Rep. Janice Hahn remembers the story from her childhood. Her father, a Navy captain during World War II, received benefits under the GI Bill. Her uncle, Gordon Hahn, a lieutenant in the Merchant Marines, did not.
“Maybe that had something to do with just an early sense of that doesn’t seem fair. There’s a bit of an injustice here,” Hahn said. “The first time I ever heard the story I think it hit me that this is a wrong that we should right.”
With just months before she leaves office, the Los Angeles Democrat is pushing Congress to recognize the Merchant Marines’ service during World War II with $25,000 for each surviving Merchant Mariner.
Though thousands of them died during the war, the civilian seaman who transported goods and soldiers for the U.S. military during the war weren’t included in the GI Bill and didn’t have access to college tuition subsidies and home loan guarantees extended to returning veterans.
When he signed the bill granting benefits to service members, President Franklin Roosevelt urged Congress to return to the issue and extend the benefits to the Merchant Marines. They never did. It wasn’t until surviving Merchant Marines sued in the late 1980s that the group was designated veterans. At which point, Hahn notes, many were past the point of needing help to pay for college or buy their first home.
Hahn estimates that her bill, the Honoring Our WWII Merchant Mariners Act of 2015, would cost the federal government $125 million for the estimated 5,000 surviving veterans.
“It’ll be less every day, because we are losing Merchant Mariners every day,” she said.
Hahn took up the Merchant Marines’ cause from former San Diego Rep. Bob Filner, who proposed a $1,000-a-month payment to each Mariner for the rest of their lives.
Bills that Hahn put forward have twice sat in committee with no consideration. The most recent has lingered in the House Veterans Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for more than a year.
With National Maritime Day coming Sunday, and a crowd of veterans expected to gather at San Pedro’s American Merchant Marine Veterans Memorial, Hahn said she hopes to draw new interest in the bill before it’s too late.
She said was encouraged this week when a Republican on the House Veterans Affairs Committee told her staff that if the payment amount was lower, he’d want to look at how to pass the bill.
“At this point you just sort of want something that’s a token, something that shows our appreciation for a job well done,” Hahn said. “I certainly would be willing to negotiate. It feels like maybe there is some movement. We haven’t had this before.”
The Republican, Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Florida, is still looking at Hahn’s legislation, his staff said.
Morris Harvey, vice president of the group American Merchant Marine Veterans, said by phone that after running into a wall for so long and having to take legal action to be declared veterans, some payment of benefits would mean a lot.
“At this point, recognition of our service by Congress would be a big step. Money would be a secondary factor,” said Harvey, 88, of Crystal River, Fla., adding that “most of our people could use the money.”
At this point, recognition of our service by Congress would be a big step. Money would be a secondary factor.
Harvey said that less than 5,000 of the 250,000 Merchant Marines who served during the war are thought to still be alive.
Harvey was 17 when his draft number was called. He was told poor health would keep him from going overseas to fight, so he took a draft deferment and enlisted in the Merchant Marines.
“As a 17-year-old and [being] pretty patriotic, I thought if I have to go, I want to go where the war is,” he said.
Harvey served as a seaman for five years.
As the war wound down, Harvey said he knew he wouldn’t get the benefits of the GI Bill, and he saved for two years to be able to afford to study electronic engineering at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.
He and many of the remaining Merchant Marines are active advocates on social media, and stormed Capitol Hill last year to confront members about recognizing their service.
“We were on the same ships in the same war under the same commander,” Harvey said. “When we got back, we got nothing.”
The Merchant Marines aren’t sure what will happen to their cause when Hahn retires, Harvey said.
“At this point we do not have anyone that has indicated that they would step up,” he said.
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Read more about the 55 members of California’s delegation at latimes.com/politics