Liberty Ship Armed Guard
Robert "Dick" Fitz
Gunners Mate Second Class
U.S. Navy, World War II
As told to John Denehy
In the summer of 1942 after graduation from high school, I enlisted in the United States Navy. They called me up in January of 1943, and I was sent to boot camp at Sampson, New York. After completion of boot camp, five hundred of us
new graduates were sent to Brooklyn, New York, and we were told that we were going to be Navy Armed Guard gunners on merchant ships. I asked, "If that's the case, when do we go to gunnery school?" We were told not to worry; we would learn all we needed to know on the job. It was obvious to us that the Navy needed a lot of Armed Guards in a hurry. We were put on an old cargo ship that was loaded to the gills and as the ship was sailing out of Philadelphia, we went aground at Chester. We were immediately reassigned to a brand new Liberty ship, the SS GEORGE WEEMS.
Our new home was like a palace compared to our previous ship. At that time, Liberty ships were being rapidly mass-produced on both coasts and along the Gulf. Two thousand and fifty one Liberty ships were built between 1941 and 1945. They were needed by our merchant marine to ship war equipment and supplies overseas and to help replace British cargo ships that had been sunk earlier in the war by German U-Boats. The ships were not riveted. Instead, large prefabricated segments were welded together to speed up the ship building process. It seemed that they could build a
new ship in one day. actuality, the average amount of time to build a liberty ship was 42 days. When President Roosevelt launched the SS PATRICK HENRY, he cited the patriot's speech, "Give me Liberty or give me death," hence the name "Liberty ship." The ships were built to last about five years. There are two Liberty ships I know of that are floating museums and are still in excellent shape after more than sixty years. Our mission was to get a load of cargo safely overseas to the war zones which could be anywhere in the world. Even if we were sunk on the return trip, it would be the opinion of the high command that, as long as the supplies had been delivered, the voyage was a success despite the loss of the ship. No doubt, we were expendable.
There were 28 U.S. Navy Armed Guards on board our ship. Our commanding officer was Lieutenant Henry Geer from New York. He was an outstanding, well-liked Navy officer. The merchant marine crew averaged about fifty crewmen. They handled everything that had anything to do with running the ship. We got along very well with the merchant marine sailors on our ship. A good bunch of guys, but we were billeted separately from them. Six of us were berthed in the
port forecastle - approximately in the middle of the ship so that we would be close to our assigned guns that were located on or near the bridge or on the bow. The bad news about our compartment would be that it was the most popular aiming point for German U-Boats. The rest of the Armed Guard were berthed in the stern section where they could quickly man the guns located there. We had our own mess hall and the food was very good. The only problem was that we had very little variety when it came to meat. When we took provisions aboard, our food was loaded tightly into freezers and packed in vertical layers. The cooks had to wade their way through the food lockers and take whatever popped up in
front of them. As a result we would get chicken for a couple of weeks at a time and then the next run would be pork, etc.
We made our first trip across the Atlantic to Liverpool, England. There we experienced our first taste of the war
in the form of buzz bombs. Following our third voyage to England, we returned to Brooklyn, New York, where our ship was to be heavily insulated. Then we were issued all kinds of Navy Arctic clothing that included parkas, gloves and woolen facemasks. There was no doubt that we would be going to a very cold part of the world. Sure enough, when we went over
to the pier we could see tons of equipment with Russian writing on it being loaded on our ship. They had everything you can think of, planes, tanks, trucks, foodstuffs etc. We now knew that we would be making the notorious Murmansk run which was one of the most hazardous places to be during World War II.
We left New York in a big convoy and got over to the north coast of Scotland where we laid up for two or three days in Loch Ewe. We were trying to find out what was going on. Finally ten major surface warships of the Royal Navy showed up, and then we left for Murmansk, Russia. The warships were going to follow our convoy from a distance and we were going to be the bait to try to draw out the German battle cruiser SCHARNHORST. The SCHARNHORST was hiding in one of the Norwegian fiords in the area of the North Cape. We were off the coast of Norway when we ran into a humungous storm. I had never seen waves like that. It was the second week of December 1943, and the waves were hammering us to pieces. It was the worst storm I experienced in all my years in the Navy. The raging sea was blowing us off course by at least ten miles. The British battle fleet was a day and a half behind us. We pulled watch around the clock, two hours on and two hours off. When we went out to our gun tubs, everything would be covered with ice. We chipped ice almost all the time. We were cold, wet and miserable and our lieutenant would not let us stay out there a second more than two hours. Sometimes he pulled us in sooner. About this time, a German reconnaissance plane was detected approaching our convoy. Our commanding officer felt that this was as good a time as any to show off our anti-aircraft guns. The ship was equipped with one three-inch bow gun and two 37-millimeter bow guns. We also had one five-inch stern gun and another
six 20-millimeter machine guns scattered around the ship's bridge area. I was the gun captain of one of the 20-millimeter machine guns. We opened up with everything we had and filled the sky around the plane with anti-aircraft explosions. That was enough for German pilot and he flew away. Editor's note: The reconnaissance plane reported Dick's convoy as being made up of troop ships preparing to invade Norway. This report prompted the German Navy commanders to order the SCHARNHORST to attack the convoy.
After we arrived safely in Murmansk, we found out that the fleet had indeed flushed out the SCHARNHORST and sunk
the ship after a major sea battle in gale force conditions on Christmas Day 1943. The German battle cruiser went down
in the icy sea and the British picked up only 36 German sailors out of a crew of 1900. A serious threat to our merchant ships had been eliminated. While our ship was docked in Murmansk, we saw some of the British cruisers and destroyers that had been in the battle come into the harbor for repairs. Some of them were badly damaged with gun emplacements blown totally away and other major damage. All the ships were flying a black flag, which meant that they had dead sailors aboard who were pinned in the wreckage. We were anchored in Murmansk harbor for about two or three days where
we endured two German air attacks. The ship next to us took a direct hit in the number three hold and sank in the
harbor mud. It was a miracle that the bomb killed no one.
Because of the threat of more German air attacks, we were ordered to pull up our anchor and follow two Russian icebreakers, the Lenin and the Stalin, out of Murmansk and south through the White Sea to Archangel. We had to travel through ice that was at least three feet thick. When we got to Archangel, there was another Liberty ship at one of the piers. The tugs were pushing us towards the pier without realizing that ice was beginning to jam our rudder. We were pushed into the other ship and sustained some significant damage to our bow. A Russian repair party was summoned and they welded some steel plates to our damaged bow. The repairs took about a month. We were surprised to see that, for
the most part, Russian women were unloading our ship's cargo. They wore heavy coats, boots and babushka kerchiefs.
Their faces were reddened from the cold. When it was mealtime, a male supervisor brought them a piece of black bread with some kind of cheese on top. They were given a short period of time to eat, and then it was back to work.
Archangel was a cold and miserable place to be with long, dark nights and short, cold days. We were getting bored out of our minds with nothing to do, so we organized a softball game and played a game out on the ice. The Russians thought we were crazy. We were greatly restricted as to where we could go when off duty. There were Mongol soldiers
with burp guns who guarded the supplies and warehouses in the port area. They shot a Russian thief while we were there. The Mongols were big, unfriendly guys. They were known to shoot first and ask questions later. I remember that they smelled like fish. Our lieutenant told us to avoid them and not to upset them in any way. Sometimes we went into Archangel for liberty. It was an empty, drab city with few stores. There were annoying loud speakers on utility poles which blared propaganda messages throughout the day. We would go to a club that was set up to serve Americans. We could buy woodcarvings, pins and other handicrafts there for almost nothing. I still have a pile of Russian souvenirs at home that I bought there. When we finally sailed away, we by-passed Murmansk and traveled through U-boat infested waters south to Belfast, Northern Ireland where we had our repaired bow reinforced with concrete. The Irish people sent out a barge that was loaded with lots of fresh milk, fruit and vegetables. What an improvement that food was to our diet, especially the fresh milk. Previously, all we had was canned condensed milk or powdered milk.
From Belfast we set sail for the Mediterranean and continued our operations in that theater of war. I never had to make the Murmansk Run again. Between 1941 and 1945, 79 Liberty Ships and other types of cargo ships were sunk by
U-boats and Luftwaffe planes off the coast of Norway with heavy loss of life. Some ships went down with no survivors. For those poor souls there was no hope of survival. An agonizing death within minutes in freezing water would be their fate. I had been one very lucky guy indeed. In my remaining years in the navy, I sailed on every ocean, set foot on every continent except Antarctica, crossed the equator, prime meridian, and Arctic Circle, and saw action in every war theater. I was in Naples, Italy, on VE Day and Saipan on VJ Day. As the saying goes, "Join the Navy and see the world."
On May 11, 1993, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a letter from the Russian Consulate in New York City. The letter contained a message from President Boris Yeltsin thanking me for being part of the Allied support of his country during the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. The letter included a beautiful Russian Commemorative Medal. Along with my American Medals, I am also very proud off my Russian medal.
Source: Memorial Military Museum newsletter, July 2008-2009; Bristol, Connecticut
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