Members of the Merchant Marine, a civilian organization that fought the Japanese in World War II, are now in their 80s and 90s. But now their battle wages on for recognition from the U.S. government, which recently passed a bill that would provide a monthly stipend for mariners, in lieu of benefits they didn't receive...

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Some had tattoos on their forearms. Some had brought along pictures of themselves from more than six decades ago.

That would have been during World War II. The pictures showed skinny guys, heads full of hair, with unlined faces looking to the future.

They had been Merchant mariners, young and sailing the world in their cargo ships that ferried troops and war cargo.

Now all that exploring is done.

Now they’re in their 80s — some past 90 — and along with the tattoos a good portion wear hearings aids. They sport white hair — if hair at all — and walk stooped.

Now what matters to them is a battle they’ve been fighting since the end of World War II.

It is simply, they say, to be recognized for the war veterans they are, even if Merchant Marine members are civilians.

During a war, by federal law, the Merchant Marine becomes an auxiliary to the Navy. That is what happened during World War II, when 250,000 of the sailors manned some 5,000 ships, says the American Merchant Marine Veterans. It says 1,554 of their ships were sunk, with a total of 9,497 war dead, a higher casualty rate — 1 in 26 — than any of the military services.

“The Army, the Navy gave us our orders. They put us amongst torpedoes and kamikaze pilots. We were hauling the troops and keeping them supplied,” says Bob Barbee, 84, of Sequim.

“But if our ship got sunk, our pay stopped. No medical benefits. If two men were in the water, and one was a Navy man, and the other a Merchant Marine, the Navy man would always get picked up. The Merchant Marine might get picked up, taken to India and he had to find his own way home.”

Victory ships

On the last Monday of every month, at 10 in the morning, the local chapter of the Merchant Marine Veterans meets at the Catholic Seamen’s Club on First Avenue, where modern-day sailors can use computers, rest up, get a cheap meal. There are 130 members.

At the most recent Monday meeting, Barbee was among 19 of the older guys who showed up.

When they meet, the talk is about who died recently, about who’s had a surgery.

Usually attendance is half that number, and James Colamarino, 90, of Seattle, the chapter’s secretary-treasurer, who was running the meeting, mentioned that there had been talk about meeting only every other month.

Of the 250,000 mariners who were in World War II, says the national organization, there are 10,000 to 11,000 left. About 400 of them live in Washington.

Colamarino had been a sailor aboard the Pierre Victory when it was attacked by Japanese planes in the Okinawa area on April 5, 1945.

Victory ships were mass-produced, 455-foot-long, large-capacity carriers for the war effort, with their names all ending with “Victory.”

The Pierre Victory, the Hobbs Victory and the Logan Victory all were in Okinawa, loaded with ammunition. Fearing they’d explode under attack, the ships had been anchored two miles from the rest of the Navy vessels.

Colamarino wrote down his memories:

“… all hell broke loose! … The sky was full of flak. The first kamikaze headed for the Navy anchorage … The pilot looked at the three Victory ships all by themselves, veered his plane and headed straight for us. He crashes into the Hobbs Victory, and it burned and exploded for hours. The second kamikaze followed the first, and he crashes into the Logan Victory. It also caused fires and explosions and finally sunk …

“My station was the ammunition locker … the third kamikaze came straight for us. The gun crew continued firing at it and shot it down just before he would have crashed us.”

Monthly stipend

In recent meetings at the Seamen’s Club, there has been something else discussed: how House Resolution 23 is doing in the U.S. Senate.

It would provide $1,000 a month to World War II mariners in lieu of benefits they didn’t receive after the war because they were considered civilians, not military personnel.

In 1988, President Reagan signed legislation making World War II mariners eligible for Veterans Affairs benefits.

But, say the mariners, by then the major benefits of the GI Bill, college tuition and VA home-loan guarantees had passed them by. They were too old.

And so, they say, that $1,000 a month “would ease mariners’ lives in their waning years and grant full, official recognition for their heroism and vital role in making World War II victory possible.”

The House passed the bill last May. Thirty-three senators are backing the bill, including this state’s Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.

The bill has had major opposition, however, from the powerful lobby of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“Basically, it’s a matter of fairness,” says Joe Davis, spokesman for the VFW. “This is not to detract from the Merchant Marines valor.

“But there are 28 civilian organizations that supported the war effort, which included the Merchant Marines as well as the Flying Tigers, WAVES, WAFS, American Red Cross. None of them are receiving special compensation for their service.”

To this, A.J. Wichita, national president of the Merchant Marine vets, says, “It doesn’t make any sense. This war couldn’t have been won without someone willing to go man the ships.”

The guys say that even during World War II, there were stories belittling them.

The national organization has posted on its Web site at www.usmm.org its answers to such stories as, “Were Merchant Mariners ‘draft dodgers?’ “

Its answer is, “Merchant mariners were subject to the draft if they took more than 30 days shore leave. Experienced mariners who had been drafted were released by the Army to serve in the Merchant Marine.”

Then the site lists examples such as, “Harold Harper ‘dodged’ the draft by being torpedoed 6 times … “

‘One of the lucky ones’

The monthly Monday meeting winds down.

A handful of the mariners head out to the nearby Spaghetti Factory for lunch.

Marvin Perrault, 84, who lives in the Kent area in unincorporated King County, tells about joining the Merchant Marine after being turned down by the Navy because of a slow heartbeat.

He remembers October 1944, when he was on a ship carrying 10,000 tons of ammunition — artillery, mortars, grenades. They sailed away from the main convoy.

The Allies were invading the Philippine island of Leyte.

“We were attacked every 55 minutes for 45 days,” Perrault remembers. “The kamikaze planes came out. They were strafing a lot of ships, and they were using ‘skip bombs,’ aerial torpedoes. The Zeros would fly 6 or 7 feet above the water, and drop the bombs. They skipped like a rock.”

Perrault was an oiler in the ship, working 30 feet below water level.

“You can hear the fire coming down the ventilation. It certainly gets your attention,” he remembers. “But we were one of the lucky ones.”

Now, Perrault thinks he and his remaining buddies should get the recognition due them.

The guys say that although the national VFW organization opposes them, they don’t sense such opposition at the local level, when talking to individual military vets.

Says A.J. Wichita about the VFW, “Why do they want to bother with us? We’re such few in numbers.”

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com