Select language:

Put on Your Badges, Dad!

 /  / Russkiy Mir Foundation / Publications / Put on Your Badges, Dad!

Put on Your Badges, Dad!

25.03.2015

My father, Nikolai Gagarin, lived with his mother in Arkhangelsk before the war. He was 14. His elder brother volunteered for the front in 1941. Their father was killed back in 1928. In 1941 Kolya graduated his seventh grade and thought himself an adult. Like his older brother, he was spoiling to fight against the Nazis on the front. But his mother would not let him. She was disabled and she needed help. And there was no one around to expect that help from, except for the youngest son, her favorite Kolya.

Kolya and his friend Lyonya got hired as wharf hands at the port of Arkhangelsk – so, they did earn a little bread. They brought their daily rations home to his mother. And the bread tickets were saved away as a most precious treasure.

At the port, the working folks would often speak of some American convoy. They would say Arkhangelsk was about to receive many a freighter loaded with weapons, tanks, machinery, equipment and food to aid our army in the war against the Germans.

In Severodvinsk, on the shore of the White Sea at the mouth of the North Dvina new piers were being built urgently to accommodate and unload the vessels. The thought of unloading American boats made a big impression on the minds of the teenagers.

Real men do as they know. Kolya threw his stuff into a duffel bag, with his mother crying along, aware that nothing could be done to talk her son out of this. So, she stood there crying in silence, arms crossed on her chest, gazing at her son, trying to remember even the smallest of his features, and cursing war and the terrifying imminence of fate. “It’s all right”, he calmed her. The war will soon be over, and I wont even make it to the front. You are too skinny to be a warrior just yet. God knows whats holding you together, his mother cried. Stick together with Lyonya. And write to me, sonny. Avoid the line of fire, she insisted. Everything is all right, Mom. Ill make a hero. Youll see.

With a convoy of workers, Kolya and Lyonya went to Severodvinsk to build the piers for the Americans. In the north the summer is short no time to drag ones feet and slack. Besides, the secret police kept their eyes even on the workers off duty. In under a months time, the second railway track was put in place and connected the piers to Arkhangelsk. Trucks loaded with sand, gravel and construction materials kept coming in a ceaseless file day and night. The work was organized in three shifts. In the summer, they would sleep under tents, right on their quilted jackets thrown on the ground. And when it got colder, they moved into boxcars.

On August 31, 1941, the first six-freighter American convoy, PQ-O arrived at the piers of Severodvinsk. This convoy, named Dervish, came first and was pivotal for the USSR.

The unloading was quick, despite the fierce German bombing raids. Tankers were under special supervision. Germans bombed the port every day. To prevent explosions on tankers, in the dead of night and under much secrecy they were taken far off the main piers to the old port, where the gasoline so much needed at the front was then quickly drained into tank wagons.

Kolya and Lyonya were put into the special unit shoving fire bombs off car roofs, trucks and equipment unloaded from the boats. German bombers daily raided both ships and wharves. Naturally, there were counter strikes at the bombers from land-based artillery and in the sky.

Once, Kolya and his friend watched, their heads thrown back, a red-star fighter attack a swastika-bearing bomber grinding its way to the piers across the sky over the water area of the port. This was the most dramatic action in their lives. Neither of the pilots intended to give up. Get him! Get him! yelled the teenagers and everyone else witnessing the furious attack. When the gunner on the German bomber hit his opponent, and a black pillar of smoke drew from the fighter plane, Kolya froze in his tracks whispering Jump! Jump!, and then bewildered watched the Russian pilot drive his burning craft into the enemy plane. First the flash, and then the rumble rolled echoing over their heads. The planes crashed into the woods, far from the railway. There was no one to be saved, but the guys decided to run to the spot the planes crashed after the work was done. Could an event like this pass just them by?!

What the friends found in the craters left by the crash became their pride and treasure. Decades later, people would understand what a heroic deed had been performed in the sky of the port.

Apart from the military machines, tons of food packages were unloaded. The workers did not know what they were, as they did not read English. But the pig on the package suggested there could be canned pork.

There was some theft. It happened sometimes that some food boxes occurred opened in the morning. Spam and spirits would dissolve tracelessly inside the boxcars. Having opened the can, you would spread the thick flavorful jelly on bread, and eat the last tiny bits of a fist-sized wad of meat as the most precious dainty. My father says he has never eaten anything as delicious as that American canned pork in his life.

Once, a bombing raid was especially intensive. Fire and demolition bombs were literally spilling upon the piers and car roofs. Kolya and Lyonya were hopping from roof to roof, pushing the fire bombs off and burying them in the soil. Lyonya grabbed one such fire bomb and, rolling down the roof top, jumped to the ground. A deafening blast followed!

Kolya just kept on doing his dangerous work. And when the raid was over, he ran to his friend. Lyonya lay on the ground, arms spread, and his tall boots with what remained of his legs neatly standing nearby.

Lyonya was buried alongside other dead workers into a common grave on that spot. In todays Severodvinsk, there is a factory with a chapel built on its territory and commemorating those killed the ones who helped the front by unloading and shipping off the cargo brought in by Dervish and a dozen other American convoys.

Very few now know what the Arctic Convoys meant for the USSR in WWII. The true significance of the allies aid in the eventual victory over Fascism was unjustly hushed down after the war. Over the years of World War II, the Arctic Convoys from the US and Great Britain delivered to the USSR about a million tons of various weapons, military machines, equipment, fuel, food and countless other loads necessary at the frontlines of war. The ports of Arkhangelsk and Severodvinsk received and unloaded 342 vessels from allies. And the port of Murmansk in 1941-45 received 379 vessels, which is over 300 thousand tons of military machines, weapons and food. And the exact number of thousands of Americans, Russians and Brits killed in the Arctic Convoys during the war remains unknown.

In 2011, the American veteran sailors of the Arctic Convoys were honored in America. When they learned I was a daughter of a World War II participant, of that teenager unloading those boats in the ports of Severodvinsk and Arkhangelsk in 1941, and moreover that he was still living, the American veterans took their memorial badges off their caps and asked me to pass them on to my father. I came to Russia and passed the badges to him. But he is shy to wear them, to pin them next to the cast of orders and medals on his chest. The image of the enemy, German or American alike, was hammered down into the minds of our people under the fear of repressions. But the Victory of 1945 is our common victory over fascism!

Put on your badges, Dad! You are a true hero!

Natalie Gagarina, Russia USA
Rubric:
Subject:
Tags:

New publications

Anatoly Solovyev has spent more time in open space than any other resident of Earth. He exited his ship sixteen times while in orbit, spending a total of over three full days of his life in open space. On the eve of Cosmonauts’ Day Anatoly Solovyev told us about breakthroughs in the study of outer space, the prospects of colonizing the Moon or Mars, and why we need to study astronomy in school.
<p align="JUSTIFY" style="margin-bottom: 0cm;"><font color="#00000a"><font face="Times, serif">The Lord’s Entry into Jerusalem, Fig Sunday, Flower-bearing Sunday, or just Palm Sunday—its a holiday that has been observed the week before Easter since the very first centuries of Christianity. Hardly anyone knows that in medieval Russia this holiday was celebrated with a colorful procession, involving both the tsar and the patriarch.</font></font></p>
On 7 April a bilateral meeting called Strategic Dialogue: Russia and India took place between Russian and Indian experts. Its organizers were two long-time partners: the Russkiy Mir Foundation and the Observer Research Foundation in India. The meeting was scheduled to precede the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and India, celebrated on 13 April.
The “Great Game” and the War of Shadows were names given to the late nineteenth-century rivalry between Russia and Great Britain for influence in South and Central Asia. It was a geostrategic and political struggle. But it was also a duel between the intelligence agencies of two powerful empires and took very many interesting turns.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the treaty to sell Alaska. This event so surprised the public at the time that it caught spurred discussions and remained in the papers for almost a year. And the deal had no shortage of critics on either side.
After the Revolution, the Russian emigration spread as a large wave across the whole world. According to approximate numbers, up to 2 million people fled from Bolshevism and more than 400 thousand found a home in France. In foreign lands, these exiles had to face the difficulties of life and take up work—some in factories and restaurants, others becoming taxi drivers. There were also those who managed to maintain a spiritual connection to Russia, while also integrating into the ways of French life and contributing much to their new homeland by placing their talents and energy in its service. Here we will start telling the story of the Russian émigrés who enriched French culture.
The family became a subject of academic study not so long ago — in the 19th century. Nonetheless, research on the family comes out with impressive regularity. There’s nothing surprising about this: families are what make up a society. When you study the history of a particular family, you inadvertently come to know the history of a generation. What did the typical Russian family look like before the beginning of modernization in the 20th century?..
“Petersburg grew atop the bones of its builders”—this myth is so persistent in both popular opinion and the work of historians who don’t specifically study this topic that it has hardly been discussed seriously until very recently. Meanwhile, this story has a few interesting twists in it.