580 men die as SS Paul Hamilton explodes

The ammunition-laden Liberty ship SS Paul Hamilton

The ammunition-laden Liberty ship SS Paul Hamilton is completely destroyed after being struck by a German aerial torpedo launched from a Junkers Ju 88A, 20 April 1944. None of the 8 officers, 39 crew, 29 armed guards, and 504 troops aboard survived. About 21:00 hrs on 20 April the convoy UGS-38 had been heavily attacked with torpedoes from 23 German aircraft of III./KG 26, I. and III./KG 77, just north of Algiers in the Mediterranean Sea. During the engagement five ships were torpedoed, three of them being sunk. Sunk were the destroyer USS Lansdale (DD-426) and the SS Paul Hamilton. The SS Royal Star was torpedoed aft and was abandoned by her crew. The SS Samite and the SS Stephen F. Austin were both torpedoed in the bow, but managed to reach Algiers.

The Liberty ship SS Hamilton had been fitted with anti-aircraft positions. It is possible the ship was targeted because of tracer fire from these guns.

The Liberty ship SS Hamilton had been fitted with anti-aircraft positions. It is possible the ship was targeted because of tracer fire from these guns.

One of many rescued by Coast Guardsmen of two Destroyer Escorts  CG Photo No. 2140; photo by PhoM 1/c  Arthur Green, USCGR.

One of many rescued by Coast Guardsmen of two Destroyer Escorts during a German bomber attack off the coast of North Africa, a U.S. Navy seaman relaxes as two Coast Guardsmen scrape a thick coating of oil from his body. The survivor’s ship, the USS LANSDALE, was sunk by Nazi planes (April 20, 1944 in the Mediterranean). The Coast Guardsmen in this picture are: Virgil Mathis (left), Motor Machinist’s Mate, of St. Augustine, Fla.; and Melvin Howard of Pittsburg, Kansas. These men are on board the Coast Guard-manned Destroyer MENGES (DE-320), when it picked up 119 survivors of the ill-fated destroyer LANSDALE. Virgil Mathis later was himself a survivor when the MENGES was torpedoed by a Nazi submarine on May 3, 1944.”; 20 April 1944; CG Photo No. 2140; photo by PhoM 1/c Arthur Green, USCGR.

During an air-battle off the coast of North Africa,  CG Photo No. 2141; photo by PhoM 1/c  Arthur Green, USCGR.

During an air-battle off the coast of North Africa, the Coast Guard rescued many seamen and officers after attacking German torpedo bombers sank a Navy destroyer, the USS LANSDALE. The Nazis swarmed over in the early morning. In this picture, taken by a Coast Guard combat photographer, aboard one of the rescue ships, survivors are aired after their removal from the oil-covered waters. Left to right: Coast Guardsman James P. Dewey, Radioman Third Class, of Tulsa, Oklahoma; one of the unidentified rescued sailors; Coast Guardsman Elmer C. Hoffman, TM 2c, of Hale’s Corner, Wis.; Coast Guardsman Virgil B. Mathis, of Saint Augustine, Fla.; and two more of the survivors.”; 20 April 1944; CG Photo No. 2141; photo by PhoM 1/c Arthur Green, USCGR.

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

USS Lansdale (DD-426) off the New York Navy Yard, 22 October 1943. Official U.S. Navy

USS Lansdale (DD-426) off the New York Navy Yard, 22 October 1943. Official U.S. Navy

The Destroyer Escort USS Menges (DE-320) was named for Herbert Hugo Menges, born in Louisville, Kentucky on 20 January 1917.  He enlisted in the Naval Reserve as seaman second class at Robertson, Missouri on 3 July 1939.  He was appointed as a naval aviator on 24 July 1940 and after flight school and commissioning was assigned to Scouting Squadron 6 on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) on 28 November 1940.  ENS Menges was killed during the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Destroyer Escort USS Menges (DE-320) was named for Herbert Hugo Menges, born in Louisville, Kentucky on 20 January 1917. He enlisted in the Naval Reserve as seaman second class at Robertson, Missouri on 3 July 1939. He was appointed as a naval aviator on 24 July 1940 and after flight school and commissioning was assigned to Scouting Squadron 6 on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) on 28 November 1940. ENS Menges was killed during the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Picked up from the sea by Coast Guardsmen on two destroyer escorts, survivors of the USS Lansdale (DD 426), CG Photo No. 2144; photo by PhoM 1/c  Arthur Green, USCGR.

Picked up from the sea by Coast Guardsmen on two destroyer escorts, survivors of the USS Lansdale (DD 426), sunk off the coast of North Africa, are brought safely to port by the rescue craft. The destroyer was sunk during an attack by a force of German JU 88 bombers in the dark of early morning. Two of the Nazi planes were knocked out.”; no date; CG Photo No. 2144; photo by PhoM 1/c Arthur Green, USCGR.

 A German bomber pilot, who gave the name of Peter Gerlich,  CG Photo No. 2143; photo by PhoM 1/c  Arthur Green, USCGR.

A German bomber pilot, who gave the name of Peter Gerlich, is taken down the gangway of a Coast Guard-manned destroyer escort at a North African port after his plane had been shot from the sky and he had been picked up from the sea. At the foot of the gangway are the commanding officers of two DE’s — Coast Guard Commander Russell J. Roberts (hand to mouth) of . . . Washington, D.C., and Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Frank M. McCabe, of Arlington, Virginia.”; no date listed; CG Photo No. 2143; photo by PhoM 1/c Arthur Green, USCGR.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Editor May 15, 2014 at 4:45 pm

Charles C. Wales

Very many thanks for adding that extra detail.

Martin

Charles C. Wales May 15, 2014 at 3:52 pm

I was an officer in Lansdale when it was sunk. The Germans had apparently figured out that we had jamming gear for the radio controlled glider bombs, and so attacked entirely with aerial torpedoes that night.

ccg April 20, 2014 at 6:56 pm

In retrospect, was it a bad idea to have that many troops on a ship loaded with ammo?

ccg April 20, 2014 at 6:54 pm

One place it says the ship was torpedoed, another it was hit by a glider bomb (rocket?). Which was it?

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