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How a seaman saved a gunner`s life on a burning ship

It is an effort to squeeze out of modest John Gregson an account of his act of bravery, which earned him an Albert Medal for saving life at sea in 1942.

"I was just doing my job really," he says.

The 78-year-old plays down the event and has to be prompted to insert the pivotal, heroic details of his story... and it is not a question of memory, or lack of it.

The Albert Medal was eventually made obsolete and replaced by the George Cross. But, Mr Gregson opted to keep it because it had been presented to him by King George VI and he was, therefore, attached to it.

According to his initial, scanty account, Apprentice Gregson was simply one of the survivors of a burning vessel, who was "picked out of the sea by HMS Branham", which eventually towed in the HMS Ohio.

That`s it!

In August 1942, Gregson was serving on the merchant navy vessel, MV Deucalion, selected for the Sta Marija convoy, which attempted to break through to the isolated fortress of Malta, with the much needed food and fuel supplies.

He was aboard one of the first ships of the 14-strong convoy to sink - only five reached Malta.

Gregson recalls that in the Mediterranean, the convoy was ceaselessly attacked by enemy aircraft. The several "near misses" and the bombs that exploded underwater, blowing holes into the bottom of the ship and disabling it, are still vivid in his memory.

Having to proceed at a slow pace, the MV Deucalion left the convoy and was escorted by one destroyer. "But, two Italian torpedo bombers caught up with us and the ship`s stern was hit", leaving Gregson unconscious.

"When I came to, the ship, which was carrying fuel, was in flames up to the top of the mast and I found one of its gunners trapped under a raft as the fire engulfed the vessel."

Almost in parenthesis and only because he is goaded to relate what he did next, Mr Gregson reluctantly relates: "I got the raft off him - he had a broken leg and other injuries - dropped him overboard, dived in after him and swam with him to the destroyer.

"That`s all there is to it," he says of the fact that he towed the gunner a distance of 600 yards in the pitch-dark sea.

Although he was honoured with the prestigious medal for saving a life, Mr Gregson insisted that he was "just an ordinary person." After that, he continued to work at sea in the merchant navy and moved to New Zealand in 1950 where he is still living today.

Mr Gregson was in Malta for the first time since 1942 last week to participate in the 60th anniversary celebrations of the award of the George Cross to Malta and the Maltese. He claims to have been "excited" about returning to the island 60 years after the event that earned him the Albert Medal.

Mr Gregson went to sea at 16 and was 18 when he was last in Malta - a war-torn country, with scarce food supplies. In fact, his memories of his four-day stay, 60 years ago, were not too positive.

He recalls that "when we landed in Malta, there were many survivors from other sunken ships and we were not wanted on the island any longer than possible due to the fact that there was no food".

Mr Gregson still harbours vivid memories of the many Maltese, lining the breakwater, and the hero`s welcome they received.

"Malta would have had to surrender within a couple of weeks if the Ohio, which was carrying the petrol and aviation spirit for the airplanes, did not get through the barrage."

Apart from swimming in the August heat, "my main recollection is that we were fed half a loaf of bread and a bowl of soup per day, and Valletta was in ruins".

Of course, his recent experience in Malta was quite another story. Sixty years later, the service has improved considerably and his appetite was adequately satisfied!

Mr Gregson was among the 15 George Cross and Victoria Cross holders whom the government had invited to visit Malta, on the initiative of the Maltese High Commissioner in the UK, George Bonello du Puis. They were staying at the Corinthia Palace Hotel.

"Naturally, everything has been rebuilt," he observed during his "most enjoyable visit", complete with tours and an extensive programme of activities organised by the Tourism Ministry and the Malta Tourism Authority.

"We have been well looked after," he said, hoping to return, "although New Zealand is somewhat far".

During their stay, the party of 15 attended the memorial service for the late Queen Mother at St John`s Co-Cathedral and a commemorative ceremony of the George Cross Island Association at the Siege Bell Memorial on April 15, among other activities.

Mr Gregson was also one of two GC and VC holders whose valiant acts, which earned them the medal, were connected to Malta.

It is hard to decide whether Mr Gregson has been lucky, or unlucky in life. It was the second time his ship had been torpedoed and sunk, the first being in the Atlantic six months prior to the experience on the MV Deucalion when he had survived four days on a lifeboat.

Asked whether he would still find the courage today to jump into the sea and save a life, Mr Gregson said: "Who can say? At the time, I did what was natural. I saw someone in trouble and went to help. That`s the long and short of it. Others did much more. I was trying to save my own life also."

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