John Murdo Mackenzie reads a story to his grandson John – but it’s no ordinary story. The book they are sharing is the dramatic tale of the sinking of the liberty ship, SS William H Welch, off the mouth of Loch Ewe – and John Murdo Senior remembers it first hand.
He was a boy of 12 when the tragedy happened on 26th February, 1944 and he was there to witness the event off Foura and Black Bay in Wester Ross, all those years ago. 74 Americans died and 12 were saved by the tremendous and gallant efforts of the local crofters who battled across the stark bog land through snow storms carrying flasks of tea and blankets for the few merchant marines and navy crewmen who had survived,
The event is being commemorated on 7th May during WWII and the Arctic Convoys Week at Aultbea on Loch Ewe. There will be a guided walk to the wreck site, and John Murdo will accompany the walkers to tell the story as he remembers it. Young John (aged 3) will walk with his grandpa and the two of them will hand a wreath to the Coastguard Helicopter which will then place the wreath over the wreck.
It is their act of remembrance to all those that lost their lives.
Guiding the walk is author Steve Chadwick, who has written a book on the story in collaboration with the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum Project at Aultbea.
With the help of John Murdo and his wife Chrissie, Steve has pieced together the story from local community memories, official sources and from two of the American survivors of the wreck who are still alive. Published by local Gairloch company Wordworks, the book is a comprehensive guide to the story of the tragedy with some stunning pictures illustrating the event. The book will be available at all of the events during WWII Week.
John Murdo and Chrissie have kept remembrance of the event by erecting a memorial plaque above the wreck site, and have kept in touch with the survivors over the many years.
One survivor, Russell Ross, visited the site in 2005 and would wish to have attended this memorial event but ill health has meant he is unable to travel from America. Russell remembers: ‘The people of the Loch Ewe community were wonderful as they brought us things. John Murdo McKenzie was 12 years old at the time and it was his mother who had taken me into her home, and who wrote a letter to my mother to tell her that I was among the survivors.’
Chairman of the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum Project, Francis Russell, explains that the strong bond between this tiny Scottish community and their American friends is enduring. ‘We plan to build a Museum on the shores of Loch Ewe as a lasting legacy to all who took part in the Convoys of WWII. This WWII Week of events (May 7 – 12) is part of our fundraising efforts to realise the dream of our local community to keep the story of the Convoys alive for future generations.
‘The William H Welch shipwreck really galvanised the community in 1944 and focused their efforts on that one night of immense tragedt. That spirit of community is still as strong today.’
And certainly, John Murdo Senior is keeping the story alive across the generations. John Junior is growing up knowing the full facts of how his family played such a crucial role in the events of that dramatic day in 1944 when the William H Welch was shipwrecked off the coast of North West Scotland.
The full programme of events in the WWII Week from 7th-12th May and more information on the William H Welch Walk on 7th May is at the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum website - or phone +44 (0)7970 053883
The William H. Welch – commanded by Capt. Lee Marshall of Philadelphia who went down with his ship – had delivered her war cargo and was on her way to join a homebound convoy when the fierce storm drove her aground in early morning near the mouth of Loch Ewe in Wester Ross. Mountainous waves soon had her decks awash and the entire crew was forced to seek refuge on the flying bridge. British rescue vessels tried in vain to give aid.
The William H. Welch was built at the Bethlehem-Fairfield. Shipyard in Baltimore, Md, delivered on 31st March 1943. She was operated for the WSA by T. J. Stevenson and Company, Inc., of New York, N. Y.
The survivors returned to the USA aboard the Queen Mary.
The importance of highlighting the legacy of the WW2 Russian Arctic Convoys is central to the project plans for a Russian Arctic Convoy Museum in Aultbea, Wester Ross.
The Museum Project is a key part in the Aultbea Regeneration Plan, together with a new Community Centre to help bring much need employment and income potential to the area.
Loch Ewe was the departure point for nineteen of the convoys leaving for Russia. A further twenty three left from Liverpool, Clyde, Oban and Reykjavik; and thirty six sailed back from Russia to the UK.
Over three thousand men lost their lives in the convoys. Churchill called the Arctic Convoys ‘the worst journey in the world’.
The community around Loch Ewe held a 70th anniversary Memorial Service in August 2011 to commemorate the first convoy to leave for Russia – ‘Operation Dervish’ which took Hurricanes and RAF pilots to Murmansk. This event was attended by HRH Prince Michael of Kent, top diplomats, fourteen veterans and over 300 from the local community. HRH Prince Michael of Kent has written the foreword to the Programme for the Museum Group’s WWII and the Arctic Convoys Week – 7-12 May, 2012.