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Michael G Walling

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Then There Were Six - Loss of US Coast Guard Cutter Alexander Hamilton
by Michael G Walling   
Not "rated" by the Author.
Last edited: Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Posted: Wednesday, June 15, 2011

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Torpedoing of the Alexander Hamilton, 19 January 1942

          Fitted with new weapons and more crew to man them, Alexander Hamilton sailed from Norfolk for Casco Bay, Maine on December 26, 1941, to undergo Readiness and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) training. 

When the news came about their destination, the crew was excited.  “We heard that the ship was headed for Argentina,” says Hugh Salter.  “Then we found out it was Argentia. Who in the world had ever heard of Argentia? We didn’t have any is of where it was.” 

The trip up the coast was a constant onslaught of storms and ice.   As Alexander Hamilton cleared the Virginia Capes and went through the Cape Cod Canal, it was freezing cold at sea.  Gales had been the rule twenty-eight days out of thirty on Weather Patrol so some of the men weren’t bothered all that much by the heavy seas.  But others didn’t take it so lightly.  The ship iced up so badly, she was down by the bows, with five-inch guns that looked like sixteen-inch weapons.  In one twenty-four hour period the Alexander Hamilton traveled only thirty-six miles.

Several of the new crewmembers were sick the whole trip north.  Adding to the discomfort, there were not enough bunks for all of the men, so hammocks had to be slung from hooks on the mess deck.  Even this got too crowded.

One night, Tom Mullings got down to the mess deck to find that no hooks were left, so he stretched out on the deck itself on his hammock.  The ship was rolling so much, Mullings remembers sliding across the deck each time the ship moved.  Finally he tied the end of the hammock to stanchion and got some rest.

           Arriving in Casco Bay, the crew began training.  Up to this point, many men, including Lieutenant Ed Allen, Assistant Engineering Officer, had never dropped a depth-charge or fired the new guns that you would normally do to prove the work was alright.  In addition, the weather in Casco Bay was no improvement over what Alexander Hamilton had endured at sea. 

It was so cold there was ice in the water around the ship with the temperature hovering around ten to fifteen degrees Fahrenheit.  The Navy was running liberty boats [ship’s boats that took men ashore for liberty] into Portland.  One night one of the boats broke down and drifted all night.  When the searchers found it the next morning, the two men onboard had frozen to death. 

    Alexander Hamilton only had time to run two ASW exercises with submarines and her training was further shortened by a search for an Army plane reported down off the coast.  The plane and its crew were never found.  Later, on January 10th, despite her crew’s obvious lack of training, Alexander Hamilton received orders to join a Navy Convoy Escort force headed for a place called Argentia, Newfoundland.  It was only then that the crew realized there were two ships named USS Hamilton.  Which one was the message for? 

         On January 12th, the Navy had requested that the Coast Guard Hamilton resume her full name of Alexander Hamilton.  But the memorandum had not cleared Coast Guard Headquarters, not reached the Navy brass, and had not reached the Navy flagship in Casco Bay by the time the Coast Guard’s Hamilton set off for Canada.  Navy personnel were not the only ones confused by having two ships with the same name.  Larry Bradley, a newly commissioned Coast Guard officer assigned to Hamilton, showed up in New York only to find he was on the wrong ship.   After a lot of questioning and traveling from New York to Boston and, finally, to Portland, he found the correct Hamilton just in time to make the trip north.  Larry’s reception was not what he had expected.  “When I reported aboard, it took me about two minutes to realize Aggie Hall [the Commanding Officer] needed me as he needed another hole in his head.”  There were already three officers on each watch and Larry was told to stay out of the way.

          When the orders to leave for Newfoundland were received, the Commanding Officer went over on the Navy flagship to protest.  The reason being was that his crew had had very little training.  But he was told: “Go, you have your orders, go.”  So the Coast Guard Hamilton joined up with the Navy destroyers and sailed off.

William “Wo” Ogletree, a radioman on Alexander Hamilton, remembers being at sea when an ALNAV (All Navy, a message sent to all units) was received.  It said: “To avoid confusion in the future, the name of the Coast Guard cutter is now Alexander Hamilton and the name of the Navy DMS (Destroyer Mine Sweeper) is Hamilton.  The message arrived a bit late.  The Navy sent orders to the wrong Hamilton.  The Navy ship for which it was intended, stayed at anchor in New York.  The Coast Guard ship, with less than two weeks of training went to war.   

        On September 14th, shortly after she arrived in Argentia, Alexander Hamilton, five U.S. Navy destroyers Niblack, Overton, Tarbell, Greer, and Ellis and the gun boat St. Augustine,   were sent to escort the twenty-nine ship eastbound convoy HX 170.  It took twenty-four hours to locate their charges and relieve the Canadian escorts.  Hamilton, Overton, and St. Augustine got separated from the others on the way to the Western Ocean Meeting Point and didn’t catch up until the 16th. 

            The weather remained brutal; with the temperature below freezing, spray coming over the bow froze before it hit deck.  Alexander Hamilton patrolled the convoy’s flanks, her men to standing Watch.  Ray Hertica was among those assigned to this duty, standing four hours on and four hours off.   “We only got three to four hours sleep a day,” Hertica says. “To dress when going on Watch, we started with long underwear, jungle cloth, silk socks, then added wool socks, pants, jacket, fleece-lined boots, fleece-lined jacket, life jacket, two pairs of gloves and face mask.” 

Going up on the fire control platform, it took only twenty minutes before a man was unable to move, becoming totally ineffective.  He had to go below in the starboard passageway, ready go to General Quarters if ordered.  “I’ve never been cold like that,” Ray continues.  “I’ve never gotten over it.” 

        Each crewman tried to adjust in his own way.  “It was so cold a cake of ice would form over top of you,” according to Tom Mullings.  He learned to sleep in the midst of the ship’s rocking and rolling, leaning against the bulkhead, closing his eyes until it was time to go on Watch again.

        Another sailor, George Corbin thought about other places and times, trying to keep out the cold.  Standing Lookout in the crow’s nest about 80 feet up, he’d think about Hawaiian girls in their grass skirts or about plowing a field back in West Virginia in 100 degree heat with the sweat running down his back.  It helped for a while, but not long enough.

The escorts made several depth charge attacks.  Tom Keefner, on watch in the fire room one night tells what it was like when depth charges exploded nearby.  “The lights would went out, deck plates went up, noise was terrific.”   

 

On the fourth day out a storm hit the ships, scattering the convoy.  The next morning, two destroyers were missing and the mer­chant ships were in two groups about fif­teen miles apart.  Another gale struck when the convoy reached the Mid-Ocean Meeting Point on January 22nd.   By the morning of the 23rd, the convoy was badly scattered over twenty miles of ocean.  After an arduous day of rounding up the ship, more trouble arrived that night when westbound convoy ON-57 appeared on a collision course with HX-170.   Luckily, disaster was the two convoys got mixed up in the darkness. 

Finally, after a full day’s delay, British escorts arrive and took over and .Alexander Hamilton and Niblack, headed to assist the disabled Navy supply ship USS Yukon lying 600 miles southeast of Iceland. 

Alexander Hamilton reached the Yukon at about 3:00 pm on the 23rd.  The cutter immediately tried to get a towing line over to the disabled vessel but it was not an easy task.  In the vicious weather, with high winds and mountainous seas, Alexander Hamilton’s decks were awash with ice.  Both vessels were being battered by the elements and, with night falling, searchlights were used to light up the area as attempts were made to get a line aboard the crippled Yukon. 

            High winds defeated all attempts to get a line across to the Yukon.  At one point, a heaving line broke and Hamilton drifter across it.  Cdr Hall was concerned that it would get wrapped around the propellers.   Beverly Moody, the Executive Officer, after tying a line around his waist, dove overboard to check. 

            The danger past, the work went on.  Finally, Hall ordered Moody to go aft and pass the word when Hamilton’s stern was close to the bow of the Navy ship.  In an amazing feat of seamanship, Cdr. Hall then backed Hamilton to less than ten feet from Yukon.  With Yukon’s bow scything up and down like an executioner’s ax, a line was finally passed and with it, the heavier towing hawser. 

It took eight hours and six tries on heaving spray-swept decks in near freezing weather, facing 40 knot winds laced with hail, to haul sodden manila line and wrestle heavy chain with frozen hands to get the tow hooked up. 

Then there was more trouble.  The only towline (“hawser”) Hamilton had on board was too short for the job.  As the ships picked up speed, the hawser stretched tight like a rubber band, threatening to snap.  The next day Alexander Hamilton asked Yukon to attach the line to Yukon’s anchor chain and let out 180 feet of it to act as a shock absorber.  Several more hours were lost while this was done. 

For almost a week the North Atlantic fought the ships with gale force winds.  Hamilton could not make more than six knots through the heavy seas.  Truxtun and Niblack, zigzagging constantly, ran low on fuel and were dispatched to Iceland.  USS Gwin replaced them as escort. 

Tied together by the towline, Alexander Hamilton and Yukon were sitting ducks for any passing U-boat.  Gabriel “Gus” Popp summed up the crew’s feelings on the Hamilton: “I don’t know about anybody else, but when we were towing the Yukon I was convinced we were going to get it.  Out there by ourselves with the Navy ships circling around, I just knew we were going to get it.”  

COMLANT (Navy Commander of the Atlantic Forces) informed the ships there were four or five U-boats known to be within 500 miles of their position, close given the size of the area.  Nearing Iceland, Gwin asked for additional air and surface support but no help was forthcoming.  Admiral Sharp, Senior Officer Present Afloat (SOPA) in Iceland, did not considerate it necessary to provide the requested additional escort or to increase the number of air patrols.   

            Others closer to the situation were not as confident, among them was Wo Ogletree.  The night before Alexander Hamilton and company reached Iceland, Wo took radio bearings on six different subs.  One was so close he couldn’t get a bearing.  That U-boat could have been within a 100 yards of his own ship.

Even though there had been actual U-boat sightings in the area, only the Royal Air Force conducted patrols the morning of January 29th.  Hampered by snow squalls that reduced visibility, the planes did not see any sign of the enemy. 

As the ships approached Reykjavik, the Senior Officer Present Afloat (SOPA), Iceland, ordered the tow be turned over to a British tug.  Alexander Hamilton replied that, after towing the Yukon for over 600 hundred miles, she was quite capable of towing into port.  Besides, stopping to transfer the tow would be hazardous due to the known U-boat threat in the area.  SOPA ignored the request and repeated the order to turn over the tow.  At this point, Alexander Hamilton, Gwin and Yukon were less than ten miles from safety. 

 At noon on the 29th the German submarine, U-132, patrolling off Reykjavik since January 21st, surfaced in a snow squall.  As the squall cleared, Ernst Vogelsang, U-132’s commanding officer, could see Iceland to the north, looking south, he spotted smoke rising from ships.  He dove and set course to intercept.  A periscope observation at 1:00 pm revealed that the ships he had seen earlier were within range.  A second look ten minutes later showed a “companion ship” [escort vessel] five hundred meters away.  Picking out Yukon, the largest ship, he fired three torpedoes.  The first two were complete misses.

Everyone onboard Alexander Hamilton breathed a sigh of relief after the tow was released and the ship picked up speed. The ship was headed straight into Reykjavik and safety was within reach. But it was not over.

At 1:13 pm the 3rd torpedo ripped into Alexander Hamilton’s starboard side, exploding between the boiler and engine rooms.  It ruptured pipes carrying 500 degree,

super- heated steam, turning these spaces into a lethal cavern of scalding steam and boiling water.  Twenty of the twenty-one men in those spaces were killed instantly.  All power was lost, there were no lights inside the hull, and communications went dead.        

       Dallas O’Neal was the 21st man in the engine spaces, in the engine room itself, over the port reduction gear.  When he heard that sudden loud BOOM, O’Neal thought the generator had blown up.  But then the deck plate broke in two and he found himself hung from the deck plate down, unable to get loose.  As water poured in, Dallas screamed and hollered for help but got no answer.  He remembers praying: “Lord, if you get me out of this mess, I'll be a better boy.”  But that help never come.  He kept working away and finally, for no reason he can recall, broke free.  Dallas could see a little bit of a ladder that went from his perch to the machine shop and then to the electric shop.  It was swinging by one bolt.  Getting his feet on the underside of it, he tried to pull himself up.  But it broke loose; when Dallas fell this time, he fell fifteen backwards into the water, knocked unconscious for several minutes. 

When he came to, he found that the only way to get out was to climb up pipes carrying live steam.  It took him two tries before he got to an open hatch and hung his arms over the edge.  A seaman named Shearer came by.  He saw a pair of arms, and pulled O’Neal to safety.  “I felt I was choking to death by then,” Dallas recalls.

Hal Smith, a shipmate of Dallas, remembers: “When he reached the top, his hair was burned off and you could see the bones in his hands.  A number of the men were so badly scalded by steam the bones were showing through.  You had to grab them and really dig in to move them, otherwise your hands just slid off.”

 William D. Lewis was in his bunk reading.  “When the lights went out we hauled ass for top side.  I was headed for the water tight door by sickbay which was dogged down and we had a hell of a time getting it open.”  There were men on the other side and when it did open, Bill remembers: “They’d been cooked alive when the boilers blew up and in horrible shape.”

Howard Wolf was among ten men relaxing outside the laundry in the starboard passageway when the torpedo struck about fifteen feet aft and slightly below him.  Super-heated steam blasted him in the face, chest and arms.  “A man screamed and another yelled ‘Let’s get out of here!’”  Wolf remembers. “I thought of my mother opening the Government telegram telling how I was ‘killed in the line of duty’.  At that moment, I was sure the ship was going down and I’d never see her or my father and brother or the shores of Lake Michigan again…” 

Wolf and the nine men with him, five of them badly burned, were trapped in the closed dark passageway.  With his severely burned hands, Wolf managed to open the compartment’s steel doors and free his crewmates.  When he got to sickbay, Gus Popp treated him; peeling off Wolf’s clothes, cutting off strips of skin that were dangling from his hands and feet.

Nathan Robinson was part of the Ready Gun Crew.  When the torpedo hit knocking out all communications, Cdr. Hall ordered Nate and his friend Hugh Salter to fire their five-inch gun three times to get Gwin’s attention.  The destroyer went by and radioed in what happened.  Had the ship had been hit eight minutes later, the two men would have been visiting a friend on Watch in the engine room and been killed.

James T. Ellen, an Electrician’s Mate, had been ordered to take some new carbon sticks up to the large searchlight on the mainmast moments before the ship was hit.  Bob Anderson, another Electrician’s Mate, up on the light platform was knocked off, falling thirty feet to the main deck where Jim Ellen was standing.  Only his face and nose were broken, but at the time his shipmates believed he had been fatally hurt. 

            Dr. James A. Finger, the Public Health Service doctor onboard was lying in his bunk when the explosion lifted him in the air and threw across the stateroom.  As he hit the bulkhead on the other side, everything went pitch black. 

“The only thing I could hear was water running, and all I could smell was the explosive,” he remembers.  “I knew what had happened and figured the size ship we were and the blast we took, I’d better get the hell out of that stateroom in a hurry being below decks as it was.”  But the metal door that had become jammed and it didn’t look like Dr. Finger was going anywhere.  He tried to crawl through a small opening between the upper deck overhead (ceiling) and where the stanchions go across but he couldn’t fit through.  The door remained only way of getting out.  So he hopped down, grabbed the knob, put his foot on the side and gave it a real yank; astonishingly, it came open.

Ensign Bob Hoenshel was also below in his stateroom when the ship was struck.  “I jumped out of my bunk into water up to my knees.  I was terrified the explosion had jammed the door and I’d be locked in my cabin with no way to escape.”  Fortunately, that didn’t happen and he managed to get clear. 

Dennis Pittman, Carpenter’s Mate 3rd Class, missed death by seconds but one of his four friends from home didn’t:  He had just left the carpenter’s shop above the boiler room and dogged the doors behind him when the torpedo hit.  Dennis went back see if there was anything he could do.  The explosion had blown off one of the heavy metal doors – there was nothing left of the shop.  One of his friends from home was on Watch in the engine room; he didn’t make it either.

            Wo Ogletree was ill-treated by Fate that day.  He recalls: “There were at least four men playing cards while sitting on the grating over the engine room. George Holl, Signalman, was my best friend on the ship at that time.  He died the first night.”  Another of Wo’s friends, Costigan, in the machine shop over the engine room and below the radio room, was also killed. 

Ralph G. Sproston survived – but just barely.  He was on watch in the radio room copying voice transmissions between the British tug Frisky and the Yukon when the force of the torpedo explosion threw him and his typewriter up in the air.  When they both came down, the room was in complete darkness with the deck buckled and a strong odor of black powder permeating everything.

Tom Keefner was blown in air and came down hard on the deck.  Coming to, he saw Gunner Rodman, stark naked, setting each depth charge on “safe”, to ensure they didn’t blow up if the ship sank.   

As for Cdr. Hall: “I felt a violent shock to the vessel and the fumes blew into the cabin.  I rushed immediately up the ladder to the bridge.  There was considerable smoke and fumes on the bridge and about the vessel.  I asked the Officer of the Deck, Ensign Broussard, whether he had seen a torpedo or submarine and if they had heard anything on the QC [Sonar].  He answered ‘No.’”

            “I was on the bridge watching the navigator take a running fix on Skaggi Point Lighthouse when Hamilton was torpedoed,” says Larry Bradley.  “The navigator got to the third minute of the four minute running fix when she was torpedoed.  It was quite an explosion and I believe the boilers let go from the torpedo blast.”

            Going out on the bridge wing, Hall saw that the motor launch on the starboard side had disappeared.  He realized his ship was lower in the water by approximately four feet, the deckhouse and the deckhouse doors over the engine room had been blown out.  Several wounded men were lying about the decks.   Ensign Sidney K. Broussard tells what he did.  “Gussie Hall sent me down to help out and the first one I saw was Robert Learner. He was dead. Then some of the men asked me to look at a CMM in the machine shop. All the blood vessels just below the skin had ruptured from the concussion.  He was a particular greenish color and he sure was dead.” 

Hall sent Moody to see how badly the ship had been wounded.  After receiving the report and determining that nothing could be done to save his ship, Hall gave the order to abandon ship.

As the crews got to the lifeboats, they saw that the explosion had destroyed three of them.  All that was left of two port side boats were wooden splinters imbedded in the steel machine shop door while on the starboard side, only two feet of the motor surfboat’s transom was left hanging from the davit.  With three of the seven boats smashed, there was not enough room for all the surviving crew.  The wounded were loaded in the remaining boats and they cast-off. 

            There was no caulking in the seams of the boats and they quickly filled with water.  Many men had been burned by live steam and, when they got into that cold salt water, were in agony.  One man was in such agony he was screaming for some son of a bitch to shoot him.

            Sidney Broussard was in charge of one of the boats.  After the boat was lowered, he found that only one other man, Louis Bettancourt was able bodied enough to row.  But, Bettancourt didn't know how to row.  Broussard relates: 

            “He surely learned in a hurry. Everybody but me was praying silently; I was making deals with God:  ‘I know I've been a bad boy, but let us live and I'll be a good boy and go to church’, all that stuff.  Bets told me he was praying up a storm, to which I replied, between trying to keep that oar in the water, ‘Okay Bets, pray, but row like hell or this baby will broach and we'll all die.’”   

            Larry was assigned to another boat.  “It was the first useful job I’d had since coming aboard.”  His boat over turned over and, after crawling up on its bottom, he saw Gwinn approaching.  “I saw a puff of smoke and Gwinn speed up.  With her loudspeaker, Gwinn advised us they had a sound contact and were going to run it down.  She made a depth charge attack about a thousand yards away which we could feel in the water, but no problem.”

The boat carrying Gus Popp, Howard Wolf and other severely wounded and burned men also rolled over, dumping the injured men into the freezing sea.  The boats were in such bad shape that one man jumped out and swam back to the ship.  Charles W. Tyner, one of the African-American Mess Attendants, held onto his wounded shipmates until help arrived.

 Several Icelandic fishing boats heading for Reykjavik harbor turned a blind eye to the wounded ship and distressed lifeboats.  “The Icelandic fishing boats weren’t going to stop and help.  We had to pull one man off the machine gun because he was going to shoot at them to make them stop,” recalled Robert Porper.

But three boats of the fishing boats, Alda, Freyja, and Haki did stop, following the ancient rule of the sea to help others in distress. 

Ltjg. F. W. Welch says: “My boat was rowed for about a mile when we intercepted the Icelandic trawler Alda.  The trawler picked us up and then we circled back to rescue men from another lifeboat that had capsized.  The men were clinging desperately to the overturned boat in the cold water.  Alda, loaded with codfish, was almost swamped by its unexpected human cargo but it got us ashore.” 

Larry also recalls being picked up by Alda:  “It was pretty rough.  I was tying bowlines around these wounded guys and they were pulling them over to the fishing boat.  When it came my turn, my hands were numb and I was wondering how I was going to get over.  Then a couple of big waves came together and some fisherman reached over, pulled my up and dumped me on the load of cod fish.  I kissed a cod saying ‘Thank God I’m here’ and ‘Where’s the engine room so I can go down and get warm?’” 

The captain of the second Icelandic vessel, Oli Gudmundson of Freyja, ordered his crew to help all the injured men aboard.  This was a tough job; many of the injured were badly burned and very delicate to handle.  The weather was getting worse and it was impossible for the shipwrecked men to stand outside on Freyja’s deck.  They were hardly in shape to do so and, worse of all, there were thirty-five men and Freyja was a small boat.  The trip to Reykjavik took five-and a-half agonizing hours.  George Katula, a sixteen year old Army radioman, was on the dock to meet them.  “I had my radio equipment in my hut and received the SOS that the ship was sunk.  When they got to the dock I took two of the wounded to the hospital.”  

Haki, a smaller fishing vessel than the other two, did not have room to take the survivors on board so, through heavy seas, she towed the boat with seven men to shore in Keflavik - a neat bit of seamanship. 

            Eighty-two men got away in the boats.  Those rescued by Alda were taken to a nearby home where Icelanders provided warm drinks and dry clothing.  “The captain's wife served the greatest thick soup and the best dark bread I have ever tasted.  I think I must have been the first person to let the captain's wife know that her cooking was really good, “says Larry Bradley, always the gentleman.   “When the navy picked us up in station wagons and ambulances, the captain's wife gave me two pairs of beautiful, heavy, hand knit stockings.”   

After the last boat from Alexander Hamilton shoved off, life rafts were the only means for the remaining 101 men to get away if the ship sank.  But the rafts had rope webbing that suspended anyone using them waist deep in freezing water – guaranteeing death from hypothermia within minutes.  That left no chance of surviving if the cutter sank.

Tom Mullings and Perry Bradley were standing on the fantail watching the boats pull away.  Tom tells how Perry, worried getting his new watch if they went into the water, had asked Willy Hughes, who was going in one of the boats, to take it the watch with him and keep it dry.  “About fifteen minutes later,” Tom says, “we look out to see Willy Hughes standing in the stern of that boat hollering ‘we’re sinking’ and down he goes with the watch.”  It was to be the only bit of humor that day.

Mercifully, Gwin returned after escorting Yukon and the tug to safely.  In the gathering dusk and heaving swells, Gwin risked being stove-in to come alongside the wallowing Hamilton.  Deftly, a cargo net was lowered to the cutter’s starboard quarterdeck and the remaining men quickly scrambled aboard. 

Twenty-year old Wo Ogletree was given one last job before abandoning ship.   Cdr. Hall ordered him to make sure there was no one left alive in sickbay.   “I remember going through sickbay and feeling for the carotid pulse on each corpse,” recalls Wo.  I have a visual image of three dead on the sickbay deck and two lying in bunks. There was a lot of blood and shit around the dead.  It was a bloody stinking mess.” 

When Wo came out, sickened by the odor and the gore, he found himself the only man remaining on the cutter.  Gwin was starting to back away.  John Nesmith, a shipmate already on the Gwin, saw Ogletree and shouted at him: “Wo, what the hell you doin’ over there?”  Wo ran across the flooded deck and jumped for the net as John reached down and hauled him aboard.

Wo left the Hamilton at about 2:47 pm – ninety-five minutes after the torpedo struck.   With her stern down about ten feet and a starboard list there was a feeling she might capsize at any time.  They left her to drift northward at the mercy of wind.  Two hours later a British tug arrived and attempted to take Hamilton in tow.  But with a gale wind blowing, hours of effort went for naught. 

Alexander Hamilton’s crew spent the night aboard Gwin.  The men were so on edge that, when the Gwin dropped depth charges unannounced, the whole crew headed topside in a rush for fear they’d had been hit again.  David Chappell, sleeping in bunk loaned to him by one of Gwin’s crewmen was jolted awake by the explosion.  “I believed a torpedo had hit, but it was only the ship dropping ash cans [depth charges].  I never felt so fortunate.”

Gwin stood by, hoping for a chance to put some of Hamilton’s crew back aboard to salvage their ship.  The weather moderated slightly at daybreak but it was still too rough to try.  On the 30th, a tug did succeed in connecting a towline to Hamilton and started toward Reykjavik with a Navy destroyer as escort. 

The beginning of the end came at 5:18 PM when Alexander Hamilton suddenly capsized.  She remained afloat until 7:57 before plunging below, coming to rest in forty fathoms of water, about twenty-eight miles north northwest of Skaggi Light on the western coast of Iceland. She was the first US warship lost after Pearl Harbor.

Over the next few days, five of the ten scalded men died.  Their shipmates buried them in a muddy graveyard outside of Reykjavik.  Funeral services were delayed for three days while the Army hospital staff waited for Howard Wolf to die, but he hung on.  When he came to, Dr. Gehringer, an Army surgeon, told him, “They’ve assigned me a tough job, son, but we’ll make it.” 

On March 10, five weeks after he was burned, Wolf made his way to a waiting ambulance for the ride to the dock and the trip home.  As he was leaving, an Army captain pointed to a wooden coffin in the yard and said, “Wolf, you’re a lucky fellow. That was yours.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Web Site: Mike Walling



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