Column

The battle to right history's wrong

Diane Francis September 22 1997
Column

The battle to right history's wrong

Diane Francis September 22 1997

The battle to right history's wrong

Column

Diane Francis

Some 12,000 Canadians served during the Second World War on merchant navy ships that were a lifeline to Britain and other Allied nations fighting the Nazis. More than one out of eight died, and about 2,000 of these veterans are still alive. Some of them, like Phil Etter of Belleville, Ont., continue to wage war. But this time, Etter is battling against his own government, which has failed to do what most other Allied nations have done: to fully recognize and reward merchant navy sailors for their important contribution to the cause of freedom.

It is a disgrace that these heroes have been neglected by Ottawa. “We’ve been snubbed for the past 50 years,” says Etter, now 73. “The issue is about equality. Our merchant navy men served on the same ships with the navy gunners, and the gunners got all kinds of benefits. I don’t begrudge them. They deserved them. But the merchant navy got zilch. And we were in the same waters, facing the same torpedoes. I made 52 trips across the North Atlantic. And I’m not considered a full-fledged veteran. I’m damn mad about all of this.”

Thousands of merchant ships manned by civilians risked their lives to take food, weapons and other materials to help Britain survive the Nazi threat. Between 1939 and 1945, some 5,000 Allied merchant navy ships were sunk by the Nazis. An estimated 60,000 merchant navy men and women died.

Britain’s wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, recognized their contribution.

“The Battle of the Atlantic was not won by our navy or air force; it was won by the courage, fortitude and determination of Allied merchant seamen,” Churchill said shortly after the war.

Foster Griezic, a Canadian history professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, has taken up the seamen’s cause and tirelessly written the press and politicians in an effort to gain them equality and acknowledgment. There has been some progress. In 1992, Ottawa passed Bill C-84, which was ballyhooed as providing merchant seamen with the same rights as other veterans. But critics maintain this is simply not true. They claim the law is bound by restrictions and exemptions, and that many who apply for benefits receive little. In addition, they are still not recognized as full veterans and want, among other things, a full veteran’s pension. “Our government has displayed a callous disregard for us,” says Etter. ‘When he was Opposition leader, Jean Chrétien promised that he would help us achieve this recognition. He’s a bloody liar and you can put that on the record.”

The Americans recognized the efforts of their merchant navy in 1988 following a class action lawsuit by a former merchant navy seaman. The result is that if a seaman proves that he or she served in a war zone, they can enjoy all the same privileges of military veter-

ans. This includes medical and dental care, housing grants and a minimum pension of $8,300 per year. The British and Norwegians are equally generous, and the Australians, according to Etter, recently agreed to do the same.

Veterans Affairs and Royal Canadian Legion spokesmen have defended the legislation, arguing that the benefits for merchant seamen who served on the “high seas” are the same as those received by their uniformed counterparts. In addition to denying that, the merchant navy veterans are angry about the high-seas restriction. Etter and Griezic both maintain veterans’ benefits should be extended to those who served in Canadian waters as well as to those who made high-seas crossings to Europe. Anything else would be blatantly unfair. Military veterans who wore uniforms don’t have to pass eligibility tests. Uniformed desk jockeys who served in complete safety are entitled to the same benefits as those who were being shot at on the front lines. Why should the rules differ for the merchant navy with those in peril eligible and those not in danger denied benefits?

In fact, it is even arguable that the merchant navy as a whole deserves more compensation than regular naval personnel because they were generally in much graver danger, mostly because they were sitting duck targets and unarmed. These convoys transported weapons, bombs and oil products that would be attacked continuously during crossings.

The grim facts, according to professor Griezic, are that about 1,600 sea merchant men and women in these convoys died. In comparison with that 1:8 ratio, Canadian naval records show one death out of every 47 sailors. During the entire Second World War, some 45,000 Canadian military personnel died out of a total armed force of one million.

According to Etter, 74 Canadian vessels were lost as a result of enemy action. One of the worst incidents involved the death of 1,000 sailors onboard the merchant ship Nova Scotia, which was sunk by Germans in the Indian Ocean in November, 1942. In July, 1943, another 605 merchant sailors lost their lives when the Dorchester was torpedoed and sank while en route from St. John’s, Nfld., to Greenland. Many of these sailors were in the merchant navy because they were too old or too young for the military. Some had medical problems that disqualified them for regular service. But they wanted to participate in the war effort.

Unlike other veterans who were given education or housing help upon their return, these merchant seamen vets had to make their own way without government assistance. “I remember walking the streets of Halifax looking for a job for six months, but I was told that any jobs available are reserved for war veterans. I didn’t qualify,” recalled Etter. “And it makes me damn angry.”

‘I made 52 trips aacross the North AAtlantic. And I’m nnot considered a ffull-fledged veteran. I'm damn mad aabout all of this.’