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Passage to Normandy: voyages of the SS Thomas Wolfe.

On 12 April 1944 the weather observatory at Belvedere Castle in Central Park reported a mean temperature of 47.5, with no rain. On this agreeable early spring day, 71 ships of Convoy HX 287 left New York Harbor headed for British ports of call. Of these "great boats ... putting out to sea," (1) one was named the Thomas Wolfe, a ship that would play a vital role in the D-Day invasion of Europe.

In a March 1938 letter to the editor of the Nation, Thomas Wolfe expressed his belief that "democracy is valuable enough to be saved, and is worth fighting for.... Facism is a creature that thrives but is not appeased by compromise." (2) Nearly six years after his death, Asheville's son went to war.

The SS Thomas Wolfe was one of 2,710 Liberty ships built as quickly as possible in the United States as part of the country's Herculean push to provide more cargo ships during World War II. Most were classified as EC2-S-C1 (EC for Emergency Cargo; 2 designating a waterline length of 400-450 feet; S designating a steam engine; and C1, the specific design). Built of 250,000 prefabricated parts, each vessel was welded together in an average of 71 days. Because of their utilitarian, homely appearance, the ships were dubbed "Ugly Ducklings," a nickname that some historians attribute to Franklin D. Roosevelt and others to the media of the day. Roosevelt, in a February 1942 radio broadcast, did call them "dreadful-looking objects."

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There are also conflicting--or, perhaps, compatible--versions of how each Liberty ship was named. Some sources state that the Maritime Commission chose the names from several categories of prominent, deceased Americans and foreigners. Others state that a ship could be named through raising two million dollars for its construction. The certain guideline was that the honoree had to be deceased.

The 7,198-ton Thomas Wolfe (Maritime Commission hull number 1073) was built at a cost of one million dollars at the Southeastern Shipbuilding yards in Savannah, Georgia. The keel was laid on 6 November 1943, and the ship was launched on 15 December 1943. On 28 December delivery was made to the South Atlantic Steamship Lines as operating agents for the United States War Shipping Administration. The Wolfe family alerted the Asheville media about the ship named for Tom, and newspaper reports appeared in the Times on 17 February and the Citizen on 18 February 1944. (The newspaper issued on the 17th also featured an account of Julia Wolfe's 84th birthday party at 48 Spruce Street, noting that 125 people dropped by to pay their respects.) (3)

Many Liberty ships were converted to troopships, which were fitted with extra lifeboats, equipment storage rooms, desalination plants, and, of course, areas in which the troops could sleep. Never berthed below the waterline, the men had extra ventilation and heat. Reportedly, food on these troopships, and the Liberty ships in general, was Wolfean--breakfasts of bacon and eggs and pancakes; lunches and dinners filled with meats and vegetables augmented with generous amounts of potatoes and bread; and desserts that included pies and puddings.

After unloading its cargo at the Barry Docks in Wales on 27 April 1944, the SS Thomas Wolfe became a troopship. One of the merchant seamen aboard was Angus Campbell. "Red" Campbell had joined the Merchant Marine in 1943 after being rejected for voluntary service in the military due to medical issues. He would later become vice president of the Seafarers International Union. In a 1994 interview for the Seafarer's LOG, Campbell related his experiences:
   It was better than any John Wayne movie. I was on
   the Thomas Wolfe, a Liberty ship, and we left New York
   in April. We discharged cargo in Wales. Then we went to
   Scotland to take on some preparatory gear for the invasion,
   along with three British aircraft spotters. Eventually
   we loaded in Southampton, England, about a week
   before the invasion. Then we followed the mob.

   [Normandy was] remarkable. There were hundreds
   of airplanes, battleships, cruisers. A week later you were
   still getting shell fire from the 88 millimeters, from the
   pillboxes on the beach, which were about 12 feet thick.
   There was no problem with the air, but the water was
   filled with acoustic mines, which are drawn by sound
   into the propeller. There were lots of bodies in the water;
   soldiers and sailors.

   We discharged cargo at the beachhead for 90 cents
   an hour. Seamen also were required to assist the gun
   crews. So, in addition to your fire and boat station, everybody
   on board had a gun assignment. There were 24-hour-a-day
   lookout assignments, including the crow's
   nest.

   Our engine room crew members basically came
   from Georgia and Florida. The people in the deck and
   steward departments were from New York, so the Civil
   War also raged for the full 12 months of our voyage. (4)


One of those engineers from the South was Leonard Willey, a 1943 graduate of Georgia Tech. Willey reports that while the Thomas Wolfe was anchored downriver from Glasgow, Scotland, the crew endured "several fake reports and rumors" before they "finally got under way for Southampton.... We were scheduled to load and go in with the first wave [of the D-Day invasion], but there was a delay." The dunnage (timber pieces used to wedge cargo in place) had not been secured and were scattered all over the ship's cargo holds. It took the crew most of the day to clear the holds, but they finally "took a field hospital unit and some troops aboard, and sailed for Normandy at nightfall on D-Day." (5)

By mid-morning on 7 June 1944, the Thomas Wolfe was anchored off Utah Beach. As troops and supplies were unloaded onto landing craft, the beachhead was "a swarm of activity," Willey recalls, and he says, "Action could be seen everywhere. The Germans had 88 millimeter cannons set in heavy concrete pillboxes at high-tide level. In the afternoon when the sun was low and we were silhouetted against the horizon, they would open up on us." He adds: "whenever the shells began to land close," the crew would move the ship's anchorage. During its service in Europe the Thomas Wolfe was, in fact, attacked many times, but, Willey says, "the closest we ever came to being hit was when our barrage balloon was shot down." (6)

After this first trip across the channel, the ship returned to England for more troops and equipment and this time sailed for Omaha Beach. Willey reports: "Unlike Utah, Omaha had an extensive artificial harbor made of sunken ships and those strange-looking concrete barges called Mulberries.... This harbor had been built in a matter of hours on D-Day." The Thomas Wolfe made several trips back and forth carrying "troops, trucks, tanks, road-building equipment and who-knows-what," Willey says. "We also ferried General Patton's famous Red Ball Express, which gave us priority over other ships in loading and unloading."7

The "Unit History" of the Forty-eighth Armored Infantry Battalion (previously secret material that is now available online) describes the mission of the Thomas Wolfe during one of those channel crossings in August:
   The 48th Armored Infantry Battalion, a unit of the
   7th Armored Division ... moved out from Tidworth Barracks,
   Hants, England, at 0900 on the morning of Monday,
   7 August 44, for the Southampton Marshalling Area
   in preparation for embarking for France....

   The move to Southampton was made without incident
   and the unit closed into its area camps in the early
   afternoon of the 7th.

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Shortly after midnight on the morning of Tuesday
the 8th, the companies were alerted and moved to the
Southampton docks for loading. Battalion Headquarters,
Headquarters Company and "A" Company loaded
on the Liberty Ship "Thomas Wolfe" and "B" and "C"
Companies loaded on the Liberty Ship "Josiah L.
Parker." Other elements of the Division were also on
these vessels. Loading of all vehicles was completed
during the day and the men went aboard after supper.
At that time both ships dropped down the Solent to an
anchorage near the Isle of Wight where the convoy was
to form.

Early the morning of 9 August the convoy sailed
and arrived at its destination off Rhino Beach (one of
the "D" day landings was made here and the beach then
was code-designated as "Utah"), near the base of the
Cherbourg Peninsula.

Unloading did not begin until the morning of the
10th. It continued until late in the day. As the elements
landed, they moved, under the command of the Executive
Officer, to a division assembly area some 30 miles
inland beyond Ste. Mere Eglise, scene of one of the
worst engagements in the early days of the Invasion.

The two Liberty Ships were finally emptied of the
48th men and vehicles late in the evening of the 11th tho
the major parts of "B" and "C" Companies did not reach
the assembly area until the evening of the 12th.... (8)


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Leonard Willey recalls the last cross-channel voyage of the Thomas Wolfe on 21 March 1945, which happened to be his birthday: "When I came on deck at noon, I saw five Liberty ships going down. They had all been hit in the stern by acoustic mines or torpedoes set off by the sound of their propellers." Three weeks later the ship was headed back to the United States when news of President Roosevelt's death reached the crew. They, however, were already grieving for a lost crewman: "We had been numbed by the loss of a man the night before.... He had been washed overboard in heavy weather. It was difficult to let him go without a search, but in convoy there is no choice but to keep going," Willey says. "It was tough to lose a man by weather after going through so much action with no losses." (9)

On 16 March 1948 the SS Thomas Wolfe was laid up in the Beaumont Reserve Fleet in the Neches River near Beaumont, Texas. Sixteen years later, 17 December 1964, the ship was offered for sale as scrap. The Southern Scrap Materials Company of New Orleans was awarded the purchase with a bid of $47,779. On 31 March 1965 the ship left the Neches River and was towed to New Orleans. The Thomas Wolfe was scrapped that year.

Only two Liberty ships remain intact: the SS John Brown, berthed in Baltimore, and the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, in San Francisco. The latter was the only American ship of the original 6,939-ship U.S. armada to return to Normandy in 1994 for the fiftieth anniversary celebration of D-Day.

Acknowledgments

A special note of appreciation to William F. Hultgren of Erie, Pennsylvania. A veteran of World War II, Mr. Hultgren provided the photo of the Thomas Wolfe (page 107) from his collection of more than 2,500 Liberty ship photographs. Mr. Hultgren also provided valuable information about the history of the Thomas Wolfe.

Thanks also to James Mason of Anchorage, Alaska, who graciously granted permission for the use of photographs taken by his father, Capt. Herbert Mason, during the Allied invasion of Europe. More of Capt. Mason's photos can be seen at http:// www.pbase.com/zidar/world_war_two.

Editors' Note: Aldo P. Magi included a brief discussion of the Liberty ship Thomas Wolfe in "The Thomas Wolfe Memorials" (Thomas Wolfe Newsletter 3.1 [1979]: 19-28), on pages 25-26.

Notes

(1.) Thomas Wolfe, The Web and the Rock (New York: Harper, 1939) 427.

(2.) Thomas Wolfe, The Letters of Thomas Wolfe, ed. Elizabeth Nowell (New York: Scribner's, 1956) 736.

(3.) Thanks to Zoe Rhine, North Carolina Reference Desk, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina, for providing newspaper clippings of these reports.

(4.) From the Seafarers Log, Apr. 1994. Permission to quote the entirety of Red Campbell's interview was granted by Jordan Biscardo of the Seafarers International Union.

(5.) Gary Goettling, "World War II and the Tech Connection," Tech Topics 31.3 (1995), Georgia Tech Alumni Association, http:// gtalumni.org/Publications/techtopics/spr95/ww2.html (accessed 6 Sept. 2009). The interview with Leonard Willey is subtitled "Appointment on D-Day."

(6.) Goettling.

(7.) Goettling. The "Red Ball Express" (redball is a railroad term referring to priority freight) was the name given to the truck convoys that ran from the Normandy beaches to the front lines to supply Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army. This 24-hour-a-day operation, which began 25 August 1944 and continued into November, depended on the "courageous efforts of African-American truck drivers" (75% of the drivers were African Americans). See Gerry J. Gilmore, "'Red Ball Express' Supplied Patton's Drive toward Germany," American Forces Press Service, 1 Feb. 2007, http://www.defenselink.mil/news/ NewsArticle.aspx?ID=2900 (accessed 6 Sept. 2009).

(8.) After Action Reports of the 48th Armored Infantry Battalion (7th Armored Division), U.S. 7th Armored Division Association, http://www.7tharmddiv.org/docrep/N-48-AAR.doc (accessed 6 Sept. 2009). This material was transcribed from the original documents in Box 15708 of Record Group 407 (Adjutant General's Office) at National Archives II in College Park, Maryland, by Charles Barry, veteran of Company "B"; Barry A. Wells, son-in-law of Maurice McCoy of Company "C," 40th Tank Battalion; and Wesley Johnston, son of Walter Johnston of Company "B," 38th Armored Infantry Battalion. The transcriptions were edited by Wesley Johnston.

(9.) Goettling.
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Author:D'Andrea, Rena
Publication:Thomas Wolfe Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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