Indiana Merchant Marine vets demand recognition

Senate Bill 663 is a belated thanks to the Merchant Marines.

Sandra Chapman/Eyewitness News

Indianapolis - There's a group of World War Two veterans fighting for a place in history, and for what they lost. Indiana senators are being called to take sides. Senate Bill 663 is a belated thanks to the Merchant Marines.

As if on the hull of a ship, a group of World War II Merchant Marines are ready to go the distance. They did in 1945 when they answered the government's call to transport supplies into deadly war zones. They were just boys. Don Ellwood, now the president of the Central Indiana American Merchant Marines Veterans, was barely 16 years old.

"When there was no one else that the government could turn to, to man the ships that delivered the bombs, planes, tanks, food and ammunition to our troops overseas and Europe, in the Pacific, the only ones they had, was us," he said.

Now 81 and the youngster of the group, Ellwood is leading the charge in central Indiana to help get veterans compensation for fellow mariners. They sacrificed much but came home to little. No benefits, no medical coverage, no GI Bill education, no home loans, and no recognition. Promises to take care of the Merchant Marines by President Roosevelt died when he did.

"Some say that we were not veterans because we did not wear a uniform or carry a gun. But the torpedoes and bombs that sunk those ships did not care," said Gene Taylor, Fairland Merchant Marine.

Records show Merchant Marines had the highest percentage of war casualties.

"The Merchant Marines lost 1 in 26. The next was the Marines which was of course 1 in 34," said Gilbert Renner, Anderson AMMV.

"There's 9,500 of them at the bottom of the seven seas and they all died horrible, horrible deaths," said Richard Blair, Muncie Merchant Marine.

Even after 64 years, the memories evoke strong emotion. 85-year-old Raymond Chapman of Tipton was part of a convoy that came under attack.

"I said to myself, I'm going to go on a tanker instead of cargo ship. If it blowed u., I won't come home with no legs and arms," said Chapman, breaking down.

A federal court awarded Merchant Marines veterans status in 1988. Nationally, the organization is pushing legislation that would give an estimated 15,000 surviving Merchant Marines $1,000 a month for five years.

"It's not for the rest of their lives. The bill is capped at $498 million," said Lisa Wilken, advocate.

President Obama co-sponsored the Senate bill before he became Commander in Chief. This year, Indiana Senator Evan Bayh added his name. Senator Dick Lugar hasn't decided.

"This bill has 47 co-sponsors in the Senate after passing the House. It's passed the House of Representatives three times since it's been around. But the Senate never lets it come to the floor for a vote," Wilken said.

"It's lay dormant for 60 years. I think something should be done about it," said John Hayes, Greenwood AMMV.

"We haven't got the first thank you from our government and I think that's terrible," said Leo Robas, Indianapolis AMMV.

"Enough is enough. We want to be recognized for what we did," said Ellwood.

For this room full of 80-year-old mariners, time is running out, but never their commitment.

The organization calculates only 8,500 Merchant Marine survivors today. The group says reductions in VA bonuses and the transfer of expiring pensions over the next five years could easily cover the cost. They're hoping to get the bill to the Senate floor by spring.