The Merchant Marine was an integral part of the U.S. effort in World War II.
But, it was not a highly regarded at the time.
Those who served in it were not considered part of the armed forces, Mariner Tony Tomassoni said. They did not receive veteran status when they came home.
During the war, public perception was of draft dodgers and greedy men who took advantage of the war effort to bring home exceptional pay. There was a kernel of truth to that last statement - merchant mariners earned higher wages than their counterparts in the Navy. However, they received little in the way of benefits and their pay depended on them being on ships to the extent that they were not paid if they were injured, or even for time spent in life rafts if their ship was shot out from under them. Those who were rescued could be returned to port in England, France, Russia... with no money to pay to get back to the United States to find a new ship.
If they didn't work for 30 consecutive days, they could be drafted. In fact, that happened to Tomassoni. After he left the Merchant Marine "because of ear trouble"- he was drafted into the U.S. Navy. He was only part of the Navy for six weeks before the war ended.
Overseas, many communities were overjoyed to see the Merchant Marine. Mariners would sometimes sneak chickens off of their boats to share with residents, Tomassoni said. "Nobody had meat."
When Tomassoni returned home, he was welcomed by the community, for which he is grateful. "I want to thank the people of Warren for how good they treated us when we got home," he said.
For many mariners, though, the reception at home was a negative one.
"We were called civilians," Tomassoni said. "Nobody cared for us."
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was an exception.
"Mariners have written one of its most brilliant chapters," Roosevelt said. "They have delivered the goods when and where needed in every theater of operations and across every ocean in the biggest, the most difficult and dangerous job ever undertaken."
He established the U.S. Maritime Service and ordered the mass production of cargo ships.
Between 1941 and 1945, U.S. shipyards turned out more than 2,700 Liberty Ships, all based on the same design. Those, and more than 500 of the larger Victory Ships, comprised the bulk of the Merchant Marine fleet.
Tomassoni served on several Liberty Ships including the S.S. William Windom, S.S. Eugene T. Chamberlain, and S.S. Wagon Box, as well as the tanker S.S. Beta.
Roosevelt's support notwithstanding, the Merchant Marine was not recognized as a branch of the armed forces until 1988.
It took even longer for Tomassoni to receive his honorable discharge papers from the Coast Guard. Those arrived in 2007 - 62 years after he served.