Ralph Jacob Kohlmeyer
Born: October 28, 1919
Hometown: Rego Park, NY
Service: Merchant Marine
Position / Rank: Engine Cadet
Date / Place of death: February 23, 1943 /
North Atlantic, 46-15 N, 38-11
Date / Place of burial: February 23, 1943 / Lost
At Sea, North Atlantic 46-15 N, 38-11 W
Ralph J. Kohlmeyer signed on as Engine Cadet aboard the Liberty Ship SS Jonathan Sturges at the Port of New York on January 12, 1943. He was sworn in as a Midshipman, USNR on September 18, 1942. Also onboard were Cadet-Midshipmen Harry Burlison (Deck), Grover Lietz (Engine), and William Wilson (Deck). The ship’s Chief Mate was 1940 Cadet Officer David L. Edwards. After safely delivering its cargo to England the Jonathan Sturges was returning to New York with Convoy ON-166 from Liverpool to New York City when it fell behind the convoy on the night of February 23/24, 1943. The ship, with a crew of 44 merchant mariners and a Naval Armed Guard of 31 was carrying 1,500 tons of sand ballast. In bad weather and poor visibility the Sturges was making 6 knots, about ½ its full speed.
At about 1 am, the vessel was struck in the forward part of the ship by two torpedoes fired by U-707. The engines were secured, but the ship, which had apparently been broken in two, began to sink bow first. Survivors recalled that the explosions gave off a sweet odor, and left a sweet taste in their mouths for hours after the incident.
Although the radio officer was able to send a distress signal, there was no time to await a reply as the crew abandoned ship. Two lifeboats and four life rafts were successfully launched, and the 40 surviving crew and 20 surviving Armed Guard Sailors were divided between the boats and rafts. The Sturges’ first lifeboat, with twenty-three survivors met up with a lifeboat carrying three survivors from the Dutch ship SS Madoera on February 27. The men in the Madoera’s lifeboat had also rescued some of the Sturges’ survivors who had been aboard the four life rafts. The survivors were divided between the two boats. Although one of the survivors in the Madoera’s lifeboat died of exposure, the other eighteen (along with the three Madoera survivors) were rescued by the USS Belknap (DD 251) on March 12, 1943. However, the Jonathan Sturges’ other lifeboat, with the ship’s master, Chief Mate David Edwards and fifteen other survivors was never seen again. Ironically, one of the Sturges’ life rafts, carrying 6 survivors and one fatality, was picked up on April 5 by U-336. After six days on the submarine the survivors were put ashore in Brest, France and spent the rest of the war in a Prisoner of War camp in Bremen, Germany.
Cadet-Midshipman Ralph J. Kohlmeyer, along with the three other cadets, was killed in the incident. He was posthumously awarded the Mariners Medal, Combat Bar, Atlantic War Zone Bar, Victory Medal, and the Presidential Testimonial Letter.
Ralph Kohlmeyer was the youngest, by thirteen years, of Jacob Kohlmeyer and Matilda Kohlmeyer’s two sons. According to Ralph’s niece, Joan Cabble, Ralph loved dancing and was a frequent listener to the “Make Believe Ballroom” radio show. While he was attending Richmond Hill High School he worked as a Life Guard. The yearbook for his senior year (1939) lists his accomplishments as receiving the “Scholarship Pin”, being a “Junior Arista” and being involved with the Commercial Honor Society, Who’s Who Committee and basketball intramurals. According to the 1940 census after graduating from High School Ralph was employed as a clerk in a brokerage house.