Georgia native last surviving sailor on the USS Stephen Leacock

Wed, 12/16/2009 - 9:32am
By: Carolyn Cary

Georgia native last surviving sailor on the USS Stephen Leacock John Calvin Graves and a replica of the Liberty ship he served on, the S.S. Stephen Leacock. Photo/Carolyn Cary

Fayette County, Georgia native, John Calvin Graves, 84, is believed to be the last surviving sailor who served on board the US Merchant Marine ship, the S.S. Stephen Leacock.

The ship was one of only two named in World War II for someone outside the United States. Stephen Leacock was viewed as Canada’s “Mark Twain.”

His summer home was in Orillia, Ontario, just north of Toronto. The town is home to a museum in his honor, and this past November 5, dedicated a model of the ship at the museum.

Graves was born and raised near New Hope Baptist Church, just north of Fayetteville, and was graduated from Fayette County High School in May, 1943.

He entered the United States Navy in August of that year.

The Gunner’s mate, 3rd Class, went into service at Bainbridge, Maryland where he was specially trained to operate five inch-38mm guns, that were always placed on the stern of a ship. The United States Navy decided to train sailors in 28 different positions on a ship, as well as building over 2,000 ships identical to each other. This class of ships was known as Liberty ships, and sailors serving aboard any of them or being transferred to another one, would be instantly familiar with the ship.

After serving for several months on merchant ships traveling to England and back, Graves was given a short leave. He had not been home more than three days, when he received a telegram telling him to be in New York immediately. Taking a train from Atlanta, he had just stepped off the train in New York when he saw someone waving a sign with his name and serial number.

He was taken aboard a shuttle boat and transported out into the Atlantic Ocean to board the S.S. Stephen Leacock. The Leacock was filled with so many supplies and sat so low in the water, that he could step directly from the shuttle boat to board the Leacock without having to step up.

Graves finally got to ask as to why he was singled out for this venture, he was told that the gunner that had been aboard the Leacock had heard the ship was headed over the Artic Circle to Russia, and had jumped ship. Graves became his replacement.

The Leacock, and approximately 60 other similar ships in the convoy, were carrying two locomotives with gondolas, and five refrigerated box cars with 10 diesel engines loaded into each boxcar. Steel and general supplies rounded out its cargo. Some of the ships also carried their own cranes, lighting and generators needed to unload the railroad cars.

The convoy left New York on November 9, 1944, arriving at Liverpool, England 16 days later, then moved up to Loch Ewe Scotland on November 29. The convoy then left to cross the Artic Circle and arrive at Murmansk, Russia on December 7, 1944.

The temperature stayed at minus 40 degrees and the ships had to keep its engines running day and night, to keep the water churned up and to keep it from freezing.

Due to poor unloading facilities at Murmansk, only six ships could unload at a time. The cranes had to be unloaded first to unload the rail cars. Graves noticed that most of the Russian workers were women, some wearing uncured hides, goat skins and blankets just to keep warm in the minus 40 degrees.

When the word would go out that German airplanes were headed their way, all lights would be doused. The Germans would drop flares to try to locate ships and Graves remembers that a few of them were hit directly.

He also remembers having to put on several layers of clothing before going on deck for duty. By the time you got through the ship and to your post, you were sweating. Shortly after reaching your post, you began to feel like you were turning to ice. Soon, however, your own body heat would level things out. Every hour, a bell would ring, and you would rotate back inside for 15 minutes.

Christmas Day was spent like the other days with one exception. The cook onboard the Leacock told the crew that he would make them some chocolate. After melting the chocolate, he took the pan outside, sat it on a railing for less than a minute, took the pan back in and it had been instantly cooled and ready for cutting into pieces.

The convoy left the Kola Inlet, Murmansk, on January 11, 1945, heading back to Loch Ewe, Scotland, arriving 10 days later. On January 26 the convoy then headed to New York.

However, the ships were without ballast and rode high in the water. Due to rough seas, cracks began to appear in the hull. Graves remembers welding steel eyes on either side of the cracks and with the use of turnbuckles, thus holding the ship together.

Because of the rough seas, somehow the Leacock got separated from the convoy and arrived in Boston, instead of New York, on February 17, 1945.

After World War II, the Stephen Leacock was placed in reserve and anchored with the US Maritime Commission’s Reserve Fleet in the James River. It was brought out into active service for a year in 1947 but returned to reserve status, this time in the Tensaw River Reserve Fleet.

It was sold for scrapping at New Orleans in 1969.

Seaman Graves continued in service and was discharged in March, 1946. He returned to his home in Fayette County, where he sill lives with his wife, the former Helen Houston Graves. They are the parents of James Calvin Graves and Kathy Ann Ferrell, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

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