Wednesday, June 28, 2017

"Firmitas adversaria superat" and "Alt for Norge"


Second World War U.S. Merchant Marine ribbons and two medals.
USMM Victory Medal.
Norway War Medal.
USMM Combat Bar.
USMM Defense Bar.
USMM Atlantic War Zone Bar.

Late Second World War and Postwar era.



Uniformed members of the U.S. Armed Services wear an array of ribbons on their chests. The small strips of cloth denote personal decorations, commendation ribbons for units, campaign medals, and foreign awards. Each ribbon has a specific place depending upon precedence and may have devices for additional awards or added significance. Not surprisingly, these ribbon racks speak to the career of the wearer as an ersatz professional résumé. However, it was not always this way.

At the outset of the Second World War, the military establishment had a paucity of awards it granted to its service members. As the war progressed, the War and Navy Departments redefined and reordered the "pyramid of honor", and behind Executive Orders or Acts of Congress, struck medals and badges, and awarded a small array of ribbons for members of the armed services for service in a total war with no end in sight.

One of the more curious developments in building the pyramid was awarding campaign ribbons before the cessation of hostilities. Unlike the Victory Medal’s suspension ribbon from the Great War that held campaign bars, or inter-war medals themselves for expeditions both domestic and overseas, the Second World War saw ribbons granted for participation or presence in various regional theaters of war media res. Only after the end of the Second World War did the government strike distribute medal-replacements for the ribbons in the late 1940s.

During the waning years of the Second World War, U.S. Merchant Marine seamen were also honored by the federal government by a handful of awards. They were not founded concurrently as those of the armed services, rather came as an afterthought. Some decorations awarded to merchant seamen found an analog in the armed services, such as medals for distinguished and meritorious services, and the Mariner's Medal for war wounds. There were also emergency service and theater ribbons - the latter called bars. Unlike the military's strict order of precedence, seamen wore Merchant Marine campaign ribbons in the order of award – or region sailed. The U.S. Merchant Marine had two unique awards: the Combat Bar and Gallant Ship Citation Bar. The former was granted if the mariner was present on a ship under attack and a silver star was affixed if the seaman was forced to abandoned ship. The latter was a unit award for a ship that stood out among all others in a time of crisis. There was no provision for merchant seamen to wear foreign decorations.  Only in 1992 were the campaign bars converted into medals – some forty-seven years after the armistice, and only then several years after Congressional approval.

However, the U.S. Merchant Marine was not a uniformed service and ribbons, and medals were not trotted out unless the mariner happened to be an officer on shore or perhaps in the rare ceremonial function.

The ribbon rack and a pair of medals illustrated in this post, although at first glance tells not so an uncommon story of a merchant seaman, further analysis brings quite a surprise.

The left-most ribbon is for combat action, and the star signifies the enemy hit the seaman’s vessel and he was forced to abandon ship. The middle ribbon bar is for "Merchant Marine Defense." It was awarded to individuals who sailed during Roosevelt's declaration of a state of national emergency up to the formal entry of the U.S. into the war. The last ribbon is for sailing in the Atlantic for more than thirty days during the war.

The story the ribbons tell is that the seaman was a career Able Seaman and worked through the Depression or perhaps signed up just as the war in Europe became hot. He was probably in an Atlantic convoy, and his ship was attacked either on convoy or steaming along the East Coast during when U-Boat commanders called “The Happy Time.”

The medals give us more insight. On the left is a Merchant Marine Victory Medal. It was awarded for participation in the war and was issued a year after the end of hostilities. This means the Mariner remained in the industry on and did not immediately go to a shoreside profession. On the right is a medal that vexed me for over seven years. I always thought it was one of those tokens a serviceman might pick up overseas. Usually, war-tokens brought back after those of the enemy – perhaps an Iron Cross or a patch. This medal is unusual because it was not from an Axis power – rather an Ally. In this case, Norway.

When I first received the lot, I asked if the seller had any information regarding provenance. There were no photo albums, military, or personally identifying items that came with it. The seller said no, it came from a storage unit clean-out. I followed up and asked if the seaman was from Norway. The answer came back with a cagey no, it belonged to an uncle who sailed in the War. I put the items in my collection with a shrug. I was happy to have a ribbon with the star and wondered what stories the mariner could tell if he were still alive and willing – most seamen did not talk about their wartime experiences, and for good reason.

In the years that followed, I began looking closer at Atlantic convoys. Recently, I came across an interview with a radioman who was on the SS Henry Bacon and how he was awarded a medal by the King of Norway for rescuing nineteen Norwegian refugees of the Island of Sørøya in 1945.  I saw an image of his medal, and it looked familiar.  I thought this can not be. I dug through various online and print sources and saw that the medal clasp was period Spink's and not a postwar production. I couldn’t believe it.

Although I do not have ironclad proof the group is from a survivor, the only other possible way examples of the medal could find itself into an American Merchant Marine collection would be if it were awarded to a Norwegian Merchant seaman who first served on a Norwegian ship and then a U.S. vessel – it did happen. This wasn't the case.
  
A retired merchant mariner describes the events of February 23, 1945 surrounding the award of the medal far better than I am able:*
[…] I went to another Liberty Ship [SS Henry Bacon in 1944]. The first trip, we went to England, Italy, France, Belgium and Holland. Then we came back to the states – Boston – and loaded up ammunition and locomotives for Murmansk, Russia. We went from Boston to Halifax, joined the convoy, went to England, then we headed north up around Norway and to the Russian winter port at Murmansk.

In Murmansk while they were unloading, everyday just like clockwork Germans would come and strafe the harbor. Before we left they put 20 Norwegian civilians on our ship. They were being sent to England. As soon as we left the harbor, the Germans started sinking the ships. They sank three of them before we even got out.

We ran into one of the most severe storms ever recorded in the area. It was so strong that the barometer’s chart paper didn’t go low enough to track the pressure. Winds of over 130 miles an hour; 45 to 60 degrees below zero. We lost the convoy. The rough seas sheared the steel pins holding the main springs on the steering mechanism. We had no steering capacity. We put the pins back in, and every time the ship would try to make a turn, we’d hammer on the pins to keep the springs in place. Our Captain thought we were ahead of the convoy, so he turned around and doubled back for 60 miles. He couldn’t find the convoy, so he turned and decided to go back again on the same route. That was when they hit us – on February 23, about 1500 hours, with twin-engine torpedo bombers – JU-88s.
They were looking for the main convoy. They couldn’t find it because the storm was so bad. Twenty-three of them hit us. We shot down several of their aircraft. They dropped torpedoes and the gunners where able to shoot them in the water before they hit the ship. But one got by and it hit between the steering engine and number five hatch – that’s where the rear explosive hatch is. We sank in less than an hour.

I was one of the first ones in the water. I was told I’m in the British Naval medical journals as the longest survivor during World War II in the Artic water – over two hours in 45 below zero weather.
My Chief Engineer had ordered me to cut loose one of the lifeboats with a fire axe because the cables were frozen. But the sea hit me, and took me and the life boat right over the side. I came up under the life boat. It had hit me on the back of the neck and knocked me out. I had to kick off my sea boots in the tangle of lines in the water, and somehow I rolled the life boat upright. How I did it, I don’t know. Witnesses who saw me do it couldn’t say how I did it by myself. I don’t know to this day.
I found a life ring floating by and grabbed that. Another of our crew held on to it too, and we caught an unconscious Navy armed guard, put him between us, and locked him in with our feet. He survived. The crew at the time was 48 people, not counting the armed guard. We lost, I think, 27 of our crew. We saved the 20 Norwegians without a loss; that’s why we were cited by the King of Norway. They were all civilians – women and children, mostly.

The three of us had stayed in the life ring. We were rescued by the Zambezi – a British destroyer. They had come back to pick up bodies for burial. A young English Sub-Lieutenant tied a heaving line around his waist, jumped into the water and tied a rope around us. They thought we were dead. But when they dropped us on the deck, my eyes opened.
Our clothes were frozen to our bodies. They laid us on the mess hall tables and cut our clothes off. Then they covered us with sheets and packed us in sea ice. They let the sea ice melt to room temperature as our bodies thawed out with it. It was all they could do. They had no medications left. All they had was Pusser’s Royal Navy Rum. They had barrels of it. The doctor on the ship was actually a veterinary doctor in England before he joined the Navy. He told us: The only medication I have is rum; if you have no objections, I’ll keep you supplied. And that’s what he did. He kept us in a mellow glow for approximately four days until we got to Reykjavik, Iceland.

The doctors checked us out in Iceland and said we would survive. We went from there to Scapa Flow (Editor: Royal Navy base in Scotland). From Scapa Flow we went to a place in Ireland -- Northern Ireland. To this day I still don’t know where. They didn’t tell us. They took us in to this castle and interrogated us. What they thought was that we were German plants, because they thought nobody could have survived for over two hours in Artic water – normally it was ten minute survival rate. They couldn’t believe it. So, they interrogated us, and after interrogation, they gave us a card saying we had been cleared by the FBI, Naval Intelligence, British Naval Intelligence and Coast Guard Intelligence. From there they took us to Glasgow, Scotland, then to Liverpool, where they put us on the USS Wakefield and brought us home.

The Norwegians awarded us the Norwegian War Medal. After that, I continued sailing through the end of the war. I stayed in the Merchant Marine until 1950.
* Ed. note: 19 Norwegians were part of the ship’s complement. 21 crew members survived, less than half of the 47. This text is from “Veterans Health Administration ‘My Life My Story’” program. The Master of the vessel, Capt. Alfred Carini went down with the ship, and is one of two Americans awarded Norway's highest honor for military gallantry, the Krigskorset med Sverd (War Cross with Sword).
One of the more touching aspects of the group is the patina on the Norwegian War Medal. Although the entire medal has turned a deep chocolate, the high relief of the King’s portrait is rubbed and bright. I imagine the mariner thumbing the medal recalling the convoy attack, the shipmates he lost, and remembering the sheer fear he had for his life in the frigid dark of the Arctic Ocean followed by the relief of his rescue. And after all that, told we has a hero by a foreign king.

References
E. Spurgeon Campbell. Waves Astern: A Memoir of World War II and the Cold War. AuthorHouse, 2004.

Donald Foxvog and Robert Alotta. The Last Voyage of the SS Henry Bacon. Paragon House, 2001.

Kjetil Henriksen and Sindre Weber. “Praksis for tildeling av norske krigsdekorasjoner for andre verdenskrig – handelsflåten og Hjemmestyrkene, Norsk Militært Tidsskrift, No. 3, 2015, pp. 22–29.

Toni Horodysky. “SS Henry Bacon rescues Norwegian refugees at cost of American mariner lives .” American Merchant Marine at War, 2007.

Jarl Inge. “Kvalsund – Mason Burr. Helten på SS Henry Bacon. The hero of SS Henry Bacon” in travel-finnmark.no, 2016.

Ian A. Millar. “Alt for Norge”, The Medal Collector, Vol. 40, No. 3, March 1989, pp. 14-17.

Arthur R. Moore . “A Careless Word ... A Needless Sinking”: A History of the Staggering Losses Suffered By the U.S. Merchant Marine, Both in Ships and Personnel, During World War II. American Merchant Marine Museum at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy; First Edition edition, 1983.

David Schiesher. In Memory of Donald Peter Schiesher 1921 - 1945.

U.S. Congress. “Recognizing the exploits of the officers and crew of the S.S. Henry Bacon, a United States Liberty ship that was sunk on February 23, 1945, in the waning days of World War II, [H. J. Res 411, 107th Congress].” Washington D.C., 2002. (nb.: nothing came of the resolution)






















Merchant Marine Victory Medal, 1946

The medal is a decoration of the United States Merchant Marine established by an Act of Congress on August 8, 1946, and was awarded to officers and men of the U.S. Merchant Marine who served aboard American-flagged merchant ships for at least 30 days between December 7, 1941, and September 3, 1945.

John R. Sinnock – known for his design of the Roosevelt dime and Purple Heart Medal – designed the Merchant Marine Victory Medal. The obverse of the medal depicts Liberation, facing the wind, astride the bow of a U-Boat and a sand dune. She holds a trident in her right hand and an olive branch in her left hand. The trident is evocative of the same held by Britannia, Mistress of the Seas.To the left of Liberation is the word “WORLD” and to the right of her is “WAR II”. The reverse shows a Herreshoff anchor inside a rope circle, around which is wound a ribbon with the slogan: “FIRMITAS ADVERSARIA SUPERAT” (Latin for “Steadfastly overcoming the enemy”). In a circle around the edge of the reverse, the words “UNITED STATES MERCHANT MARINE 1941-1945” form a motto.

The medal was awarded to ~32,000 individuals.





















Krigsmedaljen (Norway War Medal), 1945

The medal was established by Royal Decree on November 13, 1942, by King Haakon VII of Norway. It was awarded to Norwegian and foreign military and civilians who participated in a meritorious way toward the efforts to achieve Norwegian liberation from the Germans. It was for the period from May 23, 1941, through the end of the Second World War.

Krigsmedaljen utdeles til norske eller utenlandske militære som på en fortjenstfull måte har deltatt i krig for Norge og til norske og utenlandske sivile som under krig har ydet Norges forsvar tjenester.
The War Medal is awarded to Norwegians or to foreign military who have served in a meritorious manner in war on behalf of Norway, and to Norwegians and to foreign civilians who, during war, have aided in Norway's defense.
For the duration of the war, the medal was granted by the Norwegian Government-in-exile and later in Norway proper with the evacuation of the German occupying forces. The medal was not a blanket participation medal - its award was determined after a petition to the King’s Council-in-Exile or the Norwegian Ministry of Defense.

The medal is a 33mm bronze disc with King Haakon VII's portrait, name, and motto “Alt for Norge” (All For Norway) on the obverse, and a wreath and the text “Krigsmedalje” (War Medal) on the reverse. In the middle along the edges of the reverse is the King's cipher.

If a recipient met the requirements for receiving it again, they received a star each time they did so (to be pinned to the suspension ribbon), although the same individual can not be awarded more than three stars.

In the period from 1942 to 1956, about 18,000 decorations were awarded. A breakdown of the classes of awardees is as follows:
6,500: Merchant Navy
3,800: Navy
1,500: Civilian (Home Guard)
800: Air Force
700: Army (includes foreigners fighting in Norgwegian units)
8: Coastal Artillery
300: Partisans 
Posthumous:
2,350 Merchant Navy
800: Navy
750: Army
400: Home Guard
300: Air Force
110: Secret services


Donald Peter Schiesher
from David Schiesher


Donald Peter Schiesher & Mason Kirby Burr

In doing my research, I came across a mention of the SS Henry Bacon and a posthumous award of the medal to a seaman that was killed by the attack - Donald Peter Schiesher.

“Donny was serving in the Merchant Marine in World War II […]  He gave his life to save 19 Norwegian civilians.” Of interest are the communications from the U.S. Government and medal citation.





















Donald Schiesher Lost in Action With Crew of Henry Bacon
In an unforgettable epic of the sea, seven officers and eight men of the American Liberty ship Henry Bacon, boldly met death in an icy Artic gale to save the lives of 19 Norwegian islanders. One of these eight men was Seaman Donald Schiesher, son of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Schiesher.
The Henry Bacon was starting home in convoy after carrying freight to Russia and carried as passengers the Norwegians who were among several hundred being evacuated to England. She encountered heavy weather, lost touch with the convoy and was singled out by the Germans. An aerial torpedo plunged into the hold and the vessel went down with her guns firing.
Two lifeboats were successfully launched, one with the refugees and a few crewman and the other with 15 crewman and seven gunners. In the bad gale the Henry Bacon had engine trouble but in accordance with a hard and fast rule the convoy continued and it was later that the Bacon was sighted by the enemy. Five German planes were shot down by the ship's ack-ack, but it suffered heavy damage and the life boats, with the exception of two, were ruined.
Knowing that his ship was going to sink, Capt. Alfred Carini, ordered the three men among his passengers to put their women and children in a life boat.
Five officers and 21 ratings of the Henry Bacon's crew survived and are enroute home. Captain Carini went down with his ship.
Two Illinoians were among the heroes who gave their lives. They were Donald of Hampshire, and Edgar B. Snyder, first assistant engineer. Donald entered the Merchant Marine service on Nov. 3, 1942 and received his training at Sheepshead Bay. He was then sent to San Francisco where he was assigned to a ship and sent into the Pacific. He served there 18 months. Last August he enjoyed a furlough at home and was then assigned to service in the Atlantic. His last letter home was from Scotland on December 23.
Donald was 22 years old, was born in Hampshire, and had lived here all his life. He graduated from the local high school with the class of 1940. A brother Robert, is serving with Patton's 3rd. Army in Germany.
Memorial Service April 19
According to present plans the memorial service for Donald will be held at the Hampshire Catholic church on April 19th.
via: A newspaper clipping of the Hampshire Township Historical Society - publisher/date not noted.
Full details, including his father’s narrative which became part of Donald's obituary notice may be found here: In Memory of Donald Peter Schiesher  1921 - 1945.


A hundred yards from a gravel road, near the Finnmark coast in northern Norway is a small memorial to one of Donald's shipmates, a Navy Armed Guard. The front and back faces of the memorial stone read:
Bare 20 år fra USA. Mason Burr
helten på “Henry Bacn” 1945
Dette ernoen av dramaer
m/ evakueringen av Finnmark 1944 
Only twenty years old from the USA.,
Mason Burr, hero of the “Henry Bacn” 1945
These are some of the dramas
of the evacuation of Finnmark 1944 
Burr's death was a selfless one: he remained at his post after all his shipmates and the group of refugees put to lifeboat. He was determined to man a gun to fend off the boat's strafing by the Luftwaffe. After the lifeboat detached from the sinking ship, he was hit by shrapnel and died instantly.  His body was found a year and a half later in October 1949, washed ashore near Klubbukt, Finnmark entombed in ice. The memorial has flowers every year in remembrance of him and the crew of the SS Henry Bacon.




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