Billy Jackway, as his young cousins back home called him, was not supposed to be on the freighter SS Oregonian the day three German aerial torpedoes sent it, and Billy, to the bottom of the Barents Sea.
William Parker Jackway was born in Westfield in 1917, the son of Cecil and Rosamund Jackway. Young Billy attended grade school in the small Barcelona school house and then went up town to Westfield for high school.
The Jackways were a Barcelona family that had fished the Great Lakes for four generations. Perhaps, like his father, Bill did not want to go into the family fishing business but with the high unemployment in late 1930s, could not find work after high school. Or perhaps he could see the peacetime military draft was inevitable and wanted to join up himself to have a choice.
Billy Jackway was the first of 19 Wesfield men to die in World War II.
Whatever the case, Bill Jackway joined the Navy. After basic training, he reported for duty in late 1939 as a seaman first class aboard the USS Simpson, a destroyer being used as a training vessel for midshipmen and reservists.
In the spring of 1941, the Simpson joined the naval force being assembled to protect convoys of merchant ships carrying material and supplies from the United States across the North Atlantic to Great Britain under the newly minted Lend-Lease Act to help support the fight against Nazi Germany. From Great Britain, U.S.-made military munitionis and trucks, canned goods and even clothing were transported in huge convoys of merchant ships through the northern arctic route to the Soviet Union.
Jackway continued convoy duty with his reassignment to the destroyer USS Badger as a radioman third class.
In April 1942, he was assigned to the destroyer tender USS Melville, based at that time in Hvalfjorour, Iceland. The Melville provided support for the merchant ships and the military ships that comprised the multi-national convoys that were continuing to make the journey across the U-boat-infested North Atlantic.
The arctic run to Murmansk was a dangerous passage. In 1942 alone, 63 merchant ships were lost to U-boats and aerial attacks in convoys to Murmansk and to Archangel, a Soviet port on the White Sea. The crew of the Melville, stationed in Iceland, had comparatively safe duty. But for Jackway, that ended when the Navy radio operator on a U.S. merchant ship, the SS Oregonian, took sick just as a large British-lead convoy was preparing to make a run in early September to Archangel.
Martha Jackway Herbst recalls today that the family was eventually told her cousin Billy was put onboard the SS Oregonian at sea as the replacement radio operator.
The convoy was the last one of the year on the arctic run. Some 40 merchant ships, half of them American, set sail from Scotland with a heavy escort along the way from six dozen British and Australian warships.
While the convoy apparently did not include American warships, the U.S. Navy had a strong presence in the Armed Guard units stationed aboard the U.S. merchant ships as gunners, radio operators and signal men.
On the 11th day at sea, the convoy, which was running well away from the Nazi-occupied Norwegian coast, was attacked. U-boats and bombers sank 10 ships.
The escorting forces learned the lessons of that attack and the next day, Sept. 14, when the convoy had just entered the Barents Sea north of Norway, only one ship was lost in an attack.
It was the American freighter SS Oregonian. After the ship was hit by three aerial torpedoes, she rolled over and sank with 25 crew members and five U.S. Navy personnel on board, including 24-year-old William Jackway.
His death was Westfield's baptism into World War II. Nineteen more Westfield boys would die before war's end.
- Cristie Herbst
Sources: U.S. military records, the American Merchant Marine at War - www.usmm.org, family recollections and Wikipedia.