Three still afloat recall SS Henry Bacon

WAY BACK WHEN

Way Back When

Way Back When

March 29, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Last October, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation introduced by Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, honoring the crew of the SS Henry Bacon for its heroic part in saving the lives of 19 Norwegian refugees during the final days of World War II.

Three survivors of the sinking of the Liberty ship SS Henry Bacon held a reunion on a rainswept Saturday afternoon last month aboard the SS John W. Brown, which is docked at Pier I in Canton.

The survivors included Earnal S. "Spud" Campbell of Cullman, Ala., the Bacon's radio operator; Robert "Chuck" Reed, of Macatawa, Mich., the ship's messman; and Monrad Pedersen, a Norwegian refugee survivor who was 5 years old at the time of the sinking.

They had come to remember their former shipmates and visit the Baltimore Liberty ship, one of two surviving World War II-era Liberty ships.

It was also the eve of the 58th anniversary of the loss of the SS Henry Bacon, which went down in a heavy gale off the Lofoten islands of Northern Norway, on Feb. 23, 1945, after being attacked by 23 Junker JU-88 German torpedo bombers. It was the last ship-sinking of the war by German aircraft.

The ship's captain, Alfred Carini, Donald Haviland, the chief engineer, boatswain Holcomb Lammon Jr., Lt. John Sippola, commanding officer of the U.S. Navy Armed Guard, and 23 crewmen lost their lives in the sinking.

The day after this winter's reunion, the survivors and invited guests attended the first SS Henry Bacon Memorial Lecture at the Army and Navy Club, sponsored by the Norwegian Embassy, and featuring Dr. Robert L. Alotta and Donald R. Foxvog, authors of the recently published book, The Last Voyage of the Henry Bacon.

After its launching in Wilmington, N.C., in 1942, the Henry Bacon, named for the architect of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, transported war material to India, South Africa, England, Russia and the Persian Gulf.

A veteran of the Murmansk run, the Henry Bacon was in a homebound convoy of 35 ships and naval escorts from that Russian port on Feb. 17, 1945.

Besides officers and crew, the vessel carried 19 Norwegians - out of an estimated 502 Norwegians, including adults and children - who escaped the Nazi occupation of the province of Finnmark.

Within days, the convoy was caught in the grips of a ferocious Arctic Ocean gale with waves of 35 to 90 feet that damaged several of the vessel's lifeboats.

In addition to the weather, the convoy had also been under attack by U-Boats and enemy aircraft, which sank several ships and naval vessels.

The storm with its enormous waves and swells had also scattered the remaining ships, including the Henry Bacon, which was some 60 miles away from the main convoy when it was attacked.

German torpedoes blew a hole in the No. 5 hold near the stern and also damaged the ship's rudder and propeller.

As the ship began to settle, her armed guard continued firing, bringing down as many as five of the attacking bombers.

"I was chief radio officer when the captain came in and told me to let the convoy escorts know that we were being attacked and our location. I sent the S.O.S. by Morse code," Campbell said. "A few minutes later, he came in and said, `Send another message that we're abandoning ship.' "

Carini ordered the crew with the exception of Campbell and several other crewmen out of the No. 1 lifeboat.

The crew willingly gave up their seats for the refugees, including the young Pedersen, even though they knew there were not enough lifeboats for them.

Campbell remained in the lifeboat, where his job was to rig an antenna for the portable transmitter.

"I was able to successfully erect the mast despite the rough water. This would send a beam in order to bring rescue ships to us. The captain told me to try and get rescued before nightfall. He was worried about the frigid weather," said Campbell, who later became a vice president of Radio Free Europe in Munich.

"The chief engineer said to us, `One of you young men take my place. I've lived my life.' And then he stepped back on deck," said Reed, the steward who served in the ship's officers' mess.

After No. 1 was lowered away, the captain returned to the bridge to await the end. Reed, who made a terrifying jump into the frigid and raging sea, recalls plunging way, way, down, and being fearful of getting dragged down in the ship's whirlpool as it plummeted toward the bottom.

"I thought I would never come up, and when I did, I swam for some timbers which I fell off of several times. I finally made it to a raft with a dozen people. The person in charge wasn't very enthusiastic about my coming aboard, but after the others said, `You can't leave him here,' they took me in," said Reed, who later had his own financial services business and is treasurer of Laketown Township in Michigan.

"I heard later that the captain was on the wing bridge waving to the refugees. I also heard that he and the chief engineer had an alcoholic drink and toasted their crew and the U.S.

"God knows what went through their minds during the final moments of the ship's life," he said.

As the Henry Bacon made its final plunge, a muffled groan arose from deep inside the vessel. As cold ocean waters entered the engine room and made contact with the ship's hot boilers, explosions began to erupt.

"It was very sad to see her go under and realize that the captain and your friends would never be rescued. The captain was a hero, he never left his ship, and in the best tradition of the sea he got the women and children off," said Campbell.

The survivors, who were rescued by three British destroyers, were taken to Scapa Flow and Gourock, Scotland.

For years, admits Campbell, he didn't want to think about what happened to the Henry Bacon.

"I didn't want to remember it. I was just doing my job," he said. "But now, I've gotten over the trauma of losing my friends."

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