One of the lesser-known but compelling stories of the Second World War is that of the US Merchant Marine. This service manned the convoys that plied the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and these sailors paid a heavy collective price in the war – I’ve read that some 1 in 26 sailors who served lost their lives in the conflict, a casualty rate greater than those of any of the branches of the armed services. Perhaps the most harrowing of the routes plied by these convoys was the Murmansk Run – the route of convoys carrying supplies from the Western Allies to the Soviet Union, north around Norway to the Arctics port of Murmansk, Archangel, and Molotovsk. This route was in easy reach of the U-Boat fleet and the surface navy of Germany. Moreover, it was within easy striking distance of German bombers based in occupied Norway. This meant that even heavily-escorted convoys were under perpetual threat. Add to this the threat of the frigid Arctic waters, in which survival was a matter of minutes, and a picture of a harrowing and terrifying journey emerges.
One veteran of the Murmansk Run was my uncle, Clifton Bain. Cliff passed away on Dec. 18, at the age of 92. Cliff was a favorite brother of my mother’s, and he took great pleasure in calling me after the annual Kentucky-Florida football game (and more recently the basketball games) and gently needling me (readers should understand that Kentucky hasn’t beaten Florida in football since, oh, the days of the pharaohs). I have happy memories of time spent with Cliff, but sadly not enough of these. However, one stands out in my mind. A few years ago, I took my family to Tampa to visit Cliff and his wife (Irma) for Christmas. While we were there, Cliff took the time to tell us (and in particular Amy, who was in the middle of a school assignment having to do with chronicling the lives of our older citizenry) some stories of his younger days. Among these was mention of his duty in the Merchant Marine and his experience on the Murmansk Run. Incredibly enough, my mother, who was very close to Cliff, did not know that he had served there in WWII. That he had never talked about these experiences with his sister struck me as unusual, and I realized after some reading that it was because of the horrors he likely endured. Cliff was a strong and vibrant man, and it must have been an ordeal indeed to not share this with his sister (or others close to him). This conveyed to me a sense of the terror of this duty that “book learning” never could.
I’ll miss Cliff, the annual phone call (not to mention that I’ll never have the opportunity to turn the tables and brag about that long-awaited Kentucky win over Florida in football), what he meant to my mother, and many other things. But I’m thankful and blessed to have known him and had him as an uncle.