Thursday, April 20, 1944, was a day of sacrifice for three former members of the 123d Observation Squadron/35th Photo Recon Squadron. The day began as any other for Airmen serving their country in a time of war, but like all too many of them, it ended somberly.

Plying the waters of the eastern Mediterranean Sea was the American Liberty ship SS Paul Hamilton, which formed part of convoy UGS-38, a large slow eastward-bound convoy of 105 ships and 21 escorts which had departed Hampton Roads, Virginia on 3 Apr 1944.

The SS Paul Hamilton, named after the third Secretary of the Navy, was one of over 2,700 Liberty Ships built in the U.S. between 1941 and 1945.  She was on her fifth voyage as part of convoy UGS-38 on 20 April 1944. (Source:  “SS Paul Hamilton” entry on Wikipedia)

The SS Paul Hamilton, named after the third Secretary of the Navy, was one of over 2,700 Liberty Ships built in the U.S. between 1941 and 1945. She was on her fifth voyage as part of convoy UGS-38 on 20 April 1944. (Source: “SS Paul Hamilton” entry on Wikipedia)

Aboard the Paul Hamilton were three of the original members of the Oregon National Guard’s first aviation unit, the 123d Observation Squadron: M/Sgt Bruce C. Green, T/Sgt Albert R. Miller, and S/Sgt Leonard W. Mayer. The men were transferred from the 123d earlier in the war to help form a new air unit, the 32d Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, and were headed for duty in Italy with this unit. At this point in the war, most of the original 100+ members of the 123d Obs Sqn had been transferred to other units as part of the massive buildup of the Army Air Forces. By the time the 35th Photo Recon Squadron shipped out for overseas duty, only about 10% of the original 123d members remained in the squadron.

Meanwhile, as the Paul Hamilton and the rest of UGS-38 sailed eastward, a German reconnaissance aircraft based in southern France spotted it, and the German Luftwaffe prepared to make an air attack against it. Such an attack was not unexpected, as other prior convoys in the region had experienced air attacks from German bombers based in France. But as the Paul Hamilton sailed on the inner side of the convoy, which one might believe she would be safer than being aboard another vessel on the outer edge of the group.

As dusk came over the eastern Mediterranean Sea, German torpedo-bombers made their approach against the convoy. They skillfully made their way across the Mediterranean from France to landfall over North Africa, then turned westward and approached the convoy at low level from land. Allied radar operators on land and at sea had trouble detecting and/or tracking the aircraft, which made it nigh unto impossible to provide effective fighter direction for the aircraft tasked to cover the convoy. Visual lookout on the ships was impaired as dusk turned to dark.

A German Junkers Ju-88A-17 bomber of KG77, the kind which attacked UGS-38 on the night of 20 April 1944.  (Source:  The Luftwaffe Blog)

A German Junkers Ju-88A-17 bomber of KG77, the kind which attacked UGS-38 on the night of 20 April 1944. (Source: The Luftwaffe Blog)

Suddenly, three waves of enemy aircraft hit the convoy off the coast of Cape Bengut, Algeria. A Junkers Ju-88 torpedo-bomber in the first wave aimed and dropped an aerial torpedo at the Paul Hamilton and hit the ship at 2105 hours local time. The Liberty ship erupted in a series of violent explosions as its cargo of explosives detonated. All aboard, 580 men, including three original members of the 123d Observation Squadron, perished in the catastrophic blasts, which briefly turned night into day.

The tragic loss of the Paul Hamilton and all souls aboard happened in a matter of seconds when the explosives and troop-laden vessel was struck by a German aerial torpedo on the evening of 20 April 1944 off the coast of North Africa.  (Source:  “SS Paul Hamilton” entry on Wikipedia)

The tragic loss of the Paul Hamilton and all souls aboard happened in a matter of seconds when the explosives and troop-laden vessel was struck by a German aerial torpedo on the evening of 20 April 1944 off the coast of North Africa. (Source: “SS Paul Hamilton” entry on Wikipedia)

Five hundred and four Army Air Corps Airmen were lost on The Paul Hamilton. The bulk of the 32d Photo Recon Squadron (a handful were on another ship in the convoy), 317 men, was wiped out, as well as 154 men of the 831st Bomb Squadron (Heavy). Also lost were 29 Naval Armed Guards manning the ship’s guns and 47 Merchant Mariners. It was one of the worst U.S. losses at sea during WWII. Only one body was recovered from the sinking. Two other ships were sunk by this attack with two more damaged.

“They Died Together; The Vagaries of War,” YouTube video posting at: “They Died Together; The Vagaries of War”

The three NCOs, Bruce Green, Albert Miller and Leonard Mayer, were the first combat losses of 123d Observation Squadron members in the war. They and the others of the Paul Hamilton are remembered on the Tablets of the Missing at the North Africa American Cemetery in Carthage, Tunisia.

Those lost on the SS Paul Hamilton are remembered on the Tablets of the Missing at the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial, a 27-acre cemetery located at Carthage, Tunisia, where 2,841 United States military casualties are interred.  (Source:  WW2 talk forum and Wikipedia)

Those lost on the SS Paul Hamilton are remembered on the Tablets of the Missing at the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial, a 27-acre cemetery located at Carthage, Tunisia, where 2,841 United States military casualties are interred. (Source: WW2 talk forum and Wikipedia)

So on this Easter Sunday, 2014, 70 years after the loss of these three brave Airmen in the Mediterranean theater of operations, let us remember their service and sacrifice for our freedom. They were the first Airmen with a connection to the 123d Observation Squadron/35th Photo Recon Squadron to be killed in action, but sadly, they weren’t to be the last. The upcoming Memorial Day will be a great opportunity for us to remember and honor them all.

References:

Dean, Jim W., “One Torpedo – 580 men – 7000 tons of Explosives,”(with link to roster of personnel lost aboard SS Paul Hamilton) at: http://www.veteranstoday.com/2011/04/20/one-torpedo-580-men-7000-tons-of-explosives/

“They Died Together; The Vagaries of War,” YouTube video posting at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3H0684L6910

SS Paul Hamilton entry on Wikipedia at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Paul_Hamilton

Wales, Charles C., “TIME LINE OF ATTACK ON CONVOY UGS 38, AND SINKING OF USS LANSDALE DD426, 20 APRIL 1944, at: http://home.roadrunner.com/~cwales/Time%20Line%20html.html

Arnold Hague Convoy Database, UGS Convoy Series, UGS-38 vessel listing, at: http://www.convoyweb.org.uk/ugs/index.html?ugs.php?convoy=38!~ugsmain

FalkeEins, The Luftwaffe Blog, “Ju 88 torpedo bombers in the Med,” at: http://falkeeins.blogspot.com/2013/11/ju-88-torpedobomber-im-mittelmeerraum.html

Unbound Frogs, Forum De L’Escadrille, “Axis Torpedo Bombers,” at: http://www.unbound-frogs.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=14&t=86

Luftwaffe and Allied Air Forces Discussion Forum, “Luftwaffe Losses 20 April 1044,” at: http://forum.12oclockhigh.net/archive/index.php?t-33819.html

Army Air Force of World War II, Discussion Thread “Highest 1 Day Losses AAF Personnel?” at: http://forum.armyairforces.com/Highest-1-Day-Losses-AAF-Personnel-m238942.aspx

Discussion Forum, Looking for a Memorial in Algeria, at: http://ww2talk.com/forums/topic/25949-looking-for-a-memorial-in-algeria/

831st Bomb Squadron (Heavy), Wikipedia entry at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/831st_Bombardment_Squadron

North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial, Wikipedia entry at:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Africa_American_Cemetery_and_Memorial

 

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