The Story of USS Lansdale DD426
By Charles C. Wales '44
Written for the Veteran's Day 2008 issue of the weekly magazine section of The Berkshire Eagle, Pittsfield, MA,
and published in considerably shortened form.
This is the story of a Navy destroyer, U.S.S. Lansdale DD426, which was commissioned 27 September 1940 in the Boston Navy Yard. At the same time this is a story of two other ships which are linked to the story of Lansdale. When I reported for duty in Lansdale, I was a brand new Ensign, U.S. Navy, a recent graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy, and was assigned duties as Torpedo and Commissary Officer. As such I was responsible for the ship's torpedoes, depth charges and the crew's mess. But this is not a story about me, but rather the ships.
Lansdale was one of a new class of destroyers built as part of a modernization program just prior to WWII. For readers not familiar with Navy ship types, the mission of a destroyer is to provide in surface warfare offense using surface launched torpedoes, and in.anti-submarine warfare defense with its sonar and depth charges. In practice, destroyers were used very little, but to very good effect, in surface warfare in either WWI or WWII. Most never saw any surface warfare, and, like Lansdale, were deployed in anti-submarine screens around convoys of transport ships and around formations of combat ships such as aircraft carriers, battleships and cruisers.
During WWII, Lansdale was deployed in the Atlantic doing convoy duty. In early 1944, after escorting a convoy to Gibraltar, she was assigned duty in the Mediterranean escorting heavy cruisers during the Anzio campaign and convoys from Gibraltar to ports in the Mediterranean.
USS Lansdale DD426 was sunk on the night of 20 April 1944 by a German aerial torpedo while escorting Convoy UGS38 (i.e. United States- Gibraltar/Slow) from the Gibraltar to Bizerte, Tunisia. In that convoy, Lansdale was assigned to a position as the jamming ship on the north flank of the anti-submarine screen of the convoy which was proceeding eastward along the North African coast in the vicinity of Algiers, Algieria. The "jamming ship" was equipped with apparatus for the detection and jamming of radio-controlled glider bombs, the newly designed weapon being deployed by the Germans. More on that weapon later.
During the period before sunset, Army radar on North Africa picked up radar contact with a flight of German war planes heading south toward the convoy. However, these planes were seen to divert toward Tunisia, well to the east of the convoy. They proceeded on that heading until they were over land where the radar could not track them, but obviously they headed westward toward UGS38. As twilight faded, flying close to shore and low over the water they evaded radar detection until they were almost upon the convoy. Some 18 to 24 Junkers and Heinkel bombers armed with aerial torpedoes struck in three waves.
The first wave of nine JU-88's attacked from dead ahead about 25 minutes after sunset so it was extremely difficult to see them. Their torpedoes damaged the SS Samite and sank the SS Paul Hamilton, which was carrying 498 men of the Army Air Force, some Armed Guard (Navy personnel who manned the armament which had been installed on most commercial ships) and the crew. Because she was carrying demolition explosives, Paul Hamilton was blown to bits, and every person on board, to the number of 580, was killed. The explosion of Paul Hamilton created a huge fire-ball, actually a mushroom cloud as I remember it, which illuminated the convoy for a numbers of minutes thus lighting up the area as though it was daylight. The attack happened so quickly that the escorts were unable to take the lead planes under fire, but they put up an effective barrage on the trailing planes. The second wave of about seven JU-88's came on the heels of the first, hitting the southern flank of the convoy and sent torpedoes into SS Stephen T. Austin and into SS Royal Star, sinking her. The third wave, consisting of about five HE-111's, boredown on the convoy's port bow, Lansdale's station. USS Menges DE320 shot down one of the planes, then rescued its pilot and radioman.
Silhouetted by the explosion of Paul Hamilton, Lansdale was attacked from both port and starboard by both HE-111's and JU-88's. Lansdale's guns hit one as it passed down the starboard side and splashed well astern. Another launched a torpedo 500s yard on the starboard beam before passing over the forecastle under heavy fire and splashing on the port quarter. That torpedo struck the starboard side at 2106 just forward of the forward stack in the forward fireroom which caused a boiler explosion thus opening up the side of the ship. She immediately took on a 12 degree list to port, her rudder jammed 22 degrees right and she steamed in a clockwise circle. The attacks continued, and at 2120 the course straightened out, but the list increased steadily. In all, a total of five torpedoes were launched at Lansdale.
With her vital machinery swamped, with smoke and steam pouring from her breached hull, the order to abandon ship was given at 2122 when Captain Douglas M. Swift, USN, feared she might capsize. Marion Anthony Porter, Stewardsman, third class, USN, the gunner of a 20mm machine gun, was laying on deck, hanging on to his gun when the order came. Although his leg was broken in two places, Porter and crew had remained at their station, continuing to fire. By 2130, the list had increased to 80 degrees and the ship began to break up. Five or so minutes later, she broke in half, and the stern section quickly sank. The forward section sank about 20 minutes later.
Two destroyer escorts manned by the Coast Guard, USS Menges DE320 and USS Newell DD322 were assigned to search for survivors. It was well after dark now and we were in waters with German submarines operating so use of search lights to locate survivors was out. However, Menges and Newell did a superior job of it, and picked up 234 survivors of a crew of 282 officers and men. Of the 49 casualties, 7 dead were buried at the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial, Carthage, Tunisia, and 42 missing in action are memorialized there as well. The survivors were taken to Algiers, Algeria where we were outfitted with uniforms and eventually returned to the USA at Norfolk, VA.
When Lansdale sank, the water temperature was estimated to be about 60 degrees, very cold to spend much time in. In addition, the water was covered with fuel oil from Lansdale's bunkers. Combat ships are not equipped with life boats in the manner of a passenger ship. Combat ships are equipped with life rafts and floater nets, which are cargo nets with floats incorporated in the weave of the net. They deploy when a ship sinks by merely floating free of their supports. One does not sit on a life raft but hangs on to the ropes around the outside or inside standing on a floor supported about five feet below the raft by netting. The floater net is spread out on the water and one lays on the net or hangs on around the perimeter. In any event, one is in the water, and survival in 60 degree water covered with fuel oil is quite difficult.
While at Algiers after our rescue, I was assigned the task of trying to determine the fate of each of the missing in action. It was apparent that no one in the forward fireroom survived as well as some in the compartment just forward of that. In all about half of the missing had been killed in the ship. The rest must have perished in the water afterward. In talking to some of my shipmates, I learned that some of the men simply could not handle the situation, the cold, the oil, and the fright, and they apparently simply gave up. It's hard to imagine that a person will simply give up and quit the struggle, but quite apparently that is what happened. I don't remember how many stories like this that I heard, but it was more the a few.
I was in the water for about two and one half hours. When I arrived at the side of Newell, the ship which rescued me, I found that they had rigged up a cargo net over the side for us to climb up on. The waves were running maybe three to five feet at the time, so I waited until I was lifted by a wave and grabbed the cargo net, but I was so weakened by the cold that I could not hold on and fell back into the sea. The next time I tried, when the wave lifted me and I grabbed the net, two sailors grabbed me by the seat of my pants and heaved me up on deck. There I was stripped of my wet clothing, wrapped in a blanket, and given a cup of coffee. I was shaking so much from the cold that I slopped the coffee all over my front when I tried to drink it.
I was escorted to the mess hall where I found that the crew had gotten all of the uniforms and clothing which were in the laundry to be washed, and had dumped them in a pile in the middle of the deck for the survivors to dress in. I selected a pair of 13-button drop front pants and a denim shirt, and was escorted to a bunk in the chief petty officer's quarters.
I remember watching as the last survivor out of the water was carried below. He had been in the water for over four hours. He was wrapped in blankets and was shivering violently and mumbling, "I'm so cold. I'm so cold" over and over again. He was Lt(jg) Alvin S. Caplan, USNR. Years later, at one of our ship reunions, the first of which was held in 1994, we discovered that he thought he had been rescued by a British frigate. I finally convinced him that there was not a British frigate in that convoy, and that he had been rescued by USS Newell DD322. In further conversation, we discovered that he had no recollection of events that night from the time he waded down the side of Lansdale into the water until a couple of days later when he realized that he was standing in a line in the mess hall with a mess tray in his hand.
I mentioned in the beginning that this was the story of Lansdale and two other ships. The second was SS Paul Hamilton, and I will comment on her a little later on. The third ship in this story is HMTS Rohna, a British troop transport. In November 1942, she was in convoy KMF26 of 24 ships from Oran to Bombay via the Suez Canal. She had 2193 passengers including 1988 troops. She was an old ship and not designed specifically for troop transport, and reportedly her equipment, including life boats, was in very poor condition. She was manned by Indians who did not speak English. The convoy was attacked between Algiers and Phillopville on Nov. 26, 1942 by the Germans using their newly designed radio-controlled glider bombs, HS-293's manufactured by Heinkel. Rohna was hit by one of these glider bombs and sank with loss of 1015 troops and 102 crew. This was not the first use of the glider bomb; it was probably the second.
The military immediately clamped down on the release of any news concerning the fate of Rohna, including the extreme loss of life and the manner of her sinking, that is, by radio controlled glider bomb. Next of kin were notified only that their relative was missing in action with no details whatsoever. Not until the Freedom of Information Act was invoked in 1967, was any information released. The reason for suppressing the news is not clear to this day. Perhaps the military did not want the Germans to know that we knew that they were using a new weapon and that it was being effective. Perhaps it was the extreme loss of life caused by the poor condition of Rohna's life saving equipment and the poor performance of her crew. To this day we do not know the real answer.
In any event, when the fate of Rohna became known in 1967, it resulted in quite a scandal of sorts. A Rohna Association was formed, and, eventually a web page was posted. The military has never to this day lifted its ban of news about Rohna, and the reasons behind the ban in the first place are not clear. One reason which I have read about on the web was that we did not want the Germans to know that the weapon was very successful and/or that we knew that it was a radio guided weapon. The other reason was that the extreme loss of life was caused by negligence on the part of the military authorities who ordered those troops to be transported in Rohna. Those authorities either knew or should have known that Rohna was a very unsafe ship.
I have my own thoughts about why the ban was placed on the news; but not why the ban has continued over the years. Recall that Landale was the jamming ship in the convoy UGS38. The jamming equipment was installed by the destroyer tender, USS Vulcan, while in Oran in late March and early April 1944. I believe that our intelligence knew early on that the Germans were developing a radio controlled glider bomb, and in response we began developing a counter measure for it. However, as soon as the jamming gear was deployed the Germans would have become aware of it immediately if for no other reason than that some of their bombs were not responding to their control signals and not hitting the intended target. For example, shortly after the jamming gear was installed in Lansdale, one of the petty officers assigned to it was exercising the gear while in port, perhaps for training, when he saw the signal from a glider bomb on the scope. So he did the obvious thing, he jammed it. It turned out that the bomb he had jammed had been launched well far north in the vicinity of the island of Corsica, and the jamming was successful.
Considering the above, I believe that the Germans were well aware of the jamming ships and that they specifically targeted Lansdale. She was the only destroyer in an antisubmarine screen of 22 destroyer escorts, and she was stationed on the north flank of the convoy in position to jam glider bombs. In all, five torpedoes were directed at Lansdale, and that alone indicates that Lansdale was a specific target rather then merely a target of opportunity. It only took one hit to sink Lansdale.
If the Rohna incident created such a scandal, I fail to understand why the sinking of Paul Hamilton did not generate any similar reaction. The fact that the military authorities ordered the 498 Army Air Force personnel who were to use the demolition explosives loaded into Paul Hamilton to ship overseas in her was to me inexcusably placing them in unnecessary hazard. Those men should not have been in that ship. I have a web page which provides information about Lansdale reunions. From time to time I receive an email from some one searching for information about a relative or ancestor who died in the Mediterranean on 20 April 1944, and they have found my web site and ask if their serviceman could have been in Lansdale. It saddens me greatly to have to tell them that, if he had been in the Air Force, he was not in Lansdale, but most certainly in Paul Hamilton, and furthermore he should not have been in that ship and should not have died that night. One can find quite a bit of information about Paul Hamilton on the internet, but there is no outrage comparable to that generated by the sinking of Rohna.
At my web site one can find all available official Navy photographs of Lansdale including a photograph of the explosion of Paul Hamilton. The photographer was Petty Officer Arthur Green, Coast Guard, an official combat photographer in the crew of USS Menges DD320. He took the photograph a moment too soon, as the explosion produced a towering mushroom cloud of smoke and flame which illuminated the entire convoy for a number of minutes. He also took all of the photographs of the rescue of survivors. My web site is at http://home.nycap.rr.com/cwales.