Editor’s note: This is the eighth installment from a 1951 booklet titled “The Seafarers in World War II.” Penned by the late SIU historian John Bunker, the publication recapped SIU members’ service in the War. More than 1,200 SIU members lost their lives to wartime service in the U.S. Merchant Marine. Earlier segments are available on the SIU website and in print beginning with the May 2020 edition of the LOG. (We are tentatively planning to post a PDF of the entire booklet on the SIU website once all of the text has been published here.) This one picks up in Sicily as Bunker continues describing the infamous Convoy PQ-17 before shifting to D-Day.
The first plane dropped two bombs into an open hold full of ammunition on the Liberty ship Timothy Pickering (SUP), which had arrived at the anchorage only a few hours before and was still crowded with troops.
There was a blinding explosion. Tongues of flame roared out of the stricken ship a thousand feet into the air, followed by whirling clouds of smoke. It may have been red-hot hull plates from the exploding Liberty, or bombs dropped by the second Stuka, but a tanker nearby was set afire and exploded in a flaming holocaust soon after.
In a few minutes both ships were nothing but twisted, shattered masses of steel, resting on the bottom with only their masts protruding above the surface. Of the 192 crewmen and British troops on the Timothy Pickering, only about a dozen survived.
The attack had lasted only a minute at the most.
Another Liberty that saw exciting action in Italian waters was the James W. Marshall (SUP). Arriving at Salerno just two days after the invasion, she was hit and set afire by a 250- pound bomb that smashed through the bridge and wounded several men at the guns.
The fire was quickly extinguished by quick action on the part of the crew, and she continued discharging her ammunition, guns, trucks and gasoline.
Two days later she was hit again, this time by a heavy bomb that went through the top deck of the ship into the main deck before exploding among GIs who had taken refuge in the messroom. And thrilling tales aplenty can be told by the men who took supplies to 5th Army troops holding the beach at bloody Anzio.
For months, the British and Americans had held a costly strip of beach and marshland 30 miles south of Rome, and all the while they were supplied by merchant ships for whom “destination Anzio” also meant “destination front line.”
The SIU-manned Liberty ship Lawton B. Evans had 4,000 tons of gasoline and ammunition in her holds when she arrived at “Peter Beach,” Anzio, from Naples on January 22, 1944.
No sooner had she dropped the hook than the Germans opened up on her with long-range artillery. Shells hit within 50 feet of the ship and shrapnel peppered the decks like BB shot. Captain Harry Ryan “up anchored” as soon as steam could be turned on the windlass, and they sought a safer spot. But the Germans got their range again and shells splashed too close for comfort. It was “up anchor” again … a game of hide and seek which went on for most of the day. During the next four days, gunners and crewmen ran to battle stations time after time, for one air attack was quickly followed by another, and between raids the Germans plopped big shells onto the anchorage.
The grind of the anchor chain through the hawse pipes lent a mournful accompaniment to the drone of airplanes and the whistle of shells – they called them “Whistling Williams.”
It was on the 29th of January that the Germans tried out the radio-controlled glider bomb on the ships at Anzio. The USS Philadelphia and two freighters were victims during the first attack of this kind.
Three Bombers Down
Through it all the Lawton B. Evans proved herself a fighting ship, fit to battle with the best of them.
When Stukas and Junkers attacked the anchorage, her gunners knocked one of the Junkers down with 20-millimeter fire, then blew a divebomber to pieces with the three-inch fifty on the bow. Two days later they bagged another divebomber that got too near their guns. On the same day, the Lawton’s gunners blasted a glider bomb out of the sky before it could do any damage, and followed that up by obliterating still another divebomber. A carburetor from the plane landed on the Lawton’s deck and was kept as a souvenir.
It was fortunate that the Lawton’s gunners did shoot well, for soon after the blowing up of the glider bomb, another of these strange missiles hit the Liberty ship Samuel Huntington, setting it afire and causing an explosion that rent the ship apart.
Long will SIU crews remember the shuttle run to “bloody Anzio.”
They Made the Beachheads
So well-known and so often told is the story of the Normandy invasion in 1944 that there is no point in describing that tremendous operation here.
Thousands of SIU-SUP seamen took part in the initial beachhead operations and in the vital line of supply that followed, from D-Day till the German surrender.
These men had a part in landing the 2,500,00 troops, the half-million trucks and tanks, the 17,000,000 tons of ammunition and supplies that were put ashore at the beachheads in Hitler’s “fortress Europe” during the first 109 days after D-Day. The flow of material was almost beyond comprehension!
Many Seafarers were also among the 1,000 merchant seamen who volunteered to sail to the Normandy beaches the 32 American merchant ships that were scuttled to make the emergency breakwater – the “miracle harbor” along the Normandy coast.
As they steamed their breakwater fleet from British ports on the eve of invasion, theirs was a most hazardous task, for everyone expected the coast of France to erupt in a hell of flame and shell as soon as the ships were sighted by the Germans.
That this did not happen to the extent that it was anticipated did not detract one whit from the courage of the seamen who volunteered for this extremely dangerous operation.
Among these sunken ships at the Normandy beachhead were a number of well-known-to-old- timers-ships that had been sailed along the ocean sea lanes for many years by men of the SIU and the SUP.
Old SIU Friends
There was the old Kofresi of the Island trade (named after a Puerto Rican rum, she was); the West Nilus, Illinoian, Kentuckian, Alcoa Leader, Pennsylvanian and Robin Gray.
Three SIU Liberties were among the breakwater ships, too: The Matt W. Ransom, Benjamin Contee, and James W. Marshall. All of them had seen thrilling action and were consigned to “operation scuttle” as unfit for further service.
The Marshall (SUP) had been bombed and gutted by fire at Salerno. The Matt Ransom had been torpedoed and then brought into port by the heroic action of her crew. And the Benjamin Contee, while sailing in the role of a prison ship in the Mediterranean, was torpedoed by a bomber with large loss of life among Italian POWs.
Quick action on the part of her Skipper and merchant crew calmed the panic among hundreds of rioting troops; kept the tragedy from becoming a disaster of huge proportions.
Seafarers have vivid memories of the shuttle run which operated after D-Day between the United Kingdom and Normandy and, later, to French and Belgian ports.
Some 150 ships, mostly Liberties, were assigned this monotonous and far from placid service by the War Shipping Administration, plodding back and forth between England and the continent, trip after trip, and month after month.
“Channel ferries” the crews called them. A few hit mines, like the SIU-manned Colin Kelly, and ended their careers for good in the English Channel and the channel ports.
SIU ships braved the buzzbomb barrage with supplies for the port of Antwerp, where at times a buzzbomb fell on the city and its environs every ten minutes.
‘Swarm of Bees’
Seafarers will recall seeing those eerie, crewless missiles sailing through the sky over Belgium, trailing flame from their tails and droning like a huge swarm of bees while ackack tried to knock them down.
When the droning stopped it was time to “hit the ditches,” for the buzzbomb was on its way to earth.
The SIU-manned SS Bayou Chico was the second ship up the canal into the old city of Ghent in Belgium, and was cheered by the populace as she steamed along the waterway with her holds full of Army supplies.
It was in the Pacific – land of the kamikaze – that SIU and SUP ships experienced some of the hardest and most costly fighting of the war at sea, as Japanese bases fell before the northward advance of American troops from Guadalcanal to Okinawa.
Innumerable were the instances of heroism and high courage as Seafarers took their ships up the long, battle-scarred Pacific from island to island and beachhead to beachhead.
In February of 1942, the SS Admiral Halstead (SUP) earned a citation unique among merchant ships, when six of her crew received the Distinguished Service Medal of the merchant marine for defending their ship with two machine guns against heavy assaults by Japanese bombers.
The Admiral Halstead was the only ship of 12 in Port Darwin to escape being sunk, discharging her cargo of gasoline and ammunition for Australian troops, and escaping the Japanese to participate in more Pacific action.
In August of 1943, the Japanese were flushed from New Georgia in the Solomon’s and Army troops re-took the Aleutians. Then came the four-day bloody battle at Tarawa, followed by invasions at Kwajalein in the Marshalls, at New Britain and Hollandia. By July of 1944, Saipan and Tinian had been won, followed shortly by another victory at Peleliu.
Then came the biggest show yet, staged in this amphibious war, as a seaborne juggernaut of 600 ships bypassed hundreds of miles of enemy-held territory and landed on the eastern side of Leyte Island in the Philippines.
SIU ships were up front here, as usual, fighting with guns and guts as the Japanese pounded the beachhead with everything they could muster.
Kamikazes Make Appearance
It was at Leyte that the Japanese launched the strangest weapon ever used in war – the “Kamikaze” or “divine wind,” the one-way bomber flown by suicide pilots willing to sacrifice themselves as human bombs in an attempt to win the war for Nippon.
An early victim of the kamikaze was the SS Thomas Nelson, a Calmar Liberty hit off Dulag in Leyte Bay while still crowded with some 630 Army troops and loaded with gasoline and ammunition.
Her gunners blasted a suicide plane which made a run at the ship but the Japanese hit his target, nonetheless, his two exploding bombs turning the freighter into an inferno of flame, with 213 soldiers killed, wounded, or missing.
Gunners of the Liberty ship Matthew P. Deady (SUP) bagged two Japanese planes at Leyte, but the ship was bombed and set afire with considerable loss of life among soldiers and crew.
In December of 1944, a convoy of ammunition- laden ships, including the Liberty John Burke, was attacked by kamikazes. One hit the Burke square on, blowing her up with the loss of every man aboard. Not a bit of wreckage was left to mark her place in the convoy.
Another SUP-manned Liberty, the Lewis L. Dyche, was hit by a kamikaze in January 1945, at Mangarin Bay during the Mindoro invasion. She, too, was obliterated. There were no survivors. And so it went in almost countless dramatic actions that cannot possibly all be recorded here.
It was in the invasion of Leyte that the Liberty ship Adoniram Judson won a special niche for herself in the annals of the war, by not only delivering vital landing mats and 3,000 barrels of high-octane aviation gasoline for the captured airfield at Tacloban, but by providing the principal air protection there for several days.
For this the “Ad” Judson was honored by the U.S. Maritime Commission in being named a Gallant Ship of the merchant marine, a distinction accorded only a few ships throughout the war. Another Gallant Ship was the SS Marcus Daly (SUP). This Liberty and her crew won a commendation from General Douglas MacArthur for shooting down at least three Japanese bombers, and for defending the docks at Leyte with her guns.
Despite her fire-spitting Oerlikons, and the accurate shot from the flaming three-inch fifty on her bow, a kamikaze smashed onto the Marcus Daly on Christmas Day 1944, blasting huge holes in the deck and sides and ripping the steel plating of the ship like paper, while flames shot high in the air and jagged pieces of steel showered the area in a deadly hail.