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Spirydon Kucharczuk’s wife and three youngest children were aboard the lifeboat accidentally sunk during rescue operations. Photo credit: Family passport photo.

Meet the Character Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 5

Like many other families, the Kucharczuks suffered an agonizing wait to discover the fate of loved ones aboard the British passenger liner Athenia after it was torpedoed by a German submarine, Sept. 3, 1939. Five different ships were involved in the rescue operations and survivors were taken to three different ports. (See blog post “Spirydon Kucharczuk, Part 4;” March 1, 2016.)

Because more than 90 percent of the passenger and crew survived the attack, reports of tearful reunions filled newspapers in Britain, Canada and America for nearly two weeks as loved ones were reunited. Spirydon Kucharczuk (koo-HAR-chuck), who had saved his oldest daughter and was reunited with his oldest son in Glasgow, Scotland, waited several more days for word of the rest on his family. The news, when it came, was devastating. His wife Ewdokia, 40, sons Stefan, 15, and Jakeb, 2, and daughter Aleksandra, 8, did not survive a lifeboat accident. They were listed among the 112 people who died as a result of the U-boat attack.

After absorbing this unspeakable shock, Spirydon decided to continue with his original plan and immigrate to Canada. He obtained new travel documents and arrived in Canada in October, 1939, with his son Jan, 20, and daughter Neonela, 18. They spent the winter with Ewdokia’s sister and brother-in-law. In their newly adopted country they changed the spelling of their last name to Kucharchuk, dropping the “z,” and anglicized their first names: Spirydon to Steve, Jan to John, and Neonela to Nina.

The next year, Steve traveled west to Alberta Province to stay with his step-brother and look for suitable land for a farm. With loans from relatives and generous terms from the seller, he bought a parcel of land that had been homesteaded in 1912. Slowly over several years, they began to make the farm pay, but life wasn’t easy. Money was always tight and the Kucharchuks had to adjust to a new climate, new crops, new culture and a new language.

Nina married in 1941 and had two children over the next few years. But tragedy struck their family again in 1946 when Nina’s husband was killed in a truck accident. In January, 1948, Nina married Walter Chwedoruk and their marriage lasted until his death in 1998.

John Kucharchuk worked the family’s farm until 1946, when he purchased a sawmill that became the foundation of his successful business. When logging played out in one area, John moved the mill to another center of logging activity. In 1953, John married and moved to Edmonton, where the couple had two children.

Steve also married in 1953, sold his farm and moved to Edmonton. He loved visiting his grandchildren and often helped out on Nina and Walter’s farm. After his wife died in 1975, Steve lived alone until he became ill with cancer. Nina took him to her house, where he passed away in 1977. John died in 2008 and Nina died two years later.

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American freighter City of Flint arrives in Bergan, Norway, Nov. 9, 1939, after being freed from German control. Photo credit: Sharkhunters.com

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 8

After nearly a month under German control, the American freighter City of Flint was set free following a pre-dawn raid Nov. 4, 1939, while the ship lay at anchor in the port of Haugesund, Norway. Norwegian navy sailors boarded and arrested the German prize crew for violating Norway’s neutrality laws. (See blog post City of Flint Odyssey, Part 7, Dec. 15, 2015.)

Flint’s captain, Joseph Gainard, and her crew were once again in charge of their own ship, and their first stop was Bergen, Norway, where Gainard was met by the U.S. consul and learned for the first time of the U.S. State Department’s non-stop effort over the previous three weeks to free the ship. Also waiting for City of Flint in Bergen was a small army of newspaper reporters and newsreel photographers, all wanting to interview Gainard.

I have no story to tell,” Gainard told the media, as he related in his memoirs. “I’m not a salesman. I’m a sailor.” He explained his first priority was to prepare reports for the U.S. State Department concerning the ship’s seizure and their experiences in Murmansk, Russia. The captain and crew also met with the American Minister to Norway, Mrs. Florence Jaffray Harriman. Only after the official reports were filed did Gainard finally meet with reporters.

In the month that City of Flint had been sailing to Norway, Russia, and back to Norway, U.S. neutrality laws were revised to prohibit American flag ships from entering war zones. With the original ports in Great Britain no longer a possible destination, Gainard needed to arrange to offload the ship’s cargo elsewhere.

They sailed the last week of November, returning to Haugesund, where it took three weeks to find buyers and discharge the cargo. City of Flint sailed back to Bergen for fuel, and headed out to sea again on Dec. 22, bound for the port of Narvik on Norway’s northern coast. There they loaded a cargo of iron ore, but foul weather kept them in port for more than two weeks.

Christmas morning I was shaving,” Gainard later wrote. “Looking at myself in the mirror I saw my face and said, ‘Well, here’s a Merry Christmas to you—from me, anyway.’”

Finally on Jan. 7, 1940, City of Flint left Narvik bound for the U.S. It took the freighter three weeks with its heavy cargo to cross the stormy North Atlantic and arrive in Baltimore, finally ending her strange odyssey.

Sadly, neither City of Flint nor her captain survived the war.

Gainard, who was an inactive U.S. Navy reserve officer, received the Navy Cross for his steady hand throughout the seizure of his ship. He returned to active duty in 1941 and commanded an armed merchant ship and later the attack transport USS Bolivar. He died of natural causes on Dec. 23, 1943, at age 54.

But Gainard had survived his old ship, City of Flint, by almost a year. The doughty little freighter sank in the Atlantic on Jan. 27, 1943, when her convoy was attacked by German U-boats.

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Members of City of Flint’s crew pose with the Nazi banner that flew over the ship while she was under German control. Photo credit: “Yankee Skipper: The Life Story of Joseph Gainard, Captain of the City of Flint.”

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 7

Within hours of leaving Russia in late October 1939, the American freighter City of Flint again entered Norwegian waters heading south toward Germany and a blockade of British warships. The ship continued to be operated by her American captain, Joseph Gainard, and his crew, but it remained under the control of the German prize crew and its commander, Leutnant Hans Pushbach. (See blog post City of Flint Odyssey, Part 6, Dec. 1, 2015.)

With an escort of two Norwegian warships, City of Flint stayed within Norway’s territorial waters to avoid capture by Royal Navy ships waiting just beyond the three-mile limit.

The closer City of Flint sailed toward the southern limit of Norwegian waters, the more Capt. Gainard’s hopes of getting free of the Germans diminished. When a crewman accidentally injured his shins, Gainard sensed an opportunity. Though the sailor’s injury wasn’t serious, Gainard asked Pushbach to signal for a doctor from one of the Norwegian warships, and the German obliged.

When the doctor came aboard, he was accompanied by a line officer from the Norwegian escort. While the doctor bandaged the sailor’s shins, Gainard took the officer around the Flint, making sure he noted how many Germans were aboard and the location of their quarters. He explained to Pushbach that he wanted the officer to be able to describe the ship’s condition should such a report become necessary if the ship was damaged or lost.

Flint’s radio remained out of order, so the German officer could not directly contact his superiors and receive orders on how to proceed and avoid the British ships waiting in the open sea south Norway. As City of Flint approached the southern Norwegian port of Haugesund, a German cargo ship sailing north came close enough for someone on the bridge to shout across in German that Pushbach should anchor in the port and see the German consul there.

Pushbach was in a difficult position. To anchor he needed some sort of emergency on board Flint or risk violating neutrality laws. He asked Gainard if the ship could have engine trouble, but Gainard refused to go along with such a ruse. In his memoir, he described what happened next:

I suggested that Russia, a large neutral country, favored the German nation. ‘Surely Norway, a small neutral nation, would not care to antagonize your country… You have been ordered to anchor, by all means anchor.’

He said, ‘I will anchor.’

I replied, ‘Do you order me to come to anchor?’

“’Yes, we must anchor.’”

City of Flint thus sailed into Haugesund harbor and anchored on the orders of Leutnant Pushbach.

Early the following morning, Nov. 4, while most of the German prize crew slept, the Norwegian Navy sent across an armed boarding party, which took over City of Flint without firing a shot. The Germans were informed they had lost their rights by anchoring without legal cause and they were taken into custody. City of Flint was returned to her crew.

“The crew was hilarious,” Gainard wrote. “At the moment they could be hostile to the Germans, they very graciously helped them over the side and said goodbye to them as if they were old friends…”

City of Flint’s nearly month-long ordeal was over, but not her odyssey. Her journey concludes in our next blog.

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German Leutnant Hans Pushback (right) with members of his prize crew that took charge of the City of Flint on Oct. 9, 1939. Photo credit: Illustration from “Yankee Skipper: The Life Story of Joseph Gainard, Captain of The City of Flint”

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 6

City of Flint sailed into the Russian port of Murmansk a day after leaving Tromso, Norway. The American freighter remained under the direction of the German prize crew that had captured the ship and its crew Oct. 9, 1939; this in spite of the efforts of Flint’s captain, Joseph Gainard, to outwit the Germans during their brief stay in Norway. (See blog post City of Flint Odyssey, Part 5, Nov. 15, 2015.)

Although the Soviets had signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in August, Russia remained a neutral country. So when the Russian port authorities and customs officers boarded the ship and immediately took the German prize crew ashore to be interned, Gainard’s hopes rose once again.

The Russian Naval Port Officer declared City of Flint was free and told Gainard he could sail as soon as the ship’s papers were returned from the port’s customs office. Gainard gave the customs people a message for the American ambassador in Moscow, the first of several he delivered in hopes of reaching the ambassador.

The next morning, without any word from the ambassador, he asked to go ashore to telephone the U.S. Embassy and was told he would have to wait until tomorrow. After three “tomorrows,” and with Flint’s radio still inoperable, Gainard sent a signal by flags to the harbor boat that monitored the activities of the port’s neutral ships, asking for a launch to take him ashore. The Soviets responded with a display of flags saying, in essence, they could not supply a boat and he was not to use his own boat to go ashore.

With no way to legally go ashore and without the ship’s papers necessary for City of Flint to sail, Gainard and his crew effectively became prisoners on their own ship.

Meanwhile, it [was] an ironic fact that the world at large knew much more about us than we ourselves knew,” he later recalled in his memoir. “On our short-wave set we received broadcasts from home and, though it seem[ed] hard to believe, it was a U.S. news program that informed us—in Murmansk harbor—that our German friendly enemies were coming on board again, and that again we were under two flags bound for Germany.”

Fifteen minutes after the news broadcast ended, the Soviet port authorities came aboard with the German prize crew, returned the ship to German authority and gave City of Flint 24 hours to leave. The Russians suddenly became most helpful, and after a flurry of activity the ship’s papers were returned, but so far as Gainard could determine, none of his messages to the American ambassador was delivered.

Five days after arriving in Murmansk, City of Flint left the Russian port and headed south for Germany and a likely confrontation with British and/or German naval forces.

The odyssey continues in our next blog.

Tromso, Norway, today is a city of 75,000 people, six times larger than when City of Flint arrived in 1939.
 
Photo credit: fjordtravel.no
Tromso, Norway, today is a city of 75,000 people, six times larger than when City of Flint arrived in 1939. Photo credit: fjordtravel.no

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 5

A little more than a month after bringing 236 Athenia survivors into Halifax, Nova Scotia, the American freighter, City of Flint, once again became front-page news when she was captured by the German Navy, Oct. 9, 1939 (see blog post City of Flint Odyssey, Part 4, Nov. 1, 2015).

City of Flint had been bound for Great Britain when she was intercepted by a German battleship. After inspecting the American ship’s cargo and declaring it contraband, the Germans put an armed prize crew aboard and directed City of Flint’s captain, Joseph Gainard, to head for Germany. To avoid potential hostilities with Royal Navy warships, Gainard and the officer in charge of the prize crew, Leutnant Hans Pushbach, charted a northeasterly course that would take them close to Norway.

With the ship’s radio out of order, Gainard could not report what had happened and Pushbach couldn’t contact his superiors for instructions. Using a shortwave radio, however, they were able to listen to news bulletins, which reported that the ship had been captured but its whereabouts was unknown.

As City of Flint headed toward Norway, Gainard set up a ruse with his chief engineer to make the Germans think the ship was running short of water. If the Germans asked to anchor in a neutral port (Norway was a neutral country at the time) to take on water and it was discovered the water wasn’t needed, they would be in violation of neutrality laws and the prize crew would be removed.

The ruse worked and on the evening of Oct. 21, Pushbach ordered Gainard to anchor at Tromso, Norway, to take on water. To Gainard’s dismay, the Norwegians simply filled the ship’s water tanks without ever checking her existing supplies. When he asked to get in touch with the American consul, the Norwegian authorities explained there was no consul in Tromso.

During their brief stay in port, however, they learned from the shortwave news reports that their arrival had been flashed to the world. Less than 24 hours after taking on the water, City of Flint departed Tromso, escorted out of Norwegian waters by a destroyer.

“Pushbach was on the spot,” Gainard later recalled in his memoir. “He had no direct orders from his government, our radio failure prevented that. I was just as worried as he was. We both wanted to keep the Flint safe, to keep her out of further trouble. He wanted to get her to Germany as he had been ordered…[and] I wanted to get her free.
“There were plenty of British ships on patrol to the south and probably at least a few German submarines, and I was unwilling to risk being in the middle of a major naval engagement …. If we got between the two in their smash, it was possible the City of Flint might cease to exist…”

With Pushbach in agreement, Gainard pointed City of Flint north to continue her odyssey.
More in our next blog.

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The German pocket battleship Deutschland captured City of Flint a month after the freighter rescued Athenia survivors. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 4

Captain Joseph A. Gainard, master of the American freighter, City of Flint, expected the notoriety he and his ship gained after rescuing survivors of the Athenia tragedy would quickly fade when he sailed Oct. 3, 1939, with a cargo bound for Liverpool, England. (See blog post City of Flint Odyssey, Part 3, Oct. 15, 2015.)

Gainard’s welcome return to obscurity lasted only until Oct. 9 when the German pocket battleship Deutschland appeared from over the horizon and ordered City of Flint to stop and be boarded. Gainard wasn’t worried. The United States and Germany weren’t at war and he considered his ship’s cargo to be quite innocent. In his memoir, Gainard described his initial meeting with the officer in charge of the German boarding party:

“I saluted, then held out my hand. ‘Glad to have you aboard,’ I said.

“He was pleased with our formality and politeness and did his best to match it himself. He said, ‘Captain, I am sorry to cause you inconvenience, but this is war. I must ask to see your papers.’

“…We had apples, asphalt, wax, machinery, lumber, tractors, canned goods, cereals, tobacco, lard, flour, oil, grease and general cargo. ‘This is bad,’ the German said. ‘You have 20,000 drums of oil on board. What kind of oil is it?’

“‘Lubricating oil,’ I told him

“‘That is bad,’ he said. ‘And this flour, what is it?’

“‘White-bread flour.’

“‘Is it easily accessible?’ he asked. I told him that it would take at least five hours to unload the flour and showed him the cargo plan to prove it.

“‘Under the laws of my country, you are guilty of carrying contraband to the enemy,’ he told me.”

To Gainard’s dismay, the Deutschland sent across an armed prize crew and ordered City of Flint to sail to Germany. Though he and his crew would operate the ship, they would do so under the close supervision of the prize crew commanded by Leutnant Hans Pushbach, a veteran of the Imperial German Navy who spoke excellent English.

The Yankee skipper was in an awkward position. The German crew proved to be reasonable and polite, but they were armed with pistols, machine guns, and grenades, and made it clear they would not hesitate to use their weapons to maintain control of the ship. Like the rest of his men, Gainard resented being under German control. But he had to keep his crew from taking any action that might cause an incident serious enough to jeopardize America’s neutrality. International prize rules at the time gave the Germans authority to commandeer the American ship’s cargo.

Nevertheless, the crew constantly schemed to find a way to rid their ship of the Germans. Flaws inevitably appeared as these plans were being worked out and they would be abandoned. Once or twice, however, the plans seemed almost plausible. But as Gainard observed in his memoir, the Germans inevitably sniffed them out:

“They fraternized with my crew and a couple of [the Germans] knew English but never let on about it. They would stand around watching card games in the crew’s quarters and listen to everything that was said. Then they’d go and report to their Captain.

“Every few days [Pushbach] would come up to me and say: ‘Well, tonight I think we have monkey business.’

“So I would then go the rounds and talk to the crew, and tell them there wasn’t a chance of their scheme getting across, that the Germans were already wise to them.”

A problem with City of Flint’s radio could not be fixed by the German technicians, who refused any help from Gainard’s crew. As a result, the ship could not communicate with the rest of the world. The best they could do was listen to news broadcasts over the short-wave radio to find out what the world knew about their situation. Unable to talk to his superiors, or to determine the extent of British fleet operations, Leutnant Pushbach decided City of Flint should make for Norway, a neutral country, where he might be able to gain information through German diplomatic channels.

It was a risky move for the German, and it would prove to be Pushbach’s undoing, but not before City of Flint’s odyssey would take it all the way to the Soviet Union, as we will see in our next blog.

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Passengers aboard the cargo ship City of Flint prepared for arrival in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Photo credit: Athenia Torpedoed: The U-Boat Attack That Ignited the Battle of the Atlantic.

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 3

When Captain Joseph Gainard pointed City of Flint’s bow toward Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Sept. 4, 1939, his 20-year-old freighter had never carried so many passengers – 265 people, all but 29 being survivors of the torpedoed British passenger ship Athenia. (See blog post City of Flint Odyssey, Part 2, Oct. 1, 2015.)
Gainard and his crew faced a voyage of nine days and the captain immediately set about organizing his ship for the long haul. To oversee passenger matters, he set up a small “cabinet” that included two of Flint’s original paying passengers, her chief officer, and her steward.

“We had to figure things to do to keep all that crowd occupied,” Gainard later wrote. “We didn’t have any space for them to play games so we doubled up on some of the jobs, two sweepers to a broom; anything to keep them busy to take their minds off their troubles.” To the captain’s great satisfaction, nearly everyone aboard volunteered to take up some duty.

With help from several passengers, City of Flint’s carpenter completed building 250 bunk beds on the Shelter deck by the next evening, Sept. 5. To help find their way through the maze of beds, passengers put up names to identify various locations. Polish and Czech survivors occupied the “Polish Corridor” and “Sudetenland;” Canadians gathered in “Montreal” and “Quebec;” while names like “Madison Avenue,” “Times Square” and “Seventh Avenue” identified American sections.

Dining was a particular challenge. Before sailing, City of Flint’s steward had arranged enough food to feed 60 people for 90 days, never imagining how fortuitous his planning would prove. But the sheer number of passengers to be fed three times a day threatened to overwhelm the ship’s two small dining facilities. The cabinet set up a system of seatings, similar to the dining arrangements on a passenger ship. Diners picked up their plates and utensils, had a time limit to finish their meals once they were served, and carried their dirty dishes to the washroom. Other passengers, working in shifts, cleaned the plates and utensils for the next set of diners.

Passing ships helped to augment short supplies on City of Flint, sending across blankets, milk, fresh vegetables, medical supplies, and toys and candy for the children.

The cabinet established an entertainment committee, which organized passenger talent shows featuring singers, magicians, and story tellers. A dance instructor from a women’s junior college did the hula to the rhythm of a drum made by stretching canvas over an empty trash can. Passengers also held a limerick contest and conducted a fashion show featuring various “models” wearing their most outlandish makeshift outfits.

One of the passengers, a baker from Albany, NY, fashioned a cake for a party for the children on board, complete with presents of toys and candy supplied by a generous passenger on one of the passing ships. The children also put on a talent show to rival the adults.

Sadly, early on the morning of Sept. 9, the 10-year-old girl, Margaret Hayworth, who had received a head wound in the torpedo attack on Athenia, succumbed to her injury. Not wishing to add to the grief of the survivors who already had been through so much, Gainard decided not to announce the child’s death to the general population of passengers.

On the morning of Sept. 10, two U.S. Coast Guard cutters met City of Flint and took up positions on either side of the cargo ship to escort her the rest of the way to Halifax. The cutters took on board 10 injured survivors so they might enjoy less crowded conditions and have more medical personnel to look after them.

Three days later, City of Flint entered Halifax Harbor to little fanfare. “There were no welcome boats dashing about the harbor, no launches or hollering or shrieking tugs—no whistles,” Gainard said. “This was in line with my request the night before, and was, in fact, appreciated by the Canadians who did not feel that the sinking of the Athenia was any occasion for a celebration.”

As his passengers disembarked, Gainard might well have thought that he could slip back into the welcome anonymity of a merchant mariner. Fate, however, had different plans for the colorful captain and his ship. More about that in our next blog.

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City of Flint Captain Joseph Gainard. Photo credit: Yankee Skipper: The Life Story of Joseph Gainard, Captain of The City of Flint.

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 2

The American freighter City of Flint was less than a day into its voyage from Scotland to New York Harbor on Sunday, Sept. 3, 1939, when a radio message relayed news that England and Germany were at war. The ship’s captain, Joseph Gainard, did not expect City of Flint to be a target of hostilities because America had declared its neutrality. But the state of war injected an element of uncertainty into an already stressful Atlantic crossing (see blog post City of Flint Odyssey, Part 1, Sept. 15, 2015).
Read More

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American freighter City of Flint Photo credit: www.snipview.com

War History City of Flint Odyssey, Part 1

With the threat of war hanging over Europe at the end of August 1939, passenger space on ships leaving England for North America was in great demand. For one ship in particular, the U.S. freighter City of Flint, that demand would unexpectedly swell its passenger manifest from zero to more than 250 in a most unexpected fashion.

When City of Flint’s captain, a crusty New Englander named Joseph Gainard, brought his ship into Glasgow, Scotland, on Aug. 31, he was told by the ship’s agents ashore that the U.S. Maritime Commission in London wanted to talk to him. Unable to get through to the commission, Gainard phoned the U.S. Ambassador, Joseph P. Kennedy, who had once helped him resolve a difficult situation with a crew on another ship when Kennedy was chairman of the Maritime Commission. Read More

Survivors (from left) John Woods, David Jennings and Tony Cassels return home Sept. 23, 1939 to Toronto after being rescued from the torpedoed passenger ship Athenia.
 
Photo credit: The Evening Telegram, Toronto, Canada.
Survivors (from left) John Woods, David Jennings and Tony Cassels return home Sept. 23, 1939 to Toronto after being rescued from the torpedoed passenger ship Athenia. Photo credit: The Evening Telegram, Toronto, Canada.

Meet the Character David Jennings: Adventures of A Young Man, Part 3

The Norwegian freighter Knute Nelson was the first ship to respond to distress signals from the British passenger liner Athenia after she was torpedoed in the North Atlantic on the first day of World War 2. David Jennings, a University of Toronto senior, and his friend and fellow student, Tony Cassels, watched from one of the 26 lifeboats arrayed around the sinking ship as the freighter approached shortly after midnight, came to a stop and began rescue operations.

Working at their oars for nearly two hours, Jennings and Cassels helped bring their boat alongside the big Norwegian ship. As he waited to climb aboard the Nelson, Jennings heard a shout from the deck above and was surprised to see his friend and fellow student John Woods, who had been separated from Jennings and Cassels a few hours earlier. Read More