Joseph Leonard Driscoll
Born: August 20, 1923
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Service: Merchant Marine
Position / Rank: Deck Cadet
Date / Place of death: January 6, 1944 / Mediterranean, 37-22’N,
Date / Place of burial: January 8 1944 / 2nd Corps U.S. Army
Cemetery, Mateur, Tunisia, Plot E, Row 5, Grave 23
Joseph L. Driscoll signed on as Deck Cadet aboard the Liberty Ship SS Robert Erskine on July 17, 1943 at the port of New York. Engine Cadet Robert W. Hempel signed on aboard September 29, 1943. In the coming months the Robert Erskine made two voyages across the Atlantic to ports in the United Kingdom and returned to New York. The ship sailed from Norfolk, VA on its third voyage with Deck Cadet Driscoll aboard on December 14, 1943 as part of convoy UGS-27 bound for Naples, Italy. The ship’s cargo was 500 pound aircraft bombs, detonators, aircraft engines and Army trucks.
On January 2, 1944 the convoy passed through the Straits of Gibraltar and began to
split into groups headed to different ports. The Robert Erskine, with about 75 other
vessels, proceeded to the port of Bizerte, to await a convoy to Naples, Italy. The vessel
dropped anchor just inside the submarine nets at the harbor entrance a little after 2230
local time January 5, 1944 in a heavy storm.
However, by 0200 local time on January 6, 1945 the ship’s anchor chain began jumping
off of the wildcat on the anchor windlass due to the heavy seas. The Captain decided
to pull up the anchor and cruise just outside the harbor until daylight. The ship returned
to Bizerte harbor and dropped anchor again at about 0500 on January 6. However, the
anchors began dragging in the heavy seas. By 0520 the Robert Erskine was hard
aground inside Bizerte harbor and was unable to work itself off.
At 0730 the ship broke in two just forward of the engine room. The crew was ordered to
collect their personal effects and be ready to be taken off by an Army tugboat.
However, after waiting for an hour the Erskine was informed that the tug was unable to
come alongside due to the heavy seas. At this point the Captain ordered the crew to
abandon ship. Despite the heavy seas and interference from the drifting forward
portion of the ship, the ship’s motor lifeboat and a life raft were launched. Both of the
craft were overturned before reaching shore, throwing their occupants into the sea.
However, the occupants were able to swim to the safety of the nearby beach.
The Captain next ordered Cadets Driscoll and Hempel, along with an Ordinary Seaman
and the ship’s Carpenter to try to make shore in a small “doughnut” raft. Just as with
the larger craft the raft and its four occupants overturned in heavy seas. No sooner did
the men clamber back onto the raft then it overturned again. Cadet Hempel, noticing
that the raft was snagged in a rope, took out his knife and cut the rope. He, Driscoll
and the Carpenter managed to climb on once again, but the Ordinary Seaman could
not reach the raft and eventually made it to shore. The raft then began to drift back
towards the ship. The cold and exhausted men decided to swim back to the ship.
Hempel and the Carpenter made it back to the ship, but Hempel discovered that
Driscoll had remained on the raft. It is unclear from the available reports whether Cadet-Midshipman Driscoll actually returned aboard the Robert Erskine on January 6, 1945. His body was found on the beach and identified by Cadet-Midshipman Hempel on January 8, 1945. He was buried in the Second Corps Army Cemetery at Mateur,Tunisia with full military honors. At some point after the war his remains were exhumed and returned to the U.S. for final burial.
Cadet-Midshipman Hempel and the rest of the crew were rescued from the remains of
the wreck on the morning of January 7 when the seas had calmed sufficiently to permit
a rescue by boat. The salvage of the Robert Erskine’s cargo lasted until February.
Several members of the engine crew, including Engine Cadet Hempel, remained to
provide steam to the cargo winches. They, along with most of the crew of the Robert
Erskine were transferred to the bomb damaged Liberty Ship SS James W. Marshall
which was being repaired for return to the U.S. Cadet-Midshipman Hempel sailed on
the James Marshall as Acting Third Assistant Engineer until its arrival in England in
March. Hempel and other members of the SS Robert Erskine’s crew boarded the SS
Emma Willard to return to the States and the Academy for further training.
Cadet-Midshipman Joseph L. Driscoll was posthumously awarded the Mariners Medal,
Atlantic War Zone Bar, the Mediterranean-Middle East War Zone Bar, the Victory
Medal, and the Presidential Testimonial Letter.
On the SS Robert Erskine’s crew lists Joseph L. Driscoll is described as being 5′ 6″ tall
and weighing 130 pounds. Joseph L. Driscoll listed Mrs. Dorothy E. Wells of Brooklyn, NY as his next of kin. No other information on his background can be located.
Photo of SS Robert Erskine