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H-041-1: Forgotten Valor—LTJG Sippola and the Ordeal of the SS Henry Bacon, 23 February 1945


Portion of a Norwegian Convoy

Undated photo of an Allied convoy in Norwegian waters, circa 1943–45 (NH 111882). 

H-Gram 041, Attachment 1

Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC

February 2020

On 17 February 1945, the 7,177-ton U.S. Liberty ship SS Henry Bacon (one of 2,710 built during the war) departed Murmansk, Soviet Union, en route Scotland as part of Convoy RA-64. Having delivered her cargo of a locomotive and other Lend-Lease supplies, Henry Bacon was in ballast on the return trip of the dangerous “Murmansk run.” The ship, under the command of Captain Alfred Carini, had a crew of 40 Merchant Mariners and a Navy Armed Guard of 26 men under Lieutenant (j.g.) John Sippola. These personnel manned the 5-inch gun on the stern, the 3-inch gun on the bow, and eight 2- mm anti-aircraft guns. Henry Bacon was also transporting 19 Norwegian refugees, which included 16 women (one “with child”) and children.

The Norwegian refugees were part of a group of 500 that had been rescued in a daring operation by four Allied destroyers from the island of Soroya at the entrance to Altafjord, which had been the lair of the elusive German battleship Tirpitz until she had finally been sunk at Tromso by British bombers in November 1944. As the Soviets had advanced across what was then the extreme north of Finland into the most northeastern part of Norway, the Germans had engaged in a brutal “scorched earth” campaign, leaving absolutely nothing that could be of any possible use to the Soviets. Thousands of Norwegian civilians were forced into internment camps, while those who fled faced execution if caught and starvation if not. The civilian population on Soroya resisted and fled into the hills, but, as the winter went on, became increasingly desperate. The Soviet advance had stopped after the Germans burned and destroyed everything, so there was no hope of liberation by the Red Army.

When northbound Convoy JW-64 had arrived at Murmansk in February 1945, three British destroyers and one Canadian destroyer had been detached to make a dash to Soroya; two of the destroyers picked up 500 Norwegian civilians from the north and south ends of the island, while the other two provided cover against German interference, which did not materialize. Upon the destroyers’ return to Murmansk, the Norwegians were divided among the 38 ships that would return to the United Kingdom as Convoy RA-64.

To return to Britain, RA-64 would have to run a gauntlet of German U-boats waiting just outside the Kola inlet to Murmansk, and then get through German torpedo bombers deployed to airfields in the far north of Norway. The German U-boats were much less fearful of Soviet anti-submarine capability than they were of the vastly improved British and U.S. capability, so by then most U-boat attacks on the Murmansk run took place between the North Cape of Norway and Murmansk in the Barents Sea.

During the northbound convoy, JW-64 (which included Henry Bacon), German U-boats succeeded in sinking only one Norwegian-flag tanker and the British corvette HMS Denhigh Castle, while also badly damaging the U.S. liberty ship SS Horace Gray, which was towed into the Kola inlet, but written off as a loss. Two German torpedo bombers were claimed as shot down by U.S. Navy Armed Guards on the SS Nathan Towson and SS Edwin Drake on 10 February 1945.

The Murmansk run was probably the most dangerous convoy route during the war, especially since anyone who ended up in the frigid waters would not survive for long. Between the commencement of the Murmansk convoys in August 1941 and the end of the war, 40 northbound convoys with 720 ships made the transit, with the loss of 63 ships. In 35 southbound convoys, 707 ships made the transit and 27 were lost. Convoy escorts sank 27 German U-boats, but at a loss of two cruisers, six destroyers, and ten smaller escorts, all of the Royal Navy. One Free Polish navy submarine was sunk by “friendly fire.”

At least three German U-boats were waiting for Convoy RA-64 to depart Murmansk and the battle was on almost immediately. The British sloop HMS Lark and corvette HMS Alnwick Castle sank U-425. Lark stopped to rescue survivors from the U-boat and was hit in the stern by a torpedo from U-968. The sloop didn’t sink, but was towed into Murmansk, declared a loss, and handed over to the Soviets. U-968 then torpedoed the U.S. liberty ship Thomas Scott, but all 109 aboard were rescued before she sank. The British corvette HMS Bluebell was hit in the stern by an acoustic homing torpedo from U-711, which detonated her depth charges in a catastrophic explosion and sank her in 30 seconds with the loss of all but one of her 86 crewmen. Nevertheless, the remaining 37 ships of the convoy made it through, only to encounter some of the worst weather ever recorded in the Barents Sea.

By the afternoon of 18 February, the weather had deteriorated to a full gale and intensified overnight causing the convoy to scatter. On 20 February, the storm abated some and convoy escorts were able to round up most of the stragglers and regroup, although the convoy was detected and tracked by German scout aircraft. However, on 22 February the convoy encountered a full Beaufort scale force 12 storm, with hurricane force winds of 70–90 knots. Henry Bacon was badly battered by the storm, suffering damage to her steering gear. A davit to one of the four lifeboats was smashed, rendering the lifeboat unusable. By dawn on the 23rd, Henry Bacon was alone, about 40–50 miles from the main body of the convoy, and, due to confusion, was actually heading in the opposite direction as the convoy.

In the meantime, 26 German torpedo bombers of Kampfgeschwader (KG) 26 had forward deployed from Trondheim-Værnes to Bardufoss, located about 250 nautical miles from the convoy. According to German records (which are typically meticulous), after a delay due to the adverse weather, 19 aircraft launched for a strike on the convoy on 23 February 1945. Because of the bad weather, only the best pilots flew the mission, and even then not all of them found the target. The aircraft were mostly newer Ju-188 A-3 twin-engine high-speed bombers (a follow-on improvement to the excellent and versatile Ju-88) that carried two torpedoes each. In their search for the convoy, the German torpedo bombers first sighted Henry Bacon, still alone, in mid-afternoon on 23 February. The Germans opted to attack and commenced flying in a circle around the ship at an altitude of 20–30 feet. At intervals, two German aircraft would break from the circle and attack from opposite sides of the ship, a German version of the classic “hammer-and-anvil” torpedo attack.

Exactly what happened in the battle that followed is not completely clear, and different accounts vary as to details. Witnesses on the ship reported 23 German aircraft, which is more than were launched. Morison reports that the attack went on for 65 minutes, while other timelines are not clear. What is clear is that the combination of high seas, which caused torpedoes to go awry, incredible seamanship by Captain Carini in avoiding torpedoes (at least ten were near misses), and a hellacious defense by the Navy Armed Guard (described by Morison as “no finer instance of merchant ship defense in the history of North Russian convoys”) disrupted and thwarted repeated attacks.


<p>A view of the port side of a Ju-188A-3, with <i>Hohentwiel</i> UHF surface-search radar aerials, circa 1944–45.</p>

A view of the port side of a German Ju-188A-3 multi-purpose bomber, with Hohentwiel UHF surface-search radar aerials, circa 1944–45 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-497-3502-20/Boger/CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Exactly what happened in the battle that followed is not completely clear, and different accounts vary as to details. Witnesses on the ship reported 23 German aircraft, which is more than were launched. Morison reports that the attack went on for 65 minutes, while other timelines are not clear. What is clear is that the combination of high seas, which caused torpedoes to go awry, incredible seamanship by Captain Carini in avoiding torpedoes (at least ten were near misses), and a hellacious defense by the Navy Armed Guard (described by Morison as “no finer instance of merchant ship defense in the history of North Russian convoys”) disrupted and thwarted repeated attacks.

One of the first two torpedo bombers was shot down, reportedly by a direct hit on an underslung torpedo, which made the Germans more cautious in pressing home attacks. Several torpedoes were reportedly detonated by machine gun fire from the ship. Some accounts say 36 or even 46 torpedoes were launched, although that is excessive. The last German aircraft to attack pressed home and was rewarded by being shot down after dropping a torpedo, but at that point Henry Bacon’s damaged rudder failed to respond to the helm and the ship was unable to maneuver. The torpedo hit portside aft in the Number 5 hold, also detonated an after ammunition magazine, and destroyed the rudder, propeller, and steering motor. Somewhat amazingly, no one was killed by the torpedo explosion. The ship quickly began to settle.

The Germans broke off the attack after the torpedo hit, although one plane stayed behind to observe whether Henry Bacon sank. By this time, light was fading and the Germans made no attempt to find or attack the rest of the convoy, so Henry Bacon’s heroic defense quite likely saved other ships. Witnesses on the ship reported that five German aircraft were shot down and four were damaged, which Morison accepted. The post-war Maritime Commission report stated three were shot down. German records show one Ju-188 A-3 was shot down: Werknummer (manufacturer’s number) 190604 of the 7./KG 26 (part of III. Gruppe/KG 26) flown by Hauptman (Captain)) Fischer with three crewmen, all MIA. One Ju-188 A-3 (Werknummer 190348 of the 8./KG 26) is noted as having “disappeared,” with all four crewmen MIA. One Ju-188 A-3 made it back to base without casualties, but damage to one engine was irreparable. Another Ju-188 A-3 suffered a gear collapse on landing, but was repaired. Regardless of how many planes were actually shot down, given the overwhelming odds, the actions of the Navy Armed Guard on Henry Bacon were among the most distinguished and heroic of the war.

As it became apparent that Henry Bacon was going to sink, Captain Carini gave the order to abandon ship. He ordered that the Norwegian refugees get in the first boat, along with the youngest and most able-bodied seamen (to control the boat in the heavy seas), and the ship’s first radio officer (to operate the small lifeboat radio transmitter), to give that boat the best chance. Before departing the ship, the radio officer left the ship’s radio keyed on the distress frequency, which provided a beacon to British destroyers that were racing to the scene, but were still over two hours away (which was not known to anyone on Henry Bacon due to strict radio silence measures by the convoy and escorts).

For the second boat, Carini ordered a number of seats be given to the Naval Armed Guard. The ship’s chief engineer, Donald Haviland, said he’d lived a long life and gave up his seat in the boat to a young sailor, subsequently joining Captain Carini on the bridge. Unfortunately, the third lifeboat nosed into the water as it was being lowered and capsized. Accounts vary as to what happened to the four large life rafts. The Maritime Commission report states that two were lost in the storm. One was definitely cut loose too soon and drifted away before anyone could get in.

With no lifeboats or rafts left, those still aboard had the unpalatable choice of jumping in the frigid waters or going down with the ship. With the captain’s encouragement, most stayed aboard as long as possible in hopes that the slowly sinking ship would stay afloat long enough for rescue to arrive. Several of the Navy gunners had volunteered to remain aboard in case the Germans came back while the lifeboats were being loaded. Boatswain Holcomb Lammon, Jr., fashioned several makeshift rafts out of timbers that had been used to brace the locomotive, and had the gunners, including Sippola, get aboard one shortly before Henry Bacon went under. When the ship finally went under, some crewmen were killed by falling debris, including one of the Navy gunners.

Captain Carini and Chief Engineer Haviland remained on the bridge and chose to go down with the ship. Lammon died in the water just as the rescue ships came in sight. (Chief Engineer Haviland would be awarded a Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal and Boatswain Lammon a Merchant Marine Meritorious Service Medal).

Those who were in the lifeboats survived, although they probably wouldn’t have if the rescue ships had not arrived just before nightfall. The British destroyers Zambesi, Opportune and Zest reached the scene, guided by the radio beacon. Opportune was ordered to take aboard those in the lifeboats, while Zambesi went after those on rafts or clinging to wreckage, and Zest guarded against German attack. Most of those on the one ship’s raft survived, although some froze to death even on the raft and others were unable to get aboard the rescue ships due to hypothermia, exhaustion, the rough seas, or their injuries. Four Navy gunners died when they were being hoisted aboard and the line hooked to their life jackets caused the jackets to rip open and they fell back into the sea.

Most of those who were in the water died of hypothermia before they could be rescued. The rescue ships did not attempt to retrieve bodies of those who were obviously dead, and these were never found—with one exception. The body of one of the Navy gunners who died in the water, Seaman First Class Mason Kirby Burr, washed ashore in 1949 encased in a block of ice, and was subsequently buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Zambesi came alongside the makeshift raft with Sippola and six Navy gunners. Sippola refused rescue until every one of the gunners made it up the lines to the ship. However, the line thrown to him went long, and when he came off the raft to retrieve it, he sank and was lost, having never seen his first child, born while he was aboard Henry Bacon. Sippola would be awarded a posthumous Silver Star for having:

 …cooly directed a steady barrage of gunfire against the savagely striking aircraft and, fighting off the furious attack for approximately twenty minutes, succeeded in damaging three and destroying five others before a German torpedo struck with deadly accuracy in the No. 5 hold, sinking the ship and forcing the survivors into the icy , heavily rolling seas. Adrift and clinging to a life raft with six of his crew when a British rescue vessel subsequently came alongside, Sippola steadfastly refused to accept aid for himself until lines were secured to each man and were taken safe aboard the rescue ship. Weakened by exposure to the icy waters and by the strenuous physical effort expended in saving his men, he was unable to remain afloat long enough to reach the lines thrown to himself and sank, overcome by exhaustion. His unfaltering leadership, valiant fortitude and self-sacrificing devotion to duty in the face of extreme peril upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.

In the end, of the 86 people aboard Henry Bacon, 15 Merchant Mariners were lost, including Captain Carini, the first mate, second mate, chief engineer, the first and second assistant engineers, and the boatswain. In addition, seven of the Naval Armed Guard were lost, including the three gunners who stayed behind to the last to defend the ship, and Lieutenant (j.g.) Sippola. All 19 of the Norwegian refugees were saved thanks to the sacrifice of HENRY BACON’s crew and the Armed Guard. King Haakon of Norway honored all crewmen with the award of the Norwegian War Medal. Captain Carini was awarded the Norwegian War Cross with Swords by the king, one of only two U.S. persons to be given the award. Carini was also awarded the Mariner’s Medal (a Purple Heart–equivalent) by the U.S. War Shipping Administration.

During World War II, the U.S. Merchant Marine expanded from about 55,000 personnel to about 250,000. As there was no central record keeping (or historians), the exact number of casualties is unknown, but about 8,650 died at sea, and another 11,000 were wounded, of which 1,100 subsequently died. Approximately one out of 29 Merchant Mariners died during the war, making it about as dangerous as the U.S. Marine Corps in terms of percentage lost. Of the approximately 4,200 U.S. merchant ships by the end of the war, 733 ships (over 1,000 gross tons) were sunk, 31 of them without a trace. Even before the war, 17 U.S. Merchant ships were sunk and 200 Merchant Mariners were lost as a result of German U-boat attacks. Even after the war ended, at least 42 U.S. Merchant ships were sunk and about an equal number damaged between 1945 and 1950, mostly due to striking leftover mines. It should also be noted that a U.S. merchant sailor’s pay stopped as soon as his ship was sunk, i.e., the sailor was “unemployed” from the time he went into the water until he could sign on another ship, assuming he survived. U.S. merchant sailors who served in World War II were not granted veteran’s status or benefits until legislation was passed in 1988.

During World War II, 144,970 U.S. Navy Armed Guards served on 6,236 ships and suffered a casualty rate comparable to that of the U.S. Marine Corps. At least 1,810 were killed or missing in action. During the war, members of the Navy Armed Guard were awarded six Navy Crosses, two Legion of Merits, 75 Silver Stars, 54 Bronze Stars, 24 Navy and Marine Corps Medals, 563 Commendations by the Secretary of the Navy, and 2,778 Commendations by the Bureau of Naval Personnel.

 As a postscript, many of the survivors of Henry Bacon would be transferred to the British destroyer Zealous. (Zealous would have the dubious distinction of being the first ship sunk by an anti-ship missile when, in the service of the Israeli navy as INS Eilat, she was hit by three Styx missiles fired by Egyptian missile boats off Port Said, Egypt on 21 October 1967.) Henry Bacon was the last Allied ship to be sunk during the war by German torpedo bombers, and the mission against Henry Bacon was the last flown against Arctic convoys by the Germans.

My thanks to RADM (Ret). Kenneth Braithwaite, U.S. Ambassador to Norway—and an avid H-gram reader—for bringing this action to my attention a couple years ago, as I had not remembered it. Also thanks to Marty Bollinger for sharing his detailed records and insight into Luftwaffe operations. Sources include The Last Voyage of the SS Henry Bacon, by Donald R. Foxvog and Robert I. Alotta, Paragon House, Saint Paul, MN, 2001; The Atlantic Battle Won—Vol. X., History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, by Samuel Eliot Morison, Little Brown and Co., Boston, 1957; NHHC Dictionary of American Fighting Ships (DANFS); and the website uboat.net for German submarine information.

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Published: Wed Feb 05 11:58:56 EST 2020