By Paul Wood
CHAMPAIGN — Al Partin served as a gunner on convoys in the Navy during World War II, on destroyer escort ships that guarded convoys, but once was surprised to find his ship alone in a sea full of German U-Boats.
Partin, 94, says at first he thought it was because his “rust bucket” was slow and couldn’t keep up with the convoy. Then he found out that its cargo was entirely ammunition and gun powder.
“They didn’t want anyone near us if we blew up,” he says.
The son of a Navy man, he traveled on Merchant Marine ships to the Caribbean, Central and South America, and two trips to the Soviet Union.
His ship didn’t always carry ammunition.
Sometimes it was sugar. Once it was Russian asbestos. Another trip to Scotland picked up a cargo of scotch. And one voyage, the ship carried mentally ill military personnel.
“Some of them committed suicide out on the seas,” he says.
He didn’t have to fire his guns much, but was in constant danger, between the enemy and the windy, frigid storms — with 30- and 40-foot waves — in the North Atlantic and even into the Arctic Circle.
It could be grim, but Partin stuck with it, even for a while after the war ended.
He went on to become a well-known wrestling coach, including three decades at Knox College.
Partin was born in Virginia to a disabled Navy veteran and a British mother — his dad met her in England during the Great War — and moved around until the family settled west of Chicago in Maywood.
During his years at Proviso High School, Partin played football and was a swimmer, but quit swimming to switch to wrestling his senior year.
In 1941, when the war was already underway in Europe, Partin won the Illinois state championship at 175 pounds in Huff Hall.
He followed his dad into the Navy and, at Great Lakes Naval Training Base, volunteered to be an “armed guard,” thinking that he would be a base guard and get to stay near his girlfriend.
It turned out that armed guards were the gun crews on ships that, at first in the Atlantic Ocean, moved people and supplies to England and the Soviet Union, while trying to evade German ships and planes.
Partin said Bear Island, in the western part of the Barents Sea, was a particularly strong base for Hitler’s forces.
Under the Lend-Lease program, 1,400 merchant ships delivered supplies — from weapons to food — to the Soviet Union, escorted by warships from England, Canada and the U.S., enabling a huge nation starved by the Germans to continue its war effort.
On one trip from Liverpool, Partin’s ship went to Murmansk on unfrozen Kola Bay, taking care to avoid German strongholds in Norway and nearby islands.
On another, his ship docked near Arkhangelsk on the White Sea.
The Soviet police authority monitored American seamen during their stay, but could be bribed with cigarettes, Partin said.
After the war, Partin returned to school on the GI Bill, attending Cornell College in Iowa, where he majored in art and was a member of the famous 1947 national NCAA and AAU wrestling championship team.
The 1947 Cornell team has been inducted into the NCAA and Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame.
He and wife Genevieve, who met at Cornell and had two children, have been married since 1948.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at email@example.com.