The Unsung Heroes of the US Merchant Marine in WWII: And the Story of Convoy PQ-17

 

Life-Line of Freedom – the Merchant Marine poster. Artist: Paul Sample. National Archives.

 

 

The United States (US) Merchant Marine Act of 1936 stated, “It is necessary for the national defense… that the United States shall have a merchant marine of the best equipped and most suitable types of vessels sufficient to carry the greater portion of its commerce and serve as a naval or military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency…”

In the late 1930s with the US foreseeing an approaching involvement in WWII, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered US shipyards to build ships that would be needed in the conflict and established the US Maritime Service which was responsible for training merchant mariners and the men of the US Army Transport Service.

The Merchant Marine was a commercial, non-military fleet of ships that was effectively nationalized by the US government in WWII. The men of the Merchant Marine were civilian volunteers. 

The Merchant Marine ships had limited defensive capabilities. Guns, to provide a defense for the ships and crews, were placed onboard merchant ships and manned by the US Navy Armed Guard which was a special unit of Navy military personnel at that time.  

On March 11, 1941, President Roosevelt signed into law An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States, more commonly known as the Lend-Lease Act, which was a program through which the US sent food, oil and fuel, supplies, equipment, and war materiel to England, countries of the British Commonwealth, China, the Free French, other Allied nations, and the Soviet Union.  

On December 8, 1941, President Roosevelt declared war on Japan after the surprise attack December 7, 1941, on Pearl Harbor, Oahu, US Territory of Hawaii.  

The ships of the US Merchant Marine in WWII sailed around the world to deliver troops, supplies, food, aircraft, gasoline, oil, guns, shells, vehicles, tanks, bombs, ammunition, medicine, equipment, and needed materiel for war.  It played a critical, logistical role in the war. 

In addition to enemy warships, aircraft, and submarine attacks, the Merchant Marine vessels faced the perils of weather, icebergs, rough seas, mines, sharks, and in the Pacific Theater Japanese “kamikaze” attacks.

 

Battle of the Atlantic (September 3, 1939 – May 8, 1945).

After Italy joined the Axis countries on June 10, 1940, submarines of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) worked with Germany to interrupt and stop the Allied flow of supplies to areas of conflict.

The Allied forces of the US, Canada, Britain, Norway, and Brazil would fight against the warships, submarines, and aircraft of the German Navy (Kriegsmarine), the German Air Force (Luftwaffe), and the Italian Royal Navy. 

The most dangerous time during this campaign was from 1940 to the end of 1943 with resulting staggering losses of merchant vessels and other convoy ships.  

It was the longest military campaign of WWII.  

 

Ship Convoys.

The convoy system was intended to protect Allied merchant ships sailing during wartime.  Before the US entered WWII, convoys bound for British ports were escorted from convoy assembly points at Halifax and Sydney,  Nova Scotia, Canada, by the Royal Canadian Navy to a location in the mid-Atlantic Ocean where the British Royal Navy would meet and escort the convoy to its destination.  The US Navy provided convoy escorts after December 7, 1941. 

Merchant ships were grouped in the center of a convoy formation with warships, aircraft, and submarines surrounding and guarding the ships. During WWII there were over 300 convoy routes around the world.  Each convoy would have a two or three letter code indicating destination and convoy speed.  A convoy could only go as fast as the slowest ship in the convoy.  

 

The Arctic Convoys (August 1941 – May 1945). 

After Germany attacked Russia on June 22, 1941, the Soviet Union joined the Allies.  Joseph Stalin, the ruler of the Soviet Union, was in desperate need of military equipment and supplies to fight the Nazis.  The British began sending supplies and war materiel to the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Archangelsk.  The first convoy from England would arrive in Archangelsk on August 31, 1941.  Convoys to Russia would continue until the end of the war.

 

Allied Arctic Sea convoy routes WWII. Map dailymail.co.uk.

 

Three primary routes used to send supplies from the US to Russia in WWII. Map US Department of State November 28, 1945.

 

The shortest and fastest route for convoys to Russia was the Arctic Sea route.

 

Besides the dangers of Axis submarines, warships, and aircraft there were rough seas, frigid temperatures, icebergs, and ice sheets, and ice buildup on the ships. Ice buildup on ships could make the ships “top heavy” and prone to rolling over. Photograph dailymail.co.uk.

 

Also making the Arctic route dangerous was the German military occupation of Norway on April 9, 1940, which provided close proximity to Allied convoys in the Atlantic Ocean, Arctic Sea, and the Barents Sea.

 

Arctic Convoy PQ-17.

PQ-17 was the first combined Anglo-American naval operation of WWII under British command.

 

Convoy PQ-17 escort and merchant ships assembling at Hvalfjörður, Iceland. Photograph Naval History and Heritage Command.

 

Convoy PQ-17 under the command of British Commodore John Dowding set sail on June 27, 1942, from Hvalfjörður, Iceland, with a destination of Archangelsk, Russia.  

[One of the ships providing PQ-17 protection was an American destroyer the United States Ship (USS) Wichita.  Hollywood actor and US Navy Reserve Officer Douglas Fairbanks, Junior, was a member of the crew.]

 

A German Luftwaffe BV 138 reconnaissance plane photograph of PQ-17 on or about July 1, 1942. Photograph Naval History and Heritage Command.

 

A German submarine U-456 sighted and would follow convoy PQ-17 shortly after it left Iceland on June 27, 1942.

The first merchant ship, the Liberty ship Steamship (SS) Christopher Newport, was sunk on the morning of July 4 by a German torpedo bomber Heinkel HE 115.  On that same day, a US destroyer the USS Wainwright, part of the covering force for PQ-17, repulsed an attack on the convoy by German torpedo bombers.  On July 4 German torpedo bombers also sank the Liberty ship SS William Hooper.  

Back in London, England, on July 4, a decision was made that would decide the fate of PQ-17.

The First Sea Lord and Admiral of the Fleet Sir Alfred Dudley Pound was notified by Swedish intelligence that German ships including the battleship Tirpitz had left Norway to intercept Convoy PQ-17.  He consulted with Lieutenant Commander Norman Denning, an intelligence analyst with the Operational Intelligence Center for the Royal Navy, who did not detect any German ship movements at that time nor did he find any radio traffic, messages from the Norwegian Resistance, or any other threat to support the rumor of the sailing of the Tirpitz.  

Despite conflicting information about the Tirpitz, Admiral Pound ordered PQ-17 protection  ships to withdraw at high speed westward (to repulse the German ships?) and ordered the remaining ships in the convoy to “scatter” and make their own way to Russian ports.

Convoy PQ-17 was abandoned when the close and distant Allied convoy protection ships were ordered to detach from the convoy.  The merchant ships were left to plan their individual routes to Russia with ship compasses that were sometimes inaccurate in that part of the world.  It was summer in the Arctic; there was no place to “hide in the dark” because there was no darkness at that time of the year. And the ships had limited defensive capabilities.

The Germans, surprised at what happened, took advantage of every opportunity to sink the merchant vessels.  The Tirpitz did leave Norway on July 5 to intercept PQ-17 but returned to port that same day because German bombers and submarines had already been very successful in destroying the convoy.

 

PQ-17 ship losses. Map forum.worldofwarships.com.

 

Of the 35 merchant ships that left Iceland, only 11 would eventually reach a port in Russia.  One hundred and fifty-three merchant mariners were lost.

In addition to men and ships, it was reported that war materiel, equipment, and supplies lost included 200 aircraft, 3,300 trucks, 435 tanks, and other war supplies that could equip 50,000 men.  

Stalin was said to be angry and unable to understand how such a disaster could happen and questioned why convoy protection was removed.  This incident would drive a wedge of distrust between the Soviet Union and the Allies.

The Arctic supply route was halted temporarily as convoy plans were studied.  On September 2, 1942, Convoy PQ-18 left Loch Ewe, Scotland, and sailed with additional escort ships to provide protection.

 

Story of WWII Merchant Mariner Frank E. Scott. 

Frank Edward Scott.  Oral History Interview for the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, on October 25, 2010. He was interviewed in San Antonio, Texas.

 

Merchant mariner Frank E. Scott, circa 1943. Photograph courtesy  of the Frank Scott family.

 

Frank Scott was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on May 9, 1925. He had two brothers, Dale and Quincy.  In 1936 his family moved to San Antonio, Texas.  He was playing touch football on December 7, 1941, when he heard about the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  

After graduating from Brackenridge High School in San Antonio in 1943 Frank went to the Merchant Marine Recruiting Office in the city to volunteer for service.  

Frank travelled to a Maritime Service base in St. Petersburg, Florida, for basic merchant seaman training in August 1943.  The training staff at the base found out he had taught swimming in San Antonio and asked him to stay on and teach survival swimming to recruits.  There was no pool at the school at the time so Frank taught new recruits survival skills in the Gulf of Mexico.  Two of the survival skills he taught were how to make a life jacket from trousers and how to jump off a tower into the water which simulated jumping from a ship.

January 3, 1944, the SS Washita.  Frank’s first assignment at sea was on the oil tanker SS Washita.  The tanker travelled in a convoy of about 200 ships to Swansea in Wales, England.  The convoy was not attacked, but at that time in the war the Atlantic route was less threatened by German submarines.  The Washita travelled back to the US, and Frank was discharged on February 2, 1944, upon fulfillment of his contract.      

[At this period of time in WWII troops and supplies were being stockpiled in England in preparation for the closely guarded secret of the Normandy, France, invasion planned for June of 1944.]

[The Merchant Marine being a non-military organization had different requirements regarding its crews.  A merchant seaman signed a contract to serve on a specific ship which may make one or more trips to various destinations.  Upon completion of the contract he had the choice to sign  another contact.  If he did not sign another contract within 30 days, he became eligible for the military draft.]

April 20, 1944, the Liberty ship SS Samuel Mcintyre.  After a visit with his family in San Antonio, Frank signed his second contract and sailed on a cargo ship the Liberty ship SS Samuel Mcintyre.  He would serve almost 9 months on this ship. The ship’s captain who Frank estimated to be around 65 years old was from Scotland and had been called back into service out of retirement. 

Job responsibilities and life aboard a merchant ship.

In his interview Frank spoke of his job and duties on a ship.

–  A  seaman’s duties included deck work, painting, standing watch, steering the ship, among other responsibilities.

–  Schedules for standing watch were midnight to 4 am, 4 am – 8 am, 8 am – 12 noon, and so forth.  One third of the crew would be on watch at any one time; a watch schedule was four hours on and eight hours off.  It was difficult to sleep between standing watch duties when traveling in the Northern Atlantic because of the long periods of daylight.

–  Tankers took about three days to unload, and cargo ships could take two to four weeks to unload.  When unloading in port, they may work for 24 hours straight. 

–  Weather was always a factor.  Storms could reek havoc on ships and convoys.

–  Crews could average around 40 – 50 merchant mariners and about 35 Navy Armed Guard.

–  Typical gun placements on merchant ships were five inch guns on the bow, eight inch long range guns on the stern, and a dozen or so anti-aircraft guns.  

–  Barrage balloons were sometimes used to deter German aircraft from attacking a ship.

–  When leaving the US the crew didn’t always know the ship’s destination.  If the destination was the Arctic or Northern Atlantic, cold weather gear and clothing was handed out after about 24 hours at sea.

–  If ships in a convoy were sunk, destroyers or dedicated rescue ships would pick up survivors, if possible.

Frank’s experiences on the SS Samuel Mcintyre.

Frank would sometimes take over steering the ship when a particular seaman got shaky or nervous in rough seas.  That seaman had survived the sinking of five ships.

On a voyage to Cardiff, England, the ship had a closely guarded P-51 Mustang fighter plane on the deck, along with tanks, and in preparation for the invasion of Normandy hundreds of full five gallon gas cans cabled to the deck.  

After the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, the Samuel Mcintyre did “shuttle runs” from Cardiff to Omaha Beach with needed supplies and equipment.  

From July 15 – August 31, 1944, the Samuel Mcintyre was anchored off Omaha Beach with a loaded ship awaiting the Allied capture of Cherbourg, France. 

[As the Allies advanced towards Germany additional ports and supply lines were needed.  The focus was on the port of Antwerp, Belgium, and the Scheldt River.  Antwerp was captured by the British on September 4, 1944.  The West and East Scheldt Estuary were still held by the Germans.  The Battle of the Scheldt (October – November 1944) fought by Canadian, Polish, and British units resulted in an Allied victory on November 8.

 

Battle of the Scheldt October – November 1944. Map US Army.

 

After the Scheldt was swept for mines, the first convoy carrying Allied supplies unloaded in Antwerp on November 29, 1944.]

The SS Samuel McIntyre was one of the first ships to arrive in Antwerp.  Frank said it took about four weeks to unload the ship. While on watch he would sometimes see flares from German artillery being fired into Antwerp as the Germans were still in the area.

[Cine Rex, De Keyserlei 15, Antwerp, Belgium.  On December 16, 1944, (the first day of the Battle of the Bulge) a V-2 rocket was fired from the German SS Werfer Battery in Hellendoorn, The Netherlands. The rocket landed on the roof of the Cine Rex movie theater at 3:20 pm. Of the over 1,000 people inside, 567 people including 296 Allied servicemen were killed in the explosion.  It was the highest death toll in WWII from a single rocket.

The American movie The Plainsman was playing at the theater that day.]

The Samuel McIntyre left Antwerp and sailed back to the US in late December.  Frank was discharged January 11, 1945.

The Scott family Christmas card for 1944 celebrated the military service of the three Scott brothers and Quincy’s wife, Dottie.  They would all return home after WWII.

 

Left to right: Dale Scott, Frank Scott, and Quincy Scott with Dottie Scott in the foreground. Photograph courtesy of the Frank Scott family.

 

March 6, 1945, the SS Emile N. Vidal, one of the concrete ships of WWII.  Frank signed on the SS Emile N. Vidal in New Orleans, Louisiana.  He would have back-to-back sailings on this ship.  The ship would sail in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico to ports which included Cuba and Puerto Rico.  One of the supplies transported on this ship was sugar.

[The US government in WWII contracted with McCloskey and Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to construct 24 self-propelled concrete ships at a time when steel resources for shipbuilding were scarce.  The ships were built in Tampa, Florida, starting in July 1943 at the Hookers Point shipyard at a rate of one per month.  They were named after pioneers in the development and science of concrete.  

The government also contracted the building of concrete barges with companies in California.  The barges lacked engines to propel them and had to be towed.]

Merchant mariner Alfred “Al” G. Booth, a good friend of Frank’s from San Antonio, Texas, was also a crew member on this voyage. 

 

Merchant mariner Alfred G. Booth, circa 1943. Al had a twin brother, Walter, who was in the US Navy in WWII. Photograph courtesy of the Al Booth family.
Frank, on left, with Al Booth. When back in San Antonio between contracts Frank and Al would meet and exchange stories. Photograph courtesy of the Al Booth family.

 

Frank was discharged on April 9, 1945.

April 10, 1945, the SS Emile N. Vidal.  Frank and Al would sail a second time on this ship and were discharged May 21, 1945.

July 21,1945, the Liberty ship SS Beckley Seam.  Frank, Al, and another fellow San Antonio native, merchant mariner William McCollough, were members of the crew.

The Beckley Seam delivered coal to Savona, Italy, and was still in the Mediterranean Sea when it was announced that WWII had ended.

During Frank’s interview with the National Museum of the Pacific War he proudly showed me a photograph he had taken of the American flag on the SS Beckley Seam

 

Frank Scott’s photograph caption: STARS AND STRIPES ON THE US MERCHANT VESSEL “BECKLEY SEAM” SOMEWHERE IN THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA, AUGUST 1945.  We three were there.  Al Booth, Bill McCollough, and Frank Scott. Photograph courtesy of Frank Scott.

 

 

The US Merchant Marine did not have a centralized record-keeping system in WWII, and because of that, the estimates of merchant seamen losses vary significantly.  During WWII there were about 250,000 civilian merchant mariners.  A total estimate of merchant seamen and officers that went missing or were killed varies from 5,662 to over 9,000.  An estimated 12,000 men were wounded, and over 600 became prisoners of war.  

A total of 1,554 merchant ships were sunk in WWII according to the War Shipping Administration.  

Merchant seamen were not included in the postwar Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the GI Bill, nor did they qualify to receive other military benefits due to their civilian status. It wasn’t until 1988 that WWII merchant seamen were recognized officially as veterans.

 

 

 

Frank Scott commented during his interview that the 1943 movie Action in the Atlantic was close to his actual wartime experiences.

Frank Scott’s brother, Quincy, came home from WWII with his own war story while assigned to the US Navy destroyer USS Borie in the Atlantic.  On November 1, 1943, the Borie rammed German submarine U-405, which had surfaced.  The two ships were locked together with the bow of the Borie resting on the foredeck of the submarine.  Until the two ships were able to separate, the Borie and U-405 exchanged small arms fire at close range.  Both the Borie and U-405 would be lost in this incident.  Survivors of the Borie were rescued by the escort carrier USS Card.

Four WWII merchant mariners that went into acting after the war were James Garner, Peter Falk, Carroll O’Connor, and Jack Lord.

A very special thank you to Frank Scott’s wife, Helen, and to Al Booth’s wife, Maureen, for providing photographs and documents related to this story.

Thank you to the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, and museum archivist Chris McDougal for providing information related to this story.  The oral history interview of Frank Scott is in the museum archive.

The WWII Sinking of the USS Lexington in the Battle of the Coral Sea: And the Stories of Survivors

USS Lexington (CV-2) on October 14, 1941, leaving San Diego, California. Aircraft on the flight deck include TBD torpedo bombers, F2A fighters, and SBD scout bombers. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

 

The aircraft carrier United States Ship (USS) Lexington (CV-2), nicknamed  “Lady Lex,” was the fourth United States (US) Navy ship to be named after the American Revolutionary War 1775 Battle of Lexington. The ship was commissioned in 1928 and would serve until its sinking in the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4 – 8, 1942).

On December 7, 1941, fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), in a surprise attack, bombed Pearl Harbor and other US military installations on Oahu, then the US Territory of Hawaii. There were three US aircraft carriers in the Pacific Fleet at that time. The USS Lexington and the USS Enterprise were at sea ferrying aircraft to Midway Island and Wake Island, respectively.  The third aircraft carrier, USS Saratoga, was preparing to leave San Diego, California, following an overhaul at the Bremerton, Washington, Puget Sound Naval Yard.

The Lexington arrived back in Pearl Harbor on December 13.  The ship would return to sea to patrol the Pacific and take part in US naval operations as part of Task Force (TF) 11.

In April 1942 the Allied codebreakers at Pearl Harbor deciphered the Japanese naval operation code JN (Japanese Navy) – 25.  They had information that the Japanese were planning a major attack, Operation Mo, on Port Moresby, the capital of the Australian Territory of New Guinea. Gaining control of New Guinea would have isolated both Australia and New Zealand from their allies in the South Pacific.  

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, US Pacific Fleet, ordered TF 17 to the Coral Sea to counter Japanese operations. The aircraft carriers USS Lexington and USS Yorktown were the two carriers in TF 17.  [The USS Yorktown (CV-5) was later sunk during the Battle of Midway June 4 – 7, 1942.  The USS Yorktown (CV-10) was commissioned April 15, 1943, and served in the Pacific through WWII.)

 

Coral Sea. Map Wikipedia.

 

The Battle of the Coral Sea.  It would be the first battle in history fought between aircraft carriers.

On May 3, 1942, the Japanese landed on the island of Tulagi (a first step of Operation Mo) in the then British Solomon Islands Protectorate.

On May 4 Vice Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher, upon getting an intelligence report of the landing, ordered aircraft from the Yorktown to attack the Japanese landing group. Japanese intelligence had not reported American ships in the area, and they were taken by surprise.  

IJN Fourth Fleet Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue and Carrier Striking Force Vice Admiral Takeo Takagi began the search to find the Americans.  

With limited visibility in the area of operations, neither the Americans nor the Japanese were successful in immediately finding the opposing enemy carrier force. 

On May 7 the Japanese found and sunk the destroyer USS Sims and badly damaged the fleet oiler USS Neosho

Also on May 7 aircraft from the Lexington and Yorktown sunk the Japanese light aircraft carrier Shōhō.

American and Japanese naval forces became aware of the enemy fleet positions on May 8.  

Captain Frederick C. “Ted” Sherman, commanding officer of the Lexington, ordered “General Quarters” at 0552 hours (military time) that morning. Carriers on both sides started launching aircraft shortly after 0900 hours.  Two torpedoes hit the port side of the Lexington at 1120 hours to be followed by another two bombs.    

USS Lexington hit by two torpedoes and two bombs on May 8, 1942. Wikipedia Battle of the Coral Sea.

 

Torpedo and bomb damage resulted in a jammed hydraulic ship elevator, flooding in boiler rooms, and ruptured gasoline fuel storage tanks on the port side causing fires and explosions.  The fires could not be extinguished, and Captain Sherman ordered “abandon ship” at 1707 hours.  TF 17 destroyers and cruisers rescued sailors and marines abandoning the Lexington.

 

Sailors and marines evacuating the USS Lexington May 8, 1942. National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Explosion on the USS Lexington May 8, 1942, shortly after Captain Sherman left the ship. Note aircraft being blown off the deck. Destroyer USS Hammann ship’s bow is shown in far left of photograph rescuing the crew.  National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Explosions and fires on the USS Lexington May 8, 1942. National Archives, Washington D.C.

 

By 1830 hours 2,735 surviving sailors and marines had been evacuated from the Lexington.  Two hundred and sixteen men had been killed in action.  

Captain Sherman was the last man to leave the Lexington.

The destroyer USS Phelps was ordered to sink the Lexington for several reasons:  (1) the ship could not be saved, (2) the US Navy did not want the Lexington to become a trophy for the Japanese, and (3) the US Navy did not want it discovered that the ship had been lost — at least not at that time.

The Phelps fired torpedoes into the Lexington at 1841 hours.  It was reported that the hull was glowing “cherry red” from the fires.  The ship took about an hour to sink.  

There were losses of men and ships on both sides. But the Allies had blocked the Operation Mo Japanese drive into the Coral Sea to Port Moresby.  Admiral Shigeyoshi Inoue ordered the Japanese invasion force to return to port.

[The public would learn of the loss of the USS Lexington (CV-2) in June 1942.  The Fore River Ship and Engine Building Company in Quincy, Massachusetts, where the ship was originally built, was in the process of building a new ship to be named the USS Cabot.  The shipyard petitioned US Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to change the name of the ship from Cabot to Lexington, and he agreed.  The (fifth) USS Lexington (CV-16) was commissioned on February 17, 1943, and would be assigned to the Pacific.  The Japanese several times would sight CV-16 and were confused thinking the ship had been sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea. CV-16 got the nickname “The Blue Ghost.”]

 

Stories about the survivors of the sinking of the USS Lexington (CV-2) .

 

James A. Phinney III.  Oral History Interview for the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, on July 15, 2010.  He was interviewed at his home in San Antonio, Texas.

 

James A. Phinney III oral history interview July 15, 2010, in San Antonio, Texas.  Photograph video frame from 2010 interview.

 

Jim was born in Childress, Texas, on November 12, 1923, and was raised in Hugo, Oklahoma.  He graduated from high school in May 1941 and then joined the US Navy.  He was on his way to church on December 7, 1941, when he heard about the Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor.

After training stateside Jim was assigned to the USS Lexington. While training in Pearl Harbor awaiting the arrival of the aircraft carrier that was out to sea, he recalled that he and his friends would run over to a nearby Dole Pineapple Company building to drink pineapple juice coming out of the drinking fountains.

Jim would board the Lexington in April 1942.  He was assigned as an electrician Seaman First Class.

On  May 8, 1942, Jim was on the flight deck checking electrical systems in the aircraft.  He caught sight of a plane flying off the port side of the ship that dropped something.  His first thought was that something fell off a plane and that “somebody has sure messed up.” It was actually a Japanese torpedo plane dropping the first torpedo to hit the Lexington

After hours of fighting off attacking Japanese airplanes and fighting fires, the crew was ordered to “abandon ship.”  

Jim related in his interview that there was a plan to evacuate the crew in groups.  He said his group had a period of time to wait until their turn to evacuate, so they went to the “ship’s service store soda fountain,” also known as the “Gedunk,” and ate ice cream.  [Ice cream in WWII was a great treat for the sailors and marines.  You will be reading about ice cream again later in this story.]

It was about 65 feet down from the flight deck to the water.  Before starting down the rope lines, Jim said they took the emergency life rafts out of the remaining aircraft (36 aircraft would be lost in the sinking), inflated the rafts, and threw them overboard.  After getting in the water, they swam to the rafts.  A cruiser was the first to try to rescue them off the raft without success.  The destroyer USS Hammann would later pick them up. He said the crew of the destroyer had to “scrub them down” because they were soaked in salt water and fuel oil.  [The Hammann would later be sunk at the Battle of Midway.]

On the way to Tonga [an archipelago of 169 islands in the South Pacific at that time a British Protectorate],  the rescued crew on the Hammann were transferred to the cruiser USS Portland.  From Tonga a troop ship took them to San Diego.

 

Tonga archipelago in South Pacific Ocean. Map WorldAtlas.com.

 

Jim’s next assignment would be on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.  

Having several shore assignments after the Enterprise, then First Class Petty Officer Electricians Mate James Phinney would be in Houston, Texas, when he heard WWII ended.

Jim, after being discharged from the US Navy, would use the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (also known as the GI Bill) to further his education.  After that he rejoined the US Navy and would retire as a Warrant Officer with over 20 years of service.

Jim passed away on September 9, 2015.

 

Julius Harry Frey.  Oral History Interview with the National Museum of the Pacific War, in Fredericksburg, Texas, on August 6, 2013. He was interviewed at his home in San Antonio, Texas.

 

Harry Frey. Photograph mynssa.nssa-nsca.org.

 

Harry was born in Laredo, Texas, on March 6, 1923.  When he was six weeks old the family moved to San Antonio, Texas.  He was 17 years old when he joined the US Navy in 1940 and had not graduated from high school.  [In 1946 after serving in WWII he would graduate from Breckenridge High School in San Antonio and continue his education.] 

Trained in the military as an Aviation Metalsmith, Harry’s first assignment was on the USS Lexington.  He was assigned to the pilot “ready room” keeping statistics on the aircraft.

The Lexington was two days at sea out from Pearl Harbor delivering aircraft to Midway Island when the ship’s captain announced that Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941.  The ship returned to Pearl Harbor on December 13.  Harry remarked in his interview that the oil on the water was about two inches thick and difficult for smaller boats to even pass through it.

On May 8, 1942, Harry was standing on the landing at the Lexington emergency battery locker of the ship’s superstructure when the first torpedo hit the ship.  Aircraft were trying to land, others trying to take off, some planes landed and were shoved over the side, and others were sent to land on the USS Yorktown.

When Captain Sherman gave the order to “abandon ship” Harry reported to his muster station on the port side of the ship near the aft (stern) elevator. The area was just above the Gedunk.  While his group was waiting to evacuate, Harry remembered the ice cream.  

From Harry’s interview, “So, I rolled off the flight deck onto the next level. There was a big lock on the hatch going into the Gedunk.  Now there was a fire axe there, so I took the axe, and it took only one blow to knock off the lock.  I went in and took my helmet off, … , and I went behind the counter and loaded my helmet with pineapple ice cream.  …  Then I went out and I tossed it up to my buddy on the flight deck.” His buddy and others rolled off the flight deck, went into the Gedunk, and got more ice cream. He and his buddies got back up to the deck, and Harry continued, “So, when they came around to muster, everybody was up there eating ice cream.”

Harry would evacuate the Lexington using rope lines.  He was wearing a life jacket but took if off because it was difficult to swim. After about 30 minutes swimming he was picked up by the destroyer USS Morris.  Again from Harry’s interview, “Someone grabbed me and hauled me up on the deck.  I must have laid there for fifteen or twenty minutes … I looked, and I saw these ox-blood shiny shoes and the trouser had a sharp crease in them and this guy says, ‘I know this guy.  He is from our neighborhood back in San Antonio.’  He was a marine on the Morris.”

Harry and others rescued by the Morris were transferred to the cruiser USS Chester and transported to Tonga and then to San Diego.

After visiting his family in San Antonio Harry was assigned to the escort carrier USS Card. The Card provided protection for convoys in the Atlantic Ocean, searched for German submarines, and would see action in the North African Campaign (June 10, 1940 – May 13, 1943).  Harry’s next assignment was the aircraft carrier USS Bennington.  

Being on the shakedown cruise of both the Card and Bennington earned Harry what the US Navy calls a “Plank Owner” card for the two ships.

After WWII Harry used the GI Bill to get a degree from Trinity University in San Antonio and a master’s degree from Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, Oklahoma.  

Harry did earn some credits from Sul Ross State College in Alpine, Texas.  He said he was into roping at that time and could take his horse with him. 

Harry Frey passed away on August 22, 2016.  On July 15, 2017, his and his wife’s ashes were “buried at sea” from the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan with a 21 gun salute at the location in the Coral Sea where the USS Lexington (CV-2) sank in WWII.

 

Harry Frey’s burial at sea with a 21 gun salute on the USS Ronald Reagan July 15, 2017. US Navy.

 

 

[After my oral history colleague, Floyd Cox, and I interviewed Jim Phinney and Harry Frey, we realized they didn’t know each other while assigned to the Lexington nor that they both lived in San Antonio.  I asked their permission and passed on contact information to them.

Jim and Harry got together for hamburgers over lunch in San Antonio and talked about their experiences on the Lexington.

I forgot to ask if they had ice cream for dessert.]

 

The Patten brothers from Iowa.  

 

Seven Patten brothers assigned to the battleship USS Nevada. Photograph siouxcityjournal.com.

 

December 7, 1941, the battleship USS Nevada was berthed next to the battleship USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.  Because of battleship arrival times at Pearl Harbor, the Arizona was berthed in the usual place of the Nevada.  

The Nevada was badly damaged during the surprise Japanese attack. All the brothers survived and were then assigned to the Lexington. The Patten brothers were all survivors of the sinking of the Lexington.

After the death of the five Sullivan brothers in the sinking of the light cruiser USS Juneau on November 13, 1942, during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the Patten brothers served on different ships.

Floyd Patten, the boys’ father, received an age waiver during WWII to join the Navy.  Sadly he died of cancer in March 1945.  

The youngest Patten brother, Wayne, had the nickname “Patten pending” until he was old enough to join the Navy. 

The eight Patten brothers would all return home when WWII ended. 

 

Admiral Wags.  Commanding officer of the USS Lexington, Captain Sherman, had his dog Admiral Wags with him on the ship.  He was a cocker spaniel that according to the tale (not the tail) had his own muster station under the captain’s bed.

 

Picture of Admiral Wags and Captain Sherman. Photographs defensemedianetwork.com.

 

Captain Sherman was the last man off the Lexington and was able to rescue Admiral Wags.  Evacuated on different ships, they were reunited at Tonga.

Fanny Jessop Sherman, wife of Captain Sherman, wrote a children’s book about Admiral Wags published in 1943.

Admiral Wags passed away and was buried in the Shermans’ backyard with “full military honors” in 1949 at the age of 17.

 

 

Writer and WWII US Navy veteran Herman Wouk wrote two books about WWII The Winds of War and War and Remembrance that were made into two miniseries in the 1980s.  During the filming of War and Remembrance the USS Lexington (CV-16) [which at that time was designated AVT-16, training aircraft carrier] was used as a stand-in for both US Navy and IJN ships recreating battles in the Pacific.  

 

Staging on the flight deck of the USS Lexington (AVT-16) during the filming of War and Remembrance.  Photograph nara.getarchive.net.

 

The USS Lexington is now the USS Lexington Museum in Corpus Christi, Texas.

The book Stay the Rising Sun by Phil Keith has an extremely detailed  narrative of the sinking of the USS Lexington and the Battle of the Coral Sea. 

An article with more information on Admiral Wags can be found on the Defense Media Network website.

On March 4, 2018, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s expedition crew of the Research Vessel (R/V) Petrel discovered the wreckage of the USS Lexington (CV-2) 76 years after being sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea. 

Thank you to the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, and museum archivist Chris McDougal for providing information related to this story.  The oral history interviews of James Phinney and Julius Harry Frey are in the museum archive.  Jim Phinney’s oral history interview can be listened to online.

Thank you to Floyd Cox, my oral historian colleague, at the National  Museum of the Pacific War.  

Thank you to US Navy veteran and US Naval Academy graduate Clifford L. Deets (Lcdr, USN ret.) for providing information on Navy terminology and Navy life.

Thank you to historian Dr. Vernon L. Williams, Director of the East Anglia Air War Project, for his research assistance.

 

WWII 97th Infantry Division in Europe and the Pacific: And the Story of Private First Class Harold F. McDonald

 

Private First Class (Pfc.) Harold F. McDonald, US Army 97th Infantry Division, photograph “To my Family, Harold” circa 1943/1944.  Photograph courtesy of the McDonald Family.

 

Harold Franklin “Mac” McDonald was born July 24, 1923, on a farm in Menifee County, Kentucky, to parents Frank and Anna (née Bowling) McDonald.  He had three siblings.  His parents managed the Bowling farm during the Great Depression.  The main crop of the farm was tobacco.

Japanese Surprise Attack on Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii, December 7, 1941.

On December 7, 1941, Mac returned to the farm after rabbit hunting. He found his father pacing the floor.  Frank told his son the news.  It was particularly upsetting to Frank hearing of the sinking of the United States Ship (USS) Nevada; Frank was a sailor on the USS Nevada in WWI.

Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, Chester, Pennsylvania.

Mac graduated from high school a term early and found a job as a machinist at Sun Shipbuilding.  

[At the beginning of WWII Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company was one of the largest shipyards in the United States (US).  During the war the company built tankers, escort carriers, hospital ships, and cargo ships for the US Maritime Commission.]

While working at Sun Shipbuilding, Mac tried to join the Merchant Marine and the US Navy.  He was rejected; he was color-blind.  When Mac heard he would soon be drafted,  he decided to return to Kentucky because he wanted to enter the military from his home state.  

Mac was a good worker at Sun Shipbuilding; he was promoted three times.  His supervisor offered him a military deferment to continue to work there.  Mac said no.  That was the first of two opportunities Mac had to not go to war.

Military Training.

Harold Franklin McDonald was inducted into the US Army on February 11, 1943.  Private (Pvt.) McDonald trained as a combat infantryman and was assigned as a gunner in a five-man mortar squad with the US Army 97th Infantry Division (ID).  He was promoted to Private First Class (Pfc.) on September 16, 1944.

Stateside training concluded in California.  During a training exercise in the surrounding hills around San Diego, California, a brush fire burned Mac’s hands, and he was hospitalized at nearby Camp Cook.  The burns became gangrenous.  A military physician told him that he could get a medical discharge.  That was Mac’s second opportunity to not go to war.  

Many of the 97th ID training exercises in California involved amphibious landings.  Mac said their “graduation” exercise was a full scale, live ammunition, amphibious beach landing on San Clemente Island off the coast of California with 500 pound bombs dropped. Many soldiers in the 97th ID thought they were going to be sent to the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO).  The US Army 97th ID was sent (first) to the European Theater of Operations (ETO).  

[According to the history of the 97th ID, it was sent to Europe instead of the Pacific because of the high loss of US military during the Battle of the Bulge (December 16, 1944 – January 25, 1945.)]

By train from California to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.

The 97th ID left California by train traveling the Santa Fe Railroad southern route through Texas.  The trip took about five days.  

[Camp Kilmer was one of the staging areas on the east coast for military units being sent to the European Theater.  Transport ships carrying military troops and supplies would depart New York City and cross the Atlantic Ocean to Europe.]

While waiting for a ship at Camp Kilmer, the troops could get a military pass to visit New York City.  One of the most famous and popular places to visit was Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Bar and Cocktail Lounge near Forty-Ninth Street.  [William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey was a US professional boxer who held the world heavyweight title from 1919 to 1926.] 

 

 

At Jack Dempsey’s Bar and Lounge in 1945, left to right: Staff Sergeant Charles Birkes, Private First Class Harold McDonald, and First Sergeant Jules Donoff.  Photograph courtesy of the McDonald Family.

 

The 97th ID sailed from New York City on February 19, 1945, on the Merchant Ship (MS) Sea Robin and docked at La Havre, France, on March 2, 1945.

In a 2011 oral history interview with the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, Colonel Harold F. McDonald, US Army Reserve (Retired), shared his experiences during WWII.

The European Theater of Operations (ETO).

Pfc. McDonald was now assigned to the 386th Infantry Regiment, Company C.

On March 29, 1945, the 97th ID was transported in 40 x 8 (40 men or 8 horses) boxcars from Rouen, France, through Maastricht, Netherlands, to the German border.  At the border the train engine was changed to the rear of the line of boxcars which were then pushed across a bridge into the area around Aachen, Germany.  As the men got off the train, they lined up in columns of two and marched toward the front lines. Mac remembers the sound of boots marching on snow, seeing dead bodies lying in a minefield, and observed the night sky lit up by artillery fire.

Mac’s company took up a defensive position across the Rhine River from Düsseldorf, Germany.  As the 97th ID position moved south along the Rhine at one time they were relieved by a US Army 101st Airborne unit. They watched the 101st add multiple telephone lines to prevent the loss of communication in the area.  Mac said they were “very impressed” with the 101st and learned the importance of redundancy.  Also, they noticed the “battle tested” 101st put their trench knives in their boots.  Mac said he and his company started to put their trench knives in their boots.

As Mac and his company advanced into Germany they encountered groups of displaced persons (DP) fleeing west, mostly Polish and Czech slave laborers who were forced to work in German armament factories.  [A DP is defined as a person outside the border of their home country when WWII ended.]

The 97th ID crossed the Sieg River in Germany on April 7, 1945, and joined the Battle for the Ruhr Pocket (April 1 – 18, 1945).  

[During the Battle for the Ruhr Pocket, Pfc. Joe R. Hastings of the 97th ID, 386th Infantry Regiment, Company C would distinguish himself in action when attacking an enemy position at Drabenderhöhe, Germany.  He would posthumously be awarded the Medal of Honor.  Mac knew him; they had played cards together.] 

After capturing a German town in the Ruhr and having some stand-down time,  Mac and another soldier “liberated” a German Opal and drove into the forested hills north of the town.  In the forest they were taken by surprise when German soldiers surrounded the car. Mac got out of the vehicle, started to put his hands up, saw a German soldier with his arms up in surrender, quickly reassessed the situation, put his hands down, took out his .45 calibre pistol, shot it into the air, and then aimed it at the Germans and said, “You are my prisoners.”  A German soldier handed his MP40 submachine gun (Allies called it a Schmeisser) to Mac in a gesture of surrender.  Mac fired  it into the air, and it jammed; the soldier took the submachine gun back from him, unjammed it, and handed it back to Mac.  A German major, in perfect English, said he would only surrender to an officer.  There being no US Army officer nearby, he decided to surrender to Pfc. Harold McDonald and asked to bury the German dead before they left the area.  The request was granted.  Pfc. McDonald ordered the Germans to line up in a column of two, and they marched out of the forest into the town where Mac’s unit was waiting for the surrendering Germans.  Mac said he and the German major talked during the march.  The major who was in charge of an artillery unit told Mac his last order was to use all of his ammunition, and then they could surrender.  

Mac said in his interview that “surrendering is an art” that may or may not be successful.

On April 25, 1945, during combat with the Germans in a partially wooded area just inside the Germany and Czechoslovakia border, a member of Mac’s unit, Pfc. John “Jack” Van Valkenberg, was shot in the abdomen by a German.  The company medic, Pfc. Charles Kuhlman, who was identifiable with a Red Cross on his helmet and on his medical bag, went into an open field to treat him.  Jack did not survive his wound.  Pfc. Kuhlman was walking back to the American line when he was shot in the back by a German.  He was within a few feet of Mac; Mac was looking at him.  Mac saw the fatal bullet exit through the medic’s field jacket pocket. The 97th called in an artillery attack on the wooded area and approximately 50 Germans surrendered.

The 97th ID had advanced into Czechoslovakia when on May 8, 1945, WWII officially ended in the ETO.  The division moved back in stages to Le Havre, France, and on June 16, 1945, set sail for Boston, Massachusetts.

The division was given a 30-day leave back in the US.

The Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO).

On September 1, 1945, the 97th ID departed Seattle, Washington, on the USS General John Pope for the Pacific Theater.  Mac said a band was playing the Glenn Miller song Sentimental Journey when the ship left.

On September 2, 1945, the Japanese officially surrendered to the Allies on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Japan.

The 97th ID arrived in Yokohama, Japan, on September 25, 1945.  The division would be part the post WWII Allied occupation force with an assignment to dispose of and confiscate Japanese military property.  Mac’s company was sent to Chichibu in the Saitama Prefecture on Honshu.  One of their duties was to guard the Asan gas dump and aviation fuel tanks and to insure all military factories in the area were closed.  They found a closed factory building where Japanese uniforms were made during the war.  However, the factory owner had moved the manufacturing equipment to a dormitory housing workers and set up a production line there.  The factory was closed a second time.

In February 1946 the 97th began sending troops back to the US.  Mac recalled taking a train from Chichibu to Tokyo, Japan.  While waiting for a ship returning Allied troops to the US, he played his first game of golf at the Tokyo Country Club.

Due to rough weather in the Pacific Ocean, Mac’s military transport ship returned to Los Angeles, California, instead of Seattle.  The ship arrived at night; there were no bands or welcoming crowds.  But Mac had survived the war.  He was 22 years old.

On March 31, 1946, the US Army 97th ID was inactivated in Yokohama.

[The last official shot of WWII in the ETO was credited to Pfc. Domenic Mozzetta of the 97th ID, 387th Infantry Regiment, Company B when before midnight on May 7, 1945, he shot at a German sniper near the town of Klenovice in Czechoslovakia.

During WWII the 97th ID had liberated a prisoner of war camp in Hoffnungstal, Germany; liberated (with the 90th ID) Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria, Germany; and liberated Helmbrechts, Germany, concentration camp, a Flossenbürg sub-camp for women.

Counter-intelligence officers of the 97th ID in Japan would find $3 million dollars of silver bullion in Iida and $2.5 million dollars of stolen radium in the Osaka German consulate on October 26, 1945. In Karuizawa on October 31, 1945, the 97th ID counter-intelligence Special Agent Robie Macauley arrested 26 prominent Nazis who were hiding there.]

After WWII using the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the GI Bill, Mac attended the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Civil Engineering.  While in school he met a young lady, Sara (Sally) Yetter.  They were married in 1950 and had three children.

Many returning servicemen after WWII decided to stay in the US military either on active duty or in the reserves.  Mac joined the US Army Reserve.  In his civilian life, he had a successful career as a businessman and banker.  He retired from the US Army Reserve as a Colonel in 1978.

 

Retirement ceremony for US Army Colonel Harold F. McDonald in 1978. His wife is standing to his left.  Photograph courtesy of the McDonald Family.

 

Harold F. “Mac” McDonald passed away on June 14, 2012.  When I interviewed him in 2011 he had a final thought about the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan that ended WWII.  When Mac arrived for occupation duty in 1945 he saw three rows of trenches dug along the shoreline around Yokohama.  During his time in Japan he observed the military capabilities of the Japanese and the spirit of the citizenry who would have fought to their death.  His belief was that many more Japanese and Allied lives, above the number of those lost in the dropping of the two atomic bombs, would have been lost if  the planned Allied invasion of Japan (Operation Downfall) had taken place.  

 

 

Thank you to Kathleen, Linda, and John, the children of Harold McDonald for their help in researching this story and for permission to use the photographs.

Harold F. McDonald’s full interview is in the archives of the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas.  Thank you to museum archivist Chris McDougal for providing information related to this story.

Thank you to historian Dr. Vernon L. Williams, Director of the East Anglia Air War Project, for his research assistance.

Thank you to WWII historian and researcher Sue Moyer.

Thank you to historian G.L. Lamborn.

 

History’s Storyteller: The Life of WWII Marine Ed Bearss

 

US Marine Corps Corporal Edwin Cole Bearss wearing his Purple Heart Medal circa 1945.  Photograph archivingwheeling.org.

 

Edwin (Ed) Cole Bearss (pronounced ‘bars’) was born June 26, 1923, in Billings, Montana, to Omar and Virginia Bearss.  He grew up on a 10,000 acre ranch, the B bar S, located 90 miles west of Billings.  The Little Bighorn Battlefield was 35 miles southwest of the ranch.  He had a younger brother, Pat, and there was a time Ed and Pat would ride together on horseback to and from the Sarpy Creek School a distance of six miles from the ranch.

 

Ed and Pat on horseback.  Photograph courtesy of the Bearss Family, Robert Desourdis, and Nova Science Publishers, Inc. 

 

Ed Bearss was born into a lineage of family members who served in the United States (US) Marine Corps.  His father, Omar, was a Marine in WWI. Omar’s cousin Hiram “Hiking Hiram” Bearss was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1901 for extraordinary heroism during the Philippine-American War (February 4, 1899 – July 2, 1902); Hiram Bearss was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1918 for his valor in WWI (1914 -1918).

Omar Bearss would read history books to his boys on subjects including WWI, the American Civil War, and the US Marine Corps.  Ed developed an intense interest in history that infused his life. Charles Crawford of the Georgia Battlefields Association said about Ed, “There was a Marine in Ed before Ed was ever in the Marines.”

On December 7, 1941, the National Football League was finishing its season. Three games were played that day:  the Chicago Bears (34) against the Chicago Cardinals (24), the Brooklyn Dodgers (21) versus the New York Giants (7), and the Washington Redskins (20) played against the Philadelphia Eagles (14).  During these three games public address announcers broadcast early reports of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii, or paged government and military personnel to report to their units.

The Bearss family on December 7, 1941, was listening to the Chicago Bears playing against the Chicago Cardinals at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois.  

On April 28, 1942, Ed Bearss enlisted in the US Marine Corps.

Ed arrived at the US Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, California, on April 30, 1942.  After seven weeks training in Boot Camp Platoon 369,  he was assigned to the newly activated 22nd Marine Regiment (22nd Marines).  On June 18 the 22nd Marines began deployment to the WWII Pacific Theater of Operations.  In September 1942 Ed requested and was assigned to the 3rd Raider Battalion which was being formed in the Samoas.  [The Samoan Islands are an archipelago in the central South Pacific Ocean.]

In April 1943 when the 3rd Raider Battalion was based in New Hebrides (an island group off the northern coast of Australia now called Vanuatu), Ed was diagnosed with malaria and sent to New Zealand for six weeks to recuperate.

Ed didn’t return to the 3rd Raiders after convalescence but was assigned to the 2nd Platoon of  L Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.  The 1st Marine Division would deploy to New Guinea to plan the assault on Cape Gloucester in New Britain, Territory of New Guinea.

 

The island of New Britain, Territory of New Guinea, is to the east of mainland New Guinea. Ed Bearss would land at Cape Gloucester with the 1st Marine Division on December 26, 1943.  Map commons.wikimedia.org.

 

[The Battle of Cape Gloucester (December 26, 1943 – January 16, 1944) codenamed Operation Backhander had the objective to capture a major Japanese airstrip near Cape Gloucester and to defeat elements of the Japanese 17th Division in control of the area.  The battle was in support of Operation Cartwheel (1943 – 1944).  

Operation Cartwheel was a major Allied plan to neutralize and then to isolate and bypass Rabaul (far eastern end of island of New Britain) as the Allies moved northward towards Japan. 

Rabaul was a Australian naval base that was captured by the Japanese in 1942.  It became a major Japanese air and naval installation and was the most heavily defended Japanese fortification in the South Pacific.  It was also the assembly point for convoys of ships, known as the “Tokyo Express,” that would race south to bring troops and supplies to areas of conflict in the Solomon Islands.] 

On December 26, 1943, the 1st Marine Division would spearhead an attack at Cape Gloucester.

January 2, 1944, the Marines were driving eastward through dense jungle terrain.  Corporal Bearss’ platoon was advancing through the jungle — Ed was walking point — when they approached a creek that would become known as Suicide Creek.

 

Medium tank crosses Suicide Creek to blast Japanese emplacements holding up the Marine advance.  Photograph US Marine Corps January 1944.

 

In  the 2003 book Edwin Cole Bearss History’s Pied Piper by John C. Waugh,  Ed tells of being wounded as the Japanese, dug into the bank on the other side of Suicide Creek, opened fire:

“I was on my knees when the first bullet struck.  It hit me in my left arm just below the elbow, and the arm went numb.  It felt like being hit with a sledgehammer.  It jerked me sideways and then I was hit again, another sledgehammer blow to my right shoulder.  I fell, both arms shattered, and my helmet slipped down over my eyes.  I couldn’t see.  But there were now dead men  lying all around me.

It seemed a long time that I lay there, in fierce pain, pinned down by Japanese fire… Unable to stand it any longer and afraid of bleeding to death, I decided to risk getting up; the Japanese gun just in front of me was firing off to the right.  As I wiggled around trying to rise, another bullet grazed my butt and another hit my foot.  I quit moving…”

After lying in an area without possible rescue for what seemed like hours, bleeding, and afraid he was going to die, Ed decided to try to move again.  

“They [the Japanese] saw me [move] but couldn’t get their gun depressed fast enough before, without the use of either arm, I went over the lip of a knoll and slid down the other side, … I still don’t know how I did it.  If that ground had been level, I would be dead.  I realized then how important terrain was in a battle.” 

Having moved to a different position,  Lieutenant Thomas J. O’Leary and a US Navy corpsman named Hartman, crawled over to Ed and pulled him back behind the lines far enough so stretcher bearers could reach him and carry him to the battalion aid station.

Ed received medical treatment at military facilities in the South Pacific and would eventually arrive back in the US for continued medical care and rehabilitation.  During his hospitalization Ed would spend countless hours reading history books.  After 26 months recovering from his war wounds, Edwin Cole Bearss was discharged from the US Marine Corps on March 15, 1946.  [But for those of us who have known a US Marine, “Once a Marine always a Marine.”]

Ed Bearss graduated from Georgetown University in 1949 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Foreign Service Studies.  In 1955 he would earn a Master of Arts Degree in History from Indiana University.

After working at the Naval Hydrographic Office and the Office of the Chief of Military History, in 1955 Ed sought a position working for the National Park Service.  He was assigned to the Vicksburg National Military Park in Vicksburg, Mississippi, as a historian.  

In 1957 a young schoolteacher born in Brandon, Mississippi, arrived at the Vicksburg National Military Park with a US Civil War question about Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Meridian Campaign.  Her name was Margie Riddle.  Her question and their discussion involved a campaign “cannonball,” and she was proved correct on the issue.  Ed and Margie were married July 30, 1958, and they would be a formidable team in the field of American Civil War history.

In 1958 Ed would be promoted to Regional Historian for the Southeast Region of the National Park Service working out of Vicksburg.

While at Vicksburg, Ed studied Civil War maps and located what he thought was the sunken Union gunboat United States Ship (USS) Cairo (named after Cairo, Illinois).  A ironclad warship,  she was sunk on December 12, 1862, when clearing mines in the Yazoo River for the planned attack on Haynes Bluff, Mississippi.  [It was the first ship sunk by a mine that was remotely detonated.]  Along with Don Jacks, a maintenance man at the Vicksburg National Military Park, and Warren Grabau, US Army engineer and geologist, the USS Cairo was located buried in Yazoo River mud.

 

USS Cairo.  US Naval Historical Center photograph.

 

With support from the State of Mississippi the ship was salvaged and can now be viewed at the USS Cairo Museum at the Vicksburg National Military Park.

In 1966, Ed, Margie, and their three children moved to Washington, D.C.,  where he became the Historian for the National Park Service’s historical sites.  In 1981 he was named Chief Historian of the National Park Service.  He held the position until 1994. 

In the 1990 Ken Burns miniseries The Civil War, Ed Bearss was featured as one of the Civil War historians.

After retiring from the National Park Service Ed Bearss continues to share his love for history and vast knowledge by leading battlefield tours, writing, lecturing, participating in Civil War Roundtables, and encouraging remembrance of our national history.  He has received numerous awards and has been called by many “A National Treasure.”

 

Ed Bearss leads a tour in 2011 about the US Civil War Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), Pennsylvania, with South Mountain Expeditions.  Photograph S. O’Konski Collection.

 

Ed leads the Battle of Gettysburg tour members across the July 3, 1863, “Pickett’s Charge” field in 2011.  Photograph S. O’Konski Collection.

 

In an earlier quote from Ed Bearss in this story about his wounding and survival at the 1944 Battle of Suicide Creek, he said, “I realized then how important terrain was in a battle.”  On his battlefield tours today he says, “You can’t describe a battlefield unless you walk it.”  

 

 

 

Thank you to the Bearss family, Robert Desourdis, and Nova Science Publishers, Inc., for use of the Bearss family photograph.

Thank you to the US Marine Corps University Research Center for assistance in the research for this story.

Thank you to Dr. Vernon L. Williams, Military Historian and Professor Emeritus of History, at Abiliene Christian University, Abilene, Texas.  He is the Director of the East Anglia Air War Project.

I first met Ed Bearss on a 2006 History America Tours cruise  “Invasion of Italy.”  The tour started in Valletta, Malta.  We sailed on the Clipper Adventurer to Sicily where we walked WWII Allied invasion beaches and visited battle sites.  The ship then sailed from Messina, Sicily, to the mainland of Italy, and the tour travelled north with excursions to the WWII battle sites of Salerno, Monte Cassino, Anzio, the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial, and other WWII history locations.

After daily trip excursions with Ed,  I was filled with information about WWII.  I became a member of the “Ed Bearss Fan Club.”   I learned a great deal about WWII from him and was motivated to pass on the history I learned to others interested in WWII history.  In 2015 I started my website World War 2 History Short Stories and named Chief Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service Ed Bearss as one of the people who inspired me to undertake the project.

Dinner onboard the Clipper Adventurer in 2006.  Left to right: Ed Bearss, this story’s author Susan O’Konski, and History America Tours company owner Peter Brown.

A Canadian in the US Army: The Story of WWII Nurse May Buelow Alm

 

First Lieutenant May Buelow standing next to a US Army 104th Evacuation Hospital tent in France 1944.  Alm Family photograph.

 

May Albertine Buelow was born March 21, 1916, near Mirror, Province of Alberta, Canada.  She was born at home on the family farm.  Her mother died in the worldwide influenza pandemic of 1918.  After high school she attended the Royal Alexandra School of Nursing in Edmonton, Alberta, and graduated in 1937.  In 1939 May travelled to the United States (US) to visit her grandparents in the State of Washington.  She decided to stay in the US, completed exams for a State of Washington nursing license, and worked as a nurse.  May was visiting an aunt in Tacoma, Washington, on Sunday, December 7, 1941, when she heard on the radio that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii.

On April 10, 1942, May applied to the US Army Nurse Corps through the American Red Cross since her application for US citizenship was not yet completed.  She was sworn in as a Second Lieutenant on October 30, 1942.

On February 27, 1944, First Lieutenant (1st Lt.) Buelow with the US Army 104th Evacuation Hospital sailed from New York City, New York, on the British ship Samaria and docked in Liverpool, England, on March 10, 1944.

The nurses travelled by truck from Liverpool to Southport where they were billeted in the homes of local British civilians.  Military housing for the large number of Allied military personnel arriving in England was limited.  Local families opened their homes to the troops.

1st Lt. Buelow was billeted with the Fisher family in Southport.  A Fisher family member is photographed with her in front of the Bibby Road home.  Alm Family photograph.

The 104th Evacuation Hospital remained in the Southport and Churchtown area for four months.

The Allied D-Day Invasion of Normandy, France, was June 6, 1944.  After the successful landing on French beaches troops and equipment began moving from England to France.

The 104th Evacuation Hospital landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on July 12, 1944.  Upon landing and moving inland they saw the debris on the beach, sunken ships, damaged buildings, destroyed vehicles, and dead bodies in varying states of decomposition.

The 104th Evacuation Hospital was attached to General George S. Patton’s Third Army.

The first evacuation hospital setup was Sainte-Mère-Église, France.  1st Lt. Buelow was assigned to Central Supply, a part of surgery, and one of her responsibilities was to insure that sterile supplies were ready for surgery and patient care.

 And then the war began for the US Army 104th Evacuation Hospital.

The hospital treated military and civilian casualties both men and women. There were times casualties exceeded bed capacity.  After the beds were filled  litters were placed on sawhorses and on the ground after that.

A duty day often included watching for landmines in the area and the sound of German 88 mm anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery fired nearby.

One night they were alerted of possible capture by the Germans.  Unit personnel were moved by truck to a secure area until it was safe to return.

At night they often heard US reconnaissance planes overhead trying to locate German positions.  They nicknamed the aircraft “Bed Check Charlie.”

There were times German prisoners of war would help in the hospital.  May recalled they were generally helpful, but the German nurse prisoners of war could be uncooperative.   

The average stay of military casualties was three days.  They would then be moved to a medical unit further behind the front lines or flown to England.

Hospital setups could be in tents or in already existing buildings.  On October 7, 1944, when the 104th moved to Nancy, France, they were in a former mental hospital.  On December 16 they were told about the German breakthrough in a battle that became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

On December 24, 1944, the evacuation hospital moved from Nancy to Luxembourg.  Christmas Eve for the hospital staff that year was C-rations (military packaged meals) by flashlights.  The building they used at this location had been occupied by the elderly and orphans who were moved to a safe location.  May said casualties “poured in” by ambulances and litters tied to jeeps on Sunday, December 25, Christmas Day.

They would be in Luxembourg for three months before moving to their next  setup in Trier, Germany, on March 14, 1945.  The casualties by then were fewer, and May and other unit personnel were given time for a three-day pass to Paris.

The last 104th Evacuation Hospital tent setup was April 22, 1945, in Erlangen, Germany.  On May 8 the unit heard about the declaration of Victory in Europe (V-E) Day. 

1st Lt. Buelow had applied for US citizenship before the war began, but the process was not completed before she left for Europe with the US Army.  On May 10, two days after V-E Day, she and other non-citizen military members received an order to report to unit headquarters where they took the US Oath of Citizenship.  May left the US as a Canadian, officially became a US citizen in Germany, and would return to the US as a US citizen.

The last 104th Evacuation Hospital setup was in Bad Wiesse, Germany, on May 22, 1945.

The 104th began the journey back to the US on September 8.  After stops along the way and periods of waiting for further orders the unit reached Marseille, France.  On October 27, 1945, they boarded the Liberty ship USS Hermitage* at Marseille and would arrive at Pier 88 in New York City, New York, on November 6.  

May travelled from New York City to her grandparents home in Addy, Washington.  She was home in time for Thanksgiving.

May Buelow was officially discharged from the US Army on January 26, 1946.  She was awarded the American Defense Service Medal and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with five Bronze Service Stars for the Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes, Central Europe, and Rhineland Campaigns.  She was also awarded the World War II Victory Medal, and the US Army 104th Evacuation Hospital received a Presidential Unit Citation Award.

 

When May left for duty in WWII she, like her friends, would communicate through letter writing.  One of the people she wrote to was a friend from Washington named Maurice Alm, also known as “Swede” to his friends.  They had dated before the war began.

 

Bernhardt Maurice Alm was born December 1, 1916, in Chewelah, Washington.  He enlisted in the US Army Air Force in 1942.  He trained as a Flying Fortress B-17 armorer.  [An armorer was responsible for airplane maintenance and loading bombs.]

1943 photograph of Sergeant Maurice Alm.  Alm Family photograph.

Sergeant Alm was assigned to the 307th Bombardment Group (BG) in the Pacific Theater.  The BG flew multiple long distance missions, hence the nickname “The Long Rangers.”  One bombing mission on October 3, 1944, to Baltkapapan, Borneo, oil refineries** was 17 1/2 hours long; the mission was a round trip of 2,610 miles, and the bombing raid caused extensive damage to an important Japanese fuel source in the South Pacific.

While in New Guinea (an island north of Australia) Maurice developed rheumatic fever that damaged his heart.

 

After WWII Maurice returned to his hometown.  He and May were married  on June 2, 1946, in Chewelah, Washington.

Maurice and May Alm wedding picture June 2, 1946.  Alm Family photograph.

They had three children and were married for 10 years before his heart condition would take his life on May 27, 1956.

May returned to her nursing career to support herself and their children.  She retired in 1981.

 

May never married again.  She led an active life in retirement and would return to Normandy for the 40th, 50th, 60th, and 70th D-Day Anniversaries.  In 2004 she met the actor from the film Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks, who attended the ceremony.

Tom Hanks and May Alm in 2004 at the 60th Anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France.  Marie Alm photograph.

May passed away on September 30, 2019, at the age of 103.  She was buried with full military honors next to her husband, Maurice, at the Chewelah Memorial Park Cemetery in Chewelah, Washington.

 

 

 

*The USS Hermitage (AP-54) was a US Navy troop transport ship in WWII.  But before Italy declared war on Britain and France on June 10, 1941, the ship had sailed as the SS Conte Biancamano, an Italian luxury liner.  When Italy declared war, the ship was moored at the Panamanian port of Cristóbal, and it was interned there.  When the US entered the war in December 1941 the ship was seized by the US and converted to a troop ship by Cramp Shipbuilding of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and commissioned  the USS Hermitage on August 14, 1942.  The ship would sail in both the European and Pacific Theaters of Operation and was returned to Italy after WWII in 1947.  It was refitted, renamed the SS Conte Biancamano, and again sailed as a luxury liner until 1960.

**Borneo is a large island in the southwestern Pacific Ocean.  Before WWII it was divided into Dutch Borneo and British Borneo.  The island was quickly captured by the Japanese in the opening weeks of war in the Pacific.  The Baltkapanan oil refineries on Borneo were of significant value to the Japanese for wartime fuel supplies.  The oil refineries were of important strategic value to Japan just as the Ploesti (now spelled Ploiești), Romania, oil fields were to Germany.

Thank you to Maurice and May’s daughter, Marie, for her help in the research for this story and for permission to use family photographs.  For further information on the WWII experiences of Maurice Alm and May Buelow Alm email wwii@crytalsw.com.

Thank you to historian Dr. Vernon L. Williams, Director of the East Anglia Air War Project, for his research assistance.

The book Voices of WWII Veterans: A Kaleidoscope of Memories edited by Rae Dalton Hight tells of May Buelow Alm’s life and WWII experiences as well as the lives and experiences of other WWII veterans.

I met May in 2004 at the 60th Anniversary of D-Day.  We kept in touch over the years.  It was an honor to know her.

Left to right: Marie Alm, May Alm, and this story’s author Susan O’Konski on Omaha Beach, Normandy, France, in 2004.  Marie Alm photograph.

 

 

WWII Japanese “Hell Ships”: And the Story of US Army Private First Class Albert Deets

US Army Private First Class Albert Donaldson Deets.

 

Albert “Ab” Donaldson Deets was born September 22, 1919, in Dodd City, Fannin County, Texas.  He was the last of eleven children born to John and Mary Deets who farmed in the area.  He was delivered by Doctor J. M. Donaldson, and Ab received his middle name from the physician.

Ab graduated from Ector (Texas) High School.  He was tall for his day at 6 feet 4 inches.  On December 2, 1939, he enlisted in the United States (US) Army.  He already had two brothers in the US military.

 

Photograph given by US Army Sergeant John Deets (L) and US Navy Petty Officer Clifford Deets to their mother for her birthday.

 

Ab’s brother John Deets enlisted in the US Army in 1935.  His skill in baseball was noticed by a baseball scout, and the Cincinnati Reds bought out John’s US Army contract in 1937.  “Tex Deets” would spend the next three years pitching with several Cincinnati minor league teams including the Durham Bulls.  On September 27, 1940, he reenlisted in the US Army.  After the US entered WWII John transferred to the US Army Air Force and became a gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress.  He flew with the 8th Air Force, 306th Bombardment Group (BG), 369th Bombardment Squadron (BS) based at Thurleigh, Bedfordshire, England.  He completed the required 25 missions over Europe and was sent back to the US in December 1943.  In November 1944 John volunteered to fly again with a combat crew and was assigned to the 15th Air Force, 2nd BG, 429th BS, and flew 31 combat missions from Amendola Airbase near Foggia, Italy.

Clifford Deets, another of Ab’s brothers, enlisted in the US Navy on September 8, 1935.  He served on a number of ships and was temporarily attached to the United States Ship (USS) Drayton in July 1937 to search for Amelia Earhart after her plane disappeared on a flight over the Pacific Ocean.  During the Battle of Okinawa (April 1 – June 22, 1945) Clifford was assigned to the USS Neshoba that landed the US Army 96th Infantry Division in the first wave of beach landings on the island.  By the end of WWII he had attained the US Navy rank of Lieutenant.

In WWII many families had more than one child in the conflict.  John and Clifford Deets returned home after the war.

Ab did not come home.  His grave site is officially recorded as latitude 20 degrees and 41 minutes north and longitude 118 degrees 27 minutes east in the Bashi Straits of the South China Sea.

Ab’s story.

After Ab trained at Fort D. A. Russell located in Marfa, Texas, he was sent to Fort Mills a US Army post located on the island of Corregidor in the Philippine Islands.  Private First Class (PFC) Albert Deets was assigned to the US Army 60th Coast Artillery Regiment, Battery K.

[The Philippines were part of the Spanish Colonial Empire for over 300 years until Spain’s defeat in the 1898 Spanish – American War.  After the war the Philippines became a territory of the US.

The Japanese attacked the Philippines nine hours after the December 7, 1941, surprise attack at Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.  

As the Japanese advanced through the Philippines General Douglas A. MacArthur, Commander of the US Army Forces in the Far East, consolidated US and Filipino forces in a defensive position on the Bataan Peninsula.  The Battle of Bataan (January 7 – April 9, 1942) ended with the surrender of approximately 75,000 Filipino and American defenders.  The prisoners were marched an estimated 65 miles (104 kilometers) in what became known as the Bataan Death March. Estimates of casualties and losses during the march range from 5,650 to 18,000 Filipinos and Americans.

Corregidor was the largest of four fortified islands guarding the entrance to Manila Bay and was the last stronghold in the Philippines to fall to the Japanese in 1942.  It is from this island that General MacArthur escaped to Australia in March 1942 and famously vowed “I shall return” to the Philippines.  The final battle for Corregidor (May 5 – 6, 1942) ended with the capitulation of approximately 11,000 Filipinos and Americans including US Army and US Navy nurses.] 

PFC Deets was one of the 11,000 who became a Japanese prisoner of war (POW) when Corregidor fell.  He was sent to POW Camp Cabanatuan near Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija, Philippines.

Cabanatuan was the largest Japanese POW camp in the Far East.  At its peak it held 8,000 prisoners.  Most prisoners were Americans, but some Allies and civilians were imprisoned there also.  On May 26, 1941, the first captured Americans from the Bataan Death March arrived.  On May 29, 6,000 POWs captured at Corregidor arrived.  More followed.  The camp had poor sanitation, limited water and food, and primitive medical care.  Dysentery, malaria, and cholera were common.  Reports from prisoners noted mistreatment and torture.  Ab was a prisoner there for almost 2 1/2 years.

 [Japan signed but did not ratify the Geneva Convention of 1929 so was not bound by the laws.]

In May 1942 the Japanese started transferring POWs by sea to places such as Japan, Manchuria, and other locations to be used as slave labor.  The ships had no markings or flag indicating they were carrying POWs.  Many ships were sunk unknowingly by US submarines and military aircraft.  It is estimated that over 21,000 Allied POWs died at sea during transport by the Japanese.

POW survivors report being shoulder to shoulder in the extremely hot cargo holds of “Hell Ships” without adequate water, food, and ventilation while standing in their excrement.  Some men died, and others lost their sanity.

In October 1944 1,600 POWs including PFC Albert Deets were taken from Cabanatuan to be transported and then to be used as slave labor in industries needed to meet Imperial Japan’s war demands for things such as coal and zinc.

On October 24, 1944, the Japanese freighter Arisan Maru carrying nearly 1,800 POWs was sunk by a US submarine.  According to US Navy records, the USS Shark II or the USS Snook may have been responsible for the sinking of the Arisan Maru in the Bashi Straits of the South China Sea.  Only nine POWs survived the sinking.

 

6,886-ton Japanese freighter Arisan Maru.

 

The Arisan Maru was torpedoed at approximately 5 pm and sank about two hours later.  Japanese destroyers picked up Japanese survivors, but no attempt was made to rescue the POWs.  The official grave site of PFC Albert Deets and the others lost in the sinking became latitude 20 degrees and 41 miles north and 118 degrees and 27 miles east in the South China Sea.  Ab was 25 years old.

Three months after Ab and the other POWs were taken from Cabanatuan US Army soldiers from the 6th Ranger Battalion and Alamo Scouts with 250 – 280 Filipino guerrillas liberated the remaining prisoners at the POW camp on January 30, 1945.

General Douglas MacArthur waded ashore on the Philippine island of Leyte on October 20, 1944, fulfilling his vow “I shall return.”

 

 

 

 

A memorial to those lost in the sinking of the Arisan Maru was dedicated on October, 24, 1999, in the Memorial Courtyard at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas.

 

The National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, currently has an exhibit “Prisoners Under the Rising Sun.”  Link to information on the exhibit which ends September 3, 2018, is http://www.pacificwarmuseum.org/news-events/.

Thank you to Clifford Deets, nephew of Albert “Ab” Deets, for sharing the story of his uncles and father.  Family photographs are used with his permission.

The story of the WWII liberation of Cabanatuan was the plot of a 2005 movie The Great Raid.