Pasadena man honored for WWII British Merchant Navy service

  • William Tiernan, a World War II veteran of the British Merchant Navy, was awarded The Arctic Star medal by the British government for his service on a convoy ship to Russia during the war.
William Tiernan, a World War II veteran of the British Merchant… (Barbara Haddock Taylor…)
August 22, 2013|By Bob Allen, For The Baltimore Sun

Sometimes recognition for a job well done is a long time coming.

Seventy years ago, Pasadena resident William Tiernan was an 18-year-old sailor in the British Merchant Navy, participating in one of World War II's most dangerous assignments, the Russian Arctic convoy.

A couple of weeks ago, the 87-year-old Tiernan received special recognition for that duty with an Arctic Star Medal — an award only recently issued by the British government.

"My opinion is that the merchant marine is not recognized like the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines are. That's why we didn't get no medals" until now, the British-born Tiernan said without any bitterness

Still, he noted, "To this day, merchant marines cannot join the VFW."

The Russian Arctic convoy, in which Allied troops supplied the Soviet Union in its struggle against invading German forces, has often been referred to as a suicide mission. Winston Churchill called the maritime route — from the British Isles through the Arctic Ocean to the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Archangel —"the worst journey in the world."

Between 1941 and 1945, the Allies' North Atlantic fleet of merchant ships — many of them the so-called Liberty ships, built in Baltimore — escorted by Royal Naval ships, supplied Russia with 7,411 aircraft, 5,218 tanks, 4,932 anti-tank guns and thousands of tons of armaments and supplies. This was at a time when the Soviet Union was almost completely blockaded by the Germans.

Tiernan calls the convoy missions "a terrible run."

"Half the ships didn't get there. They got sunk," he said, recalling in particular the story of the Royal Navy corvette HMS Bluebell, which was hit by torpedoes from a German U-boat on Feb. 17, 1945, and sank in freezing waters. "There was only one man saved."

"If you were in the convoys and another ship got hit, you weren't allowed to stop and help, even if they were in lifeboats. If you did, it would just make your ship a sitting target," he said.

According to the website of the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum, in Loch Ewe, Scotland (, more than 3,000 men lost their lives in this massive relief effort. Most of their bodies were never recovered.

"It was desolate; it was pretty miserable," Tiernan said. "It was 35 to 40 degrees below zero most of the time. We had an icebreaker tow us from Murmansk to Archangel through the White Sea and four feet of solid ice. Then when you got there it was terrible. [The Russians] were just surviving."

Tiernan was born near England's border with Scotland and was raised in Yorkshire in a seafaring family.

"Three of my mother's brothers were officers in the Navy," he said. "In England, during the war, everybody got drafted at 18, and I didn't want to go into the army. So I volunteered for the Merchant Navy in 1943."

He ended up in the Arctic Ocean, where allied ships were under constant threat from German submarines, storms and frigid weather.

"You never went to sleep," Tiernan said of his two years with the convoys, where he served on the U.S.-built Liberty ship S.S. Samaritan as a machine-gunner. "We never took our clothes off. We just took our boots off and laid on the bunk, because you knew you'd be getting up again real soon.

"Every morning when you got up, if it had snowed during the night or you had ice on the deck, the whole crew had to go up and break the ice and throw it overboard. If you let it pile up and get thick, the weight of the ice can sink a ship."

Tiernan has lived a long and colorful life, to say the least.

In 1946, he ended up in the U.S. merchant marine through a simple strategy: "I jumped ship."

After the war, Tiernan was still serving in the British Merchant Navy when he and his shipmates made a cargo run to the United States. But when they got to America, they were told to sail to Australia and New Zealand, where they would be operating for six months to a year.

This didn't suit Tiernan. "So me and this other guy jumped ship," he said. "Best move I ever made in my life, coming to this country.

"At that time, they needed seamen in this country, so we joined the U.S. merchant marines. Within two days, I had my union papers and my Coast Guard papers. I didn't even have a Social Security number. I just made one up."

In 1951, Tiernan got his U.S. citizenship, eventually settled in the Baltimore area and met Sharon, his wife of 30 years. After retiring from the U.S. merchant marine, he spent a number of years captaining tugboats in the Baltimore harbor and the Chesapeake Bay.

For 40 years, until he retired at age 75, he and his son owned and operated C.A. Norris Marine Contractors, a marine construction company.

"I was brought up on the water, spent my whole life on the water," he said. "I love it. The house that I've lived here in Pasadena for 62 years is on the water."

During the first Gulf War, Tiernan, at age 63, found himself briefly back in the merchant marine.

"They needed seamen," he said. "They asked me to volunteer, and I did. They flew me over to Haifa, in Israel, and put me on a tanker carrying aviation fuel."

It tickles him to recall he was serving under a captain who was 21 years his junior.

Tiernan is an affable man, but one thing sticks in his craw after all these years, even after his Arctic Star Medal came in the mail.

It's annoying to him that he has to remind people that more than 14,000 men perished while serving on the Allied merchant ships during the war.

"Even though I can't join the VFW, I go there quite a bit, and sometimes I tease the other guys," he said. "I tell them, 'Look, I know you guys served overseas, but who brought you your clothes, your cigarettes, your ammunition, your tanks, your towels, your soap, your toothpaste? The Coast Guard didn't do it. The Navy didn't do it.' "

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