On Memorial Day, don’t forget the rescuers

by David M. Shribman

FORT PIERCE, Fla. – Tomorrow is Memorial Day. Wednesday would have been John F. Kennedy’s 107th birthday. More than eight decades ago this month, an American tanker ship was torpedoed off the Florida coast, leaving two men dead. Stay with me. There’s a connection to all this.

First, the story of the SS Java Arrow, a tanker built just over a century ago by the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp. It weighed 8,327 tons and carried 1,300 drums of lube oil. It was torpedoed by the German submarine U-333 in the sixth month of American involvement in World War II.

The first torpedo from U-333 hit the port side of the ship, just aft of the bridge, with the second hitting above the keel and destroying the engine room. The two officers in the engine room were killed, but the 42 others on board took to two lifeboats.

The survivors were rescued by a patrol craft and a 33-foot fishing boat called the Kitsis that was operated by Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteers and made its way to the Fort Pierce Coast Guard Station. It was so overloaded that it almost sank entering the inlet.

“There were very few Coast Guard resources here, so boat owners like my father went offshore every night to make the U-boats think there was something out there,” said Rodolph [cq] Johnson, the publisher of three community newspapers and the author of “Different Battles,” which, among other local episodes, recounts the story of the rescue. “He saw a series of flares and rescued half the crew. The people he took on his boat were in shock. Some were bleeding and some were throwing up. But they all survived.”

The German sub’s rampage wasn’t done yet. It torpedoed two other ships off Fort Pierce, and one of them, the 435-foot Halsey, remains beneath the seas 12 miles southeast of the Fort Pierce inlet, broken into three pieces. Fourteen years ago, a diver reported that “the sheet metal and beams were violently tangled from the sea floor.” Before it was sunk by the British in 1944, U-333 sank seven commercial ships and damaged a warship.

Now let’s go from the Atlantic to the Pacific theater. The story of John F. Kennedy and the wreck of PT 109, once a prominent part of the story of World War II, has receded from American memory. It is the tale of how the Japanese destroyer Amagiri struck the fragile craft in August 1943, throwing the surviving crew into dangerous waters. The young commander led the survivors by swimming from island to island before sending a message scrawled on a green coconut, resulting in a rescue mission undertaken by PT 157 and PT 171.

Six months earlier, another of the flimsy craft, PT 111, was hit by fire from the Japanese destroyer Kawakaze off Guadalcanal. On board was my uncle, Lt. j.g. Phillip Shribman, who died in the encounter. His life took me 52 years to re-create, culminating in an account published in this month’s Atlantic magazine. In the course of the research for that piece, I acquired the declassified report of the action in which he was killed. His crewmates were thrown in the water. One of the men suffered compound fractures and extensive injuries to his legs. He was saved by one of his crewmates, who warded off sharks for 2 1/2 hours. The report said simply that the men were “rescued.” Sadly, there is no record of the names of those rescuing heroes.

Three months ago, Nate Hendley published “Atrocity on the Atlantic: Attack on a Hospital Ship During the Great War,” a stunning story of a World War I U-boat attack on HMHS Llandovery Castle, a Canadian hospital ship, in the mistaken belief American arms were aboard. The most horrifying part of the tale: The submarine circled back to the survivors bobbing on the sea and killed them. The passengers on one lifeboat survived and were rescued by a Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Lysander Castle.

And two years ago, Bett Fitzpatrick published “Hard Aground: Untold Stories from the Pollux and Truxtun Disaster,” recounting how three American warships ran aground off Newfoundland on the west side of Placentia Bay in 1942. Local miners from Chamber Cove undertook a difficult rescue mission in icy February waters amid gale-force winds, sleet, hail and snow. The exhausted survivors were hauled up what Fitzpatrick describes as “a slab of straight-up granite” and then were fed food and given clothes transported to the scene on a toboggan. One of the men was so wrapped in tar that the only sign that he was human was his white teeth that protruded from the goo.

For most of its history, the Medal of Honor has recognized actions against the enemy on a battlefield, the criteria that exist today. However, for a period of time, the Navy awarded a medal to individual sailors for peacetime heroism as well. One such commendation went to Chief Machinist’s Mate Francis Ormsbee Jr., who plunged into water to extricate the pilot of a seaplane that crashed into Pensacola Bay on Sept. 25, 1918. Nearly a century later, the Army honored National Guard personnel and others who rescued 17 members of the crew of a Navy MH-60S Nighthawk helicopter that crashed in snow-covered mountainous terrain during a 2010 training mission in West Virginia.

So on Memorial Day, and a few months later on Veterans Day, let us honor the warriors and the dead for their bravery and sacrifice. But let us also not forget the rescuers. They saved more than the sailors and survivors. They saved the democracies.

Epilogue

Shortly after the Java Arrow was hit, Coast Guard officials deemed the vessel salvageable. The ship’s master, Sigvard J. Hennichen, and four other mariners returned to the scene and dropped the starboard anchor to make sure the vessel didn’t drift aground. The vessel later was repaired and eventually saw action in the Pacific theater. During the Second World War, several ships like the Canadian vessel that was torpedoed were converted into hospital ships, and one of them eventually evacuated 38,000 patients. It bore the name Llandovery Castle. The PT 109 story was transformed into a book, a film and, in 1960, part of the Kennedy presidential campaign. Several PT boats have been restored, but the Navy, like the rest of the country, has moved on from the PT era.

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.