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Unexpected Cargo

Spud Campbell, First Radio Officer

SS Henry Bacon, 1945

Historical Context

During World War II, U.S. shipyards turned out cargo vessels faster than the ships could be supplied with crews. Recruiters urged men to join the Merchant Marine, and volunteers came from across the country. Merchant seamen ran the ships that carried supplies and men through dangerous waters in the North Atlantic and the Pacific. Thousands paid with their lives. By war’s end, some 290,000 men had served in the Merchant Marine. Listen to Spud Campbell as he talks about his experiences as a Merchant Mariner on the SS Henry Bacon, a Liberty Ship carrying supplies to help the Soviet Union fight Germany on the Eastern Front.

Instructions

These questions are based on the accompanying primary sources. They are designed to help you practice working with historical documents. Some of these documents have been edited, but all are authentic. As you analyze the documents, take into account the source of each document and any point of view that may be presented in the document.

Download the student worksheet for Spud Campbell. (PDF)

Questions

  1. According to Spud Campbell’s recorded statements and at least one supporting primary source, what was his job on the ship, and why do you think he was selected by the Captain to board one of the lifeboats?
  2. According to Spud Campbell’s recorded statements, what unexpected cargo was the SS Henry Bacon carrying on February 23, 1945?
  3. Based on Spud Campbell’s recorded statements and a careful examination of the newspaper article, how many crew members were killed? How many non-crew? How do the answers to these questions relate to the medal?

Supporting Primary Sources

Courtesy of the U.S. Maritime Commission

The chief radio officer of an American merchant ship flashes a message during World War II.

15 Seamen Die Saving 19 Refugees

New York Times, April 1, 1945

Courtesy of Spud Campbell

War Medal

The Norwegian War Medal was awarded to all crewman of the SS Henry Bacon by King Haakon of Norway. Spud Campbell received his in the mail, shortly after returning home from his ordeal aboard the ship. The bronze medal featuring King Haakon VII’s portrait, was presented to Norwegian and foreign military and civilians who had served with merit in the war or in the defense of Norway. In 1994 Spud and his family traveled to Norway, where they met some of the refugees whose lives he had helped save in 1945.

Additional Primary & Secondary Sources

Transcript

Glossary

  • Refugee—one that flees; especially: a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution
  • Nazi—a member of a German fascist party controlling Germany from 1933 to 1945 under Adolf Hitler
  • Torpedo—a weapon for destroying ships by rupturing their hulls below the waterline: as a : a submarine mine b : a thin cylindrical self-propelled underwater projectile
Oral History
  • Listen to Spud Campbell