PITTSBURGH (AP) — Winston Churchill described it as the “worst journey in the world,” and two local Merchant Marine veterans in their 90s are among the last left in the U.S. to have endured it.
These were the World War II Arctic convoys to the Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel to supply the USSR with materials to carry on its fight for survival against Nazi Germany.
From 1941 to 1945, Merchant Marine convoys battled submarine and air attacks while braving icy seas and vicious storms.
The overloaded Liberty ships hauled everything from boots to tanks and locomotives. Some 800 ships made the Murmansk run in 41 convoys. More than 100 sank from German attacks, mines, storms and accidents.
But enough material got through for the Soviets eventually to turn the tide.
Now Russia is saying thank you to the remaining veterans — 17 at last count — by presenting them with the Medal of Ushakov. The decoration is named for Adm. Fyodor Ushakov, the patron saint of the Russian Navy famous for never losing a battle.
Two of those recipients — Howard Pfeifer, 97, and Mike Kemple, 93 — are members of the Three Rivers Chapter of the American Merchant Marine Veterans.
The plan had been to pay tribute to them with an in-person presentation last month. COVID-19 scuttled the idea, so the Russian Embassy mailed the medals instead. Capt. Scott Nowak, treasurer of the local chapter, delivered them.
Even without a ceremony, it was a high honor for the aging mariners.
“I’m proud of it,” said Kemple, of Elizabeth Township, who shipped off for Murmansk in 1944 as a 17-year-old. “I understand that there are only 17 of us left.”
‘What’s the Merchant Marine?’
Pfeifer, of Franklin Park, made three runs to Russia and two others to Iran and Omaha Beach.
“I was really pleased,” he said. “I am very grateful that they recognized our efforts and I was proud to serve my country.”
Mariners have long felt neglected in the annals of World War II in comparison to the Navy, Army and Marines. The Allies could not have won without the cargo ships delivering war supplies to far-flung ports. Yet many Americans don’t know what the Merchant Marine is.
As a young man growing up on Pittsburgh’s South Side, Pfeifer didn’t either.
When the war came, he was working at U.S. Steel in Homestead and wanted to do his part. A cousin in the Navy suggested he join the Merchant Marine because it would allow him to choose his fate rather than be drafted and sent wherever the Army or Navy needed him.
“Being from Pittsburgh, I said, ‘What the hell is the Merchant Marine?’ ” he said. “I would never have known what the Merchant Marine was if it wasn’t for my cousin.”
He joined in 1943 at age 19 and trained at Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., where he saw oceangoing ships for the first time. “It was absolutely new and interesting,” he said.
The Liberty ships carried a crew of mariners and Navy Armed Guard personnel to man the guns for self-defense. Pfeifer steered the ship, despite having little training. His first trip was to Iran in July 1943, transporting Studebaker trucks and other supplies for the Russians.
“My main memory of that voyage was that when we were underway, entering the port, our ship ran aground to the point that we were seriously listing, because we were going in as the tide was coming out,” Pfeifer said in an email. “It took several days for the ship to right itself, using the help of several tugs.”
He next journeyed to Murmansk in February 1944, leaving out from New York as part of a 45-ship convoy. Army soldiers guarded the load. “The cargo was crated, so I’m not sure what it all was,” he said.
On the second day out, German U-boats attacked.
“The ship ahead of us (a tanker) blew up,” Pfeifer said. “I was at the wheel. I was scared, hoping we wouldn’t get hit.”
Pfeifer realized then the high stakes of the war and what could happen.
After stopping in England, the convoy steamed past Norway and into the Barents Sea. The crew wore sheepskin coats and hats to protect against the Arctic cold. At desolate Murmansk, the Russians mandated that the Americans visit only certain places, but they were genial.
“The Russians came on board and gave us rubles to spend,” he said. “They said, ‘We want you to know that this is a gift from Stalin.’ The Russians were friendly. They were grateful for what we were bringing them.”
In May 1944 Pfeifer shipped out again, this time to England on a rust bucket built in 1914 hauling 1-ton bombs. “Howard,” a crewmate said to Pfeifer, “I don’t think this old tub will make it out of the harbor.” The engines did break down, requiring repairs at sea. In addition, the bombs began shifting around because of poor loading. The captain asked for volunteers to secure the load. It was dangerous because of the risk of getting crushed between the bombs, but Pfeifer and his friend volunteered.
“My friend said, ‘Why are we doing this, Howard?’” Pfeifer wrote in a journal of his exploits, “to which I answered, ’I know what we can do, but I don’t know what someone else may do.”
They went below and secured the bombs by placing two-by-fours between them. The ship continued to England, where the bombs were offloaded. Workers then filled the ship with dirt, and it headed out again, scraping the bottom of the harbor.
“They never told us where we were going,” Pfeifer recalled. “I was in my bunk when I heard lots of noise. There was tremendous firing like you can’t imagine.”
It was the invasion of Normandy. The ship lay at anchor until the Allies secured the landing area at Omaha Beach. The bombing and shooting left the deck covered with shrapnel each morning. When the beach was secured, the crew drove the ship in to shore, where it and others were scuttled to provide an artificial dock for unloading supplies. Pfeifer and the crew remained on Omaha Beach for a time, witnessing the invasion operations. From there, they sailed to England, took a train to Scotland and then boarded a renovated cruise ship carrying wounded men back to Boston.
Pfeifer next shipped off to Archangel in September 1944 through stormy seas. He remembers standing watch in the crow’s nest and watching German planes sweep in. A reconnaissance plane always came in first to scope out potential targets.
“One plane came close. I could see the pilot’s head,” he said. “We were attacked a number of times.”
Bombs devastated several ships. The Naval Armed Guard fired back with machine guns.
“I was concerned in general” rather than truly afraid, Pfeifer said, but he focused on his job. “I thought the best thing was to just do what you have to do.”
Danger from the Germans and the elements was constant, but long periods of boredom marked much of convoy duty. And there were light moments, too.
On his last voyage to Russia, this time to the port of Ekonomiya in February 1945, Pfeifer found himself in trouble with the law. The crew could go ashore with Russian rubles and visit a hotel restaurant and a dance hall. Local kids wanted cigarettes and other items from the Americans.
“The kids would try to buy stuff off us,” Pfeifer said. “They would say, ‘cigarettes, soap, comrade.’ ”
On his last night of liberty, he went ashore to get souvenirs for himself and a friend. He sold cigarettes to some kids in a back alley. A Russian police officer immediately accosted him and marched him to the police station.
He grabbed one officer, shoved him into another and ran, shouting, “I’m getting the hell out of here.”
“They chased me yelling, ‘Halt, comrade.’ I turned around and saw that the one officer had a gun pointed at me, and I was praying that he was a bad shot.”
He ran back to the area where sailors were allowed and switched coats and hats with someone to disguise himself. He then walked back to his ship. As he slipped through the turnstiles, he spotted the two Russian police officers searching for him. One stood at the turnstile to his left and one at the turnstile to the right. So Pfeifer walked through the middle turnstile.
Back on board ship, his friend saw him empty-handed and asked, “Didn’t you get anything?”
“ ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I got arrested.’ ”
After the war, Pfeifer had an opportunity to ship out again. He declined. His sailing days were done, and he got on with his life like millions of other veterans, entering a career in construction and raising a family.
One and done
Unlike Pfeifer, Kemple made only one run as a mariner. Growing up in Elizabeth, he enlisted in the Merchant Marine in 1944. He was only 17.
“I felt proud of my country and I wanted to do something,” he said.
After training at Sheepshead Bay, he boarded a ship in New York.
“I got seasick in New York Harbor,” he laughed. “I was sick for five days.”
A cook told him to eat crackers. He started to feel better and never got seasick again.
He shipped off for Murmansk in November 1944, first stopping in England.
“It took 17 days to get to England,” he said. “The captain was drunk most of the way over.”
The captain was replaced in England, and the ship joined a convoy bound for Murmansk.
“I was a messman,” he said. “I peeled potatoes for 68 guys.”
Kemple also helped bake pies and cakes. The crew members could have anything they wanted — eggs for breakfast, steaks for dinner cooked directly on the burners.
“We had real good food on that ship,” he said. “Boy, you could get fat with the food they had.”
He’d never been to sea, and coming from Pittsburgh, it was a new experience.
“All you see is water,” he said.
Off Norway, the convoy ran into a storm.
“Waves came over the side of the ship,” Kemple recalled. “The men panicked and ran into each other.”
The convoy approached Murmansk, and “that’s where the submarines got us,” he said. “Ships were torpedoed right close to us. We were lucky to survive.”
Was he scared?
“You bet,” he said. “We didn’t know what to do.”
The convoy needed icebreakers to get into port. Kemple remembers throwing hard candy to Russian children standing out on the ice. The crew could go ashore, but the Russians were not allowed to talk to the Americans, Kemple said.
On the way home, the ship’s steering broke down, and the vessel had to move into an area protected by anti-submarine nets.
“Another ship hit us in the dark,” Kemple said.
A Navy escort guided his ship back to England. Kemple came home to the U.S. after that and decided he was done with sailing.
“I’d had enough of it,” he said.
He joined the Army, trained in New York and ended up in Italy. But the war was winding down, and he never saw combat. He came home again and, like everyone else, went to work. He took various jobs in Pittsburgh, California, Ohio and finally back home again while raising a family.
‘Bravest souls afloat’
Pfeifer and Kemple have been recognized before with various decorations for their service. They are among a vanishing breed.
Tens of thousands of mariners made the Arctic runs, and 829 died, along with 1,944 Navy personnel. The Royal Navy also lost 18 warships and the Soviets another 30 merchant ships.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself a man of the sea as former assistant secretary of the Navy, understood the dangers better than most.
“The men of our Merchant Marine have pushed through despite the perils of the submarine, the dive bomber and the surface raider,” he said in 1943. “They have returned voluntarily to their jobs at sea again and again, because they realized that the lifelines to our battlefronts would be broken if they did not carry out their vital part in this global war. ... In their hands, our vital supply lines are expanding. Their skill and determination will keep open the highway to victory and unconditional surrender.”
The following year he made this prediction: “As time goes on, there will be greater public understanding of our merchant fleet’s record during this war.”
He was right on both counts. In recent years, the Merchant Marine has gained greater recognition, especially for its World War II service.
But the men who remember the Murmansk run are fast dwindling; several are in hospice care.
Soon no one will be left among the men Winston Churchill called the “bravest souls afloat.”