THE BATTLE OF THE ATLANTIC
The battle of the Atlantic touched the American people as perhaps no other area of warfare. Many on the East Coast saw torpedoed ships burning nearby at sea. Thousands of families had members go down with ships or return haggard and worn after rescue from a sunken ship. Newspapers told many tales of heroism and suffering. Ports and coastal areas were blacked out or dimmed so that ships leaving or returning would not offer such good targets to the enemy. The figures for losses of armed merchant ships have already been given in Chapter I. Most of these ships were lost in the Atlantic. The truth of the matter is that our ships were inadequately armed at the beginning of the war because of a lack of guns. Escorts were too few. Experience in moving vast numbers of ships across the ocean had to be gained. All important air protection was lacking. When sufficient escorts were available and it became possible to place a thin but effective curtain of air protection over ships through the use of patrol planes and carrier escorts the picture changed. Also important was the improvement of armament of merchant ships and the manning of these ships with Armed Guards who knew how to shoot effectively with local control methods. There was no magic secret in winning the battle of the Atlantic. It was won by effective teamwork of air power, escort ships, and skilled Armed Guards. This combination ultimately proved unbeatable. The story is too vast and detailed to recount here
in its entirety. It is impossible and undesirable in this brief account to trace the history of every ship which went out and encountered a German submarine. Practically all ships which plied the Atlantic had submarines around them at one time or another. Most voyage reports of Armed Guard officers for the Atlantic theater mention numerous changes in course and numerous depth charges being dropped by the escorts. The aim of this chapter has been much more modest. It seeks to recount a few of the representative actions and a few of the outstanding attacks against merchant ships in the Atlantic. Several volumes would doubtless be needed to tell the full story in detail.
SC-107, November, 1942There is the story of convoy SC-107.l Armed Guards in this il fated convoy proudly wear the combat star on their American theater ribbons for their work. But there was not too much they could do against a wolf pack which attacked mostly at night and could not be seen. Perhaps there were seven submarines, perhaps more on the trail of some 44 fat merchantmen loaded with vital materials for England. There appear to have been only five escorts for this convoy and this does much to explain the success of the enemy. Before he had finished his deadly work 16 merchant ships had been sunk in four days. Almost half of a convoy was wiped out before Iceland was reached, and this terrible blow came after we had been at war almost a year.
Armed Guards were on six of the ships in the convoy. Many of the ships were British. One of the six United States operated ships was sunk. This was the Hahira. Three torpedoes came speeding towards the ship late on November 3. Two missed and one hit. Fire broke out and the ship was abandoned and sunk by escort.
The L. V. Stanford had a torpedo pass very close at 0400 on November 2 and on the morning of November 3 two torpedoes came very close. Later in the morning she fired at a periscope 100 feet away and hit it with her machine guns. The submarine dived and an oil slick appeared. Again on the evening of November 3 torpedo wakes passed very close, but the ship was not hit. The Ann Skakel described the awful destruction around her as ships blew up and men took to life boats or floundered in the water, but she escaped without having any torpedoes come close. The Tide Water Armed Guards had a busy time firing at torpedoes. At 0400 on November 2 the ship fired at a torpedo which missed but struck another ship. Five minutes later she fired at two torpedoes, both of which missed her stern. Again on the morning of November 3 she fired at a torpedo which struck another ship. At 1120 on the same morning she fired at an object which resembled a periscope. The Olney recorded an explosion under her stern and a close miss to starboard on November 1. On the evening of November 3 she may have run over a submarine. The entire bottom of the ship on the port side was found to be bent in numerous places.
The Fred W. Waller also carried an Armed Guard and was present in the ill fated convoy but her action report for the voyage does not appear with other papers concerning the ship. It seems fairly certain that one submarine was destroyed, but that was not a good average against 16 ships sunk.
The seven proud warships of the United States Navy which carry the names of Armed Guard officers call to mind the actions which gave these officers, many victims of the enemy, this proud honor. There is the case of the Otho. A large part of her cargo was tin and manganese which she was bringing back from the Gold Coast. An enemy submarine struck early on April 3, 1942 when the ship was only about 150 miles from her destination at Philadelphia. She went down with heavy loss of life and with her Armed Guard performing bravely to the last. Her Armed Guard officer gave his name to the USS Brennan. The Merrimack Armed Guards likewise lived up to the proud traditions of the Navy. She was enroute from New Orleans to the Canal Zone when the enemy torpedoed her on he night of June 9, 1942. She sank in about 35 minutes. There were few survivors and only one Armed Guard lived to tell the tale. All Armed Guards went to battle stations and the order was not given to abandon ship until sinking was imminent and the four inch gun was pointing in the water. Loss of life was very heavy because the engines were not stopped and the ship was abandoned at full speed. A lifeboat was demolished by the ship's
screw. Life rafts were released but left far behind by the stricken ship. The USS Hunter Marshall bears the name of Ensign Hunter Marshall III who lost his life in this disaster.
The night of September 12, 1942 was very dark as the tanker Patrick J. Hurley, heavy with fuel for the British war machine, plowed along alone from Aruba to the United Kingdom. Suddenly the heavy gun of an enemy submarine began shelling the ship and quickly found the range. Machine gun fire swept the ship and cut down the Armed Guards as they went o general quarters. Fire broke out amidships and forward. Lt. (jg) Patrick J. Walsh rushed to his battle station with blood gushing from an angry wound in his throat. The enemy fire was returned by the stern gun and by the machine guns. The enemy fired some 30 rounds into the ship before the order came to abandon her and then fired six or eight more rounds into the port side for good measure. The Armed Guard officer and two or three Armed Guards went down with the ship. Especially noteworthy was the conduct of Ernest B. Tillinghast, a seaman second class, who administered first aid to the first assistant engineer in an open life boat and probably saved his life. This Armed Guard was himself suffering from an attack of appendicitis. One of the life boats was in the water for three weeks before the men were rescued. Seventeen men aboard the ship were lost. The USS Walsh bears the name of the Armed Guard officer on this ship.
The Pan New York was in a convoy some 600 to 700 miles from Ireland when she was torpedoed without warning on the morning of October 29, 1942. Her cargo was high octane gasoline. Fire broke out and only 18 of 60 men were rescued. Lt. (jg) William Herzog gave his life attempting to free several members of the gun crew from their quarters where they were trapped. For his conduct he received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal posthumously. Five other ships went down between October 27 and 29. The USS Herzog is named in honor of this brave Armed Guard officer.
The Brilliant was bound for Belfast and was in convoy when she was torpedoed on the morning of November 18, 1942. Her case looked hopeless, for she was a tanker and she was on fire. The master, three officers and four members of the crew abandoned the ship in a lifeboat. James C. Cameron, the junior third officer or fourth officer was preparing to abandon the ship when the calm remark of Lt. (jg) John R. Borum that somebody ought to turn off the general alarm and that they might try exhausting the fire caused him to stop. Then unfolded one of the sagas of World War II. The fire was extinguished. The courage and calm of Lt. (jg) Borum was contagious. The radio operator rigged up an emergency radio. A junior officer and an Armed Guard neither of whom could navigate finally brought the ship safely into St. Johns. After emergency repairs she proceeded to New York under tow, but broke
up on January 20, 1943. The junior third officer who had stood 29 straight watches, the Armed Guard officer who had been cool when others were filled with panic, and the radio operator all went down with the ship. Such heroes deserve to live. The USS Borum was named for this Armed Guard officer.
The case of the Stephen Hopkins and her brave stand against Armed Raiders has already been discussed [in actuality, it is not discussed until chapter IV - ed.]. The conduct of Ensign Kay K. Vesole of the John Bascom will be discussed under the attack at Bari, Italy. In many respects he was one of the outstanding heroes of the war. Both of these Armed Guard officers received the Navy Cross and gave their names to ships. The destroyer escort Willett was named for the Armed Guard officer on the Stephen Hopkins and the destroyer Vesole for the Armed Guard officer on the John Bascom.
Three other Armed Guard officers received the Navy Cross, a combat award second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor. The Nathaniel Hawthorn was in a convoy in the Caribbean region enroute to New York from Trinidad when she was torpedoed without warning late on November 6, 1942. Only three Armed Guards survived and civilian losses were also very heavy. Two British ships were also torpedoed in the same convoy. Lt. (jg) Kenneth Muir, one arm blown off at the shoulder, set a sterling example of how an officer
should care for his men by helping them jump from the sinking ship. He went down with the ship. He received the Navy Cross posthumously.
The Cities Service Missouri was headed for Aruba in convoy when she was torpedoed on the morning of March 12, 1943. A Dutch ship was also torpedoed. The Armed Guard fired three rounds at the submarine. But another torpedo hit an hour later. Again the Armed Guard fired. They remained on board the stricken ship fifteen minutes after the merchant crew had abandoned her. Lt. (jg) Joseph Feeney suffered severe injury to his spine which paralyzed the lower part of his body, but he dragged himself to the bridge and directed the fire until the after part of the ship was under water. All of the Armed Guards survived. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his splendid leadership even though severely wounded.
The Esso Gettysburg was enroute from Port Arthur to Philadelphia when she was struck by two torpedoes on the afternoon of June 10, 1943. Fire quickly covered all of the ship except forward of amidships. Ensign John S. Arnold II won the Navy Cross for his conduct. Even though badly burned he supervised the loading and firing of one round from the forward gun in the direction from which the torpedoes had come. His conduct was an inspiration to all hands. He was rescued after being in the water four hours and in a life boat for 17 hours.
No account of submarine warfare in the Atlantic should leave out of consideration the sinking of the Zaandam. She was a Dutch
ship but she carried United States Armed Guards. Two torpedoes about ten minutes apart sent her to the bottom of the ocean some 300 miles off the coast of Brazil on the afternoon of November 2, 1942. Loss of life was heavy, for only 168 of 299 aboard were saved. Three men, two of them Dutch members of the crew and an Armed Guard named Basil Dominic Izzi remained on a life raft for 83 days and drifted more than 1,800 miles before they were rescued. The Armed Guard officer, Lt. James Maddox and an Armed Guard named Franklin Beazley were also on the raft, but died before help came. The three survivors were picked up 70 miles off the Brazilian coast. The men saw three ships before their final rescue by PC-576. Their food lasted for about 16 days and their water for four or five more. They caught a shark by using their toes as bait and luring the shark into a noose they had formed with a line from the life raft. They ate 15 birds and they used the entrails to catch fish. They even ate sea snails and chewed seaweed. They caught rain in a piece of canvas. They even made a checkerboard on the life raft. The Armed Guard officer almost lived to see his wife again. He died on the 76th day. The men were skeletons with bronzed skin wrapped around them when they were rescued. For example, Izzi had gone from 145 pounds to 80 pounds. They gained 13 pounds in 13 hours after the rescue.
Convoy UC-1, February 22-24, 1943
Four ships carrying Armed Guards were in this convoy bound from the British Isles to American ports. The convoy was trailed by Submarines from February 21 to 26. Depth charges were dropped on February 17, 21, 23, 24, 25 and 26. There was also surface fire on February 24 and 25. It appears that five ships were torpedoed in rapid order on February 23 of which two remained in the convoy. The only ship carrying Armed Guards which was torpedoed was the Esso Baton Rouge. She sank almost immediately after the torpedo struck. There was a blinding flash almost three times as high as the ship. But the death toll was small, with several wounded. The Mobilgas, the Gulfpoint, and the Tide Water came safely through the ordeal. The burden of defense against submarine attacks rested largely with the escorts in as much as the torpedoes were not visible to the Armed Guards.
Convoy SC-121, March 3-10, 1943
Of three merchant ships carrying Armed Guards in this Atlantic convoy only one was sunk. This was the Malantic. She was torpedoed at 1930 on March 9, 1943. An explosion followed. Only eight of 13 Armed Guards survived and only 13 of the 32 merchant crewmen were saved. The exact time at which the ship sank is not known. But she had disappeared by morning. The Alcoa Leader broke away from
the convoy and escaped attack. The Hollywood reported alerts on February 28, March 3, 8, and 9. She was not damaged.
Convoy HX-233, April 16-18, 1943
This convoy, bound from New York to the British Isles, had the unusual distinction of forcing a German submarine which had been disabled to surface on the morning of April 17. Only two Armed Guard crews fired at the surfaced submarine before two escorts closed in but several other Armed Guards were ready to open fire. The John Bidwell and the James Jackson fired at the submarine and the Jackson claimed that her eighth round hit the submarine at the base of her conning tower. Later flags were ordered flown at half mast, grim indication that a merchant ship had been torpedoed early the same day. Apparently another German submarine was destroyed on April 18.
Some Armed Guard Attacks on Submarines
It is quite evident that the most destructive element against merchant ships was the submarine. About eight times as many ships were sunk by submarines as by planes. What of the counter attacks against submarines? The answer is that merchant ships were not armed to destroy submarines, but rather to keep them from surfacing. It was the responsibility of the escort vessel and the friendly plane to deal the death blows to submarines. But every merchant ship was armed with a gun capable of sinking a submarine if the enemy chose to engage in a close surface engagement.
There were a few cases in World War II in which merchant ships sank a submarine enroute to North Russia, in May, 1942, as we have seen. The Unicoi and the Atenas appear to have had a part in destroying German submarines. On July 15, 1942 the Atenas was off Cape Hatteras in a 19-ship convoy. A ship was torpedoed and then a second torpedo missed the Unicoi and hit a ship. Soon thereafter another ship was torpedoed. The submarine partially surfaced; perhaps the captain was convinced that there would be no opposition from this group of ships and decided to destroy the rest by gunfire. Whatever his line of reasoning, his action was a mistake. The after gun of the Unicoi hit the submarine and then a navy plane delivered the coup de grace with two well placed bombs. There was no doubt but that the
merchant ships and the navy plane accounted for the submarine. The Atenas cleared the mouth of the Mississippi River at 0600 on May 26, 1942 and four hours later sighted a periscope. She fired five rounds from her stern gun at the enemy. The second round hit the base of the periscope and knocked the periscope off. The fourth hit what appeared to be the conning tower. At 2209 on May 26 the Atenas was shelled by about 50 rounds of 37 mm ammunition, five rounds of which hit the ship. A life raft was set afire and thrown overboard. It seems certain that severe damage had been inflicted on a German submarine.
Several other ships had surface engagements with surfaced submarines which are worthy of mention. The Mangore was headed from Cuba to Florida on March 31, 1942 when at 1410 her Armed Guards sighted a surfaced submarine. Both units were in a rain squall. The ship fired at the submarine and certainly drove it under. The Columbian had an engagement with a surfaced submarine shortly after midnight on June 17, 1942. The position of the engagement was 7ƒ 18' N and 41ƒ 03' W. The Armed Guards scored a hit with their 4"/50 gun and the Armed Guard officer believed that the submarine was sunk. The deck of the submarine was swept with 20 mm fire. The submarine had been firing but when hit seemed to be getting low in the water. One life raft on the ship had been set afire and it was dumped over the side. The Curaca was about 140 miles south of South Pass enroute from
Houston to New Orleans when a submarine was sighted on May 22, 1942. The original distance was about five miles, but the submarine proceeded toward the ship. The Armed Guards fired 21 rounds beginning when the range was 9,000 yards and ceasing fire when the submarine had opened range to 15,500 yards. The master was convinced that one shot hit. The submarine went into the rays of the sun and disappeared. Any intention this underwater craft had of attacking was quickly dissipated by the Armed Guard fire. The Domino was near Nuevitas Bay, Cuba, awaiting daylight to enter the port on June 2, 1942. At 0505 a surfaced submarine opened fire with her machine gun. The ship replied with her four inch gun. The submarine crashed dived after three rounds had been fired. One of the merchant crewmen insisted that the second round hit the submarine. The Domino had been hit by machine gun fire. A large oil slick appeared and was seen by the master of the Vera Cruz. The coxswain in charge of the Armed Guard crew reported that the second shot struck at the base and a little forward of the conning tower and that the third shot bounced off the submarine. It would appear likely that damage was done to the submarine. At any rate, her attack on the merchant ship was frustrated. The George Taylor fired at a submarine periscope in the Caribbean region on September 15, 1944 and claimed it.
Convoy ON-166, February, 1943
This convoy, handicapped by lack of escorts ran into one of the worst German wolf packs enroute from England to the United States. Five ships carrying Armed Guards were sunk. The total number of allied and United States ships sunk between February 21 and 25 ran to 15. On February 21 one ship was sunk; on February 22 six ships were torpedoed; on February 23 five ships were hit; on February 24 two ships went down, and on February 25 only one ship was torpedoed.
All of the ships carrying Armed Guards were sunk on February 22 and 23. The first United States merchant ship to be torpedoed was the Chattanooga City on February 22. The ship went down in about 15 minutes with no loss of life.
The Winkler was the last ship in the convoy when she was hit early in the morning of February 23. She was hit between No. 2 and No. 3 tanks on the port side. The daring submarine surfaced after hitting another ship and the Winkler fired at the conning tower, scoring one possible hit. At any rate an explosion was seen and the submarine crash dived. On the morning of February 23 two more torpedoes struck the wounded ship. She exploded and sank in about 47 seconds. Five of the Armed Guards and fourteen of the merchant crew were lost.
The Expositor, gallant veteran of the North Russia run and proud destroyer of one submarine, met her last foe late on February 23. Even then the submarine could not sink her. She was sunk by depth charges from an escort vessel. Nine members of her crew died in the action with the enemy. On the morning of February 23 the Hastings was torpedoed and
sank in seven minutes. One crew member died and eight were listed as missing. The Jonathan Sturges was hit at 0220 on the morning of February 23. She was a straggler from the convoy when two torpedoes sent her to the bottom of the Atlantic. There were few survivors; seven Armed Guards and eleven merchant crewmen.
Other armed ships with navy gunners in this large convoy of merchant ships were the Wind Rush, the Samuel Chase (whose Armed Guard officer wrote the laconic summary "The voyage as a whole was not very pleasant"), the Pan Maine, the Pan Maryland, the Gateway City, the Franz Klassen, the Charles H. Cramp, the Exilona, and El Oceano.
All attacks were at night or in the early morning. Most Armed Guards never saw the attackers. Escorts were too few to shepherd the wounded ships and at the same time protect the convoy from a ruthless wolf pack. For example, at 0800 on February 24 only three escorts were with the convoy. Not until the same time on the following morning did three extra escorts join the battered and weary seamen who had lived through long nights of unbelievable strain. But more and better guns were already on the way for merchant ships and many more escorts were soon to join the slow merchant ships as they traveled the Atlantic. The day when planes could place their protective wings over slow merchant ships was not too far distant. Out of such tragedies as convoy ON-166 came new and better means of defeating the submarines.
Many other examples of engagements with submarines could be mentioned and many stories of heroism on the part of merchant seamen and Armed Guards could be described. The story of warfare against
submarines on one of progress against great odds. Substantially complete figures indicate that 427 merchant ships armed with Navy guns were lost to enemy submarines as compared with some 50 ships destroyed by air attack. These figures would indicate that the submarine was eight times as effective as the plane against merchant shipping. But this effectiveness rapidly declined as the war progressed.
One other example of a submarine attack will serve to close this brief and admittedly incomplete description of the battle of the Atlantic. No November 28, 1942 the Alaskan was torpedoed while enroute from Capetown to Dutch Guiana to load bauxite ore. She was about midway between America and Africa. Two torpedoes and about 60 rounds of gun fire sent her to the bottom. One life boat reached Salinas on December 15. Nine men, including the Armed Guard officer and one Armed Guard, we able to stay afloat in a life raft until November 29 when they salvaged a lifeboat. They then sailed for about 2000 miles until they landed at Cayenne, French Guiana. They were at sea 39 days after their ship went down. Four of the Armed Guards were believed missing or dead.
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