An Unwanted Intruder

My father graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School (Brooklyn Tech) in 1938 where he excelled in mathematics and engineering. He was accepted by the new United States Merchant Marine Academy that Congress had authorized only two years previously. At that time, the college was a school in name only and the cadets were sent to various American flag fleets to learn their trade through study and practical experience.

The academy preferred that the cadets be assigned to passenger liners that could accommodate several on each ship. The hosting operators included American Export Lines, American President Lines, Delta Steamship, Grace, Matson, Moore McCormick and United States Lines.

John, Sr. was assigned to the United States Lines SS Washington, as a deck cadet. He would be taught the requirements for the successful navigation of the ship. (The opposite was an engineering cadet, who would be taught how to make the ship run.)

John liked to say, “I preferred being where I could see which way we were going.”  As it turned out, he was a natural as he possessed extraordinary vision, 20 / 10, and saw things in the distance before anyone else on the bridge could. 

The SS Washington and its sister ship, the SS Manhattan, operated between New York City and ports in Europe; Southampton, Hamburg and Cherbourg until September of 1939 when war broke out between the Third Reich – England and France.

Both ships were withdrawn from North Atlantic service. Even so, both were deliberatively decorated to identify as being neutral ships.  Two enormous American flags were painted on each side of their hulls. Between the flags, the name of the ship was painted in giant block upper-case letters and beneath this: UNITED STATES LINES. At night powerful floodlights lit these marking to prevent a hostile warship or submarine from misidentifying the Manhattan or Washington with another ship.

For the remainder of 1939 and the beginning of 1940, the pair ran between New York, Portugal and Spain with continuation to Naples, Italy. In mid-May when the Nazi’s lightning-fast blitzkrieg galloped through the low countries and smashed into France, the U.S. Maritime Administration requisitioned the ships and ordered them to Europe to evacuate Americans stranded there.

Washington evacuated American nationals from Bordeaux on June 3, then set sail for Lisbon arriving on June 6. Wartime complications delayed departure from Lisbon until June 11. Leaving Lisbon, Washington began its third leg of the voyage to Galway, Ireland.

The New York Times reported on June 12, 1940 that the well-lit liner was stopped southwest of Cape Finisterre by a German U-boat.

 “The submarine ordered the liner to stop, warned that she was to be torpedoed and gave a time limit of ten-minutes for leaving (the) ship. Captain (Harry) Manning, a veteran skipper and a hero of many shipping rescues stood on the bridge and personally flashed the signals that averted the pending disaster.”

“Following are the messages which were exchanged by blinker signal:”

          Submarine – ‘Stop ship.’

          Submarine – ‘Ease to, ship.’

          Submarine – ‘Torpedo ship.’

          Washington – ‘American ship.’

          Submarine – ‘Leave ship.’

Washington – “American ship.”

Submarine – ‘Ten minutes.’

Washington –‘Washington, American ship. Washington, American ship,’

“There was a pause and again:”

Washington – ‘Washington, American ship. Washington, American ship.’

Submarine – ‘Thought you were another ship. Please go on, go

on.’

My father was off duty when the confrontation began, but he double-timed his way to his emergency station once the Prepare to Abandon Ship sirens and horns blew.

By the time the ship returned to New York, newspapers could not get enough of the details. Unfortunately, or fortunately; my father’s terminally ill mother had heard the news and begged her son never to return to sea. He consented to her dying plea guaranteeing that this experience would be his last voyage.

Instead, he went to work for the New York City subways, but that only lasted until Pearl Harbor was attacked. Soon after, he joined the Army Air Force. Being a city kid, who hadn’t driven a car, he had poor eye – hand coordination and washed out of pilot training. The air force decided that he be taught to be navigator to take advantage of his remarkable eyesight.

He was assigned to a four engine B-24 named Miss America. His new crew trained in the desert of New Mexico. My mother was permitted to join him there in early 1943.

From there the crew flew the bomber to England and war. My mother returned to Ridgewood, Queens and I was born the following February.

Remarkably, he survived flying 47 missions in B-24s with the Eighth Air Force over occupied France and Nazi Germany even though Miss America and its crew were lost over the North Sea after just five missions. (My Father had been transferred to another B-24.)   

Had he remained in the merchant marine; the odds were just as bad of surviving the North Atlantic U-boat menace as they would have been serving in a B-24 bomber over Nazi Germany on daylight missions.

He didn’t know it until the war was over, but he made the right choice.