Alther, Jr., George Walter

George Walter Alther, Jr.

Born: April 14, 1918
Hometown: Melrose, MA
Class: 1940 – USMMCC Cadet Officer
1939 – Massachusetts Nautical School
Service: Merchant Marine
Position / Rank: Second Mate
Date / Place of death: July 14, 1943 / Avola, Sicily
Date / Place of burial: July 14, 1943 / Lost at Sea –
Avola, Sicily
Age: 25


According to U.S. Maritime Commission records, George W. Alther was assigned to the SS President Monroe as a Cadet Officer in September 1939. Prior to being assigned to the President Monroe he was employed aboard ship as a Quartermaster for the Eastern Steamship Company. In 1940 George Alther was promoted to Third Mate aboard the SS
President Monroe. He subsequently served in the same capacity aboard the SS President Buchanan until 1942. Sometime in April 1942 George Alther signed on aboard the MS Chant, the former MS Hulda Maersk, which was owned by the War Shipping Administration and operated on their behalf by American President Lines.

The Chant sailed for Scotland where it was loaded with aviation gasoline
in drums plus a deck cargo of coal and two motor launches for the embattled island of
Malta. The Chant sailed in convoy WS-19Z to Gibraltar with three other ships. Upon
their departure from Gibraltar to Malta the ships and their escort became part of one of
the great convoy battles of World War II, Operation Harpoon. The convoy was
escorted by a powerful task force of twelve Royal Navy ships, known as “Force X”
which included the anti-aircraft carrier cruiser HMS Cairo. The escort proved to be not
quite powerful enough. On the run through the Mediterranean, the convoy and its
escorts fought off attacks by Italian cruisers, destroyers, high altitude bombers, dive
bombers and torpedo bombers. On June 15, 1942, after days of fighting off attacks, a
bomber got through the escort’s anti-aircraft fire, hitting the Chant with one of its
bombs. The bomb struck the Chant at #4 hold, igniting the gasoline and setting off
explosions in the rest of the gasoline and the ammunition for the ship’s guns. George
Alther and nearly all of the crew were able to abandon ship and were rescued by the
British Minesweeper HMS Rye (J-76). He arrived back in New York aboard the SS
Queen Mary on September 19, 1942.

George Alther signed on as Second Mate aboard the SS Timothy Pickering at the port
of New York on December 11, 1942. Also signing on were four Cadet-Midshipmen;
Christopher Brennan (Deck), William Lyman (Deck), Warren Marks (Engine) and
Lawrence McLaughlin (Engine). On the morning of July 13, 1943, just three days after
the Invasion of Sicily began, the Timothy Pickering arrived off the British Army’s
invasion beach at Avola, Sicily with 130 British soldiers aboard. In addition, the ship
was carrying an almost identical cargo to that of the ill-fated MS Chant; munitions, TNT,
high octane gasoline, artillery pieces and trucks. On the morning of July 13, the vessel
was anchored in the harbor, about half a mile from shore, with the bow in and the
starboard side closest to the shore. The crew had begun unloading the vessel’s cargo.

At 1040 GCT, the allied shipping off Avola was attacked by German dive bombers.
One of them dropped a single 500-pound bomb on the Timothy Pickering at its Number
4 hold. The bomb detonated in the ship’s engine room, causing a massive explosion of
the ship’s cargo with resulting fire. The explosion left a gaping hole in the starboard
side of the ship causing it to quickly begin sinking. With no time to either launch
lifeboats or be given an order to abandon ship the crew began to leave the ship
immediately, leaping over the side into the oily waters, or sliding down ropes and the
anchor chain. In May 1944 he Academy’s newspaper, Polaris, printed a report on the
loss of the Timothy Pickering which expanded on the report of the sinking by Cadet-
Midshipman Brennan, one of only 29 survivors.

“The ticklish cargo of explosives and high-test octane was being gently
worked over the side to waiting supply barges when one such raider
appeared and began to attack. The plane’s bomb landed squarely into
the open number four hatch of Brennan’s ship. The explosion was
instantaneous. Sheets of yellow flame and billowing clouds of smoke rose
hundreds of feet in the air. Two adjacent ships were set afire; others were
bombarded with huge chunks of metal. Cadet-Midshipmen on other
vessels heard the explosion some 50 miles out at sea. To stunned
observers nearby, the doomed ship seemed to dissolve into thin air.

However, Brennan was the only survivor of four Cadet-Midshipmen who signed on
aboard the Timothy Pickering. The other three perished in the explosion and ensuing
fire. In addition to the three Cadet-Midshipmen, nineteen other crew members, eight
Naval Armed Guard Sailors, and 100 British soldiers perished.

Second Mate George W. Alther, Jr., the Timothy Pickering’s 25-year-old Second Mate
and 1940 Cadet Officer was killed while helping the ship’s wounded Armed Guard
Officer abandon ship. For this action he was posthumously awarded the Merchant
Marine’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award. His citation reads,

The President of the United States takes Pleasure in Presenting the Merchant
Marine Distinguished Service Medal to

George W. Alther, Jr.
Second Mate on SS Timothy Pickering
October 14, 1943

For heroism above and beyond the call of duty.

The vessel in which he was serving in 1941 was bombed by enemy planes and again a
ship in which he served in 1942 was bombed and sunk. During an enemy air attack on
a Sicilian port [Avola, Sicily] his third wartime vessel, loaded with ammunition, TNT,
aviation gasoline, and British troops, was hit by a 500-pound bomb. The ship was split
in two–ammunition exploded in the holds–and the water around the ship was a surface
of burning gasoline. The Gunnery Officer was wounded on the lower deck amidship
which was enveloped by flames, but with utter disregard for his own safety, Second
Officer Alther went to his assistance and in so doing gave his life.
In unhesitatingly risking, and subsequently giving, his life in an heroic attempt to rescue
a wounded fellow officer he maintained and enhanced the finest traditions of the United
States Merchant Marine.

For the President
Admiral Emory Scott Land

For his merchant marine service, George W. Alther was also awarded the Mariner’s
Medal, Combat Bar (with two stars), Merchant Marine Defense Bar, Atlantic War Zone
Bar, Mediterranean-Middle East War Zone Bar, Pacific War Zone Bar, the Victory
Medal and Presidential Testimonial Letter. In addition, the Liberty Ship George W.
Alther was also named in his honor.

George W. Alther was the oldest George W. Alther, Sr. and Hilda Alther four sons.
George’s younger brothers were Edward, Frederick and Richard. Hilda Alther died in
1940. The 1940 and 1930 U.S. Census indicates that George Alther, Sr. was a railroad
fireman working on steam locomotives.


3 thoughts on “Alther, Jr., George Walter

  1. Letters sent by Warren Marks and photos received were received from Mrs. Ellen Hayes, the daughter of Ruth Marie Fitting the young woman from his home town, Nutley, NJ, to whom the letters were addressed while Warren Marks was at Kings Point and while on Board the Timothy Pickering.

    The Liberty ship SS Timothy Pickering was launched on 28 March 1942 in California and while on its first major voyage carrying war supplies was sunk by a German JU 87 Stuka dive bomber while anchored offshore at Avola, Sicily on 13 July 1943 with the loss of 169 people including 127 British servicemen and a number of United States Merchant seamen. Three Cadet-Midshipmen died including Warren Marks, William Lyman and Lawrence McLaughlin and a former Cadet Officer, 2nd Mate George Alther. Only 29 men survived including Cadet Midshipman Christopher Brennan who was ashore.
    The ship was operated by American President Line for the War Shipping Administration. The Cadets joined the ship in Jersey, City, NJ and she sailed on December 18, 1942 from the port of New York after further provisioning while at anchor. They arriving at Guantanamo Bay on Christmas day, December 25, 1942; they departed the next day for the Panama Canal crossing the Caribbean and arrived days later. Some of the crew including Warren Marks had shore leave that evening. The ship proceeded through the Canal the next morning and spent a month and a half in the Pacific that included some high seas that damaged some lifeboats that were swung out for immediate launching. According to a letter from Marks they passed through the Auckland islands and New Zealand arriving at Fremantle Australia. They stayed a week while the lifeboats were repaired. Marks letter indicated they had a swell time in Australia.
    They sailed for the Indian Ocean and discharged cargo in Iran April before proceeding to the Suez Canal; in June Marks sent a letter from ‘somewhere in Egypt’ that was postmarked July 7, 1943. The letter mentioned that while there he met a Kings Point classmate John Woods. This was the last letter that we have. Marks and the others on board the Timothy Pickering died on July 13, 1943.
    John Woods was the last person from Nutley, NJ to see Warren and at a Nutley Class reunion Woods, who has since died, made a special toast to the assembled group that night in Warren’s honor. A crew member who survived the sinking of the Pickering told Ellen Hayes that the men had a super good time with the women they met in Australia!
    Note: much of the above information came from personal letters sent by Warren Marks in 1942-43 to his hometown girlfriend Ruth Marie Fitting in Nutley NJ and from Ellen Hayes, her daughter.

  2. Correction to the above: “John Woods was the last person to see Warren. He was in the Navy during WWII, and ran into Warren in Alexandria, Egypt, where Warren shipped out for Sicily. John, many years later, went to a Nutley High School reunion with the express purpose to propose a special toast to Warren because of this encounter.”

  3. Additional correspondence from Ellen Hayes; the attachments could not be inserted.:
    October 29, 2016
    Dear Gentlemen:
    I purchased a copy of the publication;”Braving the Wartime Seas”, over a year ago on Kindle and made it a goal to finally begin reading the book. I had just returned from my 45th Reunion @ Kings Point – Class of 1971 – and made a special visit to the 1946 War Memorial while I was there. I took a very long look at the names of the “142” and identified those Cadet-Midshipmen that our father – Christopher J. Brennan – KP’44 – had shipped out with on the SS Timothy Pickering – Warren Marks, William Lyman, and Lawrence McLaughlin. All of these Cadet-Midshipmen men perished on the SS Timothy Pickering along with a Kings Point Cadet Officer, 2nd Mate George W. Alther.

    My first inclination was to go through the table of contents and look at the section on “U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Cadet-Midshipmen who died during WWII.” After reading all of the individual biographies of the men I listed above, I noticed that a postscript was added to the biographies of all three Cadet-Midshipmen and that of 2nd Mate George W. Alther – postscript dated September 29, 2016. I am attaching a copy of the postscript from the biography of Warren P. Marks. I am also attaching a copy of the biography of George W. Alther that I put into a file on 1/05/2013. The whereabouts of Christopher J. Brennan at the time of the attack was addressed in the copy that I have attached, but not in the one that is in the 2014 publication.

    Our brother; Timothy W. Brennan, did exhaustive research on our father’s involvement in WWII and specifically the attack on the SS Timothy Pickering on July 13, 1943. He worked at great length with Mr. Jim Hoffman to help identify Kings Point Cadet-Midshipmen that served in WWII and were part of the “142.” This; again, was in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. In fact, Tim did receive a nice letter from Ellen Dester Hayes regarding our father receiving the Mariners Medal on December 21, 2000. I am posting a copy of the Mariner’s Medal, letters from Congressman John Mica, a letter from Jim Hoffman, and a letter to our brother Tim from Ellen Hayes.
    I apologize for the quality of the copies. Some of them are very old and were faxed to Tim. I have tried my best to darken them on my scanner so that they are more legible. The last item that I am attaching is an article written by Cadet-Midshipman William Jardine for Polaris. It is called “Storm over Sicily” and is a written interview on our father explaining the events that took place with regard to the attack and the sinking of the SS Timothy Pickering. This was faxed to my brother Jim – KP ’73 in March of 2000. Jim is currently at sea as Master of the Maersk Hartford – that is the reason I have listed both his ship email and personal email address – and has sailed for over 15 years as Master for Maersk Lines. Again, the copy of this article is as legible as I could get with my scanner.

    As a side note, our father’s full name is Christopher J. Brennan. In some of the text he is listed as Christopher C. Brennan. Christopher C. Brennan was his father’s name. His father – Christopher C. Brennan – died of a massive heart attack; in Springfield, Massachusetts on July 21, 1943. It is unclear as to when our father – Christopher J. Brennan – learned of his father’s death, but it is our understanding that it was not until he returned to the United States. Another article that was forwarded to me by our brother Jay also indicates that our father swam to a nearby British landing barge and was transferred to a shore side Army hospital.

    Our father told all of us that he was transferred to a hospital in Tripoli, Libya for his recovery. He remained in Tripoli for over a month to recover from shrapnel in his neck and back and burns on his arms and legs. The shrapnel remained in his neck until he passed on September 21, 2001 – Our parent’s 55th Anniversary and 10 days after 9-11-2001. Our mother Ann (Welch) Brennan passed away last year on July 30, 2015.

    We recognize that a great deal of information from this era has been lost or hard to find over a 70 year period of time. Our family applauds your efforts to collect the past and recognize the incredible contribution of WW II Mariners – both Cadet-Midshipmen and KP Officers who gave the ultimate sacrifice in WW II. Our family honors these brave men and we continue to honor the memory of our father by providing the information that our brother Tim worked so hard to accumulate. We would be honored if it would be added to the journal that you have published – “Braving the Wartime Seas.” Thank you.

    Respectfully Submitted and with Best Regards,

    The Children of Christopher J. Brennan

    Ann Marie Brennan
    Christopher James Brennan II
    James Patrick Brennan
    John Michael Brennan
    Timothy William Brennan
    Theresa Christine (Brennan) Freer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.