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Crew 'wondered why there were so many people...'

Allan Shaw is the last survivor who made it to Malta on the SS Ohio on August 15, 1942. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi.

Allan Shaw is the last survivor who made it to Malta on the SS Ohio on August 15, 1942. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi.

Memories of the devastation of war are rekindled every year as the country celebrates Santa Marija - the day a ship carrying supplies saved Malta from near surrender during World War II. The only crewman still alive, Allan Shaw, tells Cynthia Busuttil that this was just another journey for the crew.

The bastions surrounding Grand Harbour were crowded with people. Their cheers reverberated across the water as they enthusiastically waved handkerchiefs and Maltese and British flags.

The men on board the American oil tanker SS Ohio looked at the crowd in astonishment. They did not know what all this fuss was about.

For the seamen it was just another journey, surviving torpedoes and bombs and trying to make it safely into port.

Among them was Allan Shaw, then an 18-year-old seaman.

"It was just another trip for us. We would normally sail into a port and tie up, and be pleased we managed to get in. We just kept wondering why there were so many people," Mr Shaw, now 85, recalls.

But for those lining the harbour this was not just another ship. They knew that Malta had been saved, at least for the time being.

It was August 15, 1942, in the midst of World War II. The island was ravaged, having been bombarded incessantly for months. The situation was dire and Malta was facing the prospect of surrendering if supplies, including fuel and grain, did not make it by the end of the month.

The Ohio was one of a number of merchant vessels, guarded by warships, that were trying to break through the Italian and German defence in the Mediterranean, during an operation dubbed Operation Pedestal. It was laden with precious fuel.

"We were the only ones carrying the oil. That enabled them to carry on for another while," Mr Shaw said.

Torpedoed and bombed, the Ohio was propped up by warships and dragged limping into the Grand Harbour.

It was only later that the men on board the ship realised what their arrival meant for the island, and that if the Ohio had not made it, history may have been very different for the island.

In hindsight, things have taken a different perspective for Mr Shaw.

"You read about all these different battles, and then you look back on your contribution. It is a bit of history in the making.

"When you stop and think about it, it's very emotional. A lump comes in my throat." He looks away, his voice shaking slightly, before he starts describing the destruction that faced the seamen on arriving in Malta.

"There were hardly any streets, just piles of rubble. You just had to pick your way through the wreckage," he said. They had to trudge through the destroyed streets to bury their friend, at Ta' Braxia cemetery, Pietà.

Mr Shaw is now the only surviving crewman who made it to Malta on the Ohio that August day. "I'm a bit of a relic," he said.

Australian Raymond Morton was also on the Ohio but he never got to the island.

"When we were torpedoed there was a big blast and he was blown over the side. The destroyer picked him up but it had so many people on board that it went back to Gibraltar. He never got his belongings, except his Bible, which was sent to his home in England.

"So the Germans stopped him from coming, but when he came to Malta in 2002, it was the Germans who brought him," Mr Shaw laughs at the funny twist of fate that saw Mr Morton flying to Malta from Frankfurt on Lufthansa.

The two met again that year and are still in touch. "We speak on the phone and on the internet," he said.

But he has lost touch with the girl he briefly dated while in Malta, whom he met at church. He wracks his brains to remember her name and his razor-sharp memory does not fail him. "Mary Grima," he exclaims. "I don't know what happened to her. It is difficult to find someone after so many years."

It took him 60 years to come back to Malta, returning in 2002 for a re-enactment of the arrival of the Ohio. He has come back almost every year since and plans to keep returning as long as he is healthy enough to travel.

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