Printer Friendly

Close call for a tin can sailor, Part II.

Robert A. Maher had been in the navy for three years, but he had never experienced anything like the battle that played out on the seemingly endless night of November 1, 1943. That night in the North Atlantic, the destroyer USS Borie (DD-215) dueled with the German submarine U-405. Maher, aboard the Borie as a fire controlman (operating the director that aimed and fired the ship's guns), saw U-405 finally sink and explode.

The morning of November 2, however, revealed that the Borie had suffered wounds of her own. Would she end up a casualty of the duel she had won? In this second and final installment of Maher's firsthand account of Borie's encounter with U-405, we join him and his shipmates as morning reveals the direness of their predicament.

WITH THE LIGHT OF DAY we found out that indeed we were in a lot of trouble.... There was a heavy fog. We were taking on water rapidly. All available gasoline had to be used to keep the pumps running to try to stay ahead of the incoming water, so none was available for the radio generator.

To help keep the ship afloat, Hutchins [Lieutenant Charles Hutchins, Borie's commander] now gave the order to lighten ship.... Bucket brigades were formed and the guys worked their butts off.... We dumped our boats, the gunners mates threw all their four-inch shells except for 10 rounds per gun. They also threw over several machine guns. The torpedo men dumped their tube torpedo mounts, which was quite a feat.... All our anchor chain ... was sent to the bottom with a long, metallic, rattling roar. I was called to the bridge by Captain Hutchins who gave me the order, "I want you to dump the gun director over the side and I don't want it to come down on my bridge."

I really have no idea what the gun director weighed, but with the size of it and the fact that the base was made of bronze, I think that a fair estimate is between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds. The navigational bridge below extended about five feet on both sides of the flying bridge....

I disconnected all the wires.... We then started to pry the director up with pry bars, inserting wedges whenever possible. Gradually the director started to lean over to the starboard until it was finally almost balanced on an edge.... As we rolled way over to starboard, we all pushed and bumped. It dropped neatly into the sea....

By mid-morning, [we were] still in fog and with our headway dropping steadily. Because we were now using seawater in our boilers it became apparent that abandoning ship was a distinct possibility. Hutchins ordered Chief Torpedoman Cronin to drop the depth charges off the stern racks. (I had previously met a sailor who had safely abandoned a destroyer going down only to be seriously injured when the depth charges exploded....)

Two charges were dropped. BOOM! BOOM! They exploded at a shallow depth, lifted our stern, and shoved us forward. Our already stricken hull shook, rattled and groaned. Hutchins roared, "Set them on safe!" BOOM! BOOM! We felt the concussion and surged forward again. Hutchins screamed, "God damn it, I said set them on safe!" Chief Cronin screamed back, "God damn it, they are on safe!" As I remember, they had to remove the detonators to keep them from exploding.

... At 0650 the Card [escort aircraft carrier USS Card (CVE-11), flagship of Borie's task group) had catapulted four aircraft on anti-submarine patrol with orders to be on the lookout for Borie. The Borie was not sighted, nor anything else.... So it's now 10:30. By now, we were practically stumped and for the most part all of us were just standing around wondering when and if we'd be found, or would another sub get us first?

... Some time before 1100 Lieutenant [Robert] Lord thought of collecting all the lighter fluid, kerosene, and alcohol aboard ship, then used the whole mess to run the emergency radio generator. It worked! At 1100, the Card received our message ... and two Avenger aircraft were sent out to search the area along the high-frequency [radio] bearing. In spite of the limited visibility, we were found 14 miles away from the Card at 1130.... The Card ... sped to us at a speed of 18 knots. By the time they arrived, we had lost all power and were wallowing in the troughs of huge waves.

Were we ever happy to see our fellow warrior, the USS Goff, coming close aboard at noontime...! We were no longer alone in sub-infested waters and tangible help was nearby.... We were dead in the water with the Goff near and the Card moving in at slow speed with only one escort, the USS Barry. By now I would have given a year's pay to be on the Card or on the Barry. The Goff came alongside bow to bow and attempted to pass over hoses and handy hooks. It was finally decided that it would be of no help because we had no fresh water available for our boilers and the seas were too heavy for the transfer of water from the other ships.

The possibility of towing was abandoned, as we had no towing chains--as you remember, we dumped our anchor chains. Hindsight.... And then began the most harrowing experience of my life. At about 4:30 P.M., the order was given to abandon ship, with the seas running about 20 feet or greater....

My first feeling was one of anger, as I was wearing a brand new warm-up coat given to me by my brother and blazoned with Kearney High School on the back with bright red. Everyone on the ship, including the captain, had admired that coat.... Knowing that I had no choice but to go over the side, I said, "Aw shit" and dropped the coat on the deck while moving towards the first ladder. After descending to the bridge, I inflated my rubber life jacket....

Previously while at sea, Bill Schmalberger, now one of my best friends, had held a non-denominational church service on Sunday, but the chief petty officer would make it a point to walk through the compartment each time, hassling us with obscene remarks while jostling as many as possible.... Now, while adjusting my life jacket, I see this six-foot-plus bruiser on his knees in the corner praying and shouting, "Don't let me die! Don't let me die!"

I'm sure all of us were apprehensive in one way or another, but there were very few cases where men showed their fear. Watching men climb down the side of the ship and their actions later told me that most men do what was needed in times of danger and that rank or position do not indicate a man's stature....

After inflating my life jacket, I proceeded down the next ladder to the main deck and went down to my abandon ship station. Remember, we had thrown away our boats trying to save the ship. Now I find the rest of the life rafts on the starboard side--my side--can't be moved away from the ship because of the winds and the waves....

I turned and went over to the port side and doing so, picked up an old kapok life jacket and donned it over my rubber one. As I passed the hatch, a young sailor came out only wearing his underwear and life jacket. The only way to survive in the water of such low temperature is to be dressed warm, so I ordered him to go below and put clothes on. He was so frozen with fear I could not make him do anything. He was another tough guy that folded when put to the test. He was to do more damage later on. While I was talking to him, Ed Malaney came up to me and told me that his life jacket had broken. I gave him the kapok one I had....


When I reached the port rail I found that men had already put out the lines. Here goes anything! I crawled over the side, holding onto the line while the ship was rolled over to starboard to about 30 degrees. I didn't have to climb down, it was a matter of crawling down the side of the ship. In doing so, however, I had to climb over a heading of armor about a foot thick. I just cleared the armor when the ship rolled back to port, causing the armor to hit me on top of the head and drive me deep below the surface of the ocean.

I came to the surface with a very sore head, and spotted two life rafts about 10 yards away. I swam to the closest one and hung on.... The raft was now very crowded, so I swam to the other one, which was almost empty. I'd just reached it when I found myself being crushed between both the rafts. When it felt like my chest was just about to burst, I screamed "Jesus Christ!" and the two rafts just drifted apart. It was a strange feeling.

It was soon dusk, with none of the rescue ships in sight. But most of us had taken it in stride. But remember that man who would not put his clothes on? He was next to me with his arms around the neck of an older chief, choking him. I tried to break his hold but I just could not. The chief had lost his grip. They both were torn away from the raft by the waves, they drifted away wordless and were never seen again....

The petty officer holding onto the raft next to me soon told me that my life jacket was broken. I looked down and saw that when I was crushed between the rafts the pressure must have broken the holding clasp. The jacket was now useless, and it soon drifted away. The petty officer had two, so I asked him for one. When I saw him last he still had two.

Darkness came, and now we wouldn't be able to see a rescue ship even if one were to come along. Nor could they see us.... Our raft had so many men that we had to hold onto each other like a bunch of grapes. While the raft was riding up and down the huge waves, we didn't realize the trouble we were in.... We would joke and occasionally break into song. I lost all sense of time....

Someone saw the silhouette of a destroyer bearing down on us and we all started to cheer. We soon stopped cheering when we realized that they had not seen us. They were going to hit us with the bow dead center. There were about 30 men in our raft. One of them was Tom Neary.... He reached into his jacket and very calmly pulled out one of those cheap flashlights that never work, and flashed it towards the destroyer. It worked! It was the USS Barry. We saw them veer to their port, but not soon enough. The starboard side of their bow hit our raft on the side opposite of me. It was a terrible sight to see. Some men scrambled up the side of the ship, but many were killed between the ship and the raft....

After that pass, we remained alone in darkness again for I don't know how long, but there was no more singing or horsing around. This was no longer a game. The Barry showed up again, but this time I think they saw us; at least it didn't appear that they were going to hit us head on.

By now my mind wasn't too sharp, but to the best of my recollection there were still about 10 or 12 men on or holding onto the raft and we all were very weary. The cold, angry seas were still there and the Barry looked too bouncy as its dark form approached us, crashing up and down on the waves. It hit us again, but this time we were all on the far side of the raft. No one was hurt this time, rather it was every man for himself to try to scramble up somehow. As far as I know, most made it this time by climbing on the raft and then jumping to the rail, but I was afraid to try at first.

There was another problem. An officer had been alongside of me for a while, but he was in bad shape. He had been fine before the Barry whacked us, but now he was hysterical. Nothing I said or did helped. I hit him on the shoulder as the raft slid down the side of the ship ... but he didn't respond. I now saw a screw guard approaching and I knew that this was my best chance and I had to go.

I climbed up on the raft [and] crouched down, waiting. Don't forget--no life jacket. The Barry was in a roll away from us as the raft went under the guard, so I stood to grab it and just then the ship started its roll back. WHACK! I was hit on the back of my head and momentarily I saw the guard crush the officer's head against the raft. I then became unconscious.

I came to under water, feeling the beat of the screws under my feet. My arms were folded over one of the bars of the screw guard. Whether it was instinct or my stiff heavy jacket that kept me stuck to the screw guard I don't know, but the worst thing was that no one was there. I hung on and shouted but to no avail, and for the first time I began to feel that I was going to die....

My life, starting at about 12 years old, was whirling by in color.... It started with me in a Boy Scouts uniform, and...went on from there in a series of stills showing me at different ages with different friends and members of my family. Suddenly this kaleidoscope ended with tugs at my neck.... I was still hanging onto the screw guard of the destroyer in a very high sea, at night and with water temperature of approximately 40 degrees. My head was alternately above and below the surface. With my feet dangling only inches above the whirling propellers of the rescuing destroyer, I looked up to see two brave men trying to save me....

One man was on the deck holding onto the other, who had climbed out onto the guard, which was still rolling pretty good. He had me by the back of the neck, holding onto my jacket and pulling as hard as he could all while shouting "Let go, let go!" I was now alert and afraid that if his hand slipped I was a goner. I shouted back, "Bullshit! You let go, I'm dead!" He soon convinced me that this was the only game in town, so I let go and he hauled me aboard.


... I had been in the water for about seven and a half hours, and by now I was stiff as a board and totally helpless..., so they dragged me by the neck across the deck and bounced me over pipes and whatever else on the deck.... The head--toilet, that is--on a four-stack destroyer was in a small deckhouse on the fantail, or stern, and that's where they put me for safekeeping. So what better way to end the day than on the deck of a head in a rolling sea? None, if one considers what my alternatives were!

Now, lying flat on my back on the deck wouldn't have been all that bad, except that I couldn't move a muscle and I was pressed against the port side bulkhead, directly under the urinal trough. There was water on the deck and every time the Barry rolled to port, I had to hold my breath to keep from drowning. I was conscious all the time and I was thankful I was still alive, realizing that some of my friends were gone forever.

Two men ... finally came and carried me down to the crew's compartment and put me on a lower bunk which was below the mess table. Just above me on the table was a huge dishpan, filled with old soapy water and garbage.... Lying there, I was thinking about all that had happened. Suddenly the ship rolled hard to port. I now found my self covered from waist to top of my head with dishwater and potato peelings, and I wasn't even hungry!

Some time later, the ship's doctor and a medic came to see me, proceeded to clean me up, move me to another bunk, and-- best of all--feed me a large shot of legal brandy.... I went off to sleep and didn't wake up until daylight.

Upon wakening, I found I was in pretty good shape and able to get around, not to mention the fact that I was so happy to find out that I really had made it. Now came the gathering of survivors to swap information about shipmates, trying to find out who had made it and who had not. There were many hugs and many tears during this period, and all in all, it was a very emotional time. Of my three best friends, I only knew Mousey [C. Lester Moultrop] had made it because he was on the Barry with me. We received a partial list from the Goff, but Jim Allegri's name and Bill Schmalberger's name weren't on them. Later on Jim told me that he and Bill thought I was dead because someone had seen me crushed between the rafts and said I never could have survived....

Although the storms had passed during the night, the sea was still quite heavy the next morning and the Borie, while afloat, was down by the stern and wallowing heavily in the troughs. According to the Card's account for itself, November 2, the nearest port was Horta [in the Azores], about 690 miles. Iceland, Ireland, and Newfoundland were all about 900 miles. We were in the approximate center of five reported submarine groups. The Borie's condition was so bad, and danger from U-boats so great, it was decided that salvage was impossible.

Orders were given to sink the Borie. Torpedoes and shellfire were tried first, but heavy seas made both methods inaccurate.... She was finally sunk by bombs from the Card's planes. Though badly mauled by the previous battle and the heavy seas, she still went down as a valiant lady. It took three depth bombs close aboard, then she went down swiftly by the stern at 0955....

There were 22 Borie men on the Barry, 107 on the Goff, and these destroyers are designed to hold only so many men. So ... we were transferred to the Card by pulley line, and I didn't like the idea at all.

The transfer was to take place during the regular refueling of the destroyers from the Card, with a bag hanging on the block and tackle rigged between ... the Barry and the Card. We prepared to go.... I climbed into the bag, no life jacket, and they closed the bag over my head with a drawstring. It took off like a rocket.... At about midpoint, I came to a sudden stop, and I mean sudden! There I was, hanging in a mail sack about 50 feet above the ocean, midway between two ships about 50 yards apart. When the ships would roll together, I would drop like a rock, and when they would roll away from each other, I went up like a skyrocket....

Just as suddenly, I moved forward at a high rate of speed only to be stopped again by the soles of my shoes hitting a solid object. I didn't exactly stop, however. Instead I flew up and over, and came down on my hands and knees and face.... When the bag opened I came out screaming, "Jesus Christ! If it isn't one damn thing, it's another!" The Card's chaplain greeted me with, "Glad to have you aboard, son."

We spent another week at sea on the Card.... It was during this time that Ed Malaney took me to Captain Hutchins and reminded him that he promised to give five dollars to the first man who had spotted the sub on the surface, and it was I who had.... He reached into his pocket and gave me a five dollar bill. All of the survivors from my life raft signed it, and then Ed Robertson framed it for me....

Some human interest stories were told by many of the survivors. One man who hadn't heeded the warning not to drink the water while ashore in Casablanca contracted dysentery and was confined to his bunk. He was not seen abandoning ship. A hospital corpsman who had not turned in all his alcohol had invited men to the sick bay for a drink or two of pineapple juice and alcohol. He was last seen drunk as a skunk, and no one saw him leave the ship either. A sailor fearing that he wasn't going to make it gave his money belt to another sailor, with instructions to give it to his wife. The friend died but the sailor made it. [Ensign] Richard St. John helped men aboard the heaving Goff while holding onto the screw guard until he himself was lost. Captain Hutchins abandoned his ship in true navy tradition. He made one last inspection by flashlight and was the last man to go over the side. He carried the ship's colors with him. That flag is now in the Smithsonian Institution.


The men on the Card treated us very nice, giving us clothing to wear and letting us use their bunks.... When we were near Norfolk and, I presumed, out of danger, a memorial service was held for our missing shipmates. I think it was only then that we really knew that we had lost friends of three years, 27 of them.

Our task force arrived back in Norfolk, Virginia, on about November 9, 1943. We were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. Also awarded were three Navy Crosses, two Silver Stars, and one Legion of Merit. I got a new Chapstick because I lost mine when the ship went down ...

Bob Maher bad a postwar career with Bell Laboratories. The first half of his story appeared in our August 2009 issue. Harry Cooper is president of Sharkhunters International (, an organization devoted to the history of WWII German U-boat activities.
COPYRIGHT 2009 310 Publishing LLC
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:I WAS THERE
Author:Maher, Bob; Cooper, Harry
Publication:America in WWII
Date:Oct 1, 2009
Previous Article:Home of the 'Ultra Americans'.
Next Article:Kicking bombs.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |