Memoir of R. Nanthan Lawrence, survivor of ill-fated Convoy PQ 17

(See the Ahoy article on PQ 17.)

The life story R. Nathan Lawrence  starts here with the War, until his death. (Please read )

R. Nanthan Lawrence
S.I.U. #: L-669,
Joined: 9-23-1963,
Dept.: DECK,
Seniority: A
Soc. Sec. Number:  419-18-6237
Height: 5-10,
Weight last known: 16


One of the main reasons he said he wrote it was to bring attention to all seafarers that the lifeboat training at Piney Point is that if his brother ship mates had more training in lifeboat skills on the SS Pan Atlantic they would probably be alive today.  At the end of his memoirs, in his own writing he wrote:

"As I have retired now I would like to say that our Union Officials are doing a great job. Defence League and
respect for our Union S.I.U."


#1 1 1 1 1  July 4, 1942 TO MURMANSK,  RUSSIA
The SS Pan Atlantic was a freighter owned by the Waterman Steamship Co.  She was a vessel of about 8,000 tons.  The Pan Atlantic was one of 48 ships that made up a convoy of other ships from the U.S., Norway, England, Panama, Russia and Canda. This convoy originated in Halifax, Nova Scotia in June of 1942.

The men who manned these ships were not aware of the sufferings and hardships that lay ahead.  My ship the SS Pan Atlantic was one of thirty ships or more that left Nova Scotia for Reyjkavich, Iceland.  On our voyage to Iceland we were harrassed by German submarines.  We lost a few ships by German submarines on this passage.

After we arrived in Iceland about the latter part of June, we held a lifeboat drill.  We lowered the Starboard lifeboat for lifeboat exercise.  I was the youngest seaman aboard the SS Pan Atlantic and since I only weighed about 110 pounds the mate in charge of the lifeboat would not let me participate in rowing. But as I watched I could see the men had the spirit in them, because they knew that their lives depended on the lifeboat.

We left Iceland on July 3, 1942 with 48 merchant ships and escort vessels of American, British and Canadian. These Navy vessels consits of Destroyers, Corvettes and Rescue vessels. On July 3, 1942, the convoy spotted German reconnaissance planes. These planes shadowed the convoy out of range of the guns of our escort vessels.   On the same day July 4, 1942 all hell broke loose. The Germans attacked our convoy with torpedo planes, dive bombers and submarines.  The ships of the convoy opened up on the attacking planes. The gun fire from the ships did a lot of damage to our men in other ships.

All ships were firing on the torpedo planes with everything they had, 4", 50 caliber, 3",   50,  5" 5", 20MM,  50, and 30 caliber guns. Everywhere you looked ships were being blown up, men were in the water screaming.  The tankers just disappeared in smoke. The battle finally ceased. But the order came by flag hoist from the convoy Commodore to disperse and proceed  to your destination alone.  The convoy broke up and each ship that were left from the attack commenced on their own.

The reason why the convoy broke up and each ship proceeded on their own was because the convoy Commodore received word that the German packet battleship Von Tripitz with her escorts were not too far off and were looking for the convoy.

On July 6, 1942 two days after the attack on convoy 15 & 17 we spotted a lone German reconnaissance plane. The reconnaissance plane shadowed us for a few hours.   The plane disappeared and about three hours later we spotted a German dive bomber. The dive bomber started his attack from the sun.

We fired on the plane with our guns but all could see was the sun. All of a sudden the ship just lifted out of the water. I was loading the 4", 50 caliber on the stern.   It was no longer than 10 seconds when another explosion broke the ship in half. We found out the second explosion was from a German submarine.

I ran to the port lifeboat.  Men piled into #2 lifeboat. While #2 lifeboat was being lowered, the forward end was dropped.  The men including myself were dumped into the sea. I went down into the water it seemed like a hundred feet.

The Pan Atlantic sank within three minutes after being hit. I finally popped up out of the water and to my luck a life raft had floated from the ship. There were a few men on the raft.  One of the Navy gunners pulled me aboard the raft.  After floating around on the raft we spotted the lifeboat.

The Captain who was Captain Seibert was in the #1 lifeboat.  This was the lifeboat that held lifeboat drill in Iceland. We went aboard the lifeboat from the raft. We took all the rations from the raft to the lifeboat. It was the 6th of July but it was cold as hell we were sunk around the Island of Spitzbergen.

We were in the lifeboat for around 9 days before being rescued by the HMS Lodus. This was a British Corvette. After being rescued the corvette sank our lifeboat. After being sunk and while in the lifeboat a German submarine surfaced and asked for the Captain. We had the Captain in the bottom of the lifeboat under a blanket.

We told the submarine Commander that the Captain was killed on the ship when she was hit. The submarine Commander believed our story. He then told us he was sorry some men were killed and he gave us bread and sausage and told us which way the nearest land was. After the corvette Lodus picked us up, we were attacked by German dive bomber. We survived the attack. The next day we arrived in Murmansk, Russia.  There we were transferred to a British Destroyer and taken down to Archangeensk, Russia on the White sea.

My feet were frost bitten bad and I was put in the hospital for frost bite and nervousness. While we were in Archangensk the city was dive bombed.  We would assist in fighting the fires.  We finally left Russia aboard the SS Bellingham owned by Waterman Steamship Co. We had a smooth voyage for a few days, then at dawn we
were torpedoed by a German submarine.  The ship commenced to sink immediately. The crew was organized and to my knowledge all hands got off the ship.

A British rescue ship picked us up and took us into Johnstone, Scotland.  The people in Scotland treated us very well.  After staying in Scotland for about a week all the survivors of the ill fated convoy PQ 17 were taken aboard the Queen Mary for passage to the U.S. We arrived in Boston, Mass. about 3- 1/2 days later. We were told to wear our lifejackets when debarking from the Queen Mary. When we arrived in Boston the news men took movie pictures of the survivors.

I arrived to my home in Mobile, Alabama.  My parents thought I was killed in the Pan Atlantic. I stayed home for a few weeks then I went down and joined the U.S. Navy.  I served on Detroyers, Cruisers, Aircraft Carriers. I worked with Armed Forces special weapons project in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I retired from the Navy and after being home a year I joined the Seafarers International Union in the Port of New Orleans, La. in June 1963. I advised the S.A.B. that I couldn't  make this time. Then when the school was opened again I was selected to attend the school. I started school Aug. 6, 1979.  While I was attending the school in Piney Point, Maryland I was astonished at what I seen.  Piney Point is not only a beautiful piece of real estate, but the trainee program and the upgrading program are of the highest standards. I noticed while at Piney Point everyday was a lifeboat class in effect.

One of the main reasons I wrote my memoirs of the ill fated convoy PQ 17 to Murmansk, Russia was to bring the attention to all seafarers that the lifeboat training at Piney Point is that if my brothers had more training in the lifeboat skills my brothers in the SS Pan Atlantic would probably be alive today.

So, brothers if you have never received a lifeboat ticket from Piney Point I urge each and everyone of you to get it.  Also while you are at Piney Point if it is in anyway feasible get the firefighting ticket and CPR and First Aid.  I have heard comments by a few of our brothers taking First Aid at Piney Point complaining that too much First Aid was taught in the course. That they should only be taught what they should know about what shipboard injuries could occurr.

Well, I'll have to disagree with these brothers, because First Aid is essential at home, on the streets, or in the water.  The CPR and First Aid  instructors at Piney Point are best qualified instructors I have had the pleasure to know and receive the education I have received from these instructors.

Brothers, if you have never been to Piney Point for upgrading. I urge each of you to attend this school and apply yourself for a better future and more understanding of how industry works.  Then again, brothers, you get to meet some of the brothers you have had the pleasure to sail with.

When I first joined the merchant marine I joined the International Seamen Union in 1941. I was 16 years old. After sailing for 38 years, which 20 years was Navy time and so far 18 years S.I.U. time, again I urge you to attend Piney Point and see and learn how the industry works.  So, when we aboard ship we can work as a team and
take care of any emergency that may arrive.

Fraternally yours,
Ruel N. Lawrence
Book No. L-669

Ruel Nathan Lawrence, was in the Springhill Memorial Hospital at the time of his death, he was on life support, and had been taken off where upon he died.  That morning it was decided by the physician, also Doris Longworth his sister and Vernard Lawrence his brother as being the best and only humanly thing to do. Nathan, was in a coma before he died and his appearance was so bad, it looked as if there was no life in him and looked as a corpse.

He died on April 9, 1997, the same day he had been taken off life support.  A notice was placed in the death section of the Mobile Register on the 10th and 12th April. The first showed all his brothers and sisters as-well as the death date and place for visitation. The second notice shows

Funeral sevices were held from the chapel by Rev. Teddy Turrentine, and military honors was held at the graveside, and names of all Pallbearers. Funeral services were held from the chapel of Serenity Funeral Home,  Ruel Nathan Lawrence at his wake was wearing a white shirt with a blue suit and matching tie.

The pall bearers were Curtis  Ezell,  Danny Lee Ezell, Jimmy Stewart Ezell,  Allen Longworth, and  Daniel Ernest Chaudron, Ricky Nelson Shumock. At the cemetery on the 11th April 1997, where Nathan, is buried the wind was very strong blowing at times and rained very severely later that day.

Nathan, was honored in a formal manner with full miltary honors at the graveside located in the Hall Of Honor. VFW Post 49 Honor Guard Unit. Members participating were Capt. Clarence Cole, Chaplin Nick Raybon, Cecil Brown, Lenzy Gresset, John Lundy, 1st Lt. Chuck Scaff.   As a few kind words were made, a salute was made than the four solders fired their rifles off. The flag was presented to Doris Longworth his sister as well as empty shells from the rifles the soldiers used in the firing. Interment was in Serenity Memorial Gardens, Arrangements was by Serenity Funeral Home, 8691 Old Pascagoula Rd., Mobile, Alabama.

According to a record from the Department of Navy,  Nathan's service number was 272 96 53, he was Honorable Discharged June 1, 1950, his description at the time was brown hair, gray eyes, height 5'9", weight 152. He was given the Good Conduct Medal, also Navy Unit Comendation, China Service Medal, World War II. Victory
Medal, Navy Occupation Medal, American Area Campaign, Asiatic Pacific Campaign.

His home address was given as being at 564 Williams St., Mobile, Alabama. After finding a second Navy record it shows the date of appointment as  separation effective June 2, 1955, and his description as Hair Brown, Eyes blue, Height 5'8", weight 148. This same record  of Nathan Lawrence also showing his major course or field as general, and marital status as single.

His Awards were: National Defense Service ribbon; Good Conduct Medal  (second award); Navy Occupational Service Ribbon (with clasp);  Navy Unit Commendation.

Nathan Lawrence was Baptized on the 11th day of Feb, 1962, at Lake Charles, Louisiana by Rev. Logan. He was also given a certificate award saying he has completed a program of instruction and training in " Emergency First Care", on May 4, 1988.


Hello Margie,

My thanks for your E-Mail with the details about Nathan Lawrance and his involvement with the ill fated Russian Convoy PQ 17, about which I had written on our Web Site AHOY.

The First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Dudley Pound, labouring under the wrong premise that the German Tirpitz and her escorts were close to PQ-17 gave the dreadful, and in my view, the totally wrong order, for this Convoy to scatter, and her Ocean Escort to leave the Convoy and steam westwards.  As a result, Convoy PQ 17 was left bereft of any escort, and at the mercy of the German U-Boats and Aircraft.

24 ships were sunk including of course, Nathan's ship.

It was fascinating to read a first hand account of someone there at the time, what is your interest in Nathan, was he a relative or a friend?

Again, thank you for taking the time and trouble to write, it is much appreciated.

Best wishes from Australia.

Mac. Gregory.


My Name is Curtis E. Ezell and I am using my wife e-mail.

R. Nathan Lawrence was my Uncle on my mothers side. Just to let you know, if you would use it on your web site.

I have attacted 2 pictures, one when he was in the Navy durning war 2, and the other picture at an older age.

R. Nathan Lawrence

R. Nathan Lawrence


R. Nathan Lawrence

R. Nathan Lawrence


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