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Dwindling number of WWII merchant mariners seek recognition, compensation

  • Artist Hans Skalagard, 89, a merchant marine during World War II and the Korean War, at his home in Petaluma, Calif., on November 8, 2013. Like other merchant marine combat veterans, Skalagard was never compensated for his wartime service or received extended GI Bill benefits that were given to veterans of the United States armed forces. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Man of-the-sea Hans Skalagard soon will turn 90, no thanks to Adolf Hitler's navy.

All through World War II, German submarines tried their best to blow up and sink the ships on which Skalagard criss-crossed the Atlantic, delivering munitions, fuel, equipment and supplies essential to the Allies' efforts.

"I made 33 crossings," said the Petaluman and career seaman known internationally for his lifelike, historically true paintings of sailing ships.

Artist, WWII Merchant Marine Hans Skalagard

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Three times, Skalagard went into the brine as a torpedoed cargo ship headed to the bottom. More fortunate than the shipmates killed or maimed, he once bobbed, nearly starved and alternately shivered and baked in the south Atlantic for 21 days before he was rescued.

Skalagard is proud of what he did to help sustain besieged Britain and to help her and her allies win the war. But all these years later, something bitter sticks in the old salt's craw.

He resents that he and the rapidly diminishing band of civilian sailors who in World War II sacrificed greatly aboard Merchant Marine cargo ships were excluded from the government benefits extended to returning GIs.

"I must say I feel bad about it for the simple reason that everyone else got their fair share," Skalagard said. "We got nothing."

In 1988, legal action won former merchant mariners Veterans Administration benefits. But many contend that it is a correctable affront that though the civilian sailors performed with valor and suffered a high death rate, they were left out of the GI Bill that helped their armed comrades to attend college or vocational training, start a business or buy a home.

When ex-mariner Ian Allison of Santa Rosa died in August at 93, he had traveled and advocated for years as the leader of a national campaign declaring that simple fairness requires Congress to compensate the surviving Merchant Marine seaman.

A bill labeled the "Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II Act of 2011" would have paid the civilian sailors $1,000 a month.


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