“Borrowed” piano makes the Murmansk Run

Crowsnest - Spring 2016 / April 25, 2016

By Gary E.H. Green

During the Second World War, Russia was in desperate need of supplies for both its civilians and its military operations. In response, the Allies established several supply routes, one of which utilized seagoing convoys to carry goods from North America to the northern Russian ports of Archangel and Murmansk.

Ships in the Arctic convoys, or on the Murmansk Run as the route was commonly called, faced constant danger. After crossing the often stormy and U-boat infested North Atlantic, the ships destined for Russia regrouped initially in Iceland (until September, 1942) and then in Scotland before starting their northern journey up the west coast of Europe.

In 1995, HMCS Terra Nova, in company with several other Canadian naval vessels, made a commemorative voyage to mark the 50th anniversary of VE Day and the last Murmansk Run. One port of call was St. John’s, the wartime eastern terminus of the Royal Canadian Navy-led Newfoundland Escort Force (later renamed Mid Ocean Escort Force), which shepherded convoys back and forth across the North Atlantic.

No naval ship’s visit to St. John’s is complete without a visit to the Crow’s Nest Officers’ Club, a National Historic Site of Canada commemorating the role of St. John’s and the RCN in the Battle of the Atlantic (1939-1945). Like so many wartime officers before them, the officers of Terra Nova gathered in the memorabilia-rich club to celebrate their last night ashore and toast their safe return.

During the course of the evening it was noted that Terra Nova did not have a piano on board and that the Crow’s Nest’s piano would make a fine addition to the ship’s social life. Plus, being a modern addition to the Crow’s Nest, it lacked a story unlike virtually everything else in the club.

It was decided there and then that the piano would make the trip to Murmansk and thus have a story to tell. The officers talked to the only representative of the Crow’s Nest’s Board of Directors present and convinced him that it would be a great adventure for the piano. While an officer wrote a cheque as security for the piano’s safe return, another ordered up a truck. Once the truck arrived, the officers, in true naval fashion of one hand for the ship and one for yourself, hoisted the piano, eased it through the low fire escape door, descended 59 steps, loaded it aboard the truck, drove up Water Street and along the water front (reportedly while someone played a tune), ascended the narrow gangway and deposited it in the wardroom without damage. All in all, a neat piece of work.

The next day the ship and the piano were at sea by the time the members of the Crow’s Nest arrived to discover that their piano was gone. Messages to the ship requesting the piano’s prompt return were to no avail. To make matters worse, the security cheque proved to be not cashable as it had only one of two required signatures!

Meanwhile aboard Terra Nova in the clear light of day, it was realized that there was only one person aboard who could play the piano and he knew just one tune, the theme from the TV soap opera “The Young and the Restless”. The ship’s company soon tired of the tune and the piano remained silent for most of the voyage except on those occasions when a visitor from another ship or port of call tickled the eighty-eights.

When the flotilla arrived in Murmansk, there was much celebrating with both the visiting ships and the Russians hosting parties of one kind or another. Like similar events the world over, there were the usual exchanges of gifts and the swapping of memorabilia among participants. Central to festivities aboard Terra Nova was the piano, which received not only good use by visiting musicians, but several mementoes as well.  Pins, a medal, vodka, a Terra Nova ship’s badge and a decorative ship’s wheel engraved “Murmansk” were among the items which made up the piano’s hoard.

After a fond farewell, the ships headed for their respective home ports. En route to Halifax, Terra Nova made arrangements to clear customs at St. John’s rather than at her designated port of Sydney, N.S. Upon arrival, the officers hired a moving company to carry the piano up the 59 steps to the Crow’s Nest and then hosted a party at the club to present the souvenirs, a commemorative brass plaque listing the names of the officers responsible for the caper, and a picture of the piano with the ship’s mascot, Lieutenant-Commander P. Penguin, in Murmansk.

Needless to say, there was much rejoicing at the piano’s safe return and boy, did it have a story to tell! In fact, CBC covered the event. When CBC personnel asked to have someone play the piano for the news clip, the “musical” officer stepped forward and with all the poise he could muster began to play “The Young and the Restless” theme before all hands broke out in laughter.