by Cassie Brown
Doubleday & Co. Charts, photographs, and sketches by a survivor 391 pages, $12.95
On the night of February 18,1942, two hundred and three young American sailors drowned, suffocated in oil, were battered to death on rocks, or died of exposure in one of the worst—and least publicized—disasters in U.S. naval history. No enemy action was involved. Three vessels, the destroyers U.S.S. Wilkes and U.S.S. Truxtun and the supply ship U.S.S. Pollux , ran aground in a storm on the south coast of Newfoundland. There were one hundred and eighty-five survivors, and they owed their lives to the extraordinary gallantry of the people who lived in two small nearby villages.
Eight men from Lawn and most of the men of St. Lawrence endangered themselves on the icy rocks and the stormlashed beach to effect the rescue. They lifted survivors one by one off ledges in rope slings, racing the rising tide; they formed a human chain out into the debris-choked waves to pull in oilencrusted sailors; and they hauled everyone still alive on horse-drawn sleds back through the wind and snow to town. There, the women took over. They stripped and rubbed the young men, trying to force oil out of their stomachs and scrub it from their skins. They packed heated rocks around them, and gently spooned hot soup into their mouths.
Cassie Brown has reconstructed this event in explicit technical detail from court records and has also interviewed survivors, some of whom she located through St. Lawrence women who have kept in touch with the young men they nursed back to life. She is sharply critical of legal shortcuts taken by the wartime Navy, which appear to have ruined the careers of several brave men. Perhaps this gripping book will at last help to right the injustice.