Book documents war hero’s actions
Published: January 22, 2007 | 5350th good news item since 2003
Winston Churchill dubbed it Operation Pedestal.
It was August 1942 and for the British Prime Minister, the massive naval exercise would become one of the most decisive challenges of World War II.
Although the tiny but strategic Mediterranean island of Malta was a pivotal base for Allied air and submarine attacks against Axis supply ships, the island suffered intense damage from enemy aircraft.
Adolf Hitler wanted the base as a means to reach the Middle East oil fields. In 1941 alone, he tried to bomb Malta’s population into submission more than 960 times.
By 1942, Malta was so desperately short of fuel, food and ammunition that Churchill, with the help of President Roosevelt, ordered a huge convoy of British and American ships to get supplies to the island.
The story of that operation and how the father of a New Fairfield man fought against immeasurable odds to ensure some of those supplies reached their destination is told in a new tome titled “At All Costs.”
“I’m glad it’s now all in one book,” said Jan Larsen, whose father, Frederick Larsen, was a 27-year-old merchant seaman serving with the convoy. “My father was a modest man who didn’t talk too much about what happened, but we’re very proud of what he did.”
Jan Larsen, a 67-year-old former corporate executive who retired in 1998, has lived in New Fairfield since 2002 with his wife, Teri.
His father was a junior third officer aboard one of 14 merchant vessels being escorted by nearly 50 warships when Operation Pedestal began.
The world’s then-biggest tanker, the S.S. Ohio, specifically requested by Churchill, was carrying 107,000 barrels of oil from Texas.
The convoy passed through the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean on Aug. 10 before meeting enemy resistance. The fleet was then under constant air and sea attack and Larsen’s freighter, the Santa Elisa, was sunk by torpedoes.
From the deck of a British destroyer that rescued them, Larsen and another shipmate, 19-year-old Lonnie Dales, later saw the Ohio, burning and abandoned.
The book’s author, Sam Moses, described how the two injured men boarded the Ohio at night and how Larsen repaired the ship’s Bolfors single-barrel anti-aircraft gun on the stern.
It was from there that Larsen, Dales, and a handful of other volunteers spent several days fighting off attacks from German and Italian bombers.
One bomb finally blew out the bottom of the Ohio’s engine room, but Allied destroyers on either side managed to keep the tanker afloat and towed it into the Maltese harbor of Valletta.
“When we entered Valletta Harbor, we were saluted like a victorious naval ship,” Larsen said later. “Crowds of people were singin’ and shoutin’ and screamin,’ and it was quite a thrill comin’ in.”
Dales said, “They were playing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ for us.”
Roosevelt later presented Larsen and Dales with the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal “for heroism above and beyond the call of duty.”
Larsen’s citation, in part, said: “The magnificent courage of this young third officer constitutes a degree of heroism which will be an enduring inspiration to seamen of the United States Merchant Marine everywhere.”
Born in Newark, N.J., Frederick Larsen lost his Norwegian-born parents in the flu pandemic of 1918 and was raised in Norway by an aunt and uncle.
Larsen met his future wife, Minda, while training at a naval academy there and was away working on ships in the U.S. before their son was born.
“He was hoping to bring us over, but the Germans invaded Norway in 1940, and we couldn’t leave,” said Jan Larsen.
Jan and his mother were allowed to leave in 1942 under a prisoner of war exchange with the Germans, but Frederick Larsen did not know about their release until after he arrived in Malta.
After the war, Frederick Larsen spent 45 years as a sea captain with Delta Steamship Lines before retiring in 1983.
He died in 1995 at age 81. His wife, now 91, lives in Washington Township, N.J.
Last week, Moses, 59, who lives in White Salmon, Washington, said it was his agent’s idea to write the book.
“He had wanted someone to write the story for some years,” said Moses, who served in the U.S. Navy aboard a heavy cruiser during the war in Vietnam.
A feature writer for Sports Illustrated for 18 years, Moses is also the author of the acclaimed race car driving memoir “Fast Guys, Rich Guys and Idiots.”
Moses said he spent “two intense years” of writing and research for the Larsen book that included a 14-page letter he later wrote about the incident to a friend but never finished.
Moses, whose research took him to Europe and Malta, also credited Larsen’s action in part to the young man’s frustration over what had happened to his ship.
“He was a survivor, on another ship, and he felt helpless,” said Moses. “He wasn’t the type of man who liked being in that position. He knew all about tankers and he knew all about repairing guns, so he did something about it.”
Moses said it was well-documented that if the Ohio had not reached Malta with its much-needed supplies, the island would likely have fallen.
“They were only 18 days away from surrendering,” he said.
Moses’ book has earned praise from Mark Whitmore, director of collections at the Imperial War Museum in London.
“Sam Moses has skillfully blended the vivid recollections of many eyewitnesses with a wealth of original documentary research to produce an immensely readable and authoritative account of this crucial operation,” Whitmore said.
Jan Larsen’s personal memories of his father are filled with images of a devoted, loving man.
“He was a sea captain and away a lot, but he loved his family and was very generous,” said Larsen. “He was extremely well liked by his peers because of who he was although he never talked much about it. He was especially devoted to my mother. They were very much in love.”
“At All Costs” by Sam Moses is published by Random House and is available in hardback for $25.95.