The Murmansk Run

Copyright © Frank O. Dodge. All rights reserved.

I have to draw you a picture of how it was back in '43 in the North Atlantic with the civilian sailors of the Merchant Marine who carried the materials of war through hell to men in uniform who won the medals.  And how it was with us Navy men of the Armed Guard who sailed along with them as gunners.  I have to do this . . . you'll see why . . .

The SS Leif Ericsen, ten thousand tons, rode low in the water, loaded to the Plimsol Mark with war goods bound for Murmansk on that frigid gray day in 1943.  The wind keened through her ice-coated rigging and flung frozen spray, like bullets, from the crests of the towering whitecaps.  Despite the weather, several members of her crew were on deck checking and tightening the turnbuckles of the lashings that held the deck-cargo to keep them snug.

The old sea-cow wallowed clumsily in the troughs of the North Atlantic swell, burying her nose into every oncoming wave as she struggled to follow the ship in line ahead, threatening to wash the sailors overside.  Her tired old rivets threatened to pop at any minute and just let her tired old hulk sink to the peace of Davy Jones's Locker for a long over-due rest.  The old tub had been slated for the scrap heap on her return to Norway, but she had been in New York harbor when the Germans invaded her homeland, and her Captain refused to take her back to be used by the Nazis.

The Russians, our allies at that time, were in desperate need of everything if they were to continue their resistance to the Nazis, and the U. S. was sending them thousands of tons of supplies and equipment.  Every bottom that had even one more trip left in her was needed, and Captain Olafsen volunteered his services.

The only point of entry to the Russian mainland was the ice-bound port of Murmansk in the upper North Atlantic.  The convoys, made up of Canadian, British, American, Dutch, French and other allied shipping, rendezvoused in the Canadian port of Halifax for the last leg and had to dare the Norwegian coast, now in the hands of the Germans.  And the Krauts threw everything they had at the merchant vessels bearing aid to the Russians.  The convoys were shepherded by escort vessels, and the ships were armed with Navy gun crews put aboard for their defense, but the protection was still pitiably inadequate against the might of Hitler's Luftwaffe and the U-Boat wolfpacks swarming out of their bases in conquered Norway.  Calculated losses on the round trip were three out of every ten ships making the try.  These figures were exceeded, and the ocean floor from New York to Murmansk is paved with sunken hulks and the bones of merchant and Navy sailors.

It was during one of the air raids that took place in the intervals between the U-Boat attacks that the old Leif Ericsen developed engine trouble and fell behind the convoy.  The high-level Heinkels had dumped their loads, and the Stuka dive bombers had taken over when the old girl suddenly went dead in the water.  She lay rolling and pitching heavily to the chop and swell of the always violent North Atlantic waters, a helpless target for the diving Stukas.

Well, not totally helpless.  She had a Navy gun crew of the Armed Guard to man her four twenty-millimeters, two fifty calibers and the three-inch ack-ack gun on her bow . . . Okay, helpless.  We watched the convoy steam steadily away from us and gave our souls to God.  In those sub-freezing waters your life-expectancy was about four minutes before shock and hypothermia turned off your switch . . . if you survived the bombs.  And there was nobody around to pull us out.  It was Katy-bar-the-door and So-long-Oolong.

Three Stukas winged lazily over and dived on us, machine guns tac-tac-tac-ing.  Bullets ricocheted off the decks and gun-shields, and the first plane pulled up, the dark dots of his bombs winging toward us, missing close aboard to starboard.  The ancient tub shuddered to the explosions, and we waited for the other two.

Then . . . .

Where the fog came from was a mystery, but abruptly it was as though a wet cottony muffler had suddenly shrouded our eyes.  Visibility was limited to about three yards.  We listened to the droning of the frustrated bombers as they swooped and circled above, heard the blasts of the bombs they dropped at random move farther and farther afield.  We hugged one another and laughed hysterically in relief.

Hours passed, and the fog maintained.  All sounds of battle had ceased.

We drifted aimlessly while the engineers attempted repairs.  We gunners stayed at battle stations, going below two at a time to warm up, get some hot coffee, grab a sandwich.  Night fell.

Unable to get a star-sight, the Captain had no idea of our exact position.  Along about midnight I looked out on the starboard bow from my station at the fifty caliber on that wing of the bridge and made out a dim, fog-haloed blue light that seemed to flicker eerily.

I spoke into the sound-powered phone around my neck.  "Bridge, fifty-one."

The Gunnery Officer, Ensign Condon, answered.  "Bridge, aye."

"Sir, I've got a blue light two points on the starboard bow."

Mr. Condon and the captain stepped out onto the wing.  Mr. Condon, trailing his phone wire, came to my side and studied the flickering blue glow.  He rubbed his chin.  "Could be the 'follow-me' light on the stern of one of the convoy . . . ."

"Yes, sir . . . could be, but sir, the convoy's miles away by now."

"Maybe another straggler."

"Yeah . . . that could be."

Captain Olafsen growled in a thick Norse accent, "Ya, boot ay don' t'ink zo."

Ensign Condon looked at him.  "Why not?"

The old Norwegian cleared his throat.  "Dese strange vaters off dis coast."  He seemed to be wanting to say more, but hesitated.

The ship went bows under to a great wave, shuddered and slowly struggled up, tons of water flooding from her scuppers.

Mr. Condon braced himself against the ship's motion and looked at Captain Olafsen.  "What do you mean, strange?"

The Captain grabbed the rail as the ship rolled suddenly to port.  "Ay mean many fishermen see t'ings out here."

"What things?"

The old man was reluctant to reply.  He cleared his throat again.  "Blue lights . . . ."

Mr. Condon braced himself and pointed his night-glass at the dim glow.  "What causes them?"

The Captain looked at him.  "Longships."

"Longships?  You mean Viking ships?"

"Ya.  Viking ships."

"Come on!  You don't mean with a dragon figurehead, and shields along the gunwales?"

"Ya.  Dose ships."

Mr. Condon looked at me.  His expression said he didn't know whether to laugh or head for the lifeboats.  Captain Olafsen shook his head.  "No, Ay not crazy.  You see.  In a moment vater be calm. Vater alvays calm v'en longship appear . . . ."

It was impossible . . . but the sea smoothed.  In a matter of minutes the towering waves leveled out, the wind dropped and the wild singing of the rigging fell silent.  In the resulting quiet we could hear the beat of oars striking the water off our starboard bow.  Through the thinning fog thrust a painted wooden dragon head limned in a faint bluish glow.

The rowers heaving at the oarlooms were bundled in furs.  They wore iron helmets decorated with ox-horns and hawks' wings, and at each man's side his round target shield hung on the gunwale.  The oarblades struck the water in precise union, driving the slim hull through the water at a surprising speed.  All was bathed in a faint but illuminating blue light.

The steersman standing in the stern was a huge burly redbeard.  He shouted an order, and the rowers raised their oars as the impossible vessel glided alongside.  The Viking captain lifted his face to the bridge and said something in a Norse dialect.

Captain Olafsen answered and turned to Mr. Condon.  "His name Hjalmar Eidsvaag.  He and his crew went down in storm while returning from raid on de British Isles . . . ."  Olafsen scrubbed his face with both hands and looked at Mr. Condon.  "Der iss old legend dat say if Norway ever invaded, de spirits of de old Norse come to her aid."

The Viking captain spoke again.

Olafsen answered, a funny look on his face.  He turned back to us.  "Hjalmar say he here to take us aboard ven ve sink. . ."

"What does he mean . . . ?"

The question was answered before it was completed.  The first torpedo struck just forward of the port beam, and the second broad on the port quarter.  The men in the engine room never had a chance.  The overloaded old ship heeled slightly to port and began to sink on an even keel, going down with frightening rapidity.

Daylight brightened the fog around us as almost all of us except the drowned black gang scrambled into the longship.  In all, eighteen of the crew and eleven gunners made it, crowding into the narrow space between the fur-clad rowers who sat in eerie silence.  The old Leif Ericsen slowed in her descent and settled quietly foot by foot into the gently heaving sea.  The Viking captain shouted something and pointed.  We looked in that direction, and in the growing daylight watched the conning tower of a German U-Boat break the surface and rise, water cascading from her sides.

Hatches opened and German sailors ran to man the gun on her foredeck.

Her Skipper and Executive Officer appeared on the conn and pointed laughingly to the sinking ship.  The Nazi Captain called an order and the deck gun barked, sending a shower of debris fountaining from the wooden crates lashed on the deck of the tired old tub.  The German gunners chattered among themselves as they continued to use the slowly settling Leif Ericsen for target practice.

Meanwhile, the Viking oarsmen plied steadily at their sweeps, driving the longship toward the submarine.  Captain Olafsen let out an excited laugh.  "Dey don' see us!"  he said wonderingly.  "Dey don't see us!"

I guess a ghost ship isn't visible to just anybody!

The rowers up-oared and Hjalmar Eidsvaag set the wooden hull against the U-Boat's steel side.  All of us, Vikings and merchantmen and Navy gunners, swarmed over the U-Boat's rail and fell on the enemy sailors.  The action was swift, deadly and one-sided . . . as any action is apt to be when one side is invisible to the other.

The submarine's deck was swept clear in a matter of seconds.  The German Captain and officers on the bridge stared in bewilderment to see their crewmen falling to no apparent enemy.

Mr. Condon shouted, "Jam the hatches open so she can't submerge!  Look alive there.  Jam those hatches."

The fur-clad Norsemen scrambled back into their longship, leaving us in command of the U-Boat, and pulled away into the fog.  The Nazi officers registered shock as we suddenly became visible, the ghost ship having vanished.  They looked about at strange men holding the weapons taken from the fallen German sailors and raised their hands, disbelief still blanking their faces.

That fog which had come from nowhere yesterday to shroud us from the Stukas whipped away just as rapidly, and the U-Boat suddenly plunged and bucked to the mountainous waves that abruptly replaced the unnatural calm that had accompanied the Viking longship.

Mr. Condon raised a shout above the howling wind and pointed to starboard.  Bearing down on us was a U. S. destroyer.  Her number one five-inch spurted smoke and the shell exploded close aboard.  All of us on deck waved our arms in surrender.  The destroyer's Captain apparently picked up the action in his binoculars, for no second round was fired.  The tin can hove to at a safe distance and put over her whaleboat.

Aboard the ship of the Commodore in command of the convoy we were provided with warm clothing, hot coffee, medical attention . . . and complete disbelief in Ensign Condon's report of how we came to be in possession of a German submarine.

Commodore Van Hassen, an old Dutch sea-dog, drummed his fingers on the table in his cabin and stared at the young Gunnery Officer, Captain Olafsen and me . . . did I mention that I was senior Petty Officer in the gun crew?

The grizzled Dutchman drew his thick brows together and growled in clipped British-accented English, "Do you really expect me to forward such an insane report?"

Mr. Condon cleared his throat. "That's what happened, Commodore."

Captain Olafsen nodded.  "Ya.  Dot's vot happened."

The Convoy Commander looked at me.  "You seem to be reasonably sane, Bosn's Mate.  Do you concur in this madness?"

I stood at rigid attention.  "I have to, Commodore.  Like they said
. . . that's what happened."

Van Hassen pulled at his short beard.  "Mass hallucination.  That has to be it.  Mass hallucination.  The whole bloody lot of you were hallucinating."

Ensign Condon's face was void of expression.  "Aye, aye, sir.  If you say so, Commodore . . . ."

A week later we reached Murmansk.  The surviving merchant sailors were placed with other ships of the convoy, and we of the gun crew were assigned under Mr. Condon to augment the guns aboard the Flagship.  That was why we were in a position to learn first-hand . . . .

I was on the gangway when the Lieutenant who had been put aboard the captured sub with a prize crew to bring her into port came aboard.  He was carrying something wrapped in canvas as he entered the Commodore's cabin.  I admit it wasn't very military of me, but the porthole was right there, and I can't help it if I have good hearing.  Besides, I peeked.

"Lt. Hagman reporting, Commodore.  The U-Boat is docked and the prisoners turned over to the Russian authorities."

"Very good, Mr. Hagman.  No trouble with the prisoners?"

"No, sir . . . ."  The Lieutenant paused.  "They seemed to be . . . I don't know, sir . . . subdued . . . almost in a walking stupor, as if . . . I don't know."  He took the canvas-wrapped bundle from under his arm and laid it on the table.  "Here's something funny . . . ."  The Lieutenant unwrapped a long-hafted, doublebitted battleaxe.  "Sir, we found half a dozen of these things jamming the sub's hatches open so she couldn't submerge . . . ."

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