Troop Convoy AT-20

August 21, 1942

 

"The fog was nasty--cotton-thick in patches, but thinning here and there into open spaces ("fog-dogs" in the vernacular) which appeared unexpectedly, like clearings in a misty forest. One minute a ship was plowing blindly through an opalescent cloud. Next minute she was in the clear, exposed." --Theodore Roscoe

Action::

Convoy AT-20, with troops and supplies bound for Scotland, was, as convoys go, of the "fast" variety, with an expected 15 knots speed of advance. Fog forced the Convoy Commander to slow the convoy and to order the launching of towing spars into the water behind each convoy vessel. Under towing spar conditions, all ships in the convoy close up into a tighter formation so that the conning officer in each ship (except ships in the lead flank) keeps station on the towing spar of the ship ahead. Forward lookouts strain to keep the spar in sight. The helmsman must respond smartly to the conning officer's rudder commands in order to keep the ship in column. The towing spar must not be overrun, yet the vessel must not fall back and lose sight of the spar. The engines are being controlled by "turns", called for over voice tubes and by use of a "turns indicator" from bridge to engine room (ER). Annunciators (a brass mechanical handle-or set of handles, one for each engine/propeller), perched on at waist level on the bridge, transmit fundamental speed changes from bridge to ER which, depending on handle position, call for "slow", standard" or "flank" speed ahead, or "back". The annunciator method of speed control is not precise enough for minute-to-minute use in a formation of ships in fog.

AT-20 was a troop convoy. The Task Force Commander's flag flew on the USS Philadelphia. She was one of three of the new 15-gun (6 inchers) class of light cruisers to serve with distinction in the War in the Atlantic, the other two being her sister ships, Brooklyn and Savannah. The USS New York, my midshipman cruise battleship, was part of TF 37. Since Philadelphia and New York did not run down enemy submarine contacts, it had to be obvious that they were along for another purpose. And that purpose was more than to give an Admiral a comfortable place to ride. Brooklyn and New York both had catapults and deck spaces for scout planes, like the Navy's SOCs or OS/2Us. One might suppose that these would be handy for submarine surveillance. The North Atlantic was not a kind area for deployment of these aircraft. Recovery of them was effected by creating a knuckle in the wake of the "parent" ship to create a smoother place for the seaplane to land, a technique which I had witnessed frequently with the battleships New York, Texas and Arkansas on the midshipman cruise. This maneuver tied up a big ship and plane guard destroyers. The tradeoff rarely seemed acceptable to task force commanders in wartime conditions.

Troopships were generally afforded passage in faster convoys. They also went in convoys that could give an account of themselves against all "threats". The extra hardware, in this instance, Philadelphia and New York, countered surface raider threats from Hitler's Navy. Although the CIC-Combat Information Center had not yet been implemented, the larger warships carried more radio equipment and had larger plotting rooms. The ratio of convoy ships to escorts was also better in the troop convoys, which had eight to fifteen ships in convoy, with escorts numbering nine or more, in addition to the "heavy" stuff represented by a cruiser and a battleship.

By July 1942, the wolfpacks had returned to the North Atlantic. Every merchant convoy in August was attacked, and one convoy, eastbound SC-94 was attacked by two wolfpacks on separate nights. 24 ships went down in August in this area, 28 in September, 25 in October and 29 in November of 1942. Acoustic homing torpedoes were entering the U-boat arsenal. Large supply submarines had begun to replenish the German sub fleet to keep it at sea. With new wolfpack fronts established off South America, in the Caribbean and Gulf, and in mid-Atlantic and North Atlantic, the pressure on the defense to obtain escorts entered a crucial phase. The North Atlantic troop convoys carrying Army units to Britain kept the highest priority. In order to provide modern destroyers of the Benson class for troop convoys, the British Navy and the Canadian Navy re-assumed primary responsibility for the full transit of merchant convoys. There was occasionally an extra detachment of escort ships in Iceland to sally forth on call.

The result was that the fast trans-Atlantic AT troop convoys, heavily escorted, ran the wolfpacks without casualties due to enemy action. Not a ship underwent torpedo attack. Still, submarine attack was paramount in the minds of the escort force commanders and any "trouble" whose source was not immediately apparent had first to be evaluated as potentially submarine-caused.

Screen Commander for AT-20 was Captain John B. Heffernan, ComDesRon 13, with flag on the USS Buck. DesRon 13 was as close to its full complement of assigned destroyers in the AT-20 trip as I would experience in 27 months aboard Edison. I can find references to Ludlow DD438, Woolsey DD437, Edison DD439, Bristol DD453, Swanson DD443, Nicholson DD442 and Ingraham DD444 participating in the trip. These ships, all of the Benson class, and all initially assigned to DesRon 13, joined active war service in the Atlantic at about the same time.

AT-20's 10-ship troop convoy was pretty well formed up and standing eastward from Halifax by 0600 on 22 August. Just before 1800, troopship Letitia reported a radar contact which Swanson and Ingraham investigated. Sonar noise, possibly porpoises, delayed their return and they were unable to determine the source of the original radar contact. At 2200 fog added to the complexity of a convoy attempting to resume its original alignment, which had been altered during the sweeps by Swanson and Ingraham.

At 2205, CTF 37, RAdm Davidson, used the TBS voice radio to direct the USS Buck to go close aboard Letitia and escort her to her assigned station 1,000 yards on Philadelphia's starboard beam. With visibility now near zero, and with the primary station-keeping resource, the towing spars, streamed, Buck actually had to get into bull horn range of Letitia to help direct her to the assigned position.

Escorts of AT-20 Take Deadly Hits

At 2225, now in a crossing position in a convoy column, a Buck lookout's shout was too late, as the transport Awatea, suddenly visible at 30 yards, rammed Buck's starboard quarter. The steep bow of Awatea nearly severed Buck. A 300 pound depth charge from one of Buck's K-guns dropped over the side and exploded, damaging Buck's port propeller. Buck broke away, badly hurt, and helpless.

Ordered to investigate "collision in the convoy", ( later determined to be the collision of Buck and Awatea) Ingraham, in that same blinding fog as she entered the convoy's path, got athwart ship the Navy oiler Chemung, whose bow cut Ingraham nearly in two. Lying on her side, Ingraham blew up with an orange flash of such intensity that it cut through the fog and was visible on Edison's bridge. Ensign R.F. (Dick) Hofer, the junior watch officer on Edison's bridge, reported the flash in Edison's log at 2235 by Edison's chronometer. Because I was so new at watch standing underway, I was up on the bridge early to relieve Dick Hofer, and was just getting night-vision adjusted when I too saw the flash.

Ten men and one officer survived on the Ingraham. The officer was my classmate from the Naval Academy, Ensign Melvin Brown. Ensign Brown was in the Ingraham's main gun director when she rolled over. He survived drowning mainly because he was wearing a kapok life jacket with a ring that curled from its vest on the chest up around and behind the neck. This jacket could hold an unconscious man's head out of water. In the late Spring of 1997, just after I had determined that I should contact Mel Brown personally about this experience in my preparation of this story, I read of his death in Shipmate magazine.

The death toll on Ingraham had to be about 250 men. It is not fair to the dead to record such a nominal figure, because each death is a significant loss, and the fact of its occurrence in the defense of one's country especially deserves accurate and specific recognition. Ingraham's manifest, provided on departure from its last port, would furnish the information so that each family could be notified. The pace of death in World War II was so rapid that news articles used the estimated loss figures contained in preliminary Navy or Army service announcements. It was rare that more detailed and accurate follow up got into the press because the next loss to announce would already be at hand. Even in the numbing down that the regularity of loss numbers caused, Ingraham's loss of life came across as very large. There were many more to come. We never got used to them.

While Ingraham was more likely than not to sink, given the catastrophic damage of the collision, it was the explosion which robbed her crew of any chance to save her or themselves. The comment earlier that this class of ships could survive torpedo damage did not make anyone comfortable with the demonstrated vulnerability of destroyer classes to magazine detonation. In the War in the Atlantic, triggers for magazine detonation, in addition to torpedoes, were collision and air attack. Atlantic destroyers demonstrated toughness in seakeeping, and proved themselves effective in handing out punishment. Their proportionately large cargo of high explosives and the large space the explosive materials occupied, was their Achilles' heel.

Too often, their own depth charges punished many a US destroyer. One of the sources consulted in preparing this account commented that after the collision, and rolling over on her side, that Ingraham's own depth charges went into the sea and exploded under her. This account states that it was then that the tell tale blast of magazine detonation occurred.

Not all the damage had yet been done to AT-20. Thankfully, no more destroyers would be used in that dense fog to get the convoy ships on station. Also, patches of clear sea began to emerge from the wreathy fog shortly after midnight. Bristol and Edison were assigned to stay with the damaged ships while the convoy moved on. Edison found the Chemung on fire in her bos'n's stores in the forward hold. Bristol found Buck dead in the water with men trapped in the after steering engine room. The Awatea, a transport with 5,000 soldiers aboard, had disappeared.

Damage Assessments

Let's look first at the Buck's problems. What is an "after steering engine room"? On Edison, as on the Buck, way aft was a hatch that gave personnel access down through the main deck to an after-compartment in which the steel cables came from the bridge to a rudder-turning pulley, in this case a wheel of large diameter. This tiny room was manned by enlisted personnel as one of the regular underway watch stations. Trained personnel could take direct control of the rudder in the event of malfunction between bridge and rudder for whatever cause. Direction for moving the rudder could come via the "sound powered telephones" or if everything else were knocked out, by man-to-man voice relay. For water tight integrity purposes, this space is "dogged down" during action episodes when the ship is at General Quarters. Junior Officers are assigned training watches in the after steering engine room and I can personally attest to the claustrophobia that can overtake anyone during a watch in this space. Dead in the water, with men trapped in the after steering engine room, is how Bristol found the Buck in that eerie calm sea. We will come back to "solutions" to the Buck's dilemma after dealing with Edison's handling of the tanker, the USS Chemung.

Navy tankers differ from the huge sea going tankers like the Exxon Valdez. In WW II, those huge vessels, though not yet as large as their counterparts today, transported a primary cargo of say, bunker fuel oil, or crude oil. Some transported aviation gasoline, which we will shorten to avgas here. The distinction is that, short of some small quantities of other petroleum distillate cargo for their own use, the commercial tanker carries one primary petroleum product. Not so Navy tankers. They have traditionally carried a mixed cargo of bunker fuel oil, avgas, and diesel. They also have extra gear for fueling the "train", like ships in task forces whether cruisers or battleships, or escorts or other Navy auxiliaries like supply ships or attack transports. Each of the classes of Navy ships has different "menu" needs. Some will not need avgas at all-destroyers come to mind. But the destroyer needs the most frequent feedings. I seem to remember that Edison carried just over 140,000 gallons of #6 fuel oil and a few thousand gallons of diesel fuel. The daily fuel report was a "must do" report.

The Chemung, as noted, was on fire in the forward hold. The flammables here were mostly boatswain's stores, ropes and the like. The fact that she was a tanker, and had a mixed cargo of flammable petroleum derivatives, was certainly on the mind of her skipper and our skipper. She was almost dead in the water. We patrolled slowly around her. We were now in a clearing in the fog, and visibility was good, really too good, for we and she, were being illuminated by her fire. We had no idea then of what had gone wrong in the convoy. We had none of the post mortem data contained in the paragraphs above. All Ensign Hofer had told me was that he heard an order over the TBS given to a destroyer to "close the convoy at high speed". Edison personnel could not, therefore, when dealing with the Chemung, even equate the huge ball of orange to the loss of the Ingraham. Submarines were on our mind. The skipper of the Chemung asked the Edison to come close aboard and put out Chemung's fire.

Both Capt. Headden and Executive Officer (XO), LCDR Pearce, were on the Edison's bridge. Both had experience that I had not had, and experience that I did not then know they had. I was kind of dumbstruck by the Chemung's request. I assumed we would probably do what the Chemung asked, and I worried about getting that fire out before it spread to the rest of the Chemung, or to us. Our Exec.,"Hap" Pearce, as he was known, already had a Navy Cross for keeping the Marblehead, a US cruiser, afloat in the South Pacific after Japanese aircraft had scored hits, and then rigging an emergency rudder so that Marblehead could get back to the States, the long way around. Edison's CO and XO conferred briefly. Captain Headden then told the Chemung skipper, in brief, to "get your own fire out, and do it quickly so we can both get underway." That was not what I expected. In my naivete, I expected we would go alongside and push as many fire nozzles as we could into any hole we could find in the forward section of the Chemung.

What Headden and Pearce knew that I did not know, was that ships like the Chemung had more than adequate fire fighting equipment aboard, certainly more than a destroyer had, and that Chemung had men trained to fight even more dangerous fires. I watched in amazement at the reaction on Chemung to Headden's orders. Both her deck crews and her boat crews quickly moved fire fighting equipment and pumping equipment forward and attacked the fire vigorously They had a stubborn type of stores fire under control before dawn. Edison and the Chemung got underway toward Bristol and Buck, not too far away. Edison sailors were always glad to be underway. Both Headden and Pearce, when they served as Edison's Commanding Officers, believed in movement. In addition to movement, and to zig zag patterns as prescribed in MERSIGS, Edison constantly fish tailed along any course, and regularly altered the degree-of-rudder changing signals. Going alongside a dock in a battle area was a "no no". I had heard them talk about that.

I cannot put an exact time on subsequent events, except to try to be accurate about the order in which these events occurred. Buck's difficulty was quite severe and in attempting to overcome it, more tragedy occurred. One propeller shaft had been severed and the screw had gone to the briny deep. The crew in the after steering engine room were in communication with their shipmates but apparently a wall of water surrounded them. Since we arrived with Chemung back in the vicinity of Buck after the second event in their fearsome night, I can only infer that the after main deck had been left under water from her collision with the Awatea. The dogged watertight door on the hatch would keep water out of their compartment but it also meant that their only egress could not be used. There were other courses of action, in retrospect, that might have been taken. But, the "plan" by this time was to get damaged ships back to Halifax. If the just passed events of the night of the 22-23 of August, 1942 had not originated with enemy submarine action, one could still expect submarines to take advantage of distressed ships.

So, Buck made the effort to see if the remaining propeller could be turned over. That proved to make things worse. The partly severed stern vibrated off and plunged into the deep. Not only did this take the after steering engine crew down with it, but the 600 pound roll off charges in the stern racks exploded when they got to their set depth.

Could those charges have been set on "safe"? Even after the collision? Why were they armed in the first place? Were the charges on the Ingraham also set to go off at depth? Every watch on Edison drilled at least once in four hours in setting depth charge patterns and proficiency was recorded by the time to set the pattern, and report the pattern set. It was further a mark of proficiency to get them set back on safe. These drills to set a pattern and then return the settings to "safe" took place in almost all sea conditions and in darkness. I figured out years later, that apparently there was no Destroyers Atlantic Fleet (DesLant) directive on depth charge procedures that all had to follow.

The Awatea, with her 5,000 troops embarked, and bow damaged, did not return to AT-20. Some said she went back to Halifax. Others said she went on her own to Greenock. She was capable of modern liner speeds, and those faster ship's skippers always chafed at convoy speeds, which they felt made them more vulnerable than going it alone. Awatea was not lost, thank God. AT-20 losses were already steep.

A mini-convoy was made up, Chemung with Buck in tow, Bristol and Edison screening. Bristol's skipper was Senior Officer Present Afloat (SOPA). Course was set to Halifax, and even with our slow speed of advance, we were back off Halifax in less than two days. Bristol and Edison turned their injured charges over to patrol boats out of Halifax, and made their way back to AT-20 at high speed. Calm seas prevailed, yet it took nearly four days at 25 knots for Edison to resume station in its assigned sector with AT-20. I had mixed emotions after these days, my first at sea in war conditions, and a lot of questions, most of which I kept to myself.

BOOK:: Joining The War At Sea

Thanks again to friend Frank Dailey for his research and account of this story. For more stories like this, please read Joining the war at Sea.

--Richard Angelini, Benson class Destroyers

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