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Put on Your Badges, Dad!
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 won’t even make it to the front.” “You are too skinny to be a warrior just yet. God knows what’s 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. I’ll make a hero. You’ll 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 one’s feet and slack. Besides, the secret police kept their eyes even on the workers off duty. In under a month’s 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 today’s 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
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