Search is on for Merchant Marines

Apr. 04, 2013 @ 06:45 PM

During World War II, the U.S. Merchant Marine moved vital war supplies across the seas and up and down the nation’s coasts.

More than 1,500 merchant ships were sunk, many of them off the coast of North Carolina.

Merchant Marine sailors endured hardships. Many lost their lives.

Much of the equipment, fuel and supplies needed by the fighting troops were carried overseas, not on Navy ships but on civilian merchant vessels. Their crews were the Merchant Marine.

To carry supplies up and down the coast, tug boats pulled barges filled with vital resources. Their crews also were the Merchant Marine.

But because they were civilians, they did not receive the benefits that veterans of the military services enjoyed, such as the G.I. Bill.

Don Horton of Camden is fighting to get recognition for these civilian sailors. He has a personal reason: He and his family were part of the Merchant Marine.

Horton’s father was the captain of a barge. The captain’s crew was his family — his wife, two daughters and two sons, one of whom was young Don. He was 10 years old when he first went to work on his father’s barge in the summer of 1942.

In cases like his family’s, even if the captain had seamen’s papers, no one else did, Horton said.

In 1988, after a 10-year court battle, some Merchant Marine seamen received veteran status. They could prove their eligibility by presenting documents such as shipping forms, discharge papers, ships’ logbooks or company letters showing names of vessels and dates of voyages.

But many mariners missed out because they lacked the types of evidence the government would accept. And many government documents had been destroyed, leaving some mariners with no record of their service.

“The more I searched, the more I found that records were incomplete,” Horton said.

Another major exception was the misunderstanding by government officials that no women had served in the Merchant Marine. Horton said in researching crews who served on 29 tugs and barges during 1942-1943, he identified more than 1,100 individuals. Eighty-five of them had names usually associated with women. (The records did not indicate gender.)

Horton also said some government officials denied that juveniles served in the Merchant Marine. His personal experience as one of those juveniles tells him that they did. In addition, his brother was killed in an attack by a German submarine on the tugboat on which he served. He was 17.

To undo these oversights, U.S. Reps. G.K. Butterfield, Walter Jones and Mike McIntyre introduced a bill, HR 1288, entitled “WWII Merchant Mariners Service Act,” which would direct the secretary of homeland security to allow other forms of documentation to prove service in the Merchant Marine. Ten of the 13 members of the North Carolina delegation in the House of Representatives have signed on as cosponsors, as have 104 members from other states.

Horton said he has failed to get the support of Sen. Kay Hagan or Sen. Richard Burr.

“I’m trying to reach out to the people because no one knows much about it,” Horton said. “We’re not asking for benefits,” he said, “just recognition and a flag for burial.”

Contact the writer at