Gene Barner, an Overland Park resident who served as a U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II, sat holding a fake gold medal a friend bought for him on Amazon.
He’s hoping that one day he’ll have a real Congressional Gold Medal to replace the plastic one.
Barner and fellow veterans of the U.S. Merchant Marines are trying to raise awareness of what they see as an oversight in recognizing their service. Barner said he and others plan to wear the fake medals when they visit Washington, D.C., to speak with congresspeople and senators.
“I know a lot of the old-timers, they could not understand why they put you in an organization where you’re fighting a war for your country and you’re making a valiant effort there to bring these wartime supplies to all of your countrymen that are Navy, Army, Marine Corps, all of those guys,” he said. “They were the ones that were really glorified. To me, we were not.”
The Merchant Mariners of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2019 was introduced in January in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Both bills call for giving the Congressional Gold Medal to the Merchant Mariners of World War II. These public servants carried arms and supplies to the front lines of combat and were often subjected to dangerous, life-threatening conditions. It’s estimated that anywhere from 5,000 to more than 8,000 Merchant Mariners died during World War II.
“We have few, but not many, mariners that have received the Congressional Gold Medal. And that gold medal, it carries a feeling that you’re tops of the line,” Barner said. “It would give us recognition from our government, we feel, that has been lacking ever since the war ended.”
Barner’s merchant missions at sea
Born in Cassville, Missouri, in 1925, Barner grew up in the Kansas City, Kan., area. He served as a U.S. Merchant Marine straight out of high school, from December 1943 until June 1946. Most of his maritime missions took place in the southwestern Pacific Ocean.
He later found himself lucky, even though he was part of the engine crew on his missions.
“I didn’t know what I was doing; I probably never would have picked that because our government didn’t tell us at that time that the Nazis were waiting off shores on the East Coast and the Gulf Coast, waiting for these ships to depart,” he said. “They were sinking them like crazy. Had I known they were sinking these ships… those submarines, when they picked up on a ship, they knew where the engines were on these things. When they hit one, it was get off of that thing in a quick hurry.
“They didn’t go after our big naval ships. They went after our ships carrying the supplies. They really went after our merchant ships, and they did a tremendous job at it, too.”
Most of his time at sea was in the southwest Pacific Ocean; he recalls seeing so many merchant ships out on the high seas, “half the thing blown away.” Luckily, he only got shot at one time, when his ship was stationed off shore on one of the Japanese islands of Okinawa. That was after the U.S. dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but Japanese fighters were still attacking merchant ships, he said. The Merchant Mariners had minimal arms training, and they often found themselves waiting to be attacked.
Barner recalled President Franklin D. Roosevelt shared his support for passage of the G.I. Bill and support for like benefits for Merchant Mariners.
“Roosevelt, he stated it: We were not actually military; we were just civilians doing the damn dangerous job that had to be done to bring all this fighting equipment to the battlefront for our soldiers,” he said.
After the war, he and his wife, Beverly Barner, got married. They had a son together and were married for 65 years before she died in 2011. Barner lives with their son and daughter-in-law in Overland Park.
‘They got left behind somehow’
Sheila Sova, the friend who bought the gold medals online for Barner, other maritime veterans and their descendants, said support for the Merchant Mariners is long overdue. More than four decades after World War II, the Merchant Mariners were legally recognized as veterans who could benefit from the G.I. Bill.
“They went 43 years without any benefits. They were POWs, they were kamikazed, they were torpedoed, but they got left behind somehow,” Sova said. She hopes to encourage others to contact their representatives and senators and ask for them to sign onto the two bills.
Sova said their group, American Merchant Marine Veterans Inc., also has the support of more than 100 maritime agencies, including major unions as well as the American Maritime Congress and fisheries. Barner has also befriended Cap. Richard Phillips and leaders of The Captain Phillips and Lane Kirkland Maritime Trust, another organization backing the support of the bills.
Sova said the Captain Phillips organization has suggested it would help raise funds to purchase the medals for the American Merchant Marine Veterans — if and when the Merchant Mariners win the Congressional Gold Medal. Each veteran who applies to receive it must purchase their own for $54 each because the Congressional Gold Medal is awarded collectively.
Barner, who is now 93 years old, can no longer benefit from some aspects of the G.I. Bill, like the low interest rates on a mortgage or college tuition assistance, but he would still like to have a Congressional Gold Medal, if possible.
Nonetheless, he wouldn’t call himself a hero. He would rather name his thousands of fellow Merchant Mariners who died at sea as the real heroes, the ones he reads about in wartime history books.
“I’m not a hero at all, just in a situation where I was extremely lucky and that’s all I can say about it,” he said. “Every night I go to bed, I’ll lay there with one of those books and I’ll read a very disturbing chapter and I’ll just lay there thinking what it must have been like for those guys. They knew what was going to happen to them.
“The ones at the bottom of those oceans, they are the heroes. I’ll read chapters in there until I think, God, how did these guys do these things? We did them too, but we came home.”