The new Fourth Edition
World War II U-Boat war. Wolfpack Strategies vs. Convoys; neutrality, then war. World War I 'four pipers.'
Convoy escorts and merchant ships in convoy
Copyright 2012 Franklyn E. Dailey Jr.
Early "Get-Acquainted" Duty in North Atlantic Waters (See WW I destroyer photos midway in this page)
This period covers early 1941 to July 1942. It includes December 7, 1941, the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Pearl Harbor attack did not merit a line in the Edison's log. Her log on that day did include a line , "two explosions astern". This was followed by the recording of an effort to determine their cause and closed with a return to her duties. The most repeated line in a ship's log is the opening phrase for an entry at the point that one Officer-of-the-Deck underway relieves another. That phrase is, "Steaming as before." In my two efforts at the National Archives in Washington DC to look at ship's logs, there were a good many log entries which might be called, "non-sequiturs". For each, a reader might ask, "Well, what happened then?". To the succeeding Watch Officer, the interesting incident of the previous watch (looked at out of context, 55 years later) seemingly never happened.
The Edison surely received official dispatches which related to Pearl Harbor. The archivist would never know that it had occurred if dependent solely on the Edison's log. Yes, the sphere of activity was a continent and half an ocean away. It is still surprising to me that Pearl Harbor's most apparent impact for naval ships in the Atlantic was that the term ,"Neutrality Patrol," disappeared from print and broadcasts.
The Straggler (Intimate, tense, confrontation, bridge to bridge, from convoy escort skippers and convoy lagging merchant skippers ,can be found in the book Very human..)
In this period, the USS Edison served in escort duty, both in convoys and for ships proceeding singly with important cargoes that required priority. While in the Atlantic, the primary duty in these escort operations was defending against the submarine. Escort warships and the ships they convoyed apppeared to have little in common. So let me comment here on one important attribute they shared. They were both surface vessels. The Convoy Commander, usually aboard a ship in the convoy, and the Escort Commander who was in overall command, both knew that a convoy ship which dropped back was an inviting U-boat target in the next period of darkness. The U-boats would surface to both charge batteries, and get up ahead of the convoy into firing position on ships, with special attention for those straggling behind the convoy.
The Convoy Commander also knew that his convoy became more vulnerable if a screening vessel had to be dropped from the screen to escort the lagging ship. It was a game of numbers. 100 ships in the convoy with seven escorts went to 99 ships and six escorts when a screening vessel was deployed one-on-one with a convoy ship out of station. Still, the initial tactic would be to do just that, and the screening vessel so ordered back had a mission, to get the convoyed ship back into formation in the convoy. A destroyer skipper sent back by the Escort Commander to encourage a convoy laggard back into formation was dealing with another skipper of another surface vessel. One man's career had been in the military chain of command, and the other, in merchant ship practices, and if U.S. flagged, while operating under guidelines of the US Maritime Commission. Naval forces ships follow protocol and discipline different from merchant vessels. But for surface vessels in a seaway, Navy or merchant, let's first look at similarities by examining some "controls" that all surface vessels lack.
Air, Sub and Surface Vessel: Stability Control
An airplane has thrust, rudder, elevator and ailerons. These function beautifully in the air medium for which they are designed. An airplane is, at best, ungainly when taxiing around an airport. Thrust can act like the fourth control for an aircraft. In descent to a runway, if the plane gets a little too low, an application of power can cut the rate of descent immediately. So of course could the elevator, but that would force the plane out of its landing attitude and might even cause it to stall. The thrust available to an aircraft over and above that necessary to maintain level flight sets the aircraft apart from the water-borne vessel.
A submarine has bow and stern planes, rudder, and thrust. These operate best in the water medium for which the submarine is designed. On the surface, the submarine's maneuverability is reduced to that of a somewhat sluggish surface vessel. In the water medium, with its planes set toward deeper or shallower submergence, a combination of rudder and thrust can provide roll control. This makes the sub in its water medium a little more like the aircraft in its air medium.
The surface vessel, facing both wind and sea as conditions of its operation, is consigned to operate in two media while optimized for neither. It has thrust and rudder. Roll is at the whim of the sea. (Some ships have stabilizers, but these are rare.) The surface warship has to fight against airplanes and submarines, both of which have the advantage of better control of their environments.. General Billy Mitchell advocated doing away with a surface Navy. Some US submarine zealots have been heard suggesting the same. The merchant cargo ship and the naval vessel are more alike than different in coping with their elements. Now, ways in which they differ.
The Cargo Ship of World War II had some challenges in seakeeping.
Naval war vessels have good control of their ballast, that is, they can fill fuel tanks that have been emptied from days of steaming, with sea water. The result is that their "trim" can be controlled for best sea keeping. Merchant ships are designed to carry cargo. In WW II, US flag merchant ships from WW I "Hog Islanders" to Liberty ships to Victory ships sailed in convoys, alongside vessels of foreign registry and unknown ancestry. After cargo was unloaded, these ships had some capacity to trim using fuel tanks but the cargo spaces could not be flooded to give best trim. In rough weather, particularly off Iceland, Edison occasionally spent days making zero net advance back toward the Western Atlantic while in escort duty with convoys of ships whose propellers were rotating half up out of water. Any additional internal power plant difficulty and these "in ballast" convoy merchantmen would actually lose ground to the wind and sea and fall back out of position.
On one occasion, the Edison's Capt. W.R. Headden USN was directed to take Edison back to urge a straggler to get back up into position. The bull horn was a bridge-operated loudspeaker often used for skipper-to-skipper communication when ships were very close to each other. After a period of advisories over the bull horn in a conciliatory tone, with results lacking, the skipper-to-skipper "conversation" would grow more heated. It would get right down to basics. Capt. Headden: "How many men do you have on watch in the fire room?" The answer would be followed by Capt. Headden telling the merchant skipper to wake up the rest of his fire room watch standers and get them all on duty. In every case during my tour aboard Edison that this badgering was resorted to, it worked! The merchantman would coax a few more "turns" per minute on the main shaft and the straggler would gradually pull back up into position.One particularly outraged merchant skipper's parting shot to Capt. Headden at being bullied like this, was, "Washington will hear about this!" All Edison men in earshot probably under their breath said, "Great!"
We mentioned in an earlier paragraph the excess of thrust available over that needed for steady state cruising. Here again, the warship has an advantage over the merchantman. So in coaxing a convoy straggler back into position, both skippers are aware of this difference and it is not surprising that a ship's Master might be upset if the escort vessel's captain seemed a little overbearing in exchanges like that above. The stakes were very high. That was the justification.
Life aboard a warship is about getting ready and in wartime, even more so. I served aboard the USS New York on the youngster cruise ("youngsters' are Academy midshipmen who have completed their first year) for three months in the summer of 1940. The US was not yet formally at war but our Midshipman Cruise itinerary and ports-of-call had been altered drastically due to the conflict in Europe. It seemed that we were always getting ready to leave port or to enter port. Holystoning the wooden deck. Painting the hull. Blowing tubes. Anchor detail. Flying moor detail in the lower Hudson River with USS Arkansas and USS Texas (that is the other WW II ship that I could still visit, maintained for display in Texas). Throwing chips to help USS New York's Captain Daniel Barbey con the ship to the precision required for a smart moor. But, on the USS New York in that "neutrality" period, we midshipmen could still get some mileage out of reflecting on the events of "yesterday", like discussion after an event which actually sustained the event as a subject of conversation. An event like the boiler room personnel blowing tubes when all the officers in their white service uniforms are sitting on the quarterdeck watching the evening movie. Then, a sudden wind shift occurs, dousing the aforesaid officers in their immaculate whites with black soot. Funneee! Do not say it out loud but enjoy the quiet talk.
I joined the Edison in wartime and thought I would be able to listen in to small talk about this or that event that had occurred in the year since her commissioning. Not a word. Everyone, including the most garrulous, was silent on the year I missed. Past exploits were not being discussed. The tide was running toward tomorrow and it swept everyone before it. The newcomer is the stranger and is in no position to demand even the smallest accounting. Ship's company knew in a general sense where the ship was going next, but I was in the dark even on that. It is also pertinent to note here that personnel were leaving every day in port and more personnel were coming aboard. I was not alone in being uninformed. Much of the material, therefore, in the rest of this chapter is the result of research.
In terms of discovery by the reader, I hope that these paragraphs on the year I missed of the Edison's travels will seem no different than those that come from on-the-scene observations. The tales that I had wanted to hear from my shipmates have come to me much as the whole story comes to you, the reader, about sixty years later.
There is always an exception so let me recall here one event in which I did benefit from the past experience of an Edison shipmate after I reported aboard. Just as I became the immediate O.O.D in port when reporting aboard, I also became the immediate First Division Officer, with no training period. Formally, I succeeded nobody. But, there had been a predecessor, as I figured it out later. The First Division on a destroyer is the foc'sle division, and it was customary to assemble there for "quarters" underway, if the sea was not too rough. This was a required assembly every time we left or entered port. Up on the bow, there are no windbreaks from the salt air sweeping over the ship. I learned that there had actually been a man in charge of the Division. It was Chief Boatswains Mate Carajohn, a very senior petty officer in the regular Navy. He was the BMC for the entire ship and likely had been running the First Division himself since the ship went into commission. And doing it well. Prior to "falling in" or after "falling out", there might be moments for pleasantries or relaxation. Smoking a cigarette is a low keyed way to pass this time without emphasizing your absolute void of knowledge based on experience. Smoking relates you to somebody, and aboard a Navy destroyer nearly sixty years ago, to most of the crew. The only trouble I was demonstrating in smoking up on the bow of the Edison was that I could not get the cigarette lighted. The first bit of underway lore offered to this new Ensign was how to light a cigarette on the bow of a destroyer moving smartly in a seaway. The teacher? None other than the Chief himself. One quick lesson, one bit of "how to" information was quickly and warmly imparted and quickly learned and practiced (I could do it today and I have not smoked for 45 years and have not been on the foc'sle of a moving or still destroyer for 53 years). Most importantly, the Chief broke the ice. I will look for him in heaven if we both make it.
Atlantic Destroyer Missions in WW II
Q. "What does a destroyer do?"
A. For World War II, a response to this question might be, "Tell me what ocean you are in."
From their beginnings in WW I, destroyer construction emphasized speed over endurance. For the early destroyers of WW I, emphasis was given to torpedo launchers. Deck guns were few and of small caliber. The World War I torpedo boat evolved into the first destroyers. The next two photos show late WW I destroyers (known as 4-pipers) nested at the United States Naval Academy in 1940 or 1941. These destroyers were coming out of mothballs and some would be transferred to the British. The two shots show the same nest of three destroyers, the 341, 221 and the 93, taken from different angles. I took these pictures myself but did not date them. The fact that the portholes had not been blanked out suggests the earlier choice of dates. One of the first "getting serious" steps taken on Edison after launch was to completely blank out her lower course of portholes.
In the War in the Pacific, US destroyers engaged in several mass torpedo attacks against Japanese warships. There was no such action by US forces in the War in the Atlantic. The German Navy was not a surface "threat". Excepting some forays like the sea raiding cruiser Graf Spee sunk near Montevideo, and the Bismarck caught and sunk in North Atlantic waters after sinking the HMS Hood, German Navy surface units remained pretty well bottled up in home waters by British air and surface units. And wherever found, German warships like the Scharnhorst, Gneisnau, Prinz Eugen and the Tirpitz were constantly subject to attack by RAF and Royal Navy air units.
There was always the potential for surface action in the Atlantic, and some did occur in the Mediterranean and during the North African landings. In November 1942, the French battleship Jean Bart, tied up at the dock in Casablanca, registered some very close main battery shell straddles of the USS Augusta off shore. Still, a US destroyer in Atlantic or Mediterranean waters after the November 1942 landings in North Africa was not likely to be surprised with surface action. (Submarines were exceptions. US destroyers on many occasions encountered surfaced U-boats, suddenly appearing out of the fog and at close quarters. Both vessels would be so taken by surprise that the fleeting encounters did not provide enough reaction time for offensive action. Radar upgrading in the US Navy after these events occurred virtually eliminated surprise encounters of this kind, at least for the US surface vessel.)
The mission of the Atlantic destroyer, in order of priority (authors' view) was:
If a Pacific destroyer man answered the same question, it is quite likely that the answer would contain different choices and that these would be prioritized differently.
Two numerically large classes (by numbers of ships built) of US destroyers built just before and during WW II provided the bulk of US WW II combat destroyer deployments. These were the Benson/Livermore class of which Edison was one, and the Fletcher class which delivered their main damage against the Japanese in the Pacific. This class was made famous by Capt.(later Admiral) Arleigh Burke and the phrase, "31-knot Burke". The Fletchers differed mainly from the Edison in being larger (2100 tons vs. Benson's 1630 tons displacement) and being flush deckers while the Bensons were foc'sle deck ships. Fletchers had the same 50,000 shaft horsepower as the Edison. The "31-knot Burke" adage was so tied to the Fletchers that the fact that the Bensons were actually the faster ships (same horsepower pushing 1630 tons) is often overlooked. With four boilers on the line Edison, Corry and others recorded 36 knots. Even split plant, with two boilers on the line, when her hull was clean, Edison could do 31 knots.
The main point here is not about differences between these two classes of US WW II destroyers. Both were capable of the same missions. The two classes had about the same armament (the Fletchers went back to the fifth 5"/38 cal. gun that the Benson's had shed). Despite Franklin Roosevelt's support for a "two ocean" Navy, the builders were not constructing destroyers for Pacific or Atlantic duty-that degree of construction refinement, even if desired, was not practicable. Since Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed to concentrate on first winning the war against Germany, the first available destroyers went mostly to the Atlantic. It was a bit of a surprise to me to learn, in preparation for this story, that even after the major US Navy losses at Pearl Harbor, a number of US surface warships were sent back from the Pacific to the Atlantic to participate in the effort against Germany and Italy. Later destroyer construction in WW II centered on the Fletcher class and a Sumner class of 2200 tonners. One could certainly infer that their fifth main battery AA gun, and in the case of the Sumner's, the sixth, made their assignment to the Pacific, with its Kamikaze attack threat, most logical. It was more, though, a case of timing. The assignments of Fletchers to the Pacific had more to do with a lessening of need in the Atlantic as the tide of battle had swung in Allied favor, and the US resolve to then undertake ever more ambitious operations in the Pacific.
(There were weapons systems optimized for the theatre of war in which they were to serve. For the Atlantic/Mediterranean theatre, the FXR, a device we called "foxer", consisted of two small parallel bars towed by a destroyer to create sound in a certain frequency band. The sound was designed to divert a German acoustic torpedo away from the destroyer screw noises and leave the torpedo to explode harmlessly well back in the ships' wake. The F8F Bearcat aircraft was a fast re-design of the Grumman F6F Hellcat. The F8F was designed to reach 10,000 feet in record time and intercept Japan's Kamikaze aircraft. Another coincidence comes up here. I was ordered to primary flight training at Ottumwa, Iowa Naval Air Station after leaving the USS Edison in October 1944. I was pretty good at instrument flight but not a natural born seat of the pants pilot. The excess of people ordered to flight training in that period forced the training command to be "very selective", and many student pilots were being "washed out". We flew Stearman aircraft, a yellow biplane with a 220 horsepower Lycoming or Continental engine. I was up for a C-check, acrobatics, including precision "figure-8s" around two pylons on the ground. I was very poor at this maneuver and expected to be washed out. When the kamikazes struck our ships in the Pacific, word came down that more pilots were needed! I was not washed out. Later, I flew the F8Fs myself, and never made the connection between that and my primary flight training survival until working on this story.)
Since the armaments and other important configuration elements like radar and sonar were pretty much the same for the two numerically dominant classes of WW II destroyers, the distinction of the Atlantic destroyer rested pretty much on which of the ship's systems to emphasize for training, done mostly at sea. ASW defense, and main battery offense, took center stage for training underway for an Atlantic destroyer. Shifting to main battery AA defense from shore bombardment during an engagement was an important transition. It was one that I as the main battery director officer, failed to negotiate on one occasion that I remember. I failed to remove a "Right 5 mil" shore bombardment fire spot. We shifted to an anti-aircraft target. The Chief Fire Controlman on the Rangefinder opened up on the Dornier 217 aircraft right on in range, and leading the German by 5 mils, exactly the shore bombardment spot I failed to remove.
Rescue at sea gave every destroyer Commanding Officer fits of sleeplessness. I observed two of our Edison skippers wrestle with the rescue-at-sea subject. One had faced actual WW II experience with sea rescue, and with the dangers involved, before coming aboard Edison.
In submarine infested waters, no commanding officer wanted to put his own ship at risk by standing dead in the water attempting to pick up survivors. Sometimes that was the only way it could be done, especially for men who had become exhausted and could not assist in their own rescue. Another hazard was the possibility that depth charges would be used by other destroyers running down sound contacts on submarines. The human body in the water was very vulnerable to the shock wave of a depth charge explosion.
My second Edison skipper, Captain Pearce, had a special rig constructed by the shipfitters to aid sailors adrift, and tested it inside the entrance channel at Mers-El-Kebir near Oran, Algeria. In that case, the test effort, though motivated by deep human compassion, went awry. (The CO2 cylinders propelling the rig toward the test specimen representing the person in distress in the water, were exhausted much too soon. )
While I was aboard, and while we were momentarily hove to, the Edison rescued friend and enemy at sea. A lone US soldier on a piece of flotsam from his sunken troop ship at Casablanca was picked up paddling energetically toward New York, a few thousand sea miles away. When USS Woolsey, USS Trippe and USS Edison engaged the crippled U-73 off Oran, Algeria with heavy 5" gun salvos, after Woolsey's depth charge attack forced her to surface and gunfire forced her crew to abandon ship, 12 German enlisted men were picked up alive by Edison, and one U-73 Warrant Officer's body was recovered. Resuscitation efforts for him were not successful. In later Pacific duty, the Edison rescued a sailor who had gone overboard from the USS Dawson in rough weather.
It is important to note that the Destroyer Escort (DE) arrived in 1942 in sufficient numbers to take some of the load off the Atlantic destroyers in ASW defense. This freed more of the latter for surface shore bombardment. Also, in WW II, though not employed in the Atlantic and Mediterranean by the US, the very light torpedo boat from which early destroyers had evolved, made its reappearance. Readers will remember John F. Kennedy and PT 109. German light torpedo boats attempted to intervene in landings the Allies made in the Mediterranean.
German submarines were aggressive and pressed attacks home. German aircraft used standoff weapons to press attacks home but rarely committed themselves to pressed-home attacks against armed surface warships. The Japanese, both air and surface, were much more aggressive and willing to give themselves up in pressed home attacks. These truths, learned mostly in on-the-job training experience, dictated the training emphasis for US destroyers serving in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Notwithstanding the later addition of a remarkable surface radar system, lookouts remained the absolute quintessential element of vigilance. Edison devoted considerable effort to lookout training and it paid off.
Edison Leaves Her Tether For Duty in the Atlantic
The Edison commissioning detail shown in a photo taken on her fantail during the ceremony on 31 January 1941 in the Brooklyn Navy Yard shows eight officers, ten chief petty officers (CPOs) and about 100 sailors in the "ranks", from first class petty officers to apprentice seamen. All ranks continued to grow numerically, until Edison achieved her assigned complement. In officer grades, though there was no official limit, when the number grew beyond 20, the sleeping spaces became crowded and the "hot bunk" routine began. But, this was still two years in the future.
Just as he had arranged with OpNav, Captain (we will use "skipper" and "Captain" interchangeably to denote "Commanding Officer" - Edison's skippers did not reach Navy Captain rank until well after leaving this command) Al Murdaugh got Edison to sea on February 17, 1941, on "boilers 3 and 4" according to the ship's log. She went to Newport, Rhode Island, to receive her ten 21" torpedoes, then to exercise there for torpedo practice. Underway at sea again, Edison put in at Norfolk, Virginia on 3 March 1941. She went then to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for her official, but gun-less, shake down, leaving Norfolk on 5 March. She put in Port au Prince, British West Indies, on 15 March and left for Charleston, South Carolina on the 17th. On 28 March, she left for New York and returned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for some engineering repairs and installation of her missing 5"/38 cal. gun battery on 31 March. This work took until 12 May, 1941.
Beginning the 12th of May 1941, the Edison went to Norfolk, back to Brooklyn and back to Norfolk., accomplishing the main battery gunnery exercises missed on her first shake down. On 31 May 1941, Edison left Norfolk for Bermuda, arriving there on 2 June. Her two-phased shake down now considered over, Edison escorted the carrier, USS Wasp, from Bermuda to Norfolk in late June. In July 1941, Edison began mail trips between Boston and Argentia. Her first recorded effort in her assignment to Destroyer Division 25 (Woolsey 437, Ludlow 438 and Edison 439 were regulars in DesDiv 25, the fourth slot being filled at different times by different destroyers depending on availability) was to escort the new battleships, USS North Carolina and USS Washington, on their shakedown cruises to Guantanamo Bay and Port-au-Prince Haiti. The Division left the West Indies and arrived in Rockland, Maine in late September 1941.
The Edison had no permanent home port for repairs, the assignment to such a port being made on an ad hoc basis depending on what facility was required and what was available-dry docking for hull repairs, or ordnance, or electronics, and so on. Ordinary supplies and victualing could be handled in most major ports of call. As to supplies, it is an oddity of my recall, but clean rags for the engineering spaces were on the list in every port. Edison's (and DesDiv 25's) operational home port became Portland, Maine using Casco Bay, under the oversight of ComDesLant, who had his flag afloat there on USS Denebola. By October 1941, Edison shifted to Portland, Maine, usually an anchorage berth, as there was limited pier berthing there. It was generally a long trip in the Edison whaleboat to Portland for liberty. This porting assignment also marked the beginning of Edison's tenure in the North Atlantic Neutrality Patrol, covering the open sea rim defined by Boston, Massachusetts, Newfoundland and Iceland. Edison left Casco Bay on 31 October 1941, making port in Argentia on 2 November and proceeding then to Reykjavik, Iceland where she arrived on 6 November.
In Chapter One, near the end of the last table, we found the destroyer USS Charles F. Hughes entering Reykjavik on July 8, 1941 after an open sea rescue of Red Cross nurses. These nurses and other survivors were found in a boat with the Master of their ship, which had been torpedoed. When Edison first entered this port, it was with the USS Charles F. Hughes.
It was during this next period that the Atlantic Charter, developed by Roosevelt who had arrived in USS Augusta, flying the flag of CincLant, Radm. E. J. King, and Churchill who had arrived on HMS Prince of Wales, was first put to pen on August 9 and August 10, 1941 in Placentia Bay, Argentia, Newfoundland. Their conveying warships had transited increasingly troubled waters.
Behind the terse tables of Chapter One, especially the summaries of US Navy activity in 1940 and 1941, was an unprecedented US Naval build up. US ships, without the string of bases available to the navies of Britain, Germany, and Italy, had been accustomed to long transits at sea with underway replenishment, and that training would prove to be of signal importance in the counter offensives undertaken in WW II. But in 1940-41, with our nation on the defensive, the US would be commissioning new bases (Lend/Lease and others) and launching new warships, especially destroyers, at a rapid rate. The major impact would be in the Atlantic. The bulk of US naval forces between wars had been allotted to the Pacific. Britain, our most reliable ally, could handle the Atlantic. The Pacific, adding losses at Pearl Harbor and elsewhere and the assignment of a considerable number of Pacific warships to the Atlantic, would undergo a build down of surface warship strength before the huge build up to V-J day in August 1945.
Operational losses (non-enemy action losses, training losses etc.) would occur in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and will appear in our story. Such losses must be viewed in the context of a wave of new sea traffic, of unfamiliar approaches to new bases, and enormous increases of officer personnel with little or no wartime experience, all occurring under the intense periscope scrutiny of wolfpack commanders devising fresh tactics every month.
Convoy HX-150, with 44 merchantmen underway from Halifax on September 16, 1941, was the first to use US escorts, which relieved Canadian escorts 350 miles east of Halifax on September 17. The escort screen was commanded by Captain Morton L. Deyo in Ericsson. Convoy was disposed in nine columns, with distance between columns set at 600 yards. Ericsson's station was 2,000 yards directly ahead. The other four destroyers, a mix of one Benson class and three 4-pipers, patrolled 500-2000 yards from the outer ships in the convoy. Column distances were tightened at night. On clear nights the destroyers continued their patrols, but on foggy nights they were to "keep station". No U-boats were encountered to the point in mid-ocean where British destroyers took over. Stragglers were a constant challenge. On the night of September 24-25, nearing a point in the Atlantic called "Torpedo Junction", destroyer Eberle of the screen was dispatched by Captain Deyo to the aid of the SS Nigaristan manned by a crew from the Levant. She was afire. A smolder had suddenly fired up in the ship's bunkers. The barometer read 28.6 inches of Mercury (very low), and a gale wind was blowing. Eberle, the other Benson class ship in the screen, closed at high speed. The freighter's crew had taken to the lifeboats and in this raging sea, Eberle managed to get all 63 Nigaristan crewmen safely aboard. This was accomplished despite the fact that a member of the Nigaristan's black gang had gone overboard from one of the lifeboats. Ensign L.C. Savage of Eberle went into the water between the lifeboat and Eberle, with a bow-line, secured the distressed seaman, fended off the lifeboat, and both were hauled aboard Eberle. Convoy ON-18 westbound from relieving a British convoy screen, passed HX-150 that night. Escorts in ON-18 were Madison, Gleaves, Hughes, Simpson and Lansdale. These were all Benson class 1630 ton destroyers of the class of 1940 or early 1941. ON-18, too, made the passage without encountering enemy submarines.
The next passage of convoys ran into trouble. The trouble led to an assignment to Edison. Convoy SC-48 sailed from Canada on October 10, 1941. Terrible weather and an abnormal number of stragglers, 11 of the 50 merchantmen, held the speed of advance to 7 ½ knots. A U-boat wolfpack struck during the night of October 15. The Canadian destroyer Columbia and four Canadian corvettes escorting SC-48 had more than they could handle. Three ships had been torpedoed and sunk when a call for help went into Reykjavik, 400 miles to the north. Captain L.H. Thebaud, ComDesRon 27 in Plunkett, with Livermore and Kearny, all Benson/Livermore class 1630 tonners and the Decatur, a WW I 4-piper, answered the call. They were joined by the 4-piper USS Greer, the British destroyer Broadwater and the Free French corvette Lobelia, from other duties. The Reykjavik group of destroyers arrived just before sunset on the 16th and found an exhausted Canadian screen and her shaken merchant convoy, waiting for another night of U-boat horror. Kearny, Livermore, Decatur and Plunkett formed a close screen, less than a mile from the convoy. In three waves of attacks beginning about 2200 and closing about 0200 on the 17th, the U-boats found their marks in the convoy with torpedoes. First a merchantman, then two more, then four more, received death blows. In the last wave, Kearny made her way into the convoy, close to a burning tanker. A sudden blaze from the tanker illuminated a British corvette picking up survivors. Kearny slowed and turned to avoid interference. In this now well lighted scene, a U-boat fired a spread of three torpedoes at Kearny. The center one hit in the #1 fire room. Men died from fire, impact, and sea water. The damage control officer and the Chief Motor Machinist shored up and saved the forward engine room bulkhead. The "split-plant" experience enabled Kearny to keep way on while a Quartermaster in the locked after steering engine room compartment answered rudder calls. The 4-piper Greer rallied alongside Kearny to give aid. Kearny's skipper told Greer he could make Iceland. Despite criticisms of this Benson class for topside weight, the class proved very sturdy with double bottoms and well designed water tight integrity compartmentation. Few of these vessels succumbed to a single torpedo. Kearny did not. The Navy repair ship Vulcan in Iceland performed a near miracle to get Kearny back to sea. The gaping hole in her starboard side just forward of the number one stack and under the starboard wing of the bridge could have finished her.
Returning for another look at Admiral Murdaugh's letter in the September 1971 issue of Robert Cloyd's Edison News, we find, "When the Kearny was torpedoed on 17 October, we were sent out to replace her, and from then on it was all convoy except the welcome short break escorting the HMS Duke of York from Bermuda. " Admiral Murdaugh followed with,
"Maybe some day your readers would like to have the story of the defense of Convoy ON-67, which ...was officially classed as one of the major engagements of the war, carrying its own battle star. It can be found in Roscoe, Destroyer Operations in WW II (U.S. Naval Institute 1953) pp 69-71, and Morison, History of U.S. Naval Operations in WW II, Vol. 1, The Battle of the Atlantic, (Little Brown & Co., 1947) pp 121-2."
Boston, Portland, Newfoundland and Iceland were Edison's ports of call while involved in North Atlantic Neutrality Patrol duties in the late Fall of 1941. She made Argentia on 21 November, a Boston departure 2 December for Argentia and a Boston arrival again on 28 December. Then her diary shows Casco Bay on 5 January 1942, and Bermuda on 14 January 1942. She was in Argentia on 28 January, Iceland on 12 February, and departed for Halifax on 16 February. The 14-28 January 1942 period included escorting HMS Duke of York from Bermuda to mid-ocean. Convoy schedules required lead time so no immediate change in escort patterns occurred as the result of the war declarations between Axis and Allied powers triggered by Pearl Harbor. But, the practice changed gradually in early 1942, from mid-ocean handoffs, to the US convoying right into and out of United Kingdom ports.
In recounting the story of Convoy ON-67, I have made use of the references cited by Admiral Murdaugh in his letter to the Edison News. I have had these sources in my library since they were published, Samuel Eliot Morrison's Battle of the Atlantic volume in 1947 and Theodore Roscoe's Destroyer Operations volume in 1953. The text for the latter was researched and edited technically by Radm Thomas Wattles, from official Navy sources. I knew this officer as Commander Wattles, the Executive Officer of Bancroft Hall at the Naval Academy, during my final year as a midshipman. It was from Commander Wattles that most midshipmen first learned of Pearl Harbor.
Edison, with Commander Murdaugh commanding and doing double duty as the Escort Commander, left Hvalfjordur, Iceland 16 February 1942, along with Nicholson (Benson class), Lea and Bernadou, both recently re-commissioned WW II 4-pipers. This force was to rendezvous at the mid-ocean passage point of convoy ON-67, westbound from the UK, and take this group of 35 ships on into Halifax. Meeting up on 19 February, the escorts took up a 4,000 yard screen, patrolling in a semi-circle at 12 ½ knots ahead of an 8 ½ knot convoy. Extra resources were the HMCS Algoma, which was to stay on from the UK escort group as long as her fuel permitted, and in the convoy itself, the British rescue ship SS Toward, carrying special ocean-tested rescue gear and a High Frequency Radio Direction Finder, commonly called Huff-Duff. For the escort screen, only Nicholson's radar was working properly.
On the morning of the 21st, on course 204 True, with ten miles visibility, tell tale smoke from the convoy broadcast the convoy's presence over a wide span of ocean. At noon, the convoy entered fog. Edison had a sound contact, and dropped a small pattern of depth charges. At dusk, the Toward reported intercepting probable submarine radio traffic on bearing 107 True. The Lea made a short search out on the bearing but discovered nothing. The convoy was being shadowed and at 0305 on the 22nd, the shadowers struck. Two convoy ships were hit from torpedoes fired from the after quarter of the convoy, likely, from a range beyond the screen which was in its night formation ahead of the convoy. Nicholson fell back and joined Toward and Algoma in rescue of survivors. The Forward's big dip net proved especially effective.
According to a footnote in the Morison volume, the SS Toward and the SS Rathlin were the first two of a class of specially designed convoy rescue ships. A surgeon was embarked, the sick bay was well staffed, and accommodations had been designed for several hundred survivors. The dip net feature consisted of a large net with its own flotation which could be hoisted over the side and put into the water for "water-logged and oil-smeared survivors".
On the afternoon of the 22nd, the convoy changed course to 240 True and four hours later to 200 True. ON-67 had caught a respite. With two ships sunk, the convoy nursed its wounds into the 23rd. At 1210, on 23 February, Edison reported another sound contact. Moving forward directly ahead of column 8 of the convoy, Edison dropped a pattern of depth charges. The contact had been evaluated "very definite" so Edison stayed with it until the convoy had passed well beyond the area. Unfortunately, the screw noises of 30 or more ships mask the noise of a single silent submarine and Edison finally gave up and rejoined her convoy station at 25 knots. Later that afternoon, Bernadou picked up a sound contact on the convoy's port beam. It evaporated. Despite frequent course changes ordered by Commander Murdaugh to avoid ambush, it seemed likely that the enemy was not through with ON-67. While the first attack on the early hours of the 22nd probably came from one submarine, by the 24th a pack had been called in. At 0030 on the 24th, the second attack came and was pressed home in waves until 0645. Four merchantmen were torpedoed, two being sunk and two left momentarily dead in the water before emergency repairs enabled them to gain some headway. It was estimated that five to six subs participated, working from both quarters. The convoy resorted to the use of "snowflake" illumination, to help Armed Guard ship's gunners find surfaced subs for targets. Murdaugh, in emergency radio messages to the Chief of Naval Operations, recommended a drastic convoy course change to 285 True and several hours later, after the events of the next paragraph, this was approved.
On the afternoon of the 24th, it became quite clear that what ON-67's commanders feared was in fact, being borne out. The Toward picked up more "traffic" on her high frequency radio direction finder. On a sweep of one of the reported bearings 15 miles ahead, Nicholson sighted two U-boats and forced them to submerge, keeping them down until after dark. Lea was sent out on the starboard flank of the convoy to run down another bearing reported by Toward. At 20 miles out, Lea found a surfaced submarine, which she forced down and depth charged. Again, the wolfpack surfaced after dark and moved ahead to get into attack position. Edison made sound contact on the convoy's starboard bow shortly after nightfall and moments later her lookouts spotted a U-boat silhouette in a sudden shaft of moonlight. Too fast for the deck guns, the sub slithered away and Edison fired a pattern of depth charges. Five more patterns followed and sound contact could not be regained. After a sustained period of search, Murdaugh ordered his ship to return to station on the convoy. On the way back, at a distance of 200 yards, Edison came across a submarine in the night surface gloom-with no sound contact at all having been registered on this ephemeral target. Edison dropped a warning charge and engaged in suppression between the convoy and point of submergence until dawn of the 25th of February.
The escorts of ON-67 were learning valuable lessons about U-boat tactics and developing, on the spot, counter tactics in suppression. The value of Toward's radio direction finder and of her rescue gear was demonstrated. The night of 24-25 February passed without the U-boats making an attack. Fog set in at 1410 on the 25th and escorts were called in from ranging forays. Then, Bernadou, running down another HF-DF report from Toward, made sound contact and dropped a pattern of charges just after 1500. Fog enveloped the convoy all that night and in the morning hours of the 26th, rough weather set in. The US Coast Guard Cutter Spencer was a welcome addition to the screen that morning. Convoy ON-67 had passed through her danger period and the rest of the trip was without incident.
Four of the merchant vessels entrusted to the U.S. escorts were on the bottom and quite likely no subs had been sunk in the counter attacks. In a commendatory citation to Commander Murdaugh, Admiral Bristol (stationed in Argentia) closed his remarks with, "Commander Murdaugh outmaneuvered and outfought a concentration of enemy ships and effectively broke up the enemy's efforts." The record certainly supports those words. The U.S. high command must have agreed, too. Stars to wear on service ribbons were a rare recognition. Such recognition usually came only from participation in some huge invasion force that had a demonstrated bearing on the course of the War.
The ensuing early months of 1942 in the North Atlantic saw a lower incidence of aggressive wolfpack attacks. There was a good reason. The coastal waters of the U.S. and the Caribbean proved to be easier hunting grounds for Doenitz's submarines.