Tribute to Lane Kirkland -- Peacetime Hero to Mariners

by Bruce Felknor

lane KirklandTo merchant marine veterans of World War II Lane Kirkland, who died August 14, 1999, was more than merely a retired labor leader. He was not only one of us, but a peacetime hero among us for the pivotal role he played in winning veterans' status for us all 43 years after the fact.

He was a seafarer long before he was a labor leader. After a couple of years in college he transferred to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, graduating in 1942. He shipped out as a Deck Cadet in 1941, and after graduation as a Third Mate -- at a time when our merchant ships were being torpedoed daily in full view of U.S. coastal resorts. He survived the U-boats and bombers, and rose to the rank of Master, and went ashore in 1946.

Like quite a few of us, he had an inquiring and scholarly turn of mind, and after the war he became a researcher for the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and after its merger with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, he worked his way to the top of the umbrella labor organization. But in his climb he never forgot his sea service or his fellow mariners.

As we all know, merchant marine survivors' demands for veteran's status were endlessly rejected, neglected, pigeonholed, or plain forgotten -- despite the stated intent of President Franklin Roosevelt and the efforts of friendly congressmen and President Harry Truman. When the Pentagon designated the Secretary of the Air Force to oversee accreditation of veterans' organizations, the disdain and neglect continued.

Lane Kirkland not only shared seafarers' resentment at this treatment, but brought AFL-CIO support and financing to the long and frustrating efforts to reverse it, and found the volunteer lawyer, Joan McAvoy, who prosecuted it.

In 1980, thanks to Kirkland, the AFL-CIO was one of four plaintiffs for whom McAvoy filed an administrative application for recognition as veterans with the Civilian/Military Service Review Board of the Department of Defense. This too trickled off into the sands of time, and in 1986 she brought a class
action lawsuit against the board in Federal District Court. By this time, one of the original applicants, Dennis Roland, had died. His shipmate, close friend, and fellow-POW, Stanley Willner, with Edward Schumacher, Lester Reid, and the AFL-CIO were the final appellants.

At last the seafarers prevailed. In 1987 U.S. District Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer ordered the Pentagon review, in a stinging decision rebuking the review board's "arbitrary and capricious" actions "contrary to law." In January 1988, the review resulted in a new directive that merchant seamen sailing between December 7, 1941 and August 15, 1945 be fully recognized as veterans.

Only this year did new legislation drag the Air Force Review Board, kicking and screaming to the end, to extending the final date to December 31, 1946, like all the other branches of service. And so, 54 years after the last military homecoming parade, oceangoing merchant mariners who served in World War II were officially recognized as veterans. No GI Bill of Rights, but at least a flag for our coffins.

But in all probability, our cause would be dying off with the rest of us, but for Lane Kirkland and the active and moral and financial support which enabled our ultimate success.

Merchant mariners have never been much on spit and polish and things like saluting. But every Labor Day every one of us should throw a salute and a thank-you to the memory of one particular labor leader: Capt. Joseph Lane Kirkland, 1922-1999, who in a real sense made veterans of us all.

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