It was Napoleon Bonaparte who said, “An army marches on its stomach,” meaning that if an army isn’t well-provisioned, it has no chance in battle. Howard Pfeifer, who turned 98 in September, knows that all too well as he served during World War II supplying the United States’ war effort.
Pfeifer, of Franklin Park, grew up in Mt. Oliver and attended St. George High School in Allentown and Connelley Vocational High School. He enlisted with the Merchant Marines at the age of 19 in 1943. “My cousin was in the Navy, and he came home and suggested that I join the Merchant Marines as they needed people,” said Pfeifer, who served for 3 years until the war’s end. He was trained at Sheepshead Bay Maritime Training Center in New York and traveled all over the world delivering everything from bombs to trucks to tanks to the military.
He made numerous trips with the Merchant Marines including sailing the pacific to Australia through the Indian Ocean and then to Iran to deliver supplies to the Russians. “Each trip you made was a separate commission, and you signed a contract. Most commissions lasted between 2-5 months,” said Pfeifer.
He also participated in several Murmansk Runs/Arctic convoys. “Germany had invaded Norway, and we had to supply the northern ports of Murmansk and Archangel. We were under frequent fire from German fighter planes, surface raiders and German U-boats as we sailed past German occupied Norway, up through the North Atlantic Ocean. I remember sitting in the crow’s nest one time on lookout and a German plane came so close, I could see the pilot’s face,” said Pfeifer.
The ships sailed in convoys sometime with as many as 40 ships on these dangerous missions with the troop ships protected in the center of the convoy. The ships required large crews, and when one was torpedoed, there was little chance of rescue or survival. Consequently, the Merchant Marines suffered more casualties than any other branch of the service, with a 1 in 26 ratio.
During the Murmansk Runs, ice cutters were often needed to plow through the 4- 6 feet of ice so that the merchant ships could get through to complete their mission.
Pfeifer also did his part during The Normandy Invasion in 1944. "We left America on a ship built for WWI with a cargo of one-ton bombs that we transported to England for The Invasion. We were then sent to Omaha Beach where that old ship was scuttled to be used for a dock for incoming ships," said Pfeifer, who said they were under constant fire from German planes and also from the machine guns in the German pillboxes on the hills just above the beach." I don't believe that anyone can understand what it was like unless you were there."
After the war, Pfeifer returned home to Pittsburgh and to his job with U.S. Steel – Homestead,and then he became a carpenter, eventually rising to become a vice-president in the contracting end of the construction industry.
In December 2020, Pfeifer was awarded the Russian Ushakov medal from the Russian government in appreciation for those dangerous Murmansk Runs the American Merchant Marines made to deliver the supplies the Russians need to fight off Hitler.
“I’m just happy that I was able to serve my country during an extreme time when it needed everyone,” said Pfeifer.
By Janice Lane Palko