A Fourth of July Story

Winston Churchill called it the “worst journey in the world”. He was referring to the World War II Artic route ships would follow to provide necessary war supplies to the Soviet Union. It was commonly referred to as the Murmansk Run. From 1941 to 1945 there were approximately 40 such runs that followed the 1,500-mile passage from the Iceland to the Soviet Union. The frigid Artic temperatures were not the only challenge the crews had to endure. While the Murmansk Run was largely ignored by the Germans initially, all that was about to change in the summer of 1942.

My grand uncle Fred Delapenha (1893-1981) was a legend. He was my paternal grandmother’s big brother. As far as I know he was the first ancestor in my family tree to emigrate from Jamaica to the United States. In 1911, eighteen year old Fred arrived in New York City through Ellis Island. Six years later in 1917 he answered the call from President Woodrow Wilson for volunteers to serve their country in World War I. Young Fred was eager to show his metal and love for his newly adopted country. He registered on June 5. However, like most men of African descent was not drafted. Not deterred, a year later he registered as a merchant seaman with the US Department of Commerce. This started a 54 year career at sea, and quite the adventure for a poor boy from Kingston.

Convoy PQ 17 was about to begin its Murmansk Run, leaving Iceland on June 27, 1942. This was the largest and most impressive convoy to date. Thirty-five ships representing the United States, Great Britain, Russia, Panama, and the Netherlands. Over 150,000 tons of supplies, enough to support an army of 50,000. The attacks on the convoy commenced July 2 and did not let up until July 9. The German attacks were brutal and relentless, coming from the sea and air. Only eleven ships made it to the Soviet Union. Fourteen of the sunken ships were American. Two-thirds of the cargo was lost and over 120 men perished.

My grand uncle Fred was part of that convoy. He was on the Christopher Newport, an American Liberty ship built in March 1942 and on its maiden voyage. There was a crew of 50 men on that ship, that summer of 1942, carrying 8,200 tons of war material. His was the first ship sunk by enemy fire on July 3. He was interviewed by the Seafarers International Union in 1975 and was asked about his experience on that fateful trip. He said, “I was scared to death!”  He was at his post on the top stack when he heard the warning bell and knew an attack was eminent. The torpedo hit the engine room on the starboard side. Fred was knocked down and bleeding from the stomach. His life preserver was blown off by the force of the concussion. The crew had approximately 15 minutes to get off the ship. A fellow mate, Homer Tipton, helped Fred to his feet and got him to a life boat.

Three crew members of the Christopher Newport died that day. Fred and the other surviving crew members were eventually picked up by an Egyptian ship and transported to Archangel Russia on July 11. It took another four months before he was able to make it back to the states and home to New York, reuniting with his wife Ella. You know, he was almost 50 years old when he went on that 1942 Murmansk Run!  What’s even more amazing is that he was back on another ship in 1943 and continued to serve as a merchant seaman until he was 60. My grand uncle Fred was a legend indeed!

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