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Lutherville man travels to England where uncle died a hero in WWII

Waterway and Maritime TransportationArmed ForcesHeroismWorld War II (1939-1945)Wars and Interventions

On a wall calendar in their Lutherville kitchen, the Blum family keeps various appointments and relatives' birthdays jotted down in fairly small, neatly written Magic Marker script. But for the week of May 25 to 29, the words "London," "Cambridge" and "Paris" are written in large letters.

This particular calendar notation is not for an ordinary hop across the pond, but the journey of a lifetime for Murray Blum, an attorney and 1972 graduate of Milford Mill High School. On this trip to England and France with his 12-year-old son, Jordan, Blum will once again come face-to-face with the life and legacy of his namesake, Lt. Murray Morris Blum, an uncle he never met who died during World War II trying in vain to save another man's life.

"In a way, I feel like I knew him," Blum said of his uncle. "If I ever needed some help, I would always reach out to him for advice, in a mystical way. I know it sounds corny, but it's something I did.

"I grew up hearing stories about Murray all the time, how good he was and the relationships he had. He was just a great person who would always help people. I've always been proud to be named after someone like him."

Murray and Jordan Blum will attend the May 26 dedication ceremony of the Visitor Center at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial near Cambridge, England. The cemetery, which is run by the American Battle Monuments Commission, is the final resting place of 3,812 American servicemen who died during the war, including Lt. Blum, who served in the U.S. Merchant Marine.

The cemetery compound includes a Wall of the Missing with the names of 5,127 servicemen, most of whom were lost during the Battle of the Atlantic or the bombardment of northwest Europe. Among the better-known names on the wall is Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., elder brother of President John F. Kennedy.

The new Visitor Center will feature a permanent audio-visual exhibition titled "Profiles of Sacrifice," which tells the stories of Lt. Blum and 13 other U.S. military personnel who gave their lives during the war. The ABMC also has produced a "Next of Kin" video for the exhibition that features Murray Blum, his sister, Robin Blum, and their uncle, Calvin Blum, talking about Lt. Blum's legacy (the video can be viewed at http://www.abmc.gov/multimedia/video/never-forgotten-lt-murray-m-blum.com). The Blums donated Lt. Blum's diary, medals and other artifacts and information to the exhibition.

"The Blum family was just so willing to share," said Timothy Nosal, the ABMC's acting public affairs director. "They are truly touched and honored that their relative will be featured at the Visitor Center. It just resonated with them, and Lt. Blum's story simply stood out for us."

A selfless act

A 22-year-old native of New Haven, Conn., who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., Lt. Blum was the chief radio operator on the S.S. Leonidas S. Polk on the evening of Dec. 3, 1943, when the ship collided with a smaller European sea vessel miles off the coast of Scotland in the North Atlantic. While the Leonidas Polk did not sustain significant damage, the other boat sank quickly and many of its crew jumped into the frigid, choppy waters.

As rescue boats were dispatched and the crew of the Leonidas Polk watched from the deck, one man in the ocean cried desperately for help, shouting he did not know how to swim. The rescue boats were going in the opposite direction. A strong swimmer, Lt. Blum immediately removed his shoes, yelled, "Radio Operator Lt. Murray Blum going overboard," dove into the water and searched for the man drowning beyond the range of the buoy line.

The selfless act was completely in keeping with Lt. Blum's character, according to his brother, Calvin.

"No one else would jump in but Murray," Calvin Blum said. "Murray would always do everything in his power to help someone. It was an automatic impulse."

Rescue boats never found Lt. Blum or the man he intended to save. Three weeks later, Lt. Blum's body washed up near the Scottish shore. "He gave his life for someone else," Murray Blum said. "He didn't have to jump overboard, but he did."

Calvin Blum was only 14 and at home with his parents in Brooklyn when a Western Union messenger knocked at the door.

"It was a very traumatic period," Calvin Blum said. "First, we got the telegram. Then, in a piecemeal way, every few weeks, they started sending his goods back home — clothes, phonograph records, barbells, uniforms. Each time, it was like reopening the wound.

"My parents never got over losing Murray," said Calvin Blum, now 86 and living in White Lake, Mich. "They were never the same happy people they had been. But they were never angry. They never asked, 'Why did he do this?' They knew that was him. And I've always been very proud of him."

On June 6, 1944 — D-Day — Lt. Blum was posthumously awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal, the highest medal bestowed upon members of that service.

"His heroism was further sanctified when in his attempt to rescue the drowning man, he gave his own life," Adm. Emory Scott Land wrote in a letter to the Blum family on behalf of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. "His utter disregard of the odds against his own survival was a heroic manifestation of the spirit which so inalienably characterizes the men of the United States Merchant Marine."

Lt. Blum was later honored at the 1958 dedication of the American Memorial Chapel at St. Paul's Cathedral in London, at which his parents met Queen Elizabeth II. Also, a Liberty Ship was named in honor of Lt. Blum, and his life has been documented in an exhibition at the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington, D.C.

Murray Blum said his father, Monte Blum, also a World War II veteran, often reminisced about Lt. Blum. But Monte Blum, who as a diver with the U.S. Army 1061st Engineer Battalion had the task of recovering soldiers' bodies from the English Channel, rarely spoke about his own wartime experiences, which included being seriously wounded in combat.

"I'm not even sure how exactly he got hurt during the war," Murray Blum said of his father, who died nearly nine years ago from medical complications stemming from his war wounds. "I guess he didn't really want to think about it."

Murray Blum credited his sister for "getting the ball rolling" with the family's involvement with the visitor center project. "She's been working on this for a long time, communicating with everyone and making contacts, including with the [ABMC]," he said.

'Seeing my name'

Murray Blum said he and his son will be special guests of the ABMC at the ceremony and receive a special tour of the visitor center and cemetery, which Blum has visited on two other occasions.

Of his first visit to his uncle's grave in the 1980s, Murray Blum said, "It was very emotional just being there and seeing my name and going through the cemetery and seeing all the names of the kids buried there."

Jordan Blum will miss four days of classes at the Park School, but said he does not mind. "I'm excited about it," he said of the trip. "I know he was a lieutenant and a radio operator, and that my dad is named after him."

Murray Blum is confident that the visit, which will include a quick jaunt to Paris, will make a lifelong impression on his son.

"I want him to know about Murray and what he did. I want him to share it with his classmates," he said. "It was just selfless, without even thinking. That's who Murray was, and I'm very proud."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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