Editor’s note: This is the seventh installment from a 1951 booklet titled “The Seafarers in World War II.” Penned by the late SIU historian John Bunker, the publication recapped SIU members’service in the War. More than 1,200 SIU members lost their lives to wartime service in the U.S. Merchant Marine. Earlier segments are available on the SIU website and in print beginning with the May 2020 edition of the LOG. (We are tentatively planning to post a PDF of the entire booklet on the SIU website once all of the text has been published here.) This one picks up as Bunker describes the infamous Convoy PQ-17. The first few paragraphs also appeared in the October LOG but are included here for continuity.
One of the most dramatic and yet tragic episodes of the war at sea involved Convoy PQ-17, better known as among SIU seamen as the “Fourth of July” Convoy to north Russia.
Seamen of the Seafarers International Union and its affiliate, the Sailors Union of the Pacific, have very personal interest in this convoy, because they manned most of the 20 American freighters in the 33-ship fleet.
PQ-17 was heavily protected when it left Reykjavik on June 27, 1942. For convoy patrol and defense there was a heavy task force consisting of destroyers, sloops, corvettes, two “ack ack” ships, several armed trawlers, three rescue vessels and two British submarines that hoped for a chance to torpedo any big German men o’ war that might be lured out to attack the fleet.
Heavy escorts included the cruisers HMS London, HMS Norfolk, USS Wichita, and USS Tuscaloosa.
Covering the convoy’s flank about 100 miles to the east was another battle fleet, numbering the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious, British battleship Duke of York, USS Washington (battleship), several cruisers and numerous destroyers.
Soon after leaving Iceland, PQ-17 was spotted by a Nazi Blohm and Voss patrol plane that kept a constant vigil over the convoy’s course, directing subs and planes to the attack.
In the early morning of July 4, a doughty Heinkel defied the escort, darted through a bank of mist, and torpedoed the Liberty ship Christopher Newport (Calmar) with its 9,000 tons of war supplies.
That afternoon a flight of 25 torpedo-carrying Heinkels attacked from astern and braved a hail of anti-aircraft fire to sink the freighters Navarino (Br.) and William Hooper (Am.) and hit the Russian tanker Azerbaidjan, which, however, did not sink and rejoined the fleet. Another “tin fish” missed the SIU-manned Bellingham by a few feet.
Gordon Small, seaman on the Ironclad, recounts how the bombers plowed right up through the convoy lanes against terrific fire, losing their torpedoes and firing at the ships with their machine guns.
A plane passed so close to the Ironclad they could see the face of the pilot and the gunner. Bullets from the old Browning .50s on the Ironclad seemed to bounce off the bombers like hail on a tin roof.
This was dramatic and costly evidence that the Germans intended to stop Convoy PQ-17 from delivering its 188,000 tons of freight to the Russians. But, despite the warning, the convoy commodore signaled this message to his merchantmen at 8:30 on the evening of July 4:
“Scatter fanwise and proceed independently to destination at utmost speed.”
Three ships had already been lost despite the heavy naval escort. Now the merchantmen were to be left “on their own” with no more than .30- and .50-caliber machine guns and a few three-inch guns for defense!
The order had come from London. Only the armed trawlers, several corvettes and the three rescue ships were left with the freighters and they hurried off independently at top speed.
When the cruisers and destroyers dashed away the Bellingham was close behind the little rescue ship Rathlin. Not intending to be completely deserted if he could help it, Captain Mortenson told Chief Engineer Saltsman to “give us every bit of steam you can squeeze out of those boilers.” The watch below really produced, and the Bellingham stuck right on the tail of the annoyed Rathlin despite its repeated signals to “get away.”
The Bellingham turned up 14 knots in its hour of desperate need and made it safely into Archangel after numerous adventures, still in company with the rescue ship.
When the convoy scattered, the old Ironclad was alongside the Panamanian freighter Troubador, which trailed a continual column of heavy smoke from her coal-burning fires, and near the Silver Sword.
The little British armed trawler Ayershire steamed up and said, bravely enough, that she would “convoy” them to Nova Zembla. The only escort ship with “guts” enough to stay by the deserted merchantmen was this one-time fisherman.
Under escort of the doughty Ayershire, the Silver Sword and Ironclad spent three days in heavy pack ice, which protected them from subs; arrived safely in Nova Zembla and, later, made it through to Russia.
First ship to go down after the convoy scattered was the SS Carlton, torpedoed in the deep tanks. Her survivors were picked up by a German seaplane and submarine and others rowed to the coast of Norway. After being taken prisoner, they also survived the torpedoing of a German prisoner-of- war transport.
Next to get it was the Matson Company’s SUP-manned Honomu. She went down in 10 minutes with 19 of her crew.
Heavy Ship Toll
Soon after, the SIU-manned Pan Kraft was attacked by three Junkers 88s and set afire, her 5,000 tons of bombers and airplane parts lost amid the mists of the icy Arctic.
In succession went the British freighters Empire Byron, Earlston, and River Afton. A gift for Hitler they were! Unescorted and lightly armed merchantmen against powerful bombers and U-boats!
The American freighter Peter Kerr gallantly fought off 7 torpedo planes with four machine guns, but the unequal contest was soon ended and this brave ship also went to the bottom.
About the same time the SS Washington edged along an ice pack in company with the Bolton Castle (Br.) and the Paulus Potter (Dutch). Nine Junkers dive bombers attacked, blowing up the Bolton Castle and sinking the Washington after many near misses had caused her to leak like a sieve. Later, they got the Paulus Potter, too.
The SS Olopana (another Matson, SUP ship) hove by and offered to pick up the Washington survivors, who were pulling toward Nova Zembla amid gusts of snow and big chunks of drift ice. “No,” they shouted. “You’ll only get sunk, too.” And sunk the Olopana was – only a few hours later.
Survivors from these ships then pulled through freezing weather to the mountainous coasts of bleak Nova Zembla where, after “celebrating” over a feast of duck and sea gull soup, they were picked up by the SS Empire Tide and other assorted vessels that had made it there to take shelter under the cliffs.
An epic fight against overwhelming odds, meanwhile was waged by the SIU-manned Pan Atlantic, a Waterman ship which had an armament of four .50 caliber machine guns.
“Nineteen of the merchant crew and seven Navy gunners were killed while defending this ship,” says the official Navy report about the Pan Atlantic.
They stuck by their guns even while a Junkers dropped its lethal load on them from a height of only 4,000 feet – safe beyond machine gun fire.
The bombs exploded in the cargo, knocked the foremast on top of the wheelhouse, and severed the ship completely just forward of the bridge. She filled and quickly sank with a very valuable cargo of oil stills, aluminum, nickel, food, tanks and cordite.
Shortly after the Pan Atlantic went down, a sub torpedoed the SIU-manned Alcoa Ranger and the Hartlebury (Br.), many of whose crew froze to death trying to reach Nova Zembla.
The Liberty ship Daniel Morgan shot down two dive bombers before a sub got her. It took three torpedoes to sink the Liberty Ship John Witherspoon, whose men were picked up after a daring decision by Captain John Thevik of the SS El Capitan (Pan.), to stop his ship for the rescue, even though a sub was close behind at the time.
By the 7th of July, Convoy PQ-17 had lost 18 ships. Almost 100,000 tons of war cargoes had been sent to the bottom of the Arctic and the Barents Sea, to be lost forever.
It was on the 7th, incidentally, that the plucky Bellingham was hit by a torpedo which did not explode, although the concussion blew out the lights and knocked the watch off their feet.
The SIU-manned Ironclad of the Waterman Company, the Troubador and the Silver Sword and the trawler Ayrshire ran into thick pack ice, then hit on the happy idea of painting their hulls white and covering as much as the topsiders as possible with sheets and blankets.
This camouflage helped them to evade attack in getting to Nova Zembla and, finally, to the White Sea.
Several other freighters of the convoy made it safely to Nova Zembla, where they joined some escort vessels to steam the last lap without further loss, arriving in Archangel July 25.
Another segment of the ill-fated fleet had made the dash from Nova Zembla toward Cape Kanin on July 7, accompanied by corvettes and armed trawlers.
Included were the freighters Hoosier, Ocean Freedom (Br.), Benjamin Harrison (Calmar) and El Capitan (Pan.). They were later joined by the Liberty ship Samuel Chase (SUP).
The Hoosier and El Capitan were sunk short of their destination in violent air attacks, and the Samuel Chase made it in only after a raging fight in which bombs snapped all the steam lines to the main engine and auxiliaries, and the fighting ship was taken in tow by a corvette, her guns still barking defiance to the Nazi bombers.
Only eleven ships out of PQ-17 made it through to Russia; among them being the American ships Ironclad, Samuel Chase, Benjamin Harrison (all SIU), Silver Sword, Winston Salem, Bellingham (SIU) and Troubador.
They had survived by pitting courage and determination against great odds in one of the most bitterly fought battles of World War II.
Freighters At The Front
Oran, Casablanca, Avola, Gela, Salerno, Anzio, Guadalcanal, Normandy, Leyte, Okinawa… Memorable places these, stepping stones on the long road to victory – the invasion points where the tide of battle finally turned and then, surging forward on the flood, engulfed the Axis in a deluge of men and materiel as the Allies marched inexorably toward Rome, Berlin and Tokyo. SIU ships made these and other beachheads along with the assault troops and the landing craft, and the names of the far-flung battle shores became as familiar to Seafarers as the names of towns back in New York, Indiana, Nebraska or Texas.
One of many SIU freighters at the beachheads was the SS Jonathan Grout, a Liberty operated by the Mississippi Shipping Company, which helped carry British troops from Alexandria for the invasion of Sicily in the morning of May 10, 1943.
It was an idyllic day as the Jonathan Grout approached the hill-fringed Sicilian shore, and were it not for the firing of monitors and destroyers, for bits of wrecked gliders and dead paratroops bobbing grotesquely about in the placid tide, the war would have seemed a thousand miles away. But the summer calm was broken that afternoon, when Stuka divebombers came roaring down onto the invasion fleet with sirens screaming in their noses as they dived, a wailing cry that was intended to strike terror in the hearts of the gunners below.
Gunners on the Jonathan Grout and other ships weren’t impressed, however. The three-inch bow guns on the Liberties, the oerlikons and the bofors threw so much steel into the sky that the divebombers didn’t make a single hit.
The enemy didn’t give up – not by a long shot, they didn’t. They launched 50 raids against the anchorage at Avola during the next five days.
Armed guard and merchant crewmen slept at the guns, while the British stevedores unloaded bombs, canned gasoline, trucks, tanks, food, and the myriad other implements of war, knocking off only when the sirens moaned the approach of more raiders and the lights of the anchored ships blinked off.
On the afternoon of July11, three flights of high-level bombers – 15 in all – swept over the convoy so high that it was futile to fire the 20 millimeters. The bombs left the belly of the droning raiders like tiny, shimmery pinpoints of light.
A navy gunner on the nearby Liberty ship Colin Kelly wrote, “The stark of terror of the sight is indescribable.”
Nick of Time Escape
The first salvo shook the Jonathan Grout as though she had been rammed, but all were near misses, partly because the bridge signaled the engine room for “full ahead” and, moving from a dead stop, the ammunition-laden vessel scurried away from the falling bombs in the nick of time. Not so lucky was a Dutch ship, hit by bombs and sunk nearby.
Third Mate Wonson of the Colin Kelly sang “Praise the Lord and Pass the ammunition” as hot shrapnel bounced off the deck plates and hissed in the water overside.
When hot shell fragments started a fire amid gasoline tins in a forward hold of the Jonathan Grout, two ABs instantly climbed into the hold and just put it out.
Just before noon on July 13, without any air raid warning, a pair of Stukas dropped over the mountains that lined the bay, and plummeted onto the anchorage with their engines cut out. Lookouts saw them too late. So sudden and so silent was the attack that not a shell was fired at them till they had blown their target to pieces and were skipping safely back to their bases.