(Reading time 5 minutes)
Some men who served in the Navy, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine will remember the brutally cold convoy trips to Murmansk, Russia during WWII. They were trips where the water was so cold, that the saltwater spray actually froze on the clothing of the men on deck watch. It also froze on the steel decks of the ships. That was one trip where there were no volunteers for deck duty and anything else outside, above deck. Destroyer Escorts were used extensively for this convoy duty. The hulls of these ships were made of ¼” steel. Having served on a destroyer escort, and having slept in a bunk next to the hull on one of these vessels, I know what it feels like to have a metal wall next to your body at just about 32 degrees. Comfort was not a part of the advertisements to join the Navy and see the world, certainly not on the Murmansk tour.
As this convoy neared the Russian seaport of Tallinn, one of the Navy convoy ships struck a wayward floating mine. I don’t have to tell you what it did to the ¼ hull of the escort ship. Fortunately, the hatches were closed and locked during this dangerous part of the passage, which was a routine procedure. With the forward hatch flooded from the hole blasted by the mine, the ship’s bow was in a declining angle. The crew was frantically trying to control the water rushing into the gaping hole in the bow at the water line, when they heard tapping in Morse code, on the hull. Coming from the compartment below was an S.O.S. cry for help. The compartment was sealed. However, in that compartment was a stunned seaman who survived the mine blast but was trapped and now pleading for help. The man was identified as Seaman Bill Baker because he was the only sailor who did not show up for his battle station on the forward gun. Another Seaman, Sam Salters, identified Bill as his best friend. Sam insisted that he be lowered through a deck hatch to free his buddy. It was the one and only chance to save Bill’s life and there were no seconds to spare. Opening the deck hatch would worsen the flow of the 30-degree freezing water into the bow and surely drown the trapped Seaman, but there was no other choice. Waves were breaking over the bow. Everyone on the forward gun station was wet and cold. They convinced the officers that it deserved one chance – a quick open and closing of the hatch – for one try – to reach trapped man Seaman Bill Baker.
Using a lifeline that he would connect to himself and the underside of the hatch cover, Seaman Sam Salters jumped into the icy flooding compartment. Only a flashlight and a lifeline went with him into the pitch black hole below. Sam freed Baker by tying the rope around him and pulling him to safety. Fortunately, the trapped Seaman was above the water level on the compartment shelves, or he would have already been frozen. Recovery tries would have been useless. They had less than a minute to get in and out, and they did it. The soaking wet Seamen both quickly escaped through the deck hatch, and the story had a happy ending for both of them.
The rest is history, but not in the history books. It was just another day in the Navy. The ship was badly crippled, but limped into port in Norway for repairs. There were no medals for Seaman Sammy Salters, but as an unsung hero he was entitled to something. The survivor, Seaman Baker, agreed. So Bill Baker, as a reward, bought Sammy a beer in Bergen, Norway. That was this hero’s reward. Seaman 1st Class Sammy Salters was an unsung hero, just doing his job and saving the life of his buddy, Billy Baker. They enjoyed the shore leave during repairs of the ship, but were eager to return to the sea again. They just didn’t like the Norwegian beer!