While Genia Melikova may have led a life of glamour in the spotlights of stages around the world, her father lived a very different type of international lifestyle.
Michael Ivanivitch Melnitchenko was a seaman. Sailing the seas, in fact, may have been the very thing that allowed him to escape, some time in the 1920s, the devastating future of his Russian homeland.
Thanks to currently-available digitized records online, we can trace his life’s work through various ships’ records, in which he was included among the crew of the vessels sailing in and out of New York harbor. Many of those records indicated voyages begun in his adopted city, Marseilles—or at least originating somewhere in France.
While Michael’s wife may have experienced a life of stress subsequent to the family’s flight from their war-torn homeland—and then again from their adopted home after yet another war—the seaman himself faced stressful challenges in his chosen occupation.
In trying to find any hints about the Melnitchenkos’ past in the various passenger lists online, I scoured every detail on every list bearing that surname. One, later in Michael’s career, looked very promising for its inclusion of his city of birth.
As I tried to determine where in Russia—Michael’s stated homeland—the given city might have been, I nearly missed an even bigger discovery about the man: the event unfolding via handwritten notes scrawled around the neat printed report on the government-mandated passenger list for the S.S. John Rutledge.
Sailing from Bizerte in northern Africa, the John Rutledge arrived in New York on December 18, 1943. Michael’s entry was listed on a page empty of any other data than his own record. The requested information provided much of what we’ve already been able to gather about Michael Melnitchenko:
He was forty seven years old at that time
He could read and write both English and Russian
He was married to Lydia, who still resided in Marseilles, France
The records noted that, as a seaman, he served as chief officer—but not, however, on the ship in which he was currently sailing. In script above the usual entries, someone else had written, “Repatriated Seaman.” Another note alongside it mentioned, “Ex SS Richard Olney.” And then the printed note:
T O R P
Somewhere off the coast of what is now Tunisia, the ship in which Michael served as chief officer had been attacked. According to notes I found in one site listing American merchant ships sunk in World War II (where you must scroll down three quarters of the length of the alphabetized page to the entry for the S.S. Richard Olney), it was a Liberty Ship which was torpedoed on September 22, 1943. Two of the crew members lost their lives in that attack.
In the attack, according to an entry in an online site honoring Merchant Marine heroes, “A large hole was torn in the vessel’s side, the boilers and engine room were wrecked and machinery plant rendered useless.”
Thanks to the quick thinking and exemplary leadership of the vessel’s commander, Captain Erich Richter, temporary repairs made, coupled with escort by a Naval vessel, enabled the ship to be towed to a protected location at the north African port of Bizerte. At that point, “vital military cargo” was unloaded.
Following that close call, at least one seaman was returned to New York: Michael Melnitchenko. His paperwork as he disembarked from the return ship, the S.S. John Rutledge, indicated he was traveling under the auspices of the War Shipping Administration, 45 West Broadway, New York City.
A note followed that entry: “Reship.” Whether that meant to “reship” Michael back to New York, or, following his arrival at the New York port, that he should be returned to France was unclear. After all, what did that entry “Repatriated Seaman” mean?
Despite introducing further questions, this document may have provided clues to resolve two other mysteries: first, the question of Michael’s birth place and second, an explanation for an extended period of time in which Michael may have actually lived and worked in Pennsylvania.
How do I know that?