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Escape from Archangel

Escape from Archangel: An American Merchant Seaman at War

Thomas E. Simmons
Copyright Date: 1990
Pages: 168
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  • Book Info
    Escape from Archangel
    Book Description:

    During World War II, merchant marine tankers in convoys plied the frozen North Atlantic through the flaming wreckage of torpedoed ships. Working to keep sea lanes open, valiant merchant seamen supplied food, fuel, and goods to the Allies in the last pockets of European resistance to the Nazis.

    This exciting book acknowledges that the merchant marines, all volunteers, are among the unsung heroes of the war. One of these was Jac Smith, an ordinary seamen on theCedar Creek, a new civilian tanker lend-leased to the U.S.S.R. and in the merchantman convoy running from Scotland to Murmansk. Smith's riveting adventures at sea and in the frozen taigas and tundra are a story of valor that underlines the essential role of merchant marines in the war against the Axis powers.

    This gripping narrative tells of a cruel blow that fate dealt Smith when, after volunteering to serve on the tanker headed for Murmansk, he was arrested and interned in a Soviet work camp near Arkhangelsk.

    Escape from Archangelrecounts how this American happened to be imprisoned in an Allied country and how he planned and managed his escape. In his arduous 900-mile trek to freedom, he encountered the remarkable Laplanders of the far north and brave Norwegian resistance fighters. While telling this astonishing story of Jac Smith and of the awesome dangers merchant seamen endured while keeping commerce alive on the seascape of war,Escape from Archangelbrings long-deserved attention to the role of the merchant marine and their sacrifices during wartime.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-380-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. Prologue: Just an Old Bridgetender?
    (pp. 3-8)

    Quietly a man came home from the sea, from more than thirty years at sea. He had sailed across all the oceans, past all the islands, round all the continents of earth. Home to Biloxi, Mississippi. Home because he grew up there. Home to care for his aging mother. Home.

    He found Biloxi relatively unchanged from his last visit. There were fewer of the stately old hotels, true, displaced by the so-called progress of sprawling motels. There was a new building or two here and there, and the tawdry beach strip now sported everything from all-girl revues to putt-putt golf....

  5. Biloxi, 1936
    (pp. 9-14)

    O. M. Smith, Jr., answers to “Jac.” He never liked the names his initials stood for—you called him Oswald Marion at your own risk—and early on he let it be known that he would be called Jac, without ak. He was tall and thin and had fire-red hair. A quiet young man, he could be stubborn at times, and he wasn’t much for putting up with foolishness—unless, of course, he was the one being foolish, which he often was. He was a good son, a dependable friend, a not-so-good student, a musician of sorts, a better...

  6. Mama, I’m Going to Sea
    (pp. 15-20)

    The European war remained far off at first, something exciting you heard on the radio or read about in newspapers. But it brought unexpected economic expansion to the farms and factories. Ingalls Ship Yard in nearby Pascagoula suddenly came out of the depression doldrums as steamship lines placed orders for new vessels, and clangs and bustle filled the once silent ways. Jac’s father and the fathers of his generation got better work, and there was a little more money. The Smith family moved to a house in Biloxi near the railroad station. It had electricity.

    This was long before America’s...

  7. Four Dollars, Thirty-Five Cents and a Sack Lunch
    (pp. 21-28)

    The sea was hungry for men. Five days after he returned from New Orleans, Jac received a letter telling him to report to a new maritime training facility recently established at St. Petersburg, Florida. The U.S. Maritime Service was a branch of the War Shipping Administration. Its mission was to instruct large numbers of men in seamanship and prepare them for life at sea—as quickly as possible. The trainees would wear uniforms and serve under a military discipline, but once graduated they would be civilian merchant seamen, working for the companies whose ships had been requisitioned for war service....

  8. Harm’s Way
    (pp. 29-36)

    Smith soon tired of instructor duty. He requested and was granted sea duty.

    Jac had no exact knowledge at the time of just what lay ahead. He knew the duty was hazardous, but he thought in romantic terms—the glamorous, heroic danger of boyhood stories.

    The truth was known only to those already at sea. The North Atlantic itself was often more deadly than the enemy torpedoes and bombs. If the order was given to abandon ship, the crew had only minutes to reach the relative safety of a lifeboat or raft before the cold incapacitated their muscles and they...

  9. Convoy
    (pp. 37-46)

    Early in the war, Britain had instituted the practice, invented in World War I, of moving merchant ships by convoy, escorted by as many naval vessels as could be spared. This did not guarantee safety for the cargo carriers, but it cut down on losses.

    When the United States first entered the war, coastal shipping was still carried by single ships, traveling to Halifax or St. John’s on their own. Then a hard lesson was learned. In early 1942, Admiral Karl Doenitz, commander of Germany’s submarine fleet, dispatched a small pack of U-boats, perhaps a dozen or so, to patrol...

  10. The Cold
    (pp. 47-50)

    From Halifax they made their way toward Iceland. The few escorts they had, some Navy, some Coast Guard, were seen one day to turn back toward North America flying a flag signal that said, “Good-bye and good luck.” The crew was at first alarmed, but soon realized that the convoy was simply being handed over to a new Navy escort sent out from Iceland. This was why convoys were routed so far north. It forced them to sail into the freezing stormy seas of the Arctic Circle, but it also brought them within protective range of land-based aircraft.

    In the...

  11. Stowaway
    (pp. 51-56)

    There were times when the stress of the voyage was eased by camaraderie among crew members who, when off duty, gathered in the galley for meals, or maybe just for hot coffee and the company to be found there. The coffee came in special cans which had a victory ship, a tanker, and a liberty ship painted around them with the words “Coffee for Men of Action.” The men thought the name was silly, but they liked the coffee. The way it was brewed on most ships, it could knock a mule to its knees.

    In the galley some crewmembers...

  12. Scotland
    (pp. 57-62)

    Under attack warnings most of the way, Jac’s convoy crossed to a point just north of Ireland without a loss, in part because of the terrible weather they encountered. This had improved to a reasonably tolerable level, nasty but tolerable. All they had to do now was round Northern Ireland, enter the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland, and head south into the Irish Sea and their assigned port on the River Clyde.

    The convoy split into two groups to proceed down the North Channel. TheCedar Creekmoved to the column on the left, headed for Glasgow, the ships...

  13. Old Hand
    (pp. 63-70)

    Back to the States, they remained barely long enough for the crew to go ashore, phone home, and let off a little steam. Then, her tanks filled again with gasoline, theCedar Creekonce more journeyed to Canada, took her place in a convoy, and faced the cold misery of the icy seas of February. This time ships were lost, butCedar Creekmade her way safely to Britain. Her crew considered her a lucky ship. She had the right joss, as old China hands would say.

    The threat of dying hard was ever present, but the members of her...

  14. A Russian Captain
    (pp. 71-76)

    TheCedar Creekcontinued to make crossings carrying gasoline to Britain without serious mishap. Her crew came home unscarred on the outside, but from each crossing there were more visions of dying men and ships to crowd the deep black corners of their memories.

    Even the enemy below was haunted by the horror of convoy battles of the North Atlantic as evidenced in the writings of one of them after the war. Lothar-Gunther Buchheim in his book,U-Boat War, wrote of a ship his sub had torpedoed on a night surface attack. He described what he saw from the bridge...

  15. The Murmansk Run
    (pp. 77-88)

    By early 1943, the run to the northern Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel (Arkhangel’sk) had become so costly—out of fifty ships in one convoy, only sixteen survived—that they were stopped. Stalin badgered the Allies unceasingly to resume them.

    There were only two other supply routes to Russia. One was through the eastern port of Vladivostok northeast of Korea, behind the main Japanese island of Honshu. Because the Soviet Union was not at war with Japan, only Russian ships, which were in very short supply, could get to Vladivostok. The other supply route was via the Persian Gulf...

  16. Molotovsk
    (pp. 89-96)

    Jac’s convoy, what was left of it, stayed far out toward Bear Island, carving as wide a path around the tip of Norway as the Arctic pack ice would allow, until it arrived off Murmansk, well inside the Arctic Circle and only fifty-five miles from German-occupied territory. Far offshore the crew of theCedar Creekcould see the barrage balloons that marked the harbor, tethered all over the port. The blimps were there to discourage low-flying enemy aircraft, but air raids occurred daily nonetheless. German aircraft, in anticipation of the arrival of the convoy, had dropped mines at all the...

  17. Twenty Minutes Too Late
    (pp. 97-100)

    They turned the corner and could see their hotel. That was when a police van pulled up, and they were ordered to get in the back. They asked why. The uniformed Russian policemen growled something at them which they could not understand, but it didn’t sound friendly. Jac pointed at the hotel and using sign language tried to explain that they were going there to sleep. The policemen shoved them toward the back of the police truck. They shoved back. George was knocked to the ground, a cut on his head. They were hustled into the truck and taken to...

  18. Labor Camp
    (pp. 101-108)

    When Jac was arrested, his reaction had been anger, rebellion, fury. Now as he walked toward an empty bunk past dirty sad people—some talking in low voices, some coughing, one throwing up in a slop jar, most silent—he felt disbelief and bewilderment. How had he gotten to this hellish place? What was going to happen to him?

    He had arrived just before morning work call. People began to go outside, carrying their bowls and spoons, to line up along a worn path for breakfast. He followed them. He wasn’t hungry; he was tired and scared, but he realized...

  19. The Trains
    (pp. 109-114)

    Finally the shock of their internment and the daily life in the camp settled over the Americans. At first they had shown spirit. The guards did not find it amusing to be talked back to, and the Americans were physically beaten to their knees. Reason began to rule. People around them who were beaten, injured, or became sick did not last long under the living conditions at the camp. They determined to stay as fit as they could. They would stay out of the guards’ way. They still had a pocketful of rubles. (The soldiers in the truck had taken...

  20. You’ll Die Out There
    (pp. 115-120)

    At night a small group would gather around the stove for warmth. There was very little conversation. Jac guessed that it was a feeble attempt at sharing some remnant of human society. In a place where all one’s waking hours were expended upon one’s own struggle to survive, kindness and comradeship were luxuries no one could afford—except for this brief moment of contact. Sometimes Jac joined them, stealing surreptitious glances at their faces. These held no dignity, no hope, only resignation. It was as if they looked inward, trying to see who they used to be, questioning why such...

  21. The Reindeer Spoke
    (pp. 121-132)

    The men, all shorter than Jac, gathered around him. Strange, he thought, funny language. His eyes began to focus steadily once again. Slowly he began to think again. With great and agonizing effort, Jac lifted his hands in front of him and crossed his forearms at the wrist, showing by sign that he had been tied, had been a prisoner. Then he pointed toward the east. He then put his shaking hands to his mouth and tried to make eating motions. A man nodded and stepped forward. Jac sank to the ground, darkness closing around him. A second man joined...

  22. In the Hands of Strangers
    (pp. 133-140)

    On April 9, 1940, Germany invaded the neutral countries of Denmark and Norway. The Germans did not want their navy to be bottled up again in the North Sea as in World War I, and occupation of the two Scandinavian countries gave them free access to the Atlantic. Little Denmark could do nothing but submit, but the Norwegians resisted.

    Most of the Norwegian merchant fleet, the largest in the North Atlantic, was at sea when the attack came. Hearing the news they reported to England and thereafter made themselves an invaluable part of the Allied supply effort. At home, loyal...

  23. The Sea!
    (pp. 141-148)

    Long after he had lost count of the endless changes of guides, each handoff a repetition of the one before, Jac was brought to his first family setting in Norway. He and the guide were moving southwesterly now on slopes that descended through heavy forests. He followed his guide into a clearing, and there it was, a real home with out buildings and farm animals. It was built of heavy timbers, similar to the pioneer cabins of the American frontier. A man came out to greet them, speaking loud and clear and making no attempt to conceal their arrival. He...

  24. The Shetland Bus
    (pp. 149-152)

    The Export Group of the Norwegian Resistance ran this hazardous service. Using the cover of Norway’s fishing fleets, composed of small trawlers and smacks, the Export Group made clandestine runs between Norway and the Shetland Islands or mainland Scotland. During the course of the war, over countless trips, the Shetland Bus delivered more than four hundred tons of arms, ammunition, and explosives to Norway, as well as free Norwegian forces and British secret agents. In return they delivered refugees, rescued Allied seamen, and resistance members who were known to be in danger of arrest. Over three hundred such souls were...

  25. Just What Were You Doing in Norway?
    (pp. 153-158)

    The senior officer offered Jac a cigarette, lighted up one himself, and while the junior officer got out pen and paper, said, “Suppose you just tell us what you were doing in Norway.”

    Two and a half hours later the junior officer put away his notes. “Quite a lucky fellow, I’d say.” The senior officer added, “A most interesting story, Boatswain Smith, most interesting indeed.”

    The British naval officers simply did not believe Jac’s story. They did not say so outright, but with cool reserve they told him, “We’re afraid you’ll have to come with us to the Admiralty. Routine...

  26. Home
    (pp. 159-162)

    It was September 1, 1944. The tanker was theWhite Horse, identical in every way to theCedar CreekHer captain was a Norwegian named Trygve Wold. Although a passenger, Jac felt at home. Members of the crew, true to the custom of respecting the personal life of fellow crewmen, did not pry into the circumstances that had led Jac aboard their ship in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes on his back. They accepted him as a fellow seaman, and from among them he gratefully accepted a clean change of clothing, almost his size. He...

  27. Epilogue
    (pp. 163-166)

    Jac went back to sea, back to the convoys and the cold. Eventually theWhite Horsewas ordered to the Pacific, and he served many months carrying fuel to fighting units all over that ocean. Japanese submarines had been pretty much wiped out by then, but theWhite Horsehad her share of kamikazes to fight off at the invasion of Okinawa. A few months later the war was over.

    When Jac and his fellow merchant seamen returned home, there were no parades for them, no G.I. Bill for college educations, no veterans’ hospitals for the broken ones. They simply...

  28. Bibliography
    (pp. 167-168)