William Stewart Sempell
Born: January 23, 1924
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Service: Merchant Marine
Position / Rank: Engine Cadet
Date / Place of death: September 14, 1943 / Gulf of Salerno
Date / Place of burial: September 14, 1943 / Gulf of Salerno
May 7, 1943 at New York, NY, just two weeks after the ship had been completed. He
was joined by his classmate, Cadet-Midshipman George E. Pancratz who signed on as
Deck Cadet the same day. Shortly thereafter the Bushrod Washington sailed for the
Mediterranean where it remained for the rest of its short life.
On September 3, 1943, the Bushrod Washington sailed from Oran with a convoy bound
for the landing beaches at Salerno, Italy, with a cargo of ammunition, high octane
aviation gasoline in drums, bombs, “C” rations, Army trucks and landing craft. The
vessel arrived at Salerno on September 11th, and anchored about three quarters of a
mile off Salerno Beach, in a northeast-southwest direction, stern to shore. The Bushrod
Washington was carrying a crew of 42 merchant seaman and 33 Naval Armed Guard.
The ship’s Master was Jonathan Wainwright, V, son of General Jonathan Wainwright,
the American Commander at Corregidor and Bataan in the Philippines.
On September 14th at 1322, the vessel was attacked by either German dive bombers or
glide bombs. Much of the cargo had been unloaded over the previous days, but the
gasoline and explosives were still on board. One bomb missed the ship by about 150
feet while another struck the vessel in the midship house between Lifeboat #2 and #4.
This bomb went through the crew mess room and exploded below the main deck.
Reports differ on whether the bomb hit the engine room directly, or landed in the ice
machine room nearby. In either case, the ship’s engines were moved to starboard by
the force of the explosion, and the port boiler exploded. The engine crew on duty,
which included the First Assistant Engineer and the Cadet-Midshipman William
Sempell, never made it out of the engine room.
The explosion also ignited the gasoline in the Number 4 hold, and within minutes the
entire ship was a raging inferno. At 1352, the Captain ordered the crew to abandon
ship. Many crew members made it into the #1 and #3 lifeboats. Others jumped
overboard and were rescued by small boats that came alongside the ship. The injured
crew members were placed on a hospital ship. The Captain and four other crew
members later re-boarded the ship in an attempt to extinguish the fire, but this proved
impossible, and the ship was finally abandoned. Six members of the Bushrod
Washington’s crew and one of the Naval Armed Guard were lost in the bombing.
Cadet-Midshipman William S. Sempell was posthumously awarded the Mariners Medal,
Combat Bar with star, Atlantic War Zone Bar, Mediterranean-Middle East War Zone
Bar, the Victory Medal, and Presidential Testimonial Letter.
William “Bill” Sempell was the oldest son and second of Otto William Sempell and
Helen Sempell’s three children. Bill’s big sister was Carol, while his little brother was
Warren. The family lived in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn where Otto was employed
as a plumber. According to the Sempell family, William was baptized by his great-grandfather, a minister in Ocean Grove, New Jersey where the family had a summer
Bill’s sister Carol recalled that he sold magazines on the street as a child, and later
ushered in local movie theaters. Bill was a Boy Scout, was active in his church, and
often took advantage of the cultural events in nearby New York City. Carol recalled that
he spent many days at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, and also visited Radio City
Music Hall soon after its opening. After Bill graduated from Erasmus High School he
applied to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. Helen Sempell, who lived to be 106,
always kept a framed picture of Bill near her. Otto Sempell always led the Memorial
Day activities in Pocantico Hills, NY where the family moved in 1945. Warren, Bill’s
younger brother, followed Bill to Kings Point. He began his Sea Year on January 1,
1945 as a Deck Cadet aboard the SS Alden Besse, less than two years after his