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Rescues from Two Sinking Warships
Courtesy of Joe Gillis, Jr., son of Joe Gillis, Sr., Commander, USS Blessman

    Offshore on the heavy cruiser USS Augusta, flagship for the Western Naval Task Force (Utah and Omaha beaches), fifty-two year old, bespectacled Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley was undergoing the torments of the damned. A soft-spoken but tough-minded Missourian, Bradley was leader of American ground forces for Neptune. It had been six and a half hours since the initial assault at Omaha, and all that Bradley knew was that a savage struggled was raging on the beach.

    Finally, at 1:30 PM, a junior officer dashed up to Bradley with a message from shore: "Troops formerly pinned down on beaches.. .advancing up heights beyond the beaches." There were sighs of relief on the Angie. The crisis was over.

    Exhausted, hungry, his head spinning from the deep emotions of one of history's monumental days, Omar Bradley, without removing his boots, at midnight flopped onto a cot and in moments was deep in fitful sleep. Hitler's "impregnable" Atlantic wall had been breached and nearly 150,000 Allied soldiers were ashore in Normandy.

    At the same time that Omar Bradley was stealing a few winks, Comdr. John Bulkeley and his VI' boats were in position along the Mason line, the floating barrier stretching for more than six miles from shore out into the Bay of the Seine. Not all of Bulkeley's H' boats would be manning the picket line at one time, but would rotate between the Mason line and Portland. An average of twenty PTs would be along the barrier at any given time to intercept and destroy or drive off E-boats charging southward from Cherbourg toward the vulnerable unloading areas at Utah Beach.

    If John Bulkeley was hoping to tangle with E-boats that night, he was disappointed. For whatever his reason, Adm. Walther Hennecke in Cherbourg kept his E-boats in port, so the hours of darkness passed routinely on the Mason line.

    However, on the evening of June 7 --D day plus one -- a lookout on Lt. William C. Godfrey's H' 505 (Diana) called out: "Periscope! Periscope!" 

    Diana was patrolling the Mason line near two tiny islands called Saint-Marcouf, four miles offshore. Godfrey gave chase, but the U-boat periscope disappeared when his boat came within 75 yards of it. He was about to give the order to release depth charges when Diana was jolted by a blast; it had hit a submerged mine.

    PT 505 went down quickly by the stern, but remained afloat. Godfrey jettisoned his torpedoes and depth charges, then transferred his forward guns, radar and radio equipment to RI' 507 (Hemingway Hotel), which had pulled alongside to help despite the clear danger that it, too, might be blown to bits by a mine. A towline was attached to the crippled 505 boat and it was towed to calmer waters in the lee of Saint-Marcouf; Bill Godfrey's 505 had the dubious honor of being the first of Bulkeley's boats to be put out of action during Operation Neptune.

    That same night, a flotilla of five E-boats slipped out of Cherbourg to launch attacks against Allied ships in the Bay of the Seine. Just as dawn was breaking, the E-boats returned to port, where the flotilla skipper reported the results of his mission to Admiral Hennecke, who was in a bombproof shelter at the harbor. The officer said his boats had-reached a point north of the Saint-Marcouf Islands at about 1:30 AM and fired three spreads of torpedoes at destroyers and a cruiser. Three hits were scored, the E-boat leader claimed.

    Later in the day, Radio Berlin told the home front of the daring attack on the Allied warships by the Cherbourg Eboats, and how at least three vessels had been severely damaged or sunk. Ml this came as news to John Bulkeley and his men along the Mason line, none of whom had as much as spotted an E-boat that night. And the Allied naval command reported no ships hit by torpedoes in the Saint Marcouf region.

    Jus ore 8AM on June 8 - D day plus two - Commander Clifford A. Johnson was on the bridge of the destroyer Glennon, which was approaching her gunfire-support position about three miles northwest of the Saint-Marcouf Islands. Suddenly, a tremendous blast shook the ship; her stern had struck a delayed-action or magnetic mine. A sailor standing on the fantail was tossed high in the air before splashing down into the water with both legs broken.

    After a rapid check of the damage, Commander Johnson passed word over the loudspeaker: "This ship will not sink. Ml hands remain aboard. Repair parties proceed with rescue and salvage work."
Lt. Comdr. Edward A. Michel, Jr., of Jamestown, NY, brought his 1400 ton Destroyer Escort Rich to the wounded Glennon's side and called out, "Do you need any assistance?"

    Over a bullhorn Commander Johnson responded: "Negative. Clear area cautiously. Live mines."
Just as the Rich was pulling away, a near-miss shell from a shore battery knocked out her generators, broke the steam lines in the torpedo tubes, and put the ship's antimagnetic mine equipment out of commission. Moments later a blast rocked the Rich; she had struck a mine.

    Patrolling on the Mason line, Lt. Calvin R. Whorton, skipper of PT 508 (Mairry Doats) saw that the Rich was in distress and he radioed Commander Bulkeley aboard his flag boat for permission to rush to the Rich's aid. Permission was granted and the 508 was the first to arrive on the scene followed by Bulkeley's 504 (skippered by Lt. Harold B. Sherwood, Jr.), Lt. Charles E. Twadell's 502 and Lt. Jaquelin J. Daniel's 506.

    Buckeley ordered his boats to pull alongside the disabled Rich and in response to his megaphoned shouts, officers on the destroyer's bridge replied, "No help needed."

    Then it came -- the big one.

    There was a muffled roar as a second blast ripped the crippled warship, sending skyward a fountain of saltwater mixed with oil, bodies and pieces of steel.

    Commander Bulkeley's PT boat was only about fifty yards away and the explosion seemed to hurl the 50 ton plywood boat from the water as if slapped by a mighty hand. All but the smaller pieces of debris missed Bulkeley's boat and as the great green wall of water dropped like a theatrical curtain, it revealed the Rich torn almost in two.

    Oil gushed from the rent seams of the warship and the air was filled with moans and screams from the injured. their faces and bodies blackened by oil, mutilated dead and dying were everywhere, floundering or floating in the water or pinned in the twisted wreckage.

    John Bulkeley now headed his H' boat toward the Rich and had gone perhaps fifty feet when a third blast ripped apart what was left of the sinking hulk. This explosion --another mine -- was on the side of the Rich away from Bulkeley's craft, so the PT boat was shielded from its full force.

    With her back broken, with bodies and parts of bodies draped from her radar mast, the Rich was a scene from a holocaust. John Bulkeley's four PT boats made fast to the sinking ship and the SEA Wolf led rescue parties aboard.

    Most of the wounded men on the Rich were being removed by our boys to the PT boats. Many of our fellows played heroic roles in this rescue operation by lowering to safety some of the victims pinned under heavy piles of debris, knowing that depth charges, which formed part of the debris, might be armed and would blow them to hell at any moment.

    One of our boys rushed up to me and said that the Rich's captain and executive officer were on the bridge, bleeding badly with their legs broken by the big blast, and they'd refused efforts by our boys to take them off the Rich. Both apparently wanted to go down with their ship.

    I picked my way around wreckage and bodies to the bridge. Both officers were sitting on the deck, forty-fives (pistols) out, and threatening to shoot anyone who tried to carry them off the ship.

    Commander Michel was a gallant officer. I'd known him as an old shipmate on the Indianapolis in the mid-30s. So I began sweet-talking him, and finally grabbed him and with the help of one of our crewmen, carried them to where he was lowered to my boat.

    Elsewhere on the doomed Rich, EM1/c George E. "Ted" Lucas, of Port Huron, OH, a crewman on the Rich, and the ship's pharmacist's mate (medic) were administering heavy doses of morphine to men pinned under the wreckage so the trapped men would not know that they were going to their deaths when the Rich went under.

    Meanwhile, Lt. Cal Whorton, the 508 boat skipper, who in peacetime was a sports writer for the Los Angeles Times, spotted an injured crewman floundering in the water. Whorton plunged into the Channel, swam to the man, and towed him back to his PT boat.

    The impulse that prompted me to dive into the Channel was formulated several days earlier while our PT boats were escorting minesweepers to the landing beaches. One of the sweepers was hit by a German torpedo. Desperate survivors were everywhere in the water, and we succeeded in rescuing some of them. One young victim was within arm's length of my boat and I desperately tried to make contact to pull him to safety. But before I could do so, he slipped from my grasp and sank. So I thought that had I jumped into the water I could have saved him. This scenario flashed through my mind when, without a second thought, I plunged into the Channel to rescue the Rich crewman, although I realized later that if the ship sunk she could have sucked me under with her.

    Casting off lines only after the decks of the Rich were awash, men on Whorton's boat spotted a lone figure bobbing by under the overhanging bow of the PT. The bow line was rapidly coiled to rescue this last Rich survivor, but before it could be tossed the man raised his face to the 508's crewmen staring down at him from on deck and in a firm, calm voice, said, "Never mind, fellows. I have no arms to catch it." He disappeared under the water.

    John Bulkeley's four boats took off 69 wounded men. They were stretched out on the decks and in the tiny compartments below. Two men in the rescue parties,QM2/ c R. W. Gretter of F" 504 and SM1/c Paul E. Cayer of PT 506, were so busy trying to dig men out from under debris that they failed to hear the order to abandon the Rich and went down with the ship. However, they disentangled themselves from the twisted wreckage, popped back to the surface and were picked up by a Coast Guard cutter. (Cayer would be cited for removing 9 Rich crewmen who would have died without his aid.)

    The pile of smoking, contorted junk that had been the sleek Destroyer Escort Rich had sunk within fifteen minutes of the first blast. Out of her crew of 215 men, 92 were killed 62 were missing and 61 were wounded.

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