Recognition long overdue

Recognition long overdue

It's easy to think of today's international logistics world in terms of the modern jargon and concepts that drive the business today: cycle-time reduction, direct sourcing, supply-chain optimization, visibility, cost reduction and so forth. Yet as everything is in some way tied to the past, so too is logistics. Many of the steamship companies, or their predecessors, that today are evolving into logistics providers - APL, Lykes, Matson, Maersk, Waterman and others - were engaged in the treacherous work of defeating Nazi Germany in the not-so-distant past. And just as logistics today struggles for recognition - from corporate higher-ups and from governments blind to mounting problems because "freight doesn't vote," so too has there been a struggle for recognition of the efforts of those companies and their workers during World War II. Gradually, but certainly not fast enough, that recognition has been forthcoming. Now there is another important opportunity to make up for this lost time.

The basic background is this: When it became clear that a massive sealift would be required to sustain an isolated Great Britain, aid a struggling Soviet Union and supply far-flung forces in the Pacific, a merchant marine buildup of unprecedented scale was set into motion. A large-scale recruitment drive for crews was conducted through union hiring halls around the U.S. that resembled military recruitment stations, conducting physical exams and handing out uniforms. Yet the men recruited for the dangerous duty of serving on ships targeted by German U-boats had not been recruited into the military, but rather into in the unionized merchant service as employees. Everything about their service was military, from the cargo in the hold to the reason their ships were built and the reason they were employed. And like their counterparts in the Marines, Navy and Army, they have the casualty record to prove it - some 700 merchant ships were sunk and 6,000 merchant mariners were killed, approximately 1 in 30 who went to sea. The discrepancy hit home after the war when it became clear the returning merchant vets did not qualify for veterans' benefits such as the G.I. Bill of Rights, putting them at a disadvantage in hospitalization, the purchase of homes and businesses, education and employment. That was wrong, and many knew it.

Thus began a multi-decade effort to get the merchant vets their rightful credit for the acknowledged fact that the war could not have been won without them. It ultimately took 43 years of lobbying and legal battles before the merchant vets were granted veteran status in 1988. Since then, other recognition has been forthcoming. The Liberty Ship Jeremiah O'Brien was present at the 50th anniversary of Normandy, and the merchant marine was a full participant at the formal sea services ceremony on the morning of June 6, 1994 - an event that I covered for The Journal of Commerce. The World War II memorial dedicated on the Washington Mall acknowledges the Battle of the Atlantic, and Maritime Administrator William Schubert had a place of honor near President Bush at the dedication in May.

Yet there is one piece of unfinished business. The highest military honor is the Congressional Medal of Honor, and to date no merchant mariner has received the award. But efforts are under way to get that recognition for someone who is particularly deserving - Edwin Joseph O'Hara, an engine cadet-midshipman on the Liberty Ship Stephen Hopkins, operated by Luckenbach Steamship Co. of San Francisco.

O'Hara stands out because of a fierce half-hour-long firefight in September 1942 off South Africa. The Hopkins was sinking after being attacked by two German surface raiders that had appeared out of the morning mist. With the ship's Naval Armed Guard members killed by enemy fire, O'Hara took over the 4-inch gun and starting firing at the waterline of the one of the raiders. That ship, the Stier, ended up sinking, becoming the only German man-of-war sunk by a U.S. merchant ship in the Atlantic during World War II. In his battle report, the captain of the sunken ship reported that he fought a "heavily armed cruiser." O'Hara and 42 of his shipmates perished.

Shortly after the war, O'Hara was posthumously awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal, the highest honor to which he would have been entitled. Now, with the merchant marines acknowledged both as veterans and as full contributors to the military victory in World War II, it is fitting that he be awarded the Medal of Honor.

Peter Tirschwell is vice president and editorial director of Commonwealth Business Media's Magazine Division. He can be reached at (973) 848-7158, or via e-mail at ptirschwell@joc.com.