Don Meissner



Donald K Meissner






Presentation of information and pictures furnished to us by Donald K Meissner. Don served aboard the SS Lyman Abbott and was wounded in Bari, Italy. He and his lovely wife now reside in Cumberland, Virginia.








Picture of Don and Betty Meissner.











                         The Disaster at Bari

There were twenty-eight of us that manned the guns on the
S.S. Lyman Abbott. We also had a battery Officer, Radioman,
Signalman, and Coxswain. The Lyman Abbott had just been
constructed and secured to a dock in Providence, R.I.

I boarded her in June, 1943. We proceeded to Boston, Mass.
where we began to take on supplies. It took about two weeks
to load and secure the cargo. We left Boston and proceeded
to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and dropped anchor in its harbor.

The weather was beautiful and the water in the harbor looked
good for a swim. Several of us jumped off the ship, but
found that swimming was not for us as the water was like
ice. I learned that even in July, the water in Halifax
harbor was not for swimming. After about five days in
Halifax, we left the harbor and rendezvoused with one
hundred ships, and formed a convoy heading for England via
the North Atlantic. I hated the North Atlantic. It was cold,
stormy, foggy, and was home for the German submarines.

We were escorted by British Corvettes. They were a small
warship, but were quite seaworthy and good at throwing
depthcharges. On one occasion, we were under a submarine
attack. I saw ships both port and starboard taking hits.

The corvettes would go between the ships dropping
depthcharges. Later on we got a signal that the submarine
had been sunk. We proceeded to a position of about 30W. and
60N. We then cut East toward England and dropped down
between Londonderry, Ireland and Prestwick, England. We
secured our ship to a dock in Liverpool, England.

Liverpool looked as if it had been bombed many times. Many
of the buildings in the city were demolished. Some of them
looked OK; but if you looked inside them, there was nothing
there but a shell.

Every night the sirens would sound and you could hear the
German planes coming. You could also hear the English
Spitfires with their smooth running Rolls-Royce engines
going up to challenge them.

In the ten days we were there, they never dropped a bomb on
us or the docks. The British said there were four things
about us they didn't like: "We were overpaid, overfed,
oversexed, and over here".

The trip back home from England was uneventful. We docked in
Baltimore, Md. Our Hatches were converted from cargo to
personnel quarters. We were in Baltimore for thirty days
while they were doing the construction. We took on Army
troops, and some of the soldiers had a hard time walking up
the ramps because they carried all their gear which was
considerable. I felt sorry for them living below in those
crowded hatches.

An Army doctor asked me if it was safe to cross the ocean. I
told him that with all the destroyers we had escorting us,
no submarine would dare try anything. (Secretly, I knew
better.)

We had some rough weather going over, and some of the
soldiers got seasick. There is nothing worse than
seasickness. You think you are going to die and eventually
wish that you could. We also encountered some heavy fog
which can be very nerve-wracking. There are no running
lights and no horns. With a hundred ships in convoy, the
speed and course must be constant.

Our watch at sea was four hours on and four hours off.
During the four hours off, you were responsible for your gun
and your quarters. This does not allow much time for rest.
Before going on watch, I would head for the galley and tank
up on coffee.

When you are out there looking for a conning tower, the wake
of a torpedo, or enemy airplanes, you need to be as alert as
possible.

We finally saw the coast of Africa and were soon entering
the port of Cassablanca. In the port, I saw a French
battleship with just the upper part of it above water. The
French scuttled it before the Germans had a chance to
capture such a prize. We secured to a dock and put out a
ramp. The soldiers departed and their stay over there would
be permanent until the war was over.

Cassablanca was comprised of mostly French and Arabs.
Sanitation was not one of its priorities. We never went on
liberty alone, because some of the people would not hesitate
to kill you for a pair of shoes.

The Arab long-shoremen came aboard to unload our limited
amount of cargo. Their boss was the meanest looking man I
have ever seen. He carried a big, heavy stick which he would
use on the workers if they didn't do what he wanted. Some of
the workers would sit on the deck and remove some type of
critter from their hair and crack them with their
fingernails. I did not want them near my gun and would watch
them very carefully.

After two weeks, we headed back for the States. I did not
realize that my next trip would tax me beyond my endurance.
I was just glad to be going home. Our average speed was nine
knots. One knot equals one & 1/8 miles per hour. If we
encountered a heavy storm, our speed was considerably less
than average. It took between ten to fourteen days to cross
the Pond. That is a long time when people are out there
trying to sink your ship.

We arrived at the States and entered Port at night. It
always made me happy to see lights in homes, on cars, and
hear noises of a free people. They didn't know how lucky
they were.

Our next cargo was that of a very grave nature. Our hatches
on each side of the ship were loaded with wooden boxes
labeled "Chemicals", which I believe was mustard gas.
Sandwiched between the boxes were explosives. To live and
fight on a deck covering this type of cargo drastically cut
our chances for survival. One direct hit and there would be
nothing left of the ship or us. Some of the longshoremen
were complaining that they weren't being paid enough for
handling all those explosives. I was thinking that we were
going to transport and run the gauntlet with that stuff for
two bucks a day. Army trucks were loaded and secured to our
deck. Runways were built over the trucks. This would give us
a quick way to get to our guns.

We crossed the Pond in good time and went by the "Rock" and
were in the Mediterranean. Italy was our destination. Going
by the "Rock" always gave me an eerie feeling, as I felt
from this point on, the Germans knew we were coming.

We had smooth sailing all the way to the Adriatic. The
Mediterranean was always a "hot spot" for German planes, and
I was surprised that none came after us.

On December 2, 1943, we entered Bari Harbor. We anchored in
the middle of the harbor. We were disappointed that other
ships got to the docks first. All of us wanted to get rid of
our cargo as fast as possible. I counted about twenty four
ships in the harbor. I was on watch on the stern of the ship
and had my foul-weather gear on. It was quite cold, the sky
was clear, and there was no wind. Off our port bow were the
docks, and I could see several ships secured to them. Dead
ahead were some tankers, and off the starboard bow were some
more liberty ships. Directly to my starboard was an Italian
warship. It was larger than a Destroyer and smaller than a
Battleship. It must have been some type of a cruiser. The
sailors were leisurely walking on her decks, and I noticed
the bow was pointed out of the harbor. When I was relieved
from my watch, it was dark out. I went below to my quarters
and took my foul-weather gear off. All I had on was a
skivy-shirt, a pair of dungarees, and some light shoes. I
think we all heard them at the same time, as you can't miss
the sound of German bombers. I remember saying "The S.O.B.s.
are coming!" I stuffed cotton in my ears, put my helmet on,
and ran to my gun. There were no planes to shoot at as they
were staying above the flares which seemed to be staying in
the sky illuminating the harbor. The ships in the harbor
were an easy target for the bombers. We directed our fire
directly over the ship hoping this would keep the planes
from dropping a bomb directly on us.

Three bombs hit the water off our bow. The fourth one hit
off our stern. It hit so close the mud from the bottom of
the harbor struck me in the face. I know the ship came out
of the water because I felt it slap the surface when it came
back down. There was no need for the planes to use flares
now as the harbor was a blazing inferno. Suddenly, there was
a brilliant flash as if night had turned into day. Then a
thunderous explosion sent us sprawling to the deck whose
massive steel was vibrating as if to fall apart. It then
began to rain schrapnel on the deck and you could tell the
different sizes of it by the sound of impact.

When all the fury of the explosion subsided, there was a
deathly silence except for the moans and cries of the
wounded and dying. A lot of blood was coming out of my nose
and ears from the concussion, which also blew the shoes off
my feet.

One piece of schrapnel entered my mouth, went up through my
upper left jaw, fracturing it, and came out under my left
eye. I had intense pain under my lower left rib and found
that I couldn't put weight on my left leg. The Coxwain came
to my gun tub and said the Captain gave orders to abandon
ship.

I looked out at the harbor which was on fire, and survival
did not seem possible to me. When we headed for shore in the
life-boat, ships were exploding, bombs were still screaming
down, and there was fire everywhere. One of the ships was
riding high in the water and going astern. It's screw was
out of the water and was coming right at us. We managed to
get around it and I will never know how we got to shore.

I found myself on the ground above the shoreline trying to
figure out what that strange smell was. Two British soldiers
picked me up and carried me to a Jeep. One of them looked at
me and said, "We had a bit of a bloody time didn't we
sailor?". I didn't answer. They drove me to a British Army
Hospital and helped me get into a bed. A British nurse came
to help me and was wrapping my feet in a blanket when a bomb
hit close. She looked at me and said, "That was a bit close,
wasn't it sailor?". The bombs were still screaming down and
she said, "I never worry about that screaming because you
never hear the one that gets you." She brought me a small
dish of porridge and a "wee spot of tea". The British live
on tea. She brought me a new set of British Army issue
clothes and a pair of size 12 combat boots. I wear size 9.
The nurse said that my feet were so swollen she thought size
12 would be best. The doctor ordered my Navy clothes
discarded because of the mustard gas.

The next day, the doctor told me that I had a fractured jaw,
a ruptured spleen, and a slight fracture of the left leg.
They wired my jaw and put a brace on my left leg. He said
with luck, my spleen would heal. (It later had to be
removed.) He also said to watch my lungs because the harbor
was full of mustard gas. He was amazed that I got out of the
harbor alive.

A British soldier came with an army truck and took me to a
location the British army had taken over. They had control
of an area that had some residential homes in it. About
eight of my shipmates from the gun crew were there, and the
British turned over one of the homes to us. It'was a nice
home but with no heat or lights. They issued a blanket to
each of us, but there were no beds or mattresses. There was
an Italian cemetery next to our house. The Germans had
bombed it and there were corpses everywhere.

The British did not fight on their stomaches as bread, jam,
and tea was about all they had. On special days, they had
spam. They shared everything with us but they had little to
begin with. Trying to sleep on a cold concrete floor wasn't
easy. Putting my head on it was the hardest part of all. It
was so cold that some nights, we would go out on the edge of
the cemetery and build a fire. One night some Italians must
have been watching and took pity on us. They brought us some
"home brew vino". At two AM we all sat there drinking vino,
trying to get warm. We stayed there about two weeks when a
British soldier said he had orders to "take us out of here".

He picked us up in an army truck and we headed for the
hills. Most of the roads we traveled were like pastures, and
a good share of the time we were traveling up a mountain. It
took a good four hours before we began to level off at the
"top of the world". We traveled another four hours and came
to a U.S. Army Air base. The base's quarters had been
strafed and the field bombed. At one end of the air strip
was a German dive-bomber that had been shot down. It did my
heart good to see one of those bombers on the ground. We
stayed there about two weeks. Every time the pilots came
back from a mission, it seemed like they were minus at least
one plane. They sure had a rough time of it. I visited quite
often with some of the pilots and they had heard about Bari
and didn't understand why they were not requested to fly
some cover for us. I requested if they were flying over the
Adriatic and saw a merchant ship to keep their eye on it
because the Germans would certainly try to sink it. They
promised me that they would.

One morning a pilot came to us and said he had orders to fly
us out. The plane vibrated worse than my '29 Chevy did. We
landed in Catenia, Sicily. A U.S. Army soldier met us and we
were off for another truck ride. He took us to Augusta,
Sicily. Augusta was at the base of Mt. Etna, a large
volcano. On the other side of the town was Augusta harbor.
Anchored in that harbor was our ship, the S.S. Lymon Abbott!
None of us had any idea that our ship was still afloat.

A small boat met us at the harbor and took us out to our
ship. After all the time that had passed, I felt I had found
a place where I belonged. We all knew what had to be done.
The cargo would have to go back to Bari. The ship was a
mess. The decks were blanketed with schrapnel of all kinds.
There were complete cases of small-arms amunition all over
the ship. One plate of steel weighing over four tons hit
amidships. One Army truck that was secured to the deck had a
large cannon shell for a passenger. The nose of the shell
projected out of the window and the base was against the
front seat. There were very few merchant seamen aboard the
ship and only about ten of us to man the guns. The food had
deteriorated badly. The flour was full of weavils and large
ants. Every time I ate bread or pancakes, I would hope those
critters had good nutrients in them. Most of the meat was
spoiled, but we had lots of coffee for which I was grateful.

Guns deteriorate in the salt air when not cleaned every day.
It had been a long time they were neglected and my gun was
in bad shape. One part had crystalized from all the heat of
the firing. I cleaned it and coated all the parts with a
mixture of powdered graphite and kerosene. I put it together
and hoped for the best. Our cannon on the stern would fire
automatically when a shell was put in and the breach closed.
That night in Bari, Leo Kraus was the pointer on it and he
took a bad hit to his left hip. We cleaned all the debris
from our gun areas and also our runways so we could get to
our guns quickly.

Every night British Destroyers would drop depth charges
around our ship and the harbor. They would do it all night
until dawn. This was done to discourage anyone from
attaching a bomb on our ship.

We finally left Augusta Harbor and headed for Bari. Going
back to Bari was the hardest thing I've ever done. We had
just left Augusta Harbor when a British heavy cruiser pulled
alongside and communicated with the bridge. I think they
gave the Captain a specific route to take. I watched the
cruiser leave and was quite impressed with her "fire power".
The rudder would not respond to the helm. The bomb that hit
off our stern twisted it like a piece of taffy. The helm was
having difficulty holding the course.

Bari harbor was a grave-yard of ships. We had to negotiate
very carefully going between the ships and securing to the
docks. They started to unload us immediately. We were all
relieved when our ship had all its cargo removed.

We proceeded out of the harbor and sailed to the other side
of the penninsula to the port of Taranto. Several Italian
machinists came aboard with their equipment. They worked on
the vertical shaft that the rudder was attached to. They
took the key out and welded the keyway shut and machined it
down. They cut a new slot in the shaft to offset the twist
in the rudder. They inserted a new key and put everything
back together. One of the machinists was watching me work on
my gun. I couldn't speak Italian and he couldn't understand
English, but we struck up a deal. He made me a new part for
my gun, and I gave him a pair of my old shoes which he badly
needed. He did a beautiful job on my gun part. It fit
perfectly.

We left Taranto and sailed out of the Adriatic into the
Mediterranean. We sailed by Tunis, Bizerte, Algiers, Oran,
and the Rock into the ocean. We were finally going home. My
jaw and spleen were giving me a lot of pain. I would go
below deck down to the engine room and wrap towels around a
steam pipe. I would hold them alternately on my jaw and
spleen. There were no aspirins available.

Early one evening, the lights of New York appeared. It was
the greatest sight I had ever seen. When the pilot boat came
alongside, I climbed down the ladder and got on it. When the
pilot boat arrived at shore, I went directly to the Armed
Guard Center in South Brooklyn, and turned into sick bay.
The pain in my jaw was not from the fracture but was from a
bad wisdom tooth which they removed. They removed the braces
from my jaw and left leg as x-rays showed them to be OK. My
spleen was another story as it would have to be removed.

I left the Armed Guard Center at 2 AM and walked to the
nearest subway in Brooklyn. I went to 42nd street and got a
hotel room. I had a clean bed with sheets and pillows, and a
place to take a good hot bath. I was finally home and glad
of it.

I had two angels that made my survival possible. The one
that was continuously with me at sea and the other that was
waiting for me at home. My wife, Betty, has taken care of me
for the last fifty-five years. We have four wonderful
children; one son and three daughters; five grandsons, and
one grandaughter.

I have always been proud of being a member of an Armed Guard
Gun Crew. Every day I think of the sea and the battles on
it. Every day I think of those 1,810 Armed Guard men whose
last battle was their final resting place. They should never
be forgotten.

Donald K Meissner

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