Un­der at­tack

Be­ing on board when a ship was at­tacked quite an ex­pe­ri­ence

Cape Breton Post - - Weekend - Ran­nie Gil­lis Celtic Ex­pe­ri­ence Ran­nie Gil­lis is a re­tired teacher and guid­ance coun­sel­lor who lives in North Syd­ney. An avid writer, pho­tog­ra­pher and moto-jour­nal­ist, he is the au­thor of sev­eral books and has writ­ten travel sto­ries for var­i­ous Cana­dian a

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.

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