Dive bombers, torpedoes, mines AND MET MY rescuer 55 YEARS LATER An old salt revisits Norway to say thank you for an act of wartime kindness on the Arctic Ocean.

HOW I SURVIVED

September 07, 1997|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF AND FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN

He's known to the entire crew of the Liberty ship, S.S. John W. Brown, as "Blackie," the man who cheated death four times on the Murmansk run and still goes to sea after six decades.

Charles F. Blockston, of Rosedale, Baltimore County, is the third engineer on the Brown, docked at Pier 1, Clinton Street, Canton. Last month, at 78, he helped sail the old freighter up the East Coast to Connecticut.

"Blackie's" story begins on June 27, 1942, when his ship and 37 others set sail from Iceland to Murmansk in the Soviet Union. German U-boats and planes attacked the convoy for a week. Only 14 vessels completed the 2,500-mile journey. More than 153 seamen were killed.

"Blackie" and his crewmates sailed three weeks in an open lifeboat in the Arctic Ocean after their ship was torpedoed 600 miles north of Norway.

Off and on, he has wondered about a teen-age Norwegian fisherman who helped rescue the ship's survivors. He didn't know the youth's name, didn't know if he was still alive, didn't know, if so, where.

"Blackie" did know that at his age, he'd better weigh anchor and find out this summer. Unlike the bilge in an old ship, time has a way of running out.

Here's "Blackie's" story as told to Sun reporters Ernest F. Imhoff and Frederick N. Rasmussen:

Where I grew up, above Boston Street in Canton, we were all sea-faring people.

I didn't graduate from high school at Patterson Park. I went to sea. We were able-bodied seamen, firemen, oilers, wipers, longshoremen, tugboat men, barge men.

My first ship, I was 18, a wiper on the S.S. Berkshire to Miami. I always served on steam ships, never worked a diesel, and it was always the merchant marine. I'm on a good ship now.

Anyway, the war came. I was an oiler, 23 years old. We joined the S.S. Carlton in Baltimore in March 1942. We went up to Philadelphia to load more cargo ammo, vehicles, food, guns.

We sailed to Halifax and spent a couple weeks there while the convoy was assembled. When you're on convoy duty, you spend a lot of time waiting. We finally left Halifax and got lost. Heavy weather and fog.

We had 40 men on board, the usual four-hour watches. One man, Charlie Stillwell, went over the side. I don't know why. Even if we had seen him, we couldn't have stopped because of the Germans.

We finally got to Iceland. We were in the convoy PQ 16 - about 37 ships. We finally left Iceland about May 20, bound for Murmansk.

In a few days, a German dive bomber hit us. We didn't sink but we had to go back to Iceland for repairs. We sailed again soon for Murmansk. Now we were PQ 17.

On the Carlton, we were old-timers, 22 and 23 years old. Our gun crew was youngsters, teen-agers. You're under attack all the time. There was anxiety, some fear. But you had agreed to go and there was nothing you could do about it. German recon [reconnaissance] planes were always sending word on where you are.

The attack went on for days. It began with torpedo bombers. Soon they sunk the Christopher Newport near us.

Then a German submarine got us.

It was 10 or 12 minutes after 8 o'clock in the morning of July 5, 1942. The torpedo hit us in the engine room. I was walking to the aft steering compartment but we all felt and heard the impact. It killed two men down below. I went to the only lifeboat station not damaged. Some of the guys got on four rafts and we got in the one lifeboat.

The Carlton went down by the head in 10 minutes. Before she went down, the submarine surfaced 100 feet from us. The captain came on deck. He took pictures of the stern going down. It was evidence he sank her. No words were spoken. Then the sub disappeared. I learned this year the captain's name was Bohmann and it was U-boat 88.

We didn't say much in the lifeboat. There was nothing much you could say.

Right away we secured the four rafts and lifeboat to each other so we could stay together. On the first or second day, the Germans came in with flying boats and took off all the men on the rafts - the captain and others - to question them and take

them to a [prisoner of war] camp.

We were way above the Arctic Circle so there was no night. I was very cold. I had on only thin dungarees. A friend of mine, Dooley, saved my life. He gave me a second pair of pants.

There was nothing much you could do. We got the sail up. There were 17 of us in the lifeboat. Temperatures were in the 30s and 40s. We had pemmican, sea biscuits, pilot bread and water. Six ounces of water a day.

On the eighth day, we met a U-boat on the surface. I was curious, some apprehension. I wasn't trembling with fright. The U-boat captain was a good seaman he filled our water breaker [water barrel] for us, gave us a bag of blankets, box of biscuits, charts, compass, pilot bread. Some of the supplies were from the El Capitan and the Hoosier. The Germans had picked up some stuff after they sunk.

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