… by  Jim W. Dean, VT Editor

[ Editor’s Note: Below is the 2015 republished version of this tragedy. Over the years, I have run this 7 or 8 times, and have found a 7 families and living veterans who were in the convoy of the SS Paul Hamilton.

Last year generated only one new contact. But I will always have the memories. One brother and sister were researching a grandfather’s brother and typed in a Google search for “KIA, April 20th, 1944” and my article popped up.

A Coast Guard photographer on one of the convoy ships took a photo a few seconds after a torpedo bomber had hit the Paul Hamilton in a dusk attack. All 505 aboard were killed instantly. Only two bodies were recovered, although parts of bodies rained down on nearby ships.

The families of the lost servicemen had never been told the details of what had happened to the ship, as our government had classified it for 50 years to avoid having to explain why troops were being shipped on un-armored ammunition ships.

The witnesses included a radio operator on one of the ships, who revealed for the first time that the German torpedo planes attacking at dust from the Algiers coast were mis-identified as “friendlies”, which caused the destroyer screen to hold fire as the planes flew by them.

The 500+ aboard the SS Paul Hamilton had only moments to live – it was the first ship struck. Death was instant for all, with the aerial torpedo touching off the 6000 tons of explosives aboard. Maybe this year we can find another familyJD ]

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The last of the SS Paul Hamilton convoy survivors and spouses are passing away. I buried mother in Arlington on Oct. 24th, 2017. SSgt. Leon’ Miller was her first husband, married at 16, KIA on the Hamilton. She had gotten him a memorial grave in Arlington, an arduous task, which required Ted Kennedy’s help, but that qualified her for burial, where she ended up about a 100 yards from my brother. As fate would have it, Katherine Kelly and I are alumni of Berkshire School in Western Mass. She is the youngest and the first female superintendent of Arlington. She made a gracious schedule adjustment for this photo with mother’s three flags, for two husbands and a son.

– The 2015 edition –

Note: Some photos and YouTubes are missing below due to the archive compacting that had to be done after the major hacking in early 2017. Flooding the site with thousands of searches that had to go through our huge archive file was our weak point.

Chuck Wales, blacksmithing in his 90’s. His USS Lansdale was torpedoed and sunk, where he spent three hours in the dark water before luckily being found.

Dear VT Readers, This is a family indulgence, republishing this SS Paul Hamilton disaster every April.

Today is the 5th year. Mother, who was a 16-year-old WWII widow, will be 88 in June, and each time we have connected with a veteran who was in the convoy attacked, or family members who lost an ancestor, except for last year, which was a zero. I hope for better luck this time.

There are not words to describe the satisfaction of being contacted out of the blue by a family member, where all they had to go on was KIA, April 20th, Mediterranean theater, and up pops my VT article where they can then contact me.

When I see “SS Paul Hamilton” in the subject line, it is always goose bump time. It is the combined miracle of Al Gore inventing the Internet (that is a joke), and VT existing that these hook ups are made.

And, as the widow of a navy seaman in the convoy had shared with me every piece of archival reporting they had gotten from several trips while Helen Jones’ husband was alive, I pass them on to the next family. This is just one of many stories of VT, what we do, how, and why we do it… the lost stories… the forgotten victims.


SS Paul Hamilton – the Largest loss of lives on a Liberty Ship during WWII

Mother meets eye witness former Navy Lt. Chuck Wales, sunk in the same convoy attack and who saw the Hamilton explode. I arranged for him to meet her with a Berkshire Eagle reporter as a surprise birthday gift.

On this day, April 20th, 1944, the largest loss of life on a WWII Liberty ship took place when the SS Paul Hamilton was sunk with all hands. But these men were killed not once, but twice.

Yes, the German Junkers torpedo bombers did their work. But as their various body parts rained down on the nearby ships of the convoy, no one knew then that details of the incident would be classified for 50 years.

All the families of these men would ever be told, for that whole time, was…”Missing in action, presumed dead, Mediterranean Theater.” I have a complete alphabetical KIA roster link below.

Why, do you ask? The brass did not want to face the families with explaining to them why they had loaded a troop ship with 7000 tons of explosives and munitions.

My mother had married Sgt Leon Miller only about four months prior. He was in the Army Air Corp…photo intelligence, and has assured her he would be behind the lines. When the door bell rang she saw a young boy in a Western Union uniform standing with a telegram.

In those days you would rather see the devil himself. It still had not hit her yet until he said the magic words…”Are you Mrs. Leon Miller?” Everything…at that moment… changed forever. She was sixteen years old.

Denial is often the survival instinct for these telegram moments. She refused to accept it. She did the best she could to push the grim reaper away, in an impressive way for a young lady,

“I am sure there is some mistake. My husband has not even gotten over there yet.” The young boy had been trained well, and he did his job. He read the address to her and asked if it were correct, then again asked her again if she was Mrs Leon Miller.

And then he stretched out his hand and said, “I’m very sorry.” He had done this many times before. She had not.

Stage two of denial now enters. The young widow sees the only avenue open to her not have this really happen is to still not accept the telegram. She insisted that he go back to the office and double check …she was sure the mistake would be discovered.

The young boy, seeming unhappy that he had failed to do his job, left. If he could have shown her the lead photo of the Hamilton going up, she would have taken the telegram. But mother never saw it…until last year.

The sixty two ships of convoy UGS 38 were off the coast of Algiers on the fateful evening. The SS Paul Hamilton was headed for the Anzio bridge head which was surrounded by strong German forces.

Our troops were so hard pressed that many of the 504 Army Air Corp men aboard had been retrained in mine demolition work for the planned break out.

For more efficient shipping logistics the brass had decided to keep the men and their 7000 tons of explosives together in the same unarmored ship, where one hot tracer round could blow them all to smithereens.

Convoys were well protected by that time in the war. The Luftwaffe was no longer attacking them during the day because they would lose too many planes.

Their main tactic was the low level torpedo bombing attack timed to strike just after the sun went down. They came in from the coast, using the mountains to hide their radar detection for as long as possible.

The picket ships finally picked them up and reported the incoming attack but there were communications complications and most ships found out when the shooting started.

The convoy was already at general quarters as standard procedure. There is not much for those on a troopship to do in a situation like this. They are literally along for ride in a game of high stakes roulette.

Every man on the Hamilton knew that if they were hit no life boats would be necessary. They did not have to suffer a long wait. They were the first hit.

As the planes closed on the ships in the post sunset darkness flares were reported being dropped by higher altitude German planes which helped the helped the torpedo bombers pick out ships to make their runs. But the convoy commander’s official report has no mention of flares.

Although the first wave of planes attacked the convoy head on, the destroyers in front never opened fire on them. I can only surmise they could not see them in the dark and the planes were by them before they could shoot.

A witness on a ship near the Paul Hamilton reported that an alert gunner fired a burst at a crossing plane, which then focused in on the gunner’s tracers.

This was actually against firing protocol where the armed freighters were only supposed to fire on planes making an attack run on them, so their tracer fire would not expose them in the darkness. The fate of the Hamilton was sealed.

As the plane bore in all the guns the Hamilton could bring to bear blasted away. When the plane did not go down, the gunners knew what that meant…incoming torpedo. If you look at this larger photo you will see all the extra gun tubs mounted fore and aft and amidships to give them a fighting chance.

The Coast Guard destroyer escort Menges was screening the the column that the Hamilton was in, a bit behind it.

Combat cameraman Art Green was at his battle station on the fantail where he had a panoramic view.  His eyes were drawn to the outgoing fire from the nearby ships, and straining to see any planes in the darken twilight. Suddenly, the sky turned from night to day.

The flash stunned everyone. When Green’s eyes reopened he watched the mushroom cloud rise up from what had been the SS Paul Hamilton, and snapped his famous shot.

Within a month the photo was being used for war propaganda in American papers and magazines as an example of the risks and carnage involved in getting supplies to the front.

Green recounted that the Hamilton explosion lasted six to seven seconds and then everything went dark again. More explosions were heard as four more ships were struck. Some of the torpedoes that missed their targets and exploded at the end of their runs were mistakenly reported as bombs.

The destroyer Lansdale was sunk, and the damaged Royal Star sank the next day. Both the damaged Samite M/V and Stephen F. Austen M/V were successfully towed to Algiers. Green saw one plane go down.

The gunfire tapered off as the convoy continued on its course into the quiet night with the rear screening destroyers and tug boat assisting the damaged and sinking ships. ****

The door bell rang again. The young widow had gathered Leon’s brother and wife from their work. The wife went to the door. Words were mumbled, and she returned to the living room to inform,

“He says he has to deliver it to you only.” The denial time was over.

Mother went to the door. The young boy, more tense this time, stretched out his arm with the telegram and said, “There’s been no mistake. I’m very sorry.” She remembers to this day,

“He had a very sad look on his face…so sad. I felt sorry for him.” The telegram was hers now. She handed it to the brother and soon heard the next worst sentence in WWII, ‘”The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you….”

Only two bodies were recovered and are buried at the Allied cemetery in Algiers. They were identified through fingerprints so those two families had some closure.

A search for any survivors went on for two days, the search for bodies for a week. The photo and attack reports were flown back to Washington.The brass knew there were no survivors on the Hamilton. They had the photo of what can happen with their hybrid troop and ammo ships.

The ‘missing in action’ first telegram was followed by the second, adding …’presumed dead’. Later followed the obligatory condolence cards from Secretary Marshall, President Roosevelt, and a Purple Heart. And that was that…until 1995.

No apologies or explanations were ever forthcoming as to why the whole 50 year classification period was allowed to run. Many of the parents of these KIAs passed away never knowing exactly how their sons died.

I personally feel it was an act of governmental cruelty to do this. It served no other purpose than to have fewer living parents alive to make a stink over it. Mother had said the government did offer transportation to Algiers and a boat ride out to the site for a wreath laying at sea.

I have no idea if anyone has ever done this, the dead parents certainly not. Mother never mentioned going. I never asked why, not being sure it would be anything more than driving another stake into her heart.

By that time she had collected her third flag in 2004, burying a son, an Army Ranger Colonel, from Agent Orange related causes. She and I did a ceremony for Sgt. Miller the next day in an area of Arlington for stones with no bodies.

It was a beautiful setting, filtered light, and the Arlington Honor Guards are a memorable experience which I will share with you below. This was the first shoot I did with my new JVC5100 TV camera.

These young soldiers teared up when I told them the story that she was getting this done after waiting sixty years. I was proud of her…two Arlington ceremonies back to back.

Make sure you click on 480p for the best resolution. You are watching the most beautiful flag folding footage that I have, and I have a lot.

Note: Below is a video clip of the ceremony for Sgt. Miller for my mother that we were able to set up for the day after we buried by brother with the full blown horse drawn wagon and honor guard. I had beautiful filtered light. Eventually I will get the top quality full version up. This was my first use of my new JVC 5100, my first real TV camera purchase, about what a good used car cost back then. Mother and I were the only attendees, with everyone else doing the tourist thing even though this ceremony took ten minutes. ]

Mother was a shell for the next five years. An Algeria trip was definitely not in the cards. But I did send her a copy of my high resolution photo. You can see tracer fire from one plane’s tail gunner, crazy to be exposing their position the the convoy gunners.

I met Helen Jones online, the widow of a destroyer seaman on the convoy. They had made several trips to the archives to get all of the declassified records records. Her computer literate children put it all on a CD for me…every name, every captain’s report, even the gunner station reports including the rounds that they fired.

They include the word for word radio transcripts of the rescue operations. I am eternally grateful to Helen and her family. I had trouble getting the 100 plus page file to load, but leave me a note in the comments and I will be sure to let you know when that is fixed.

Mother and her VA rep Al Adams did get a copy of most of the Hamilton file following the declassification, but somehow the photo was among the missing.

Next up to share his retrospective is eye witness Merchant Marine seaman Howard Morseburg who was in the convoy.

This is the only personal witness video I have found on the Net, so a big salute to Howard for honoring his mates. He has a big punchline at the end. Don’t miss it, another story in itself.

So there you have it from Howard. The merchant seamen got a triple shafting. Allow me to add another indignity to the list. All the service men KIA families got $10,000 of GI life insurance.

The merchant marine families got $5000. Isn’t that special. Widow’s benefits…zero…kids?…zip.

Howard did not seem bitter. He just wanted it on the record. I will have to see if old Howard is still around. For this last video I wanted to put you in the seat of the German bombers, even though it is day time, to see some actual footage of such a torpedo attack going in on a convoy.

What struck me right away is they seemed to dropping them almost like bombs, and from long distances where it seems like a wish and a prayer to hit anything.

From Naval archives…the ship dispositions before the attack

**

Chuck Wales ran a website for a while on the Hamilton where he found these family members.

580 men die as SS Paul Hamilton explodes

34 thoughts on “580 men die as SS Paul Hamilton explodes”

  1. John Burnssays:

    In memory of Worth B. Burns of Lee County, NC. He was an “oiler” on the Paul Hamilton.

  2. Mary Hillsays:

    My uncle Charles J Spalek was an officer on the SS Paul Hamilton. He was my mother’s only brother and I never knew him.

  3. Mary Hillsays:

    My uncle that I never knew was on the SS Paul Hamilton. He was Charles J. Spalek and he was my mother’s brother. My grandparents had 5 girls and Charles (Chuck) was their only son. He joined the the Navy in l942 and was a commissioned officer. He came home on leave and then had to get on a train for a base in Virginia. He left on his birthday, St Patrick’s day, and when my folks dropped him off at the depot it was the last they would see of him. His wife Josie never remarried. I believe she always hoped he was still alive and would some day come home.,

  4. Steve Perduesays:

    My mothers brother,( an uncle I never knew), was on the Paul Hamilton.His name was William Weaver from Roanoke Va. She had 3 other brothers in the war. Two in the South Pacific and one in Europe . My fathers only brother also William, another uncle I never knew, was killed on D-Day. He was in Co A 116th reg. famously known as the Bedford Boys, although he too was from Roanoke. Don’t expect any additional info on moms brother. Just wanted to post a comment on these 2 brave Americans whom I’m proud to call my kin.

  5. Yvonne Splettstoesersays:

    My husband’s uncle, 2nd Lt George Wilbur Spletstoser was in the Army Air Force, 32nd Photo Recon Group, when he was killed aboard the SS Paul Hamilton in April 1944. He was only 21 years old, born in Wausau, Wisconsin. My mother in law said that the family never were told what really happened to him, and because no body was recovered, they continued to hold out hope that he might be still alive. I remember she said even into the 1970s that his brother would talk about the possibility that he might be MIA somewhere. They all died before the Freedom of Information Act revealed the truth. So very sad.

  6. ROSANNA GONZALEZsays:

    6 January 2019
    Edward Menefee Watkins, Jr. (cousin to my mother who is now 91) graduated on 1 June 1943 from the United States Military Academy –West Point, NY. He was on the USS Paul Hamilton and killed with all these other young men. I have tried to locate distant relatives but, no luck over the past years. I was made aware of this explosion in 2009 and started my own investigation but, very little was available. When this article was first released I thanked the author for his due diligence and FOIA. In April of this year, this will mark 75 years when this incident occurred. God Bless America and God Bless our soldiers. Lets never forget. Thank you.

  7. Lesle Dodgesays:

    My grandfather Oren Hudgens was on the USS Paul Hamilton in the Army Air Corp photo recon squadron. Many of the records were destroyed int he military personnel fire in the 1970s, but someone must have photos of this unit, or miscellaneous photos. If you have any photos of your relatives with other servicemen in the recon unit, please email them to me. I’m hoping to find my grandfather. Thank you!

  8. Larry Thomlinsonsays:

    My father, Master Sargent, Ronald E. Thomlinson, age 34, was killed on the USS Paul Hamilton Liberty ship. I was 22months old at the time, with no brothers or sisters. My mother, Lois Thomlinson, never remarried. Became one of the few women who helped break the class-ceiling for women in Oklahoma. My memories are through 100’s of photographs garnered before he enlisted through the National Guard of Oklahoma, and pictures of his and my mothers wedding and their life together. My mother never got over the loss of my father.

    Larry Ronald Thomlinson

  9. Terrence Coadysays:

    My father, Lt Maurice Coady from Coral Michigan, was in a photo unit scheduled to travel across on the Paul Hamilton but due to overcrowding was transferred at the last minute with a few others to a destroyer. Lucky for him. He is 100 yrs old now and remembers it well.

  10. Lee Watkinssays:

    The son of close family friends was with the 32nd Photo Squadron on the SS Hamilton. His name…Harvey M. Maguet from Michigan.

  11. louis f. zamorasays:

    my brother santiago f. zamora was on the uss hamilton that fateful day of april 20, 1944. the military reported him as died at sea, body unrecoverable. his name is on the tables of the dead in tunisia.

  12. ARLEN C MATSONsays:

    So we too lost our cousin, Willard Luba, a 2nd lieutenant in this bombing scenario off the coast of Algeria on April 20, 1944. We need to somehow find the passenger list to discover which ship he was on, but so far we have not found one. After 50 years of classified silence, it is amazing that we are just now finding out more details online. Does anyone know where we can find the manifest listing of passengers?

  13. MONICA L. BOYER-COXsays:

    My grandfather was on the USS Paul Hamilton when it sank. My father was 1 1/2 years old at the time of his death. His name was PVT 1st Class William G. R. Boyer,
    U. S. Army Air Forces, 228th Medical Dispensary, Aviation. He was listed as Lost at Sea. I’ve tried to get personnel info for him, but it was destroyed in a fire at the records building.

  14. John Marvin Young IIsays:

    My dad, John Marvin Young, born in Montgomery, TX and died on the SS Paul Hamilton. He was an Army Air Corp recon pilot on his way to N. Africa.

    He trained lots of pilots in the states before being deployed for the first time. I was 1 year old, 4 days after that horrific strike.

    His mom, dad were devastated after loosing a 2nd son with only a grandson left in the world, they became my rock and I a joy to them.

    So, many gave their lives fighting the Nazi’s but the reality is so many deaths on both sides that effect generations of children and their children. War is truly hell.

  15. Trishasays:

    My hubbys mom, her father died on the SS Hamilton. He was 43rd photographer. I just created a site on ancestry and found out all his info and ship he was on. He was only 18 when he enlisted and one year later sunk on the USS Hamilton off Tunisia and found out his gravesite is there. His grandma got the Purple Heart for him. She was barely married to him when he died and she had a newborn baby girl. His name was John Bode and his daughter still alive is Sheila Bode-Clark. He was a very bright Man with a BIG FAMILY AND Christian upbringing. Sad story. Thank you men for fighting for our country! Thank you James Giblin for your story!

  16. Lynn A Resseguiesays:

    My wife’s uncle was on the USS Paul Hamilton when it sank, His name Frank Klinger was from East Tawas Mi. He was in the Army. Rest in Peace and God Bless you for your service.

    Thank you

  17. Melody Burkholdersays:

    The youngest brother of my husband’s great grandmother Zelda Lange Krebs was Pvt Jere H Lange, 32nd Photo Squadron, 5th Recon Group… I am certain (since we have the documents left by his mother, that no one in the family EVER knew what happened to Jere. He was one of those lost aboard Paul Hamilton that day.

  18. Mike Dageysays:

    My father was a radioman from Indianapolis on the Landsdale when it sunk in April 1944. He survived to serve on the USS Purdy and almost one year later, that ship was crippled in the South Pacific by a Japanese Kamikazi. He was very fortunate to have survived those scary attacks.

  19. Robynsays:

    My Dad’s best friend, Spencer T. Gill, was died the night that the USS Lansdale was sunk. He was an only child. I am gathering information for the Historical Society of my hometown, Oakfield, NY. If anyone recalls Spence, please contact me at [email protected]

  20. Tracy Thompsonsays:

    My maternal grandmother’s brother, Baustic Hall, was on board the Hamilton. He was a member of the Air Corps photographic squadron. I don’t think that her or her mother were ever the same afterward and I know that they did not know the whole story.

  21. Tim Griffinsays:

    My Wife’s Great Uncle was on the Hamilton as a Photographer. We have plaques and the Purple Heart award he received. “Not for fame or reward, not for place or for rank, not lured by ambition or goaded by necessity, but in simple obedience to duty as they understood it. They suffered all, sacrificed all, dared all, and died.”

  22. Allen Bakersays:

    My father, Edward A Baker was the Chief Engineer aboard the Hamilton.

  23. James R. Giblinsays:

    I was on the S.S. Stephen F. Austin,Liberty Ship,that was torpedoed but did not sink. We were hit on the stbd. side between #1 and #3 hatches. The ship went down forward to the anchors and lifted the propeller out of the water. We were towed into the port of Algiers for unloading and repairs. I was an O.S.,Ordinary Seaman at this time. I continued to follow the sea after the War and rose to be a Master Mariner,Captain,I sailed mostley tankers and retired as Master of The 50,000 gross ton tanker Mount Washington. I kept a diary of my time on board various ships during WW11,starting when I was l8 yrs old. I’m 91 now but still can recall my earlier years of sailing. Glad to hear from any one about this expierience., Capt. J.R.Giblin at [email protected].

  24. George Fritzelsays:

    I was a Radio Tech 2nd class and in charge of the Glide bomb equipment on the Lansdale ..We monitored radio frequencies used by the Germans to direct the glide bombs — and could jam them if found ;there were no glide bombs used in this attack — the ships were all hit by aerial launched torpedoes as pointed out by Officer Chuck Wales above

  25. admsays:

    My great-Uncle: U.S. Army Air Forces, 831st Bomber Squadron, 485th Bomber Group, Heavy. He was onboard and killed on the USS Paul Hamilton. He was a tail gunner on a B-24.

  26. Martin P. Edinoffsays:

    My Father in Laws older brother was killed on the Paul Hamilton when it was blown up. He was part of the photographic unit in the air corp.

  27. Martin P. Edinoffsays:

    My Father in Laws Brother was killed on the Paul Hamilton, he was in the air corp as part of the photographic unit.
    His name was Martin Pedinoff

  28. Rosanna Draeger Gonzalezsays:

    21 April 2015
    My mother is 87 years old. Her cousin, Edward Menefee Watkins was a West Point graduate. He was on the SS Paul Hamilton on 20 April 1944. I am trying to still locate relatives of his family. I am hoping his sister Jolee reads this message.
    Please lets not forget all these brave men. GOD BLESS AMERICA.

  29. Sharyn schoepke bowersays:

    My father was killed on the Paul Hamilton. My mother was pregnant for me at the time. How sad! His name was Kermit edsel schoepke. He was merchant mariner.

  30. Editorsays:

    Charles C. Wales

    Very many thanks for adding that extra detail.

    Martin

  31. Charles C. Walessays:

    I was an officer in Lansdale when it was sunk. The Germans had apparently figured out that we had jamming gear for the radio controlled glider bombs, and so attacked entirely with aerial torpedoes that night.

  32. ccgsays:

    In retrospect, was it a bad idea to have that many troops on a ship loaded with ammo?

  33. ccgsays:

    One place it says the ship was torpedoed, another it was hit by a glider bomb (rocket?). Which was it?

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Jim W. Dean is Managing Editor of Veterans Today involved in operations, development, and writing, plus an active schedule of TV and radio interviews. Read Full Complete Bio >>>

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Good news. I have a contact from a guy in Norway tonight who says he thinks he knows someone in the convoy there that died a year or two ago because the stories sounded similar, something about a ship that blew up beside his. Also, sorry about the link. I am running that down with the webmaster as it might be on one on the archives backups. We do not have them all online as searching ties up too much server resources. Our enemies exploited that by creating programs to flood the site with search request and crash the server at the data center. Thanks for the new link Dave. This is why we do the comment boards. It takes a village.

    • One of the few unifying humanitarian aspects of the social construct known as military, is we do not leave people behind. The comments from the relatives are priceless in that regard. I was shocked the Navy site has no mention of this, if you search USS Paul Hamilton. The name of the ship should have been retired, imho, with a sculpture in Arlington.
      We can see people are affected for generations, by not knowing. Its heart wrenching.

    • Dave, The SS Paul Hamilton was a merchant marine ship, so not listed under Navy stats. The gunners (armed guards) were a special group trained to handle the guns on the transport ships. The Navy tie in due to its ships that were escorting and screening and Chuck Wales USS Lansdale being sunk. Chuck was lucky as he had depth charge duty above deck and was able to get off the back of the ship as it went down. Engine room people had unpleasant deaths in these events.

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