/PRNewswire/ -- The Hoffman Island Radio Association (HIRA), World War II sea-going Merchant Marine radio operators ("Sparks"), announced July 4 that it has voted to disband because of deaths and increasing incapacitating illnesses of its aging members.
Hoffman Island is a small island at the mouth of the New York City harbor, where the U. S. Maritime Service Radio Academy was established to train volunteers in radio theory, practice and the Morse code during WWII. Those who passed the difficult course reported as Radio Officers to the ships of the Nation's rapidly growing merchant navy. Founded in 1991, by Richard Waechter, its first President, HIRA soon admitted veteran radio operators trained at the Gallups Is. Radio Academy, in Boston Harbor, the only other Radio Academy, and then members of the U.S. Navy's Armed Guard, who manned the cannon put on merchant ships in the latter stages of the war. (Until then, the fore and aft cannon were manned by the Merchant Marine crew.) Wives and HIRA family members were admitted as Associates. HIRA reunion meetings were held annually at various port cities, where sea tales were swapped with great camaraderie.
Shipboard radio operators were essential in obtaining routing instructions, warnings and, of course, in sending out "SOS" following torpedoing. Today's merchant ships no longer carry radio operators. Their "radio shacks" have been replaced with telephonic communications. Only amateur radio operators keep the Morse code alive, because of its static-piercing clarity over great distances at low power.
The Merchant Marine became the first U.S. armed service upon the capture on June 12, 1775, of the British schooner HMS Margaretta near Machias, Maine by Colonial seamen in response to the battles of Lexington and Concord. Since then, the Merchant Marine has played a key role in every U.S. war, carrying the millions of tons of munitions and the millions of men that won World War II. Constant targets of Axis submarines, surface raiders and enemy aircraft, the Merchant Marine suffered the highest WWII death rate of any service (3.90% v 2.94% for the U.S. Marines, (http://www.usmm.org/cd.html). Nonetheless, the all-volunteer Merchant Marine was the only service not granted the GI Bill. In 1988, the mariners were recognized as veterans, inexplicably placed within the Coast Guard, but still refused the major benefits of the GI Bill.
Since then, the House of Representatives has repeatedly passed a bill to grant those benefits, but the corresponding Senate Bill, S663, has been just as repeatedly blocked from a full Senate vote by Senator Daniel Akaka, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs. HIRA's president, Gilbert V. Levin, appealed to Akaka with the attached letter, but never received an answer. "We are the Rodney Dangerfield of the U.S. services," said Levin, "Even the Coast Guard, from Commandant Admiral Thad Allen on down, refused to respond to our repeated invitations to address our final meeting."
August 20, 2009
Senator Daniel K. Akaka
Chair, U. S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs
412 Russell Senate Building
Washington, DC, 20510
Dear Senator Akaka,
I have just been elected President of the Hoffman Island Radio Association. We are war veterans of the U. S. Maritime Service. Our name stems from tiny Hoffman Island in New York Harbor, where a Radio Academy was established to train World War II volunteers to become sea-going radio operators. They were badly needed on our then rapidly expanding fleet of merchant ships so essential to conducting - and winning - WWII. One end of the New York Harbor anti-submarine net was anchored on our island, from which we could see ships sailing forth into harm's way, a daunting path we soon followed. As President of this rapidly dwindling group of victorious veterans, I am writing on their behalf to ask you to align with your fellow Senator, Evan Bayh, and support U. S. Senate Bill 663, known as the Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of World War II Act of 2009.
As a 17-year old, I remember President Franklin Roosevelt on the radio, soon after we entered the War, praising the bravery of our merchant seamen, and promising that they would receive the same benefits that America bestowed on its armed forces veterans. I remember it, because it was this talk that got me interested in the Merchant Marine, and, ultimately, led to my enlisting. Reading your on-line biography, it seems we share a number of wartime experiences: leaving school to enlist, being on the front lines (sea lines in my case) of action, and completing technical training (civil engineering for me) after the war. Unfortunately for me, the similarities end there, as I was the only war veteran returning to the Johns Hopkins University that had to pay tuition! My fellow returning classmates soon made me aware of all the other components of the GI Bill that I missed out of. They kidded me that apparently the Government thought the Merchant Marine had it too soft! Recalling the 17 attacks on my ship in one transit up the English Channel, and that, had our ship gone down, our pay would have immediately ceased, I found, and find, that irrational line hard to believe. Instead, I believe we were all in the War together, doing our assigned duties, with little to choose concerning everyone's small remuneration. What really separated us was the GI Bill. For the surviving veterans of the U. S. Maritime Service, it is much too late for them to benefit significantly by being included in the GI Bill - but one very important benefit would be realized. It is the knowledge that the United States of America, at long last, recognizes the vital role and the enormous sacrifices of life and limb we made to keep our country free.
On perusing your website, I am very encouraged that you will support the Bill to include us. In addition to sharing key aspects of our experience, you acknowledge the importance of the GI Bill to you. You say, "... I find myself reflecting on what the original GI Bill did for me as a young veteran. When I returned from World War II, the GI bill gave me the opportunity to build my life on the foundation of a quality education... The GI Bill will go down in history as one of those that has a profound impact on quality of life and attitude in the United States."
Senator Akaka, as late as it is, we want to be part of that history. The modest amount of money and benefits we would receive is not our objective. It's all about the recognition for our service, which they would convey. Your fine website concludes with "He continues to work ... to improve veterans' care and benefits through oversight and legislation." Please do so for our neglected veterans!
Thank you for your service and for your consideration.
Gilbert V. Levin
Hoffman Island Radio Association
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