Letter to the editor: Flag displayed to honor many
We flew the American flag in front of our house for years. But, as America became increasingly partisan, we stopped flying it. We devoutly believe in the ideals represented by the flag, but have no truck with the “America, love it or leave it” attitude of many on the Right. We are not flag wavers.
But I never felt right about this. What gave these people exclusive rights to our national banner? Didn’t I have an obligation to defend the very idea of America, as defined by Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt? And there was a bit of family history that inspired me to restore the Stars and Stripes to its rightful place on our porch.
My father, Paul Gill Sr., was the 22-year-old Third Mate on the Liberty Ship SS Nathanael Greene when, on Sept. 2, 1942, it weighed anchor in Loch Ewe, Scotland, and headed out to sea. The Greene was part of convoy PQ-18, a massive armada of merchant ships and naval escorts en route to Archangel, Russia, with war matériel destined for the Red Army at Stalingrad. Over the next 19 days, the convoy took part in the biggest convoy battle of World War II, as waves of Nazi torpedo- and dive-bombers and packs of U-boats savagely and relentlessly attacked the merchant vessels.
On Sept. 14, the Greene was severely damaged when the next ship in column, loaded with thousands of tons of TNT, was torpedoed. In Dad’s words, “The force of the SS Mary Luckenbach’s explosion was terrifying. Our vessel was lifted from the sea and shook violently as the obliterated ship fell upon us in shrapnel form! We were in a dense cloud of black smoke, thick with the smell of gunpowder from the explosion, not knowing whether we were to remain afloat or disappear beneath the sea. Tons and tons of shrapnel continued to fall about us, in every size, in cruel and grotesque shapes and patterns. The afterdeck rigging was in ribbons, the crates of deck cargo were blown apart, and the tanks for Stalingrad appeared to be in ruins. Everything within sight was battered by the concussion and vacuum created by the explosion. Our clothing was ripped and torn by the blast, and saturated with shrapnel. The forward part of the ship must have been blown to bits.”
Thinking the Greene herself had been torpedoed, the captain ordered abandon ship, and the crew manned the lifeboats. However, Dad had one more order to carry out. “Before leaving the gun stations for the lifeboats, I remembered one last thing I had to do. When I was on watch the night before, the captain said to me, ‘Mr. Gill, during today’s battles I noticed that none of our American ships flew their ensign. Now, if we had our Stars and Stripes flying from the gaff…’ I replied ‘Aye, aye, Sir!’ and promised when we went into battle again I would make sure the Stars and Stripes were flying. Today’s enemy action was so time-pressing that I completely overlooked my commitment to the captain. Now that the abandon ship alarm had been sounded, and the crew was manning the lifeboats, I remembered my orders and made my way to the mainmast. I removed the ensign from its locker, bent it on its halyard, and aloft she went! When the men saw the Stars and Stripes flying from the gaff of the mainmast they broke out in cheers. I felt a lump in my throat and overwhelmed with emotion and thought, ‘What heroes! We have so much to fight for!’”
The Greene survived the explosion and, after falling behind the convoy, steamed back into position, to thunderous cheers from the other vessels in the convoy. “The men in the other ships cheered and cheered as we caught up with them. The Stars and Stripes was still flying over this Yankee, so horribly scarred from battle with the enemy, with rigging hanging from its masts in threads, with portholes blown in, life rafts blown away, and its decks strewn with debris from its shattered deck cargo. All that mattered to us now was that we were still alive and afloat, and that we were going to make it!”
The Greene docked in Archangel on Sept. 21, and the munitions it had hauled thousands of miles across the U-boat-infested North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans was being put to use by the Red Army in Stalingrad two days later. She returned safely to Britain, but on Feb. 24, 1943, she was torpedoed and destroyed by U-565 in the Mediterranean after delivering munitions to Allied forces in North Africa. For her heroic performance in the Arctic Ocean and the Mediterranean, the SS Nathanael Greene was designated by President Roosevelt as a Gallant Ship of World War II, one of only nine merchant ships to be so honored, out of the 4,300 that participated in the war.
So, once again, I fly Old Glory from my front porch. I fly it for my great-great-grandfather who fought in the Civil War with the 6th Massachusetts Regiment, for my father and his four brothers who served in the Merchant Marine during World War II, for my father-in-law who fought as a tank commander in France and Germany, for my mother who immigrated to Boston from Ireland as a girl. I fly the flag for all Americans, even those who want to define America in ways contrary to my own beliefs and ideals. I can’t give up on my country. After the sacrifices made by all those who came before me, I don’t have the right to.
Paul G. Gill, Jr.
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