The Unknown Sailors

Over fifty years after these boys first set sail, their ship has finally come in.

The other route was a 4,300-mile voyage across the North Atlantic to Iceland and Scotland, then up around Norway (where the Germans had set up airbases) and across the Barents Sea to the Russian ports of Murmansk, Molotovsk and Archangel. The trip would be brutal in peacetime, since much of the route crossed the Arctic Circle, where water was more ice than liquid. But now German U-boats were hunting the relatively narrow stretch of water in "wolfpacks."

And even when the convoy reached a Russian port, the reception was unfriendly; the Soviets had convinced themselves they were fighting the war all on their own and that the supplies were the least the Allies could provide. Sometimes U.S. sailors departed their ships and were never heard from again.

The trip back was no easier. The ships would take on raw materials from the Russians, and the Germans were determined to stop them as well. The statistics were grim: 19 ships sunk out of a convoy of 42; 23 sunk of 33; 27 out of 75. One out of three ships that went on the Murmansk run never returned. The troops were not particularly heartened by President Franklin Roosevelt's declaration that "we will win because we will build ships faster than the Germans can sink them."

In the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest-running engagement of the war (it stretched from 1939 to 1945), more than 800 German U-boats were sunk. The Allies lost more than 2,000 ships. The SS Thayer was one.

"Everyone who could got off before we left New York," Flenthrope recalls. "Of the merchant crew, only the captain stayed. Even our gunnery officer got off. The rest of us were too young to know better...maybe we thought we were indestructible. I didn't really know what we were getting into."

The ship was insulated against the cold, and the men were issued long, fur-lined coats and winter boots. Then they set sail on February 29, 1944. The first enemy they encountered was a terrible storm that scattered the ships in the convoy.

The Thayer had to turn back to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to de-ice. Under way again, they joined a convoy in England that was headed to Murmansk. They were on constant alert because of submarine sightings, but the U-boats took no shots.

Still, the voyage was a miserable experience. By the time Flenthrope got off duty, his clothes were invariably soaked with chilly seawater and would freeze to his skin if he wasn't careful. The days were fog-shrouded, the seas rough. He often found himself thinking about home, sunny skies and a world that didn't heave beneath his feet.

The Thayer reached Murmansk with Flenthrope thinking that the dangers, if not the discomforts, of the run had been exaggerated. They left the Russian port on April 28 with a cargo that included 165 Russian sailors being ferried back to England to pick up a cruiser. Because of the Russians, the Thayer was given a favorable position inside the perimeter of the convoy. And there was an escort carrier on their starboard side, a much better target should a U-boat spot the convoy.

But two days out, at 8:10 p.m., the Thayer was struck by two torpedoes. "I was in my bunk, reading a book," Flenthrope recalls. "I've always wondered why we got hit and not the carrier. I think it was because it was one of those torpedoes that if it misses, it swings around and comes back looking for another target."

The ship broke into three pieces. "The bow went down in thirty seconds," says Flenthrope. "The midships went down in two minutes. There was no time to get to the life rafts. By the time I got on deck, I was only wearing my britches and a T-shirt. Somebody had stolen my life jacket, so I ran to the bridge, where we had boxes of spares, and got one."

What remained of the ship was starting to roll over. The only option was to jump in the water. But which way? According to his training, Flenthrope knew he was supposed to jump off the side opposite of where the torpedo had struck because water would be rushing in on that side, sucking in anything caught in the flow. But in this case, the torpedo had blown a hole clean through the ship.

Flenthrope jumped. The water was frigid, nearly frozen. But his only thought was to get away from the sinking ship as fast as he could. "I had been swimming for a while when I noticed I was caught in water going back toward the ship," he says. "I could see the jagged steel where the torpedo had hit and was being pulled right to it."

Fifty years later Flenthrope pauses as he relives the moment. Then he laughs. "That's when I really started to swim. I could have made the Olympic team."

The next time he turned around, the ship was gone. Having heard that oil helps insulate the body, he grabbed handfuls of thick fuel oil floating on the surface and covered his body. That might have saved him. Although the experts say it was impossible, Flenthrope estimates he was in the water for close to an hour and a half before he was picked up.

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