ST. LOUIS – They served with honor and bravery and many died in the process. Now, a group of World War II veterans is fighting a new battle against the United States Government.
Merchant Mariners shipped the troops and supplies overseas that helped win the war. Despite losing more than 9,000 men, they had to sue the government just to be recognized as veterans. Even after that, they weren't given the same benefits as other veterans. That's what they're after now.
92-year-old Robert Westrich signed up for the Merchant Marine in 1944, just weeks after graduating high school.
“We liked being in the merchant marine instead of the navy. But we were just as much for our country as they were,” he said.
Westrich survived the war without injury. But not without some close calls.
“A ship in front of us blew up. They bombed in front and back of us, so we were lucky. The guy in front of me got blown back on top of me.”
His story is similar to thousands of other veterans from that time. But what he and other Mariners received after the war, doesn't add up.
Other veterans got a $25,000 payment for their service. The Mariners didn't.
“I don't understand it. It's just such a lack of appreciation,” said Westrich’s daughter, Mary Westrich.
Next week, a group of Westrich's colleagues will travel to Washington, D.C. to ask lawmakers to support House Resolution 154. It would give all surviving World War II Merchant Marine veterans that missing benefit.
“I think it's wonderful,” Westrich said. “I know a lot of us could certainly use that.”
“These men deserve that money,” said Mary Westrich. “They served and sacrificed just like any other service member.”
Since 2005, at least six similar bills honoring the Mariners have failed on Capitol Hill. Westrich hopes this year will be different.
“I hope I live long enough to get it,” he said with a laugh.
The group heading to D.C. will hold a rally in front of the Capitol on Monday. Then, later in the week, they'll meet with lawmakers including House Speaker Paul Ryan.