The restored Liberty ship, S.S. John W. Brown, served as an appropriate backdrop at the Dundalk Marine Terminal early this month as some 250 American veterans of the World War II supply runs to Murmansk received Russian medals.
It took 50 years for these graying men to receive the recognition -- and when they did, both the name and the flag of the country they aided had changed.
"Today Russia has a new flag," Ambassador Vladimir Lukin noted as he stood below his country's tri-color and the star-spangled banner.
"You should be proud of this flag," he added. "It is the flag of eternal Russia, the flag of democratic Russia."
Allied convoys through the arctic waters of the Atlantic to Murmansk from Scotland and Iceland provided the Soviet Union vital aid which enabled Stalin to repulse Hitler. Had the Soviets collapsed, "the full weight of the German war machine could have been directed on England and almost certainly would have led to the occupation of that island in spite of their tenacious refusal to give in," marine historian Ian Millar told the gathering.
German aircraft, submarines and surface ships took a terrible toll of ships and lives on the Murmansk route. Among the 40 convoys consisting of more than 800 ships, PQ-17 suffered the most damage. Of 33 cargo ships sent to Murmansk in July, 1942, only 11 survived to discharge their cargoes. Four of the six Liberty ships in the convoy were sunk.
After the war, as the Soviet Union and the United States became engaged in a protracted Cold War, this Allied aid and similar convoys to the Persian Gulf were often suppressed in Soviet history writing. Now that communism is gone, it can again be recognized.
The aging honorees came to Dundalk from throughout the nation. One Cincinnati man, who had written the Russian embassy to say how excited he was about this belated recognition, was among the hundreds for whom the ceremony came too late; he died two days before it occurred.
During World War II, Baltimore was one of the main production sites for Liberty ships, vessels that were quickly patched together at Bethlehem Steel shipyards here. Of that fleet of some 2,700 ships, only two exist now. One of them is the John W. Brown, the restored museum ship, which is berthed in Baltimore as a memorial to the World War II effort of the U.S. Merchant Marine.