The German survivors in their rafts continued to fire as we moved slowly toward them, still illuminating them with our searchlight. We thought they were signalling another sub, as a white star shone in the distance.
With the survivors just off our port bow—so close we could see their faces—our sound man, Earl Potter, reported suddenly, “Torpedoes, bearing 220.” Lieutenant Charles H. Hutchins, our commanding officer, ordered, “Hard to port, heading 220, all available speed.” Unfortunately, this heading caused us to cut through the group of survivors. I vividly remember seeing the face of one young boy straight below me. His eyes were wide and his mouth open in a silent scream, as he extended both arms, hoping we would pick him up. It was not to be, however, as someone reported seeing the torpedo travelling along our port side.
All of us were troubled at leaving them and hoped that the other sub would come to their rescue. Once this October 1943 battle was over, they no longer would be the enemy, but brave fellow seamen. In light of what was to follow, they would not have been much better off and probably would have caused the Borie to lose more men, whether or not torpedoes had really been fired at us.
We had been without sleep for 21 hours, but our ordeal was not even close to being over. We left the battle area making ten knots at best and turned in evasive zigzags to get away from a possible sub attack while we assessed our damage, which was considerable.
Only then did we on deck learn about the courage and ingenuity of the men who had been struggling below during the battle. When we rammed the U-405 we did not realize the havoc being wreaked below. A large hole in the forward engine room started to flood immediately. While the guns boomed above, the men below, in water up to their necks, had to maintain the ship’s speed as they tried to repair the damage. The men in the after engine room also did an outstanding job in operating their plant while they repaired two holes in the ship’s hull. At the same time other men in the damage-control party, with their backs to the hot boilers, shored up the bulkhead between the forward and after engine rooms, which were in danger of collapse as the forward engine room flooded rapidly.
The courage, intelligence, and ingenuity of those men was so widespread that day that it would be difficult to name all involved. But the executive officer’s statement in the post-battle action report said it all. “They, the crew, manned their stations and obtained the maximum efficiency from the equipment at hand. The complete disregard for personal safety, and the initiative shown by all hands was an inspiring sight.”
No sleep was in store for our tired crew, as we tried to make our way back to the Card (CVE-11) carrier group on a course of 000° true and a speed of ten knots. We radioed this information to the Card at 0452, still not knowing the severity of the damage. With the forward engine room completely flooded, we had lost all but emergency radio power, which we used to send our message to the Card. This, too, did not last very long. The loss of all electrical power would make it extremely difficult to run the ship and make repairs. We could not recover feed water for the boilers, so we began to relate to each other that we “might be in a bit of trouble.”
At dawn, we found ourselves in a lot of trouble. Emergency radio power was gone, a heavy fog was hemming us in, and we were taking on water rapidly. We had to use all available gasoline to keep the pumps running so we could try to stay ahead of the incoming water; none was available for our radio generator.
To help keep the ship afloat, Hutchins gave the order to lighten ship. All hands turned to. Bucket brigades worked at a furious pace. Specific pieces of equipment were ordered jettisoned. We dumped our boats. Saving ten rounds per gun, the gunner’s mates threw over all the rest of the four-inch shells. They also threw several machine guns overboard. The torpedo men dumped their torpedo mounts—quite a feat. The boatswain department let go all our anchor chain, which went to the bottom with a long, rattling roar.
Captain Hutchins called me to the bridge and gave me the order, “I want you to dump the gun director over the side, and I don’t want it to come down on my bridge.” I really had no idea what the gun director weighed, but considering its size and the fact that the base was made of bronze, a fair estimate would be between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds. The navigational bridge, below, extended about five feet out on both sides of the flying bridge. I could see no way to swing it out from above. In spite of serious doubts, I replied, “Aye, aye sir.”
I cannot remember who helped us, but Jimmy Allegri and I could not handle the task alone. I disconnected all the wires coming out of the base into the junction box on the bridge overhead. We then started to lift the director with pry bars, inserting wedges wherever possible. Gradually, the director started to lean to starboard until finally it was almost balanced on edge. For once the large waves were an advantage. As we rolled to starboard, we all pushed; it dropped neatly into the sea—without coming close to Hutchins’s bridge.
By mid-morning, still in fog, our headway dropping slowly but steadily because we were using sea water in our boilers, abandoning ship became a distinct possibility. Hutchins ordered Chief Torpedoman Cronin to drop depth charges off the stern racks. I remembered once meeting a sailor who had abandoned a destroyer going down, only to be injured seriously when the depth charges exploded.
Two charges were dropped. They exploded at a shallow depth, lifting our stem and shoving us forward. Our already stricken ship rattled and groaned. Hutchins roared, “Set them on safe.” We felt the concussion and surged forward again. Hutchins screamed, “God damn it. I said set them on safe!” Chief Cronin yelled back, “God damn it, they are on safe!” As I remember, they had to remove the detonators to keep them from exploding.
At least once we thought we heard the sound of an aircraft above the fog. It well could have been, because at 0850 the Card had catapulted four aircraft on antisubmarine patrol with orders to be on the lookout for the Borie. They could not see the Borie, nor anything else. So at 0950 the aircraft still in the air were directed to look for DD-215. Because of the bad weather all airplanes were back on board the carrier by 1000 with negative results.
By that time we were practically stopped and for the most part standing around, wondering when and if we would be found or whether another sub might get us first. After all, we were still in an area reported to have a heavy U-boat concentration. Waiting, listening, and hoping for the best, the whole crew finally had time to realize what a hell of a predicament it was in.
Sometime before 1100, Lieutenant Bob Lord thought of collecting all the lighter fluid, kerosene, and alcohol on board the ship and using the whole mess to run the emergency radio generator. It worked!
At 1110 the Card received our message sent out by Cameron Gresh, “Commenced sinking.” The high-frequency radio direction finders did it again, and two Avenger aircraft set out to search the area along the bearing. Despite the limited visibility, they found us 14 miles away from the Card at 1130.
Upon receiving the report of our sighting, the Card group changed course to our bearing and sped toward us at 18 knots. By the time they arrived, we were wallowing in the troughs of huge waves. We were happy to see our fellow warrior, the USS Goff (DD-247), coming close at about noon. At last we were no longer alone in sub-infested waters.
We saw the Card launch four aircraft, which headed off into four quadrants of the compass, presumably to sweep the whole area surrounding our task force, which was in a precarious position. We were dead in the water, the Goff was nearly so, and the Card was moving slowly with only one escort, the USS Barry (DD-248). The Goff came alongside, bow to bow, and attempted to pass over suction hose and handy billies. Someone finally decided that this would be no help, since we had no fresh water for our boilers, and the seas were too heavy for us to transfer water from other ships. We abandoned the possibility of towing, because we had no towing engine, and we already had dumped our anchor chains.
At 1630, with the weather getting worse and darkness setting in, Hutchins had no choice but to abandon ship— even though we appeared not to be in danger of immediate sinking. With the bulkheads bulging and the waves getting larger, the danger of capsizing was always there.
Then began a most harrowing experience. At about 1630 Hutchins gave the order to abandon ship, with the seas running about 20 feet or greater. I was on the flying bridge, just above the navigational bridge, and I heard the order before it was passed on to the crew. My first reaction was anger, as I was wearing a brand new red Kearny High School warmup coat my brother had given to me. Everyone on the ship, including the captain, had admired it.
Knowing I had no choice, I dropped the coat on the deck and went to my abandon-ship station. We had thrown away our boats trying to save the ship. The life rafts on the starboard side would not move because of the high winds and towering waves. This was to become a serious problem later, when all hands were finally off the ship. I picked up an old kapok life jacket from the deck and slipped it on over a rubber one I had already inflated. A few minutes later Ed Malaney came up to me and told me that his life jacket had broken. I gave him the kapok, acknowledging that I did not need two. As events later unfolded, I was wrong again. Regardless of my plight, however, Ed had a life jacket, and we both survived.
When I reached the port rail I found that men had already put out lines. I crawled over the side, holding onto a line, while the ship rolled to starboard about 30°. In crawling down the side of the ship, I had to climb over a beading of armor about a foot thick. I had just cleared the armor when the ship rolled back to port, causing the armor to hit me on top of the head, driving me deep into the water.
I came to the surface, spotted two life rafts about ten yards ahead, swam to the closest one, and hung on. The raft was overflowing, so I swam to the other one, which was almost empty. I had just reached it, when I found myself being crushed between the two rafts. When it felt like my chest was about to burst, I screamed, “Jesus Christ!” and the two rafts just drifted apart.
Dusk had set in, and although none of the rescue ships was in sight, we began to take the situation in stride. A petty officer holding onto the raft next to me told me that my life jacket was broken. As I was being crushed between the rafts, the pressure must have broken the holding clamps. The jacket was useless, and it soon drifted away.
There I was, life-jacketless, and darkness meant that we would not be able to see rescue ships, even if one were to come along—nor could they see us. What was worse, our raft was so full of men that we had to hold onto each other like a bunch of grapes while the raft rode up and down in the huge waves. No one seemed to realize the trouble we were in; we even joked about it and occasionally broke into song.
Suddenly, someone saw the silhouette of a destroyer bearing down on us. We all started to cheer. But we soon stopped when we realized that no one in the ship had seen us. She was going to hit us with her bow, dead center. About 30 men were in our raft, with about four sitting in the middle, one of whom was Tom Neary. Tom was one of those nice, quiet guys who never appeared to be around but always got his work done. Fortunately for all of us, he was around this time. He reached into his jacket and calmly pulled out one of those cheap flashlights (that never worked) and flashed it toward the destroyer. It worked. The ship was the Barry, and we saw it veer to port, but not soon enough. The starboard side of its bow hit our raft on the side opposite me. It was a terrible sight. Some men scrambled up the side of the ship—many were killed between the ship and the raft. I attempted nothing. Without a life jacket, I knew I would get only one chance, and not a very good one at that.
After that pass, we remained alone in darkness again. The singing and horsing around had stopped; this was no longer a game. The Barry showed up again. This time, the ship’s crew saw us, or at least it appeared they were not going to hit us head on. To the best of my recollection, about a dozen men were still on, or holding onto, the raft, and we were all very weary.
In the cold, angry seas, the Barry looked foreboding, as its dark form approached us, crashing against the swells. The ship hit us again; but this time we were all on the far side of the raft, and no one was hurt. It became a mad scramble, as we all tried to climb aboard. As far as I know, most made it by climbing on the raft and jumping to the rail. I was afraid to try at first. Another problem was the officer who had been alongside me for a while and was in bad shape. He had been fine before the Barry whacked us, but at the moment he was hysterical, and nothing I said or did helped. I hit him on the shoulder as the raft slid down the side of the ship to alert him but he didn’t respond. I now saw a screw guard approaching and I knew that this was my best chance and I had to go. I climbed up on the raft and crouched down, waiting. The Barry was in a roll away from us as the raft went under the guard. I stood up to grab it just as the ship started its roll back. It hit me on the back of the head. I was conscious long enough to see the guard crush the officer’s head against the raft. Then I was out cold.
Underwater, I came to, feeling the beat of the screws under my feet, my arms folded over one of the bars of the screw guard. Whether it was instinct or my stiff heavy jacket that kept me stuck to the screw guard, I do not know. The worst thing was that no one was there to help me.
I hung on and shouted, but to no avail. I remember thinking, “Only married three months, and I’m going to die.” Suddenly, I felt tugs at my neck and looked up to see two brave men trying to save me. One was on deck holding onto the other, who had climbed out on the guard. He had me by the back of the neck, holding onto my jacket and pulling as hard as he could—all the while shouting, “Let go!” I was afraid that if his hands slipped, I was a goner. I shouted back, “Bullshit. If you let go, I’m dead!” I was soon convinced that he was my only chance for survival so I let go, and they hauled me aboard.
I had been in the water for about seven-and-a-half hours, and I was stiff as a board and totally helpless. I could not move a muscle so they dragged me by the neck across the deck, bouncing me over pipes and everything else on deck. They began to look for a place to leave me so that they could get back to their rescue work. Other men out there needed their help. I was just thankful to be alive.
The head in a four-stack destroyer was a small deck house on the fantail. That is where they put me for safe keeping. Lying flat on my back on the deck would have been all right except that I could not move and I was pressed against the port side bulkhead, under the urinal trough. Water was on the deck, and every time the Barry rolled to port, I had to hold my breath to keep from drowning.
During a lull two men finally carried me down to the crew’s compartment and put me on a lower bunk below the mess table. Just above me on the table was a huge dish pan filled with old soapy water and garbage. The rescue attempt had started at about evening mess time, and all hands went topside looking for survivors. Lying there still immobile, I thought about all that had happened, when suddenly, the ship rolled hard to port and I found myself covered with dish water and potato peelings.
Sometime later, the ship’s doctor and a medic came to see me, cleaned me up, and moved me to another bunk. Best of all, they fed me a large shot of “legal” brandy. This was the first time I ever had a legal drink on board a ship. No time could have been better. I went off to sleep and never woke until after daylight.
I found that I was in pretty good shape and able to get around. The sea was still quite heavy, and we were surprised to see that the Borie was still afloat. But the ship was down by the stern and wallowing heavily in the troughs.
Orders were given to sink her. Torpedoes and shell fire hurtled toward the ship, but the heavy seas rendered both methods inaccurate. Bombs from the Card’s planes finally sank her. Although badly mauled by the previous battle and the heavy seas, she still went down as a valiant lady. It took three depth charges close aboard before she went down swiftly by the stern at 0955.
On our previous trip we had rescued 44 German survivors of the sunken Li- 664. Since they crowded our ship, we decided to transfer them to the Card by pulley line. We placed them inside a canvas bag and, on signal, men on board the Card ran down the deck and pulled the bag across the water between the two ships. We thought this was great fun, but the Germans did not like it at all.
We found ourselves in a similar predicament. There were 22 Borie men on the Barry, 107 Borie men on the Goff. Destroyers were designed to hold only just enough men. Thus, we were to transfer to the Card by pulley line, an idea I did not fancy one bit. The transfer was to take place during regular refueling.
With the bag hanging on the block and tackle, rigged between the Barry and the Card, we prepared to give it a go. We on the Barry at least travelled first class— one man at a time. The men on the Goff went two at a time. I climbed into the bag without a life jacket, and they closed the bag over my head with the draw string. I took off like a shot as the large group of men on the Card ran down the deck. My “friends,” who almost died laughing, later told me some of what happened next. At the midpoint, I came to a sudden stop. There I was, hanging in a mail sack about 50 feet above the ocean, midway between two ships about 50 yards apart. When the ships rolled together I dropped like a rock. When they rolled away from each other, I went up like a rocket.
Just as suddenly, I moved forward swiftly, only to be stopped again my hands, knees, and face against the deck. My patience had begun to wear thin by then, so when the bag came open, I emerged from it screaming, “Jesus Christ, if it isn’t one damn thing, it’s another!” In reply, the Card’s chaplain greeted me with, “Glad to have you aboard, son.” We spent another week at sea, and it was fascinating to watch and be part of a carrier’s operations. More important, it was a time for the survivors to try and find out all we could about the men we had lost. During this time Ed Malaney took me to Captain Hutchins and reminded him that he had promised to give five dollars to the first man who spotted a sub on the surface. I expected him to hit me on the head, since he had lost his ship, but he reached into his pocket and gave me a five dollar bill. All the survivors from my life raft signed it, and then Ed Robertson framed it for me while we were homeward bound. It now hangs on the wall of my office.
The stories about those who did not make it are compelling. One man, who had not heeded the warning about drinking the water in Casablanca, contracted dysentery and presumably went down with the ship in sick bay. A hospital corpsman, who had not turned in all his alcohol, had invited men for a drink or two of pineapple and alcohol. He was last seen drunk as a skunk, and no one saw him leave the ship. A “sailor’s sailor,” fearing that he was not going to make it, gave his money belt to another sailor, with instructions to give it to his wife. The friend died, but the sailor made it. An Ensign St. John helped men aboard the heaving Goff while holding on to the screw guard until he, himself, was lost.
When we were near Norfolk and I presumed out of danger, we held memorial services for our missing shipmates. Only then did the true impact of our loss sink in. We had lost 27 shipmates, friends of three years.
The task force arrived in Norfolk, Virginia, on or about 9 November 1943 and received the Presidential Unit Citation. Captain Hutchins, who in true Navy tradition made one last inspection and seized the ship’s colors before abandoning ship, won the Navy Cross. Also awarded were two more Navy Crosses, two Silver Stars, and one Legion of Merit. I got a new chap stick; I had lost mine when the ship went down.