Neighbors: Phone call from Russian Embassy wasn't a joke
Beryl Naggatz thought the phone call was a gag. The caller said he was from the Russian Embassy. "Right. The Russian Embassy," she replied sarcastically. But hold the phone, Beryl. It was no joke. It really was someone from the Russian Embassy in...
Beryl Naggatz thought the phone call was a gag. The caller said he was from the Russian Embassy.
“Right. The Russian Embassy,” she replied sarcastically.
But hold the phone, Beryl. It was no joke. It really was someone from the Russian Embassy in Washington asking about her husband Don Naggatz.
This was in 2008, when the couple, formerly of Fairmount, N.D., lived in Gulf Breeze, Fla. And Don was about to be honored by the Russian government for his service in aiding Russia during World War II.
That service almost cost him his life.
Years later, Don told his story to the Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal. Much of this information comes from that story, which Don’s son Brad Naggatz, Gulf Breeze, sent to Neighbors.
Don, who enlisted in the Navy shortly after Pearl Harbor, served as a petty officer aboard the S.S. Pan Atlantic, part of an Allied convoy delivering supplies to Murmansk, Russia.
The convoy was in the freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean near Finland when it was attacked by German planes.
Don was firing a machine gun at the enemy when one of the plane’s bombs exploded on the deck.
The explosion blew the entire deck into the water, him with it. Then the ship sank, taking 26 crewmen down.
The date: July 4, 1942.
A bear, a sub
Don, in the frigid water, stayed afloat by gripping chunks of ice. He wore cold-weather gear, but he was still freezing.
Debris from the bombed ship floated by: canned food, hams, medical supplies.
He wasn’t alone. A polar bear also was swimming around the ice chunks. But it didn’t approach him.
Then, a wonderful sight: a raft floated up. But there was a man on it. A dead man.
“I pushed him over because it was just a body,” Don said, leaving him alone on the raft.
Then a German submarine surfaced nearby. Don thought he was a-goner.
“I thought they were going to machine-gun me,” he said. But its crew just asked him questions about his ship’s captain, salvaged supplies from the water and left him alone. “They were short of food like everyone else,” he said.
Don floated on the raft for a full 24 hours. Then a British vessel spotted him and sent a lifeboat for him. He and other survivors in the boat were taken to a hospital in Russia, where he spent the next two weeks.
He had no major physical injuries, but his body had swollen so much medical personnel couldn’t remove his clothing. His legs were swelled to double their size, so they had to cut his socks and shoes off.
But other survivors had it worse. Some, suffering from gangrene and frostbite, had their limbs amputated.
Don praised the Russians for treating him and others “with the best they had, and they didn’t have anything.”
For one thing, he says, the patients wondered what they were eating.
Later, he noticed there were no dogs, cats or rats near the hospital. “They (the Russians) made their sausage out of any meat they could find,” he said.
It sounds bad. But, he said, “It was better than starving to death.”
On to Tokyo
Don then was returned to the United States. He had a short leave, then saw more action.
He served aboard a ship during the invasion of North Africa, then was sent to the Pacific, where his ship participated in the battle for Iwo Jima.
Then came a memorable and positive highlight. He was aboard a ship in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese signed the surrender documents aboard the nearby USS Missouri.
His ship was so close “I could practically read” the documents, he said.
But it was for his service in bringing supplies to Russia that that nation awarded him its Medal of Ushakov.
The medal included a commendation “in recognition of your valor and valuable contribution to the efforts of Russia and the allies in their struggle of unpredented magnitude against Nazi Germany. The personal sacrifice of each soldier will forever remain in our memory.”
Don died in 2014 at age 90. His wife still lives in Gulf Breeze.
Today, the United States’ relations with Russia are deeply strained. But there was a time when Russia was in deep debt to the U.S. and to Americans like Don Naggatz.
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