On a rainy Armistice Day my thoughts and prayers go out to my favorite Vet, James J. Lynch as he recovers from a serious fall…Get well my friend.
To me the most interesting man in the world is not the guy from the Dos Equis commercials; it is a 91-year-old gentleman who lives down the Fort in what many of us still call “Dutchie’s House.” For over 15 years, Jim Lynch has been more than a best friend, he’s my mentor, my Master Yoda, if you will; and along with the late great Joe Garland another set of shoulders that I stand upon. Jim has been so influential to me that it’s hard to pinpoint all that he has done. But anyone who has talked with Jim, either down the Fort playground, at the Sawyer Free Library, or even aboard the schooner ARDELLE, realizes very quickly that he has lived a life straight out of a Hollywood script. In honor of his service, here are just a few of his adventures during World War II.
As a kid Jim spent his summers aboard his family’s fishing schooners where he learned the art of navigation from his grandfather and uncles. By 1939, with German U-Boats starting their patrols, his grandfather was reluctant to have him aboard. When America joined the Allies in 1941, Jim
signed on to the Merchant Marine, and with his fishing background was made a lieutenant. He was to be a navigator on the perilous Murmansk Runs – large, poorly protected convoys to the Soviet port of Murmansk to keep the USSR in the war. Part of his training was an intensive crash-course in conversational Russian that would serve him far beyond the war years.
In May of 1942, Jim was part of a convoy on its way to Murmansk from Philadelphia. While steaming past Jan Mayen Island in the Arctic Ocean, German bombers came in almost at mast-height and bombed the ships. A direct hit sent Jim into the icy water as the ship went down. The long day this far North allowed him to find some floating wreckage to climb upon. As he lay floating there with hypothermia beginning to take hold, he was rescued by the Soviet freighter the STARY BOLSHEVIK, heading to Murmansk with a cargo of high-octane gasoline from Texas. They threw a line and Jim had just enough energy to tie a bowline around his waist as they hauled him on deck. He was surprised to find the captain and all of the officers were women. They did not waste time as they set him up on the ship’s boiler to get his core body temperature back, while on the way to Murmansk. When Jim tells this story today he usually ends it with “it made a Christian out of me.”
Jim’s ship was ordered to deliver mobile artillery during the landing at Salerno. The captain of this ship didn’t like Jim, one time saying, “You’re Irish, You’re a fisherman and you’re from the North….You’ll never be any good to me.” He ordered Jim to the battle bridge in the stern. By exiling him aft he saved Jim’s life. German fighter bombers swept in equipped with the latest in Nazi super weapons: Hs model remote guided rockets, the precursor to today’s cruise missiles. One of these flew right into the bridge and killed most of the bridge crew. Now it was up to Jim, highest ranking surviving officer, to run back to the ruined bridge and pull the damaged ship out of the line. I won’t describe what he found once he got there, but I have no idea how he sleeps at night…
The Raid at Bari
Jim barely survived the German raid at Bari, Italy in 1943. The Allies had ships filled with mustard gas containers in the port. The official story is that these banned weapons were being prepared in case the Nazis used chemical weapons in Yugoslavia or Greece. Jim knew what was on the ships–his ship was tied up next to them. When the German bombers flew over the ships and dropped conventional bombs, the mustard gas in the ship holds was released. Jim was once again thrown overboard from an explosion, but this time he was covered in oil, contaminated with mustard gas. Jim was mostly blind for the next three months but fared better than the 2000 military and civilians that were killed from the gas. This little known event was covered up until the late 1950’s.
Jim had many more exploits during the war, which took him to most of the major Allied ports, from Archangel to Asmara. He spent time in the Adriatic ferrying Frogmen and Partisans from Italy to Yugoslavia under German fire. It was there he met members of Italy’s exiled nobility fighting for the Allies and became life-long friends with the Duke of Colonna, the Count of Montezemolo and Venetian banking families. By the end of the war in Europe, Jim was back in the Soviet Union, where he celebrated V-E Day on the Eastern Front with Russian champagne and the thunderous singing of hundreds of Cossacks. The war was over for Europe but not for Jim. Due to the fact that Jim knew where the Germans laid mines in the Black Sea, Stalin “invited” him to stay and help with their removal. Jim didn’t return home until 1947. In the 1990’s Boris Yeltsin invited Jim and the other Murmansk Run survivors to return and they were recognized as Heroes of the Great Patriotic War.
This is only a sample of Jim’s war stories, but one thing they all have in common is his message that all he was trying to do was to stay alive: a fisherman who was just doing his duty for his country. Whoever Jim Lynch was before the war, a stronger but still honest and true version emerged from the USSR in 1947. And for those like me who have the privilege of knowing Jim, we know that his wartime exploits only set the stage for the amazing career and the wonderful family that would soon follow.
Here’s to you Jim!
Justin Demetri grew up “Down the Fort” in one of the many families that comprised Gloucester’s Italian fishing fleet. He spent his childhood among the fishermen, the boats and the wharves. At age 12, Justin gave the first cash donation to the newly arrived Schooner Adventure, leading to a friendship with author and historian Joseph E. Garland. This was the spark that would lead to a love of writing and an appreciation for the special place he still calls home. His interests include researching local maritime history and exploring his family’s Sicilian fishing heritage. His works on Italian history, culture and food can be found at LifeinItaly.com. Justin holds a degree in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Massachusetts/Boston and is the Director of Visitor Services for the Essex Shipbuilding Museum.