Charles F. 'Blackie' Blockston Jr., merchant mariner

His career spanned nearly 50 years and he later assisted in the restoration of the SS John W. Brown

  • Charles F. Blockston
Charles F. Blockston (Baltimore Sun )
September 04, 2012|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Charles F. "Blackie" Blockston Jr., a merchant mariner who during World War II survived the U-boat sinking of the freighter Carlton and spent three weeks drifting 600 miles in a lifeboat before being rescued, died Aug. 28 of multiple-organ failure at the Veterans Medical Center in downtown Baltimore.

The longtime Rosedale resident was 93.

Mr. Blockston's wartime adventures began in the engine room of the SS Carlton, a Lykes Brothers Steamship Co. freighter that departed Iceland on May 20, 1942, sailing for the Soviet Arctic port of Murmansk.

It was attacked and damaged a few days later by a German dive bomber. The Carlton was forced to return to port for repairs before leaving June 27, 1942, with 34 other ships as a member of convoy PQ-17, carrying enough supplies to outfit an army of 50,000.

On July 4, 1942, the British Admiralty, fearing an attack by German warships, ordered the convoy to scatter.

The German attack on PQ-17 went on for days. A little after 8 o'clock in the morning of July 5, 1942, a torpedo from a submarine slammed into the Carlton's engine room.

Mr. Blockston, an oiler, was able to make it into the only lifeboat.

"The Carlton went down by the head in 10 minutes. Before she went down, the submarine surfaced 100 feet from us," Mr. Blockston told The Baltimore Sun in a 1997 interview.

"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," he said.

What came next for Mr. Blockston and 17 other survivors in the lifeboat was a three-week odyssey that took them roughly some 600 miles above the Arctic Circle.

Mr. Blockston and his shipmates ate pemmican, sea biscuits and pilot bread and survived on six ounces of water a day while enduring temperatures in the 30s and 40s.

A passing U-boat stopped and gave the men blankets, biscuits, charts and a compass, with some of the supplies coming from ships that had been part of PQ-17.

Near the coast of Norway, a fisherman and his teenage son, Otto Josefsen, rescued the survivors from the Carlton and landed them at Tufjord, a fishing village of 300, promising to feed them a fish dinner.

"The local Norwegians were good people. We met them in the village. Very friendly. We were sitting down eating a dinner," Mr. Blockston told Ernest F. Imhoff, a former Baltimore Sun editor who wrote "Good Shipmates: The Restoration of the Liberty Ship John W. Brown."

"Someone, a traitor, must have tipped them off. We didn't get to finish our fish. But the Germans were fair, like the U-boat captain we met. They fed us well," he said.

While being transported aboard the Wurri bound for a prisoner of war camp, the ship struck a mine in the strait between Norway and Denmark and went down.

They were rescued by a Danish trawler under the command of a German captain, who reminded them they were still prisoners, Mr. Blockston told The Sun.

He and his fellow survivors spent 32 months at the Milag Nord POW camp until February 1945, when he was released in a prisoner exchange and arrived in New York aboard the SS Gripsholm.

Mr. Blockston was born at home on Luzerne Avenue in East Baltimore. He attended public schools, dropping out at 15. He went to sea as a wiper on the Merchants and Miners Transportation Co. ship SS Berkshire.

He claimed that he got the nickname "Blockie," later changed to "Blackie," because of his curly dark hair.

Before retiring in 1982, Mr. Blockston had worked as an engineer on vessels as varied as tugboats and 80,000-ton oil tankers and estimated that he had visited roughly 80 countries.

"The war and getting locked up by the Germans didn't stop me from sailing," he told Mr. Imhoff.

Mr. Blockston returned to sea six years after his retirement when he became an active volunteer and engineer aboard the Liberty ship SS John W. Brown.

In 1997, he returned to Tufjord, where he was reunited with the man who had rescued him as a teenager. He promised to prepare the fish dinner that the Nazis had interrupted 55 years earlier.

Mr. Blockston, who had moved to the Charlestown retirement community in recent years, was a member of Mensa and was a 32nd-degree Mason

He told Mr. Imhoff that he wanted his tombstone to read: "He was a good shipmate."

Plans for a memorial service and a subsequent one aboard the SS John W. Brown are incomplete.

Surviving are two sisters, Virginia Albrent of Lakewood, Calif., and Elizabeth Garrigues of Muskogee, Okla.; and several nieces and nephews. Three marriages ended in divorce.

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