ARMAGEDDON IN THE ARCTIC OCEAN

Reviewed by: LCDR D B COLLINS RCN (RETD)

This book is rather deceptive by title and by content. It is a memoir of Paul Gill, an American of Irish origin from South Boston, Massachusetts, who tells his life story from a hard scrabble existence during the Depression to merchant marine service both before and during World War Two, culminating in a commission in the US Naval Reserve and subsequent education and career in business. Gill left an unfinished manuscript which was later completed by his son and prepared for publication. The original title was Red Waters which was changed by the author’s son.

It is a tale that could have been written by many from 1930s America. The family had been seafarers for generations, but Gill’s father fell on hard times which forced his sons to leave school without qualifications and find work wherever they could, from scouring garbage dumps, to stevedoring to steeplejacking. One early vignette is that of witnessing HMS Hood in Boston harbour in the early 1930s being stoned by Irish immigrants who held no love for Britain. Gill entered the Civil Conservations Corps falsifying his age and learned principles of hard work and discipline. It provided lodging, food, and a salary which he could send to his impoverished parents.

From there he went to the sea first as a galleyman and then as an ordinary seaman sailing the American coast and ultimately to Germany. As many of the sailors and mess men in the US flagged ships were German he learned that language and befriended many. In Hamburg he fell in love with a girl called Heidi but he also had a girl in many other ports too. He was still a teenager who grew up quickly in what was a hostile and unfriendly environment, and witnessed some of the horrors of Hitler’s Germany. He left the sea briefly to ride the rails across America with a view to settling in Alaska but with the war beginning for America in December 1941, he qualified as a third mate and joined the SS Nathanael Greene, a Liberty ship pressed into war service.

The point of the title becomes apparent, two thirds through this 360-page volume, as his ship joined the ill-fated convoy PQ18 sailing to Archangel Russia in September 1942.  The story of this convoy is well documented. Suffice to say that the Germans battered it relentlessly over many days with extensive bomber and U-boat attacks. There were huge losses suffered by the convoy and by the German attackers as well but the remnants did reach Archangel and discharged their cargo. The Nat Greene was a defensively equipped merchant ship and fought hard during the engagement. Her master, Captain Vickers was lauded by the convoy commodore and his ship called “top of the class” for her efforts. Sadly the ship was badly damaged when a sister ship blew up next to her at sea. Gill’s account records faithfully the triumphs and failures of the battle at sea against appalling odds. He chronicles the failures of some crew members and, later, the brutality of Soviet authorities against their slave labourers and others in Archangel.

The Greene was patched up in Russia and after two months re-joined the war and continued on convoy duty in the Mediterranean where she was torpedoed and grounded near Oran, Algeria. It warrants highlighting that the Nathanael Greene was one of only nine merchant vessels, out of the more than 4,200 that served, to be recognised as a Gallant Ship of World War II. There is a plaque recognising the Greene’s exploits in the Gallant Ship Room at the American Merchant Marine Museum at Kings Point. The Greene was credited with destroying eight German aircraft during the convoy battle in the Arctic Ocean, and a ninth after being torpedoed in the Mediterranean and in a sinking condition.

By April 1943, Gill’s sea service was over in part due to war injuries, he was repatriated home, and shortly after married his Boston sweetheart. He taught for a while at the Fort Trumbull Maritime Academy but still wanted to serve, and was commissioned in the US Naval Reserve and served ashore in the Civil Engineer Corps as a cargo officer. After demobilisation, he attended university including the Harvard Business School and prospered.

This is a story of a man who was determined to succeed in life and better his qualifications. From a naval point of view, the short part of the book dedicated to the sailing of PQ18 may be of interest in terms of the blow by blow of life aboard Gill describes as a ship’s officer during the horrific attacks by the Germans. The rest of the yarn is an interesting enough read of life as a sailor in the pre-war merchant marine. It was a life clearly not for the faint of heart and Gill did well to survive it. His life’s tale is inspirational in the American sense that ‘everyone can succeed’ in life given aptitude, opportunity and some luck.