Being on board when a ship was attacked quite an experience
Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part column. Part one appeared in the Cape Breton Post on Saturday, April 29.
“Watch the skies! Enemy aircraft may attack at any time. You can be sure that our Navy fighter planes, and our on-board Navy Armed Guard gunners, will defend the ship from attack by the Germans or Japanese. We haven’t been sunk yet! (Fly-by weather permitting.)”
This was one of several announcements that came over the ship’s loudspeakers, as we cast off our mooring lines at the cruise ship terminal in Baltimore, Maryland, and headed for the open waters of the 200mile long Chesapeake Bay. I was on the SS John W. Brown, a World War Two vintage merchant ship that belonged to a class of ships that were known as Liberty Ships.
More than 2,700 of these vessels were built, including the one that had been towed into our local harbour, in August of 1943. The SS J. Pinckney Henderson, loaded with munitions, poison gas, and several types of aviation gasoline, had been sailing after midnight and in thick fog, when it collided with an American oil tanker in the same convoy. Only three of her 67-crew survived!
All three had been out on deck having a smoke break when the initial explosions tossed them into the ocean where they were quickly picked up by a naval escort vessel. When the burning ship had been beached, on the west side of Point Edward, it took more than three weeks for the fires to be extinguished. Only portions of 32 bodies were recovered, and all were buried in a common grave in Hardwood Hill Cemetery in Sydney.
We were approximately halfway into our six-hour “Voyage into History” cruise, at sea off Baltimore, Maryland, when the aerial attack came. As would have happened during a World War Two convoy in the Pacific Ocean, there was no warning. Just the sound of aircraft engines approaching at a high rate of speed, followed by the call to “ACTION STATIONS,” over the ship’s loudspeakers. Then, as some navy veterans would say, for the next 15 minutes, “all hell broke loose!”
Our Liberty Ship came under a sustained, co-ordinated, attack from five vintage Japanese aircraft, both single-engine torpedo bombers, and twin-engine fighter-bombers. They came at us from both sides, and in daring head-on attacks at low level, often just a few metres above the ocean.
All the while our ship’s antiaircraft gunners did their best, in all the considerable noise and confusion, to bring their guns to bear, and try and shoot
down these “enemy” planes. At one point two of the aircraft started trailing black smoke, which only added to the vivid nature of this “simulated” attack. Then, just as suddenly as it started, the “enemy” attack was over, and we all caught our collective breath.
To say it was an incredible experience, would be a definite understatement. It was the closest thing to actual combat that I could ever have imagined. Indeed, for the next several minutes the ears of all 300 “guests” on board were still ringing, from the incredible non-stop, staccato-like gunfire, that we had just experienced.
It was now time for a memorial service, in honour of all American merchant marine sailors who lost their lives in World War Two. There were 8,421 who died, on the 1,554 cargo ships that were lost to enemy action. A US Navy squad fired a volley from their service rifles, and several wreaths were thrown into the sea, including several from civilians who
had lost family members in the Merchant Marine.
As we sailed back to Baltimore three young women, dressed as the 1943 vocal trio “The Andrews Sisters,” sang a melody of Second World War songs, and several of the older people on board got up and danced on the deck. It was a fitting tribute to a ceremony that touched us all, and brought to a close a sailing experience that none of the more than 300 “souls on board” will ever forget.
Next month: New research has revealed a fascinating connection between the American grave site on Hardwood Hill, and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York.
A U. S. Navy Honour Guard is shown on the deck of the SS John W. Brown.
A ship’s gunner prepares to engage an attacking Japanese aircraft.
Dressed as the famous Andrews Sisters, a vocal trio entertains the ship’s crew and guests.