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The Arctic Convoys: Navigating My Father’s Untold History

Convoy crossing the Atlantic, 1942 (Courtesy The Library of Congress)

On a recent Sunday, snow whirling outside, I scoured the house for something to read, hoping to curl up with a good thriller. Tucked in among a motley collection of still unpacked titles — picture books, college texts and weighty political tracts — I discovered a dog-eared copy of HMS Ulysses, the classic adventure story of combat in the North Atlantic. Captured by the cover image, a World War II cruiser steaming through stormy seas, I began to read the yellowed pages. This was my father’s war. The treacherous routes drawn up on the book’s nautical map would have felt familiar to him. And as I traced those journeys it struck me how little I knew of his harrowing years at sea and the memories he carried with him into old age.

The novel follows the fortunes of a merchant convoy’s terrifying voyage to Russia’s Arctic outposts and the deadly game of cat-and-mouse they play with Nazi U-boats and bombers. Hardly the kind of narrative I regularly devour. So I was more than a little surprised to feel the wave of longing and regret the story triggered.

It was the vivid descriptions that moved me: mountainous rogue waves and Arctic temperatures of -60 F, clouds of frozen sea spray and torpedo explosions bunched together in rapid-fire succession — three hits in three seconds — that ripped and shredded metal, catapulting sailors into the icy waters.

Dad as a young man

Through it all I pictured my dad. A ship’s engineer, he survived 30 voyages across the Atlantic, including four missions to Archangel and Murmansk. He was my son’s age, 26 years old, when he sailed those deadly waters, running the North Atlantic gauntlet to Russia. More than 800 ships, 40 convoys, followed that route between 1941 and 1945, risking everything to deliver supplies to the Soviet allies. Of those, over 100 never made it home, marking it as one of the most dangerous duties of the Second World War.

When we were kids my father shared few tales of his adventures in the Merchant Marine, shrugging off that time as the long-forgotten past. Near the end of his life he sometimes talked of a Christmas Eve when the crew watched helplessly as a nearby tanker was torpedoed, its sailors burning to death in oily Arctic waters. But mostly he kept those horror stories to himself.

There was one scene he’d tell us kids, often with a gruff laugh: “It was late night and I was on deck having a smoke. We still didn’t have our orders. I hoped we might be headed for Scotland, maybe get to go to shore, drink a warm beer, dance with a girl.”

Off Montauk

Standing in the biting wind, braced against the ship’s heavy pitch, he offered a fellow sailor a cigarette. The two men peered into the winter sky, searching the stars to plot their voyage. It didn’t take long to calculate. “So much for Scotland,” the sailor said, tossing his cigarette over the stern. My father sighed as he trudged back to the engine room and his duty. “It’s Murmansk. Again,”

As a child, my take away from the story was that my father could navigate from the stars. As an adult, I find myself considering all that my father left unsaid. What was he thinking as he stared out into the darkness, facing the certainty of piercing cold days and countless nights without sleep, the possibility of Arctic storms, and the unremitting fear of sudden and violent death? I wish I’d urged my father to tell me the story of those remarkable days. I wish I’d recorded his adventures and documented his memories, decoding how they shaped him in later life to pass on as a gift to future generations.

Maybe it’s the missed chance of witnessing my father’s story that’s made me passionate about telling other people’s histories. I’ve seen firsthand that the stories left untold are forever lost, and that those told second-hand are corrupted in the retelling, each time with more lapses and more inaccuracies until finally, drifting from generation to generation, they simply fade away.

Talking to people about their lives — hearing their remembrances, often deeply personal and emotional — is an extraordinary privilege. It’s a privilege that is now my work. The job begins with listening, but it’s in the writing that a unique theme emerges and personal histories are woven into a larger story. A timeline for a life can be constructed, but it’s placing our life stories in the crowded arc of human events that gives them meaning for future generations and adds an invaluable dimension to our own family story. It’s those stories that we cherish most and hope to pass down to our children and grandchildren.

— Caitlin Randall

Sun and sea: the sailor at home