Orville Sova, 88, spent the last years of his life waiting for the U.S. Congress to recognize fully the role the U.S. Merchant Marine played in the Allies’ victory in World War II.
Sova, of Collinsville, had served with the civilian-run cargo arm of the American war effort. He died Nov. 6.
Now, Sova’s daughter has picked up where her father has left off. Sheila Sova, of Glen Carbon, is waging a one-woman campaign to get metro-east city and village governments to put up on their war monuments plaques honoring the contributions of America’s merchant seamen, whose efforts, according to historians, were essential to winning the war.
“People need to recognize the vital role and sacrifice that the Merchant Marine gave to keep our country free,” Sheila Sova said.
Sova’s efforts to promote the recognition of the Merchant Marine could soon bear fruit, at least as far as the Glen Carbon Veterans Memorial.
The village public service committee is set to hold a meeting Tuesday evening to begin discussions on whether to include the Merchant Marine on one of the monument’s memorial stones, according to Jamie Bowden, the village administrator.
“They’re probably going to discuss the issue, take it under advisement, then come back,” Bowden said. “This is not going to happen probably within two meetings, is my guess.”
Bowden said he did not know enough about the issues involved to determine where he stands. That’s why he wants the panel members to go over it.
Orville Sova, who spoke to the News-Democrat for a story in August, acknowledged during the interview that he still felt unfairly slighted by the federal government’s failure to provide Merchant Marine veterans with the cornucopia of benefits and recognition that a grateful nation showered on veterans of uniformed branches of the U.S. military.
“Every merchant seaman you see floating around today has this fire in their belly because we didn’t get recognition,” Sova said.
That is why Sova and his daughter had decided to team up with the dwindling pool of Merchant Marine World War II veterans and their children and grandchildren to take one last shot at getting the recognition from their government they believe they deserve.
The Sovas, father and daughter, had already teamed up to push for a bill introduced in the U.S. House called H.R. 563, which, if enacted, would provide a one-time lump sum of $25,000 to each remaining eligible Merchant Marine veteran of World War II, a population estimated to number less than 2,000 veterans.
For reasons that still remain unclear, merchant seamen spent decades seeking many of the benefits and privileges that other veterans automatically received in the wake of World War II, such as educational assistance under the GI Bill and federally subsidized home loans.
The merchant seamen finally won basic veterans benefits —such as the right to be buried in a military cemetery — in 1988 after a court battle.
As the last World War II veterans quietly succumb to illness and old age, Merchant Marine veterans are waging a final struggle: to see their sacrifices and heroism collectively recalled on local war monuments. In doing so, they are raising questions that remain controversial more than seven decades after the end of War World II.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars, which sponsors and advises on military monuments across Illinois and the nation, still refuses to recognize the Merchant Marine as one of the branches of the military that fought in World War II. As a result, Merchant Marine veterans may not join the VFW, according to Terry Vance, state adjutant/quartermaster for the Illinois VFW.
“It’s kind of a touchy issue,” Vance said. “And I understand that. I applaud their service, don’t get me wrong.”
But there’s another consideration to keep in mind, according to Vance.
“Memorials are built for the warriors,” he said. “So people need to understand that it’s warriors that we’re remembering, not necessarily the wars.”
In contrast, the National World War II Memorial, in Washington, D.C., honored the Merchant Marine when the monument was dedicated in May 2004.
Merchant Marine bronze emblems are at the base of two flag poles at the entrance to the national memorial, alongside emblems of the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, and the U.S. Army Air Force.
What’s more, a plaque recognizing the Merchant Marine is prominently displayed at the World War II Illinois Veterans Memorial in Springfield.
John Goetz, the Illinois memorial’s vice-president, said it is important to recognize the contributions of the Merchant Marine, as well as members of the armed services who fought in World War II. That’s because the American generation that fought in World War II — a cohort that at one point numbered 16 million men and women —is dying off rapidly, at the rate of nearly 500 veterans per day.
“They wanted to recapture the four years they lost. They wanted to be productive,” Goetz said. “The wanted to have their families. They wanted to enjoy the American Dream. They didn’t want to talk about the war and what they saw and what they had to go through.”
But with so many veterans dying off , “they finally said, ‘We need to have this preserved. We need to have this preserved,’” Goetz said. “If you don’t pay attention to history you’re bound to repeat it.”
Gregory P. Williams, the executive director of the U.S. Merchant Marine Veterans World War II, has spent much of his life trying to educate the American public on the importance of the Merchant Marine’s role during the war and the staggering losses these sailors suffered for their country, especially in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941.
During the first three months of 1942, more than 400 American cargo ships attempting to cross the Atlantic Ocean were sunk by German submarines waiting off the East Coast, a fact that was kept secret from the American public on orders from President Franklin Roosevelt, according to Williams.
“Because back home men, women and children literally were working in factories 10, 12, 14 hours per day making bullets and guns, sewing uniforms, making tanks and Jeeps,” Williams said. “If all those people knew that 33 merchant ships were being sunk each and every week in World War II, it would have had a huge, devastating effect on the morale of the industrial manufacturing.”
In terms of per capita losses, the Merchant Marine suffered worse than the armed services. About 243,000 men served in the Merchant Marine, which lost 9,500 to submarine attacks, ship wrecks and other causes, for a death rate of 3.9 percent or 1 in 26, according to the website www.usmm.org.
This compares to the Marine Corps, which lost nearly 20,000, for a death rate of 2.9 percent, or 1 in 34; the U.S. Army, which lost nearly 235,000 troops, for a death rate of 1 in 48; and the U.S. Navy, which lost about 37,000 sailors, for a death rate of 1 in 114.
Seven decades after the end of World War II, Sova told the News-Democrat back in August that the lack of popular recognition and benefits for his wartime service still rankled him.
“We should’ve got it,” he said.
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