By Joseph F. Wilson

On the eve of Veterans Day, there is an outpouring of praise and adulation for former service members, whose sacrifices earned them well-deserved and widespread recognition.

But sometimes lost in the wave of appreciation are the forgotten patriots of the U.S. Merchant Marine, who sailed the dangerous open seas in World War II. Gen. Douglas MacArthur once said of them, "I hold no branch in higher esteem than the Merchant Marine service."

Of the 215,000 brave seamen who served during World War II, 8,651 never returned. More than 700 allied cargo ships went to the bottom of the ocean, along with many of the crew. An additional 609 seamen suffered in enemy prison camps. In 1942, for the sake of morale, the destruction of so many merchant vessels was cloaked behind a veil of secrecy.

The mission of the Merchant Marine was simply "Deliver the Goods." Without the equipment, ammunition, and fuel oil, the potent U.S. war machine would have ground to a screeching halt. The bulk of the U.S. cargo fleet was the famed "Liberty Ships." Shipyards were turning out one of these ships every 42 days. Before the war's end, more than 2,500 hastily built Liberty Ships carried cargo for the Allied war effort. If a ship made a single voyage across the ocean loaded with supplies, it was said to have paid for itself.

My late father, John J. Wilson, proudly served in the Merchant Marine as an able seaman and later graduated as an ensign from the Maritime Officers Training School at Fort Trumbull in Connecticut. He told of the intense anxiety sailing in the North Atlantic, where ships were at the mercy of roving German U-boats.

One of my father's most harrowing Atlantic crossings occurred when his ship was carrying a cargo of fuel oil. All hands on deck knew the damage that a single torpedo could do, and that there would be no survivors. The treacherous run to the Russian port of Murmansk, in waters dominated by German submarines, especially struck fear in the hearts of seamen.

In addition to torpedoes, merchant seamen stood constant watch for mines lurking below the surface and aircraft raining bombs from above. And even if they were lucky enough to survive a sinking, they knew the fear of being strafed from a machine gun above, while bobbing helplessly on the ocean in a lifeboat, was ever present. Those not fortunate enough to secure a spot in a lifeboat stood little chance of surviving the cold waters of the North Atlantic.

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, hundreds of merchant ships rested off the coast of Europe waiting to support the invasion. Although not taking bullets on Omaha Beach, their mission of supplying the landing force was recognized as crucial by the Allied leaders.

Later that year, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander, said, "When final victory is ours, there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine."

Sadly, this sentiment didn't carry over into the postwar years. When the GI Bill was passed, the nation bestowed great thanks and thousands of dollars on former soldiers, sailors, and Marines. But the boys who risked their lives at sea to "Deliver the Goods" were left at the dock. In Washington, it was decided that they weren't veterans. And so the men never enjoyed the educational benefits and financial help in obtaining mortgages granted to the Army and Navy boys.

There had been talk during the war of the Merchant Marine becoming part of the Navy, which would have made the mariners eligible for veterans' benefits after the war. But President Franklin Roosevelt had wisely decided not to undertake such a logistical nightmare in the middle of a war. As a result, the seamen were never classified as veterans.

It wasn't until 1988 that the Merchant Marines who served in World War II were granted veteran status. A lot of the aging men had mixed feelings about the long-overdue designation. My father remarked, "What good does it do me now?"

The men who sailed the cargo ships gallantly served their nation in her time of need, just as the soldiers and sailors had done. But the mariners' story is seldom told. Let us not deny these patriotic and loyal seamen their rightful place in history, or their due on Veterans Day.