On Dec. 6, 1941, 19-year-old Hugh McGregor set out for a journey he would never forget — even now at 90. He remembers every detail, every name and every event from his time as a Navy merchant sailor in World War II.
McGregor, a Charleston native and Bishop England High School graduate, grew up on the peninsula during the Great Depression and joined the Navy Reserve for the thrill of an adventure.
His crew of eight men, six from the Charleston area, was the first to leave Boston for Murmansk, Russia, to deliver war supplies to the Allies. His vessel, the supply ship Larranaga, was an old one from 1919 that he called “a junk pot.” But that ship would keep them safe during times when he “thought surely that was it.”
McGregor’s father, John, died of appendicitis at sea in the Navy in 1925, when McGregor was 2. His mother, Annie Phillips McGregor, raised him, his three brothers and a sister during the Great Depression. Their Catholic church wanted to put him and his siblings in the local orphanage, but his mother would not have it.
“Mother was a proud woman and never accepted charity,” he said. “She was a very independent woman.”
They rented out two rooms in their home at Meeting and Lee streets to make money. When McGregor was 12, he worked Thursday-Saturday as a clerk for $7 a week. He and his brothers also went around town selling rags, bottles, Brown Bobby doughnuts and peanuts.
“Whatever we made, we gave to mother,” he said.
Their poverty did not stifle his mother’s generosity, one of her many virtues. Their home was one of the last before the train station, so the “hobos” would jump off at their home so they were not beaten by the station guards. She always made sure they had something to eat, McGregor recalled.
Going to war
When McGregor was told that he and his crew were leaving for Murmansk on that day in 1941, he didn’t even know what the Soviet Union was.
The next day, Dec. 7, he wrote in his journal: “Tonight we heard over the radio that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.”
Their ship sailed alone until it joined a convoy at Nova Scotia. From there, they sailed to Reykjavik, Iceland. But the closer they got to Murmansk, the more danger they faced.
“I was in my bunk around 10 o’clock when I was awakened by the general alarm bell ringing in my ears,” he wrote in his journal on Christmas Eve 1941.
A German submarine was following them. They were alone because the Larranaga was slow and fell behind the convoy. They fired five rounds at the sub and missed. It did not fire back, so they continued toward Iceland. When they arrived, they joined a convoy of 150 ships and headed to Russia.
“It was very, very rough because we were hitting icebergs as we were going into the Arctic Circle. We saw a lot of nice sights like the aurora borealis. We continued without any trouble,” McGregor said.
That did not last long.
“There was a tanker to our right. As we singled up heading into the mouth of the Kola River, they started shooting torpedoes because we were kind of gathered up. That tanker was hit. There was a huge blaze from it,” McGregor said. “We asked if anyone survived, and they said that once you hit that cold water, you’re gone.”
When they docked in Murmansk they spent 10 days unloading supplies.
“Because the Larranaga was the first ship to arrive in Russia with lend-lease supplies, its crew was regarded with some suspicion by the people of Murmansk,” The News and Courier wrote in a Dec. 19, 1959, article on McGregor’s shipmate, Joseph Mauro.
The days were short and cold, dropping to 32 degrees below zero. They wore multiple layers of socks and wrapped their feet in newspaper to keep warm. Sickness was common. Their four-hours-on, four-hours-off watches were not conducive to a good night’s rest.
The entire time they were there, Murmansk was under attack from Germany, and McGregor remembers the two-a-day bombings every morning and afternoon. The bombs came close, but the ship was never hit.
When it was time to return, a bearing broke off in one of the Larranaga’s main shafts. They waited on a part to be made in England and were there 52 more days. They finally left with a convoy of five ships.
They hit a terrible storm on the way back, and their engine died. They lost their convoy yet again. When they fixed the engine, they spotted a puff of smoke on the horizon and soon approached a battleship they believed to be German. They were pursued, but then realized, “It was an English cruiser. But it wasn’t taking any chances.”
McGregor’s shipmate, Charlie Moore, told the captain to turn the ship 90 degrees so the cruiser would have to turn 45 degrees to catch up with them. He did, and they sailed out of harm’s way.
“The story of the voyages to Murmansk is one of almost unbelievable horror, of matchless courage, and of unlimited devotion to duty. There is nothing quite like it in all history,” the office of the chief of naval operations wrote in “History of the Armed Guard Afloat, World War II.”
They finally sailed into Long Island Sound on April 21, 1942. According to the naval operations office, only one in three ships had a chance of returning from Russia during that time.
Life at 90
McGregor lives an active life. He married his wife, Margaret Lucas McGregor, last year after his wife of 67 years, Mary Meyers McGregor, died in 2010.
When he returned from Russia, he was sent to Northern Africa three times and spent two years at a military gun school in Brooklyn. He was told he was discharged while stationed in Washington, D.C. The war was over. He hitched two rides and was in Charleston, where his wife had just given birth to their son, Hugh Jr.
He opened a grocery store on Meeting Street in front of his mother’s house with his brother, John. He was an architect and contractor for most of his career, and when he retired, he opened McGregor Gallery on Wappoo Road.
He is an artist and spends his days painting, dealing art on eBay, playing with gadgets like his iPad and sharing his story with his family.
“The thing that surprised me the most when I grew up and became an adult is that you think of battleships and aircraft carriers as the prize of the Navy,” said McGregor’s grandson, Duncan Neasham of Virginia. “Several years ago, I went to England and toured Winston Churchill’s bunker. ... The guide explained that this (merchant ships) was the lifeline because nothing was getting in and out.”
McGregor said his time in the Navy made him a better person and taught him to love people of all walks of life. His mother’s strength and virtues are still with him, too.
“A good attitude keeps anyone young,” he said.
Reach Jade McDuffie at 937-5560 or email@example.com.
Charleston native Hugh McGregor kept a diary of his time as a Navy merchant sailor in World War II.×
Charleston native Hugh McGregor was a Navy merchant sailor in World War II. The Evening Post acknowledged his crew’s return in an article.×
Charleston native Hugh McGregor looks at old photos in his West Ashley home from his time in as a Navy merchant sailor in World War II. (Jade McDuffie/Staff)×