What Happened Off Devon


Farther up the line of ships, crewmen on LST 531 had also seen the green tracers and, just after 2:00 A.M. , the sudden blaze and explosion made by the torpedoing of 507. Minutes later, at 2:17, a torpedo struck their own ship on her starboard side, with another following shortly after. The ship exploded with a tremendous roar, and a gigantic ball of orange flame shot skyward. Seaman Thomas Holcombe on a nearby ship saw “trucks, men, and jeeps flying through the air. The green tracers of the E-boat swept over the port side of the burning ship. One of our men returned their fire with a 20-mm gun that sent out red tracers until he was hit and fell. His gun continued to fire red streaks straight up.” On the command ship—LST 515—the executive officer, Lt. Moses Hallett, returned to the bridge around this time to find “a bit of a spectacular going on"; each ship in the convoy was firing red tracers in every direction, and the rasping noise of E-boats could be heard all around. On the crippled 531 all electric power failed, as did the telephone system and the fire-fighting apparatus. With the lifeboats ruined, men began jumping off the blazing ship. Many ironically shouted, “Dry run!” as they leaped. Fewer than ten minutes after being hit, 531 sank with a great rushing noise. Of the 496 men aboard, 424 died.

At about 2:30 A.W. Manny Reuben, a petty officer on LST 496 near the head of the convoy, was on the bridge when somebody yelled, “I can see a bow wave!” Everyone looked astern. “We all saw it,” he says. “A speedy craft, low and slender, was indistinctly seen, about 1,000 yards off our port bow, slipping through the silky smooth water. We fired many rounds at it with our starboard 40-mm battery but observed no results, although it was clearly outlined by our tracers. The captain zigzagged, trying to keep our stern directed toward flares and a searchlight that flashed off after a few seconds. Our lookout reported a torpedo passing forward of our bow. An excited soldier in a half-track on our deck fired its 50-mm machine gun to the port quarter at what he imagined was an E-boat. It was too dark to tell. His slugs struck LST 511 behind us, causing—I later learned—many severe wounds. We also had several holes, slanting upwards, from the lowslung E-boats shooting high at us with their 20- and 40-mm cannon. One of these shells hit our galley and another creased my head, knocking me out.”

When guns were fired, an officer said they were just trying to make it seem real.

LST 496’s zigzagging saved her from further damage, but another vessel was not so lucky. Immediately after seeing 531 explode, the captain of LST 289, Lt. Harry Mettler, ordered full flank speed and began zigzagging. Torpedo wakes foamed past on every side, and soon the men saw a low, rakish boat overtaking to port. A broad-waked “surface-runner” torpedo headed toward 289’s stern. (The commander of the E-boat that launched it, Oberleutnant zur See Hans Schirren, remembers today that it was a defective torpedo; a malfunctioning depth control kept it on the surface.) Mettler ordered full right rudder and for a moment thought the torpedo would pass by. But it struck the stern with a flash and roar. Martin MacMahon, a petty officer on 289’s deck, felt a terrific jarring “like an earthquake” and looked back to find the ship’s stern section “smashed and curled over the navigation bridge.” Everybody on the bridge was blown off onto the deck, some suffering fatal injuries.

Mettler, only slightly hurt, picked himself up from the deck and resumed command. The entire forward end of his ship, he discovered, was unharmed, and both of the propellers worked. But the rudder was out. Mettler lit on an ingenious solution: ordering his LCVPs—small landing craft—lowered, he stationed them ahead of his ship and attached them by towlines to the forecastle so they could pull and steer him. He used a red-lensed flashlight to give directional orders, one flash for starboard and two for port, and LST 289 began limping toward shore. Four of Mettler’s crewmen had been killed outright in the action, eight were missing and presumed dead, and eighteen had been wounded—one of whom would later die in a nearby hospital.

LST 289 left behind a scene of desperation and horror. Hundreds of men in full battle kit floundered in forty-two-degree water. “Their life-belt lights,” said an observer, “were snapping on and off like lightning bugs.” Flames were all about. The captain of the torpedoed 507 gave orders at 2:30 to abandon ship, but only three lifeboats could be launched, and most of the life rafts were frozen solid to their racks with rust. Those few already on the water were burning. Ens. Tom Clark, 507’s gunnery officer, went around the ship encouraging men to jump but found some so frightened that he had to pry their hands off the rail. Murdoch and the captain, Lt. James Swarts, struggled up to a raft already filled with men and clung to its side, “trying to paddle away from the fires, and moving to keep from freezing. We could hear cries for help all around us.” Angelo Crapanzano could hear men “yelling—screaming—praying—dying. The cold water was taking its toll. Minutes passed into hours and the yelling, screaming and praying tapered off—the men were falling asleep, letting go of the rafts—and dying.” Murdock and Swarts held on for more than three hours until they were picked up by another LST, but Swarts died on its deck of shock and exposure.