Freighter knew war all too well


January 19, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

As World War II began to expand in the autumn of 1939, the City of Flint, an outward-bound Baltimore freighter, found herself caught up in two major international wartime incidents.

The City of Flint, under the command of Capt. Joseph Gainard, who was well-known in Baltimore maritime circles, was steaming across the Atlantic when her wireless crackled with a call for help from the Donaldson Atlantic Line steamer Athenia.

On Sept. 1, 1939, the ship was sailing westward from Ireland, bound for Montreal with 1,103 passengers, of whom 311 were Americans fleeing the impending outbreak of war in Europe.

Two days later and a few hours after Britain declared war on Germany, the U-30 sighted the Athenia in her periscope. After firing a torpedo into her side, the submarine surfaced and finished off the liner with her deck gun.

The City of Flint, of the United States Lines, rushed to the aid of the stricken ship. Before the Athenia sank into the dark, cold Atlantic waters with 128 souls, the City of Flint rescued more than 200 of the survivors, who were taken to Nova Scotia.

A month later, on Oct. 9, the City of Flint was halted by the German raider Deutschland while steaming from New York to England with a cargo of tractors, oil and other miscellaneous goods stored deep in her holds. The ship's voyage had originated in Baltimore before she called at New York to load additional cargo.

The Germans put a prize crew aboard the captured vessel, along with survivors of a British freighter it had sunk earlier.

The German crew painted out the American flag, which stretched the length of her hull, hoisted a Danish flag, and gave her a new name, the ALF.

"We left New York on Oct. 3 and nothing happened until six days later at 2:50 p.m. I noticed a ship on the horizon," said James G. McConnochie, the Flint's radio operator, in an interview with The Sun.

McConnochie first thought it was a British or French warship, but "as we drew closer, we saw she was flying the German flag," he said. "All her guns were trained on us. ... The German officer told us the matter was serious. He didn't like what he had to do but England had started a war."

Thus began a 113-day odyssey which took the Flint to Tromsoe, Norway, then on to Murmansk, Russia, before she steamed to Haugesund, Norway.

The ship slowly plowed northward as the temperatures steadily dropped. "The Germans were becoming very jittery - keeping an anxious watch for British warships and planes," said the radio officer.

All hopes of finding other ships and help were in vain, and the City of Flint finally landed at Tromsoe on Oct. 20. There, the ship's German captors warned the American crew - which included four Baltimoreans, Raymond Trumpe, Joseph Freer, Martin Keeling and William McFarlane - that it would be sunk if there was any trouble.

After Norwegian officials objected to the ship's presence, the German captors steamed the vessel through icy, storm-whipped waters to Murmansk.

The first word the world had of the ship's sudden disappearance came on Oct. 23, when the Soviet government announced the ship's arrival in the Arctic Russian port.

It was learned that the Germans planned to run the British blockade and sail the ship to Germany. Fearing their neutrality would be violated, Norway sent two warships to follow the Flint through international waters.

Because the United States was neutral at the time, Washington asked that Britain take no action that might endanger the ship's crew. On Nov. 3, the Flint arrived at Haugesund, and the Nazi crew was seized and removed from the vessel by Norwegian officials.

The British seamen aboard were freed, as was the vessel, despite the stern protests of the German government that claimed the vessel was a legitimate war prize.

Meanwhile, because Congress had passed the Neutrality Act, which forbade American-flag vessels to sail in combat waters, it took two months of diplomatic maneuvering between the Norwegian, German and U.S. governments before an agreement for her return home could be worked out.

After discharging her cargo, the Flint sailed for Bergen, where she loaded a cargo of ore for Baltimore, but not before another incident. While turning in the harbor, she collided with a British freighter, which delayed her departure by two days.

The only element threatening the homeward bound mariners in an otherwise routine crossing was ice that lingered in the sea lanes.

Steaming up the Patapsco into Baltimore on Jan. 27, 1940, the ship finally arrived in Baltimore and docked at Sparrows Point, greeted by anxious crowds and family members who lined the shore.

As her lines were thrown ashore and the ship made fast, the City of Flint's waterborne and diplomatic perambulations, which had begun several months earlier, came to an end.

"But today the excitement centers on her reappearance from the mysterious Arctic, where she lay, causing diplomatic headaches in at least three capitals. Her crew are being paid off for the first time in more than three months and doubtless some of them are already tired of their roles as public characters, which have been thrust upon them by a set of curious chances," said a Sun editorial.

"But interviews and a few words for the newsreels are all in a day's work for able seamen in wartime, where every voyage holds possibilities of heroism, adventure or participation in the framing of what passes for international law," concluded the editorial.

In late January 1943, the City of Flint wasn't so lucky.

This time, a German U-boat, without warning, fired torpedoes into her as she slowly steamed in the mid-Atlantic. The fabled ship went to the bottom with a loss of 17 out of a crew of 65.

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