Unsung Heroes

By Jim Ignasher

First published in Your Smithfield Magazine, May, 2013

Unsung Hero – a person who makes a substantive yet unrecognized contribution; a person whose bravery is unknown or unacknowledged.  

Captain Peder A. Johnson of Spragueville.

Capt. Peder A. Johnson

The torpedoes came without warning and struck within seconds of each other.  The first hit amidships, tearing open the number 6 and 7 tanks, spewing crude oil, and blasting men and deck plating skyward.  The second found its mark aft, ripping apart crewmen and machinery in the engine room, and leaving the ship dead in the water. 

As the tanker began to list and settle lower in the Atlantic, blazing crude oil sent a plume of black smoke hundreds of feet into the air as if the ship itself was calling to Heaven that she was dying.  Meanwhile, frightened men scrambled about the flaming deck, trying in vain to launch lifeboats in a desperate attempt at survival, only to be driven back by the scorching heat.  Faced with the choice of roasting alive aboard ship, or drowning in cold ocean water, most chose the latter, and dove overboard.  But the sea itself was burning, fueled by the Texas crude spilling from the hold.   Those who could, swam for their lives, and created as much distance between themselves and the doomed vessel as possible.  Of the seventy-two men aboard, only fifteen would survive.  The date was June 10, 1943. The ship was the S. S. Esso Gettysburg, an oil tanker commanded by Captain Peder A. Johnson, (Spelled with a “d” and not a “t”.) of the Spragueville section of Smithfield.   

Four days earlier, the Esso Gettysburg had left Port Arthur, Texas, bound for Philadelphia.  She was a merchant ship, slightly more than a year old, built as part of the massive “liberty fleet” that would ultimately help win World War II by ferrying essential men and materiel across the seas.  She was relatively small for a tanker, barely 160 feet long, and weighing in at just over 10,000 tons.  Yet in her belly she carried nearly 120,000 barrels of flammable crude oil, which every man aboard knew would make her a floating inferno should disaster strike.

The ship’s crew consisted of 8 officers and 37 seamen of the United States Merchant Marine, as well as 27 U.S. Navy armed guards to man the ship’s guns against enemy attack.   On this particular voyage the ship was alone, unescorted, and vulnerable.  But this was to be a “routine” mission, if there can be such a thing during wartime; a straight run in U.S. waters up the eastern coast.  Yet lurking off shore was the German U-Boat, U-66, commanded by Kapitaen-Lieutenant Fred Markworth, who began stalking the Esso Gettysburg waiting for his chance to sink her.  That moment came at 2 p.m. EST, about 100 miles off the coast of Savannah, Georgia.

Captain Johnson had been alerted to submarines in the area, and had taken evasive action by ordering the ship on a zig-zag course.  Lookouts had been posted, but shouted no warnings until they saw the wakes of the torpedoes bearing down on the ship.  Johnson gave orders, the helmsman spun the wheel, but it was already too late.   Some of the crew never knew what hit them.

Among those injured from the explosions was Ensign John S. Arnold II (USN), part of the armed guard aboard.  Although suffering from extremely severe burns, he directed fire from the forward 3 inch gun towards the German sub which had surfaced, possibly to finish off survivors to prevent them from relating the sub’s position if they were picked up.  The whistling shells drove the sub off, but none found their mark.  As flames swept over the forward deck, Arnold and his men were forced to abandon their gun and leap into the sea.   

Besides struggling through burning oil floating on the surface of the water, the men also found themselves menaced by sharks.  Chief Mate Herman Kastberg later reported that a shark threatened him and six others as they clung together in the sea; only three had lifejackets.  All the defenseless sailors could do was kick their feet when one came near.  After awhile, two of the men figured it would be better to swim back towards the burning oil hoping it would keep the sharks at bay.  The choice was a prudent one, for they found a charred steel lifeboat that had broken free from the ship as it slipped beneath the waves.  Inside the lifeboat were the bodies of three shipmates who had evidently succumbed to the flames before they could launch the boat, yet it was likely due to their efforts to launch the craft that allowed it to break free when the ship went down.  Over the next few hours a total of thirteen more men were brought aboard the lifeboat, including Ensign Arnold.  The survivors were rescued the following day by the S.S. George Washington.  Captain Johnson was not among them.  

Perhaps there was some satisfaction among the men when they learned eleven months later that the U-66 was sunk during a battle with American naval forces, which included aircraft from the U.S.S. Block Island, on May 6, 1944. 

When the United States entered World War II, there was a great need for able bodied men and women in all branches of the armed services.  Yet military forces need to be supplied with goods and materiel if they are to successfully wage war, and those supplies can only be put to use if they can be delivered.  This was where the United States Merchant Marine service played such a valuable role in helping to win the war, for it was they who braved the dangers of U-Boats, mines, and enemy aircraft to deliver needed supplies to war zones around the world.  It is important to note that they volunteered for such duty, and served as civilians on non-military ships.   Sometimes they traveled in convoys.  Other times they sailed alone, as in the case of the Esso Gettysburg.  

Despite the perils they faced, and their vital service to their country, when the war ended, those who served in the Merchant Marine were denied war veteran status because some “desk jockeys” in Washington felt they didn’t deserve it!  While a grateful nation welcomed returning military veterans with open arms, merchant seamen were forgotten, and denied college, housing, and job benefits offered under the G.I. Bill.  In fact, it wasn’t until 1988, after more than four decades of court wrangling, that the Defense Department finally recognized World War II merchant mariners as war veterans.   For most it was a hollow victory, for even the youngest among them were by then in their 60s, and benefits they should have been afforded when they were younger wouldn’t help them now.   

 According to one Merchant Marine website, www.usmm.org, at least 243,000 men served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II, and 9,521 died in the line of duty.  Most of them, like Captain Johnson, rest in the sea with no monument to mark their grave. 

Captain Johnson’s name appears on the Spragueville WW II Monument, located at the intersection of Pleasant View Avenue, and Swan Road.  The wreck of the Esso Gettysburg lies at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 31 degrees, 02 north, 79 degrees, 17 west.   

 We can cross any ocean; sail any river,

Give us the goods, and we’ll deliver.

Damn the submarine!

We’re the men of the Merchant Marine!”

*Excerpt from a Merchant Marine hymn.   


Snatched From Friendly Skies

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine, May, 2009

A local woman’s questions surrounding the death of her uncle during World War II have now been answered.

Lt. Francis H. Payette - WWII

Lt. Francis H. Payette – WWII

Frances Luminello (Payette) has always had a special place in her heart for her uncle, 2nd Lt. Francis H. Payette, of Spragueville, who was the first serviceman from Smithfield to give his life for his country in World War II.  One reason for the connection to her uncle is that she was named after him. “I was going to be named Frances whether I was a boy or a girl.” She explained.

Until recently, all Frances knew of her uncle’s death was that he was killed in a plane crash in the mid-west.  That’s all anyone knew.  Lack of details pertaining to death notifications was common during the war due to war-time secrecy and the rapid transfer of personnel.  But there was another reason for secrecy in this particular case. This had been no ordinary crash, and investigators were baffled as to the cause. 

July 3, 1943, had been a good day for flying for the lone B-17 bomber as it made its way from Kearny, Nebraska, to Florida.  Even though the country was in the midst of World War II, the plane was traveling friendly skies, and the simple training flight should have been nothing more than routine.  The co-pilot was Lieutenant Francis Payette.  Both he and the pilot were well versed with the operational capabilities of the B-17, and when the aircraft encountered turbulence as it passed though a weather system over Kansas, it is doubtful that either man was worried.  What happened next was sudden and without warning. 

In an instant, the plane was engulfed in blackness; there was the sound of ripping metal, followed by a terrific rush of air.  In the next second, the plane was free of the blackness and spinning like a saucer through the sky.  The centrifugal force inside the aircraft would have made it impossible for anyone to bail out.  Those in the aft portion of the plane were shocked to see that the tail section had completely disappeared!  A gaping hole was all that remained where the rest of the plane used to be.  The B-17 was well known for the massive amounts of battle damage it could absorb and still remain airborne, but even the mighty “Flying Fortress” couldn’t stay in the air without a tail.  There was nothing either pilot could do. 

Lieutenant Payette was born and raised in the white farm house that stands on Pleasant View Avenue at the foot of Swan Road.  He was one of nine children, six of which were boys. The family owned Payette Orchards, which at one time covered land on both sides of Pleasant View Avenue where condominiums and houses now stand. 

As a boy, he attended the one room Spragueville schoolhouse just three doors up Swan Road from his home, and later graduated from La Salle Academy in Providence.   As a young man, he worked in the orchards and helped run the family market that stood across from the family homestead.  When the United States entered World War II, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps pilot-cadet program. 

One had to be smart and physically fit to get into the pilot-cadet program.  Of the thousands that applied during the war, only a fraction was selected, and fewer still completed the training.   Francis was aware of this, and said so in a letter to his sister-in-law dated April 2, 1943, where he wrote, “I am so close to achieving what I set out to do, and I thank God to have gone even this far.  I know so many boys who didn’t make the grade.”  He then mentioned a fellow cadet who was “washed out” when it was discovered he had high blood pressure. Francis added, “We have to be perfect in more ways then one”  

In another letter dated April 26, 1943, he wrote, “”It won’t be long before that big day is here.  I’ll be the happiest man in the world when they pin those wings on me.”

Francis completed the rigorous training and was awarded his pilot’s wings in May of 1943.  He was assigned to bombers, specifically, the B-17 “Flying Fortress”, a four-engine heavy bomber.  At the end of May, he returned home on furlough to visit friends and family.  Photographs of that visit show Francis in his uniform looking tall, fit, and handsome.  One in particular shows him standing with his fiancé, a local girl named Ruth who wrote him letters nearly every day.  The smiles in those old photographs hide the thoughts that pass though the minds of all families during wartime who are seeing a loved one for what may be the last time.  Francis himself was aware that he might not come back, for in another letter he sent home he mentioned keeping some items for his old age, adding, “If I get old”. 

When his furlough was over, Lt. Payette was sent to an air base in Kearney, Nebraska.  In a letter to his brother Edgar, dated June 29, 1943, he wrote that the crew was working sixteen-hour days, then added, “But I guess this is one way of getting the war over with so the folks back home can just live in peace.”

In closing he wrote, “Well Ed, excuse the short letter as I haven’t any more time.  I’ll write again soon if I can find that thing called time.”  Four days later Lt. Francis Payette was dead.   

The ill fated B-17 came down in the farming community of White City, Kansas.  The resulting explosion killed all ten crewmen aboard.  One of the first to arrive at the scene was Earl Aikins, White City’s Chief of Police, who kept onlookers back until military officials arrived.  Everyone who had witnessed the event agreed that the aircraft had simply fallen from the sky without its tail section, but none could offer any explanation.   

Tail section of Lt. Payette’s B-17. U.S. Army Photo

Tail section of Lt. Payette’s B-17. U.S. Army Photo

The tail section had come down in a field about a mile from the crash site, and investigators were at a loss to explain how it had separated from the aircraft.  The jagged edges suggested that it had been forcibly torn away from the main body of the plane, almost as if two giant hands had grasped the aircraft and pulled in two different directions.  The initial investigation ruled out sabotage, faulty maintenance, and metal fatigue.  Investigators were at a loss to explain what happened until two witnesses came forward who were able to shed new light on the incident.  Their statements were taken on July 19, and marked “CONFIDENTIAL” before being added to the official report. 

Back in Smithfield, the Payette Family grieved.  Lt. Payette’s body was escorted home and buried with full military honors, but his sacrifice was not forgotten.  Within a few days, it was proposed that an honor roll monument be erected bearing the names of those from Spragueville serving in the military.  A granite stone was donated by the Payette Family, taken from one of the stone walls that lined their apple orchards.  The dedication ceremony took place on December 5, 1943, and the intersection of Swan Road and Pleasant View Avenue was officially named “Francis H. Payette Square”.    

The cause of the crash remained a secret throughout the war and for decades afterwards.  Perhaps because the army was afraid that B-17 crews would lose faith in their planes if word got out, or maybe there were other reasons.  The two confidential statements are brief.  A husband and wife who lived six miles north of White City reported seeing a huge, black, swirling funnel cloud dip down from the clouds but never actually touch down.  As is swirled through the sky, it abruptly disappeared up into the clouds.  Moments later, the B-17 came spinning out of the sky, falling through the very clouds that had swallowed the tornado.  It was surmised by the army that the tornado had sucked the aircraft into it.

Today, that long ago event is all but forgotten, but the Spragueville World War II honor roll monument still stands to one side of Swan Road at Pleasant View Avenue.  Of the 49 names listed, four have a star next to them indicating they made the ultimate sacrifice.  Besides Lt. Payette, there are; Capt. Peder A. Johnson, of the U.S. Merchant Marine, whose ship was torpedoed in the summer of 1943; Sgt. Robert M. Martin, a tail-gunner on a B-17, who was shot down in July, 1943, while on his first mission; and Private Richard O. Austin, who was killed in France, June 9, 1944.

Hundreds pass by the monument everyday without realizing that there is a story behind every name listed.  For Frances Luminello (Payette), the story of her uncle is now a little more complete.

Francis H. Payette Square – December 5, 1943. The Payette family home can be seen in the background.

Francis H. Payette Square – December 5, 1943. The Payette family home can be seen in the background.

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