Published February 19. 2013 4:00AM
Old Saybrook - Over the years Earl Maxfield Jr. has been asked many times if he's a veteran.
Waitresses at restaurants and ticket sellers at movie theaters ask because they give discounts to veterans. Other people ask because they see him wearing a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy cap and they want to thank him for his service.
Maxfield, who is 84, always said, "No, I'm not a veteran. I did not have that privilege."
Now he shyly says, "Yes."
For decades Maxfield and others were not considered war veterans because they served in the U.S. Merchant Marine along the East Coast during World War II, and not in more dangerous waters. They never received the education benefits, health care and low-interest loans that other veterans benefited from under the GI Bill.
But that has all changed now that a court has ruled that these merchant mariners are veterans, and one merchant marine veteran is helping the others apply to be officially recognized.
Maxfield, who lives in Old Saybrook, was only 15 years old when he went to work as a deckhand on a schooner-barge that was carrying crude oil from New York to Boston during World War II.
So many men were fighting overseas at the time, there weren't enough at home to operate the tugs and barges that were carrying supplies for the war effort between U.S. ports. Earl Maxfield Sr. was a tugboat captain, as his father-in-law had been during World War I.
Maxfield said he eagerly accepted a job offer from his father - it was his chance for an adventure. Back in his hometown of New Dorp on Staten Island, his friends would spend the summer stocking shelves and mowing lawns.
"I was willing, I was able and I was available," he said.
Thousands of teenagers who were too young to be drafted, men who were too old or physically unfit, and some women, served in the Merchant Marine during the war.
In 1944, Maxfield, who had just finished his sophomore year in high school, made 11 trips from Linden, N.J., to East Braintree, Mass., on the schooner-barge Juniata. Many of the barges carrying cargo for the war were wooden-hulled ships, retired after World War I because they were not fit to go overseas. But German U-boats were sinking so many vessels that they were reactivated and towed between ports.
In his junior year, Maxfield made a trip on the Juniata during his Easter vacation and narrowly escaped crossing paths with a German U-boat.
Maxfield recalled that the SS Black Point passed his barge and sped ahead en route to Boston with a shipment of coal. The next day, May 5, 1945, the Coast Guard ordered the Juniata to turn in to New London because a U-boat was spotted off Fishers Island.
Around the time they were anchoring in New London, the U-boat torpedoed the Black Point.
"I didn't go to war," Maxfield said, "but I was exposed to it."
Two days later, Germany surrendered. Maxfield returned to high school.
He went on to graduate from the Merchant Marine Academy and spent 60 years as a tugboat captain and pilot. When he wasn't working on a boat, he vacationed on one. He and his wife of nearly 63 years, Viola, have been on 17 cruises to every continent except Australia.
Maxfield is one of only five academy graduates who have been recognized with a Golden Mariner Award for spending a half century at sea. His only job on shore was a brief stint working on the USS Tullibee at Electric Boat.
Unbeknownst to him, many years after the war three merchant mariners sued the Secretary of the Air Force for denying veteran status to the merchant mariners of World War II while granting it to other groups.
A federal court in Washington, D.C., said in 1988 that merchant mariners who could prove they served in the war are veterans and are entitled to veterans' benefits.
But many of the merchant mariners didn't keep their documents or were never issued them in the first place, said J. Don Horton, a merchant marine veteran who is president of WWII Coastwise Merchant Mariners. Others don't know that the policy changed, he added.
Horton, who is trying to find these veterans, is lobbying for a bill that would allow alternative records to be used for veteran status applications by individuals who served in the Merchant Marine during the Second World War. The WWII Merchant Mariners Service Act was not voted on in the House last year. Horton said he expects it to be reintroduced this year.
Between 10,000 and 30,000 people served on barges and tugs along the coast, Horton said, but only a few hundred are alive today.
Maxfield had never heard of the court case until he read a newspaper article in the fall about Horton and called him in North Carolina.
Fortunately the captain of the Juniata had signed a seaman's discharge for Maxfield and Maxfield kept it all these years. He also had a form letter from President Truman thanking him for serving, and the Atlantic War Zone Medal and the Victory Medal he was awarded in 1949.
With tears in his eyes, Maxfield said he was officially recognized as a veteran in November 2012.
"It's the aura, I guess, of being a veteran," he said, explaining why he was emotional.
Maxfield served in the Navy Reserve but he was never called up during wartime.
Maxfield said he's not a veteran like his two brothers-in-law and his cousins who served in the Army and Navy under fire during World War II.
"I can't put myself in that class," he said.
He may want a veteran's gravestone and he's looking into the medical benefits for veterans. But he said he has insurance already and he purchased a plot in a cemetery in Old Saybrook. Maxfield said it's just nice to be recognized as a veteran.
"That's the part I like the best," he said.
Being a veteran in this country, Maxfield said, "is an honor and a privilege."
Horton and Maxfield are trying to find others who served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II and help them apply for their veteran status. Horton can be reached at email@example.com or 104 Riverview Ave., Camden, N.C. 27921. Maxfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 12 South View Terrace, Old Saybrook, CT 06475.