In World War II, Merchant Mariners, whose job it was to ferry supplies to the Allies in both theaters of the war, paid a heavy price.
They had the highest per-capita casualty rate in all of the U.S. Armed Forces during the war, with an estimated 8,300 deaths and another 12,000 wounded. But Merchant Mariners were not recognized as veterans until 1988.
Now, WWII Merchant Mariners will be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal after a bill passed by Congress on March 3 heads to the president's desk for final approval.
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., announced Tuesday that his bill, the Merchant Mariners of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act passed out of Congress.
“Throughout the Second World War, our armed forces relied on the Merchant Marine to ferry supplies, cargo and personnel into both theaters of operation, and they paid a heavy price in service to their country,” Garamendi said.
"This group of unsung heroes nobly served our country by operating the ships that transported critical supplies to front lines of the war, and in doing so suffered a casualty rate higher than any other branch of the military," said Christian Yhas, vice president of the American Merchant Marine Veterans, and a chief engineer merchant marine. "In fact, one out of every 26 casualties during WWII was a volunteer Merchant Mariner. America would not be the great nation it is today without their valiant service of yesterday. I urge Congress to support this important bill and recognize this dwindling group of Merchant Marine Veterans from WWII that have served our nation so admirably."
“The United States Merchant Marine was integral in providing the link between domestic production and the fighting forces overseas, providing combat equipment, fuel, food, commodities and raw materials to troops stationed abroad,” the bill reads.
The medal is the "highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions" of an individual, institution or event that Congress can award, according to the history of the award.
When the bill becomes law, a single gold medal will be created and given to the American Merchant Marine Museum, where it will be available for display or at other locations, as appropriate, though the bill also allows duplicate medals to be created.
“These mariners put their lives on the line for this country, braving German and Japanese submarines in their Liberty Ships as they delivered critical supplies to our service members in the European and Pacific theaters," Garamendi said. "Unfortunately, their sacrifice is commonly overlooked. A Congressional Gold Medal would give them the recognition they deserve, and that's why I've introduced this bill -- to give these veterans and their families the honor and respect they are owed."