In the line of duty; where were the Hot Spots; Life at Sea

In the Line of Duty

World War II was fought, in part, on and around the merchant ships that served as the extended classrooms of the young Academy. In the two weeks following Pearl Harbor, Cadets Roger T. Wayland and Donald J. Stephenson watched in horror as Japanese planes made daily runs over Manila Harbor, dropping tons of high explosives on their ship and the other American vessels in the harbor. One of these ships was badly damaged, and the crew was captured. Among them was Cadet-Midshipman William V. Mitchell, whose completion of advanced education and graduation was postponed by more than three terrible years as a Japanese Prisoner of War.

The Merchant Marine Cadet Corps sent its students out into active theaters of war. Administrators at Kings Point and in Washington understood full well the risks that their Cadet-Midshipmen were incurring. At first, there were attempts to keep Cadet-Midshipman out of the most dangerous areas. Very quickly though, the exigencies of war overwhelmed these efforts and cadets shipped out on any available U.S.merchant vessel and some foreign-flag ships.

For a short time, Academy Cadet-Midshipman escaped the ultimate sacrifice. Throughout the winter of 1941-42, cadets and administrators held their breath, hoping somehow to avoid the inevitable. On March 20, 1942, the dreaded news finally arrived that Cadet-Midshipman Howard P. Conway, Jr., had been lost when the SS Liberator was torpedoed. The Kings Point gymnasium was to be named after him but upon knowing of the heroism of Cadet-Midshipman Edwin J. O’Hara, that gym was named O’Hara Hall. The gymnasium/naval science center at Pass Christian was named Conway Hall. When the war ended German archives revealed that in fact Cadets Richard Lewis and Robert J. See were the first Cadets to die when their ship the SS Azalea City was torpedoed on February 20, 1942.

The United States Merchant Marine Academy is the only federal academy to put its students in harm’s way, but this distinction comes at a price paid in human life. Between 1942 and 1945, 142 Merchant Marine Cadet Corps cadets died, primarily from submarine and aircraft attacks. Some others died from illness and accidents while in training ashore and afloat. Countless others survived sinkings and attacks from the icy waters off Murmansk to the once-tranquil ports of Sicily and from the Gulf of Mexico to the ports of Indonesia. There is no exact count, but something like 650 ships sank with cadets on board.

Kings Point also lost members of its small but rapidly burgeoning alumni. Sixty-nine graduates of the Academy and the U.S. Maritime Commission Cadet Officer Corps died during World War II, both as members of the merchant marine and as naval officers. Kings Point and Merchant Marine Cadet Corps graduates served as mates and engineers on merchant ships. Others served as officers on destroyers, submarines, mine sweepers, aircraft and troopships.  Like their not very much younger colleagues, dozens gave their lives in the line of duty.

At the beginning of the War, the U.S. Navy accepted many graduates into Active Duty because of the acute shortage of qualified officers and, at that time, the assembly lines for building merchant ships had not accelerated sufficiently to require those graduates on merchant ships. Toward the end of the war, the Navy had many officer training programs in place, the 90 day wonders from colleges, and there was a vital need for merchant marine officers on the merchant ships.

According to Marc Enright ’50; “A number of Cadets were activated into the navy while serving their sea year.” They served as Assistant Engineering Officers and Acting Engineering Officers on Navy ships while holding the rank of Midshipman.  J. Richard Kelahan ’42 never took a course at Kings Point. While he was a Cadet-Midshipman on a Navy controlled ship where he was serving in the capacity as 3rd assistant engineer, he was sent to Treasure Island to study for his 3rd assistant license which he passed. Elliott Earnest reported that Graduation came on March 3, 1944, after passing the license exams. He had desired to go Navy upon graduation but the Navy was encouraging merchant mariners to stay in the merchant marine since it took only 90 days to make an Ensign and 18 months or more to make a merchant marine officer; and they were in short supply. Unfortunately those decisions to serve where there was a greater need deprived graduates of the GI Bill, with its education and other monetary benefits; graduates who served on merchant ships found that they were not eligible for the G.I.Bill, as were their classmates who served in the Navy.

John Lively ’44 said that on graduation he tried to join the Navy but he was told there were too many Ensigns and it would take 6 months before he could have his commission activated; he went back to the merchant marine. Captain Tom Saul ‘45 said he was one of the two in his section who went on active duty with the Navy and thus he was eligible for the GI Bill benefits that permitted him to attend college

The Hot Spots
The Cadet-Midshipmen and graduates of Kings Point who died in the war succumbed to various causes. Some were taken ill on board ship, in the stifling heat of the Philippines or the icy cold of Murmansk, or died of fever or infection on board ship. Others were victims of accidents, either on board ship or during brief visits ashore. Still others were victims of storms and collisions at sea.

Most were killed as a result of a direct engagement with the enemy; they were killed by torpedoes launched from enemy submarines and they were killed by bombs or torpedoes dropped from enemy aircraft.  Whatever their ship or destination, every Cadet-Midshipmen and graduate faced danger on every voyage. Throughout the war, the fate of the Academy’s cadets closely mirrored the fortunes of the U.S.merchant marine in general. As the theater of operations shifted so did the “hot spots” in which Cadet-Midshipmen found themselves in the greatest danger. In roughly chronological order as the war progressed, these hot spots were: the U.S. East Coast, the Caribbean, the  Murmansk run and the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and finally, the South Pacific.

The first danger zone for merchant shipping emerged along the eastern coast of the United States–an area that became known as “U-Boat Lane” in the early months of 1942. In a campaign named “Operation Paukenschlag (Drumbeat),” five German submarines arrived off the East Coast on January 11, 1942. During the next month, these subs sank 22 merchant ships. When they returned to Germany, they were replaced by another five submarines, which sank an additional 19 ships. This was known to the German crews as the “Happy Time”. Among the ships lost with cadets on board during this early phase of the war were the SS Azalea City, the SS Liberator, and the SS Jonathan Sturges.

Possible U.S. countermeasures to Operation Drumbeat were hampered by official denials of the severity of the situation. Fearing a general panic, the U.S. Navy claimed to be sinking German ships and denied serious losses. Navy brass, including Admiral Ernest J. King, spurned elementary tactics, such as coastal blackouts and convoys that could have afforded at least some protection to the merchant ships.

As merchant ship losses mounted in the summer of 1942, the U.S. Navy started a coastal convoy system. Navy air and surface escorts forced the U-boats to make their way to the Caribbean where convoys had not yet been implemented. The Caribbean soon became known as “The Bloody Sea.” In a little more than a month, between mid-February and mid-March, six German submarines sank 26 merchant ships. The U-boats moved with impunity in the area, often trailing ships within sight of land. U-boats even launched surface gun attacks on ships to conserve their precious torpedoes. Many ships carrying Cadet-Midshipmen were lost in the Caribbean in 1942, including the SS Nathaniel Hawthorne, the SS Alcoa Pilgrim, the SS Robert E. Lee, the SS Heredia, the SS Wichita, the SS Coamo, the SS Tela, and the SS West Chetac.

Extension of the U.S.coastal convoys to the Caribbean along with increasing numbers of escorts and aircraft ended the “Happy Time”, forcing U-boats to look for prey in the North Atlantic. The Battle of the Atlantic was a prolonged war of attrition fought by the allied merchant marine and navies against coordinated groups of German submarines. The outcome of this struggle ultimately determined the course of the war in Europe. Initially, the North Atlantic suffered from the same lack of organization and effective anti-submarine ships and aircraft as had the East Coast and Caribbean. However, unlike the East Coast and Caribbean, escorted convoys had been used by the British since 1940. The difference was the German Wolf Pack, a group of U-boats who were able to find a convoy and then coordinate their attacks on the convoy and overwhelm its escorts.

Few convoys arrived at their destination with all of the ships they started out with until the latter stages of the Battle of the Atlantic. A harsh reality of this struggle was the fate of ships damaged but not sunk in the initial attack. These ships could not keep up with the convoy and were left to their own devices. The fate of many of these “cripples” was unknown until after the war when German records could be reviewed.Although certainly a godsend to mariners, convoys had their limitations. They required enormous coordination and, because so many ships arrived at the destination port at once, they often created huge congestion which made an attractive target for air attacks, such as those at Bari,Italy.

Among the U.S.ships lost in the North Atlantic with Cadet-Midshipmen aboard were the SS Stone Street, the SS James McKay, the SS Henry Mallory, the SS Jonathan Sturges, and the SS Meriwether Lewis. The North Atlantic route saw the Academy’s deadliest sinking during the entire war that of the SS Louise Lykes, with five cadets and two graduates on board. Two cadets were also killed in the tragic sinking of USAT SS Dorchester, in which 675 persons were lost, including four Army chaplains who chose to remain on deck, praying, as the ship went down.

At sea, they were often subjected to ferocious battering by wind and waves. Monstrous rogue waves sometimes snapped ships in half. Ice build-ups added weight and introduced other hazards. In his memoir of  wartime experiences, Captain Richard Heinicke, Jr. ’44 spotlights another hazard of the North Atlantic, the extreme weather. Merchant ships were loaded to capacity and beyond.

“Weather in the North Atlantic in the winter of 1942-43 was horrendous. It was very cold throughout the crossings and extremely rough. Winds were at force 7-8 most of the time. Maintaining convoy position was difficult for most of the slower ships, but the Darien [Heinicke’s ship] was able to keep up. The main problem with our ship was that it was smaller than most and deeper in the water, requiring a constant battle to keep ice from building up on the standing rigging and upper decks. More time and effort was spent chopping ice than on vessel maintenance, which was difficult at best. Our lifeboats could not be swung out for fear of losing them in a heavy sea, so they remained up tight in their davits and chocks, partially frozen in place. Not a particularly pleasant thought.”

The North Atlantic included one of the most dreaded of all shipping routes, the “Murmansk Run”, one of three primary supply routes to Russia. Countless merchant sailors were lost and shipwrecked along this route. One Academy Cadet-Midshipman, Raymond Holubowicz, famously survived three sinkings along the Murmansk Run and was later awarded the Russian Medal for Distinction in Action by the Russian Government. On one trip to Murmansk(Convoy PQ-16) the Naval Armed Guard Commander aboard the SS Richard Henry Lee reported running out of ammunition for the .50 caliber anti-aircraft guns and breaking into the ship’s cargo to keep the guns firing.

One of the most infamous convoys of the war, Convoy PQ 17, was a Murmansk convoy from the United Kingdom offered as “bait” to entice the German battleship Tirpitz into battle with allied battleships. However, in the face of deteriorating weather and constant German air and submarine attacks, the convoy was ordered to scatter and each ship proceeded to Murmansk on its own. Of the 33 merchant ships that began the journey, 23 were sunk by bombs and torpedoes along the route after being abandoned to their fate by their British and American escort vessels. Among the vessels carrying Cadet-Midshipmen that were lost on the Murmansk run were the SS Syros, the SS Pan Atlantic, the SS Richard Henry Lee, the SS William Clark and the SS Richard Bland.

David F. White, maritime author, notes that something like 36,200 Allied sailors, airmen, and servicemen and women died in the North Atlantic between 1939 and 1945. Less heralded, but no less valiant, were the merchant mariners who died with them:

“Alongside these, some 36,000 merchant ship sailors were lost, many dying terrible deaths, plunging to the bottom of the Atlantic in ships which disappeared from the surface with all hands in less than twenty seconds; many others were succumbing to isolation, exposure, or starvation in open lifeboats or on rafts.”

Although the North Atlantic was the most treacherous region of the Atlantic, epic sea battles also were waged in the South and Central Atlantic. Given that ships in these regions were less likely to be protected by convoys, except near the African and South American coasts, ships frequently “disappeared” on these routes, with all hands lost and no witnesses to tell the stories of their destruction. In many cases, nothing was known of the fate of these ships until years after the war.

The crews of some ships, like the SS American Leader, were treated honorably by their German captors only to be turned over to the Japanese. A few, like the SS Stephen Hopkins, managed to fight back. The Stephen Hopkins stumbled upon the German commerce raider Stier and the supply ship Tannenfels. Unable to run away, the Stephen Hopkins’s gun crews inflicted grievous wounds on their attackers. Cadet-Midshipman Edwin J. O’Hara fired the last shot from the 4” gun and died along with most of the crew. The Stier was so severely damaged that she was scuttled by its crew shortly after the Stephen Hopkins sank.

In November 1942, the Mediterranean became the focal point in the war, as Allied forces invaded North Africa at Oran and Algiers. These and other North African ports quickly became vital supply and staging areas. However, with German and Italian air bases well within range, the “Narrow Sea” became increasingly treacherous for any ship. Submarines were more vulnerable in the confined seas and thus less of a threat to shipping, but the combination of air attacks and mines wreaked havoc on the Allied supply route.

In one particularly deadly attack, the vital Italian coastal port of Bari was attacked in early December 1943 by 105 German aircraft. Seventeen of the 50 ships moored in the harbor were sunk, including one with a cargo of poison gas. More than a thousand seamen and civilians, including six Academy Cadet-Midshipmen, died in the ensuing catastrophe and were subsequently buried in local cemeteries.  Those who survived the initial attacks quickly succumbed to the deadly mustard gas that was released into the air by the explosions on the SS John Harvey. (The gas was to be secretly stockpiled at Bari by the Allied powers in the event that Germany resorted to chemical warfare.) Another cadet, George Baist, on board the SS Lyman Abbott survived the attack but was hospitalized for shrapnel wounds and mustard gas exposure.

Other ships lost with Cadet-Midshipmen on board in the Mediterranean in the fall and winter of 1943-44 included the SS Bushrod Washington, the SS John L. Motley, the SS Samuel J. Tilden, the SS Robert Erskine and the SS Paul Hamilton.

German, Italian and Japanese submarines patrolled the shipping lanes along the east coast of Africa and Indian Ocean during the war. In the years 1939-45 there were 385 ships sunk, a total of 1,790,000 tons. These attacks were especially deadly during 1942 and 1943. In 1942, 242 Allied merchant ships were sunk in the Indian Ocean, with a loss of 715,000 tons of shipping. In April 1942, in a matter of days, Japanese subs and destroyers sank 23 Allied ships in the Bay of Bengal alone. Among the ships lost in the Indian Ocean with cadets aboard were the SS Bienville, the SS Cornelia P. Spencer, the SS Firethorn, the SS LaSalle, the SS Sawokla, the SS John Drayton, the SS William King and the SS Samuel Heintzelman. Most notorious of these was to the crew of the SS Jean Nicolet, most of who were tortured and murdered by the crew of a Japanese submarine.

The South Pacific began the war as a relatively safe part of the world for merchant ships, but that ended with the Allied invasion of the Philippines. American and Allied forces suffered significant losses in the invasions of the Philippines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa from Japanese suicide planes (kamikaze). In all, 44 merchant ships—primarily Liberty ships—were sunk in the South Pacific, mostly by kamikaze planes. Among those lost with Cadet-Midshipmen on board were the SS John Burke, the SS Hobbs Victory and the SS Saint Mihiel.

Life at Sea

At all times, the specter of death at sea hung over each Cadet-Midshipman. Those who had not yet shipped out heard harrowing tales. Most, if not all, would have asked themselves, “How will I hold up under fire when the time comes.” Constant reminders of death at sea were the Kings Point upperclassmen wearing the ribbon of a new and distinctive club, which was known first as the “Tin Fish Club” and subsequently as the “Tin Fishermen.”

Cadet Philip Torf ’44 , one of many cadets as members of the Tin Fish Club

This club was comprised of Academy Cadet-Midshipmen who had survived ship sinkings caused by enemy action. The club was suggested by Lieutenant William Slate, USMS, Public Relations Department, who noted that few, if any, students of other institutions had been subjected to hostile fire during their training. The concept was well received; within two months the club had 147 members. A Cadet-Midshipman whose ship had been lost through enemy action received a ribbon bar with a silver star by the War Shipping Administration. Additional sinkings merited additional silver stars. By December 1943, some cadets were sporting as many as six silver stars.

Stories of sinkings were also published regularly, with key identifying details obscured for security reasons, in Polaris published by Kings Point Cadet-Midshipmen. New cadets, in May of 1944, might have read the harrowing tale of Cadet-Midshipman Roberts, whose six months at sea had stretched to fourteen and included icy crossings, trips across the sub-infested Mediterranean, two torpedoings and three classmates lost. In addition to the stories of survivors, cadets were constantly surrounded by visual reminders of those who had not made it back to the Academy. Pictures of the missing and confirmed dead were hung in their respective departments in Fulton and Bowditch Halls. Polaris regularly published the names of those lost at sea.

Of course, most Cadet-Midshipmen did not have a ship sunk out from under them. The vast majority went to sea, did their best to make a contribution to the ship’s crew that was engaged in a strange, difficult and sometimes dangerous mission, and eventually made their way home again.

In that spirit, Polaris offered tips not only on how to survive, but also about how to be successful, both as a Cadet-Midshipmen and an officer. Cadets were urged, for example, to show humility, lend a hand whenever possible and work without complaint.

“Foremost in the requisites of a successful Cadet is to have the proper respect for superiors—not the showy type of respect but rather a deeply ingrained appreciation of the fact that the men in command are in command because of their knowledge and experience. You will never find it necessary to salute on board most merchant ships today but if you lack the proper respect of which we speak you will have your “oral hatch” battened down in short order. Have deference too for the veterans of the foc’sle. All this may leave the “prelim” wondering who will pay homage to his nice new uniform. The answer is blunt. No one.…

Generally you will take orders from no one but the mate or first. But be ready at all times to lend a hand where you can. Your working day may vary. Some Cadets stand the regular watches, four hours on and eight hours off. Others may be given “day work,” which means working on deck or below for about six hours a day. Use your study time to best advantage. You are given an invaluable opportunity to check the theory with the practical.Don’t hesitate to ask questions. You will find the average mariner helpful if he sees you are willing and eager to learn.

Adjust yourself to doing menial tasks. Remember to leave your dignity with your baby pictures. Sweeping decks is part of the game. On shipboard you will find very few places barred to you. Be sure though to knock on anyone’s door before entering. Deck Cadets should be most wary of how they behave on the bridge and in the chart room. . .”

At the end of the day, though, it came down to the luck of the draw. Every voyage combined tedium and terror in its own particular mix. Cadet-Midshipmen might be called upon to perform heroics, but was always called upon to perform menial and, occasionally, ridiculous tasks until he knew better. Cadets were told to have their clothes, knife, lifebelt and flashlight on them at all times. They were also cautioned to keep their cabin door open while at sea, never sleep on hatch covers and to “stay lucky”. Cadets frequently kept their Seaman’s papers and Sea Project in one of the life boats wrapped in an oilskin packet. Cadet –Midshipman William “Boots” Lyman’s letters home, in late 1942 and early 1943, suggested that he was one of the lucky ones, although there’s reason to suspect that he downplayed the dangers he faced in an effort to reassure his worried family,

“This business of going to sea is all right. We had a pleasant trip so far with no mishaps. There’s been a continual roll to the ship which seems quite natural, and though I did feel slightly nauseous when I was below decks, I did not get seasick. The other cadets aboard are good eggs, the Captain and the Mates the same. Of course, we don’t see the old man very much, but when we do he seems gruff, but good-natured.

The other deck cadet and myself stand 6-hour watches as that part of our working day. Two hours on the company and two hours on our own time complete the day, the four-hour period being study time. We stand our watches mostly on the bridge with the mates on watch. Though they are busy with keeping station in the convoy and all that, they manage to answer our questions, and make any necessary explanations. We will learn more as things become less rushed, and then the mates will let us help with the navigation and all that which will be still more interesting. Even now though, we have plenty to do and we are learning all the time.

The slop chest is open once a week, and you can buy most anything you want there, from shirts to slippers, and back again. The thing that tickles me is buying a carton of cigarettes for $.60 or two for the price of one at home. We have playtime too aboard ship. In the evening when there’s nothing to do, we often go topside and get out the semaphore flags to talk to neighboring ships. So far we’ve found plenty of cadets, but I don’t think any from my section are around.”

“A pleasant trip. No mishaps. Playtime.”  Six months after this letter was written Lyman’s luck ran out. His ship, the SS Timothy Pickering, carrying a devil’s brew of explosives and high-octane fuels was anchored 700 yards off the coast of Avola, Sicily, when it was attacked by a lone Stuka raider. A bomb dropped into the open Number 4 hatch and Lyman’s ship seemed to dissolve into thin air, in an explosion that was heard 50 miles out to sea. Lyman was one of three cadets to perish at Avola that day.

Life at Sea after the War Ended

When the war ended Graduates and Cadet-Midshipmen were employed providing food and material to rebuild war torn Europe. Additionally they manned the ships returning American troops to the USA, American POWs from Germany and Japan to the USA, war brides and children to USA, German POWs to Germany, Japanese who were interred in Canada to Japan, and Allied foreign nationals held in captivity by the Japanese back to Europe.

While the threat of torpedoes and bombing ended, the mined harbors were extremely dangerous to navigate. Charles Hart ‘45 was on board the SS Cedar Mills, American Petroleum Transport Co., when the ship hit a floating mine off Taranto, Italy, November 19, 1945. He was in the boiler room when it exploded; and he was found on the top of the engine room by Third Mate Fred Welford who was awarded the mariners Medal for the rescue. The explosion was so intense that it almost broke the vessel in two at the after end of the midships house; in fact there were only two plates on the starboard side that held the Cedar Mills together. The vessel was beached and declared a total loss.

Many Cadet-Midshipmen who served during the war returned to Kings Point to finish their education and graduated in the classes of 1946 through 1948. Other men chose to leave the Merchant Marine and find other careers.


Cadet Orndorff among survivors of SS James B. Stevens torpedoed off Durban 

Charles R. Hart ’45 attests that even after the War ended the danger of mines sunk his ship the SS Cedar Mills November 16, 1945

3 thoughts on “In the line of duty; where were the Hot Spots; Life at Sea

  1. Many, many cherished memories of times past, while serving aboard the aviation fuel tanker S. S. Silver Peak, in the south and central Pacific, in early 1945.

  2. Brought back many memories of time served aboard the tanker S. S. Silver Peak, in 1945. R. E. Hughes, ’47

  3. The other cadets killed on the Pickering with ‘Boots’ Lyman were: Larry McLauglin, and Warren Prime Marks. I have letters from Warren Marks to my mother when he was on the Pickering, and like Boots Lyman’s letter, they tell an interesting and poignant story.

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