Convoy to Murmansk by Edwin Muller Thousands of young naval officers are getting their first taste of battle as members of the Armed Guard on the freighters that make up the convoys going to ports all over the world. The stirring story of one such officer is told in "Convoy to Murmansk," originally published in the Nau- tical Gazette, and becausee of its high quality, republished in the Reader's Digest. "None of us realized what we were getting into." Ensign Norman Adams, Jr., speaking, lately commander of the Armed Guard on a U. S. freighter. A naive and likable boy from Virginia. He got his commission this year after a four months' Naval Reserve training course. No previous experience with the rough and seamy side of things. Two young lads of his gun crew, Crabtree and Castleberry, were with him as he told me the story. "The boxes that went into No. 1 hold were marked TNT. Our Chief Engineer - I guess he's about seventy-was there, watching. 'Boys,' he said, 'every one of those boxes takes a year off my life.' We joked a lot about that. "The first part of the voyage seemed like a pleasure cruise. One of the boys, Chronister-he's only seventeen-kept saying, 'Gee, I hope we get some excitement.' Reprinted from the Reader's Digest condensation of article from The Nautical Gazette. "The first time I got a real idea of what we'd be up against was when we reached Iceland. Our captain, Hiss, and I went to the conference at Reykjavik, the one they have before every con- voy sails. The commodore of the convoy was a solemn English- man. He told us that he didn't want any of us to sail under a misapprehension-this was going to be tough. "The worst of it came at the end of the conference, when they assigned the ships' positions. We'd thought that because of the TNT we might be somewhere in the middle. But we got the rear corner on the starboard side. They call that the coffin corner. "At the start we had some cruisers, in addition to several de- stroyers. Despite this heavy guard, our ship felt kind of chilly and exposed back there in the corner. "In those waters and at that time of year it is light twenty- four hours a day. At midnight the sun would just touch the horizon and there'd be a little twilight. It's a funny feeling never to have it dark. "Four days out of Iceland things started." Castleberry grinned. "That was Crabtree's birthday," he inter- rupted to say. "We told him, 'Boy, you better make it good. It may be your last one.'" "Just as the alarm sounded," Adams went on, "we saw the enemy plane, a big one coming low and fast from the starboard quarter. We got on the guns but he kept just out of range and circled the convoy. Finally he disappeared over the horizon the same direction he'd come. "Next day the plane came back. From then on he never left us except when his relief would take his place. We called him 'Nosey.' "When the first attack alarm sounded I dashed up from my cabin. There were three of them, coming in at 10,000 feet in V formation. They flew right overhead and everything in the convoy cut loose at them. The noise was terrific. But they didn't drop anything. They had been sent over to draw our fire, to see how strong we were. "Half an hour later ten of them came over. This time they did the business. The heavy thud of the bombs mixed in with the noise of the A-A guns was deafening. You could see water- spouts leaping up all over the ocean. "One plane flew right down our column. I was up in the star- board aft pillbox with Castleberry, working the .50-caliber. We must have hit that plane because a puff of white smoke came out of it and it veered off out of the fight, losing altitude. "Then we had a little while when we could catch our breath and look around. One of the ships was dropping back, so she must have been hit. "In the next attack three planes came straight for our ship. One scored a near miss not more than 25 feet off our stern." "What's a near miss like?" I asked. "I'll tell you what that one was like. I saw the bomb coming down, a speck like a black raindrop that got bigger very fast. There's a whistling, screeching sound which gets louder and louder. Then a moment of complete silence. With the ex- plosion a wall of water comes over the side on you. The ship jumps up in the water and there's a tremendous jarring as if somebody shook you by the collar. You feel sick." Castleberry put in: "Seems as if you have to reach way down for your stomach and pull it up again." "It throws you, said Crabtree. "One of the crew was standing by me. It slammed him down on a mug of hot coffee that was on the deck. He jumped up yelling, 'My God, I'm hit!'" "After that," Adams resumed, "nothing much happened for two or three hours. In those intervals you walk around nerv- ously, talking it over with this person and that; you can't settle down. At mealtime nobody sits down at the table. You just grab a cup of coffee and a piece of bread and meat and take it out on deck. "All this time there were enemy submarines around, our de- stroyers setting off depth charges. "The next alarm sounded a little past midnight. The weather had got. thick, and with the sun down on the horizon there was a sort of weird half light. Peering through the haze, I sud- denly saw the long flashes of tracer bullets from the ship next to us. I knew what that meant. When we saw a periscope we fired tracer bullets to indicate its position. "Right away we heard the explosion. We saw the whole ship split open lengthwise, like a watermelon, as her cargo, of TNT went off. She disappeared in a tremendous burst of flame. Noth- ing remained but floating debris. "We were all very quiet. I felt I had to say something to the boys, so I said, 'Well, anyway, nobody on that ship ever knew what hit them.' We went around the rest of the day trying to smile but not doing it very well." "Did you think you weren't going to come through alive?" I asked. "Yes, and I guess the others did too. But nobody said so. It was funny-we were all very polite to each other, even the tough ones. "The next air raid was a torpedo attack. We saw six planes astern, practically hopping the waves. When torpedoes hit the water they bounce once or twice, like when you skip a flat stone on a pond. Then they drive toward you, very fast. "Nobody got hit in that attack. We did a lot of shooting and those planes didn't stay long. "Nothing happened for an hour or two except that we fired our big gun at the wake of a submarine. The destroyers moved in and we heard and felt their depth charges pounding our sides like giant hammers. We didn't see anything more of that sub, and I went down to my cabin to lie down for a while." "Captain sent him there," Castleberry interrupted. "He'd caught cold in Iceland. Throat was so sore he couldn't speak. His temperature was 102." "Well, I didn't get to stay there long," Adams went on. "Five more torpedo planes came over. They picked on a Russian ship next to us. We kept edging away from her because she too carried TNT. In dodging a torpedo the Russian cut sharp across our bow. It looked as if we couldn't avoid the collision. We forgot all about planes and torpedoes. When the two ships finally cleared each other there wasn't 20 feet between them. Everybody went crazy. We and the Russians both were dancing around on the decks, yelling across at each other. "The next attack was by dive bombers. The sun was bright by then, and there were a few big fleecy clouds. We could hear the planes humming but they'd keep right in the sun so we could hardly see them. "They got the Russian ship with a direct hit. Flames and smoke began to come out of her bows. And she was edging over toward us, so close that we were afraid that if she went up we'd go too. In avoiding her, we fell a long way behind the convoy. That's the worst thing that can happen to you. The planes always go after a straggler. "Three dive bombers came for us. They straddled the ship with bombs that couldn't have been nearer. We were stunned and thrown all over the deck, half drowned with the water that came over the side. I thought it was all over then, but nothing hit us. We went back to the guns. "By the time we regained our place in the convoy there was another raid on. "You remember that boy, Chronister, I told you about? The seventeen-year-old one? He was up on the bridge working the starboard .30. He must have looked sort of green in the face, because the Captain said, 'What's the matter, boy?' And he said, 'Nothing. I guess something I ate gave me a stomach-ache.' And he went on working the gun. "All through the worst of it Captain Hiss was as calm as if he was in church. After the stick of bombs straddled us, he called through the tube to McCarthy in the engine room, 'You still there, Mac?' He grinned at whatever Mac called back. I heard afterward that when a bomb hit close all the lights in the engine room went out and a lot of metal trimmings were shaken loose and went barging around. They had it a lot worse down there than we did. "All this time things were happening to the rest of the convoy. Clouds of oily, black smoke were rolling up from the forward deck of the Russian ship and bright flames were breaking through it. You could see the crew with their heads down, hauling the hose into the smoke. Those Russians had nerve. All that TNT under th*eir feet. And they could have taken to the boats and been picked up. Two other crews had already abandoned ship. Some of the boats came drifting back past us. According to orders we let them go for the rescue ship to pick up." "A comical thing happened about that time," said Castleberry. "I knew a boy in one of the crews that took to the water. A crazy kid. Well, I saw him sitting all by himself astride a cap- sized lifeboat. The waves were bouncing him up and down like he was riding a bronco. When he went past we could hear him, between the bursts of gunfire, yelling at us. What he was yelling was, 'Hi-ho, Silver!'" Ensign Adams resumed: "It made you mad all through to see ships sunk and men in the water. You kept on the guns and shot at every plane in sight, whether it was in range or not, like a kid shooting at a duck that he knows is too far away. But we got one plane. Saw its wing fall off. "We realized about then that the planes were machine-gunning us. The tracers, crisscrossing every which way, were like fire- works on the Fourth of July. One plane headed toward us, flying low, with six guns going at once. Why it didn't hit any of us I can't figure out. Another time we were shooting at a plane, it was shooting at us, and two other ships were firing at it across our decks. "By now the Russian ship had got her fire under control. She hadn't even lost her place in the convoy. But two more ships had been sunk. "The next day was quiet. It had been four days since Nosey first picked us up. There'd been lulls between the air raids-ex- cept for submarines being around. But we were on edge. I don't think anybody slept at all. However, we began to think we were past the worst of it. We weren't. "The following day was cold, below freezing, and a strong wind was blowing. When the raid came, I had a little trouble climbing up the ladder to the pillbox. My temperature was up to 104. Seven torpedo planes were followed by dive bombers. I realized how the strain was piling up on us when I watched one of the crew on deck. He was making motions with his hands, as if he was warding off the bombs. Probably I'd been doing the same thing myself. "We weren't shooting so much now because we were run- ning low on ammunition. It had got to be a sort of endur- ance race-how much more we could take. It seemed as if we could stand it if only it would get dark-just for an hour or two. "But in half an hour another wave of bombers came for us. Two bombs straddled our ship and again there was that shaking and jarring and the sick feeling. I was about past caring. "When the next flight of planes came over the horizon, several hours later, I was wondering whether that wasn't more than I could take. Then suddenly I saw the lead plane begin to do stunts-loops and barrel rolls. They were Russians. That's the way they signal that they are friends. We cheered them. "At 9 A.M. we made our landfall. For the first time in a week we sat down to a meal together. I couldn't eat but I was happy anyway. Through that whole week of raids not a man on the ship had been seriously hurt, just a few scratches from shrapnel. We planned a celebration ashore. "It was too soon. "Somebody outside shouted that planes were coming over. We ran out on deck and there they were-fifteen of them. Being so near the land we were sure they were Russians, though they didn't signal. Not even the escort vessels fired on them. They came directly overhead. "And then, one after the other, they dived on us, concentrat- ing on our ship. "An officer on one of the destroyers told me later that he counted thirteen bombs, then we were hidden by smoke and ex- plosions and floods of water. "I can't tell you about it myself. It's a sort of nightmare that I don't remember very well. But at last I realized that the attack was over. We hadn't received one direct hit. That ship had a charmed life. "A few hours later we were anchored in the Kola River, just below Murmansk. "I went to bed and slept through twenty-four hours."
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