John D Gill

SS John D. Gill

A Night to Remember

Survivors, town look back at WWII sinking of 'John D. Gill'

Floyd Ready, Herbert Gardner & Gary Potts
Ready, Gardner and Potts

25 miles off the Cape Fear coast. The torpedo from the German sub hit
the tanker John D. Gill amidships, tearing the heavy metal plates of the
hull like flower petals. A geyser of Texas crude erupted from the gash,
forced out by pressure from the million gallons behind it.

Within a minute, the slick had coated the sea. An instant later, the oil
erupted in an inferno and 58 men began a desperate scramble for their
lives. Only 26 of them made it, 52 years ago March 12. Eleven were
brought into Southport to recuperate at Dosher Memorial Hospital. Of
the 16 bodies also brought ashore, one, Catalino Tingzon, was buried
in the town's Northwood Cemetery.

At 11 a.m. March 12, the Southport Historical Society will dedicate a
monument to Tingzon and all the men of the Gill. The gray granite stone
will sit in Riverfront Park, overlooking the horizon where the tanker
burned and sank.

Floyd Ready
Floyd Ready

On March 11, 1942, the Gill put into Charleston after planes spotted a
submarine tailing it. At 12:45 p.m. the next day, having been given the
all clear, it continued on its way to the Atlantic Refining Company's
refinery in Philadelphia.

About 10 that night, Herbert Gardner, 22, one of the wipers, was in the
mess, having a cup of coffee and wondering aloud what he'd do if the
Gill was torpedoed.

At 10:10 p.m., he got his answer.

"When it hit, it was like it picked the chair up and moved it out from
under me," Mr. Gardner said. "We knew what had happened."

Herbert Gardner
Herbert Gardner

Outside, someone threw a life preserver into the widening oil slick. The
preserver was equipped with a self-igniting carbide flare, which burst
to life.

"When that happened.., we started burning," said Floyd Ready, one of the
Navy Armed Guard assigned to the Gill. "That was West Texas crude; it
had a very high gasoline content."

Mr. Ready and seaman Gary Potts had been hard asleep when the torpedo
hit. They scrambled to the stern to get to their gun, a 5-51
breech-loader. All members of the gun crew made it to their post -- Mr.
Ready, Mr. Potts, Seaman David M. Lunn, Seaman Asa Bob "Tex" Senter and
their commander, Ensign Robert D. Hutchins.

Gary Potts
Gary Potts

Newspaper reports of the day said the men stayed at their post for more
than 15 minutes after the rest of the crew had abandoned ship.

"We really wanted to at least get one shot off," Mr. Potts said, "But
the sub could have come 'up outside the fire and we wouldn't have seen
it anyway. The fire was too bright."

But they stayed, squinting through the heat and flames into the
darkness, swinging the barrel of the big gun back and forth. Finally,
with the flames inching closer, the surface of the ammunition box began
to bubble.

"When the paint started blistering on that-- ready box, Hutchins, our
officer, said, 'Let's get the hell out of here,' "Mr. Ready said.

Their life raft in flames, the men jumped over the railing. 

"We jumped right into the fire," Mr. Ready said. "We didn't have any

Mr. Potts didn't jump; he dove. "I used to dive off railroad bridges . .
. and I wasn't thinking about the Navy telling me to jump feet first.
I said the heck with the Navy and did what I thought best."

Had he jumped, he would have broken both legs on the hull of the
capsized No. 4 lifeboat, which was tethered to the stern of the tanker
below him. As it was, his toes clipped the lifeboat gunwales as he dove

Mr. Gardner had rushed to that same lifeboat, minutes earlier. But as
he and several others tried to lower it, the boat suddenly dropped away
beneath them, spilling two men into the water. Mr. Gardner and another
crewman managed to grab a line and were left dangling.

Below them, the ship's massive screws were still churning. Mr. Gardner
watched as the two men dumped from the lifeboat were pulled into the

Desperately, he and the other man tried to get a better grip on the line
and each other. But the other man was too weak to climb any further and
Mr. Gardner couldn't hold him. Suddenly, he was alone, tethered to the
hull of the burning ship.

"That's bothered me all my life," he said. When the screws stopped, he
dropped into the water, next to the capsized lifeboat. One of the
Filipino mess boys -- Mr. Gardner thinks it was Tingzon -- was sitting
in the half-sunk lifeboat, soaked and frightened.

 "He was scared so bad, he didn't know what to do," Mr. Gardner said. "I
remember him saying, 'No. No. no.' '

Unable to help Tingzon and fearing for his own life, Mr. Gardner
started to swim. Even wearing a cork life preserver, he managed to dive
beneath the flames.

"When you're scared, you can do anything," he said.

There was no way to tell where the sea was on fire and where it wasn't.

"Every time I'd come up, I'd come up on fire," he said. "My head and my
hands would be on fire." Finally, he came up clear of the oil and swam
away from the ship. Mr. Potts had also gotten clear of the oil,
amazingly, without getting burned.

Beyond them in the dark, men were climbing aboard a lone life raft.

When the ship was hit, Edwin F. Cheney Jr., the ship's 24-year-old
quartermaster, had managed to drop the raft at the edge of the burning
oil and push it beyond the fire by swimming under water.

Once clear of the ship, he started calling to survivors and hauling
aboard those too weak to make it.

"He helped us get aboard and he was pretty badly burned himself," Mr.
Ready said. "His ears and his arms were burned."

Most of the men had third-degree burns on their heads and arms. Mr.
Garnder would later vomit for nearly two hours because his stomach was
so full of seawater and oil.

During the night, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Potts pulled the Filipino cook,
Benny, from the water. "He was burned so bad he was freezing to death,"
Mr. Potts said. So he gave the cook his life preserver, an act that
would cost him dearly later.

The men quickly realized the heat from the fire was drawing them back
toward the tanker, where they'd burn to death or get sucked down with
the ship. Just as quickly, they discovered the oars were useless; there
were no oarlocks.

So, bent double, their hands gripping the boards at the bottom of the
raft, the men took turns being human oarlocks.

It worked. Slowly, the raft pulled free of the heat. Even though he'd
had a life preserver as a buffer, Cheney's abdomen was black where the
oars had pressed against him. Mr. Potts, who'd given up his life
preserver, was injured internally.

For the rest of the night, the men clung to the raft, watching their
ship die by inches. The fire was so bright, the smoke so thick, people
watched it from shore the next day.

"It kept burning and burning and blowing up and blowing up... until it
finally just literally blew itself to pieces," Mr. Ready said.

They watched the ammunition explode, including a round left in the gun
that had been intended for the Germans.

At 7:05 a.m., the survivors were picked up by a Coast Guard cutter from
the Southport Station, USCGC-186.

At 9 a.m., theJohn D. Gill sank. The survivors came ashore in Southport,
a small fishing village where the most exciting thing to date had been
when two convicts kidnapped a young couple and tried to escape through
the Green Swamp in 1937.

Josephine Hickman, 80, was a volunteer Red Cross nurse at Dosher
Memorial Hospital when the survivors were brought in. "We didn't think
even half of them hardly could live," she said. "They were so burned,
almost to a crisp, and covered with oil. Some of them were burned so bad
that... the bandages were all over their heads. Only their mouths were
open. You just fed them in between the bandages."

The hospital staff worked 20 hours straight tending to the men. There
were only five trained nurses. The rest, like Mrs. Hickman, were Red
Cross volunteers. "We'd barely gotten our training when this tanker was
torpedoed offshore and here we were faced with this terrible tragedy,"
she said. "But we managed to save every one of them."

As the 11 survivors were being treated, the USCGC Agassiz and USCGC-4342
brought in 16 bodies. Joseph S. Laughlin, who was 15 and whose father
was manager of the hospital, helped carry the dead. "They were burned so
bad their flesh would come off in your hands," he said.

Among the dead was Tingzon, the young mess boy Mr. Gardner bad last seen
sitting in the capsized lifeboat. When efforts to find Mr. Tingzon's
family in the Phillipines failed, the people of Southport buried him in
Northwood cemetery. According to the Morning Star April 12, 1942, the
grave was covered with flowers.

In addition to the 11 who escaped with Mr. Cheney, 15 others escaped
in a lifeboat and survived the sinking, including Capt. Allen D. Tucker.

A few weeks after the sinking, President Franklin D. Roosevelt awarded
Mr. Cheney the war's first Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal
for his heroism.

The submarine that sank the Gill, U-158, was sunk west of Bermuda on
June 30, 1942. There were no survivors.

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