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Surviving crewmen for Malta reunion

Touching stories of war veterans

The Ohio in January 1942

The Ohio in January 1942

Melitensia and militaria enthusiast Simon Cusens has managed to track down around 200 surviving crewmen of the Sta Marija Convoy, many of whom, aged between 76 and 97, are due to visit Malta for the 60th anniversary commemoration of Operation Pedestal.

The convoy consisted of 78 ships, including 14 merchant vessels, carrying vital supplies to Malta. Only five of the supply ships made it to their destination. As many as 23,000 men went to sea during Operation Pedestal, and over 500 perished in the attacks between August 11 and 15, 1942.

The commemorative event, which is being held between September 24 and October 2 and includes an emotional reunion for surviving veterans, is being organised and sponsored by the Tourism Ministry.

Avidly interested in Maltese history and also a collector of World War II documents, memorabilia and artifacts, Mr Cusens, who is a member of the Tourism Ministry's organising committee for the commemorative events, initiated his search for survivors after reading the book Malta Convoy.

He found the epic particularly interesting because it incorporates both part of Malta's history and World War II heritage. The arrival of the convoy in Grand Harbour, which is to be re-enacted during the commemoration, not only saved Malta from planned surrender to the enemy, but also altered the course of World War II, according to some military historians.

Mr Cusens has been working on the project for several hours a day for many months, sending messages over the internet, with feedback from veterans arriving on a daily basis.

He receives between four to five letters a day from foreign media organisations, ship associations and veterans. Touching, human stories have emerged from the pile of handwritten letters - over 100 - and the first-hand accounts of the veterans.

"The first thing most of them said when they were contacted about the event was that they would have to see if they would still be alive by then," Mr Cusens said, adding that since he started his search he has already "lost a few on the way".

His detailed research of the convoy contains a strong human element. Perhaps one of the most touching stories is that of veteran Francis "Lonnie" Dales from Georgia in the US, who is in failing health and for whom The Times has had a role in breathing a new lease of life.

Last January, Dales - who played an important part in the defence of the SS Santa Elisa and won an award for his heroic efforts - was only given until March to live. In constant contact with Mr Cusens, he asked him to send a message to the Maltese, expressing his gratitude towards them and what they did for him, which he said he would never forget.

On his own initiative, and through The Times, Mr Cusens asked the Maltese to correspond with Mr Dales over the last few months of his life. It was the spate of letters and e-mails - over 50 - that he received from a broad spectrum of the population, which have kept him alive and still fighting today.

Visibly moved, Mr Cusens relates that Mr Dales was so touched by the letters that he decided he wanted to live on. His wife said he was sent back home to die, but, almost miraculously, he started responding to his treatment again and has "practically returned from the dead".

Mr Cusens said Mr Dales had practically rendered himself penniless to keep alive, with the objective of returning to Malta on his final mission.

He has a recorded interview with Mr Dales, which was taped over the telephone in January when he was dying and which he hopes he would not have to play back at the event in September.

"The difference between his voice then and now is amazing," said Mr Cusens, who is thrilled to have contributed to his injection of life , saying Mr Dales sounded 10 years younger.

His speech would be the voice of the sailors, who died on the convoy. But Mr Cusens augured that Mr Dales would survive and be around to hear the tape on the event.

Three veterans from the tanker Ohio - the most important ship because of its petroleum cargo - have also been tracked down, and Mr Cusens is awaiting confirmation of attendance from two.

Raymond Morton is considering travelling from Australia to personally donate a valuable relic to Mr Cusens: a Bible, which he kept on board the Ohio, until he was blown off the ship during a torpedo attack on August 12, and presumed dead.

Mr Morton is also donating the curt telegraph the Royal Navy sent to his "folks", informing them of the 'loss' of their son, as well as a letter written to them six weeks later after it was discovered that he was rescued and taken to Gibraltar.

Mr Morton told Mr Cusens he had never travelled anywhere without his Bible - which brought him luck, offering him a second chance in life after he was officially declared dead.

Mr Cusens said he was honoured by the donation of an artifact that was on the ship whose successful entry into Grand Harbour is attributed to Our Lady's divine intervention.

He explained that the circumstances and the extent of the damage to Mr Morton's cabin where such that the Royal Navy had no choice but to assume Mr Morton was dead.

Mr Morton considered Malta to be "an excellent second home" and would not want his Bible to be thrown into the rubbish on his death, Mr Cusens said.

Among the veterans due to visit Malta in September is also 97-year-old Eric King Turner, who, at 37, was a surgeon commander on the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable in the convoy.

Born in 1905, Mr Turner, who corresponds via e-mail, is travelling to Malta unaided and has "only asked for decaffeinated coffee" as a special requirement, Mr Cusens said.

He is attending the sea memorial service, where the ashes of Capt. Roger Hill, DSO, DSC, are being scattered. Capt. Hill was on one of three destroyers that brought in the Ohio and has just passed away. His obituary in The Times of London hails him as "hero of Operation Pedestal".

His son accepted, on Mr Cusens's request, to scatter his ashes in Malta on the occasion of the commemoration, rather than in New Zealand where he lived.

Of the many enemy veterans Mr Cusens tried to contact - around 26 associations - only two Germans were found and both bear living witness to the two wartime 'miracles' of 1942, attributed to the divine intercession of Sta Marija: the bombing of the Mosta Dome in April, which resulted in no injuries; and the arrival of the Ohio on her feast on August 15.

The two members of the Luftwaffe - the German air force - may also be attending the commemoration. Mr Cusens said it would be an honour to have them present too, adding that no resentment was harboured these days.

"Times have changed and it is standard practice to have old foes commemorating each side's losses. The perpetrators attended memorials as guests of honour even as early as 10 years after the war ended. In wartime, killing is not a crime, but a heroic act..."

One was a wireless operator on a Junkers 88 bomber and his logbook records air attack on August 11 and 12, including details of a bombing of HMS Eagle - the aircraft carrier that was sunk in another torpedo by a submarine, taking 260 men down with her.

The other veteran is alleging to have dropped the infamous bomb, which failed to explode, on Mosta Dome.

Mr Cusens's contact with the many veterans has revealed a number of interesting stories, including accounts of incidents of 'friendly fire'. One veteran recounted how he accidentally shot down a Spitfire, while targeting enemy aircraft.

Veteran John Young, the millionaire proprietor of 208 pubs in London, who has not yet confirmed his attendance in September, also has a tale to tell from his experiences of Operation Pedestal.

A member of the "slightly pampered" Fleet Air Arm aboard HMS Indomitable, he was in the mess, playing the piano with a bunch of fellow pilots when he was asked to "push over" by a colleague and told to "go and shoot some planes down".

As soon as he took off, a squadron of enemy aircraft attacked the ship and a bomb went straight through the mess - where, moments before, he was playing the piano - killing everyone in it.

Young still has the charred music score that was being played when his friends were killed.

But there is also a downside to the heroic stories of the Malta Convoy. Mr Cusens has been in touch with a veteran who, till today, is still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

A broken man, he was on the Ohio at the time and never really recovered from his experience on the ship. Within a week, he was sent on board another to Russia and another after that. The veteran is still fighting his war and has been in and out of psychiatric institutions, attempting to commit suicide three times.

He has sent Mr Cusens six touching letters, detailing his desperate state and how his experiences have turned him into a nervous wreck.

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