One of the iconic images of the war was the picture of the SS Paul Hamilton being blown up after being struck by a German glider bomb. It was used extensively during the war to illustrate the hazards of supplying the front lines by convoy. However, the authorities did not want the whole truth to be told and much of the story remained classified for the next fifty years. Many of the relatives of the men who died that night never lived long enough to learn the true circumstances of their fate.
The German aerial ambush of convoy UGS-38 was devastating, torpedoing five ships and sinking three of them, including the destroyer USS Lansdale
Ensign Charles C. Wales was the Torpedo and Commissary Officer on the USS Lansdale:
When Lansdale sank, the water temperature was estimated to be about 60 degrees, very cold in which to spend much time. In addition, the water was covered with fuel oil from LANSDALE’s bunkers. Combat ships are not equipped with life boats in the manner of a passenger ship. Combat ships are equipped with life rafts and floater nets, which are cargo nets with floats incorporated in the weave of the net. They are intended to deploy when a ship sinks by merely floating free of their stowage in baskets. A person does not sit on a life raft but one hangs on to the ropes around the outside or stands inside on a floor supported about five feet below the raft by netting. The floater net is spread out on the water and a person lays on the net or hangs on around the perimeter. Whether life raft or floater net, one is in the water, and survival in 60 degree water covered with fuel oil is quite difficult.
When the aerial attack against UGS38 began, I was not at my battle station which was on the bridge, but aft on the fantail giving some instruction to my torpedomen who were manning the depth charges there. After the torpedo hit LANSDALE, I attempted to return to my battle station on the bridge.
When I had made my way to amidships on the top of the deck house, I found Marion Anthony Porter there suffering from his broken leg, the femur. I abandoned thought of ever reaching my battle station, and decided to help Porter. When the rising water put the top of the deck house awash, I assisted Porter to his feet, and, facing him, fell backward into the water, pulling him with me. However, the water was very turbulent and we were dragged under and thrashed about very severely. When I surfaced, Porter and I were separated. I don’t think that I was of much help to poor Porter, and I have always wanted to meet him again to apologize. Unfortunately we were never able to locate him when our reunions began, and he has not attended one.
Eventually I made my way to a floater net, and found myself next to Eugene R. Foley, Torpedoman second class. We exchanged greetings. “Hi, Foley.” “Hi, Mr. Wales.” “How are you Foley.” “I have lost an eye, sir.” With that he put his hand to the wound, and , in doing so apparently pushed aside a flap of skin which was covering his eye, and he exclaimed that he could see out of that eye. So here we were, swimming about in the fuel oil covered sea, cold and with no rescue in sight, but happy as could be that he had not lost an eye. He never made it to a reunion, but, at the 1994 reunion in Boston I spoke with his daughter, Janet Foley, and she said that he always had a very prominent scar on his forehead. She was very pleased to learn finally how that scar came to be.
I was in the water for about two and one half hours. Eventually a ship loomed into view, and when it seemed close enough I swam for it. It was NEWELL. When I arrived at the side of the ship, I found that they had rigged up a cargo net over the side for us to climb up on. The waves were running maybe three to five feet at the time, so I waited until I was lifted by a wave and grabbed the cargo net. However, I was so weakened by the cold that I could not hold on and fell back into the sea. The next time I tried, when the wave lifted me and I reached for the net, two sailors grabbed me by the seat of my pants and heaved me up on deck. The sailors there stripped me of my wet clothing, wrapped me in a blanket, and gave me a cup of coffee. I was shaking so much from the cold that I slopped the coffee all over my front when I tried to drink it.
I was escorted to the mess hall where I found that the crew had gotten all of the uniforms and clothing which were in the laundry to be washed, and had dumped them in a pile in the middle of the deck for the survivors to dress in. I selected a pair of 13-button drop front pants and a denim shirt, and was escorted to a bunk in the chief petty officer’s quarters.
I remember watching as the last survivor out of the water was carried below. He had been in the water for three and one half hours. He was wrapped in blankets and was shivering violently and mumbling, “I’m so cold. I’m so cold.” over and over again. He was Lt(jg) Alvin S. Caplan, USNR. Years later, at one of our ship reunions, the first of which was held in 1994, we discovered that he thought he had been rescued by a British frigate. We finally convinced him that there was no such as a British frigate in that convoy, and that he had been rescued by USS NEWELL DD322. In further conversation, we discovered that he had no recollection of events that night from the time he waded down the side of LANSDALE into the water until a couple of days later when he realized that he was standing in line in a mess hall with a mess tray in his hand. The extreme cold he had suffered was sufficient trauma to erase his short term memory of events in the water, his rescue and activities of a day or so afterward.
Read the whole of his story and a complete account of the sequence of events at The Story of USS Lansdale DD426