On Records and Recognition: Follow Up on Women and Children Coastwise Mariners of WWII

Sep 14, 2016

by Johnathan Thayer, Senior Archivist

Almost three years ago, I wrote about the women and children coastwise mariners of WWII, and their forgotten place in history. Today, Don Horton of North Carolina continues his battle in Congress to get as many of these overlooked mariners official veteran status before it’s too late. The latest incarnation of legislation that he has worked tirelessly to advocate for would accept additional documentation for verifying the veteran status of coastwise mariners.[1]

Don estimates that between 10,000 and 30,000 coastwise mariners worked on coastwise barges and tugboats during the War years. A substantial number of those mariners were women and children working alongside their fathers, husbands and siblings.

“They served out there—in the same waters with the same enemy—fighting,” Don recalls. “They took the same risk. No recognition. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Don would know because he himself began working on the family barge as a ten-year-old boy in 1942, making runs in submarine infested waters up and down the East Coast. His brother, William Lee, was killed that same year when a German U-boat sank the tug Menominee off the coast of Virginia.

In addition to representing a tragically overlooked group of wartime laborers, coastwise mariners of WWII also present a stunning example of the limitations of the archival record. Because of this, individuals who worked on barges, tugboats and merchant ships find themselves trapped within a labyrinthine tangle of bureaucracy when attempting to fight for just recognition from Congress.

As Don describes it, there is a “disparity between record-keeping and documents to prove that [coastwise mariners] served.” But that would be putting it lightly. Typically, in order to obtain veteran status mariners are required to present proof of having sailed in combat zones during a specified window of the war years through shipping and discharge forms, logbooks or company letters showing vessel names and dates of voyages.

The problem with this process is that (with the exception of the captain) coastwise mariners were not required to possess any sort of documented credentials in order to sail. Further, women and children mariners were repeatedly denied issuance of any documentation affirming their status—even to the extent of an official decree from the War Shipping Administration.

Again, Don is all too familiar with the tragic irony of this system. He remembers,

“When momma, in 1942 … was in New York Harbor, we went ashore there to get her merchant marine papers … and my sister—sixteen she was—and they told her no, we’re not gonna give, we’re on orders not to give credentials…. So she didn’t get anything. My brother and I, of course—he was thirteen and I was ten—we knew we weren’t gonna get anything. And that’s how we were.”

Further complicating the ability of coastwise mariners to obtain veteran status are deeper issues in record-keeping that stem from how the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has dealt with records related to the merchant marine. In 2004, the so-called “62-year agreement” stipulated that all records on military personnel discharged 62 years and beyond should be open to the public via NARA’s record center at St. Louis.[2] This agreement, however, excludes merchant mariners, despite their having earned recognition as veterans in 1988 for service during WWII. To date, records for merchant vessels and personnel sit in a backlog maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Maritime Center.

Since they have not been transferred under the 62-year agreement, access to many of these unprocessed records is restricted due to privacy concerns. Widespread destruction of shipping logbooks under federal stewardship during the 1970s[3] and a fire at the St. Louis NARA records center in 1973 that destroyed some 16 to 18 million military personnel records[4] add to conditions that severely limit access to vital maritime records, thereby preventing advocates like Don from researching who among us remains unrecognized for service during the war.

So, how do we go about accounting for and preserving the place of ordinary people in the historical record when they do not possess the archival documentation required in order to be officially recognized and honored? Don’s proposals for change suggests an alternative: working within the bureaucracy of official record-keeping, he has proposed that a sworn statement, in addition to Social Security records that could show paid wages for work on coastwise vessels, might be acceptable where other documentation is missing or non-existent. As Don notes, this proposal draws on historical precedent that dates back to the founding of the United States. He says:

“I’m also trying to use a law that’s on the books … in fact, it goes back to the Revolutionary War. Back then it was not uncommon for both sides to say ‘Come on you’re going to fight this battle with us,’ when the battle was over, ‘Go on home.’ You may have been shot, hurt, whatever. So after the War was over, it appeared that there were quite a few of them [in this situation], so there were some laws passed that are on the books now that if an individual—or the primary next of kin, meaning a wife—would make a sworn statement in front of a magistrate or something, that would be sufficient to give this guy a pension. It’s on the books.”

According to Don, behind closed doors and in private correspondence, Senate officials or their representatives argue that this approach would open up the potential for fraud because it circumvents the system of official military documentation. But the proposal that has been put before Congress in reality proposes to use alternative documentation in cases where military documentation is absent, has been destroyed or is under restricted access because it is unprocessed and therefore has not been transferred to NARA’s St. Louis records center.

Coastwise mariners of WWII—and women and children mariners in particular—deserve this alternative in order to obtain official recognition as veterans and to receive the benefits due to them. From an archivist’s perspective, this is yet another example of a documentation blind spot where record-keeping practices and the laws and legislation built upon those practices falls tragically short in accounting for those at the margins of our society—both historically and in our own present time.

Don, in his own words, summarizes the current situation best:

“My bill is trying to … not take that [veteran status] away from anybody, but those who never had the credentials or those whose records have been destroyed or lost have an opportunity now by proving it through social security records or their sworn statement. And that’s especially for the children and women who never ever had an opportunity and never would get one.”

You can read more about Don’s fight for the recognition of veteran merchant mariners on his blog here.

You can listen to Don’s oral history interview in its entirety here.



[1] Don’s proposals were originally part of HR.1228 and S.1775, but have since been rolled into a larger bill: HR.2577 and S.2806, Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2017.

[2] National Archives and Records Administration, “Military Personnel Records,” https://www.archives.gov/st-louis/archival-programs/division.html

[3] National Maritime Center, “Providing Credentials to Mariners,” https://www.uscg.mil/nmc/records_request/pdfs/Reference-Information-Paper-77.pdf

[4] National Archives and Records Administration, “The 1973 Fire, National Personnel Records Center,” http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/fire-1973.html