Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas Dinner Guest

We had Christmas dinner yesterday about 4PM, and while my sister and her husband (along with my young nephew) couldn’t make it due to some sort of stomach virus going around, we did have an honored guest- my great uncle Raymond, along with my mom and dad, and my wife's sister, Jackie.

After dinner, and what will surely be a new tradition of watching “Elf”, I got the chance to sit with Raymond and ask him a few questions. He is a very private person- the sort that rarely talk about themselves. When they do, its only because you corner them, ask direct questions, and give them no escape route.

Raymond is about 85 years old, and spent most of his life on the sea. He was a US Merchant Marine until about 20 years ago, and was 19 years old when aboard a ship traveling from the US East Coast to England when he and his shipmates got word of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the German declaration of war the following day.

He spent his wartime years aboard Liberty Ships- massive cargo ships that the US was building at a rate of one per day during the war and using to supply our forces as well as those of our allies throughout the world. They traveled about 10 knots per hour, zig-zagging wherever they went in their only meager defense against enemy submarines.

Raymond told of the regular route his convoys took to avoid Nazi U-boats, leaving the Gulf of Mexico, rounding Florida and keeping close the North American coast all the way to Greenland, then East to Great Britain. The entire trip would last 10-15 days. He said the seas were so rough in the extreme North Atlantic that the convoys would sway up and down on the huge waves, sometimes gaining or losing 30 to 50 feet or more with each wave, making it hard for German torpedoes to hit them. It also made it hard to keep down food.

I asked him if he was scared back then, a young kid spending each day in the engine room deep below the ships surface, knowing an attack by a torpedo or a fighter plane could happen at any minute. He thought about it for a second and said “No. I was only 19 and felt invincible. Everyone was risking their lives, and you just didn’t think about those things much. You had a job to do.”

He recounted a couple convoy trips in particular. One to Murmansk in the Soviet Union to deliver supplies to the embattled Soviet Army. After putting into port and unloading, the crew had about 10 days to see the sights. He said there were only two buildings worth going to- one was the cinder block hotel and diner, the other the local watering hole. More accurately, the vodka drinking room. Everything else was boarded-up, shuttered or frozen. He also said the only people he saw in Murmansk were old people and women, and no one messed with any of the Murmansk women since they were about the same size and shape as the US Merchant Marine seaman.

Another convoy he mentioned went terribly wrong. The group of ships just ahead of Raymond's were attacked by a group of German subs, and several ships were sunk. Raymond watched as many men were killed by torpedo blasts or drowned quickly in the freezing North Atlantic sea.

I learned this morning, while researching the US Merchant Marines a bit, that their wartime record shows losses were among the highest of any group in the front lines during World War II. They died at a rate of 1 in 24, perishing on troubled waters and off enemy shores.

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DigitalRich said...

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