SS Cornelius Harnett: A happy ship on the Murmansk Run

by Bruce Felknor

This is the story of a happy ship, and a lucky ship, on the deadly Murmansk Run in the winter of 1942-43.

Five days before Christmas of 1942, the Master, Capt. Edgar W. Carver, the Armed Guard commanding officer, and the Radio Officer of the SS Cornelius Harnett left the convoy conference at the office of the Navy Port Director for New York, and boarded their vessel. In the morning they cast off, bound for Gourock, Scotland -- and then Murmansk.

For a week their weather was gentle -- for the winter North Atlantic -- but then they hit into storms so severe that seas smashing over the bow buckled the steel splinter shields on the bow gun, a dual-purpose 3-inch 50.

Firing tests revealed all guns functioning properly except one of the 20-mms on the port bridge wing, which they were able to replace before they left Scotland.

Windswept water found seams in all the weather doors and bulkheads. The magazines were awash in iced brine, but oil-coated ammunition boxes kept the ammunition sufficiently dry. On January 3, seas were so high that it was impossible to inspect the bow.

map of ArcticIn heavy weather the next morning they lost the convoy but proceeded and after a few hours spotted it dead astern. The Harnett rejoined and returned to its position. On the 9th, in pre-dawn poor visibility, they lost the convoy again in the North Channel. Lacking a large-scale chart of the area, they anchored overnight.

Next day they entered the Firth of Clyde. In poor visibility and lacking a large-scale chart of the area, they anchored again off Ailsa Craig in the broad Firth of Clyde. Finally, on the 11th they made their way cautiously up the firth to Gourock. The pre-sailing conference for the Murmansk run, as Convoy JW-52, met on January 17, attended by the skipper, Lt. Stone, the chief radio officer, and the senior of two navy rm3/c's serving as second and third operators. Within a few hours they sailed.

The convoy headed for the Arctic Circle and was joined by seven destroyers; there were thirteen merchantmen. The Armed Guard Commanding Officer, Lieut.(jg) Richard M. Stone, ordered test firing of all guns, with various fuse settings for the 3-inch 50 and the 5- inch 38 (timed so shells would burst at 1/2-second from the muzzle, or 1, 2, or up to 7 or 8 seconds or more), then gave "a final lecture to gun crew clearing up any doubtful points on the procedure in action."

Action was not long in coming. Stone's report for January 24, Sunday:

General quarters at 12:32.

Three Heinkel 115 torpedo bombers came up on the convoy from the starboard quarter. Visibility 5,000 to 6,000 yards, slight snow squalls, ceiling low, temperature 25 to 30 degrees, and wind velocity approximately 20 knots broad off our port beam.

The planes in single file came across the stern of the convoy where the firing power was weakest, because of the corvettes that were deployed there. . . .

5 inch gun on SS Lane VictoryAfter coming around the port quarter at about 180 knots in single file, the planes gave the impression that they were going to circle the convoy. Opened fire with 1 round of 5"38 10 second fuse setting at relative bearing 210 degrees. However, when the leading plane was slightly forward of our port beam, it banked sharply to the right, and made a run between the two escorts with the others following behind. At this time we opened up with the 5"/38 at a 6-second fuse setting with the object of keeping them well off, if possible.

At the same time the escorts opened with a crossfire of what looked like 20 mm. The 3"/50 also opened up at this time with an 8-second fuse setting and followed the lead plane in four 8-second, four 4-second, three 2-second, and two 1-second fuse settings, a total of 13 rounds, while the 5"/38 expended one more 6-second fuse setting, a total of three, with the idea of keeping off the other two planes, which were further out.

All the planes came through the escorts safely, and we opened up with the four port 20-mm at a range of between 1400 and 1700 yards. At outside 1000 yards the leading plane veered to its left and there was a definite bluish-white flame on its pontoon. Obviously it had been hit by either the salvos of the 3"/50, the 5"/38, or the 20 mm.

When the leading plane was broad off our port bow, the 3"/50 scored a direct hit at a one-second fuse setting to burst at 750 yards, Marko Jurasevich, gun captain.

The plane burst into flames, passed in front of our column leader, and hit the water forward and to the left of column two. It floated down between columns one and two with only its tail showing.

The second plane came in broad on our port beam within 500 to 700 yards into a barrage of 20-mm, and then banked sharply to its left when it was definitely hit on its fuselage and wings by at least 9 to 12 rounds from the No. 6 20-mm on the flying bridge aft, with Wilbert J. Warren, GM1c, firing.

Just after it banked it dropped one or two torpedoes, which went ahead of our bow towards ships Nos. 11 and 21. It flew ahead of our ship, forward between ships Nos. 11 and 21, then out ahead of the convoy and slightly to the right where two destroyers fired at it. It then appeared to go into a snow squall. The plane was smoking when off our port bow.

The third plane veered to its right when about 1300 yards out, flew abeam of ship No. 13, and circled to the stern of the convoy where shots were heard.

Path of planes attacking Convoy JW52
CH= SS Cornelius Harnett
DD= Destroyer

diagram of attack on by bombers on convoy JW52

The ship ahead of us made a sharp turn to the right when the planes came in, and seemed to place only its stern guns in a firing position. The ship astern of us also made a right turn and dropped back, and fired at the planes, which ones we could not verify.

It can be definitely stated that the leading plane was hit and crippled on its pontoon when outside 1,000 yards and finished with a direct hit when off our port bow. Also the second plane was hit from nine to twelve times by the No. 6 20-mm when about 500 yards off our port beam. Whether this was sufficiently damaged to cause it to fail to reach its home base is uncertain.

Particular attention is drawn to the efficient execution of their duties by Marko Jurasevich, GM3c, gun captain of the 3"/50, and Wilbert J. Warren, GM1c at the No. 6 20-mm. . . .

Two days and numerous air raids later, the Harnett lost the convoy but sailed on alone, far above the Arctic Circle, on a general easterly course through the Barents Sea. They passed two lights on islands off the Russian coast, but could not read their blinker signals.

Lacking a detailed chart of these waters, they dared not try to run all the way into the Kola Inlet and Murmansk alone. Correctly assuming the second light to be Chernov Light, the captain set a course for the stragglers' rendezvous point of Iokanka Island. There they picked up a Russian pilot, and sailed uneventfully the rest of the way into the Kola River below Murmansk, where they anchored on January 29, 1943.

After a week at the anchorage, the afternoon of February 5 was an unending series of air raids, in which every gun in the harbor got a lengthy workout. Aerial dogfights between Russian fighters and German bombers punctuated the raids,which continued well into the evening.

At last on February 8 the Cornelius Harnett docked to discharge her cargo, and Lt. (jg) Stone completed the out-bound half of his voyage report with the notation that:

(4) The cooperation of the merchant officers and crew was excellent.

The Harnett, for all the harrowing character of the almost unceasing air raids, was a happy ship. When he got home, her master, Captain Edgar W. Carver wrote to the Navy Port Director of New York:

I wish to express my appreciation for the fine exhibition of courage and co-operation displayed by Lieut. Stone and his men during the many attacks experienced en route to Russia. . . .

After relating the action described here Capt. Carver concluded,

Lieut. Stone and the entire Navy crew conducted themselves well under fire and I would welcome the chance to sail with them again.

The U.S. Navy agreed, adopting the recommendation of its Board of Decorations and Medals

Naval Armed Guard logo(a) That Lieut. Richard M. Stone, USNR, be awarded the Silver Star Medal.

(b) That JURASEVICH, Marko, GM3c, USNR, and WARREN, Wilbert J., GM1c, USN, be addressed Letters of Commendation by the Secretary of the Navy.

(c) That [the rest of the gun crew] each be addressed a Letter of Commendation by the Chief of Naval Personnel.

Ship positions in Convoy JW52

Ocean Faith 11  Dan-Y-Bryn 21  Temple Arch 31  Temple Arch 41  Empire Snow 51
Cornelius Hartnett 12  Oligarch 22  Del Sud 32  Gulfwing 42  Empire Portia 52
 Empire Clarion 13  El Oriente 23  Nicholas Gilman 33  Empire Tristam 43  Atlantic 53


Story of the SS Cornelius Harnett is based on the Armed Guard report of Lieut. Richard M. Stone.
Map adapted from University of Texas, Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection
Gun on SS Lane Victory, courtesy SS Lane Victory
Heinkel 115 torpedo bomber from Luftwaffe profiles
Convoys to Russia: 1941-1945, Bob Ruegg and Arnold Hague, Kendal, England: World Ship Society, 1992

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