“LOST MUSKET DIARY” Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Low Clouds 69° F/ 21°C in Rancho Santa Margarita
Every November 11th, amidst all of the “Veterans Day” claptrap of holiday mattress sales, and the rest of the marketing blitzes, I put on my history major’s cap and think back to 11 o’clock in the morning on that long ago day in 1918, when the guns along the Western front finally fell silent after four long, bloody years. World War I had come to an end and the warriors became veterans. I also remember a cold, clear December day in 1945 when my father came home from his Navy service at the end of World War II, and joined the ranks of veterans of another “Great War”. One story he brought back with him was his account of a U Boat attack on his convoy, EBC 72, in the Bristol Channel between Milford Haven, Wales and Falmouth, England at 1654 hours on August 14, 1944.
|LST 920 At Sea 1944|
The bare bones of the story was that his own ship, the LST 920, came through the attack unscathed, but a British escort vessel, LCI(L)99 was blown out of the water and sank with most of its crew. The 920’s sister ship, LST 921 was hit by a torpedo and broke in two, the aft portion sinking with about half of its crew.
The LSTs 920 and 921 had been built at the Bethlehem-Hingham Shipyard in Massachusetts and commissioned only a short time before the U Boat attack in August; the LST 920 on June 17, 1944 and the 921 on June 23rd. In Navy parlance, they were sister ships. Their crews had trained together. Many of their crew members had grown up in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia and the vast majority of them had never served in the US Navy before the war.
|Capt. Harry N. Schultz|
|Lt.(jg) Charles Botula, Jr.|
Ensign Don Joost, the 921’s Engineering Officer, had just left the engine room and gone to his quarters to rest for a while before chow. “I had just stretched out in my bunk,” Joost told me in 2003 when I visited with him in Walnut Creek, California. “The concussion lifted me right straight up and I hit the overhead. If I had still been in the engine room I would have died right then.” Joost told me that the torpedo was one of the new acoustic torpedoes the Germans had started using because it homed in on the target’s engine noise. The 921’s electrician, Lloyd Meeker and motor mechanic John Abrams were still in the engine room. “All of a sudden we were in the air,” Meeker said years later. “There was a flash from the switch board and the lights went out and the engines stopped running. The ‘Motor Mac’ (Motor Mechanic, referring to shipmate John Abrams) went in the air up over the engine and landed on the deck. I was in the air and landed on the deck and then was in the air again. We didn't know what happened, but knew we had to get out. The ‘Motor Mac’ headed for the port escape hatch and I headed for the starboard escape hatch. As I stepped in the hatchway a gush of diesel fuel and salt water washed me back in the engine room. The room was filling fast. The amazing thing was that the engine room became as bright as day. It was real bright with no shadows or blinding effects. I think the good Lord was looking out for me. I had to swim across the engine room and dive down to the escape hatch to get out. The ‘Motor Mac’ was already at the top of the ladder trying to get the hatch open. It was stuck and I was able to help get it open.” When I talked to Abrams in 2003, he was grateful that he and Meeker were able to escape. A lot of their shipmates weren’t so fortunate.
Moments later, my father watched from the bridge of his ship as a torpedo wake streamed toward the LST 920. It would have been a direct hit, but the British escort ship LCI(L)99 had steamed between the oncoming torpedo and the LST 920. Seaman Joseph Wallace was also watching. “As I stepped thru the hatch, I heard the explosion… seconds later General Quarters sounded…I heard ‘hard right rudder,’ and I believe ‘starboard back full.’ The plan was to make a very sharp turn. As I completed the order, I tried to look out and see what was happening.” Seconds later, the torpedo that my father had seen from the bridge found its mark. Wallace continues.
The LST 920’s captain, Harry Schultz had defied standing Navy orders that all ships in a convoy stay in formation under all circumstances. If a ship became disabled, it was left behind to the tender mercies of the German wolf packs. Those same orders stipulated that in the event of an attack on the convoy, none of the ships could break formation to render assistance. Radioman Fred Benck was on duty when Captain Schultz and Ensign Donald Reed came into the radio shack. Benck recalled, “I was ordered to send this message to the Commander of the convoy: "WHO IS PICKING UP SURVIVORS?” The message that was returned was "DO NOT BREAK CONVOY" This message was delivered to the captain, Benck continued. “In about two minutes he came in the Radio Room and said ‘Benck send that message again.’ “This time he waited for the answer which was the same. "DO NOT BREAK CONVOY!" “H. N. SCHULTZ then used these words “TO HELL WITH HIM” and we pulled out of convoy to turn back and pick up survivors! A message came from the Commander of the convoy to get back in the convoy, this message was never answered!”
Had Schultz not disobeyed the order, all 107 crew members of the LST 921 would have been lost. He was later court-martialed for his action, but found not guilty. In his after-action report, Captain Schultz praised his crew, “Boat Officers crew did an outstanding job. Ensign Harold Willcox dove into the water several times in picking up survivors, many of which were litter cases. He also dove to clear the boat propeller which had become jammed up with the sunken ships' debris. Ensign J.J. Waters also dove in to pick up survivors. These officers were ably assisted by their boat crews in swimming out, picking up survivors, going aboard the remainder of the hulk of LST 921 knowing it may be very hazardous with submarines in the vicinity. Both officers did a fine job in directing the rescue of survivors.” Captain Schultz noted in his report that 48 survivors had been picked up by his sailors. One of them was the brother of one of the LST 920’s sailors. Many years later, in 2003, long after my father’s death, I began my own research into that transforming event in his life. I think it most appropriate to share it on this Veterans’ Day.
Neither my father nor Captain Schultz knew about the German submarine that attacked them or what happened to it after that. That would only come to light many years later by research into official reports and the archives of the US and the German Navy, the Kriegsmarine. A German submarine had been seen on August 14th and engaged by the RAF. It had even been reported as sunk. But, it was not the U 667, which had made its getaway and set a course for its home base at La Rochelle, France.
|U 667 Crew|
The U 667 had been commissioned in 1942 and went to sea under Oberleutnant Heinrich Schroteler, taking part in five Kriegsmarine “Wolf Pack” operations from 1943 to 1944 in the North Atlantic. In March of 1944, it was refitted with the Schnorchel (snorkel) undersea breathing apparatus and went back to sea under Kapitӓnleutnant Karl-Heinz Lange. Only a week before the attack on LST 920, U 667 had torpedoed the Liberty Ship SS Ezra Weston and sank a British escort Corvette, the HMS Regina on August 8, 1944. U 667 was a proven killer whose next target was the hapless Landing Ship 921. Earlier, under Schroteler, U 667 had engaged in several battles with pursuing warships and aircraft, and survived several Allied depth charge attacks. But, it’s only “kill” prior to August 8th was an RAF Lancaster bomber which was lost as a result of the skirmish. U 667 did not register any “kills” against Allied cargo or warships until Karl-Heinz Lange took command in July 1944.
|U667 Skipper Lange|
Following the afternoon attack on August 14th on LST 921 and the destruction of LCI(L)99, U 667 stalked the LST 920 throughout the night and part of the next day but did not renew its attack. Finally, Captain Lange ordered his ship to head back to its home base at La Rochelle, France to celebrate the successful mission. The U 667 never arrived at its destination. Instead, on August 25, 1944 as it threaded its way through the minefield Cinnamon, it struck a mine and sank to the bottom of the Bay of Biscay, a short distance from its destination. Captain Lange and his entire crew of 45 submariners is entombed in the hulk of their ship, which is now a war grave. Captain Schultz’ defiance of orders paid off-his ship rescued 48 of the survivors, while several others were picked up by British vessels, but 43 of their shipmates were killed. Schultz continued in the US Navy after the war and retired as a Commander.
|Ens. Don Joost, Capt. John Enge - LST 921|
Ciao, Mike Botula