When Orville Sova, 88, returned to the metro-east after years overseas serving his country during World War II, he was welcomed home with neither parades nor medals.
Unlike other veterans of his generation, Sova was not eligible for the GI Bill, VA medical care or even burial in a military cemetery.
The reason: Sova served as a sailor with United States Merchant Marine, the civilian-run cargo arm of the U.S. war machine that delivered troops and war supplies to war theaters from Siberia to Australia.
Even though Sova and his fellow mariners played an essential role in winning the war; and even though they served under some of the harshest conditions and in some of the most dangerous war zones, in the eyes of the U.S. government, Sova was still a civilian — and therefore entitled to nothing.
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Seven decades after the end of World War II, the lack of recognition and denial of benefits for his wartime service still rankles Sova, a Collinsville resident.
“Every merchant seaman you see floating around today has this fire in their belly because we didn’t get recognition,” Sova said. “We should’ve got it.”
That is why Sova is joining forces with the dwindling pool of Merchant Marine World War II veterans and their children and grandchildren to take one last shot at getting the recognition from their government they believe they deserve.
They are pushing for a bill introduced in the U.S. House called H.R. 563, which, if enacted, would provide a one-time lump sum of $25,000 to each remaining eligible Merchant Marine veteran of World War II.
For the children of the late Alphonse F. Luecking the importance of H.R. 563 has nothing to do with money, but everything to do with the recognition of the sacrifices made by Merchant Marine sailors, who, on a per capita basis, died at a higher rate during the war than their comrades in the armed forces.
Luecking, a farm boy from St. Libory, joined the Merchant Marine in 1944 at the age of 22. He served aboard seven ships in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, including three vessels that were sunk by enemy fire. One attack on his ship left him with shrapnel wounds that bothered him until his passing in 1992, according to daughter Suzie Davis, of New Douglas.
“Just like the Army and the Navy, those people who served — he served, too,” Davis said of her father, a butcher who died in 1992. “They were giving their lives.”
When her father returned home to St. Libory on leave during the war, he had to watch out for himself, said Betty Woods, of Dupo.
“Mom would tell us that when he would come for leave he had to be very careful because the people from the draft board would always try to find him because he was missing from the military,” Woods said.
Alphonse Luecking did not talk much about his experiences during the war, according to Woods.
“But when he did talk he was very frustrated he was not recognized until 1989,” she said.
The year before, Congress had passed a bill that finally granted veteran status to Luecking and other Merchant Marine veterans, enabling them to access the VA healthcare system and attain military burials.
“He was really proud when that happened,” Davis said.
Gregory P. Williams, the executive director of the U.S. Merchant Marine Veterans World War II, has spent much of his life trying to educate the American public on the importance of the Merchant Marine’s role during the war and the staggering losses these sailors suffered for their country, especially in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941.
During the first three months of 1942, more than 400 American cargo ships attempting to cross the Atlantic Ocean were sunk by German submarines waiting off the East Coast, a fact that was kept secret from the American public on orders from President Franklin Roosevelt, according to Williams.
“Because back home men, women and children literally were working in factories 10, 12, 14 hours per day making bullets and guns, sewing uniforms, making tanks and Jeeps,” Williams said. “If all those people knew that 33 merchant ships were being sunk each and every week in World War II, it would have had a huge, devastating effect on the morale of the industrial manufacturing.”
Even today it remains difficult to determine how many Merchant Marine sailors died during the war, according to Williams, whose group operates a World War II era cargo ship called the S.S. Lane Victory. A floating museum moored in San Pedro, Calif., outside Los Angeles, the ship gives visitors an idea of the difficulties its crewmen faced under wartime conditions.
“A lot of times if a ship was sunk, the parents never knew if their kid was gone, except for when the war ended and he never came home,” Williams said.
In terms of per capita losses, the Merchant Marine suffered worse than the armed services. About 243,000 men served in the Merchant Marine, which lost 9,500 dead to submarine attacks, ship wrecks and other causes, for a death rate of 3.9 percent or 1 in 26, according to the website www.usmm.org.
This compares to the Marine Corps, which lost nearly 20,000 dead, for a death rate of 2.9 percent, or 1 in 34; the U.S. Army, which lost nearly 235,000 troops for a death rate of 1 in 48; and the U.S. Navy, which lost about 37,000 sailors, for a death rate of 1 in 114.
If Roosevelt had lived until the end of the war, things could have turned out differently for Sova, Luecking and tens of thousands of other Merchant Marine vets. Roosevelt had intended to seek veteran status for these sailors, but with his death in April 1944, that effort stalled and then faded because of a lack of public support, according to Williams.
“By the time World War II ended, everybody was so tired of war and there were no ticker tape parades,” he said. “And the story of what the Merchant Marine had done had gotten simply lost in time. Remember it was not a glamorous thing.”
Today, it is high time these sailors get the recognition they deserve, Williams said.
“America needs to know what these guys did. I feel personally America is losing its history and its culture,” he said. “Everything is digital. Everything is about money nowadays. Very little is about honor and integrity and character and the good of the country.”
The $25,000 payment earmarked in H.R. 563 for Merchant Marine veterans won’t make anyone rich, Sova said.. And he adds that it sure won’t make up for the important educational opportunities they were denied as young men because they ineligible for the GI Bill, but it will end 70 years of waiting., Sova said.
“We knew in 1944 that when they didn’t put us in the GI Bill, it was going to be a tough road,” he said. “We didn’t really know what all was going to happen.”
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at email@example.com or 618-239-2533.
At a glance
▪ Mariners killed at sea from war causes, compiled by Captain Arthur Moore: 6,847
▪ Mariners buried or commemorated in American Battle Monuments Commission National Cemeteries overseas: 595
▪ POW compiled by www.USMM.org: 671
▪ Died as POW compiled by www.USMM.org: 66
▪ Died from their wounds in Public Health Hospitals and Allied military hospitals abroad (Estimated): 1,100