Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Murmansk Run

There are times when men and women become so engaged with the busyness of life and the struggles of survival that they miss the opportunity to make the all important connection with their Creator. So it was with my father who for so many years of his life, felt chased as it were by the Hound of Heaven, whose insistent feet that beat ever so close behind him throughout his days. Then came that moment in his twilight years when he finally relented and asked Jesus the Christ into his life and acknowledged how he had known that He had been there all along patiently waiting, following and upholding him throughout the trials and tribulations of his life. This is an overdue tribute to my father who was born on February 3rd, 1900 and who enjoyed a long and sometimes arduous life as a merchant seaman. 

As a young man he found employment at a shipyard as an electrician, eventually making it aboard an American freighter as an electrician’s mate. And thus he began a lifetime career in the U.S.Merchant Marine. He was a quiet and unassuming person, an ardent reader and self taught man who learned the skills of seamanship and he officially became a Boatswain’s Mate. The United States declared war on Germany December 11, 1941, and along with Great Britain and Russia was allied against Germany, America had begun shipping war materials under the lend-lease act to Great Britain and Russia. My father was a member of the crew on the American freighter Effingham which had joined a large convoy under escort by British warships in the Atlantic. Bound for Murmansk, Russia, the Effingham was torpedoed on March 30, 1942, by German U-Boats and sunk in the icy waters of the Barents Sea. The British had abandoned the convoy by order of Prime Minister Winston Churchill to pursue a German battleship thus leaving the convoy prey for German submarine wolf packs. The freighter Effingham lost twelve crew members. There were eighty-five other ships lost to German attacks and countless crew members lost en route to Murmansk. 

Careful and well-planned convoy protection was often disrupted by storms. From the 24th to 27th of March 1942, convoy PQ13 was scattered over 150 miles of ocean by a storm. Pack ice made matters even worse. In those four days of trouble off North Cape, five merchant ships were sunk by submarines and aircraft, the British cruiser Trinidad was damaged in a battle with German destroyers. On the 20th of March through the 3rd of April convoy PQ13 covered by the British Home Fleet and its escort, including cruiser "Trinidad" and destroyers "Eclipse" and "Fury,” were scattered by severe gales and heavily attacked. On the 29th three German destroyers encountered the escort north of Murmansk. Five of the 19 merchant ships including the freighter Effingham were lost, two to submarines, two to aircraft, and one by destroyers. Forty convoys, with a total of more than 800 ships, including 350 under the U.S. flag, started out on the run to Murmansk from 1941 through 1945. Ninety-seven of those ships were sunk by bombs, torpedoes, mines, and the fury of the elements. The Murmansk convoys were instrumental in keeping Russia in the war. They carried more than 22,000 aircraft, 375,000 trucks, 8,700 tractors, 51,500 jeeps, 1,900 locomotives, 343,700 tons of explosives, a million miles of field-telephone cable, plus millions of shoes, rifles, machine guns, auto tires, radio sets, and other equipment. The PQ 13 convoy to Russia consisted of 18 freighters, a Fleet Oiler, and 3 whalers.

My father was 42 years old when he abandoned ship, the Effingham was loaded with war material and “sank quickly.” He swam through the icy water and climbed aboard a lifeboat, wringing out his clothes he dressed and began to row. There was ice in the water, rowing produced body warmth that was essential to survival. He said many years later, “Once the ship had disappeared below the waves that a German U-Boat surfaced, the Commander apologized over a megaphone declaring that he had no room aboard for survivors.” He went on to say that the men from the engine room, unable to withstand the freezing cold fell asleep and soon froze to death, their bodies were jettisoned as the boat was dangerously overloaded. A few days afterward the survivors were picked up by the “Petrova,” a Russian patrol boat. The crew wrapped them in warm blankets and gave each of them a few ounces of vodka. Later the crew members gave up their own bunks to the survivors and slept on the deck. Upon arriving in Murmansk, they were rushed to a hospital and were treated for frost bite and exhaustion. Several men lost their feet to frostbite. My father said that the young men on the Petrova were fine fellows and that the Russians are generally fine people in spite of the political differences of governments. Following several weeks in the hospital he was found fit to be repatriated and boarded the British cruiser “Edinburgh” headed for Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands. The ship was part of convoy QP11 that departed Russia on the 28th of April, on the 30th the cruiser "Edinburgh" was torpedoed twice by a U-boat. My father said, “I saw the two torpedoes coming, they struck mid ship, I was able to climb off onto another vessel and continued on to Scapa Flow.” As she limped back to Russia yet again, three German destroyers attacked QP11, but only managed to sink a straggler. They found the cruiser on May 2nd. In a series of confused fights amidst snow showers and smokescreens, the "Edinburgh" disabled the "Hermann Schoemann" by gunfire, but was then torpedoed for a third time, both ships were scuttled by their crews and sank. Several decades later the wreck of the Edinburgh was located by a salvage company which was able to recover several billion dollars worth of Russian gold bars sent in exchange for war materials. Half of the treasure was returned to Russia. 

My father later became licensed to captain ships of all tonnage on all seas, after a long maritime career he passed away and went to be with God in whom he placed his trust on October 3rd, 1993.

Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6)

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