Soviet Murmansk medal brings chilling memories Marylander served in arctic convoys

October 29, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

Air so cold it numbed their faces and froze every breath. Ice so thick it took pickaxes and 10-pound mauls to open doors. Ships rolling in single file following the narrow channel cut by an icebreaker, sitting ducks for Nazi U-boat torpedoes and strafing airplanes.

"It was the most horrible thing," said Victor J. Konsavage, 73, recalling his three convoy trips on Liberty ships through the harrowing gantlet around Norway to Murmansk. The trips, between 1943 and 1945, were to ferry supplies to the embattled Russian army.

"It was rough. It was dark all the time, and it was so cold, 15 degrees below zero. It was all frozen. Can you imagine proceeding at 4 or 5 knots in rough seas? Sometimes we had to even steer toward enemy shores," said the Perry Hall resident, who retired in 1982 after 40 years as a merchant marine officer.

Mr. Konsavage's memories came flooding back two weeks ago when a small package arrived from the Soviet Embassy in Washington. It contained a gold medal on a striped red, blue, green and gold ribbon, a citation in Russian and a letter in English thanking him in the name of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

The letter said the award -- "The 40th Anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War (WWII)" -- recognized "your outstanding courage and personal contribution to the allied support of the people of the Soviet Union who fought for freedom against Nazi Germany."

"I'm very proud of it," Mr. Konsavage said. "At least we were recognized by the Russian government."

The Murmansk runs, from northern Scotland around Norway to the Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel, were among the deadliest voyages of World War II, but without the supplies they brought the Soviet Union could not have held out.

"German bombs and torpedoes exacted a 20 percent toll of the '' merchant ships bound for Russia in appallingly cold weather," Terry Hughes and John Costello wrote in "The Battle of the Atlantic."

Scores of ships sank, with hundreds of crewmen. In the most devastating attack, the Nazis sank 23 vessels in a convoy of 34 Allied ships in July 1942.

Ian Millar, a North Carolina businessman and maritime historian, said he began lobbying the Soviet government more than two years agoto extend the award to American merchant mariners and their Naval Armed Guard, Navy men who manned the guns, after learning in 1987 that British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand seamen had been honored.

He wrote to the Soviet Embassy in Washington and government offices in Moscow, "but I got no response until I wrote to Mikhail Gorbachev directly."

"That got his attention. I guess he had a desire for good will because he told the embassy to start collecting the names," Mr. Millar said.

Notices were distributed through Master, Mate and Pilot, the merchant marine newspaper. After the records of applicants were checked, the first 56 medals were presented Jan. 31 in a ceremony at the Soviet Embassy, he said.

"Well over 1,000 men have applied," Mr. Millar said.

Mr. Konsavage was among the 117 mariners in the second group that won approval. Their medals were mailed this month.

"I estimate that at least 3,000 other men are still living who are eligible for the medal," Mr. Millar said.

Convoys reaching Britain after running the Atlantic submarine gantlet were replenished and took on special cold-weather oils and equipment, including heavy cold-weather clothing, Mr. Konsavage said.

That included rubber suits to help shipwrecked sailors remain afloat. The suits gave the men a chance of surviving until rescue ships could pluck them from the icy water, he said.

Only once did he escape attack on his three trips, Mr. Konsavage said. Although he was never wounded and none of his ships were sunk, he said, "the German planes strafed us, and the U-boats torpedoed ships. I watched them go down and I got real shaky then.

While the Murmansk runs stand out as the worst experience, Mr. Konsavage said he participated in many other memorable events of World War II, including the landings in North Africa and Italy and the D-day landings in Normandy in June 1944. He said he also sailed many supply voyages from the West Coast across the Pacific.

Mr. Konsavage stayed at sea after the war, as chief mate and skipper of tankers, supertankers and roll-on, roll-off vehicle carriers. He spent 19 years on ships of the late Aristotle Onassis' Victory Carriers line, "the first modern tankers."

A native of Kingston, Pa., near Wilkes-Barre, Mr. Konsavage graduated from the U.S. Maritime Institute, New London, Conn., in May 1942 and shipped right out to war.

Nearly five decades later, he concluded, "It was a beautiful life. I went all over the world and completely around three times."

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