The Unknown Sailors

Over fifty years after these boys first set sail, their ship has finally come in.

Three men pause on a path that winds through Fort Logan National Cemetery. On the fresh-mowed lawn before them, row after row of uniform headstones rise like bone-white exclamation points, marching up and over the hill.

All three men have friends and former comrades-in-arms buried on these grounds. Someday two of them--Ed Jones and Carl Larson--will also lie here, beneath markers differentiated only by the names, dates and service affiliations inscribed on them. The third man, Harold Flenthrope, plans to spend eternity next to his wife, Aileen. But he will be remembered here, too.

Jones points to a barren spot above the path. "This is where our memorial will be," he says, then nods toward a chunk of knee-high pink granite on which is mounted a brass plaque dedicated to prisoners of war. "It'll look just like that--except it will say U.S. Naval Armed Guard."

The three peer at the POW memorial, then at the spot that soon will be filled by a tribute to their old unit. After fifty years, they are about to get some of the recognition they have so long deserved. They were boys, barely out of high school, when they left the plains and the mountains to go to sea, assigned by the Navy to protect the civilian merchant ships carrying war supplies to Europe, Africa and Asia.

Their own ships were torpedoed, bombed and strafed; more than 700 of them sank. Yet their counterparts aboard the warships derided the Armed Guard as not being "real" Navy. And the Navy Department's records of their service were so poorly kept that many of the men never received full credit for their actions.

These were the unknown sailors.

The U.S. Naval Armed Guard got its start in World War I thanks largely to a new weapon: the submarine. The German submarine force, commonly known as U-boats, had nearly choked off Great Britain from all supplies--until the merchant ships were armed and sent out in great convoys.

But after that war was won, the guard was deactivated. It wasn't called upon again until 1941, a few months before the U.S. officially entered World War II, when the Guard and some Navy warships were assigned to protect merchant ships loaded with supplies for England.

They were woefully ill-equipped for the task. The merchant ships were old and leaked like rusty buckets. The guns the guards were given were WWI vintage and often broken; even when they worked, they didn't have the firepower of the enemy's weapons. Sometimes the crews simply resorted to mounting large, creosoted poles on their ships to make it appear that they were armed with big guns--at least from a distance.

Soon U.S. shipyards began mass-producing Liberty ships for transporting supplies and troops, but these often weren't much of an improvement. The Liberty ships were slow and had been so hastily constructed that they sometimes split apart in heavy seas, earning them the nickname "floating coffins."

While the "regular" Navy officers and enlisted men were assigned to the warships, these boys were "volunteered" for the Armed Guard having never seen the ocean, much less been on a ship. More often than not, they'd joined up straight out of high school. Many came from the interior of the country--the farms of Iowa, the ranches of Colorado, and all of the towns in between. And some Guard crews--gunners, radio operators and signalmen--had nothing more than an older, slightly higher-ranking enlisted man as their "officer." But they all believed in the Guard motto: "We Aim to Deliver."

They took their inspiration from the Guard's directive: "You will engage the enemy until your guns can no longer be fired--until the decks are awash and the guns are going under..."

Although they did much the same job as the regular Navy sailors--who could draw their pay on board their ships--Guard members had to wait until they returned to base to get their pay. Meanwhile, they worked alongside unionized merchant marines, a group that comprised a variety of nationalities and demeanors and whose members not only were well-paid to start but got bonuses for overtime and going into war zones. The merchant marines gave the youngsters a hard time--until they witnessed the Guard's work during engagements with the enemy.

"I have to say, we ate better than the regular Navy," remembers Jones, still boyish at 73. "We ate what the merchant marines ate. We even got to sit at a table and be served."

Jones had graduated from high school in Colorado Springs and was looking for work when he decided to join the Navy in October 1941. "Times were tough because of the Depression, and I knew I couldn't afford college," he says. "I had just seen a movie about the Navy. These guys were out to see the world and all that..."

"And they always got the girl," interjects Larson.
The other men and Aileen Flenthrope, who has come with her husband to tour the cemetery, all laugh. "And we didn't want to go in the Army," adds the soft-spoken Flenthrope.

"Anyway, I signed up for six years in the regular Navy," Jones continues. "Thought maybe I'd make a career out of it."

Physical problems prevented Jones from being sworn in until January 1, 1942. By then, the country was officially at war. "Heck, I didn't know where Pearl Harbor even was," Jones recalls. "Can't say I saw it coming. I just wanted a job."

When he arrived in San Diego for assignment, "It was the first time I had ever seen the ocean," Jones says. "And it was big, big. I was saying to myself, 'I gotta cross that? What am I doing here?'"

He'd hoped to become a radioman but instead was told he was going into the Armed Guard--which he'd never heard of--and was sent to gunnery school. The first time he went to sea, on a destroyer for gunnery training, he got seasick. "But so did 80 percent of everybody else," Jones says. "We each had our own bucket."

After a few weeks of training, Jones was assigned to the SS John Lykes.
"At least I got a good 'un," he says of the ship. "She was fast and could outrun most trouble." Loaded up with goods for the Russian front, the Lykes was soon on its way to what was then part of India (and since has become Pakistan). There the goods were unloaded for transportation north and the ship reloaded with raw materials.

Jones would make dozens of similar trips during his service on half a dozen ships. And although he experienced both submarine alerts and air raids, Jones was one of the lucky ones who made it through unscathed. Larson and Flenthrope were not so fortunate.

Larson came from a family of farmers and ranchers. His grandparents had emigrated from Sweden and homesteaded in the Longmont area. But he was raised near the Denver stockyards.

"It was a rough place to grow up," Larson recalls. "There weren't any gangs or nothing. But if you came from the other side of the river into our neighborhood, you better be ready to fight."

He was sixteen and staying with his parents, who had recently moved to California, when Pearl Harbor was bombed. "There was a lot of panic on the West Coast," he says. "People were 'seeing' submarines offshore, and everybody thought we were going to be invaded that week."

Larson, who calls himself "a real flag-waver," tried to enlist in the Navy while in San Francisco. "But they caught me on my age."

Instead, he took off for Denver to see what the guys in his old neighborhood were doing. "Most of them were joining the Marines," he says, shaking his head. "They were a rough bunch. But I knew I didn't want to do that. I turned seventeen, and me and a couple of my other buddies--we were fifteen, seventeen and eighteen--signed up for the Navy. We talked Murphy's dad--Murphy was the fifteen-year-old and a real tough little Irish kid--into signing the papers for us. I was even thinking about making a career of it, because my dad had been in the Navy until he was disabled in World War I."

It was April 1942. "They asked what we wanted, and I said radio school, because they had one in Boulder," says Larson. "So they sent me to gunnery school in San Diego." There, like Jones, he was "volunteered" for the U.S. Naval Armed Guard. His first trip, in early 1943, was to transport Marines to British Samoa for jungle warfare training.

"That first run, there were no subs," he says. "Unfortunately, we blowed a boiler and I got transferred to the MH De Young."

The new Liberty ship was loaded with Seabee equipment--bulldozers, trucks and other construction gear--and left San Francisco bound for Tonga. They traveled alone.

"I was sitting on the boat deck when we went to general quarters," Larson recalls. "The first torpedo missed. I was running to my gun station when the next 'fish' hit. It lifted the ship out of the water, and we lost all our lifeboats on that side."

Larson was knocked off his feet, struck by a small piece of shrapnel and had his front teeth busted in two. Still, he and the other guardsmen went to their guns as the merchant marine crew and two dozen passengers abandoned ship. Soon only the Guard and those wounded in the engine room were left.

"The submarine surfaced," Larson says. "It must have been out of torpedoes and was going to try to finish us off with its deck gun." The De Young began firing. One shot struck the submarine's conning tower but did little damage.

"I still think someone grabbed an anti-aircraft shell," Larson says. "If we'd hit him with an armor-piercing shell, we would have knocked his conning tower off."

As it was, the De Young's gunners still managed to drive off the submarine. "Everybody was a little panicked," Larson recalls. "Rumor had it that a couple of ships had been dumped ahead of us and the crews machine-gunned. And it was getting dark."

The disabled ship sat helpless through the night. All hands peered into the dark for the shadow of a periscope or the white wake of a torpedo. In the morning, though, a U.S. plane found the ship. It was followed soon after by a New Zealand sub-chaser.

The De Young finished its voyage under tow. "The rest of the trip was real scary," Larson recalls. "We were moving real slow, a sitting duck. We were listing thirty degrees when we arrived, but it was one of the happiest days of my life when we pulled into port and there was the Pacific Fleet in for refueling."

Since the ship had been abandoned by its civilian crew, it was officially taken over by the Navy, which promptly renamed it the U.S.S. Antelope.

The Armed Guard engaged the enemy all over the world and was in on every invasion, carrying men and war materials. Luxury liners converted into troop carriers were the plum assignment; on the other end of the scale was duty on ships that ferried high-octane fuel or munitions--a single bomb and there would be nothing left when the smoke cleared but debris and an oil slick.

Sometimes survival was just a matter of chance. Cecil Ray, another guardsman from Colorado Springs, arrived in San Pedro Bay, Leyte Island, on October 24, 1944, as part of General Douglas MacArthur's famous return to the Philippines. Ray was on board the SS Samuel K. Barlow, which was loaded with high-octane fuel and 500 Army troops.

"We had barely dropped anchor," Ray recalls, "when we became the target of an enemy bomber. Our 20mms were pounding at him all the way. Upon seeing fire spitting from his wings, I jumped behind the bridge wheelhouse, meeting the captain coming around from the other side.

"In a split second, the plane was by us and crashed into the bay just off our port bow. Jubilantly, I yelled, 'We got him, we got him!' At about that same instant, there was a terrific vibration on the bridge. The gunner in the gun tub nearest me was pointing at an object that had come to rest no further than five feet away. The object was a 200-pound unexploded bomb."

During 29 days in San Pedro Bay, all the while sitting on high-test fuel, the Barlow suffered through fifty air raids, including a kamikaze "Divine Wind" attack that missed the ship by only a few feet.

Ray was a long way from Colorado Springs.
Raised on a farm just west of Denver, eighteen-year-old Harold Flenthrope joined the Navy in December 1942 "with the Army breathing down my neck."

He was sent to Farragut, Idaho, for training, "which in January and February is the worst place on earth to be," Flenthrope says. "Or so I thought." When the Navy asked for a hundred volunteers to go to signal school at the University of Chicago, he was among those who stepped forward, "mostly to get out of Idaho."

Flenthrope had no idea he was bound for the U.S. Naval Armed Guard. "As a matter of fact, I had no idea of what the Armed Guard was," he says.

But by September 1943, he was a signalman on board the SS W.S. Thayer, a Liberty ship bound for the Mediterranean loaded with tanks and guns. "I was actually looking forward to going to sea," he says. "But I was assigned to the ship in the evening, and we left at three in the morning. There was another signalman who had some experience, which, I guess, is why he figured he could make me take that first shift while he went to bed.

"I was real nervous. It was pitch black, and you couldn't even see your hands in front of your face. I didn't know what I was doing as we were trying to form up a convoy. The only thing I knew about the ship was where I was supposed to sleep and where the bridge was...I've never forgiven that fellow for leaving me like that."

But Flenthrope got through the night. He even managed to avoid seasickness. "Somebody told me to 'stay midships, don't look at the water and don't eat too much,'" he recalls.

Except for his sleepy counterpart, none of the Armed Guard crew had been to sea before.

Unloading in Algiers, the Thayer took on the job of shuttling troops to Naples, Italy, which had recently been captured from the Germans. But kicking the Germans out of Naples didn't remove the threat from the air. "We were bombed every night," Flenthrope says. "As a signalman, I had nothing to do when we were in port except stand around and be scared. At least the gunners were too busy to be scared."

Although the nightly bombing raids took their toll on the other ships in the harbor, the Thayer was spared. And finally, the ship and her crew were sent back to New York for reassignment. But their joy at being home was short-lived; they soon were told their ship was going to be "winterized."

"Everybody knew what that meant," Flenthrope says. "It meant Murmansk--the suicide run." Keeping the Soviet Union in the war was crucial to Allied strategy--it spread the German military thin on two fronts. But the Soviets desperately needed supplies, and there were only two deep-water routes available. One was to the Persian Gulf and India, the same trip Jones had taken his first trip out. But the Indian ports were poorly equipped to handle the massive off-loading of war supplies, and a ship might have to wait idle for weeks before it could get under way again. The supplies themselves would take weeks to reach their destination, traveling by rail and roads to the Russian front.

The other route was a 4,300-mile voyage across the North Atlantic to Iceland and Scotland, then up around Norway (where the Germans had set up airbases) and across the Barents Sea to the Russian ports of Murmansk, Molotovsk and Archangel. The trip would be brutal in peacetime, since much of the route crossed the Arctic Circle, where water was more ice than liquid. But now German U-boats were hunting the relatively narrow stretch of water in "wolfpacks."

And even when the convoy reached a Russian port, the reception was unfriendly; the Soviets had convinced themselves they were fighting the war all on their own and that the supplies were the least the Allies could provide. Sometimes U.S. sailors departed their ships and were never heard from again.

The trip back was no easier. The ships would take on raw materials from the Russians, and the Germans were determined to stop them as well. The statistics were grim: 19 ships sunk out of a convoy of 42; 23 sunk of 33; 27 out of 75. One out of three ships that went on the Murmansk run never returned. The troops were not particularly heartened by President Franklin Roosevelt's declaration that "we will win because we will build ships faster than the Germans can sink them."

In the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest-running engagement of the war (it stretched from 1939 to 1945), more than 800 German U-boats were sunk. The Allies lost more than 2,000 ships. The SS Thayer was one.

"Everyone who could got off before we left New York," Flenthrope recalls. "Of the merchant crew, only the captain stayed. Even our gunnery officer got off. The rest of us were too young to know better...maybe we thought we were indestructible. I didn't really know what we were getting into."

The ship was insulated against the cold, and the men were issued long, fur-lined coats and winter boots. Then they set sail on February 29, 1944. The first enemy they encountered was a terrible storm that scattered the ships in the convoy.

The Thayer had to turn back to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to de-ice. Under way again, they joined a convoy in England that was headed to Murmansk. They were on constant alert because of submarine sightings, but the U-boats took no shots.

Still, the voyage was a miserable experience. By the time Flenthrope got off duty, his clothes were invariably soaked with chilly seawater and would freeze to his skin if he wasn't careful. The days were fog-shrouded, the seas rough. He often found himself thinking about home, sunny skies and a world that didn't heave beneath his feet.

The Thayer reached Murmansk with Flenthrope thinking that the dangers, if not the discomforts, of the run had been exaggerated. They left the Russian port on April 28 with a cargo that included 165 Russian sailors being ferried back to England to pick up a cruiser. Because of the Russians, the Thayer was given a favorable position inside the perimeter of the convoy. And there was an escort carrier on their starboard side, a much better target should a U-boat spot the convoy.

But two days out, at 8:10 p.m., the Thayer was struck by two torpedoes. "I was in my bunk, reading a book," Flenthrope recalls. "I've always wondered why we got hit and not the carrier. I think it was because it was one of those torpedoes that if it misses, it swings around and comes back looking for another target."

The ship broke into three pieces. "The bow went down in thirty seconds," says Flenthrope. "The midships went down in two minutes. There was no time to get to the life rafts. By the time I got on deck, I was only wearing my britches and a T-shirt. Somebody had stolen my life jacket, so I ran to the bridge, where we had boxes of spares, and got one."

What remained of the ship was starting to roll over. The only option was to jump in the water. But which way? According to his training, Flenthrope knew he was supposed to jump off the side opposite of where the torpedo had struck because water would be rushing in on that side, sucking in anything caught in the flow. But in this case, the torpedo had blown a hole clean through the ship.

Flenthrope jumped. The water was frigid, nearly frozen. But his only thought was to get away from the sinking ship as fast as he could. "I had been swimming for a while when I noticed I was caught in water going back toward the ship," he says. "I could see the jagged steel where the torpedo had hit and was being pulled right to it."

Fifty years later Flenthrope pauses as he relives the moment. Then he laughs. "That's when I really started to swim. I could have made the Olympic team."

The next time he turned around, the ship was gone. Having heard that oil helps insulate the body, he grabbed handfuls of thick fuel oil floating on the surface and covered his body. That might have saved him. Although the experts say it was impossible, Flenthrope estimates he was in the water for close to an hour and a half before he was picked up.

Even then, his survival was in question. At the rescue ship, he was unable to climb up a net thrown over the side because his hands and feet were frozen. He was hauled aboard with a rope, and a sailor cut the clothing off his body. Naked, he was taken to the engine room and laid on a grate where warm air was rising.

He was suffering from severe hypothermia and "there was no medical help," he recalls. "You either lived or you died. I thought I was dreaming as I laid there watching the guys below. I thought, 'This isn't really happening, and when I wake up, everything will be fine.'"

At last he began to come out of his stupor. He found an old oily gunnysack to wrap himself in and made his way to the ship's mess hall. He was taken to a shower to clean the oil off and given some old clothes.

"It was about then I came out of shock and realized what I had been through," Flenthrope says. He looks down, and when he looks up again, his eyes are wet. "We never heard what happened to the Russian sailors. I don't think any of them made it. Twenty-three out of 41 merchant marines died. Seven of the 29 Armed Guard...We had been together since the Mediterranean; they were my friends, and I'll never forget them."

The U.S. Naval Armed Guard served on 6,236 merchant ships; more than 700 of those were sunk. Over 1,800 servicemen died while on duty with the Armed Guard; more would give their lives after they'd been transferred to landing craft and other Navy ships as the war dragged on in the Pacific.

When it was over, men like Jones, Larson and Flenthrope came home to a nation well aware of the heroics of the Marines on Okinawa, the "real" Navy at the Battle of Midway and the GIs who stormed the beaches of Normandy. Monuments were erected, best-selling books written, movies made. But except for a few military historians and the men who actually served in it, no one knew anything about the Armed Guard.

Because their records were kept on board, the battle records of regular Navy personnel were carefully noted. Armed Guard records, however, remained at bases in the States, and it was up to the officers to remember to file the paperwork once they returned. Some forgot, and many more forgot the details. A fire at a records depository in St. Louis erased still more of the past. As a result, many guardsmen never received credit for their part in the war.

For instance, Larson never received the Purple Heart he was due after the attack on his ship.

Larson went on to serve on landing craft for the invasion of the Philippines, and he stayed in the Navy for a time even after the war. (That's when he lost three fingers in an accident.) "I got out in San Francisco and was going to Chicago to see if I could get in the merchant marines, when I stopped in Denver," he recalls. "That's where I met my wife... which pretty much ended my seagoing career."

Instead, he became a successful contractor in his hometown. Life has been good, and Larson isn't bitter that he didn't receive his Purple Heart. Many of his friends from the old neighborhood never made it back from the Marine Corps.

"I don't need it," he says of the medal, as he looks at the rows of headstones in the cemetery. "I only care about being buried here...I got a lot of friends here."

When the war ended, Flenthrope was on board a ship off Brazil. He came back and married Aileen, a cousin of the boy with whom he'd joined the Navy, and worked for the U.S. Geological Survey until his retirement. He and Aileen had three children, a girl and twin boys who both served in the Navy in Vietnam.

"I still have to sleep with socks on, because my feet never quite recovered," Flenthrope says of his war ordeal. He pulls out a small case. Inside is a medal, but the writing is Cyrillic.

"I just got this from the Russian government. They made 2,000 of them to acknowledge what we did for them on the Murmansk run," he says. "This is the only medal I ever received. I never even got an engagement star from my own country.

"We were proud of the job we were doing, even if nobody else knew. We were just boys, trying to do the best we could."

Ed Jones got home and went to work for Public Service Company; he never married. After his retirement he got involved with the U.S. Naval Armed Guard organizations that were trying to win belated recognition for their war service. "The guys got married and had families and were busy with their careers," he explains, "so nobody really had much time to worry about why we weren't acknowledged.

"We weren't alone in that--the merchant marines didn't get a lot of credit, either. They didn't get veteran status until six or seven years ago, by which time the only thing it was good for was burial here," he says, gesturing toward the rows of headstones at Fort Logan.

It wasn't until the men started retiring and meeting each other at reunions of old shipmates that a common theme emerged: No one seemed to know anything about the U.S. Naval Armed Guard--including the military. The unknown sailors banded together in a national organization and pushed for memorials to the Armed Guard, most of them at former training facilities. Still, there were none in the national cemeteries where military veterans are buried. Those cemeteries were filled with monuments to other branches of the armed services, but the U.S. Armed Guard had been overlooked.

Jones, the chairman of the eighty-member Colorado chapter of the Armed Guard group, decided to push for a memorial at Fort Logan--the first at a national cemetery. He started researching the process and filling out a mountain of paperwork. "They wanted to know our bylaws and that sort of thing, I guess to make sure that we were a legit organization," he says. After that, he had to get permission from the National Parks Administration and the director of Fort Logan. Expecting some confusion about the Armed Guard's role in WWII, he was surprised when permission was quickly granted--as long as the chapter, like other groups with memorials there, paid for its installation and took responsibility for repairing any future damage.

The final step was to send a letter to former members of the Guard asking for $1,600 in donations. That was the easy part: Men who had been waiting for fifty years to be recognized for a difficult job well-done quickly sent their checks to purchase a memorial of their own.

At the cemetery, Jones looks up the path toward a memorial for the merchant marines who served in World War II. Psalm 107 is inscribed on its plaque:

They that go down to the sea in ships,
that do business in great waters...
These see the works of the Lord,
and his wonders in the deep.

"We were the bastards of the Navy," Jones says slowly, looking back at the empty spot on the lawn. "It'll be nice to think that when people walk by here in the future, there will be something to say who we really were and what we did.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
 
Loading...