• By: OLM Staff

Heroes betrayed —The Merchant Seamen story

By Cliff Chadderton

It is mid-January of 1940 in "an East Canadian port." Canada is at war. The recruiting offices are open. You see a poster of a soldier in a tin hat. You recall the slaughter of the trenches in Flanders in World War I and mutter: "No thanks." Two blocks further, you come to the recruiting office for the RCAF. There is a big line-up. A Sergeant in Air Force blue goes back and forth, shouting, "High school graduates only!" No chance here!

Next, you step into the Navy headquarters. A Chief Petty Officer tells you to come back in two years. You have just turned 16. You spot a sign that says MERCHANT SEAMEN'S CLUB. In you go.

You sign articles on a tramp steamer — no training, no medical. The Bosun gives you your assignment —THE BLACK GANG. Now you find out. You are going to fight the war with a shovel, stoking the boilers. You have volunteered to spend five years sailing the Atlantic and the North Sea in the war's lousiest and most dangerous job.

On only the second convoy, your sister ship is torpedoed! You see the horrible death of seamen, choking on bunker oil with little chance of rescue. A fear builds up within you that will last the rest of the war. Meanwhile, your daily life is regulated by the rigid orders of the British Admiralty, backed up by a Canadian Order-in-Council, known to the Seamen as "Sail or Jail."

Ashore in Liverpool, England, you see the navy guys in their smart uniforms with laughing girls on their arms. For the merchant navy man, it is a pint of beer and a cot in the Seamen's Mission with nothing to look forward to but the next trip on the high seas.

The government shows it's might

On June 9, 1999 the hopes of Canada's merchant seamen for compensation for their wartime exploits were once again cruelly dashed. The House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs issued its report, denying a longstanding request for compensation. Instead, the Committee Report offered: increased representation at the Canadian War Museum on Sussex Drive and a $1 million fund to encourage scholars to research the Merchant Navy story. The recommendation defies all logic. Veterans Affairs Canada recently published a history titled Valour at Sea: Canada's Merchant Navy. The topic has already been studied to a ridiculous degree.

The Committee report was a humiliating insult to those heroic men who have been putting up a 25-year battle for equal treatment with war veterans.

In defending the report, Committee Chair Pat O'Brien (Liberal – London/Fanshawe) stated that the merchant seamen "failed to prove they deserve a cash payment in lieu of being excluded from programs offered to other veterans?' Given the amount of evidence put before the Committee, it is some kind of a stretch to say that they failed to prove their case. The Committee hearings grew out of their opposition to Bill C-61, which granted merchant seamen the right to be called war veterans, but denied them compensation to make up for the failure of the federal government to provide postwar rehabilitation benefits.

The sad story of the shabby treatment of the men who manned the merchant fleet grabbed the public's attention last fall after a series of hunger strikes on Parliament Hill.

Finally, an agreement was reached, with the concurrence of Veterans Affairs Minister Fred Mifflin and the Cabinet. The Parliamentary Committee would consider whether a cash grant could be justified in lieu of the generous re-establishment package available to the members of the uniformed Forces after World War II.

High Praise Back Then

Many of the 2,000 merchant mariners alive today still remember the glowing tributes made on their behalf. Winston Churchill said: "The Merchant Navy saved Great Britain from starvation in 19412' Later he wrote: "The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-Boat peril?'

The Honourable Lionel Chevrier, then Minister of Transport, told Parliament in 1943: "No body of men has contributed more to the prosecution of the war effort than those gallant seamen who man the ships of the Allied Merchant Navies.

"Those seamen whose voyages and duties bring them in contact with the enemy, undergo desperate risks and hazards. The dangers they encounter are comparable with those experienced by the average man in uniform?'

A Peacetime Merchant Fleet?

While the merchant seamen went about their grim task of manning the convoys, often in great danger and under abominable living conditions, postwar plans were being hatched by Prime Minister Mackenzie King and his Cabinet. They foresaw a great armada of Canadian ships in the years following World War II.

At the same time, Ottawa was legislating a Veterans Charter to assist in the return to civil life of the one million members of the NI med Forces who had written a costly but brilliant chapter in the military history of their country.

It provided vocational training, post-secondary education through college and university, homes, furnishings, loans for business, grants to settle on farms and small holdings, and pensions for the dis-abled plus out-of-work allowances for those who could not find a job. This was a realistic opportunity for the enlisted personnel.

Left Out

But what of our merchant seamen? Those who wanted to leave their ships found out how little their government really thought of their wartime sacrifices. They would receive no resettlement benefits. What of the injured? A disability pension, yes —but only if the injury was incurred in direct enemy action. Comparisons are odious but consider this: a Canadian who served in the regular Armed Forces was entitled to a pension for any disability incurred anywhere — including a non-military setting, such as a vehicle accident in downtown Toronto!

Transport Minister Chevrier, in an official booklet issued in March 1945, felt comfortable in stating that benefits would not be available to our Merchant Navy. "Such benefits should not be of the nature which would encourage seamen to leave the industry at the end of the war to seek employment in other fields as the services of many skilled seamen will be required if Canada is to maintain a Merchant Marine?"

In other words, the government declared that the merchant seamen would be needed to man a new Canadian Mercantile Marine. The Veterans Affairs door was slammed in their face!

Here is a bit of irony. We quote from the 1998 Veterans Affairs publication Valour at Sea. "The very outcome of the war depended on those embattled, rust-streaked ships sailing though the long, bitter years. The real heroes were the merchant seamen who sailed them."

Another quote from Valour at Sea, indicating the terrible sacrifices of the crews: "The Merchant Fleet was engaged from day one and soon suffered grievous losses in ships and men. By war's end, as many as 72 Canadian merchant ships would be lost to enemy action — torpedoed, bombed, mined or shelled. Storms at sea, operational accidents and structural shortcomings also took their toll."

The denial of rehabilitation benefits left merchant seamen with no option but to remain with their ships.

The Dream Dies

There were, however, ominous clouds on the horizon. Canadian ships could not compete with the "Flags of convenience" fleets. Canadian sailors had families to support. They needed a reasonable wage to maintain even a minimum living standard and the shipowners were not about to provide it.

In July 1947, the Canadian government passed the Maritime Commission Act. The purpose was "to develop Canada's postwar shipping policy." The plan was doomed from the start. Some two years later, Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent, in a statement dated December 9, 1949, said: "We have concluded that we are not justified, from an economic viewpoint, in maintaining a Canadian Flag by artificial means. It is not the intention of the government to maintain an industry at the expense of the taxpayer?"

Grafted onto this whole ridiculous, miserable situation was the most bitter union fight in Canadian history. The Canadian Seamen's Union was not about to let its merchant sailors — most of whom had seen wartime service — be thrown onto the beach without a struggle with the combined forces of the government and the shipowners.

Enter the infamous Hal Banks who operated the Seafarers International Union from his headquarters in the United States. Despite his criminal record, Canadian immigration officials allowed him into Canada. The obvious purpose was to smash the Canadian union, thus hastening the demise of a Canadian Mercantile Marine — one which would have provided employment for many of the 12,000 seamen who had kept open the lifelines of the Allies. Theirs had been a desperate battle against U-boats, surface raiders and the long-range Luftwaffe bombers —but who remembered?

The Long Wait Begins

How is it then that a Canadian government, which enacted the most generous re-establishment program for its veterans, could turn a deaf ear to the legitimate needs of the Merchant Navy — a military force described in an Order-in-Council of May 1941 as "virtually an arm of our fighting services?" How could Canada permit this atrocious treatment for the heroes of the wartime merchant fleet?

Here are some answers: Their own trade union was crushed. They had no standing with the regular veterans' organizations. They were up against what became known as the "pay myth." Stories circulated that a seaman's wages were considerably higher than those of the regular Armed Forces. (Even the government admits this was not true. On May 25 of this year, Richard Brunton, director of portfolio legislation for Veterans Affairs Canada, told the Parliamentary Committee: "As a general rule, I think you would have to say that their rates of pay were roughly comparable.")

A further reason for the lack of tangible recognition was the "burial" of their story within the Department of Transport. While military historians had access to the files of the Armed Forces, the merchant seamen were not even considered as part of National Defence. They suffered under the "tag" of civilians employed in the war effort.

The political will to do something did not exist. Members of Parliament took every occasion to promote the interest of their veterans. A search of Parliamentary papers has failed to uncover even one enquiry regarding merchant seamen.

It was inevitable, however, that their day-to-day needs would surface. With no opportunity to integrate themselves into civilian life, many became financial casual-ties. A modified form of income support known as "Civilian War Allowances" was enacted for them in 1962, but to qualify, the merchant seamen required six months' service and at least one trip through "dangerous waters."

There was, indeed, a pension for disability, but only if such was incurred in direct action with the enemy. A ludicrous proposition if one considers a tramp steamer engaging in a fight with a German surface raider!

The fact is that the government — and its agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs — took little or no interest in the welfare of these men or their families.

In November 1988, the National Council of Veteran Associations (35 organizations) forwarded a submission to Veterans Affairs Minister Gerald Merrithew. It proposed benefits equal to those available for the Armed Forces. This was similar to the demands the merchant seamen's organizations had been requesting. At last, the House passed legislation in 1992 for disability benefits — but on a more restricted basis than for the wartime Armed Forces. No provision was made to compensate merchant seamen for the failure to provide rehabilitation benefits for them.

The Spin Doctors At Work

As the merchant seamen advanced in age, their denial of assistance upon returning to civilian life was taking its toll. It was a desperate situation calling for desperate measures; hence the hunger strikes.

The government's answer in late 1998 was to approve a study by the Standing Committee to hear claims for a lump-sum payment to compensate for the years the merchant seamen went without a pension, allowances or rehabilitation benefits.

Comprehensive and well-researched sub-missions were made over a period of six months. It soon became apparent, how-ever, that the Liberals on the Committee would oppose the demands by whatever stratagems they could use. The public servants working under the direction of the Minister's office would manufacture arguments to challenge the merchant seamen's claim.

Just three examples from Veterans Affairs material should suffice to explain the situation:

VAC: A Merchant Navy veteran could receive nearly $26,000 a year in benefits. The VAC officials failed to say that there are only three Merchant Navy veterans receiving the maximum.

VAC: Only 5% of Armed Forces veterans received grants to settle on the land. The DVA Annual Report for 1961-62 gives this figure at 9%.

VAC: The benefits available for Canada's Merchant Navy were on a par with other countries. The spin doctors failed to indicate that Canadian merchant seamen received their benefits only commencing in 1992, while in other countries, the benefits were available much earlier.

The Parliamentary Committee: Democracy At Work?

Many witnesses before the Committee —myself included — were given 10 to 15 minutes for their presentations. Committee Chair Pat O'Brien cautioned me at my three sessions that time had to be made available for representatives of the four Opposition Parties. When the Liberals started their questioning, I did not need to be told how the land lay. Gone were the days when a Parliamentary Committee would use the opportunity to obtain essential facts. I saw the Parliamentary Committee as political window dressing. On the other hand, the Liberal Members were let loose. They not only followed the Party line, but slavishly used the notes provided by the VAC spin doctors.

In the appendix to the official report, there are a number of footnotes which prove the point. One example: The VAC document refers to the War Risk Bonuses for merchant seamen, but states: "However, War Amps Canada stresses they were only available to merchant seamen who signed with the government-operated manning pool (approximately 65%)."

What's Next?

The Committee Report was tabled in Parliament on June 9. House Standing Order 109 requires the government to provide a "comprehensive response" within 150 days. The official report was approved with a majority of only one. It was opposed by the members of all Opposition Parties. This suggests that when the report comes back to the House, there will be lively debate.

In the meantime, an interesting battle is ensuing on the Internet. The Veterans Affairs' Web site continues to trumpet the validity of the government's position. For example, the evidence of Deputy Minister David Nicholson before the Committee stated: "You will note from the information provided that none of the Allied countries has done better by their Merchant Navy than Canada…." That may be the situation now It fails to indicate that Canadian merchant mariners waited more than 40 years for their benefits. Moreover, they were categorically denied access to rehabilitation benefits.

The VAC Web page quotes Nicholson further: "The Committee heard testimony that there was a one-year time limit on death or disability claims for Merchant Navy veterans or their survivors?" He indicates this time limit was removed in 1971. We must ask, however, about the plight of the merchant mariner torpedoed in 1941 who failed to make a claim within the one-year deadline. Remember, he did not consider himself a veteran. He had no contact with Veterans Affairs. Our files indicate that in most cases, he would have gone on, blithely ignorant of a benefit which lay hidden in the legislation.

A Statesmanlike Approach

As advisor to the Canadian Merchant Navy Veterans Association, I have been asked to put forward a "working" plan. Here it is: keep a watching brief on the DVA Web site, challenging any statements which are questionable; follow the debate in the House when the Parliamentary Committee reconvenes, bearing in mind that it will be attacked by the Opposition Parties; should the Parliamentary debate not produce results, organize an orderly demonstration, backed up with knowledgeable media reports so that the people of Canada can judge; then ask for a meeting with the appropriate Cabinet committee. If all else fails, go to the Senate Subcommittee. Bear in mind that this was the Parliamentary vehicle which straightened out the National Film Board when it attempted to disgrace Billy Bishop; which destroyed the CBC's effort to demean veterans in a series called The Valour and the Horror; and which extracted from the federal government a promise for a new war museum which would be restricted to Canadian military heritage.

Meaningless Words?

It was nearly 55 years ago, but Canadians should remember these words of praise for our merchant sailors: "You have maintained the ceaseless flow of sea traffic on which the life and strength of this country depend. In this historic hour, we think with special gratitude of the many merchant seamen who have fallen in the fight and whose service and sacrifice will always be a proud memory?' —Message from the British Admiralty, May 10, 1945.

Another quote: "The Battle of the Atlantic was not won by any Navy or Air Force. It was won by the courage, fortitude and determination of the British and Allied Merchant Navy?' — Rear Admiral Leonard W. Murray, Commander-in-Chief, Canadian Northwest Atlantic, 1943-1945.

The Canadian merchant sailors suffered more heavily than the regular forces, losing one seafarer in eight out of the 12,000 who served in the seagoing crews. The Book of Remembrance lists 1,629 who lost their lives in the Merchant Marine. Many other Canadians were lost on the merchant ships, and their names will be forever unknown..