The North Atlantic had that familiar grey hue as the sun set on a winter afternoon of 1944. One of our large troop convoys plodded ponderously through those rolling seas on its way to England. The sleek, slender destroyers were dipping and rising like knitting needles as they dove into heavy waves, wheeling and scurrying, taking their night patrol stations to protect the large transports with their cargoes of American troops en route to the second front.
As was customary, the destroyer antisubmarine screen when rearranged for the night had certain ships stationed astern to prevent an attack from an exposed flank and to prevent stragglers among the transports from falling too far behind. It was the function of these watchdogs to patrol back and forth, acting as shepherds of the flock.
On one of the transports at the head of the group, a lonely G.I. sat in silent meditation on his perch at the rail, forty feet above the waves. Night had fallen; the entire formation was completely darkened, and on this night not even the moon shone through the scud to brighten his clouded thoughts. Two other soldiers standing a few feet away were discussing the advantages of being on the night bunk shift. Those topside now would be able to turn in and sleep in those same bunks tomorrow. Troops riding ships carrying twice their berthing capacity were obliged to sleep the “hot bunk” system. Their conversation was interrupted by a scream just below them, followed by a splash, barely audible above the howl of the wind. The unknown figure who had been standing a few feet away moments before was gone. Man Overboard! The cry was picked up and carried to the bridge.
The convoy was zigzagging and had just made a radical turn prior to the fateful plunge. Prescribed doctrine was standard for situations such as this. The formation would proceed as before with no change in course, no lights permitted to assist in the rescue, or other aids which would in any way jeopardize the safety of the thousands aboard the other ships. The vessel from which the man had been lost laconically advised the Convoy Commodore over the inter-ship voice radio, “Gumdrop, this is Raven, Man Overboard.” Again all was silent as this tremendous force plunged onward. Even the identity of the hapless soldier now being tossed about in the high seas was unknown. It would be some time before a muster could be taken of the hundreds on board to determine who was missing. Was this to be written off as one of those unfortunate but numerous cases of “Lost at sea. Attempts to rescue unsuccessful”?
There were a few men on watch and within earshot of this little drama as it unfolded in the terse language of the voice radio transmissions received by all ships of the formation. They alone could sympathize with the poor devil who was by now growing short of breath and life if he had not already been chewed by the propellers of his own ship as they flashed past, or been run down by those following. The vicious lashing of the elements and the pounding of the seas were readily apparent to those on duty. No one would have given a plugged nickel for his chances under ideal conditions of recovery in the North Atlantic. On this occasion there could be no possibility of his being picked up. That man’s number, whoever he was, had definitely come up.
The destroyer patrolling two miles astern on the left side swung to her left. This was to place her approximately in line with the column from which the man had fallen. No more could be done under the circumstances. At best it was only a token gesture. This destroyer advised the Convoy Commodore and the Destroyer Screen Commander of her movements, “Gumdrop and Tomcat, this is Tophat. I am maneuvering to place myself approximately astern of Raven’s column.” Again silence. It was highly problematical that the Convoy Commodore would suggest that the Destroyer Screen Commander detail one of his ships to peel off and remain in the area of the lost man until daylight afforded a better opportunity for recovery. The water temperature would have killed even the hardiest long before daylight. In addition, it was doubtful that the Screen Commander would have weakened his protective force since the safe conduct of the transports rested squarely on his shoulders. The submarine threat was always present.
Waves were running so high by this time that the torpedoman’s mate standing, the depth charge watch on Tophat had been ordered to take shelter on top of the after deck house. Seas were rolling aboard amidships and sweeping down the deck in swirling eddies of white foam. To stand on the main deck next to the K-guns would have been inviting the sea to sweep him overboard. Headset telephone communication with the bridge insured his being able to drop down to the main deck in time to man his weapons should a ’submarine be detected stalking the convoy.
As the destroyer plunged into the mounting waves at increased speed to take her station, a heavy sea smacked her starboard bow, rolled aft and came aboard amidships at the break of the main deck. With it came a figure tossing and twisting on the crest of the comber to be deposited on deck with a resounding thud audible to the torpedoman standing above. Startled by the strange bump and looking down, he saw a man draped as he had landed, legs astride the foundation of the forward K-gun and arms around the barrel. The effect on the destroyer’s bridge was electrifying when the telephone talker, repeated aloud as he heard, “A man has just come aboard over the starboard side and is sitting on the main deck.” The unexpected visitor was helped to his feet and assisted up to the torpedoman’s perch atop the deck house. The next roller thundered and hissed under their feet as the two men scampered up the ladder. Hasty questioning revealed that the new arrival was the same man who had recently parted company with one of the transports ahead. The destroyer officer of the deck, unable to keep the excitement and awe from his voice, reported to the formation, “Gum- drop, Tomcat, this is Tophat. Tophat has Private John Jones recently of Raven on board and in good condition.”
Our pilot house was pitch black and silent after Tophat’s last transmission when a voice out of the darkness expressed the sentiments of all hands, “You can’t fade fate.”