Merchant Marine vets group disbanding

Published 9:15 am Tuesday, May 27, 2014

RICHFIELD — For the last couple decades, a group of U.S. Merchant Marine veterans from World War II has gathered on the second Monday of the month to reminisce over morning coffee.

But with each passing year, fewer members of the Viking Chapter of the American Merchant Marine Veterans remain. Their ranks have gotten so small that the former seamen, whose average age is 88, have decided to hold one last gathering — a farewell picnic in June.

“The numbers keep dwindling,” said 87-year-old Roy Freidan, the chapter president. “I’ve had so many friends pass away. We have some who are infirm, and they can’t make it.”

Email newsletter signup

The Merchant Marine was formed in 1936 to carry cargo and serve as a military auxiliary in time of war, though members weren’t recognized as veterans until after the war. Thousands died during the war, though one major veterans group still doesn’t recognize them and members often face a lack of recognition at Veterans Day celebrations and memorials.

About 20 years ago, dozens of men would attend meetings at American Legion Post 435 in Richfield, reports said. Now they’re lucky to get five or six.

But those who make it still talk about their military years.

From 1942 until August 1945, Cal Twining worked on ships that hauled troops, tanks, airplanes and fuel from the United States to ports overseas.

“I quit school to join because they had an ad in the Des Moines Register. I was 17 years old,” said Twining, who is now 89 and lives in Inver Grove Heights. “It was after Pearl Harbor, so they were wanting young people to come and work and fight. The first ship that I got on was a transport ship taking a load of troops from Long Beach, California, all the way to Bombay, India.”

Members of the Merchant Marine weren’t recognized as veterans after World War II ended, so the sailors didn’t get G.I. benefits in education, housing, health care or job preferences. A court ruling in 1988 belatedly awarded veteran status to most World War II mariners and allowed them access to Veterans Affairs medical care and other benefits.

About 9,500 of the 243,000 merchant mariners were killed during World War II, a death rate of nearly 4 percent, according to mariners’ groups.

Although the American Legion eventually opened its doors to merchant mariners who served in World War II, the Veterans of Foreign Wars still has not.

“We wouldn’t have won the war if it wasn’t for the Merchant Marine,” said Michael Boosalis, 87, of Richfield. “We brought everything over that they needed: trains, airplanes, Jeeps, toilet paper, Coca-Cola, aspirin, cigarettes, beer, munitions, tanks.”

“I was on a tanker that brought gasoline and oil over for (Adm, William) Halsey’s Third Fleet. We carried everything. Everything,” he said.