Action in the North Atlantic (1943) 





Director:     Lloyd Bacon.

Starring:     Humphrey Bogart (Lt. Joe Rossi), Raymond Massey (Capt. Steve Jarvis), Alan Hale (Boats O'Hara), Julie Bishop (Pearl), Ruth Gordon (Mrs. Jarvis), Sam Levene (Chips Abrams), Dane Clark (Johnnie Pulaski), Peter Whitney (Whitey Lara), Dick Hogan (Cadet Robert Parker).

before Dec. 7, 1941, the US merchant mariners brought supplies to the Russians


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

Joe Rossi as narrator says that he is the first mate on a tanker headed north to join a ship convoy that is heading east.  The tanker is carrying 100,000 barrels of high-test gas. 

There is a lot of fog in the area.  Capt. Steve Jarvis sends Cadet Robert Parker to tell the bos'n that the Skipper wants a double lookout fore and aft. 

A German U-boat is in the area.  The Germans can hear the noise of the propeller of the tanker. 

A torpedo hits the tanker and fire breaks out all over the ship.  Another torpedo hits the tanker.  The submarine now surfaces.  Sailors head for the artillery piece. 

The Skipper gives the order to abandon ship.  Life boats are at the ready.  Men start hopping into the raft.  Number one raft is dropped into the water.  A boat is lowered but it is tipped  a bit and the sailors fall into the sea.  There are crew members still caught in the engine room.  The Skipper wants to try to get to the engine room, but an explosion keeps him away from the area.  Rossi and the Skipper get into one of the life boats and pull away.  Two fellows jump off the ship and swim through the fiery oil on the water.  They pick up one of the guys, but Tex doesn't make it.  The German submarine rams the life boat splitting it in two.  The men save themselves by swimming over to a raft. 

At Fifth Naval District Headquarters a report comes in of tanker wreckage.  The Northern Stare is the name of the ship.  Planes are sent out to see if they can find any trace of survivors.  It's the 11th day the men have been at sea on the raft.  After a long wait, an airplane spots them.  A destroyer comes to pick them up. 

The survivors are taken to New York.  Reporters wants to get some photos of the Skipper and his crew.  They also want to know the details of the tanker sinking.  The Skipper is a bit too laconic in his speech so the media doesn't really learn much from the tanker captain. 

The Skipper comes home to his wife Sarah.   He's glad to be home and she's glad he's home.  The German Shepherd dog is also glad he's home. 

Joe Rossi goes into the Casino Club to get a drink.  They have a new singer and a pretty one at that.  Her name is Pearl.  Joe hears a fellow named Gus shooting off his mouth about how ships are going to be in the convoy heading off from Sandy Hook, their names and the amount of equipment.  Joe goes over to him and has him sit next to him.  Rossi tries to tell him nicely not to talk about the movement of ships, but the guy is too dense, so Joe hits the fellow and knocks him unconscious. 

Pearl is a bit angry with Joe.  She asks him why couldn't he have taken the loud mouth outside and knocked him out rather than do it virtually right in front of her.  Joes says out of consideration for her he did it as quietly as he could have. She's doesn't like his explanation of event. 

At the maritime union building the guys hang out and play cards.  Most are waiting to get their next assignment, but one fellow, Pulaski, says he is going to get himself a shore job.  The guys don't like the fellow for abandoning an important duty position.  One of the guys leaves the table because he's not playing cards with a guy who hasn't got what it takes.  Pulaski says he's got a wife with a kid coming next month and he wants to be there with them.  Another merchant mariners says he's got a wife at home and a son over in England in the air force.  He says the other fellow wants a "safe" job.  "Go ask the Czechs and the Poles and the Greeks.  They were figuring on safe jobs.  They're lined up in front of guns, digging each other's graves.  The trouble with you, Pulaski, is you think America is just a place to eat and sleep. You don't know what side your future is buttered on."

Boat O'Hara tells the fellow not to waste his breath on Pulaski.  Now the guys get up and sign up for duty on one of the new Liberty Ships.  When they get their news assignments, they start walking out but now they see Pulaski in line to sign up on the Liberty Ship.  They tease him about it and then tell him there's no hard feelings.  O'Hara's wife Jenny comes into the union hall and slaps O'Hara on the back.  She says she saw his "fat face" in a newsreel.  She serves him his divorce papers and walks out.  O'Hara just laughs and says those Liberty ships are sure well-named. 

U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.  Cadet Parker gets his next assignment.  He will be working on the S.S. Seawitch. He will be serving under Captain Jarvis again. 

Jarvis comes over to Joe's apartment.  Pearl answers the door.  She and Joe are still in their house robes.  Jarvis tells Joe that he's working with him on a new ship if Joe can get ready to go in a half hour.  Jarvis figures that Pearl is just another gold digger living off poor sailors, but Pearl tells him that Joe gave her the money, but they both put the money in the bank.  Joe pipes up and says this is the wife he's talking to.  The Skipper asks:  "Joe, why did you let me make a fool of myself?"  He now apologizes to Mrs. Rossi. 

Pearl wants Joe to stay home with her.  But Joe tells her:  "We've been hanging around Axis ports for a long time, and we've seen what they do.  What we've seen ain't nice.  So we can't sit around holding hands with all that going on."   Joe goes to get dressed.  The Skipper gives Mrs. Rossi the phone number for his wife, suggesting that they might be able to help each other.  

Pearl goes into the bedroom to be with Joe.  She asks where he is going and Joe tells her they don't tell them where they're going.  And, no, she can't write him.  He doesn't know any address for where he's going.  They kiss goodbye.

"S.S. Seawitch, built for the U.S. Martitime Commission, Hull no. 628B by the Atlas Shipbuilding Corporation, Kearny, New Jersey, April 1943.  Rossi watches as a tank is put in the hold of the ship.  Abrams, Pulaski, Cherub and Whitey settle in on their new bunks.  Cadet Parker comes aboard ship.  Joe greets and welcomes him.  He shows Parker where to stow his gear.  He also takes Parker over to see the Skipper.  The Captain says let's hope we have better luck on this ship than on the last ship.  Now the gun crew comes aboard.  Ensign Wright and the gun crew reporting for duty, sir.  Joe shakes the Ensign's hand.  He takes the Ensign up to see the Captain.  The merchant mariners come over and tease the new gun crew.  Joe comes back and tells Pulaski and Whitey to take the gun crew to their quarters.  Whitey tells the gun crew:  "Come on, sea scouts."

The ship embarks on its journey.  A bell rings and the gun crew jumps into action.  They fire a round at the sea.  Pulaski says:  "There ain't any subs."  Ensign Wright explains that it's gunnery practice.  He then tells the mariners that they have got to learn some essentials of gunnery in case one or more of his men gets knocked out of action.  Pulaski brags that he could master this job in a week.  So the Ensign has him take the place of one of the gunnery crew. They hand a shell to Pulaski and he doesn't handle it right.  It looks like he's hugging the shell.  Then he doesn't get the breech open.  In other words, he failed the test already.  The mariners will take gun practice one hour a day until they master it. 

The Skipper tells First Officer Rossi that they will be picking up the convoy off the Canadian coast line.  They will be heading for Halifax, Nova Scotia.

In port O'Hara says that the whole world is here.  The mariners see a Soviet Union flag.  Then there's one from Brazil and Britain and from many other countries (Australia, Mexico, Cuba)..   

Captain Jarvis reports for a convoy conference.  He sees a friend of his from Rotterdam, the Netherlands.  The Skipper had dinner with Zeimer and his family back in 1940.  Jarvis says he was sorry to hear how badly the port was damaged by the Nazis. 

Rear Admiral Hartridge of the United States Navy will be leading the conference.  Captain Williams will give them the details.  There will be 73 vessels in the convoy, not including the naval escort.  There is to be absolute radio silence on the trip. 

The ships start leaving Halifax.  Out on the open ocean they get into their assigned positions in the convoy.  Three planes escort the convoy farther out to sea, but then turn around to return to Halifax. 

Skipper opens the sealed envelope and finds out they are headed for Murmansk, Russia.  The convoy passes south of Iceland.  At times the seas get very rough. 

Rossi and Parker talk about girlfriends and wives with each other and what it means to be brave.  Fog bank ahead.  The ship is almost rammed by a Dutch ship, but some quick action by both sides saves them both from a bad collision. 

A German U-boat is in the area.  They line up a ship and hit it with a torpedo. Men start jumping over the railings and into the ocean.  A destroyer drops some depth charges.  Under the water it is apparent that there is a regular wolf pack of German U-boats.  Zeimer's ship is hit by a torpedo.  More depth charges are dropped.  The order is given for the convoy to disperse.  A dispersal rocket is shot up into the sky. More and more merchants ships are hit by torpedoes.  But now some of the U-boats as destroyed.  One or two U-boats have to surface.  The gun crew on the Seawitch gets a hit on one of the submarines.  A torpedo just misses the Seawitch

A U-boat chases the Seawitch.  They finally give up because these new Liberty ships are too fast for them.  So the U-boat surfaces and gives chase.  They get ready to use the surface artillery.  Rossi spots the U-boat on the surface.  The Skipper takes evasive actions to draw the U-boat farther away from the rest of the convoy.  That means the Seawitch is on its own now.  The fear is that the U-boat will attack the ship at night.  Captain Jarvis has Rossi double the watch.  Ensign Wright figures that the U-boat will probably strike before dawn. 

The U-boat has picked up speed, so a shell is fired to warn the German Captain.  He has the sub slow down. 

The U-boat is catching up, so Rossi asks the Captain to ask Mac to cut off all sound onboard.  They figure on hiding from the U-boat. 

The Germans can't hear any sounds of the ship. So the captain has all his equipment silenced.  Both vessels are just sitting still.  After awhile the sub starts moving again.  Rossi hears the U-boat moving. 

Whitey's kitten starts meowing and Pulaski threatens to kill it.  Whitey is not having that and in a little scuffle something goes overboard.  The German Captain hears a splash.  He has the engines stopped again.  They send a message to the German Luftwaffe:  "American liberty ship enroute Murmansk evaded us above position.  Request dawn patrol bombers intercede and report ship's position.  Am proceeding on course direction Murmansk."

Captain Jarvis now proceeds full ahead toward Murmansk. 

In the morning Russian seaplanes are sent out to find the American ship.  Captain Jarvis hears airplanes headed their way.  The German pilots spot the ship.  On the ship, the general alarm is sounded and the men jump into action. The seaplanes start diving down toward the ship.  Bombs are dropped and some of them hit the ship.  The ship downs one of the seaplanes.  A seaplane comes very close to the ship.  The captain is hit in the leg.  Most of the gunnery crew is knocked out. Parker and Pulaski now man the gun.  They shoot down another seaplane almost at point blank range.  The plane hits the ship and bounces off to the side. 

Rossi digs the bullet out of the Captain's leg.  Jarvis tells Rossi that now he is the Captain of the ship.  Parker has died from his wounds.  A funeral service is held for the eight dead crewmen.  Rossi reads passages from the Bible marked out by Captain Jarvis. 

The U-boat hits the ship with a torpedo.  The crew starts a fire at the front of the boat in the hope that the U-boat will surface.  The German figure they are going to finish off the Seawitch with their artillery.  But now the Seawitch rams into the U-boat.  The sub is destroyed.  Russian planes fly over the ship welcoming them to Murmansk.  The ship tilts to one side, but it makes it into port in Murmansk. 

"From the freedom-loving peoples of the United Nations to our merchant seamen on all the oceans goes our everlasting gratitude.  With their aid, we shall build a bridge of ships to our allies, over which we will roll the implements of war.  We shall see to it that men and materials will be delivered where they are needed and when they are needed.  Nothing on land, in the air, on the sea, or under the sea shall prevent our complete and final victory."


Good war film.  The merchant mariners were often forgotten heroes.  The German U-boats sank many a ship in the convoys headed across the Atlantic Ocean.  They would often formed wolf packs and sank a great many ships.  With time the Allies improved their defensive tactics and U-boat sailors became the unit with the most casualties proportionately than any service in the German armed forces.  There's a lot of action in the film so action fans won't be disappointed.  Bogart was very good in his role as first mate of the two ships. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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