured on an annual basis, was aligned with that of the Army and Navy so that no great difference existed. On the face of it, an Ordinary Seaman figuring up a pay-off of $1500 for a six months trip might cause a member of the Naval Armed Guard to utter some unholy things about his own $76 or $92 monthly draw. But members of the Armed Forces and the public at large rarely stop to compute the full income tax that merchant seamen must pay, vacation or furlough money that these seamen must supply for themselves, and family allotments that civilian seamen must supply out of their pay. The official Navy Journal, after a survey of both groups, concluded that there was no great difference in Merchant Marine and Navy pay, stating further that certain ranks in the Navy seemed to be in a better financial position than their counterparts in the merchant fleet.
Although you can factually disprove the contentions that Merchant Seamen were overpaid, it is much harder to gather facts about slacking, draft-dodging and the other uglier vices attributed to war-time sailors. The full story is that staying "shore-side" meant immediate drafting, which, for good or bad, is never mentioned in the current charges. Further, the purely civilian status so prized by merchant seamen passed with other myths as a ship left the pier for deep waters. At sea, in convoy or out, all men were subject to certain articles of war, articles that cover union men as well as Navy yeomen, battleships as well as battered Liberties. In port, these crews, as civilians, had prerogatives denied members of the Armed Forces. The stories of the strikes and slow-downs are circulated with hardly a word about the overwhelming number of incidents which proved the overall reliability of the personnel of the Merchant fleet.
These officers and men of the Merchant Marine are exposed to the longest looks and widest public freeze when the subject of recruitment is aired. Just where were the draft-dodgers? Some 25 per cent of the men were 4-F, or over or under service ago. Another 30 per cent were old time mariners who were merely working at their business--which suddenly became a good deal more precarious and, to the nation, essential. The rest were able-bodied men of draft age who went to sea instead of to the armed forces, and who, every last man of them, saw overseas or ocean service.
Whether merchant seamen deserve the privileges granted under a Bill of Rights is still a matter of dispute. But their record does not deserve the treatment it is receiving from members of the less-informed press and from the emoting of outstanding professional veterans. Not all white and not all black, the record of the merchant seamen--their 5200 dead--is that of overall loyalty and business-like performance of duty.