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Congress gives WWII merchant marines highest civilian honor

A convoy of merchant ships in the North Atlantic, July 28, 1942. (National Archives and Records Administration photo)
May 19, 2022

On Wednesday, Congress bestowed its highest civilian honor on the merchant mariners who risked their lives helping the U.S. war efforts during World War II.

At a ceremony on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, congressional leaders merchant mariners Charles Milles and Dave Yoho with the Congressional Gold Medal. Mills and Yoho received the medal on behalf of all U.S. merchant mariners who served during World War II.

The award ceremony came nearly two years after Congress passed and then-President Donald Trump signed into law a bill to honor all U.S. merchant mariners with the Congressional Gold Medal.

The 2020 bill noted merchant mariners played a vital role in delivering the weapons and supplies the U.S. produced for the war to where they were needed on the battlefield. The bill noted merchant mariners participated in every landing operation carried out by the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, including major battles like Guadalcanal and Okinawa. They also provided critical resources for the invasion of Normandy.

In a September 1944 speech, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt said that the Merchant Marine had `merchant marines had “delivered the goods when and where needed in every theater of operations and across every ocean in the biggest, the most difficult, and dangerous transportation job ever undertaken. As time goes on, there will be greater public understanding of our merchant fleet’s record during this war.”

President and former Supreme Commander of the Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower said “through the prompt delivery of supplies and equipment to our armed forces overseas, and of cargoes representing economic and military aid to friendly nations, the American Merchant Marine has effectively helped to strengthen the forces of freedom throughout the world.”

Though merchant mariners are not a part of any U.S. military branch, the U.S. government believes these mariners sustained greater casualties than any of the military services

“The efforts of the Merchant Marine were not without sacrifices as the Merchant Marine likely bore a higher per-capita casualty rate than any of the military branches during the war,” the bill states.

“One out of 26 of us died, but thousands of us came home deprived of a part of our life,” Yoho said in a speech during the ceremony. “That is part of one of the least understood missions that ever was accomplished in the history of modern warfare.”

The decision to award the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of all merchant mariners is the latest in a series of efforts to recognize their contributions to the war effort. In 1988, the U.S. government expanded eligibility for full veterans benefits to merchant mariners who participated in Operation Mulberry — which brought critical supplies to the beaches of Normandy — and mariners who worked provided satisfactory service for the War Shipping Administration or Office of Defense Transportation between Dec. 7, 1941, and Aug. 15, 1945.

The Congressional Gold Medal presented during Wednesday’s ceremony will be put on display at the American Merchant Marine Museum in New York.