National Geographic : 1943 Feb
Convoys to Victory BY HARVEY KLEMMER S "OU will find your ship at the explo sives pier." I pricked up my ears at - the mention of explosives. The mere sound of the word gave me a sinking feeling at the pit of my stomach. There was nothing that could be done about it now. I had been very casual about the whole idea of crossing the Atlantic by freighter. It was too late to back out. There was nothing to do but go through with it and hope for the best. Besides, the explosives probably didn't amount to much. A few antiaircraft shells, perhaps, or some bombs with the fuses removed. I had a good lunch and set out for a certain desolate area adjoining one of our great ports. A couple of friends, Jesse Saugstad and Inman Payne, came along. They said they wanted to have a look at the explosives pier. Actually, I think they wanted to make sure I didn't change my mind. We found the pier area surrounded by barbed wire. There was a guard every hun dred feet. Some carried rifles, with bayonets attached; others were armed with shotguns. Our papers were examined carefully, and we were asked to surrender any matches we might have in our pockets. We were allowed to drive our car to the end of the pier; there we transferred to a dilap idated truck, in which, after a lengthy ses sion with immigration and customs officials, we were taken to the ship. Sailors were battening down a hatch as we came aboard, preparatory to loading Army trucks on deck (page 196). "What's in the Hold?"-"TNT!" "What's in the hold?" I asked with as much nonchalance as I could muster, looking over my shoulder at the rows of guards and the piles of neat white boxes standing on the dock. One of the sailors rubbed the sweat from his face and came over to where I stood. "TNT," he whispered. I may have been seeing things, but I im agined that Payne and Saugstad were a bit profuse in their farewells when it came time for them to go ashore! The ship was a modern vessel. Like all Norwegians, she was well kept and beautifully clean. The steward gave me a comfortable little room on the bridge deck, next to the captain's quarters. Here I was to spend a quiet and, in view of the circumstances, a not uncomfortable three weeks. The captain, Frode Bjorn-Hansen, was a great lean man with large hands and a strong face. He was typical of the Norse seafarer quiet, capable, determined. He had been at sea since he was a boy. I could tell at once (as a former seaman) that he was a real skipper. Like most captains, he lived a lonely life aboard ship. Yet he was held in high esteem by his men, and the work went forward with out fuss or bother. The ship was built in Germany. The Nor wegians paid for her with fish. It was an ironic thing, I thought, that this product of Dr. Schacht's barter system should now be on her way to Europe with a cargo of death for the people who made her. Bremen gave this ship to the world. Now Bremen, in retribution for a crime against humanity, would be made to suffer through the instrumentality of its own skill. The men were obviously good sailors. They bore the stamp of an early start and long experience-twin requisites of good seaman ship. Many had worked in sail. Some had already had experience with Nazi U-boats. One chap, a mere boy, had survived three sinkings-twice by torpedo, once by mine. The crew was almost entirely Norwegian. The exceptions were in the steward's depart ment. There we had a sort of international brigade. The cook was Norwegian. His three messboys were divided up as follows: one Canadian, one Scot, one Czech. The men were of all ages. The oldest was 57, the youngest 17. Most of the men had families in Norway. The steward was married a few weeks before the war, and had not seen his wife since. The saloon messman had not heard from his family in nearly three years. The radio operator had only a wedding ring to remind him of a happy marriage. The skipper's brother is in a concentration camp. He has had no news of his wife and children except a letter from a relative, smuggled out by way of Sweden, which said, "It is not so bad for the older people, but it is pitiful to see the children go hungry." It is no accident that Norwegian seamen, when attacked, fight in a cold fury and that, when their vessels go down, they ship again at the first opportunity. The Norwegians have been maintaining a good portion of the Atlantic life line, and I was anxious to see them in action.