Merchant navy veterans ferried supplies to help the war effort during the Second World War. But their greatest battle came at home where for more than four decades, they were denied benefits and recognition afforded to other veterans.
According to Veterans Affairs Canada, the federal government conscripted all merchant ships two weeks before the war actually began. The ships were responsible for transporting critical supplies to sustain the war effort.
Members of other branches of the military enlisted in the armed service. Merchant seamen however were considered civilians and not veterans. The government also sold the ships to shipping businesses after the war, but crews never went with them.
Merchant navymen couldn’t access education and retraining programs to adjust to civilian life, and were denied preferential civil service hiring. Instead, they were only offered programs restricted to their careers as seamen.
“We served in the same war zones and put our lives on the line as much as anyone,” Alberni veteran James Peterson said. “We were just kids so at first we didn’t understand. But when we got older we understood that we were discriminated against.”
The Merchant Navy Veterans Association fought for benefits and recognition, and in 1992 its veterans were granted the right to receive disability pensions and health-care benefits.
“Being recognized, it makes you feel like you didn’t do it for nothing,” Peterson said.
And in another gesture of recognition, merchant navymen were issued Queen’s Jubilee Medals this year.
The government wasn’t the only entity to deny merchant navymen recognition as veterans. The Royal Canadian Legion shared a similar view, something Peter Anderosov learned first hand.
“I tried to join three times after the war but was turned down every time,” he said.
A legion official told Anderosov that he was a draft dodger for being in the merchant navy when he last tried to join the legion.
However, Anderosov first went to sea in 1938, while Canada did not declare war on Germany until Sept. 10, 1939. The Canadian government did not introduce conscription until November 1944, late in the war. Even then, Anderosov was only 17.
“I was 12 years old and not even old enough to be drafted when I joined,” he said.
“We had old men and other guys who had one arm, one eye and even a guy with no legs. They couldn’t be drafted but we did our duty and served as proudly as anyone.”
The Royal Canadian Legion later changed its policy and even urged legislation that would recognize merchant navymen under the Veterans Charter.
Anderosov however never applied a fourth time. “They already said no,” he said.