Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Down to the sea...

Sometimes the things that you do in the daily toil bring you back to the things that you like to do when not in the daily toil. Recently, as part of my job, I accompanied an elderly lady to a veteran’s event at a school. Every year people who served in any of the Forces are invited to the school, speeches and presentations are made, there is a lunch, an exhibit of war documentation and memorabilia, and the students talk with the veterans about their experiences.

A volunteer was unable to be there in the morning, so, not wanting to disappoint, I stepped in. I’m so glad I did! I got to march in the parade behind a 40 piece military band, meet the Lord and Lady Mayor and the local MP, snarf as many sandwiches, pieces of Victoria sponge, scones and strawberries as I could manage, and talk to a really interesting group of women veterans as you are ever likely to meet (average age about 82).

Something that caused great excitement among the veterans was the presenting of the first Arctic Stars, given to Royal Navy veterans, merchant sailors, airmen and soldiers who served on the convoys delivering aid to Russia between 1941 and 1945. Over 3000 personnel and 100 ships, both civilian and military were lost. It’s reckoned that between 200 and 400 sailors, now in their late 80s, survive from the campaign. The medals were struck for the first time in March of 2013.

A very interesting document that I own is my father’s complete Navy record. He joined up in Boston, Massachusetts on September 8th, 1927. It never ceases to amuse me that my father was in the Navy before there were talking pictures. I can follow his progress from ship to ship, from one port to another, sometimes travelling overland across the US to get to his next posting. Some clever people on Wikipedia have posted the history of every ship in the US Navy, so I know when each ship was built, commissioned, decommissioned, where it went, what action it saw. Just amazing.

He even served on the USS Constitution, a wooden sailing frigate, originally launched in 1797, (you can still visit it in Boston, and it’s still in active service).

Where does this connect to the Arctic Stars? From 1939 to 1944 he was a Storekeeper on the USS Ellis, a Wickes-class destroyer built slightly too late to be involved in World War I. In September 1941 he was based in Reykjavic, Iceland. A check of the Ellis’s record shows the ship being a part of a large number of “screens” in Task Force 19, one of the Neutrality Patrols escorting transports of Marines from Newfoundland for the occupation of Iceland prior to America’s involvement in World War II, replacing British troops on the island. The American warships also assisted the Royal Navy in protecting merchant shipping across the Atlantic after war was declared.

Was my dad’s service considered to be part of the Arctic campaign? Or at least the western leg of it? His record doesn’t indicate if he was awarded a ribbon for this, though he did have a respectable collection of medals for his time in the Navy (he retired when I was four years old, with 30 completed years).

The ladies at the veteran’s day seemed to think that he would be eligible for the Arctic Star, but as yet I haven’t pursued this. We know our parents as older people (in my case quite a bit older), it’s hard to imagine them young and vigorous and dashing about the world having adventures. But there it all is in black and white in a little green folder. Our history makes us bigger than we are and takes us places we never imagined we could go.

(Music and tea rooms will return soon…!)

File:USS Constitution underway, August 19, 2012 by Castle Island cropped.jpg
The USS Constitution, beautifully restored, in 2012. My dad served on this ship in Boston through most of 1937. The sailors kept it in perfect condition then, but when we visited it when I was small it was in a shockingly bad state, rot everywhere. I saw it again in 2009 a year before the current restoration was completed. The young sailor who conducted the tour didn't quite believe me when I said my father had been on the crew.

 My dad's Naval record, found in a box of papers after my mother died in 1979.

Dad on the USS Ellis during the time of the Neutrality Patrols.

 My dad, Joseph Leo Arseneau, in uniform on one of his ships.