VANCOUVER, Wash. — In 1944 Julian Thorne Hilts' older brother had just joined the Navy. Thorne, as he's known by, wanted to help fight alongside the men fighting for his country during World War II, but he was only 16 years old.
"So I told my folks, 'I'm going too,' but they wouldn't take me," Hilts said from his living room. "My dad found out that the Army Transportation Corps would take you at 16."
The Army Transportation Corps was tasked with transporting goods, munitions and troops among other items to support in the war effort. Oftentimes, the boats were under attack by the enemy.
Service members served alongside civilian mariners like Hilts. They are known as the Merchant Marine and Hilts served in the South Pacific.
"It was a tanker. It was a supply ship, we carried munitions, fuel for the Navy fleet that operated out of the Aleutian Islands," Hilts said.
An estimated 250,000 men and women served in the Merchant Marine. Between 1939 and 1945, more than 9,500 merchant crewmen lost their lives. According to the National World War II Museum, that's a higher proportion than those killed in any other military branch.
Merchant mariners had supported America during previous wars, although they were never considered veterans. World War II was no different. Hilts said those that lost their life during the war deserved to be recognized.
"That's something that upset quite a few people," Hilts said. "There was no recognition of that, and as the Germans were sinking the ships, we lost those people."
In 1988, a new law granted those mariners that served during World War II the ability to collect veterans benefits, recognition that took more than 40 years after the war ended to happen.
"When you had a group meeting or something like that and they asked all the veterans to stand up, we knew we were veterans, but prior to that we couldn't say that," Hilts said.
In 2020, Congress passed the Merchant Mariners of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act to recognize the merchant mariners for their courage and contributions during the war. It's the highest honor given by congress to a civilian.
"It made me a little humble," Hilts said, holding his medal that he now displays in his living room.
He said it means validation for serving his country nearly 80 years ago. He choked up when thought about the men and women that lost their lives and would never get to hold their medal like he does.
"We had a great loss one time," Hilts said. "We had 30 ships in convoy in Iceland going to Russia. The Germans sunk all but 11 of them."
Of the nearly 250,000 that served in the Merchant Marine, there's believed to be less than 12,000 still alive today.
To find out the eligibility requirements to receive a medal, click here.