Close to 500 graying American veterans and their friends and relatives gathered yesterday at Dundalk Marine Terminal for a unique ceremony -- to receive Russian commemorative medals for their participation in the World War II convoys to the Arctic port of Murmansk.
"You are true heroes," Russian ambassador Vladimir Lukin said as he handed out medals to 250 of these men who had come to Baltimore half a century after the beginning of those dangerous supply runs.
Forty convoys, with a total of more than 800 ships -- including 350 under the U.S. flag -- participated in the run from Scotland or Iceland to the northern Russian port of Murmansk between 1941 and 1945. Ninety-seven of those ships were sunk by bombs, torpedoes or mines; hundreds of men were lost.
Yet enough got through to deliver to Russia, fending off a brutal Nazi offensive, more than 22,000 aircraft, 375,000 trucks, 8,700 tractors, 51,500 jeeps, 1,900 locomotives, 343,700 tons of explosives, a million miles of field-telephone cable and tons and tons of assorted other war materiel.
After the U.S.-Soviet war alliance turned into a bitter and protracted Cold War, this was among the foreign war contributions almost totally ignored in the official Soviet history. Now, with communism gone, it is again recognized, as yesterday's ceremony showed.
Baltimore was an ideal site for this observance. Many of the Liberty ships that plowed through the perilous Arctic waters were made at Bethlehem Steel shipyards here. Among the first American ships to make the Murmansk run was the Francis Scott Key. And Baltimore now is the home of the John W. Brown, a restored Liberty ship and one of only two survivors of a fleet that once numbered 2,700.
The crews of Liberty ships were made up of civilians. It took a long time for the U.S. government to recognize the vital contribution of those members of the Merchant Marine and grant them veterans' benefits. The honors now bestowed to them by Russia completes a valiant chapter in World War II history.