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.