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Merchant mariners denied recognition as veterans

The Story

They were called "the fourth arm" of Canada's fighting services during the Second World War along with the Army, Navy and Air Force. Merchant navy ships delivered troops, munitions, food and fuel around the world, keeping the Allied war effort alive. They paid a terrible price: one in seven merchant mariners died at sea -- a higher casualty rate than any of the other armed forces. But as we hear in this clip, when the war ended the mariners were left high and dry: they were not considered veterans.

Medium: Radio
Program: Morningside
Broadcast Date: Nov. 9, 1990
Guest(s): Dan Bordelo
Host: Peter Gzowski
Duration: 6:26

Did You know?

• Merchant mariners were civilian sailors who operated vital supply ships during the war. The government coordinated their routes and Navy officers commanded their ships. Merchant mariners were all volunteers, receiving a marginally higher pay rate than Navy sailors. But the mariners had little opportunity for advancement or decoration, and received no benefits or pensions after the war.

• Canada's merchant navy suffered higher casualty rates than the Army, Navy or Air Force. Some 67 Canadian merchant marine ships were sunk during the war, mostly by German U-boats in 1942. Of Canada's 12,000 mariners, approximately 1,146 were killed, along with 203 Newfoundlanders (who were not yet Canadians.) Most have no known graves. Their gallantry was regularly depicted on CBC Radio's Merchant Navy Show.

• Canadian shipyards built almost 400 large ships for the Allies during the war. Half were operated by the Park Steamship Company Limited. Park Steamship became a crown corporation in 1942 so the ships could be assigned wartime tasks. All but two of the "Park" ships were named after Canadian federal, provincial or municipal parks.

• One of the reasons merchant mariners were denied benefits was Canada's desire to keep its merchant fleet operational for post-war shipping. Minister of Transport Lionel Chevrier wrote that, "Such benefits should not be of a 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 after the war."

• The merchant fleet didn't last long after the war. Crown assets were dispersed in 1947 and the Canadian Seaman's Union was broken up by mobster Hal Banks and his Seafarer's International Union. By 1950 the Canadian merchant navy was disbanded.

• In 1992 merchant mariners began receiving disability pensions, allowances and health care, and were granted official veteran status. But they were not compensated for loss of benefits between 1945 and 1992.

• Many other nations either maintained their merchant navy after the war or provided services and benefits to merchant marine veterans. The United States had maintained a merchant navy since the American Revolution (the fleet is currently administered by the Coast Guard). It began awarding veteran status to merchant mariners on a limited basis in 1988 after lengthy court battles.


Continuing the Fight: Canada's Veterans more