The Ultimate Losers: Merchant Seamen POWs
by Captain George Duffy

In the course of World War II, the United States government treated its merchant ship fleet and its crews in a manner which today, six decades later, is raising questions about those actions.

For example, shortly after the United States' entry into the war, an entity was formed in Washington under the name War Shipping Administration (WSA). This bureaucracy confiscated the entire ocean-going United States merchant marine not already taken over by the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard.

These ships continued to be operated by their owners who were compensated for their efforts. The ships' crews ostensibly became Federal employees, and an entirely new set of rules governed their compensation.

How and why this happened is not clear, but it appears to be based on the British experience.

There, when the war broke out in 1939, the Ministry of War Transport (MOWT) came into existence to manage that country's merchant marine. I believe, however, the MOWT did not go so far as to actually take over the ownership of the private freighters, tankers, etc. Also, the MOWT kept its nose out of seamen's wages and living conditions.

For instance, maritime law stipulates that in the event of the loss of a vessel, the crew's wages cease. War or no war, that is the law. It could take surviving crew members weeks or even months to return to Britain, all the while earning not a penny. This went on until May 1941 when the Ministry of Labour issued an "Essential Work Order" dictating many changes including the proviso that wages would be paid until ship-wrecked seamen were repatriated.

So deeply imbedded in merchant mariners' lore was that "ship sinks, pay stops" tenet, the question continues to be asked of me, "Did you get paid for all those years as a prisoner?"

The answer is "Yes, but ... ." I will explain later.

For years an American writer/activist, the son of a British merchant officer who survived a September 1941 sinking, routinely proclaimed the "no pay for torpedoed seamen" line. Yet, his father would have been eligible for wages until repatriation under the 1941 "Work Order".

Possibly, the older man didn't know about it. Also, and this is difficult to believe, perhaps his shipping company simply ignored the "Work Order".

Martin J. Norris in his "The Law of Seamen", (4th edition, published by Clark, Boardman, Callaghan, Deerfield, Illinois, 1984) writes as follows:

"The loss or wreck of the vessel which terminates the seamen's services prior to the period contemplated in the Shipping Articles entitles them, under present statute (46 USCS 593 - now 1031b) to wages for the time of service prior to the termination".

Presumably, this is the law affecting American seamen as of December 7, 1941.

One of the WSA's early actions created a War Emergency Board to deal with seamen's issues which it did in a series of Decisions. Its first, made on January 23, 1942, circumventing the law, ordered the payment of "benefits" to "seamen employed on American flag vessels, where the vessel had been destroyed or abandoned by reason of war risks, or where the seamen had been interned by the enemy".

I was aware of that order, but on board the German ships and in the Japanese prison camps, no one believed me. Not Captain Haakon A. Pedersen; not Chief Officer Bernard J. Hickey. The latter had been in the City of Rayville, sunk by a German mine off Australia in November 1940. End of voyage, end of wages, end of argument. He knew it all.

That didn't deter me and throughout our incarceration I kept a journal. In New York after the war, therefore, I was able to provide United States Lines with the accurate information needed to create a three and a half year payroll.

Page from George Duffy's journal
Page from George Duffy's journal listing crew of MV American Leader who were lost or survived sinking of two Japanese ships

Still, the myth exists. In fact, I am acquainted with one person who went through an experience similar to ours and he cannot remember collecting his three years' back pay. Maybe he didn't.

So, the answer to the question is: "My shipmates and I were paid, but short-changed."

One of the terms of the "Shipping Articles", the employment contract we signed, called for "War Bonus" payments to be made if the ship entered particularly dangerous waters. These were a percentage of wages, as high as 100%.

As wages had ceased on the date of the sinking, to be replaced by "benefits", there was nothing on which to base any bonus. Could anything have been more threatening to our lives than life as prisoners of the Japanese?

Nevertheless, Article VI of the Emergency Board's Decision specifically cut off bonus pay to internees.

Conversely, the Board did decree bonus pay "until the seaman arrived at a port where he was no longer exposed to maritime perils".

This resulted in 100% bonus for the American Leader's crew for the approximate two months spent in the German vessels, and for whatever time certain of them were being transported in Japanese ships.

Following the war, the surviving crew of the President Harrison who were captured on December 8, 1941, and other west coast seamen who had been interned or held as prisoners of war, sued the WSA for payments of applicable bonuses. According to David H. Grover and Gretchen G. Grover authors of "Captives of Shanghai", the cases were heard in 1947 in the United States District Court for the Northern California District, Southern Division.

"The Court ruled", according to the Grovers, "that no voyage could occur on land; therefore no war bonuses were authorized for the time spent in internment. Thus, the action by the seamen was denied."

"Two years later", continued the Grovers, "the cases were considered again by the United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit. This Court ruled that the findings of the lower court was in error." So, in 1949 the seamen could get their payments, but it was a hollow victory. Legal fees and expenses ate up most of the money.

Unbelievably, the news of those suits and the favorable result of the appeal never reached the 28 American Leader survivors and the next of kin of the 30 lost men.

Frankly, this came to my attention only in February 1996 when I purchased the Grover's book! Why were we not informed? Why did whatever bureaucracy in Washington which funded the Harrison crew's judgement not inquire as to other possible beneficiaries? What about United States Lines? In 1949, Pedersen, Hickey, and I were employed in their vessels. Why didn't their legal department catch this west coast action?

One possible reason for the United States Lines' disinterest was that the unlicensed American Leader crew members (except for Stanley E. Gorski, the bosun) were, at that period of time, suing the company on the grounds of negligence on the part of the Captain and the Chief Officer. This negligence, they claimed, led to the loss of the ship.

If United States Lines was not interested in the crew's well being, at the very least, they could have acted on behalf of the three of us who were still employed in their vessels. And what about the crew of another United States Lines vessel, the Vincent? They were captured by a Japanese surface raider soon after the war began. The Grovers mention them as being associated with the bonus suits. At least two of her officers were back in the company's service. Why didn't they tell us?

Other unfortunate victims of the well intended "benefit" ruling were the next of kin to whom some crew members had "allotted" payments out of wages. I had done so and the company sent my mother a check every month. That process ceased when we were "lost" and could not be reinstated out of my "benefits".

In retrospect, the War Emergency Board did a good job in putting together a very complicated set of rules and regulations acceptable to ship owners and labor unions alike. However, it appears never to have addressed the question of merchant seamen being employees of the United States Government, i.e. the War Shipping Administration. Also, its policy regarding bonus payments to captured and interned seamen proved to be illegal. An additional flaw was the lack of compassion for the "cut off" allottees.

All in all, it was not the best treatment that the merchant seamen prisoners/internees could have anticipated.

This is an expanded version of an article originally written for "The Daily News" of Newburyport, Massachusetts.

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