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.   


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