The Alexander Hamilton’s Last Mission

By William A. Ogletree

 

No official word was passed to the radio room as to our destination after being relieved by British corvettes of our first trans-Atlantic convoy, but according to the scuttlebutt, we were heading north to Iceland to join a convoy to Murmansk. On January 22, however, we received a message that the USS Yukon was disabled and the ALEXANDER HAMILTON was ordered on a search and rescue mission to save the vessel, which we understood was the largest refrigerator ship in the world.

The British Home Office had announced that the German battleship, Tirpitz, escaped from its last known Trondheim Bay anchorage, in bad weather that prevented surveillance. Its present position was unknown but it was natural to fear that the world’s most powerful battleship would come steaming from the mouth of Trondheim Bay without warning and lay waste to all vessels encountered. As our search for the Yukon took us northward, orders for combat against a major warship were posted on the bulletin boards, in essence: “shoot at personnel, because you can’t sink the ship.”

This fear peaked later that year when the British Admiralty sent three urgent messages in rapid succession to Convoy PQ-17. The first announced that the Tirpitz had broken blockade and was racing out to sea, through Trondheim Bay. The second ordered major warships in the large convoy to head north and avoid engagement. The third ordered all ships in the convoy to scatter. Disaster resulted as U-boats torpedoed merchant ships until all torpedoes were expended, then simply surfaced in safety and sank ships with cannon fire. During daylight hours, low-flying planes bombed ships that had escaped the U-boat attacks. The few ships that eventually reached port carried some crewmen who had already survived the sinking of six ships. The real irony of the great losses is that the Tirpitz never steamed out of Trondheim Bay, but in heavy fog, merely changed position to another fjord.

Our search ended the next day when we found the Yukon in the Irish Sea. In strong gusting winds, our crew tried many times to fire a line over to the ship. Each time, pitching of the Cutter and the winds caused misses, but finally, we were happy to see the line fall across the other ship. Our joy was brief because the Yukon signaled, “Shoot another line. That one landed in the rigging!”

The OD then requested that the Yukon shoot a line to our ship. After a few shots, their line fouled in our rigging. Despite the violent motions of the ship in the rough sea and the high winds, a seaman went aloft on the icy rigging and retrieved the line. Larger lines were then passed back and forth, until the 12-inch hawser from the ALEXANDER HAMILTON was winched onto the Yukon. The OD requested the Yukon to secure it to the end of the ship’s anchor chain, then be let out thirty fathoms. The Yukon preferred to secure it to towing bitts in the bow. In smooth seas, that would have been satisfactory, but in the stormy seas we could make good headway of less than two knots and the hawser parted on the second day.

The broken line had to be heaved aboard, and the part jettisoned from the bow of the Yukon had to be retrieved, the frayed ends had to be dressed, then the two ends of the 12-inch hawser had to be spliced together. It was a big job that required expertise, hard work and several hours to complete, during which we nervously hoped that the war was on hold.

When the hawser was spliced, the line-firing operation was attempted in high wind and a rough sea. After succeeding in lodging a line on the other ship, when it was pulled back, we got only the bitter end. The Yukon signaled, “Fire us another line. We forgot to tie on!”

Captain Hall was a calm man, but now his exasperation showed. He ordered Executive Officer LCDR Moody, “Go to the stern lookout post and advise me when we are close!”

He had the Cutter steered forward, then reversed direction and backed down toward the port bow of the Yukon, which was towering high above us. I heard Mr. Moody’s voice rising in alarm as he reported in rapid succession, “She’s getting close, sir!” Then, “She’s close, sir!” And finally, “She’s very close, sir!”

At which point, Captain Hall spoke over a megaphone to the Yukon, “Throw down a line!”

A monkey fist landed on the quarterdeck of the Cutter and as we moved away to prevent a collision, larger lines were passed to and fro, until finally the spliced hawser was ready to be passed over. The Yukon was again signaled to secure the hawser to the end of the anchor chain and let out 30 fathoms. Captain Hall added, “If you do not comply, we must leave you!”

That time, instructions were obeyed, and the catenary of the heavy anchor chain acted as a spring to absorb the shock of rough seas, we made headway at about five knots, towing the 12,500-ton Yukon that was five times larger than the ALEXANDER HAMILTON. Our destination was Hvalfjordur, Iceland, where large convoys were assembled and where the Yukon might be repaired.

After leaving Casco Bay, the ALEXANDER HAMILTON and other escort vessels observed radio silence, except for UHF transmissions within the convoy. The major job in the radio room was to copy the “Fox”[1] transmissions from Navy Radio Station Cheltenham, call sign NSS. All messages had to be copied, because the actual addressee was enciphered in the text, and the Radioman could not know if any of the messages were for his ship. We also monitored 500 kcs. for messages from ships in distress. Submarine sightings were reported using the signal “SSS”, then the ship’s call sign and latitude and longitude. Many times, we heard distant “SSS” signals first, then “SOS,” after the ship had been fired on by the U-boat and was sinking.

At that time, the ALEXANDER HAMILTON class of Cutters did not have radar. During the Atlantic crossing, I would tune to frequencies used by German U-boats at night and listen for radio transmissions. As we approached the continent, the number of signals increased, but they were usually weak, indicating a safe distance separated us. When we were in the Irish Sea, the signals became stronger, so I went to the ship’s Bridge, where I would spend the night, taking bearings on U-boat signals with the ship’s radio direction finder. As we had no means on the ship for deciphering the encoded messages, I simply took a bearing on the signal, then listened to the operator’s “fist,” trying to detect peculiarities in the way he keyed the characters. I would assign letter-number designations, beginning with A1, and note any peculiarity heard during the transmission. The German operators were well-trained, and there was great uniformity in their keying, but frequently I detected subtle differences in the way a certain character or combination of characters was keyed and could get an idea of the number of submarines in the area, their relative bearing from our ship, and from the strength of the received signal, a rough idea of each sub’s distance.

Unterseeboots

It was January 28th Unterseeboot U-132 had been running submerged during daylight hours. Now within the surveillance area of aircraft patrols from Iceland, the chances of not being sighted and bombed by a patrol plane were better if only the periscope was above the surface, especially in rough seas. At night they would run on the surface under diesel power and recharge the batteries. Normally that would be the best of times, but there was a problem with the diesel. One cylinder fired erratically and maximum speed was less than eight knots, but worse still, diesel fumes filled the engine room and was carried throughout the U-boat, causing discomfort to everyone below deck. Just that day MaschinenOberGruppefuhrer Grassen found the fault was due to microscopic holes in the high-pressure line to the misfiring cylinder. Since it was a one-in-a-million defect, there was no spare tubing aboard. KapitanLeutnant Vogelsang said that he would arrange an early meeting with die Milchkuh U-461. If they had not suitable tubing on board, that line would have to be stubbed off to prevent fumes. Then maximum speed on the surface would be less than eight knots, but Kapitan Vogelsang would never ask permission to abort the new mission.

After dark, U-132 surfaced and one third of the crew went topside to breathe the fresh air for an hour before going on watch. A second group then went topside for one hour before going below to sleep. The next watch could have as much of three hours in the cold fresh air as they wished.

Kapitan Vogelsang said, “FunkGruppefuhrer Kern will take the next watch tonight, since it is important to get the message on the diesel problem to milchkuh U-461.” (Although armed with cannon and torpedo tubes, the real mission of U-461 was to supply the killer U-boats.) U-132 had the latest antenna mast, which greatly increased the range of its radio transmitter, making it possible to communicate with Berlin, but that night the emphasis was on contacting U-461.

Five of the U-132 class were then operating in the North Atlantic shipping lanes from Iceland to Greenland, and depending on U-461 for food, fuel, spare parts and re-supply of munitions. Radio transmission was the usual means of arranging a rendezvous and required running on the surface, a nightly routine.

Kern felt good after an hour on deck topside, breathing the fresh cold air and running in place. He relieved Funkmate Dierk, who told him that he had heard U-461 sending messages, but none had been addressed to U-132. He would know, because the code machine was at the operating position and he was cleared to use it. Kern took the notes Grasser had prepared on the diesel problem and began typing the message on the encoding machine. It was addressed to U-461 for action, and to Buro der Unterseeboot [BdU] for information. He had almost completed encoding the message at 22:45 when the soundman suddenly announced that a ship was approaching U-132 at high speed. Men on deck scurried down the ladder to take up battle station as the U-boat dived.

The destroyer Gwin was screening the ALEXANDER HAMILTON and the Yukon, ranging as far out as three miles, when the Radarman reported a target on the screen, four miles distant and bearing 100 degrees relative. If the target was a submarine, it was too far away to be a threat to the other two ships, so it was observed briefly on the radar, then the Gwin changed course directly toward the target and increased speed to 30 knots. When the target was less than one mile away, it suddenly disappeared from the screen. The Gwin continued on course and upon reaching the calculated position of the target, dropped a 600-lb. depth charge.

Kapitan Vogelsang had ordered a dive to 13 meters and a change of course, hard to port at full speed on battery power. When the U-boat had traveled about two minutes, there was a strong explosion, estimated to be 1,000 meters to the stern. The U-boat was listening but dared not echo range. In a few minutes, the destroyer was heard again, passing to the stern. The men braced themselves for more depth charges, but none came and the destroyer continued to search in a wide circle around the position of the explosion. The U-boat moved ahead at 20 meters depth on its westward course. After one hour of cautious headway, Vogelsang brought the U-boat up to periscope depth and peered around into the darkness. A cloud cover was preventing any moonlight, but there was some comfort in peering through the periscope. It and the sound equipment provided the only connection to the outside world.

Leutnant Anton relieved Vogelsang. Kern, who remained on watch, requested that the U-boat surface so that he could transmit his message. But before Anton could comply, the sound of a vessel’s screw was reported, bearing 290 degrees. It was a different sound, not the destroyer, which could be heard faintly, then bearing 130 degrees. Anton reduced speed and the sound grew stronger as the bearing approached 270 degrees. The change in bearing told Anton that the ship was not going to collide with U-132, but would pass to its stern. He stared intently through the periscope and began to recognize a pattern of fluorescence that could only be made by the bow of an oncoming ship. It was moving slowly, he estimated at less than five knots, and the soundman reported that the signal and pattern of sounds had been constant.

Kapitan Vogelsang was awakened and briefed on the situation. He peered through the periscope at the bow wave of the vessel that was passing to the stern of U-132 and got the bearing of the ship’s screw from the soundman as 230 degrees, from which he estimated the ship’s length to be between 100 and 120 meters. He wondered aloud why such a ship would be going at a speed of 5 knots, as he peered intently in the direction of the ship’s stern. After a while he announced, “It is a small ship, towing a much larger ship. I can see where the towline breaks the surface of the water, and I see the bow wave of the ship being towed. Both are easy targets, but of doubtful value. The destroyer would be on us. We are limited in propulsion, so it is better to use them as a shield until the destroyer relaxes its vigilance.

“We can surface on the starboard quarter of the tow ship. Its powerful engines make so much noise, our diesel might not be heard, but to lessen the chances of being detected, continue running on batteries. These two ships are no threat to us. Their soundmen are echoing now, but abeam, on opposite sides from the destroyer, and the destroyer is listing and probably searching with its radar seaward, away from these two ships.

“Tonight so long as we have this low, dense overcast, the only clue to our presence will be the little bow waves we make, but the sea chop will hide them.

“Leutnant Anton, take over and give the order to surface. See to it that we stay parallel to the towline and less than 50 meters from it. Keep close to the two ship’s starboard quarter and be alert for sudden changes in course as the tow ship will be steering a zigzag course. Call a new watch on the hour and maintain a double watch in battle readiness while Kern transmits his message, then maintain radio silence and rotate watches every two hours while we run in company with these ships.”

I was on the bridge, listening to U-boat traffic. Suddenly a signal was very strong as a message heading was being sent. The relative bearing of the signal was 176 degrees. This fist was machine-like. I tuned away from the frequency and could hear key clicks everywhere on the band. The U-boat had to be very near!  I thought it must be within one-quarter mile. I reported what I was hearing to the OD. He called the captain on the ship’s phone, but hesitated to speak, then handed me the phone.

After hearing me out, Captain Hall said, “Very well. Carry on and let me know if you get any new information.”

The OD then asked me, “How sure are you that it is a U-boat? It could be the Gwin, or even the Yukon, or some other vessel. The sub doesn’t just send out, ‘Hey, I’m a U-boat!’ does it?”

“Yes, sir, it does, if you know what to listen for, and I know!”

“How far away is it?”

Not knowing for sure, and wanting to avoid undue alarm, I said, “May be as far away as two miles—may be five miles. If it keeps sending, I will take a series of bearings and try to plot its position.”

“Five miles! Heck, nothing to worry about, and the gentleman breathed a deep sigh of relief. A snowstorm struck suddenly, accompanied by a near gale force nor’wester. The lookouts on the wings of the bridge, the bow and stern, were ordered to take cover. After a brief conference with the Navigation Officer, the OD ordered a slight change of course into the wind. By that time the U-boat with the very strong signal had stopped sending.

During the night I had already noted five fists that I thought were different operators, all with fairly strong signals. I supposed that one signal belonged to the “Milchkuh” which supplied small U-boats that operated distant from the home port and required radio contacts to rendezvous. We knew that the killer subs had little space for comfort or supplies. They were built for finding and sinking helpless prey, such as merchant ships, and those like the disabled Yukon and its tow ship, the ALEXANDER HAMILTON.

For nearly two nerve-wracking hours, U-132 ran on the surface. Lookouts fore and aft watched the pattern of fluorescence made by the tow ship and its towline, and telephoned changes to the helmsman. Men off watch could go topside, where only whispered conversation was permitted. The destroyer cruised at about 12 knots, circling the vessels clockwise at a fair constant one-mile radius. Kern had waited for a break in messages being sent before beginning his long report, which he had broken into two separate messages. When the wind freshened and a snow squall struck, it was impossible for the lookouts to see the bow wave and towline fluorescence. They asked for permission to go below, and it was granted. Leutnant Anton told the sound man to report any change in propeller sounds from the tow ship and any change in bearing, then sent for the Kapitan.

Vogelsang quickly grasped the gravity of the U-boat’s predicament. “You cannot rely on sound alone to maintain position. We don’t dare echo to measure distance, and without vision, we cannot be sure where these ships are!” He gave the order, “Prepare to dive!” The hatches were quickly closed. Kern stopped sending abruptly, having no time to complete his transmission of the message.

The soundman was told to listen for the destroyer in the direction of the two ships and to call out the bearing when first heard clear of its starboard bow. A few minutes later he called out, “Clear at 10 degrees.” The Kapitan then ordered, “Dive! Maintain 20 meters! Full speed ahead!” When that depth was reached, a 45-degree turn to the right was ordered.

So long as the U-boat kept it position with the destroyer’s circular track, Vogelsang reasoned, it could not detect U-132, for it would always be looking and listening to seaward. Holding a course that put his U-boat between the tow ship and the destroyer, he would be in a safe zone, never scanned by either vessel.

The tow ship and the ship being towed had provided the perfect shield, but he must distance his U-boat 18,000 meters from the destroyer, then take the U-boat to the surface to run and charge its batteries. If the snowstorm or low overcast held in daylight, there would be little danger of being spotted by a patrol plane from Keflavik. He was going to have to live with the aircraft hazard until his torpedoes were used up, because he had been ordered to hunt ships in a two-letter designation, which included the channels to Reykjavik, Iceland.

Undetected by the destroyer, the U-132 steered the same course for two more hours, then surfaced. The dense fog was gone and the moon was out, shining brightly. Vogelsang set the course toward Gardskagi, knowing that his position by dead reckoning could be in error after the night’s activity. He knew that boats of the Icelandic fishing fleet would be out before daybreak and if the usual morning fog did not occur, the U-boat would have to submerge to avoid being sighted. His plan was to stay under one of the boats as it returned to port. His charts showed numerous uninhabited fjords. He would seek out a deep fjord, free of boat traffic and mines, to use as a refuge after attacking vessels in the shipping lanes.

Grassen had stubbed off the fuel line to cylinder number three, which he fitted with a vent so that it did not present a high-pressure load to the other cylinders. The diesel ran smoother than expected, but the power was noticeably reduced. Eight knots was the maximum surface speed, but the engine no longer loaded the air system with atomized diesel fumes.

At 06:20 a lookout report a flashing white light on the horizon, three points off the port bow. Leutnant Anton said its period agreed with that of Skagaflus (Skagi Light) on the chart. He corrected the U-boat’s heading and estimated that he would bring it abeam five miles to the north by 08:00. For the next 30 minutes, U-132 practiced Alarumsuchen (alert diving).

U-132 was running submerged in Faxaflòi (Faxa Bay) when a heavy snowstorm commenced at 08:25. The U-boat surfaced to resume battery charging and listen for any radio transmission from U-461.

On Board Hamilton

As was my custom, at daybreak I left the bridge and went to the radio room where I tuned in a station, preferably WCX, and copied press. On the convoy we had been officially relieved of that duty, because of the importance of getting solid copy on all Fox transmissions. After a few days, however, rumors about Allied defeats in battles circulated among the crew. One person that seemed to delight in repeating the rumors, and I suspected of originating them, never tired of telling us about his father’s experience as a U-boat officer in the First World War. Written press, though censored at its sources, was biased and often-reported old setbacks, nevertheless it did provide a solid anchor for discussions. Copies of the press were put on bulletin boards and circulated in the officer’s wardroom. The bad rumors decreased.

After breakfast, I turned in. At noon, Radioman Rowe woke me and said that I should get up and eat lunch.

“The sea is calmer. It’s the best chow we’ve had since we left the states.”

I said I’d rather sleep, not knowing how important a decision I was making.

On Board U-132

At 10:50 message 0947/253 was received from U-boat headquarters. It was addressed to Vogelsang and commended his action the previous night: “WELL DONE! WHEN INTERFERENCE OCCURS [during radio communications] COMMANDER HAS TO DECIDE IF TO CONTINUE AS PLANNED IS POSSIBLE OR TO RETREAT. REPEAT MESSAGE AND ADVISE IF REPAIR OF FUEL PIPES ON BOARD IS POSSIBLE.)

Kern transmitted the previous night’s messages, and followed with the reply to BdU: “COULD REPAIR IF NEW FUEL PIPES WERE ON BOARD. OPERATING WITHOUT ONE CYLINDER. TOP SURFACE SPEED ONLY 8 KNOTS.”

At 12:09, alarm sounded and coast became visible as snowstorm broke. Three fishing vessels were in sight and smoke from ships was visible. Lead ship could be seen at 6000 meters distance. Ordered battle stations manned.

At 12:30, could see that lead ship was similar to Brideford or Bridgewater. It changed course constantly. U-132 could not get a shot. The slow moving ship seemed to listen for 30 minutes, then turned south. One periscope. One companion ship was 500 meters distant. Ordered attack and dove to 20 meters. After three minutes, explosion heard at 13:12 hours.

The First U.S. Warship is Sunk in the Atlantic After Pearl Harbor

The next time I awoke, I was lying on the deck in total darkness, unable to avoid breathing something in the air that was acrid and stinging. There was a terrible ringing in my ears and at first I could hear nothing. I realized I was not alone as I began hearing voices. I crawled toward the bulkhead, felt my bunk and searched for my clothes. I found my dungaree pants, and called out to ask if anyone knew the way out. Just then, somebody managed to get the forecastle hatch open to the upper deck and I saw the shaft of light. Wearing only my pants and skivvies, I exited through the hatch and ran up to the radio room. I was relieved to see all of the Radiomen standing outside, apparently uninjured. “Did a boiler explode?”

“No, we’ve been torpedoed!” Radioman Sproston told me.

“Where are the Yukon and the destroyer escort vessel?”

“She’s off our port bow. Less than thirty minutes ago she dropped our hawser and was taken in tow by the British tug Frisky. Our crew got the hawser stowed and we were just getting underway when the explosion occurred. Nobody saw the torpedo, but they’re sure on the bridge, that’s what it was. The destroyer went off escorting the Yukon. She’s got the smoke pouring out of her stack—looks like she’s outrunning the tug, getting the hell out of here!”

Inside the radio room, the equipment was in ruins. The deck had swelled in large blisters, but under the linoleum the metal was not ruptured. I saw at a glance that our transmitters were wrecked beyond any chance of repair, except for the shock-mounted UHF transmitter, which I thought might be operable if I could get power to it. Outside, I saw the emergency motor generator was dislodged from its mounts, with its power lines broken.

Radioman Herrin informed me that General Quarters had been called. As my battle station was the radio room, I went inside and worked at extracting the locker containing the emergency radio set from the debris. I had just succeeded and was about to open it when I heard the word was passed: “Abandon Ship.” In that event, my duty was to take the emergency radio set aboard lifeboat No. 5. On the starboard side of the ship, only a broken piece of No. 5 hung on the davit, so I moved the locker forward to lifeboat No. 3. As I loaded it into the boat, Captain Hall called down from the Bridge: “Whose suitcase is that?”

“It’s the emergency radio set, sir.”

He directed me to set up on board and notify him when it was ready to transmit. In a few minutes I had rigged the antenna, connected the transceiver and the rotary converter to the six volt storage battery and tuned to a Navy frequency where I heard the Yukon on key, working Keflavik Air Base, which reported the dispatch of a plane armed with depth charges to search for the submarine. I reported that information to Captain Hall and he ordered me not to transmit a distress message, until further orders. As I stood by, Master-at-Arms McKinnon called out to me, “We need help carrying the injured men from the Sick Bay to the lifeboats.”

In the sickbay, Dr. Finger motioned to a man on a mattress, “Take this man.” I saw that it was my buddy, Signalman George Holl. I took hold of the mattress at George’s head, and a tall black shipmate. W.P. Alexander from Mobile, grabbed the other end. Twice, I felt the mattress slipping from my hands and had to ask Alexander to hold up while I got a new grip. We took George to the lifeboat, which had been lowered to deck level, and requested help to place him aboard. George spoke for the first time, “Look fellows, don’t bother. Just put me in a box and dump me overboard. It’s all over for me.”

A man I knew as “Damper Dan” was the only person rescued from the engine room. (Burton Sharer had climbed down hot steam pipes and pulled Dallas O’Neal out). His clothes were wet and large patches of burned skin hung from his face and arms. When we tried to get him to lie on a mattress, he said “Don’t touch me. I’ll walk.” As we opened the sickbay door and the cold wind struck him, he faltered, shivered and his teeth chattered, but he kept walking. I walked backwards, facing him and urging him to keep coming. He made it to the lifeboat and sat down with a blanket for a wrap. He appeared to be in much worse condition than did George Holl, but he survived and George did not.

Willing hands helped carry the wounded men to the four lifeboats that appeared to be undamaged. After some of the wounded were loaded, an officer, and able-bodied men to row the boat, took the remaining space in Lifeboat No. 1 as it was lowered. Lifeboat No. 2 was launched next, then Lifeboat No. 4, a self-bailing surfboat which, unbeknownst to us, was damaged by the explosion. It was rowed only a short distance from the ship when it sank to gunwale level. The wounded were buoyed up by their shipmates over the boat’s keel and then clung to the gunwales. They wore lifejackets, but they could not long survive in Icelandic waters, it being January 29th. Two men swam back to the ship. Lifeboat No. 3 was last to be launched.

Report From the U-boat

13:18 two depth charges were heard 1,500 meters away.

13:41 while running at 13 meters depth, saw destroyer 70 meters distant. It moved away slowly. One machine boat and one steamship were stopped in one location. U-132 attacked with one torpedo. Destroyer went to high speed and turned toward us. Torpedo missed! Noise jammed our sound equipment. We sneaked slow, almost stopped for 30 minutes, then rose to 13 meters to get periscope view.

15:05 aircraft could be seen, circling overhead.

16:25 while underway at 13 meters depth, could see destroyer bearing 70 degrees, 700 meters distant, moving away slowly. The steamer was stopped in place. One machine boat was in view. We attacked with one torpedo. Destroyer took off immediately and turned toward us. Missed with one torpedo! Static jammed our sound equipment. U-132 sneaked slow, almost stopped, for 30 minutes.

19:03 aircraft dropped one bomb—it was a far miss.

19:26 aircraft dropped a second bomb, which was also a far miss. Very stressful for crew.

20:30 after having to rotate watches every hour, steered course away from coast to find peace and quiet, so crew could rest and eat. Reloaded torpedo tubes 1 and 3.

Oli Gudmundsson, captain of the Icelandic fishing boat Freyja of Njardvik, saw the plight of the men in the lifeboats and went to their rescue. His 45-foot boat was greatly overloaded by the 33 men he took aboard, eight of whom were injured. He headed into the Arctic wind force that poured down from the mountain passes, bound for Reykjavik where there was a hospital to treat the wounded men. The Freyja had been prophetically named for a Viking goddess.

Another Icelandic fishing boat, the Alda rescued the men in Lifeboat No. 1, circled back and picked up the men clinging to the capsized Lifeboat No. 4, then proceeded to Keflavik, the nearest port. The smaller fishing boat, Haki, took on board the uninjured men in Lifeboat No. 2 and towed it with seven wounded men who could not be brought aboard. The fishermen took the survivors into their homes, gave them food and warm clothing and cared for the wounded until they could be transported overland to the Reykjavik Hospital the next day.

In total, the Freyja, Haki and Alda saved 83 shipmates.

Another 101 men remained on the derelict ALEXANDER HAMILTON, which was gradually sinking and listing so badly that it was in danger of capsizing. Life rafts were on board, but they had a net basket in them to support men waist deep in the water—a bad lifesaving device for use in Icelandic waters. They were lashed together in a row fore and aft on the deck. Men with fire axes were stationed where the ends of the lines were secured. In the event the ship began capsizing or suddenly dropped deeper in the sea, they were to cut the lines. Boatswain Mates instructed the young seamen to jump into the water and swim to the rafts, and not try to jump into a raft. The distress pennant was hoisted and flares were fired from the Bridge.

After ordering the Yukon to make all possible haste and seeing it safely in the swept channel to Reykjavik, the destroyer Gwin returned and enquired by visual signal into the condition of the ALEXANDER HAMILTON. Signalman Jaehne passed the message that the ship was gradually sinking and in danger of capsizing.

An affirmative answer was given when the Gwin asked if she should come alongside and remove the personnel. At great risk of being a sitting-duck target for the U-boat, the destroyer came alongside and threw us a cargo net. It had been necessary to disperse the men onto the port side of the ALEXANDER HAMILTON, in an effort to counteract the ship’s list to starboard. The cargo net from the Gwin fell onto the starboard quarterdeck and the Master-at-Arms shouted: “Men, stay put! Apprentice Seamen first. Leave the ship by rising seniority!”

Being a first class petty officer, I lingered among the last to cross the deck. Captain Hall called down to me, “Check the Sick Bay to make sure no one alive is being left onboard!”

In the Sick Bay, bodies lay on the deck and in bunks. I called out and felt each man for a carotid pulse, but there was only blood, and foul odors from the contents of men’s bodies, no longer held inside by vital forces.

When I finished and went outside, there was no one on the Bridge to hear my report. The cargo net had been hauled up and the Gwin was ready to get underway. Nesmith, a Radioman from Atlanta called out to me, “Ogletree, what in the Hell are you doing over there?”

I ran aft to where the two ships were still in contact, jumped up and grabbed the railing of the GWIN. Two Navy men grasped my wrists and hauled me aboard. The hour was 15:47, just two hours and 35 minutes after the torpedo struck.

As darkness settled in, there was talk of putting a salvage party aboard the ALEXANDER HAMILTON to assist a tug trying to secure towlines to the ship. I expressed a willingness to go as the Radioman, but I soon heard that the benefit of such a project did not justify the risk involved. I then went to the radio room and requested that they put me on watch.

Duckworth, RM2c from West Virginia said, “You’ve had enough to do in one day.” He took me below, showed me his bunk and opened his locker. “I have some woolen long handles that will fit you, and some socks. I think my shirts will fit you, too. Sorry my shoes aren’t big enough, but please take anything you want, and get a good night’s sleep in my bunk. There is some candy in my locker. Anything that’s mine is yours. Help yourself.”

Duckworth’s kindness was greatly appreciated. I had come topside on the ALEXANDER HAMILTON barefoot and wearing only my dungaree pants and underwear. In the radio room I found my new sheepskin coat and somebody’s galoshes that were too short, but I wore them. I put on Duckworth’s warm long underwear, turned in and fell asleep.

At 00:15 hours I awoke for the fifth time. Every time the destroyer accelerated rapidly or dropped depth charges, I would relive the explosion on the ALEXANDER HAMILTON and be standing alongside the bunk before I was awake. I put on my clothes, went topside, groped my way alongside the torpedo tubes in the darkness and found the radio room. Duckworth was copying “Fox” transmissions. I told him I could not sleep and would like for him to turn in and let me take his watch. He was tired, I could see, but he only left after I insisted. The next morning, I went to sleep sitting upright, copying Fox messages. The Radiomen eased me to the floor and let me sleep.

We were taken to the anchorage in Hvalfordjur where many Allied ships, including HMS King George V and the battleship Texas were moored. The ALEXANDER HAMILTON survivors went aboard the Vulcan, a new Navy repair ship. Meetings were held that first day to gather information needed by a Board of Inquiry, to be convened on the Texas over a seven-day period, and to help everyone make known their needs—I needed a pair of shoes and drew them from Ship’s Stores, as well as a change of skivvies and an undress uniform.

The survivors were next transferred to the USS Stratford, a troop transport that, before the war, was a passenger ship in the Caribbean. LCDR Moody, our Exec., said that Radiomen were needed on the Admiral’s Staff at the Naval Operating Base (NOB) in Reykjavik, but anyone interested would have to volunteer for two years duty.

Liebman, Rowe and I decided to volunteer. In discussing it among ourselves I said, “The torpedo hasn’t been made that will sink this island of rock.” We found that the NOB had not yet been built. The admiral and his staff lived on a tall-masted sailing vessel, once an Astor yacht, tied up in the Reykjavik Harbor. The radio cabin was well equipped with Navy transmitters and receivers and the masts supported the antenna system. The call sign was NOI. We had a lot of traffic with Washington and Task Force Commanders in the Atlantic. Messages to NERK (any and all U.S. naval ships) were received and transmitted by NOI and the constant stream of Fox messages from NSS (Naval Radio Station, Cheltenham, Maryland) had to be copied. Reception on short-wave often failed in magnetic storms that affected the ionosphere, and we had to copy NSS on a very low frequency, about 16 kcs., where the signal came in day and night, but the high background noise level caused operator fatigue. We were still short of Radiomen.

The admiral’s staff, especially the radio cabin and code room personnel, showed their appreciation for our competence and willingness to work long hours, but the ship’s skipper, a Navy captain, did not. I especially resented being awakened one night, an hour after turning in, following a tiring six-hour watch, and having to get up to show the captain that I could walk a straight line. He claimed someone broke into his locker and stole his whiskey. He was too drunk to know what happened to his liquor.

One day we were informed that a message had been received from Washington ordering that all ALEXANDER HAMILTON survivors be returned to the U.S. I was sorry to leave the NOI Radiomen so short-handed, but we had to rejoin other survivors on the Stratford, which was waiting for a U.S.-bound convoy. The Board of Inquiry held on the Texas had earlier ended on February 9th, finding little to fault in the actions of officers and men of the ALEXANDER HAMILTON, but without having enquired into the conduct and competency of the Yukon’s crew, which we blamed for the unnecessary delay that made the Cutter a sitting-duck, at that unique instant when the U-boat’s course put it only 500 meters away.

LCDR Moody announced that the Cutter CAMPBELL and an oil tanker, said to cruise at 25 knots and run without escort, would be leaving for the U.S. and each had enough space for a limited number of officers and crew. After some deliberation, it was decided to select passengers from survivors who were married. The remaining ALEXANDER HAMILTON survivors, including myself, sailed on the Stratford in a slow convoy and eventually disembarked in Boston.

In Retrospect and Respect

On the same day that the ALEXANDER HAMILTON was torpedoed, the British Home Office announced that the Tirpitz had been located in Fotten Fjord, As Fjord, Trondheim, at 13:30 on January 29. The actions taken by the Admiralty in its fear of that ship restricted the action of Allied war ships and cost the Allies the needless loss in the North Atlantic of many merchant ships, their cargoes and crews. In the case of the ALEXANDER HAMILTON, however, it only caused us anxiety and vigilance directed at harm from dangers on the surface when all the time the real danger was beneath the surface.

Attempts to tow the ALEXANDER HAMILTON had failed when the ship capsized, then the hazard to navigation was sunk by gunfire. When we departed, we left behind six shipmates who died of their wounds and were buried in Iceland. Carried to the bottom of the sea with the ALEXANDER HAMILTON were twenty other good men, killed in action.

Lest they be forgotten, the 26 shipmates who answered their final call to duty:

Julian Booth

Livingston Brooks

John Capporelli   

James Costigan

Cecil Covington   

Bruce Davis

Joseph Emannuelli  

Charles Fletcher

George Holl

Joseph Kment        

Robert Learner

Otto Libra   

Clifford Lindsay

Clarence Little           

James McGrane

John McKinney   

Edwood Musselwhite

George Reynolds    

Ennis Roberts

Nick Sabelli

Ludvig Sieck

Michael Vas

Teddy Wagda

Herbert Yates          

Walter Zajac

[1] Numbered messages broadcast from shore stations on scheduled times & frequencies without requiring a receipt.

 

 

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