The rest of the story …
Remember “that winsome little face” Tom Robinson told us about in this column on November 4th? Here’s some of the rest of the story.
The innocent child killed that 14th day of April 1944, became but a statistic in the Bombay explosion in the Second World War. She was one of 800 or more killed, and 3,000 injured when the SS Fort Stikine exploded.
One source reported 10 other ships were sunk and 17 more damaged. There were no reports on the number of homes destroyed, families decimated, but there seldom are in war. Apparently they’re not battle statistics for the history books. None know the little girl’s name, yet historical tidbits are told and re-told, such as the million pounds worth of gold in the cargo of the SS Fort Stikine, which disintegrated.
Only Tom and other sailors who saw her that day were left to remember that “winsome little face.” And now Tom is gone!
Tom’s story touches the anomalies of peace and how a nation remembers. He’s included in the kudos found on the Veterans Affairs Canada website today. “The brave veterans who sailed their ships on the Murmansk Run are truly heroes.”
Indeed, Tom’s war experience reads like a hero in a TV movie. The Murmansk Run meant sailing the Barents Sea in the Arctic Ocean to the northern Russian city of Murmansk. This run, we’re told, was the fastest but deadliest supply route of the Second World War. Crews suffered losses of 20 per cent compared with six per cent on all other wartime ocean supply routes.
In winter, Mother Nature gave them but one small blessing: the protection of darkness. But she added freezing hurricane-force winds, creating waves up to 21 metres, flinging sea spray and coating ships with tonnes of ice, making footing almost impossible. Removing ice became imperative lest the ship become unbalanced and capsize … and that’s just for openers. These convoys faced the largest concentration of German U-boats, surface raiders and aircraft anywhere in the world.
To even a casual observer, all oceans were battlefields on which unarmed merchant seamen travelled, guarded by armed navy ships. Somewhere in Canadian government circles these heroes were called noncombatants, despite being directly involved in ocean battlefields.
Noncombatant Tom not only survived the Murmansk Run, he had three ships torpedoed from under him and his mates. In one of those three sinkings he had a choice to jump into a sea covered with burning oil, or go down with the ship; he jumped. Hospitalized for weeks, he awoke to greet a stranger in his mirror. This stranger had white hair and his face was covered with wounds from fire burns. He, and the stranger, went back to his ship.
For six years, noncombatant merchant seamen supplied our warriors worldwide, eventually sharing the triumph of peace. Their war with bureaucracy took more than 40 years, because a peace-time decree told them noncombatants were not veterans and not entitled to veterans’ benefits.
It was then we realized Churchill’s comment about war applied all too often to peace as well. His words: “War is mainly a catalogue of blunders.”
Thomas W. Robinson, August 1920 to August 27, 2007 – friend, former Yukoner, noncombatant, merchant seaman, radio operator, author of the story of “that winsome little face”- lived long enough to receive a pittance of a pension for a year or two.
Lest we forget! Fellow soldiers, sailors and airmen do not, yet obviously our government decision makers appear to, at least in the thank-you department.
But you know, if time could stand still for any of these veterans, with their youth regained, even knowing what they know, they’d volunteer to join our fighting men and women in Afghanistan.
That’s just the kind of people they are!
If asked to explain that, the best I can come up with is the answer Louis Armstrong gave when asked to explain jazz. “Man,” he said, “if you gotta ask, you ain’t ever gonna know!”