SIX MEDITERRANEAN CONVOYS
Enemy attacks on six convoys, two in 1943 and four in 1944 will serve to illustrate the intensity of action, even near the shores of North Africa, after the enemy had been driven out of Africa. Much could be written about other attacks. Enemy submarines were a constant menace and enemy planes constantly appeared over ports and darted in to strike convoys during semi-darkness or when air support was not immediately present. In all cases they met with a heavy barrage from merchant ships and escorts. Armed Guards quickly became expert gunners in the Mediterranean. They had to be good to stay alive. While heavy action was naturally to be expected at the invasion beaches, there was always danger of attack while returning from the beaches and while preparing for the next voyage to Italy in North African ports.
Convoy MKS-21, August 13, 1943
The Armed Guard participated in many fierce actions in the Mediterranean, but in no engagement did it face a more determined enemy or come out with a better record than in that which took place just before sunset on August 13 while a large convoy of ships, including 18 defended by Armed Guards, was some 140 miles east of Gibraltar and some 25 miles south of the coast of Spain. The whole engagement lasted less than an hour. Estimates of enemy planes involved run from 20 to 50, and it appears that from 15 to 20 or more planes were shot down. The British escorts estimated 17 out of 37 planes shot down. This was a vital convoy, for some of the ships were later to participate in the landings at Solerno in September. Not a merchant ship was lost, although a British ship and the Francis W. Pettygrove were damaged and towed to Gibraltar. One escort was reported was reported by several Armed Guard officers as sunk. Here was enemy air action at its worst. Here was the Armed Guard at its best. Not only were the ships well armed; the men aboard these ships were well trained in the use of guns. They were now veterans. The enemy could no longer attack from the air, except at frightful cost. Sea power here proved that it could hold its own against land based air power.Torpedoes and bombs were employed in the attack and a few mines with parachutes attached were dropped. Many ships had close calls
from the numerous torpedoes which were dropped and from bombing and strafing. It will never be known definitely just what the box score in planes destroyed for each ship was. The difficulty in assigning plane credits rests in the fact that many ships often fire at the same plane. The official credits by the Arming Merchant Ship Section in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations indicate over 20 planes downed, over 30 assists and three probables. In this account we shall indicate the claims of the Armed Guard officers on each ship, with the warning that these claims were somewhat reduced by the responsible officials in CNO who weighed all of the evidence. After all, a few minor discrepancies in reports of planes destroyed should not obscure the fact that here was one of the great air actions of the war and of all time.
The Ezra Meeker (which had been present at Palermo when eight out of 30 bombers were shot down on August 1 and had bombs fall just off her stern on August 3), indicated that the approaching enemy planes resembled a flock of birds as they came in for the kill. A torpedo missed her by not over five yards and another passed under the ship. Still another torpedo missed by only a few yards. The ship claimed that she sent four bombers crashing and that other planes were hit. The Elihu Yale definitely contributed to the destruction of two planes and one of these was almost certainly brought down by the Yale without assistance. Some of the torpedo planes came in at less than mast height, while others were only 150 feet high. A torpedo passed the
bow of the Anne Bradstreet and another passed the stern. Bombs fell on each side of the ship. She was also strafed. She claimed four planes destroyed by her guns. The William T. Barry reported that her guns caused three planes to burst into flames and that another plane was hit and fell into the water with a broken wing. The William W. Gerhard claimed hits on two planes, one of which went down. The George Davis was already a battle-tried ship when the action on August 13 took place. On the way over from New York a French tanker in her convoy had been torpedoed. At Bizerte on August 7 enemy planes had dropped about 60 bombs and some of these had fallen dangerously close to this ship, which at the time was full of bombs. In this same attack she saw a Dutch ship hit by a bomb. But in this greatest of all the attacks which she had experienced she claimed two planes destroyed and a third probably shot down, in spite of the fact that two bombs fell close and that three torpedoes came near. Two of these, incidentally, struck the merchant ships which were damaged in the attack.
The Armed Guard on the David Stone must have been badly in need of rest. From July 24 to August 6 these men had been at Augusta, Sicily, where they ate and slept at their guns. During this period 20 raids, at least one a day had come and 17 bombs had been dropped at the David Stone. At least five times she had been the first ship to fire and may have accounted for two planes. On August 13 she was credited with one plane and an assist.
The George W. McCrary claimed hits on two planes. She was
credited with one plane and two assists. Two torpedoes passed the ship. The Henry Baldwin was strafed and narrowly missed a torpedo. She claimed two planes and probably a third. The James G. Blaine had three torpedoes narrowly miss her and bombs as close as thirty yards, but claimed two planes downed, one probably downed and sure hits on four others, two of which went down after receiving fire from other ships. The only United States ship hit was the Francis W. Pettygrove. She was towed to Gibraltar, but not until after she had participated in what she believed to be the destruction of four planes plus an assist on a fifth. The Francis Parkman claimed that she downed five planes and hit another. She was credited with the destruction of two and assists in the destruction of five others.
The Tabitha Brown claimed hit son two planes, both of which went down, and the James W. Marshall claimed the same number destroyed. One of these released a skip bomb which narrowly missed the Marshall. The Pierre L' Enfant had one torpedo pass astern and exploded another by gunfire before it struck the James G. Blaine. She also claimed three planes destroyed and one probably. A torpedo missed the Solomon Juneau by less than 15 feet. Her claim for the day was that three planes had been shot down and others hit. The Louisa M. Alcott hit one plane which landed in the water and fired at a lifeboat which had been launched from a stricken British cargo ship. The Armed Guard blew the plane from the water. Her count for the day was four or five
planes destroyed. The Jonathan Elmer was strafed and three of her gunners were wounded. Torpedoes passed ahead and astern and a bomb hit fifty yards from the ship, but she was able to bring down three planes. Her Armed Guard officer wisely observed that many planes which were able to fly away never reached home. Thus ended one of the great air-sea battles of the war. The Armed Guard Service paid for itself in this one engagement alone. If this convoy had been destroyed, as the Germans certainly intended that it should be, the advance in the Italian peninsula might have been greatly delayed. The prophets of doom who preach that air power has made sea power obsolete should study carefully such engagements as the one which has been briefly described above. It is almost incredible that merchant ships could make such a good example of some of the narrow cells which merchantmen in the European theater had from bombs and torpedoes.
November 6, 1943
A dozen ships carrying Armed Guards were in a convoy about 27 miles west of Philippeville, Algeria when enemy planes struck at about 1800 on November 6. The Santa Elena brought down one plane at 1835 and then was struck by a torpedo which disabled her engines and steering gear and tore a hole about 20 feet in diameter in the side of the ship. The port bulkhead of the ammunition magazine was pierced and ammunition rolled about the deck but did not explode. A near miss by a bomb threw fragments over the ship and an incendiary hit forward of the 4"/50 gun platform. Water quickly came up over the blaze and extinguished it. At about the same time a torpedo struck the Marnix Van Sint Algebonde [this was probably the Marnix von Saint Aldegonde - Hyperwar] and at 0220 this ship rammed the Santa Elena. The Santa Elena made a gallant fight for survival. She had come safely through attacks by the enemy on September 2 and 6 and it looked as if she might be brought to anchor from the worst of all her battles, but the proud ship sank just as she reached the mouth of Philippeville harbor. A number of her Armed Guards were hospitalized.
The enemy planes which struck these two merchant ships and an escort probably came in for the attack in three waves. Estimates of the number of planes went as high as 25 to 30. These attacking planes did not escape without serious damage as they came in after sunset under the protection of low black clouds. The Monterey was narrowly
missed by a plane which actually tore off her radio aerial. She accounted for an assist and Canadian soldiers aboard were credited with the destruction of another plane. A torpedo missed the Hawaiian Shipper by about 10 yards, and this ship brought down a plane and assisted in shooting down another. The Argentina was credited with two assists and may have accounted for another plane. Flak landed aboard this ship. The Edmund B. Alexander brought down two planes. Other ships in the convoy reported no damage. The John Ericsson reported that the closest bomb fell about 1,000 yards from her, but this was not close in a war in which bombs repeatedly fell 50 yards or less from merchant ships.
Convoy UGS-36, April 1, 1944
Enemy planes estimated at from six to fifty in number and probably about midway between these two extreme estimates attacked an important Mediterranean convoy between Oran and Algiers at about 0400 on the morning of April 1, 1944. In the darkness it was impossible for the Armed Guards to give an accurate description of what was happening to other ships in the convoy, or the exact damage inflicted on the enemy. One ship was definitely hit by a torpedo. This was the Jared Ingersoll. She brought down one plane before the torpedo struck at 0412. Flames and an explosion followed, and the ship was for a time abandoned. But her crew went back aboard, extinguished the fire and brought her under tow to Algiers, where she was beached. One merchant crewman had his back broken in the action. There were reports of other ships being hit, but it is certain that this was the only ship carrying Armed Guards which was hit.
The Marion McKinley Bovard was missed by bombs which landed 75 and 100 yards from her side. She brought down one plane and scored hits on another. This ship reported that submarines were present and indicated that one was hit. The Lincoln Steffens claimed no planes in this attack, but she had shot down one plane and probably destroyed another in Mediterranean waters when leaving Oran on November 11, 1943. The George M. Bibb also came through unscathed, and on April 17 she
was present when two ships were torpedoed off Capri. The George H. Pendleton claimed one plane. A merchant seaman was hit by a 20 mm shell. The John Trumbull fired at flares but had only one plane come into range. She did not fire because of a failure of her sound powered telephone system. The Kemp P. Battle was credited with one plane. The Lawrence D. Tyson likewise claimed a plane. The George Bancroft scored a probable and was in turn hit by 20 mm fire from other ships. The William D. Mosley did not claim any planes on April 1, but she had been credited with two assists on August 7, 1943 near Bizerte. She reported that two ships were torpedoed off the coast of Algiers on May 14, 1944. The E. Kirby Smith survived the attack on April 1 and also mines or a torpedo attack which hit a ship while leaving Naples and approaching Capri on April 17. Next day this ship experienced another air attack. The B. F. Shaw was credited with one plane on April 1. Two bombs fell close, and she was hit by fire from other ships. On April 21 and 22 this ship was under air attack at Naples. The Nathan B. Forest was hit by fragments during the action and one plane almost struck the ship.
Convoy UGS-37, April 11-12, 1944
In this convoy were 37 ships carrying Armed Guards. They were some 35 miles east of Algiers near midnight of April 11 and 12 when an undetermined number of enemy planes attacked. No ship carrying Armed Guards was hit by the enemy, but several ships received minor damage from the gunfire of other ships. Practically all ships opened fire and the amount of flak falling was quite heavy. Only those ships which did actual damage to the enemy or narrowly averted damage from the enemy are mentioned here in discussing this action.
The Horace H. Lurton had bombs fall close enough to shake the ship and a torpedo to cross astern. Five of her crew were wounded by fragments of which four were injured when a shell fell on the boat deck. One Armed Guard was hit by flak aboard the James E. Howard. The James H. Couper was credited with the probable destruction of one plane. Three persons aboard the John C. Breckenbridge were hit by 20 mm fire from other ships. Flak landed on the decks of the Harry Lane. A torpedo missed the Hamlin Garland by only 15 yards. The Josiah Parker reported an explosion on one of the escorts and indicated that she too was hit by shell fragments. The Roger Williams reported 12 to 15 planes and indicated that an attack at Naples on April 24 was much worse. On the latter date bombs fell fairly close and flak landed on her decks.
The Thomas Hart Benton downed one plane. The Richard Rush was credited with an assist. The Gideon Welles had six casualties from 20 mm fire of other ships, but none died. Bombs fell around the Edward P. Costigan without doing damage. The Sarah J. Hale was hit by flak and 20 mm shells. Her Armed Guard officer thought that his gunners brought down a plane. Flak landed on the decks of the Louis A. Sengteller. The William M. Meredith was credited with one assist. One Armed Guard was wounded by flak on the Charles Piez. Three bombs landed from 50 to 100 yards from the Benjamin Lundy and this ship possibly hit one plane. The A. J. Cermak was credited with an assist. The Pere Marquette brought down one plane after midnight. The Susan V. Luckenbach was hit by flak. In fact, there appears to have been too much promiscuous firing during this night attack.
Far grimmer was the torpedo attack on April 16 when the convoy was about 15 to 17 miles east of Derna. The Meyer London had fought with distinction in the air attack of April 11-12 and had brought down one German plane. Near sunset on April 16 a torpedo struck her. Two Armed Guards were blown over the side. One was unconscious until a second torpedo hit about 45 seconds later on the Thomas G. Masaryk revived him. The Meyer London sank in a little more than an hour. Eight Armed Guards were wounded when the ship was torpedoed and one had been wounded on April 11. A torpedo landed in the No. 3 hold of
the Masaryk and flames spread rapidly. The ship was abandoned but eventually beached at Meneloa Bay. A skeleton Armed Guard crew was placed aboard the ship and they fired at a German plane on May 27. The Lewis Emery Jr. fired at a periscope the same day. The Wallace E. Pratt fired at oil slicks.
Convoy UGS-38, April 20, 1944
Our rapid and spectacular success in the Mediterranean did not immediately make that sea safe for merchant ships. The enemy could still strike suddenly and effectively against our large convoys. Some 28 merchant ships with Armed Guards aboard were in a much larger convoy about four hours east of Algiers and enroute to Bizerte when German torpedo planes came in for the kill on April 20, 1944. It was that dangerous period when dusk was melting into darkness. The number of planes is not know. Estimates varied from five to twelve. The attacks were very brief. The planes launched their tin fish and were either shot down or left the area. Two American ships were hit and one was sunk. The Paul Hamilton, heavily loaded with soldiers and materials of war, exploded and the loss of life was very great. One Armed Guard survived. She quickly went to the bottom of the sea. The Stephen Austin was the other American ship hit by an aerial torpedo. One torpedo passed twenty feet under her stern. Two bombs then fell at no great distance from the ship. The Austin hit the plane which launched the first torpedo, but she fired only one round a second torpedo plane which launched a torpedo. This torpedo struck home. The ship was abandoned and then reboarded and saved to fight another day. Two Armed Guards were wounded. One British merchant ship was hit and another was sunk. The damaged ships were brought safely into Algiers.
Other United States ships had close calls and contributed their part in keeping this attack from being a much worse disaster. Practically
all ships fired whenever planes were visible in the growing darkness. The Fitzhugh Lee narrowly missed disaster, for a torpedo passed her bow. When the Paul Hamilton exploded, her decks were covered with steel, debris, and oil. All of her guns were knocked out of commission. Her Armed Guard officer reported that three bombs were dropped, but the closest was about 500 feet away. She accounted for one plane before her guns were damaged. Three Armed Guards and some Army personnel were injured. The Ethan Allen Armed Guard officer thought that his guns scored a hit on one of the German planes. The Dorothy Luckenbach hit one plane. The Robert Battey also scored hits but saw no apparent damage from her firing. The Stephen W. Gambrill claimed as assist in the destruction of one plane. The Samuel Livermore hit a plane but did not bring it down. The Joseph McKenna claimed hits on two planes. Bombs landed on both sides of the John Mason, but did no damage. The James Gordon Bennett claimed an assist in the destruction of one plane. The Armed Guard officer on the John Gorrie believed that his gun crew helped bring down one plane. This fierce and brief action indicates how strong the defense of merchant ships had become. Such attacks had taken a much heavier toll in the early days of the war.
Action off Algiers, May 11, 1944
There is perhaps no finer record for shooting down planes in the dead of night than that which some 34 ships carrying Armed Guards established on the night of May 11. In this convoy were some 56 merchant ships and 18 escorts. If the Germans had counted on some easy sinkings they received a rude surprise when they attacked the convoy about 35 miles east of Algiers. Not a ship carrying Armed Guards was hit in the attack which opened at about 2120. On the other hand the Armed Guards were credited with the destruction of 13 planes, 5 assists, and four probably destroyed. This was quite a record for one brief attack. But it is not surprising in view of the fact that the Armed Guards on many of these ships were veterans of previous Mediterranean battles. For example, the Abraham Lincoln had been under more than one air attack at Naples in October and November 1943, and had been present when the James Iredell was hit at that port on October 23. The Armed Guard officer on this ship indicated that both bomber and torpedo planes came in for the attack. Glider bombs were also in evidence.
The Abangarez apparently had a bomb land 300 yards from her side but escaped with nothing worse than a heavy vibration. The Francis M. Smith was caught in the line of fire of a Liberty. But no serious damage was inflicted. A torpedo crossed the bow of the Conrad Weiser. The Colin P. Kelly Jr. destroyed two planes. She must have had a superb Armed Guard crew. The Clement Clay was credited with the
probable destruction of one plane. The Carter Braxton was hit by fore from another ship. The William Patterson shot down one plane and probably destroyed another. The William Mulholland Armed Guard, still proud of the destruction of a plane at Anzio on February 6, had no luck in the May 11 attack. The Zachary Taylor, veteran of an attack near Philippeville on February 22 in which two two ships were either hit by mines or torpedoes, possibly scored hits on a plane during the air attack of May 11. The Thomas W. Bickett brought down one plane. The Thomas L. Clingman assisted in destroying another. The Stephen A. Douglas was credited with two assists. Three Army personnel and one merchant crewmen were wounded. The Peter Zenger knocked down a plane which crashed only 75 yards from her. She also assisted in destroying another plane. The John Stevens got a plane, but had a bomb fall between her and the ship ahead. The John F. Meyers believed the plane at which she fired fell, but she did not claim definite credit. The James Whitcomb Riley was credited with one plane. The James W. Fannin caught a torpedo in a torpedo net and it was later removed to Malta. This ship downed two planes. The James M. Gillis was credited with one plane. The Greenville M. Dodge was credited with the destruction of one plane and one assist. The George H. Dern
shot down a plane and claimed hits on two other planes. A torpedo passed 75 feet ahead of her bow and another several hundred yards astern. Other Armed Guards fired but were credited with no planes. Their fire, of course, contributed to make the attack by perhaps 30 planes end in failure.
Index ** Previous Chapter (VII) ** Next Chapter (IX)