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Arctic convoy to Murmansk: Danger and sacrifice on the high seas

Feb 27, 2019 02:14 PM
Homeward bound after a supply voyage to Murmansk, a Liberty ship in convoy RA64 sails through heavy swells in the Arctic Ocean in February 1945.

Courtesy United Kingdom Government/Imperial War Museums

Homeward bound after a supply voyage to Murmansk, a Liberty ship in convoy RA64 sails through heavy swells in the Arctic Ocean in February 1945.

We read a lot in this magazine and other industry journals about new technology that, perhaps, will lead to automated vessels and reduced crew sizes as the technology takes the place of seafarers. We are no more capable of stopping the future than sail could stop steam. All we can do is adjust and adapt the new skills required to do the old job.

I was mentally wrestling with the future of maritime and mariners one day when I was reminded of the past. I have the honor of working with Capt. Hugh Stephens, a merchant marine veteran of World War II. Sometimes during lunch breaks and other non-working moments, he’ll tell us of his adventures as a seaman on North Atlantic convoys through Arctic waters to Murmansk and the very dangerous Mediterranean. None of these remembrances come out as bravado, they just pop up as an aside in a conversation. It’s easy to push these memories aside — after all, the events were so long ago in a world that barely resembles today. But if you think about it, it was a time of conflict, of great changes to the world order, of war. Pick up any newspaper or click any news page, and perhaps the world and the people in it haven’t changed all that much.

As mariners today, we might wonder about our future or the future of our business, but at least no one is trying actively to sink us while we ponder. To put things in perspective, one source says that one in 26 merchant mariners were killed, captured or died of wounds while serving in World War II. Only the U.S. Marine Corps comes close to that. Any of those men might have stayed ashore, but they chose to serve. Veteran status wasn’t granted to these seamen until 1988, over 40 years after the war ended and well after most had passed away. Going to sea is dangerous any time; going to sea in World War II was deadly.

Below is a conversation with Capt. Stephens. When you start to think how tough your last hitch was, you might consider his experience as a young seaman.

Capt. Hugh Stephens was a merchant mariner in the convoys during World War II. He is now a lecturer at SUNY Maritime College.

Anthony Palmiotti photo

Capt. Stephens, it’s 1943 and you are 19 years old. What brought you to the merchant marine?
My mother was very anxious that I not become cannon fodder. My father had been in World War I and only nearly escaped with his life. My mother had heard a lot of war stories from him, so she was bound and determined that she was going to try to protect her son.

In World War II, we were drafted in our high school homerooms. Our homeroom teachers stood there and cried. My mother spoke to an uncle of mine who had a friend who was a chief mate on a merchant freighter. My uncle told my mother that the merchant marine was a nice, safe, civilian job, and that I would be safe from the draft. My mother volunteered me for training with the Maritime Service in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, N.Y.

My training at Sheepshead Bay was very well handled by a combination of the Navy, the Sea Scouts and some older merchant officers. We finished in 90 days and I was shipped down to Philadelphia to wait for a ship. We all had to join a union. We would form two lines as we came out of Sheepshead Bay, and a man stood there saying “SIU, NMU, SIU, NMU.” 

After finishing your initial training, what was it like to join your first ship? What was life like on board?
I was sent to the non-union ship SS Henry Middleton, and it was a terrible shock because it had representatives who were aboard from three unions and the owners, each one trying to discredit the other, none of them knowing each other — and the rest of us in the crew not knowing who was fomenting all of the agitation. All of that was on top of suddenly being in a 100-ship convoy, something I could never conceive of. The first night we were blacked out, and destroyer escorts were dropping depth charges around the perimeter of the convoy every 15 seconds. Try to imagine what it sounds like being inside a metal room with explosive charges in the water going off that frequently — they reverberated throughout the ship and the whole ship just shook. In the engine room it was even worse. I thought to myself, “What in the hell have I gotten into, what is this?” But I was bound and determined, based upon the way my mother raised me, that whatever happens you face it, you put your best foot forward, you try not to worry and you do whatever it is you’re supposed to do.

"We had no idea what we were experiencing because we had nothing to compare it to. The older seamen aboard were scared to death, but the young guys didn’t know any better."

Learning actual deck work was laborious. We had a Finnish-American bosun in his 50s — very, very strict. His English wasn’t so good, so the few words he knew came out very forcibly and very caustically. We had 10 booms to take care of, including a 50-ton jumbo and a 30-ton jumbo. There were three tarps on each hatch, followed by wooden wedges driving steel battens in place. Fortunately we didn’t have to lay the cargo hatches ourselves, since there were 500 of them on every Liberty ship. Once in a while we did have to do that work.

There was gear and lines and stuff everywhere, and it was backbreaking and laborious. The bosun drove us. One night it was my turn to steer. I thought I knew how from my training, but the one thing they hadn’t taught me was that the ship turned around the compass. I thought the compass turned, so that was a great surprise. Of course, I turned the wheel the wrong way and got a tongue lashing from the mate. I quickly became a very good helmsman.

Capt. Hugh Stephens, left, chips ice on a Liberty ship with an unidentified crewman during World War II.

Courtesy Capt. Hugh Stephens

You had to learn how to live with other guys in a very small forecastle, four to a room. Depending on who your roommates were, it could be miserable or comfortable. I was in a room with another young man my age and a 33-year-old former grocery store manager. This man must have had his wife or his mom pick up after him his whole life. When he took his stuff off, he just threw it on my bunk thinking I would take the place of his wife and put it away. I set him straight right away.

The other fellow in my room was a youngster, only 17, and he wanted to fight, physically fight, over subjects that could be easily discussed. I did wind up getting into a fistfight with him, the only fight I ever had in my life on a ship. Fortunately, I had taken some boxing and street-fighting lessons. We settled that problem.

Back in the house, meanwhile, the engineers slept on the port side, the deck people on the starboard side. Somebody in the engine room was coming over during blackouts at night and opening the blackout curtains on the starboard side of the ship, so we would be torpedoed on the starboard side rather than on port side. Rather pointless!

Each Liberty ship had 10 guns: eight 20-millimeter anti-aircraft guns, a 5-inch 38 on the stern and a 3-inch 50 in the bow. The Navy armed guard aboard shot them, cleaned them and maintained them. The merchant crew were loaders if we chose to volunteer, but we didn’t have to. All of the younger guys, not knowing any better, volunteered. Several of the older men, knowing how dangerous this was, wouldn’t volunteer at all.

When we were attacked, some men would just lie in their bunks with their man-overboard suits on and fret and worry. The rest of us dashed out when the general alarm rang. That took a degree of courage, because you had to run to the stern or run forward to your gun, and it was 200 feet either way on an open deck. We used to zigzag up the deck to dodge the bullets coming from the planes that would dive on us and spray us.

We had canvas tarps on the holds. The Germans used to always make their first attacks with incendiary bullets to set the cargo hatches on fire. As we broke out fire hoses, they would then come down with live ammunition and try to get us. If one were to think too much upon all of this, on what might happen to you, you would just get all serious and depressed and worry yourself to death. So I did what my mother taught me. I compartmentalized each of these fears, put it in a little box, closed that door, and didn’t open that door until you had faced that particular problem. That helped a lot in maintaining equanimity. I also learned to do nothing in my bunk but sleep. Don’t think in bed — go right to sleep, say a mantra to yourself to block out racing thoughts. Keep yourself calm that way. That was a big help.

Stephens holds his ship’s mascot puppy while at anchor in the Kola River at the entrance to Murmansk. “We couldn’t have cameras during the war, so (photos) had to be taken surreptitiously,” he says.

Courtesy Capt. Hugh Stephens

You sailed as part of Arctic convoys JW63 going eastbound and RA64 westbound. What ship were you on?
The winter Arctic convoys. Fortunately, I was able to make two trips to sea before I had to make the Murmansk run. We formed a 30-ship convoy in Scotland in preparation for our run over the top into Norway. Making the northern approach to Murmansk, we also made a secondary run to Archangel. The Gulf Stream flows northeasterly across the North Atlantic, then goes up and over the top of Norway and Russia and winds up going down the Kola River into Murmansk so that it’s ice-free all year. This route put us behind the German lines, which only got as far east as Stalingrad, I believe. There they bogged down, stopped by both the Russian resistance and the terrible Russian winter.

At any rate, the Allies provided armor, food, railroad engines, planes — just about anything. They would load left-handed boots on one ship and right-handed boots on another so they wouldn’t be stolen. Pairs were put together after they got ashore.

What was Murmansk like?
When we arrived at the entrance to the Kola, I saw my first Russian female officer. She was a captain. I thought to myself, “My goodness, a woman captain, how can that be?” She looked hale and hearty and waved to us as we went by. She looked like she could throw any of us over her shoulder.

There was only 20 minutes of daylight. At night, the moon made four dips in the sky — it just went around and around. The Nazis bombed us every night at the docks. Thank goodness for the blackout that the Russians had imposed. The planes had a hard time hitting us and my ship didn’t get a scratch. One or two ships were damaged but not sunk.

The Russians had a seamen’s club for us in Murmansk, but to be able to see a movie or dance with the lady hostesses, we had to sit through an hour-long indoctrination in communism each night. This was very difficult to take, but we just sat there and gritted our teeth.

"We had canvas tarps on the holds. The Germans used to always make their first attacks with incendiary bullets to set the cargo hatches on fire."

These were winter convoys, and the North Atlantic and Arctic are infamous for their bad weather. How did you and your shipmates deal with the weather and darkness?
It was dark all the time and foggy. The younger guys were apprehensive, but we had this very unusual Norwegian-American captain who was able to put us at ease with his apparent nonchalance. He always seemed to be calm. He would say, “No problem, we got it made, guys. This isn’t so bad, guys, look at the advantage of this fog, we are going to get there without any problems.” Of course, as young men we didn’t know the difference. We had tremendous confidence in him.

While we were in Murmansk, the British discovered that the Germans were on their way to annihilate the entire population of a Norwegian island, 400 to 500 people, they were just going to kill them all. Norwegian patriots on the island had a radio and were sending information to the Allies.

As I said, the British found out about it and raced their destroyers there first. They picked up some 200 refugees off the island, then raced them back to Murmansk and put them on our ships to go back to Britain. They chose our ship to put all of the women and children aboard, and then they put us in the center of the convoy with two baby aircraft carriers to provide as much protection as they could.

On the way back, we formed our convoy at the entrance to the Kola River. As we were forming up, our ship was a little slow getting in position. A little British corvette, Blue Belle, came alongside us and someone began yelling at our captain with a bullhorn. Right in the middle of this tirade, a torpedo meant for us hit the frigate and she blew sky-high. Her topsides were still raining down out of the sky as she sank in front of me. Only one or two men survived out of several hundred sailors on board.

Merchant ships in convoy JW53 pass through pack ice during a voyage to Murmansk in February 1943. An escort destroyer can be seen in the background.

Courtesy United Kingdom Government/Imperial War Museums

On the way back, we encountered some unbelievably bad weather. For three nights in a row, the wind rose to 125 mph. We knew this because the aircraft carriers’ anemometers blew off at 125 mph and broke. We estimated the seas were 100 feet high. I watched two Liberty ships, each 425 feet long, as one went down one side of a swell while the other was going up the other side. You can only imagine. As we slid down a swell, the ship would hit the bottom of the trough and the entire ship, including the stack, would just shake.

We were steering from the flying bridge because the captain could line up and control the ship better from there. It was bitterly cold, yet he had us all calm because he just marched back and forth on the bridge humming Norwegian folk tunes. We had no idea what we were experiencing because we had nothing to compare it to. The older seamen aboard were scared to death, but the young guys didn’t know any better.

The bad weather would scatter many of the ships on the fringe of the convoy. The weakest part of the Liberty ship was the steering engine. If the captain of your ship didn’t know to rig relieving tackle on the quadrant, as my captain did, the steering would break down and they would fall out of the convoy. German planes would attack and sink them as they fell out of position. Five of our ships were in that predicament and were sunk. As they sank, the women and children refugees on our ship would stand on deck and cry because they didn’t know which ship their husbands, fathers or brothers were on. Each time a ship went down, they assumed that it was their relatives going down. It was a pretty pathetic scene to have to watch. We tried to calm down the children and give them candy, but because their mothers or sisters were so distraught, the little ones could not be calmed. Everybody among the refugee passengers cried. That was hard to take.

"We estimated the seas were 100 feet high. I watched two Liberty ships, each 425 feet long, as one went down one side of a swell while the other was going up the other side."

If the weather was moderate enough in between gales, our smaller escorts, especially the corvettes, would dash in and out in between the lanes. They were pinging, as they called it, using their sound equipment to detect any submarines that might have managed to get underneath us. They were very successful with that, because we never had a submarine under us. And submarines couldn’t operate in the heavy weather either.

Capt. Anthony Palmiotti is the chairman of marine transportation at SUNY Maritime College in Throggs Neck, N.Y., where he teaches navigation and sails on the college’s training ship each summer. Capt. Hugh Stephens started as an ordinary seaman during World War II and finished the war with his unlimited third mate’s license. He has had a long and successful career in the maritime industry. He currently is a lecturer at SUNY Maritime College.

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