A WWII Fifty Year Secrecy Classification Buries 580 Families at Sea
” Friendly Planes – Do Not Fire” … a Personal Story
With special thanks to Helen Jones, Chuck Wales, Wayne Bates and my mother…all survivors
This is the third anniversary that we have run the SS Paul Hamilton tragedy, the largest loss of life on a Liberty Ship during WWII.
Each year a few more families of the 580 killed find the the article and contact me, most have know nothing but that date their ancestor was killed.
Bob Jones widow Helen passed on all the the archival material they dug out after the 50 year classification had run out. I was in the unique position of course to publish it here, and will every year as we continue to find more and more families.
The surprise this year was to have the radio operator, Wayne Bates, on the USS Mosley contact me with the startling revelation that when the torpedo bombers were coming in on a bow attack they received a message of “Friendly Planes…Do not fire.” This first wave went by the Mosley unmolested and got the Paul Hamilton…the fortune of war. But in all the post action reports, this key radio message ‘fell through the cracks’.
So we say thanks to Al Gore for inventing the Internet, without which we would never have been able to do any of this. It is all amazing teamwork from people who care, and that is a set up for a favor I want to ask you all.
We have been posting queries on surname genealogy forums fishing to find more families of the 580 men, but the initial test got no bites. The KIA link has all the names in alphabetical order. If any of you readers have any of these surnames among your family let’s see if we can let more of these families know what really happened, and why.
After the first publishing in 2011 I had been contacted by Chuck Wales, formerly the Navy Lt. and torpedo officer on the USS Lansdale who was also torpedoed and sunk during the same convoy attack. As luck would have it he had lived 15 minutes from my mother’s house for 55 years and they had never met.
I was able to arrange a surprise visit with a print new reporter along to record the event…for the photo above. Chuck is 91 now, still snow skiing but sold his glider last year and I don’t think he does canoe racing anymore.
Mother…she became a 16 year old widow when the Western Union kid brought her telegram.
On this day, April 20th, 1944, the largest loss of life on a WWII Liberty ship took place when the SS Paul Hamilton was sunk with all hands.
But these men were killed not once, but twice.
Yes, the German Junkers torpedo bombers did their work. But as their various body parts rained down on the nearby ships of the convoy, no one knew then that details of the incident would be classified for 50 years.
All the families of these men would ever be told, for that whole time, was…”Missing in action, presumed dead, Mediterranean Theater.” I have a complete alphabetical KIA roster link below.
Why, do you ask? The brass did not want to face the families with explaining to them why they had loaded a troop ship with 7000 tons of explosives and munitions.
My mother had married Sgt Leon Miller only about four months prior. He was in the Army Air Corp…photo intelligence, and has assured her he would be behind the lines. When the door bell rang she saw a young boy in a Western Union uniform standing with a telegram.
In those days you would rather see the devil himself. It still had not hit her yet until he said the magic words…”Are you Mrs. Leon Miller?” Everything…at that moment…changed forever. She was…sixteen years old.
Denial is often the survival instinct for these telegram moments. She refused to accept it. She did the best she could to push the grim reaper away, in an impressive way for a young lady,
“I am sure there is some mistake. My husband has not even gotten over there yet.” The young boy had been trained well, and he did his job. He read the address to her and asked if it were correct, then again asked her again if she was Mrs Leon Miller.
And then he stretched out his hand and said, “I’m very sorry.” He had done this many times before. She had not.
Stage two of denial now enters. The young widow sees the only avenue open to her not have this really happen is to still not accept the telegram. She insisted that he go back to the office and double check …she was sure the mistake would be discovered.
The young boy, seeming unhappy that he had failed to do his job, left. If he could have shown her the lead photo of the Hamilton going up, she would have taken the telegram. But mother never saw it…until last year.
The sixty two ships of convoy UGS 38 were off the coast of Algiers on the fateful evening. The SS Paul Hamilton was headed for the Anzio bridge head which was surrounded by strong German forces.
Our troops were so hard pressed that many of the 504 Army Air Corp men aboard had been retrained in mine demolition work for the planned break out.
For more efficient shipping logistics the brass had decided to keep the men and their 7000 tons of explosives together in the same unarmored ship, where one hot tracer round could blow them all to smithereens.
Convoys were well protected by that time in the war. The Luftwaffe was no longer attacking them during the day because they would lose too many planes.
Their main tactic was the low level torpedo bombing attack timed to strike just after the sun went down. They came in from the coast, using the mountains to hide their radar detection for as long as possible.
The picket ships finally picked them up and reported the incoming attack but there were communications complications and most ships found out when the shooting started.
The convoy was already at general quarters as standard procedure.
There is not much for those on a troopship to do in a situation like this. They are literally along for ride in a game of high stakes roulette.
Every man on the Hamilton knew that if they were hit no life boats would be necessary. They did not have to suffer a long wait. They were the first hit.
As the planes closed on the ships in the post sunset darkness flares were reported being dropped by higher altitude German planes which helped the helped the torpedo bombers pick out ships to make their runs. But the convoy commander’s official report has no mention of flares.
Although the first wave of planes attacked the convoy head on, the destroyers in front never opened fire on them. I can only surmise they could not see them in the dark and the planes were by them before they could shoot.
A witness on a ship near the Paul Hamilton reported that an alert gunner fired a burst at a crossing plane, which then focused in on the gunner’s tracers.
This was actually against firing protocol where the armed freighters were only supposed to fire on planes making an attack run on them, so their tracer fire would not expose them in the darkness. The fate of the Hamilton was sealed.
As the plane bore in all the guns the Hamilton could bring to bear blasted away. When the plane did not go down, the gunners knew what that meant…incoming torpedo.
If you look at this larger photo you will see all the extra gun tubs mounted fore and aft and amidships to give them a fighting chance.
The Coast Guard destroyer escort Menges was screening the the column that the Hamilton was in, a bit behind it.
Combat cameraman Art Green was at his battle station on the fantail where he had a panoramic view.
His eyes were drawn to the outgoing fire from the nearby ships, and straining to see any planes in the darken twilight. Suddenly, the sky turned from night to day.
The flash stunned everyone. When Green’s eyes reopened he watched the mushroom cloud rise up from what had been the SS Paul Hamilton, and snapped his famous shot.
Within a month the photo was being used for war propaganda in American papers and magazines as an example of the risks and carnage involved in getting supplies to the front.
The families of the Paul Hamilton KIA’s who happened to see it never knew it was their photo. There are not too many WWII families who have such a morbid memento, but after sixty plus years you take what you can get.
The following link is a complete alphabetical roster of all those who died in that blinding flash.
Green recounted that the Hamilton explosion lasted six to seven seconds and then everything went dark again. More explosions were heard as four more ships were struck.
Some of the torpedoes that missed their targets and exploded at the end of their runs were mistakenly reported as bombs.
The destroyer Lansdale was sunk, and the damaged Royal Star sank the next day. Both the damaged Samite M/V and Stephen F. Austen M/V were successfully towed to Algiers. Green saw one plane go down.
The gunfire tapered off as the convoy continued on its course into the quiet night with the rear screening destroyers and tug boat assisting the damaged and sinking ships. ****
The door bell rang again. The young widow had gathered Leon’s brother and wife from their work. The wife went to the door. Words were mumbled, and she returned to the living room to inform,
“He says he has to deliver it to you only.” The denial time was over.
Mother went to the door. The young boy, more tense this time, stretched out his arm with the telegram and said, “There’s been no mistake. I’m very sorry.” She remembers to this day,
“He had a very sad look on his face…so sad. I felt sorry for him.” The telegram was hers now. She handed it to the brother and soon heard the next worst sentence in WWII, ‘”The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you….”
Only two bodies were recovered and are buried at the Allied cemetery in Algiers. They were identified through fingerprints so those two families had some closure.
A search for any survivors went on for two days, the search for bodies for a week. The photo and attack reports were flown back to Washington.
The brass knew there were no survivors on the Hamilton. They had the photo of what can happen with their hybrid troop and ammo ships.
The ‘missing in action’ first telegram was followed by the second, adding …’presumed dead’.
Later followed the obligatory condolence cards from Secretary Marshall, President Roosevelt, and a Purple Heart. And that was that…until 1995.
No apologies or explanations were ever forthcoming as to why the whole 50 year classification period was allowed to run. Many of the parents of these KIAs passed away never knowing exactly how their sons died.
I personally feel it was an act of governmental cruelty to do this. It served no other purpose than to have fewer living parents alive to make a stink over it.
Mother had said the government did offer transportation to Algiers and a boat ride out to the site for a wreath laying at sea.
I have no idea if anyone has ever done this, the dead parents certainly not. Mother never mentioned going. I never asked why, not being sure it would be anything more than driving another stake into her heart.
By that time she had collected her third flag in 2004, burying a son, an Army Ranger Colonel, from Agent Orange related causes.
She and I did a ceremony for Sgt. Miller the next day in an area of Arlington for stones with no bodies.
It was a beautiful setting, filtered light, and the Arlington Honor Guards are a memorable experience which I will share with you below. This was the first shoot I did with my new JVC5100 TV camera.
These young soldiers teared up when I told them the story that she was getting this done after waiting sixty years. I was proud of her…two Arlington ceremonies back to back.
Make sure you click on 480p for the best resolution. You are watching the most beautiful flag folding footage that I have, and I have a lot.
Mother was a shell for the next five years. An Algeria trip was definitely not in the cards. But I did send her a copy of my high resolution photo. You can see tracer fire from one plane’s tail gunner, crazy to be exposing their position the the convoy gunners.
I met Helen Jones online, the widow of a destroyer seaman on the convoy. They had made several trips to the archives to get all of the declassified records records.
Her computer literate children put it all on a CD for me…every name, every captain’s report, even the gunner station reports including the rounds that they fired.
They include the word for word radio transcripts of the rescue operations. I am eternally grateful to Helen and her family.
I had trouble getting the 100 plus page file to load, but leave me a note in the comments and I will be sure to let you know when that is fixed.
Mother and her VA rep Al Adams did get a copy of most of the Hamilton file following the declassification, but somehow the photo was among the missing.
Next up to share his retrospective is eye witness Merchant Marine seaman Howard Morseburg who was in the convoy.
This is the only personal witness video I have found on the Net, so a big salute to Howard for honoring his mates. He has a big punchline at the end. Don’t miss it, another story in itself.
[youtube 3H0684L6910] – Howard Morseburg
So there you have it from Howard. The merchant seamen got a triple shafting. Allow me to add another indignity to the list. All the service men KIA families got $10,000 of GI life insurance.
The merchant marine families got $5000. Isn’t that special. Widow’s benefits…zero…kids?…zip.
Howard did not seem bitter. He just wanted it on the record. I will have to see if old Howard is still around.
For this last video I wanted to put you in the seat of the German bombers, even though it is day time, to see some actual footage of such a torpedo attack going in on a convoy.
What struck me right away is they seemed to dropping them almost like bombs, and from long distances where it seems like a wish and a prayer to hit anything.
[youtube GbOyZDJzMuA] – German torpedo bomber footage