Born: June 1, 1924
Hometown: Del Rio, TX
Service: Merchant Marine
Position / Rank: Deck Cadet
Date / Place of death: March 16, 1943 / 50-38N, 34-
Date / Place of burial: March 16, 1943 / Lost at Sea –
According to Academy records, John R. Lambert signed on as Deck Cadet aboard the
new Liberty ship SS James Oglethorpe on February 22, 1943 at Savannah, GA, just a
few days after it was completed. He joined three other Cadet-Midshipmen who were
already aboard; Wayne D. Fajans (Engine), William H. Ford (Deck), and Richard
Record (Engine). After the SS James Oglethorpe completed the installation of its
armament and final fitting out and adjustments, the ship sailed for its first loading port.
The ship joined convoy HX-229 in New York on March 9, 1943 for a journey to
Liverpool, England. The James Oglethorpe was loaded with a cargo of steel, cotton,
food in the holds and a deck cargo of aircraft, tractors and trucks. It had a crew of 44
merchant sailors, 26 Naval Armed Guard, and 4 Navy passengers.
Cadet-Midshipmen Fajans later reported that,
“The weather was the usual kind experienced during this time of year in
the North Atlantic, i.e., dirty and heavy seas.”
In his report of the sinking, Cadet-Midshipman Ford stated,
“The day before our vessel was lost No. 2 boat was carried away by heavy
seas and Nos. 1 and 3 extensively damaged. As a result of this damage,
our available life savings equipment was materially reduced.”
Early in the evening of March 16, Cadet-Midshipman Wayne D. Fajans reported that he
had seen the conning tower of a submarine on the starboard side of the ship while at his
gun station and reported this fact to the gunnery officer. However, no action was taken
by the ship’s gun crews. Analysis of German Navy records found that the submarine
reported to have been seen by Cadet-Midshipman Fajans was not one of the
submarines that later attacked the James Oglethorpe.
At 2120 GCT on March 16, 1943, U-758 fired a “spread” of four torpedoes at convoy
HX-229, hitting, and sinking, the M/V Zaaland with one torpedo and the James
Oglethorpe with another. The U-758’s other two torpedoes missed. The James
Oglethorpe was hit in either Number 1 or Number 2 hold (survivor reports differ). The
torpedo’s impact started a fire in the cargo which was quickly extinguished. According
to the accounts of survivors, although the ship settled about three feet lower in the water
it did not appear to be in danger of sinking. However, the Captain did give permission,
or at least some crew members believed that he had given the crew permission, to
abandon ship despite the ship being in a hard left turn with its engines still running.
Of the remaining lifeboats (Number 4, 5 and 6) only the Number 6 boat was safely
launched. Cadet-Midshipman Fajans, who was in Number 5 boat, fell into the sea when
the boat’s forward fall broke. Seeing the chaos occurring with lowering the boats, the
Chief Mate and Cadet-Midshipman William Ford jumped into the sea, joining the men
from Number 4 and 5 boats in the water. The crew of the Number 6 lifeboat were able
to pick up some of the men in the water. The nine men in this boat were rescued by the
corvette HMS Pennywort (K 111). The destroyer HMS Beverly (H 64, ex-USS Branch
(DD 197)) rescued 21 other men from the water. These men were landed in Scotland
(HMS Pennywort) and Northern Ireland (HMS Beverly). Some of the men, including
Cadet-Midshipman Ford, returned to the U.S. aboard the SS Queen Mary.
About 30 members of the crew stayed on board to help the Captain sail the ship to St.
John’s, Newfoundland, the nearest harbor. The James Oglethorpe was last seen by
those in the lifeboat and in the water at about 0200 GCT still afloat and underway. The
ship, and its remaining crew, were never seen again. Although some accounts credit
U-91 with sinking the crippled SS James Oglethorpe on March 17, German Navy
records only credit U-91 with sinking the SS Irenee Du Pont and SS Nariva. It is likely
that the SS James Oglethorpe foundered due to the torpedo damage and high seas.
From the accounts of the thirty survivors it is unknown whether Cadet-Midshipmen John
Lambert and Richard Record were among the seventeen men who perished
abandoning the ship on March 16 or were among the thirty men lost when the James
Cadet-Midshipman John R. Lambert was posthumously awarded the Mariner’s Medal,
Combat Bar with star, Atlantic War Zone Bar, the Victory Medal and the Presidential
John R. Lambert was the only son of Gladys Lambert, a Registered Nurse. At some
point between 1935 and 1940 the Lamberts moved from Ypsilanti, MI to Del Rio, TX.