Richard Lowe's WWII Naval Armed Guard Experiences
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Richard Lowe - 1942
Richard Lowe - 1942 (Nickname was Guns)

        RICHARD LOWE
 WWII NAVAL ARMED GUARD EXPERIENCES
1942-1945

 

 MURMANSK RUN

 

I volunteered for the navy in December, 1941.  This was a short time after the United States was forced into World War II.  I was placed on inactive duty until after Christmas of that year.  I was called into active duty on March 3, 1942.  At that time, I was sent to San Diego, California for my boot camp training.  In boot camp my company number was 42-145 and my company commander was L. A. McGlothlin.  At the time of my boot camp training, the need for men in active service was at a premium; therefore I spent only a few weeks in training.  Most of the time spent there was to get my hair cut, run through all the medical tests, get a supply of clothes and shoes, and get for all the shots they could think of.  They issued me a blue jacket manual and sent me on my way.

 

I was put into the Armed Guard right out of boot camp.  I was shipped to the navy base in New Orleans, Louisiana.  New Orleans was to become my home port to ship out of and report back to for a new assignment.  I arrived at the New Orleans navy base early in 1942.  I was assigned to a new supply ship as one of its gunners.  The name of this new ship was the S. S. William Moultrie.  It was on this ship that I made the first trip to Murmansk, Russia in 1942.  The voyage was also known as the Murmansk Run or the Russian Run.

 

I boarded the S. S. William Moultrie in Wilmington, North Carolina on June 8, 1942.  After sailing to New York for our cargo of tanks, locomotives, dynamite, etc., we set sail for Halifax, Nova Scotia.  We left Nova Scotia the following day after arriving.  Our next stop was to be Scotland for the final formation of supply convoy PQ-18.

 

The first Russian bound convoy, PQ-17, was already on its way and it was the largest one to date to try and run the German blockade.  PQ-18 had no official count of the losses PQ-17 had suffered, but word got back to us that of the 44 ships in PQ-17, only 4 remained afloat.  The great loss of ships and men in that convoy caused Winston Churchill to stop the departure of convoy PQ-18.  Both of these two convoys were under the command of the British fleet.

 

Joseph Stalin put great pressure on Churchill for more help.  The Russian army was being pushed back up to the North Sea and Stalin was about to lose the northern part of his country.  Stalin’s northern army was cut off from its supplies.  Churchill reissued orders for PQ-18 to “move on its planned mission”.  PQ-18 and the S. S. William Moultrie began its trip to Russia on August 28, 1942.

 

Our escort, like PQ-17 was to be British ships.  They had several heavy cruisers, destroyers, destroyer escorts and mine sweepers within the convoy.  The British Navy’s plan was to use this large supply convoy to bring the German battleship “Tirpitz” out to sea.  Their plans were to cut the battleship off from its base in Norway and force it into a naval sea battle.  They had tried this maneuver with PQ-17.  When the “Tirpitz” came after PQ-17, the British war ships left the convoy and tried to cut her off from her base.  It was then that the Germans hit PQ-17 with air power and in two days the convoy was lost.  On the second day of air strikes, with no protection, the convoy split and they became sitting ducks for the Germans.  A total of 40 supply ships and men, lost! 

 

PQ-18 expected the British to do the same when the “Tirpitz” came out after them.  However, the ships of PQ-18 were better armed than PQ-17 and were under strict orders to not split and run, but to hold there position under all cost.

 

On September 2, 1942, a lone German reconnaissance plane was spotted on the horizon.  It remained out of reach and stayed there for quite some time.  We judged he was plotting the number of ships, their speed and direction.  He never came closer.  The next day, September 3, 1942, proved to be the first day of attacks by the Germans on convoy PQ-18.  This was the first of eight days of continuous fighting.

 

The early morning attack was with waves of high altitude Heinkel 111K bombers, one  after another and this lasted several hours.  Later in the day, the attacks were switched to several flights of low flying torpedo planes.  They made their attacks from the starboard side of the convoy.  They flew low and just above the water, dropped their torpedoes and then flew low between the ships in hopes of not drawing fire because of the crossfire among the ships.  This proved them wrong because we all fired at anything that moved, regardless of its location.  I am sure we did hit some of our own ships, but anti-aircraft guns will not sink a ship.  During these attacks, we were constantly strafed by fighter planes who made there passes with quick cannon fire.  At near dusk, we began to draw fire from their battleship.  We could see the flash from their large guns over the horizon.  We had evidence of their marksmanship within our convoy.  Several ships were hit before it turned its guns on the British war ships that were coming after it.  The return of the high altitude bombers and raiding squadrons of torpedo planes just before dark brought an end to the daylight attacks. 

 

You must understand that at this time of the year there is only three hours of darkness.  It would get dark at midnight and last till 3 a.m. in the morning.  However, we were attacked at night by submarines.  Over a period of 8 days we never left our gun stations.  Our food was brought to us. 

 

The S. S. William Moultrie’s location in the convoy was the last ship of the third row from the starboard side.  The starboard side was always the side the attacks were made on.  The first full day of attacks by the Germans wiped out the two rows of ships on the starboard side and all the ships of the third line down to the S. S. William Moultrie’s position.

 

The S. S. William Moultrie was the only ship left in that line.  There were open spots inside the convoy of lost ships also.  The captain had requested permission to move within the convoy, but he was ordered to hold his position.  We were left out there alone.  As it turned out, we had seven more days of fighting.  Our position was such that we would be the first ship they would meet when attacking from that side.

 

We were subjected to almost constant bombing, submarine, and aerial torpedo attacks from an extraordinary number of enemy units.  On September 13, 1942, the S. S. William Moultrie gun crews met nine torpedo planes with a tremendous barrage of withering fire.  Three planes were completely destroyed and direct hits were scored upon six other planes.  The gunners not only revealed the exact location of a periscope, but with accurate and skillful volleys of gun fire, forced the periscope to submerge.  The crew also opened fire on a torpedo charging through the water, exploding it some distance from the ship.  There were several other incidents that happened during the eight day battle that I haven’t covered at this time.

 

The S. S. William Moultrie and its sister ships, a total we counted of 13, made it through the blockade.  That worked out to be 13 of 38 ships that left Scotland.  We arrived at Murmansk in North Russia on the morning of September 20, 1942.  This was Russia’s last stand.  PQ-18 was the largest convoy to get through the blockade and reach Murmansk.  The port could not handle all the ships.  A select group of ships with vital supplies of tanks, locomotives, etc., that were badly needed at the front, were pulled out and ordered to proceed to the port of Archangel.  The William Moultrie was one of the ships selected to proceed to Archangel.  The port of Archangel was at the southern end of the White Sea and at the mouth of the Dunia River.  In addition to the aerial attack, the Germans now were able to come at us with torpedo boats.  As you may recall, the hulls of the torpedo boats that the Germans had were built with plywood.  To help protect us from the German torpedo boats, the Russians cut and floated large trees in the river.  They also had large timbers floating in the White Sea.  We arrived at the mouth of the Dunia River on the night of September 22, 1942.

 

At the docks in Archangel we were under constant aerial attacks, both day and night.  One ship was hit and sunk in the mouth of the river.  The water was not deep enough to allow it to go completely under the water.  The Russians later unloaded the equipment where it went down. 

 

We were under orders while in port not to fire our guns during the air raids.  They wanted the shore batteries to be used for our protection.  What they didn’t know was we had used up all of our anti-aircraft ammunition.  If we were to fire at any aircraft it would have to be with armor piercing projectiles.

 

The German radio broadcast, their equivalent to Japan’s “Tokyo Rose”, complemented the ships of PQ-18 for reaching their destination, but wanted to remind the convoy that they had to come back through the blockade on there return to the United States.  After unloading our supplies for the Russian front, the ships remained in Archangel, awaiting orders.

 

The plan, as directed by the Russian port commander, was for all the ships to await the winter snow storms.  The plan was to ride with these storms back through the blockade, using them as protection against German air attacks.  The Russians had ice breakers ready to lead us out of the White Sea.

 

The weather at times would reach 58 degrees below zero, but would be clear with almost no wind at all.  The gun crews played softball for entertainment on days like this.  The Russians thought that we were crazy.

 

On November 17, 1942, a tremendous snow storm moved in on us.  The Russians gave us the word that this was the storm that covered all of the north and would be there for some time.  If we were going to get out before the next spring, it would have to be now, or we would be snowed in.  The ships were ordered to leave port.  With the help of the Russian ice breakers we left the mouth of the river and into the White Sea that day.  The snow was so thick and the clouds were so low, that we could not see the other ships that left with us.  We were ordered not to use our radio for communication for fear the Germans would pick it up and know we were out there.  As it turned out, the storm was so big that it covered the North Atlantic and Barents Sea.  We had no knowledge where our sister ships were after we left Archangel.  We traveled the North Atlantic blindly for eight days.  During this time our guns had become frozen and unable to be used.  When the weather began to rise and we could see parts of the blue sky, we took blow torches and heated the guns so they could be used if needed.

 

As the weather cleared and we could see the horizon, we also spotted a war ship off our stern.  Through the use of blinkers, and the proper code, we found out that it was British.  They instructed us to hold what we had because we were in the middle of a mine field off the coast of Iceland.  They said they would come in and bring us out.  They could see we were shot up pretty bad and offered to escort us into Iceland.

 

After sailing for nine days in a snow storm we arrived in Iceland, at the port of Reykjavik.  The arrival date was November 26, 1942.  At this port we did not see any of the ships we left Russia with nor to this day do we know if they made it back or not.  We left Iceland on November 28, 1942 for Scotland to pick up supplies to get us back to New York.  We arrived in Scotland on November 30, 1942.  We stayed in Scotland till December 15, 1942.  Then we left for New York and arrived in New York on December 24, 1942.  There was so much that happened during this eight day battle that I haven’t mentioned.

 

The S. S. William Moultrie received the Gallant Ship award during the war for the Russian run that I was involved in.  The Moultrie also received congratulations from the Port Commander and the Prime Minister of Great Britain.  Each member of the crew received a months pay as a bonus from the Russian Government.  Also each member received a Letter of Commendation from the U. S. Chief of Naval Personal which stated, “For conspicuous courage, tenacity and fighting spirit during a running battle against enemy German forces”.  The Silver Star was awarded to the Gunnery Officer for his leadership during this conflict.  Each gun crew member was awarded a Citation Ribbon Bar from the U. S. Navy Director of Medals.  On December 8, 1992 at the Russian Embassy in Washington D. C. each member of the gun crew received a Commemorative medal and ribbon from the Russian Government along with a letter from President Boris Yeltsin and the entire Russian people for our courage and personal contribution to the Allied support of his country during WWII.

 

 

Newspaper articles about the Murmansk Run, PQ-18 below:

                                  

Newspaper articles about the Murmansk Run, PQ-18
Newspaper articles about the Murmansk Run, PQ-18

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