One of this site’s earliest articles, History of the 32nd Station Hospital: Part I (Stateside and Algeria, 1942–1943) touched only briefly on the unit’s transatlantic journey of January 14–26, 1943. To correct this regrettable omission, I am now covering the voyage in exhaustive detail. For most members of the unit, it was their first time leaving the United States; together with the unfamiliar experience of a sea journey, they faced the ever-present fear of submarine attack.
This particular part of the unit’s history is particularly well documented. There are accounts of the voyage in the manuscripts of Dwight A. McNelly (in a section entitled “Crossing) and Dorothy Mowbray. In addition, there are accounts in Dr. Louis Linn‘s 1998 letter to Willard Havemeier and Havemier’s own website, developed during the late 1990s and early 2000s. In addition, the voyage was described by an unknown 32nd Station Hospital member (likely an officer) in another manuscript (contributed by the family of Charles Ballard), “Highlights and Shadows of the Thirty-Second.” A January 30, 1943 newspaper article about some of the unit’s nurses during the voyage (viewable on Newspapers.com and GenealogyBank, but behind a paywall) by Associated Press war correspondent Ruth Cowan was also published soon after the voyage (though a letter by Alice Griffin to her family found issues with its accuracy).
Finally, the war diaries of several ships in the convoy survive in the National Archives and are available to view on Fold3 (albeit behind paywall). These include those from the U.S.S. Ancon (which the main body of the 32nd traveled aboard), U.S.S. Texas, U.S.S. Brooklyn, and U.S.S. Anne Arundel. Presumably because the convoy commodore was aboard, the Anne Arundel‘s was particularly thorough in documenting not only the ship’s individual actions but various events concerning the convoy itself. A booklet, “History and Highlights of the USS ANCON” by Myron Greenberg and Frederick J. Lipp, written at the end of the war, also covered the ship’s wartime career.
The war diaries also recorded the ship’s coordinates (sometimes an estimate based on dead reckoning when conditions were too poor for celestial navigation) three times per day, at 0800 hrs, 1200 hrs, and 2000 hrs. This makes it possible to display the route of the journey with a fair degree of accuracy:
Due to the abundance of material, I have decided to let the primary sources tell most of the tale. Although this article is generally presented in chronological order, the middle of the voyage is split into separate sections: one about the experiences of the 32nd Station Hospital members aboard their ships, and a separate section providing a broader view of what was happening in the convoy as a whole.
Preparations to Go Overseas (December 28, 1942–January 12, 1943)
On December 28, 1943, members of the 32nd Station Hospital arrived at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. The unit’s male personnel had been training at Camp Rucker, Alabama and Fort Benning, Georgia since summer. It was only now that they met the unit’s female personnel (mostly nurses, but also a dietician and two physical therapists), who had been stationed elsewhere.
Nurse Dorothy Mowbray recalled:
The nurses and officers, having met informally at a party were now divided into groups to go aboard ships; one large group of 37, the remainder into groups of four. Our main occupations were packing and receiving equipment. We were frequently told the need for secrecy, and that we were to be prepared to leave in 24 hours time. The uncertainty, noise and tension were great. It is a wonder that the chief nurse did not lose her mind, but she had one of the best qualifications for her position, and that is an admirable disposition.
The unknown author of “Highlights and Shadows of the Thirty-Second” described the time at Kilmer succulently: “bitter cold, dreadful food, gloom, boredom and foreboding.”
Embarkation (January 13, 1943)
After several postponements, the 32nd Station Hospital finally departed from Camp Kilmer the morning of January 13, 1943. Dorothy Mowbray recalled:
In the bitter cold of the early morning of this eventful and not to be forgotten day, we crawled out of bed to really begin our journey. To describe a bunch of girls in full regalia marching by the light of the starts to the train is quite a proposition. Put full uniform, galoshes, a helmet, a [musette] bag, a gas mask, a pistol belt and canteen and a few packages on us, and a head and two legs were party visible. After what seemed an [interminable] ride on a ferry boat, blocked from sight by a huge black tarpaulin; an even longer wait on a freezing pier, we boarded the ships in the afternoon.
The author of “Highlights and Shadows of the Thirty-Second” noted bad omens for the superstitious among the hospital’s personnel: The morning of the 13th, the unit boarded a 13-car train on track 13 to the port of embarkation, finding their ship docked at Pier 13!
Most of members of the 32nd Station Hospital boarded the U.S.S. Ancon. 24 nurses and seven male officers boarded other ships in the convoy (six detachments of four nurses each, accompanied by one male officer; Chaplain William V. O’Connor also joined one of these groups). Like its predecessor of the same name, the Ancon was named for Ancón, Panama. In their booklet about the Ancon’s career, Greenberg and Lipp wrote:
Completed in 1938 at a cost of $5,000,000, and like her sister ships, the PANAMA and the CRISTOBAL, she was designed for cargo and passenger service for the Panama Railroad Company to make runs between New York and Cristobal, [Canal Zone]. Being 492 feet long with a beam of 64 feet and displacing 14,200 tons, she had a maximum speed of 22 knots.
On January 11, 1942, the ship was turned over to the U.S. Army Transport Service for use as a troopship. After two voyages to Australia, the ship was transferred to the U.S. Navy.
Ancon was under the command of Captain Paul Luker Mather, U.S. Navy. A father of five, Mather was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 10, 1896 to Walter Irving Mather (a civil engineer) and Lulu Rice Luker Mather. At the time Mather registered for the draft on June 5, 1917, he was working as a bolter for the Fore River Shipbuilding Company in Quincy, Massachusetts. Mather’s entry in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs B.I.R.L.S. Death File stated that he joined the U.S. Navy on November 9, 1917; the July 1, 1941 Register of Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the United States Navy & Marine Corps indicated he was commissioned as an officer on December 12, 1921. (The register credited him with 4 years, one month, and three days of service prior to commissioning, with explanatory notes listing “Service in Naval Reserve Force, National Naval Volunteers, Naval Militia, or National Guard” as well as “Service as a temporary officer in the Navy.”) The register credited then-Commander Mather with 13 years, 10 months of sea service as of July 1941. Mather was promoted to captain on June 18, 1942 and took command of the Ancon in September.
According to Greenberg and Lipp, “During the invasion [of North Africa], the ANCON was the flagship of Transport Division Nine, Amphibious Force, United States Atlantic Fleet.” Greenberg and Lipp wrote that “She had many close calls” off Fedala, Morocco. Several days after the initial landings there, on November 12, 1942, the transports offshore came under sustained air and U-boat attacks and several were sunk. Greenberg and Lipp wrote:
Bombs and torpedoes were getting too thick for comfort, and the ANCON’S Commanding Officer, at that time, Captain P. L. Mather, USN, ordered the anchor chain cut. She quickly scooted out to sea and safety.
Just two months later, Ancon‘s crew prepared for their next journey. The ship’s war diary for January 13, 1943 noted Ancon was “Moored as before, port side to Pier #13 U.S. Army Port of Embarkation Staten Island New York with 10 lines forward and six lines aft.” The war diary recorded that at 1203 hrs: “Embarking of main body of troops and army nurses began.”
Dwight McNally recalled:
I recall the walking was slippery due to the slow drizzle that gave us a damp and cool sendoff. A Salvation Army unit was on hand to offer hot coffee and doughnuts–for the last time-just like in the movies. Now, stepping onto a narrow and swaying gangplank, we found ourselves actually boarding a ship for overseas. It was climactic. We had been anxious for this moment.
Other ships that would join the same convoy the following day were also loading their passengers and cargo. Ancon finished loading by 1600, with a total of 2,150 personnel aboard as passengers:
- 189 U.S Army officers (count presumably includes the nurses aboard, since they aren’t listed elsewhere)
- 6 U.S. Army warrant officers
- 31 U.S. Navy nurses
- 6 civilian nurses
- 1 U.S. Navy officer
- 3 U.S. Navy warrant officers
- 1 U.S. Marine Corps officer
- 1 U.S. Navy seaman
- 1,912 U.S. Army enlisted personnel
The unknown author of “Highlights and Shadows of the Thirty-Second” described the ship as follows:
In big bold letters on her bow were the letters ANCON which even the heavy gray war paint could not hide. There was little about her line or rig that would suggest the gleaming white ship which sailed from New York down the Gulf Stream and into the Caribbean in the years before the war. Her decks bristled with guns; her bridge, and lower stack, where the radio room was, were encased in cement and steel; the usual davits were replaced with tremendous steel, landing-barge cranes; her rails were crowded with life-rafts, big and small; her decks were crowded with donkey-engines, guns, ammunition cases, and naval gear. On the main deck, aft, a [s]quare ugly box covered a once lovely swimming pool.
The anonymous author continued, noting that “many utilitarian changes had been made”:
The Saloon that was had become two decks of bunks, row on row. Likewise the wide promenades decks housed hundreds of men. The roof garden had become Sick-Bay, and the large dining Salon a very plain mess hall. Staterooms that had comfortably filled the wants of two or three vacationers now provided bunks for nine to twelve men.
He or she added:
When we found our State rooms on the U.S.S. Ancon, we discovered that each of us had as ship-mates no less than eight other Officers of like grade. Even Col. Burstein was so situated, and a similar situation prevailed for the nurses, and Red Cross workers who accompanied us.
Similarly, Dorothy Mowbray recalled:
In the large group there were fifteen to a stateroom- the beds arranged in three tiers. Our main thoughts were primitive ones- to eat and to sleep. The boat was packed in every available space with men.
The Ancon was to travel as part of Convoy U.G.F.-4. The convoy designation indicated a fast convoy from the United States to Gibraltar (westbound convoys on the same route were designated G.U.F.). The convoy commodore, Captain Lunsford Y. Mason, Jr. was aboard the U.S.S. Anne Arundel, while Ancon‘s C.O., Captain Paul L. Mather, served as convoy’s vice commodore. The convoy was escorted by Task Force 34 (not to be confused with the infamous Task Force 34 from the Battle of Leyte Gulf), commanded by Rear Admiral Monroe Kelly aboard the battleship U.S.S. Texas. The Texas also served as convoy guide for most of the voyage.
The convoy was composed of 18 ships (15 transports and three tankers), escorted by the battleship U.S.S. Texas, the light cruiser U.S.S. Brooklyn, and initially ten destroyers (primarily composed of Destroyer Squadron 13, led by U.S.S. Buck). Two days into the journey, one destroyer returned to New York, leaving a total of 29 ships overall. See the Appendix at the bottom of the page for a list of ships in the convoy and its escort. In addition to the warships, the convoy was initially protected by aircraft and blimps while still close to shore.
The light cruiser U.S.S. Brooklyn carried floatplanes, which it used to patrol for submarines during the voyage when weather conditions allowed. The cruiser’s reputation preceded it; the author of “Highlights and Shadows” recalled: “Our Navy crew proudly announced that the Brooklyn was along; many were the tales told of the prowess of this cruiser at Fidelo.” (This was a reference to its operations in support of landings at Fedala, Morocco during Operation Torch on November 8, 1942, which Ancon also participated in.)
Underway (January 14, 1943)
Ancon‘s war diary recorded that at “0551 [hrs] Got underway for Rendezvous ‘Zed'”.
Dr. Louis Linn recalled that after the Ancon set sail, “we were awakened [that morning] by a loudspeaker that summoned us to the deck.” Dr. Linn recalled that the ship’s passengers were then addressed by Brigadier General Elwood “Pete” Quesada of the U.S. Army Air Forces:
He informed us that we were crossing to North Africa to participate in the Tunisian campaign which had recently begun in North Africa. He told us that submarine sinkings were at their peak and we might as well know that we have strong suspicions that we too might be torpedoed.
Dr. Linn continued:
I should also add for local color that General Quesada said that in the event we were torpedoed, if anyone through panic or fear, interfered with the rescue operation, the officers on ship (non-medical) carrying side arms were instructed to fire on or kill any obstructionists. Although I must say I did not take any of this seriously and assumed that the general was having a good time trying to scare the shit out of us. He concluded his initial meeting that opening morning with the advice that each of us assemble and pray for our lives. Each denomination was assigned to a specific place on board the ship. Having toured the various locations, I can confirm the fact that the Catholic and Protestant services were well-attended. The Jewish service, alas, consisted of about eight or ten frightened boys who welcomed me and asked me to conduct services for them. While I was fully prepared for duties as a psychiatrist, I did not have the training to function as a rabbi. However, I rose to the occasion, however briefly and uninspired. In my subsequent investigations, I discovered that the missing Jewish contingent were all shooting craps or playing poker in one of the lower areas of the deck. I remember thinking what an optimistic act this was and how each hoped to maximize his spending money when we got to our destination.
At 0956 hrs the Ancon held an Abandon Ship Drill, which concluded an hour later. Dr. Linn later recalled of the drills:
We were assigned “abandon ship positions” and were summoned to report to those positions every sunrise and every sunset and stand at our abandon ship post waiting for the torpedo. I must say that I have never seen sunrises and sunsets as beautiful as I saw on that ship.
Ancon‘s war diary recorded that after passing Point “Zed” (the time isn’t given in Ancon‘s war diary, but Brooklyn passed it at 1133 hrs), the convoy’s ships assembled:
Convoy dispersed in seven columns of three ships each in line abreast. Interval between columns 700 yards. Distance between ships 500 yards.
Ancon was lead ship in the left column, followed by the J.W. McAndrew and Fredrick Lykes.
At 1403 hrs, with the convoy assembled, its ships steamed southeast at 15 knots. (The convoy’s speed varied from 9 to 15 knots throughout the journey, but most of the time the ships maintained at least 14.5 knots.) Soon after, at 1440 hrs, the convoy began zig-zagging, a measure intended to disrupt submarine attacks. This measure was maintained most of the journey. Security was tight. As Dr. Linn mentioned, members of the 32nd Station Hospital were not told their destination until they were already at sea. The convoy was blacked out at night, and McNelly wrote that soldiers were warned not to throw anything overboard during the day, not even cigarette butts.
Life Aboard Ship (January 15–24, 1943)
Dwight McNelly described the morning routine in his manuscript. The soldiers awoke at 6 a.m. to the words “Grab your socks and up hammocks.” After getting on deck,
Before breakfast, we had roll-call, then calisthenics. When the ship rolled and pitched, this made doing the different exercises all the more amusing. Imagine a whole row of fellows tumbling into one corner of the deck, and then trying to get back into line for the next movement?
Willard Havemier recalled mealtime challenges aboard ship:
Feeding several thousand men in close quarters on a rolling platform became a real challenge. Breakfast was served at seven A.M. and supper at four P.M., and it took about three hours for each meal; about 600 men eating at a time. Meals were served on metal trays, cafeteria style, but each man was required to carry his own canteen cup, knife, fork, and spoon. When seas were rough, you had to hold onto your own tray or it would slide left or right and you could be eating off someone else’s tray if you didn’t hold onto your own. This was OK as long as the guy next to you didn’t use too much salt.
A number of members of the 32nd Station Hospital recalled the second day at sea, January 15, 1943, as decidedly unpleasant. Anne Arundel‘s war diary noted that day there was a “Strong south wind, reaching gale force, shifting to west and northwest.” Mowbray wrote:
The second day out some of us began to be seasick. The number of people appearing at mealtime slowly decreased. A lovely moon at night. The 21 [sic] ships resembled long lines of silent black ghosts.
McNelly recalled that “I ‘fed the fish’, as they say and didn’t care if I fell overboard or died that day…” The following day, Major McElroy asked McNelly to assist in sickbay, which he considered a “lucky break” because meals were delivered there by dumbwaiter, sparing him the crowds of the ship’s mess. The most difficult part of the job was that during an abandon ship drills, non-ambulatory patients had to be transferred to rafts.
A January 30, 1943 story by Ruth Cowan of the A.P. (published in at least three different versions across the country, including a story in The Boston Evening Globe, “Cambridge Girl Busy on Trip to Africa With Seasick WAACS”), mentioned several 32nd Station Hospital nurses’ experiences with seasick patients. Presumably, they were aboard a ship other than the Ancon. The article stated that “Four American nurses, who said they joined the United States Army Nursing Corps to help care for fighting men, were more than a little chagrined when their first patients proved to be a lot seasick persons aboard a troop transport.”
The article continued:
A contingent of WAACS [members of Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps] was aboard the vessel, and most of the girls as well as many of the soldiers proved to be bad sailors. “We came to work, all right,” said pretty blue-eyed nurse Dorthea Lecain, 25, of Cambridge, Mass., “but I must say we didn’t expect to be nursing women.”
The article may have exaggerated the nurses’ reactions to having to treat women rather then men. A March 19, 1943 letter from Alice Griffin to her family said “that article was crazy and an insult.” Griffin continued: “Le Cain and the others were tearing because the Waacs were darn sick and they were glad to take care of them. — these newspapers.”
Fortunately, conditions aboard ship soon improved. Mowbray recalled:
Jan 16th. A warm sunny day a few hundred miles north of Bermuda[.] To take a bath in the basin was quite a feat that should be mastered in time and with practice. When the ship gave a sudden lurch, one was liable to find oneself in the tub by mistake. Church services on deck with the clean odor of the salt spray in our faces and the white caps nodding to us as we sailed smoothly along. Our course was mapped three times a day on a chart in the corridor and it was interesting to watch our progress.
The soldiers entertained themselves as best they could, passing long hours playing cards. At least once during the voyage, members of the unit put on a show. Willard Havemeier recalled:
In order to while away the time, another enlisted man, Lloyd Benore and I put together a show while we were enroute. I saved a copy of the program.
PRODUCED UNDER THE PERSONAL SUPERVISION OF
LLOYD BENORE, ASSISTED BY WILLARD HAVEMEIER
1. “THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT A SOLDIER”
Piano – Jack George Trumpet – Frank Silva
2. “BY MIR BIST DU SCHOENE”
“I WANT MY MAMMA” – Paul Soveges
3. “ALWAYS IN MY HEART” AND “WHISPERING”
Whistling Solo by Walter Houghton
4. “SHARPSHOOTERS MARCH” AND “CHINATOWN”
Accordion Solo by Pat Muscolino
5. .”NOVELTY NUMBER” “LIFE IN THE ARMY”
Lt. Ponton at the Harmonica
Chorus of Army Nurses led by Miss Milligan, assisting.
6. SONGS BY E. K. DORAN Jr.
7. HILLBILLY SONGS BY JOE SCHNEIDER.
8. COMEDY SONGS BY AL DAVIS
(Simm London at the piano)
“THE CHICKEN AIN’T NOTHING BUT A BIRD”
“MOONLIGHT BECOMES YOU”
9. “IMITATIONS OF BIRDS” BY BRUNO LAGOZ
10. PIANO AND TRUMPET
11. RUDY SPAGNOLO AND HIS “TONETTE”
12. GUITAR TRIO – REQUEST NUMBERS
13. “ECHOPHONE” SOLO BY PAT CAPTUTO
14. “MELODY IN “F” AND “I CRIED FOR YOU”
15. “IMITATION OF TED LEWIS”
Comedy song by Cohen
16. “LADY BE GOOD” AND “STARDUST”
Piano Duet by London and George
17. “NIGHT AND DAY” AND “AH SWEET MYSTERY OF LIFE” Solo by Otis Lumpkin
WE OF THE NAVY WISH TO EXPRESS OUR SINCERE THANKS TO
CHAPLAIN SHEARER, LLOYD BENORE, WILLARD HAVEMEIER, AND ALL
THOSE ASSISTING THROUGH WHOSE EFFORT AND KIND COOPERATION
THIS PRESENTATION WAS MADE POSSIBLE.
Dorothy Mowbray’s account of January 17, 1943 likely mentioned the same show:
This evening we were entertained, and helped to entertain the enlisted men. Music, songs and laughter all aided in breaking the monotony that can accompany a sea voyage once the novelty has worn thin. We all received individual letters from the President, pledging us the assistance of the home front and wishing us luck. The “White House” on the stationary gave us quite a thrill.
Mowbray also recalled an opportunity she had to eat away from the ship’s mess on January 19, 1943:
Took turns having dinner with the Captain and the General Quesada of the Air Force, in the formers’ quarters. An experience to be remembered. Rain, mist and more rain.
Convoy Operations (January 15–24, 1943)
The war diaries of the ships in the convoy recorded uneventful matters for most of the journey: routine changes in base course, speed, and zigzagging, operating degaussing coils (intended to protect the ships from magnetic mines), as well as gun, fire, spotting, and battle drills. There were at least two appendectomies performed aboard the ships of the convoy during the voyage. Fortunately, all ships and aircraft encountered during the trip were identified as friendly or neutral.
The Ancon‘s war diary on January 16 mentioned “Expended 240 rounds of 20 MM. ammunition during gun drill on #2, 4, 6, 8, and 10- 20 MM guns.” The ship’s (and possibly convoy’s) gunnery performance failed to impress Dwight McNelly, who wrote of one of these drills (minor typos corrected for clarity):
When time gave us a chance to look out at our convoy, during gunnery practice, we sure got an eyeful…What a bunch of misfiring shots…A target- a fast disappearing bunch of balloons, not one was hit. All the puffs of smoke from the tracer bullets, showed us how far off they really were. If this was a sample of their marksmanship???…God help us!
On January 18, the ships’ courses and speeds had to be altered to accommodate refueling of the escorting destroyers by the tanker U.S.S. Kennebec. A minor mishap occurred while U.S.S. Woolsey was refueling. The destroyer’s war diary recorded:
1811 After having parted forward fuel oil line, DIEDRICH, E.R., S2c was knocked overboard when tow line parted. Proceeded to recover man.
In what appears to be an impressive demonstration of how quickly scuttlebutt passed through the convoy, Dwight McNelly may have heard about the incident and recorded it decades later in his manuscript (several minor typos corrected for clarity):
We were warned that if we fell overboard, they could not stop the convoy, only hope would be that it would happen in daylight hours, and a ship further back in the convoy might see you come by them… While still in the Atlantic, we were told a fellow did actually slip overboard and a ship did pick him out of the water.
Although the convoy’s progress generally continued smoothly, there were some hiccups. Mowbray wrote of January 19, 1943, “Went in circles to wait for one of our ships which was disabled- consequently we traveled only about fifty miles.”
Indeed, the U.S.S. Anne Arundel‘s war diary on the 19th recorded at 0715 hrs:
SS SANTA MARIA (#42) dropped out of formation due to condenser trouble. 7 hours estimated as time necessary for repairs. Two destroyers were dispatched to stand by her.
Although there was no indication that enemy submarines had detected the convoy so far, the Santa Maria‘s predicament potentially endangered the entire convoy. Brooklyn‘s war diary mentioned, “CTF 34 [Commander, Task Force 34] apparently made decision to wait for SANTA MARIA, and convoy spent remainder of day wheeling in circles and zigzagging in vicinity.” The stricken vessel was finally able to rejoin the convoy at 1742 hrs.
The following evening, the John Ericsson fell out of formation, experiencing trouble with its starboard engine. As with Santa Maria, two destroyers were detailed to protect the ship until it caught up to the convoy four hours later following repairs.
The U.S.S. Anne Arundel‘s war diary recorded in a “Stragglers report” on the evening January 21 that the S.S. Frederick Lykes fell behind the convoy by as much as 2,000 yards. The war diary added tersely: “Convoy warned of necessity of maintaining proper station for own and collective security.”
The January 22, 1943 entry in Anne Arundel‘s war diary seemed to indicate a growing strain on the vessels after a week at sea. At 1847 hrs, Esso Patterson “suffered casualty and requested a destroyer to stand by.” Esso Harrisburg was ordered to change position in the convoy due to “inability to keep closed up” and Santa Paula fell back for most of the day due to a “difficulty with steering gear”. The stragglers report in Anne Arundel‘s war diary recorded Esso Harrisburg, Frederick Lykes, and Evageline as offenders, adding more urgently, “Warning issued that convoy is now in active submarine waters and attention invited to danger of straggling while in these waters.”
This sense of increased danger apparently made the escort vessels jittery, as the following two days saw a series of periscope sightings and sound contacts which proved not to be submarines.
Entering the Mediterranean Sea (January 25, 1943)
Around 0610 hrs on January 25, 1943, the convoy rendezvoused with two British destroyers and five Canadian corvettes. Mowbray recalled the “small ships called corvettes, who hovered about us the way a gnat encircles a bulb.” The Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy force would escort the twelve ships of U.G.F.-4’s Section One (including the Ancon) continuing to Algeria, while the American escorts stayed with the portion of the convoy (Section Two) splitting off to Casablanca. Anne Arundel assumed the role of convoy guide for Section One with the departure of U.S.S. Texas.
Ancon‘s war diary recorded: “Convoy reformed into four columns – 700 yard interval – with three ships in each column – distance 500 yards.”
Dwight McNelly recalled that evening that they “noticed the first sight of land on portside[,] Spain.” As recorded in Anne Arundel‘s war diary, under cover of darkness, the convoy entered the Strait of Gibraltar at 2134 hrs.
McNelly continued (minor typos corrected for clarity):
A nearly full moon came up and gave us a different view of our convoy and the distant hills. We could make out a thin line now of ships behind us…up ahead we saw a dark form loom up into the sky…on portside again…”The Rock”. All were crowded to the port side of the ship, to see the huge wall of stone loom into view, ever so close to the ship. At this time we could take a look to starboard and see a ring of lights that were just a few miles–five or ten miles–this was Tangiers, the neutral city of Spanish Morocco.
Soon after clearing the strait, at 2217 hrs, the troubled Esso Harrisburg was detached to Gibraltar, leaving 11 ships in the convoy plus seven escorts. The Mediterranean Sea had its own dangers; at 2225 hrs, the blacked out ships had to make emergency maneuvers to avoid a steamer obliviously sailing straight at the convoy.
A Submarine Sunk? (January 26, 1943)
Mere hours before the convoy reached its destination, one final submarine scare occurred the afternoon of January 26. Dwight McNelly recalled that he was retrieving a box of apples from the hold when the ship’s loudspeaker blared a submarine warning. McNelly observed a depth charge attack by one of the convoy’s escorts, writing:
We dropped the apples and came up on deck just [as a geyser] of water spouted a gigantic wall of water behind the ship. We could see the ash cans being shot off the back of the ship and exploding. The “T”-bar flying after them. Then waiting for the [upsurge] of water as they detonated very quickly. It was some sight.
Ancon‘s war diary recorded, perhaps too credulously, that “H.M.S. Brillant dropped depth charges on submerged submarine trailing convoy on starboard side.” The U.S.S. Anne Arundel‘s war diary also mentioned the incident (entries at 1253 and 1302 hrs omitted):
1243 – Submarine contact by destroyer on starboard bow. Executed emergency turn to port 45°. Escort dropped depth charges.
1246 – Submarine contact reported false.
1304 – Escort dropped three more depth charges, apparently on same contact.
Interestingly, word spread among the 32nd Station Hospital personnel that an enemy submarine had been sunk. Dorothy Mowbray wrote: “With only one more sub scare, during which we happened to sink one, we docked at the lovely harbor of Mers- El-Kabir, for which we all breathed a sigh of relief.” Dwight McNelly recalled that when he sent his first letter home, “I asked for my camera, which I had sent home from basic training, and we could add that we had sunk an Italian submarine”.
There is no record of any German or Italian submarines being sunk that day, and based on the Anne Arundel‘s war diary, it is doubtful that there was any submarine stalking the convoy at all. The convoy was making 14 knots at the time and no contemporary Axis submarine could have successfully followed it while submerged (even at flank speed, which would have rapidly drained a submarine’s batteries, they were limited to about 8 knots underwater). There were certainly Axis submarines in the Mediterranean; one of the escorting corvettes, H.M.C.S. Port Arthur, was credited with helping to sink the Italian submarine Tritone one week earlier. Undoubtedly, the sailors in the convoy and its escort were on edge. Although no ships were sunk on this voyage (and indeed, no ships were ever sunk while a part of any of the 49 speedy and well-defended U.G.F./G.U.F. convoys during the war), of the ships in the convoy and its escorts, Santa Elena, Esso Harrisburg, Buck, Bristol, and Alberni were later sunk by U-boats.
Arrival (January 26, 1943)
That same afternoon, the convoy approached Mers-el-Kébir, a naval base near Oran, Algeria. At 1600 hrs, U.S.S. Anne Arundel signaled the convoy “to form single column and enter swept channel” led by the destroyer H.M.S. Wishart. Ancon entered the channel at 1648 hrs and about an hour later, took on a pilot.
Dr. Linn wrote decades later: “I will never forget the ominous spectacle of the wrecked French fleet in a half-sunken state in the harbor at Mers El Kebir. These vessels had been sunk by British forces so, needless to say, it did not win us any friends in the Vichy government.”
Dwight McNelly recalled:
It was still quite light when we found our ship moving into the opening between [the nets] of the harbor. Next, we passed a gaping hole in a docked ship..right at the waterline. It was open to view and the sailors were standing and waving to us from the exposed ship..it was The Empress Of Australia.
Dorothy Mowbray recalled:
For many it was the first glimpse of foreign shores, and a strange and beautiful sight met our eyes. Houses of various colors were constructed on the slopes of the mountains which towered above us in protective splendor. The colors of the rising and setting sun rival an artists’ brush and reduce an authors pen to ashes.
Ancon‘s war diary recorded that at “1827 First line ashore.” Soon the ship was moored.
McNelly recalled that, if anything, the members of the 32nd Station Hospital felt more vulnerable aboard a ship in the harbor than they had on the high seas (one typo corrected for clarity):
We felt like sitting ducks here in a combat zone, and in the harbor with other ships. Darkness fell shortly and added to our worry and concern. There was little card-playing and noise that night.
The following morning, January 27, 1943, the Ancon‘s war diary recorded that at “0810 First units of troops began disembarking”, a process that took about 4½ hours.
McNelly wrote (several minor typos corrected for clarity):
Breakfast over with, we started lining-up on deck with pack and bag. Soon the sun would be coming-up. An apple was offered to each of us as we stepped from portside to the shaking and narrow gang-plank…and directed to leave the ship. Some refused to accept the fruit since it was difficult to balance the bag on your shoulder, and grab the rope guide on the way down to the dock.
The personnel of the 32nd entered staging in Bouisseville, where they would remain until setting up the hospital in Tlemcen in February.
Postscript: Subsequent Career of the Captain Paul L. Mather and U.S.S. Ancon
Captain Paul L. Mather continued serving in the U.S. Navy through the end of the war, leaving the service in January 1947 with the retirement rank of rear admiral. He died in Bethesda, Maryland, on April 5, 1988, aged 92. Rear Admiral Mather and his wife are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, as are two of their three sons.
The Ancon compiled a notable service record after dropping off the 32nd Station Hospital in Algeria. Greenberg and Lipp wrote that immediately after returning from that voyage, the ship “was ordered to the Norfolk Navy Yard” for conversion “to a combined headquarters and communications command ship”, work which was completed April 20, 1943. Greenberg and Lipp continued: “In her new role, the ANCON became the flagship of Commander, Amphibious Force, United States Atlantic Fleet” and oversaw the invasions of Sicily (July 1943), Salerno (September 1943), and Omaha Beach at Normandy (June 1944).
After Normandy, “Mighty A” was transferred to the Pacific and participated in the Battle of Okinawa (April and May 1945). Although the crew anticipated they would be called upon again during the planned invasion of the Japanese mainland, this proved unnecessary. Ancon was one of the ships present during the formal Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945. Greenberg and Lipp wrote: “In company with the IOWA and anchored between Admiral Halsey’s MISSOURI and Admiral Nimitz’s SOUTH DAKOTA, the ANCON served as a press release ship during the entire surrender ceremonies in Tokyo Bay.”
After the war, Ancon resumed civilian service with the Panama Canal Company during 1946–1961. The following year, the ship was transferred to the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. The ship was renamed State of Maine, as is traditional for the academy’s training ships.
As it happened, one of the midshipmen who sailed aboard the State of Maine was the son of 32nd Station Hospital nurse Ruby Milligan (Hills). Though she didn’t speak about her experiences during the war, she eventually told him that she had crossed the Atlantic aboard the same vessel. One sunny day in March 1972, Ruby was able to sail one more time aboard the ship from Bar Harbor to Castine, accompanied by her husband and with her son aboard as crew.
Appendix: Ships of Convoy U.G.F.-4, Task Force 34, and Commonwealth Escort
The following list of ships in the convoy is based on the U.S.S. Anne Arundel‘s war diary in order with the original prefixes. Some of the vessels with S.S. or M.S. prefixes are listed as U.S.A.T. (United States Army Transport) vessels in other sources. Both sections listed were part of the same convoy until they split on January 25, 1943. I have added each vessel’s classification in parentheses and provided links to pages with more information about each vessel when available:
Section One (Destination: Oran/Mers-el-Kébir)
- U.S.S. Anne Arundel (transport)
- U.S.S. Ancon (transport)
- U.S.A.T. Cristobal (transport, sister ship of the Ancon)
- U.S.A.T. Evangeline (transport)
- U.S.A.T. Shawnee (transport)
- S.S. Borinquen (transport)
- S.S. Santa Paula (transport)
- S.S. Esso Harrisburg (tanker)
- S.S. Frederick Lykes (transport)
- S.S. Examiner (presumably a transport)
- S.S. Santa Maria (transport)
- U.S.A.T. J.W. McAndrew (transport) [Note: This vessel was listed without prefix, and erroneously as the J.S. McAndrew in the January 13, 1943 entry in the Anne Arrundel‘s war diary]
Section Two (Destination: Casablanca)
- U.S.S. Kennebec (tanker)
- S.S. Monterey (transport)
- M.S. John Ericsson (transport)
- S.S. Santa Rosa (transport)
- S.S. Santa Elena (transport)
- S.S. Esso Paterson (tanker)
As a sidebar, it seems the U.S.A.T. Evangeline was renamed S.S. Yarmouth Castle after the war, a name which became infamous in 1965 when it sank after a fire, killing 90. The tanker S.S. Hartford was originally assigned to the convoy but dropped prior to setting sail.
The following list of ships in the convoy’s escort, Task Force 34, was compiled from the U.S.S. Texas‘s war diary, which listed the escorting destroyers as primarily from Destroyer Squadron 13, with a few substitutions:
- U.S.S. Texas (battleship, convoy guide)
- U.S.S. Brooklyn (light cruiser)
- U.S.S. Buck (destroyer, with commander of Destroyer Squadron 13 aboard)
- U.S.S. Wilkes (destroyer, with commander of Destroyer Division 26 aboard)
- U.S.S. Woolsey (destroyer)
- U.S.S. Ludlow (destroyer)
- U.S.S. Edison (destroyer)
- U.S.S. Bristol (destroyer)
- U.S.S Swanson (destroyer)
- U.S.S. Roe (destroyer)
- U.S.S. Butler (destroyer)
- U.S.S. Murphy (destroyer, detached back to New York on January 16, 1943)
The following list of vessels from the Royal and Royal Canadian Navies was based on the U.S.S. Ancon‘s war diary, with some typos corrected. On January 25, 1943, they took over escort duties for the ships of Section One (which continued into the Mediterranean Sea, while Task Force 34 accompanied Section Two to Casablanca).
- H.M.S. Brilliant (destroyer)
- H.M.S. Wishart (destroyer)
- H.M.C.S. Alberni (corvette)
- H.M.C.S. Baddeck (corvette)
- H.M.C.S. Lunenburg (corvette)
- H.M.C.S. Port Arthur (corvette)
- H.M.C.S. Summerside (corvette)
Last updated October 1, 2020