George M. Sheehan
World War II Memoirs
I enlisted in the U.S. Navy on April 14, 1942 and was discharged October 17,
1945. I received the Navy Battleship Honorable Discharge, European - African
- Middle East Ribbons, 2 Stars, Good Conduct Medal, Commendation Certificate
presented by Admiral Ruthford for gunners under my command shooting down the
German torpedo plane than sunk our ship. My gunners were the only ones to
fire on this plane. Why? See my account of the sinking.
I crossed the Atlantic Ocean 36 times (18 trips). I attended the
Mediterranean Great Lakes Training Station, Armed Guard School (guns) and was
in St. Albun's Hospital in New York in March 1944 and Norfolk Naval Hospital
in May 1944.
I served on the S.S. Santa Elena, Luxury Liner (Grace Line) from September
1942 to November 6, 1943. I also served on the U.S.A. T. Excelsior (Convoy
freighter) from November 1944 to September 1945.
I signed up for the Navy at Lima, Ohio because I did not want to be drafted
into the Army. I had served in the C.M.T.C. Infantry and could almost feel a
bayonet being stuck into me if I was in the Army. The Navy Recruiting
Officer instructed me to place Naval notice under the Draft Board Door. "Do
not permit the Army to get their hands on you if you want to be in the Navy.
You will receive orders in a few days to report for induction. You can go
home after induction and within 30 days you will receive orders to report for
duty". I received my orders to report on April 14, 1942 at Lima. I drove my
car to Lima, was not permitted to return home, but was sent directly to
Cincinnati. I explained to the officer there that my car was in Lima, that I
had to return my car to Ohio City. I was permitted to return to Lima by bus
so I could drive my car home, then catch another bus back to Cincinnati. I
was told if I was not back in Cincinnati by the afternoon of April 15th I
would be under arrest as being AWOL. When I walked from our house out to the
bus and Mom said "Goodbye George" I had the terrible feeling it was goodbye
forever; I would never see my mother or home again. I could not turn around
to speak, just waved goodbye as I entered the bus.
I arrived back in Cincinnati and we left that night, April 15th, by train for
Chicago Great Lakes Naval Training station. We were at Great Lakes just long
enough to receive our shots, 3 weeks of basic training (not 3 months as in
peace time). It was a production line, men filling syringes, laying them on
a big table, others giving the injections to both arms as the line moved
through. The medics were new at this and were as nervous as the men
receiving the shots. Men were fainting, others walking by with needles
sticking in their arms that had come loose from the syringe. Taking so many
shots we were sick and dopey most of the time. The tetanus shots were
especially bad. The boy next to my hammock had the same name as mine, George
M. Sheehan. We were distinguished as Boston Sheehan and Ohio Sheehan at mail
call, etc. He was shipped out before me and promised to write me when he was
assigned to a ship. I never heard from him again, probably killed. I had one
hour drill with a rifle (30 caliber Springfield World War I gun) while in
I was real lucky and was placed on Shore Patrol at Great Lakes, guarding the
powerhouse and other installations. It was good duty. An old Chief Petty
Officer suggested I try to get in the Armed Guard. It is dangerous duty but
you have lots of freedom you don't have on Navy ships I was told. I did not
know it then but the Armed Guard was considered suicide duty. Every few days
reports would come in naming ships sunk, all hands lost. It was very
I was assigned to the Little Creek Virginia Armed Guard Gunnery School. This
was a three month course in peacetime but was shortened to three weeks
because of the war. About all we learned was how to load and fire the
different guns. Instructions on 45 pistol, 30 and 50 caliber machine gun, 20
millimeter anti-aircraft machine gun, 3 inch - 50, 4 inch - 50, and 5 inch
Powder Bag cannons and two days on a small ship firing at a target. We slept
on deck - some experience. The guns were very noisy. From Gunnery School we
were shipped to New York City Armed Guard Center and from there I was
assigned to a troop ship. This was a very beautiful ship. The workmen were
installing Gun Tubs and beds for the soldiers. The beds were five high and
each soldier would have a bed for eight hours (three soldiers for each bed).
There would be 4,000 soldiers on board for each trip. There were five sister
ships, the Santa Elena, Santa Paula, Santa Rosa, Santa Lucia, and the Santa
Barbara. Only two ships survived the war. Our ship was built in 1933 and
insured for $5,000,000. There was an elevator to eight decks. We used the
elevator to raise and lower ammunition from the magazine. We were in port
about two months while the ship was being converted to wartime service.
There were daily gun drills, practice loading, setting sights, etc. Example
order: up 800, right 10, then down 400 left 5. After each setting each sight
setter would answer by telephone. Ready gun 1-2-3-4-5-6. At the end of the
exercise each would report their reading to the Gun Officer to see if they
The Merchant Marines took care of the ship; deck, engine room, navigation, and
galley. We had excellent food after the first trip. The ship is being
loaded with food for the soldiers. It is amazing the amount of food consumed
by 4,000 people for a cruise of two or three weeks. Meat (mutton and hams)
were unloaded from refrigerated trucks onto the conveyors into the ship. It
was Grade A meat and inspected by inspectors after the ship was fully loaded.
As soon as the inspectors left the ship the conveyors were reversed and the
meat unloaded. It was replaced by meat that was black. It looked like it
was spoiled. It was warehouse rejected meat. Someone was receiving money
for Grade A meat but was delivering warehouse rejected meat - crooks.
Casablanca Invasion November 11, 1942 (Africa):
This was my first trip. Soldiers were always loaded at night and we always
left port at night for security reasons. It would take most of the night to
load all the troops. The soldiers mounted nine 50-caliber machine guns and a
four twin 40 millimeter on the ship and manned these guns on this trip. Also
a large tugboat was secured across the deck in front of the bridge. The navy
guns consisted of eight 20 millimeter, four 3 inch 50 and two 4 inch 50. Our
convoy consisted of 50 merchant ships; Texas Battle Ship, a Cruiser, Aircraft
Carrier and nine escort Destroyers. Our convoy traveled the North Atlantic
route because it is very rough in winter which makes it very difficult for
enemy submarines to operate, although depth charges were dropped by destroyers
several times each day and each time general quarters was sounded and all guns
fully manned. We did not get much sleep. The gun crew slept fully clothed.
We could have every gun manned in 45 seconds from the time the alarm was
sounded. It took five days to reach Casablanca and I lost 15 lbs. The first
invasion wave encountered stiff resistance. We were the second wave and
experienced no resistance. The harbor was full of burning and sinking ships.
France's Battleship, Gene Bark, was put out of action by two salvoes from the
Texas Battleship killing 900 French sailors who were being forced to fight by
Germans at gun point. The Gene Bark had ¬ inch battle plate (none at all).
It should have been 16", same as her guns (graft again). The third invasion
wave met with resistance. Bryn Stump's boy from Ohio City was killed when a
German sub torpedoed his ship as it entered the harbor. We returned to New
York. I was made 1st Class Seaman. As we docked an old Chief Petty Officer
came on board. He asked the Gun Officer how the trip was and the officer
replied "We saw a lot of action". This was a lie as we were in no actual
The Chief now started interviewing the gun crew asking all kinds of
questions. How did we like the Navy, the ship, etc? To which everyone
answered just fine. Then he wanted to know how the food was. We all started
talking at one - it was terrible, not fit for hogs. The Chief said I will
stay for dinner and see for myself. We couldn't believe our eyes at the next
meal. There were clean tablecloths, tables were set with plates, etc. and
excellent food. On the next trip as soon as we were at sea we were again
given slop for food. On our return the same old Chief came aboard. We had
excellent food thereafter.
Promoted to Petty Officer 3rd Class Gunners Mate:
On the first trip to Casablanca we were allowed to go ashore for a few hours
but had to stay in groups of five, with one man carrying a pistol. We were
allowed to go on board the Gene Bark and see the damage caused by the Texas
shelling. We were instructed not to go beyond where our soldiers occupied.
On each block a soldier was patrolling each side of the street with Thompson
Automatic Rifles. At each intersection they had a 50 caliber machine gun
surrounded by sandbags. Our group decided we could see a lot more if we
traveled by taxi. The taxies were horse drawn small wagons with buggy wheels
and three double seats, five passengers and the driver. I hailed a taxi and
sat in the front seat with the driver. He could speak no English, but we
understood what he meant. When he said "Panorama", I nodded my head yes.
First he showed us a Catholic Church and by motions wanted to know if anyone
was Catholic, two boys were. Next was a Jewish Synagogue, then a Protestant
Church. I pointed to two of the boys and myself as being Protestant. He
noticed my Masonic ring and examined it very closely. He smiled at me and I
knew he was a Mason. He spoke to the horse, what sounded like EAAH and away
we went at a fast trot. Soon we were in the restricted area. The boys tried
to stop him and he just answered OK and kept going. We now were approaching
a Moslem Mosque. We had strict instructions not to stop in front of a Mosque
or pass one on the same side of the street. The taxi stopped at the entrance
of the Mosque. The Arabs jumped up, tried to grab the horse, but the driver
gave the horse a strong strike of the whip and in we went. We were all scared
badly but there was nothing we could do but stay on the wagon. I believe the
Arabs would have killed us if they could have gotten their hands on us. We
were now inside the wall where the Arabs were working in the fields. We
passed through a door and found ourselves in another area. These Arabs were
of a higher class. Then we came to an inner sanctum where we were met by a
man dressed in fine linen who held up his hand for us to stop. Our driver
said something to him and he smiled, bowed, and motioned for us to enter.
Here we saw craftsmen working with gold and silver. We left by a long tunnel
and found ourselves back in the inner city. The Mosque covered about 10
acres, the wall was for protection like a fort, and the tunnel was an escape
route. The Mohammed Mosque is a duplicate of King Solomon's Temple. There
was so much to see but we were so frightened we could not appreciate what we
were seeing. We realized we were not only in restricted territory, but no
one would think of looking for us in a Mosque. We had been informed by the
Navy that the Moslems considered it an insult for a non-believer to stare at
their temple, let alone go inside just to observe the temple.
On the second trip to Casablanca there was an air raid alarm at night which
was pretty frightening, but no bombs were dropped. Again, we were permitted
to go ashore. We met two little French boys about 6 or 7 years old, dressed
like little Princes. They wanted to be our guide. What impressed us so much
were their nice clothes and the big wide silk bow ties. They were so cute
and polite. Eventually they took us to their home. Their parents were
friendly and insisted on us coming back to have dinner with them on our next
liberty. We took them several cartons of cigarettes (a carton only cost us
50 cents), some candy bars (5 cents) and chewing gum. They were so happy to
receive our gifts as these things had been impossible for them to obtain for a
long, long time. We had a wonderful dinner of chicken, rice, and some typical
African food. After the meal we were taken to a restaurant for coffee, which
seemed strange to us. The man introduced us to everyone we met on the street
and in the restaurant. These people were exceptionally nice to us. Somehow
we learned they were French Jews and in business. They wanted everyone to
know they were friends with the Americans. Their home was a three story clay
tile building. The first floor was for storage and the dogs, the second floor
had a kitchen and dining area, and the third floor was bedrooms, because it
was the safest place in the house from the street people and rats.
It was difficult for us to realize that many of the Arabs were savages,
half-dressed with very little value for human life. The city was divided in
sections with walls surrounding each section. During daylight the gates were
unlocked and open. The Arabs were free to come and go as they pleased, but
at night the Arabs must be in their designated section, the gates were closed
and locked. The French were in charge. Casablanca was the headquarters for
the French Foreign Legion. Almost every French businessman had a long whip
to use on the Arabs if they tried to steal or would not leave his property
when he so ordered. The businessmen, police, and French soldiers all told us
don't spoil the Arabs by being too nice to them. We saw what looked like
slaves to us. There were two long lines, perhaps 200 men, carrying large
sacks. One line was loaded, the other returning empty handed. If an Arab who
was returning empty got in the way of another carrying a load he was beaten
with a whip about 5 feet long. If he offered any resistance two guards would
really give him a good whipping.
I will never forget the beautiful Arab girl here who lowered her veil so I
could see her face. I was sure her escort did not see my face, even if he
did have three women following him. I did not know if the girl was his
daughter or one of his wives. I did know that according to Moslem custom, a
man must marry a woman if he sees her face. The Arab men carried long daggers
and knew how to use them.
There is a real caste system in the Navy, Commissioned Officers, Petty
Officers, and Seamen. After my promotion to Gunner's Mate 3rd Class, I
continued to go on liberty with Sidlick and Sapp, Seamen 1st Class.
Alexander Sidlick was of Polish descent, a coal miner that was over 200
pounds and six feet tall, built like a prize fighter, from Potsville, PA.
Clarence Sapp was a farmer that stood about five feet tall and 190 lbs. with
no fat, from Cross Limboss, MO. These two boys were very good friends of
mine and would do anything for me. They acted as my body guards when on
liberty. Both men had no education, had great difficulty reading a newspaper,
or writing a letter home, but were not dumb and had leadership qualities. I
explained this to our Gunnery Officer and asked him if he would consider
giving them an oral test for Petty Officer 3rd Class. I explained to him it
was impossible for them to pass a written test and I would be happy to coach
them by reading the textbooks to them, etc. The officer said, "Sheehan, if
you are willing to do this and they can pass my oral test, I agree to their
promotion". They passed with flying colors. I can still see these giants
sitting on their bunks day after day listening intently while I read to them.
The Santa Elena brought two loads of Herman Goering crack African troops (some
S.S. soldiers) to the United States and one load of Italian prisoners. The
German prisoners were trucked to Oran. The trucks were driven by blacks; a
trailer with a long tongue was connected to each truck. In the trailer were
two American soldiers with shotguns and other automatic rifles. The soldiers
almost begged the prisoners to try to escape. As the prisoners were loaded on
ship each Petty Officer was given orders to keep pistols loaded, kill any
German who made a hostile move, but do not try to provoke them. One Petty
Officer was to be on guard at all times in our sleeping quarters. After two
days and no trouble we were stealing hamburgers for some of the prisoners.
Some of the prisoners told us to be careful of one of their men - he was S.S.
I am ashamed to say that several of us went up to this man and tried to get
him to resist. He just smiled and said "nine" (no). There were 1500
prisoners and 100 soldier guards. The prisoners were kept below deck except
for twice daily for 30 minutes for fresh air, or they could volunteer for work
detail and be outside during daylight. They all wanted to volunteer. They
kept singing while they cleaned and painted the ship from top to bottom. She
looked like a new ship when we arrived in New York.
One man in our gun crew could speak perfect German, so Sidlick, Sapp, and John
Giese of South Dakota, decided we wanted to question the prisoners. We had
to get past the guards to do this so went down a shaft at the rear of the
ship to the bottom of the ship where the shaft from the engine room goes to
and connects with the screw. We walked up this passageway to where we judged
the prisoners were being held. We unscrewed the hatch and entered. The
Germans were very frightened and drew back from us. John said in German that
we just want to talk to you. "Yah, about what?" We told them to forget they
were prisoners and tell us about Germany, what you worked at before the war,
did you want to join the army and fight and we will answer your questions.
They now became more relaxed and all started talking at once. Only one spoke
to us is broken English as John explained to them only he spoke German. They
were farmers and factory workers. They were forced to join the Army or were
hanged by the Gestapo. They then asked us if we wanted war. We answered it
was about the same with us, either join the armed forces or be disgraced. We
shook hands and left. One day one of the prisoners fell through a hatch into
a freight hold and died shortly thereafter. He was buried at sea at sunset
with a German Honor Guard. The body was wrapped in white canvas, lying on a
board, supported on the rail with three men on each side, covered with their
flags. The German Chaplain conducted the ceremony, with about 30 German
soldiers standing at attention. At the end of the ceremony the Chaplain held
the flag and the pallbearers raised the board and the body slid into the sea.
The Germans were very good workers, friendly, but could not believe their eyes
when they saw New York. "How did your people rebuild the city so quickly?"
they asked. We didn't understand and they said "Germany had bombed New York
and it was demolished". They refused to believe New York had never been
When the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan we were at sea and it was at
night. We received the message by radio. We were all very happy and prayed
we would drop another atomic bomb. Soon our prayers were answered. We knew
these two bombs had saved thousands of American lives if we had to invade
Japan. We had no sorrow for the Japs that died, they had asked for it when
they attacked Pearl Harbor. I always had a great admiration for President
Truman for giving this order that saved so many American lives.
Sidlick, Sapp, and I visited the Service Center (Methodist Church 99 steps off Broadway)
where I met Ann, just before the trip where our ship was sunk. I said to Sidlick and
Sapp, "See that girl with the black hair and red dress, I think she is very attractive
and she is going to be my girl". They both laughed and said she is very nice, good luck.
Call on us if you need any help.
November 4, 1943 our convoy left Scotland with Canadian soldiers who had
survived the Battle of Dunkirk, to replace English soldiers in Italy who had
seen no action. We were not permitted to load English (Canadian) soldiers
below the waterline. No Canadian soldiers were killed when the torpedo hit
our ship. Two Canadian soldiers were hurt (broken ribs) on my guns. Canadian
soldiers were very friendly and helpful as ammo passers. The English nurses
and boys on rescue boats were also very considerate and helpful.
England would have been defeated had the German troops followed the retreating
allies. Our convoy passed the Rock of Gibraltar during daylight. In the
Mediterranean there is a lot of phosphorus in the water and at night as the
ship passed through the water it looked like fire on the side and back.
Fishing boats from Spain came into our convoy who would relay the news to our
enemy. We knew that Hitler's boys would be sure to attack the convoy before
we reached Italy and probably the next night. The British demanded we change
our fan formation to two long columns. Santa Elena was the first ship in the
column next to France, which was occupied by Germany. Two column formation
is very difficult for the escort vessels to defend and an easy target for
torpedo plane attacks. The British were afraid of a high level bombing
attack. Besides the escort vessels we also had English planes as escorts.
November 5th at dusk, all guns were fully manned. I was in charge of all guns
and men on the poop deck; two 20 millimeter and four inch - 50. Besides our
crew, the Canadians were helping as ammo passers (one Canadian Officer and
several soldiers). I gave my men a little pep talk before the battle. One
of my 20 millimeter gunners was a boy from the south and did not like to have
a damned Yankee tell him what to do. I told him I was sure we were going to
be attacked this evening, we were responsible for the soldiers, and if he did
not carry out my orders during battle, I would shoot him on the spot.
We did not know it, but the English planes deserted the convoy at dusk (afraid
of night fighting) and were replaced by German planes. We were surprised to
see one of the destroyers blow up. An English flak ship immediately started
laying down a smoke screen. Opposite our ship the flak ship shot two salvoes
and two German planes came down. There were 11 German planes attacking the
convoy and eight were shot down. Unofficially, the Santa Elena downed four
planes. Our convoy lost two troop ships and two freighters. It is impossible
for an attacking plane, 50 feet above the water after dropping a torpedo, to
fly anywhere but over a ship it had torpedoed. The Germans would fly low and
the smoke hid them so we could not see them. They could raise just enough
above the smoke to line up on a ship, come through the smoke, and release the
torpedo at the same instant, and be safe until release. We had no radar on
our ship but could hear the walkie-talkie from the Commodore giving the
location of enemy planes. Our ship was zigzagging so as to make it difficult
for the Germans to make a good line up run. It is now dark. I have a
Canadian soldier pointing a 20 millimeter ramrod at the North Star so I could
interpret the Commodore's readings. One of the 3 inch guns on skydeck got
trigger happy and fired two shots making a great flash in the dark. The
Walkie-talkie came through "plane coming in at 1805, which was opposite to
ramrod position. It was coming directly toward us. I immediately gave the
order for the port side 20-millimeter to fire as soon as he could see the
plane, ran to starboard side and ordered the 20 millimeters to fire as soon as
the plane was past the mast. The first gunner was not firing, the second
gunner continued firing until the plane turned over and hit the water. My
gunners were the only ones to fire on the plane. Other gunners did not
realize the plane was attacking us. The 20 millimeter machine gun was loaded
with every other cartridge being a projectile that would explode when it hit
the target, the other projectile was a tracer (looked like a Roman candle)
with a bright line to the target. The tracer was the only way we had of
knowing where the projectiles were going. After the torpedo had hit
starboard, the 20 millimeter gunner said to me "How did I do Sheehan?" I
answered, "I am happy to say just fine". "Thanks, you are OK too". A great
shout went up from the soldiers, then a muffled roar as the torpedo hit,
lifting the rear of the ship out of the water and almost capsizing it. All
soldiers were ordered to the starboard side to help the ship right itself.
Soldiers panicked, releasing life rafts (lights from the rafts looked like
Broadway). I asked the Commanding Officer in the gun tub to stop the
soldiers, as it would make it very easy for the Germans to strafe us if they
desired. The torpedo had put a large hole at the waterline, immediately
under the 3 inch gun that had fired, just back of the boiler room. The
bulkhead to the ammunition room was knocked down and the torpedo exploded in
the grocery room, which did not cause the ammunition to explode. Both shafts
to the screw were broken and our ship was helpless.
Most of the Canadian soldiers were leaning on the port side rail watching the
show as most of the German planes were attacking from this side, hiding back
of the smoke screen. They had just been ordered away from the rail when the
torpedo hit. Many would have been killed from the wreckage thrown up by the
torpedo, if they had stayed at the rail.
If the torpedo had hit 10 feet forward of where it did, it would have exploded
in the engine room, causing the boilers to explode, which would have broken
the ship in two. If this had happened, probably 1,000 soldiers would have
If the torpedo had gone 10 feet further into the ship before exploding, the
ammo would have caused the same results as the boilers exploding.
Unbelievably, no Navy men or soldiers were killed. Ordinary loss of life for
torpedoed troop ships was 600. Only four Merchant Marines drowned and this
would have been prevented with an Abandon Ship Order! Soldiers were
transferred to the Monterrey with two destroyers standing by. At midnight
the walkie-talkie announced two inch torpedoes passed the bow of the
Monterrey. The walkie-talkie squawked "proceed at full speed to destination".
A German sub hiding below our ship fired torpedoes. One destroyer stayed
with us. Just at daybreak a torpedoed freighter collided with our ship,
which was as bad as the torpedo the night before. We took on 19 feet of
water in the front end, helping to level the ship somewhat, but causing it to
sink further into the water. The next morning a tug from Oran started pulling
us very slowly toward Phillipsville. At about 4 p.m. we passed the first
buoy coming into Phillipsville, which was 5 or 6 miles from shore. We were
taking soundings continuously and getting into shallower water. The ship's
officers got into a life boat and ordered Merchant Marines to lower them
away. Our officer called the gun crew together telling us the Captain of the
ship was not giving an order to abandon ship, but that we should use our own
judgement. The ship was sinking by the stern more and more and listing hard
to the port side (lifeboats could not be lowered because of the ships angle
of sinking). Most men went to the port side, which was much closer to the
water. Several of the men and I went to the bow on the starboard side and
threw a line over the side. The starboard side was safer because it was
higher (loose material was going over the portside). The ship was sinking
and moving away from the bow position. It looked like it was 100 feet to the
water. After some discussion we decided it was time to leave the ship. The
men insisted I go first and they would follow. As I was highest officer, if
there was any trouble they would be safe from discipline because they were
following me. What a wonderful feeling when my life jacket took me afloat.
I was fully dressed with heavy foul weather clothes. I tried to swim away so
as not be be sucked under when the ship sank. There were large swells and
soon I was very tired, removed my shoes, but could hardly hold my head up,
swallowing water with every stroke. I turned on the red light on my jacket.
I could feel myself passing out and thought what a terrible way to die, just
like a dog. Everything turned black. I was unconscious for a long time,
then came to with a start when a spotlight flashed in my face. It was from a
speed boat from Africa. I caught the life ring, but started passing out from
exhaust fumes. An English sailor used a long pole with a hook on the end of
it to hook my life jacket and pulled me on board. I was so near gone I could
not even open and close my hands. This boat rescued eight of us, most were
in the same condition as I, some much worse with cut hands and legs caused by
rope burns. The English sailors insisted we take a drink of survivor rum.
The bottle was passed around twice and each time the English took a drink
too. It really helped a great deal to revive us. We had no food for over 24
When we arrived on shore we were ordered to remove all our clothing and a
blanket was thrown over us. Two sailors then gave us a real rubdown with a
big towel and put us to bed, but we were too excited to sleep. The nurse
gave us two little white pills and a mug of hot Ovaltine. This knocked us
out until morning.
November 6, 1943 the Santa Elena was sunk by a German Torpedo Plane. We were
hit off Marseilles, France. We are now in a British Tent Hospital out in the
country from Phillipsville, Africa. There were two nurses for 200 men on the
night shift. The next morning we were given shoes and overcoats from Army
dead and Florence Nightingale survivor blue suits, white shirt, and long
narrow red necktie. The Red Cross was very helpful, giving us salt for
toothpowder and a toothbrush whose bristles fell out at first use.
The soldier who brought us the shoes and other things told us that there were
some survivors from the sinkings at a schoolhouse in town. After we got
dressed in our new clothes and ate dinner (horse meat) several of us asked
the nurse if it would be all right if we went in to town to see if we could
locate our shipmates. She told us we could go, but it was several miles to
town, an Army truck might pick us up. I had saved my small pistol (from
home) so we felt we had a little protection. The Allies had told the French
from the start that if we won the war we would give them Africa. The Germans
told the Arabs the same thing. It was easy to understand why the Arabs were
a little hostile toward us.
When we arrived at the schoolhouse in Phillipsville, where the rest of our
crew was in the ship's Army Hospital, the first person we saw was Captain
Huff, Army Chaplain. He came running out to meet us, tears streaming down
his cheeks. He said, "Thank God you are alive. Are there any others? We
thought you all were dead. You look like people from Bible times in your
suits." A destroyer had picked up the rest of the crew.
The ship Captain's license was revoked. The watertight compartments were to
prevent the ship from sinking if one compartment was ruptured. The ship was
torpedoed at 6:30 p.m. and nothing was done to repair the ship until the next
day. By then the bulkhead between the water filled compartment and the rear
compartment had begun to buckle. The Abandon Ship order was never given, but
the Captain and the ship's officers deserted the ship in a lifeboat. If the
ship sank the U. S. Government would replace it with a new ship at the end of
the war; otherwise it would be repaired.
The convoy returning from Naples picked us up on the Berry, a ship condemned
to North Atlantic travel. The ship was returning English soldiers to
Scotland. The English Officers were very egotistical and looked at us with
contempt. "Just as soon have Germany occupy England as damned Yankees". We
felt friendlier towards the German prisoners than these devils. Some English
civilians told us the same thing too, but others were very nice. The French
were very friendly toward us in France and Africa. The ship was quarantined
for 30 days on the Clyde River due to Smallpox. Coming to the U.S. in
December we were in the worst storm in years. It almost washed us into the
coast of France. German bombers were overhead, but it was so cloudy and
foggy they could not see us. As we got into the North Atlantic there were 100
mph winds, 100 foot swells with waves on the swells, and very cold. When
outside one had to be very careful not to be blown overboard. We were
travelling in the trough of the sea. A swell would strike the side of the
ship, rolling her over on the side, and before the ship could right itself a
second swell would strike, rolling her even further. The red paint could be
seen as she rolled over (red was below the water line). The Captain came up
to sky deck and was very frightened, ordered the signalmen to radio the
Commodore saying the ship would capsize if it rolled two inches more. Spray
had washed out the radio. The Captain ordered the use of two signal lights.
The message from the Commodore was to change course, with permission to leave
the convoy if any ship desired. Now we are going into the waves, taking 8
feet of water over the bow every time we hit a swell and there was danger of
the ship breaking in two. As the ship dropped down from a swell, it hit the
water with tremendous force, cracking like a cannon. The wind was so strong
when we tried to dock in New York the wind forced the ship against the dock
with such force planks were flying up in the air like they were being
dynamited. The ship distress signal blew. Tugs came to both sides of the
ship as close as they could get pushing and pulling and still we were against
the dock going forward under the ship's power, which was against the rules.
Any wonder the gun crew was a little shell-shocked?
15 Day Survivor Leave:
? One week Rest Camp - Upper New York ? Two weeks Rest Camp - Deland, Florida
? All seamen were given shore jobs and officers never returned to sea duty.
? Guarding work detail from Prison Ship, A.G. New York
? March 1944 St. Albuns Hospital, New York (Scarlet fever - second time). A
pleasant surprise - we were given gifts wrapped in green paper for St.
Assigned to Advanced Gun School in Norfolk, Virginia first term 20 MM, 3"-50,
Specialized on 5"-38 second term graduating P.O. who were survivors of
sinkings assigned to a squad of recruits and a 90 day officer as advisors. I
received the honor of having the best disciplined squad and range estimate in
NORFOLK NAVAL HOSPITAL, MAY 1944
I was now acting as advisor to recruits and 90 day officer. I was having back
pains and thought I had lumbago. As it got worse I went on sick call. I
realized the medics thought I was goldbricking as they gave me some CC pills
that were supposed to cure everything from athlete's foot to concussion of
the brain. The pain was getting worse all the time and I could only get
relief by sitting or lying down. I finally got to where I could not stand for
roll call. Our 90 day officer was very concerned and insisted I go on sick
call again and said to demand they give you a thorough examination. On this
call the medic asked what do you want us to do? I replied I wanted a heat
lamp or heating pad put on my back. After the treatment as I started to get
up I felt faint and must have looked terrible as I could see an expression of
horror on the medic's face. Now I really got action. He called a lieutenant
who gave me the once over, then he called the captain who examined me and
said, "Why in hell do you people wait until you are half dead before
reporting for sick call?" "Why?" I answered, "I did report last week but
these bastards either don't know anything or don't give a damn!" The captain
said, "OK calm down. I don't know what is the cause of the pain. I am
sending you to the observation hospital. Don't lift anything, just tell the
medics to put your gear in the van and you ride along." The next morning as
the doctor was making rounds he found I had a stiff neck and asked me to bend
my head and look at my fee, which I could not do. I was immediately placed
in a private room and then rushed by ambulance to the N.N.H. where I was
placed in a private room with a nurse's aid (WAVE) placed between two rooms
and on duty 24 hours a day. I was examined by ten specialists and no
diagnosis was reached. Perhaps spinal meningitis or polio they thought. I
was given very heavy doses of sulfa drugs. I was discharged in about 30 days
to make room for others. The Battalion Commander at Gun School instructed me
to go home on leave until I was able to stand active duty and then return to
school. I passed a very difficult written examination and was promoted to
Gunners Mate 2nd Class.
I was ordered to sea duty at the Armed Guard Center. We were on a bridge
being assigned to a ship and the Shore Patrol guarded us so no one could
escape. I was assigned to a tanker by the name Golden Glow. I was almost in
a panic! I had a vision of the Golden Glow being hit by a torpedo. I
spotted Sapp (who had been sunk three times) and yelled to him "Ask Lt.
Hoffman (who was a Gunnery Officer on the Santa Elena now working in the
Captain's Administrative Office, and a lawyer in civilian life) to help me.
I have just been assigned to a tanker." Shore Patrol handled me pretty
roughly and tried to stop Sapp, but he just ran paying no attention to them.
Soon Lt. Hoffman was on the bridge asking for me. The Shore Patrol did not
like it but there was nothing they could do. "Sheehan, what can I do for
you" he asked and I replied "get me off the tanker crew!" "What type of duty
would you like?" the lieutenant asked and I said "Another troopship would
suit me fine." "I will see what I can do" he said and left. Soon he and Lt.
Williams returned and called me over to the side of the bridge. I was asked a
few questions and then assigned to the Excelsior, November 1944. I later
learned The Golden Glow was torpedoed the first day out and all hands were
lost - no survivors.
On the last trip back to the United States we were told there was a surplus of
ice cream. What you do not eat will be thrown overboard before docking. We
did not want any ice cream thrown overboard so would eat 10 bars at a time.
We had excellent food.
Our ship was loading soldiers at Marseilles, France for the invasion of Japan
when the Japs surrendered. The soldiers were some of the same boys we took
to Casablanca on the invasion of Africa in 1942. We returned them to the
U.S. for discharge. It did not seem fair to us that these boys saw so much
action and others never left the states. Some soldiers with pull made a round
trip on our ship never leaving the ship. Their records showed Foreign
Problems for me aboard Troop Ship Excelsior
I came on board ship November 1944 in a weakened condition, as I had not fully
recovered from my illness while in the Naval Hospital. At times I still had
severe abdominal and leg cramps and was also very tense mentally. I reserved
a seat next to the door in the mess hall as I had an uncontrollable fear of
being trapped if we were torpedoed. Mess hall was on the water line. While
on the Excelsior there was no action from submarines or planes in the
I was placed in charge of all 20 MM guns, relieving 3/C GM Kirtpatrick.
Kirtpatrick resented this very much and tried to cause me trouble by telling
the gunners I was a fanatic and they were in charge and responsible for their
guns. I had no right in their gun tub, especially if they were not present.
I reported gunner Strong to Lt. Keys for insubordination on this matter.
Kirtpatrick now tells the boys I will be transferred off the ship on the next
My first move was to be sure that every gunner understood how every part of
the 20 MM gun worked. I had one gun removed from the stand and taken below
deck where it was warm. I announced that each gunner was to take down and
reassemble the gun, naming each part, explaining what it did and how it
worked. I offered to help one on one those who could not do this until I was
satisfied they knew the gun 100%. There would be no liberty for any gunner
until he could meet these requirements. I would be available every day until
10:00 p.m. to help anyone who needed help. It only took three days until
every man passed my test. Lt. Keys was amazed and congratulated me on my
accomplishment. The 20 MM was a complicated gun not easy to understand. It
could fire 650 shots per minute. The barrel would get very hot after several
shots. You had to change the barrel and set the hot barrel in a tub of water
to cool. You had to be very careful not to be burned or scalded from the hot
barrel. Asbestos gloves up to the elbows were used and you had to keep clear
of the tub to avoid the escaping steam. It was necessary to cock and load
for the first shot and then the gun would work automatically, controlled by
depressing the trigger. The gun was cocked by lifting the rear of the gun up
and compressing a very strong spring that surrounded the barrel. When fired,
the spring was released and recoil would compress it again. This action
would load the gun for the next shot and discharge the empty cartridge. The
slog would explode when hitting the target unless it was armor piercing.
A 2nd Class Signalman also disliked me very much. I thought he was crazy.
Perhaps he thought the same of me. It was very uncomfortable as 3 Signalmen,
Boatswain, and I bunked in the same quarters. At the end of the first trip
Kirtpatrick and 2/C Signalman transferred off the ship at Lt. Keys request.
Things were a lot better then as I felt the men and officers respected me.
Confrontation with Lt. Keys, Senior Gun Officer
I was on the 12 - 4 watch and sunrise watch when all guns are fully manned,
just getting to bed and sound asleep when the Boatswain woke me saying Lt.
Keys was having a meeting of all Petty Officers. Half asleep I walked into
the Officers room - all Petty Officers were there giving me the eye; they
knew the reason for the meeting. Lt. Keys was hopping mad! "Sheehan, I am
in a hell of a mess because of you." The Captain of the ship had just raked
Lt. Keys over the coals because the galley was not cleaned by the Navy before
the Merchant crew reported for work. "Why did you not clean the mess hall
this morning when you went off duty?" Now I am fully awake and can feel my
blood pressure going to the boiling point. I answered that it was not a
Petty Officer's job. I gave a direct order to two of my men to do this and if
they refused I told them they were on report. I felt this was the same as
Lt. Keys giving the order through me. "Weren't you informed of my order for
all Petty Officers to clean the mess hall after their watch?" he asked. My
answer was "HELL, NO!" The Boatswain spoke up and said he forgot to tell me.
"OK, I will acknowledge Sheehan's orders. Dismissed!" I left the room taking
the stairs two at a time. Halfway up the stairs I heard a loud shout.
"Sheehan, come here I want to talk to you". I knew I was in trouble because
I answered Lt. Keys in anger and did not show any respect. I now stand at
ram-rod attention. "Don't you approve of my decision for Petty Officers to
clean the Mess Halls?" "No sir, I think this would make the seamen more
friendly toward the Petty Officers." "Why don't you approve?" he asked.
"With respect sir, what would you think of carrying this one step further -
Lt. Williams and you cleaning the mess hall for the Petty Officers? Also, the
most important thing in Naval Law `do not coddle your men.' If this is not
coddling I don't know what is Sir." "Dismissed." That afternoon I was
ordered back to the officer's room. "What punishment would you recommend for
the boys who refused to obey your order?" he asked. I responded, "they
should clean the mess hall not once a week as before, but every day and no
liberty or port leave when we arrive in the U.S. this trip." "So be it, and
now I want to offer you something. I suggest a seaman striker for G.M. 3/C.
You stand no more watches. Make two inspections during the night at
different times and report any irregularities. Sheehan you are doing a good
job. Lt. Williams or I are supposed to make these inspections, but you can
do it for us. Does that appeal to you?" "Yes Sir" I replied. "Start right
now. Yes Sir, I am going to put you in charge of the 5"-38" (an excellent
anti-aircraft and surface cannon, using semi-fixed ammo capable of firing 5
shots in 15 seconds, 5 miles straight up or 9 miles on the surface. Movement
of the gun is controlled by hydraulic pressure). I could hardly believe my
ears. The men were sure I had something on the officers and would almost
fight to get on the 5" gun when a vacancy occurred or in my quarters, which
was now on the fantail, below the 5" gun tub.
Lt. Williams became very friendly with me. He invited me to have dinner with
he and his wife at a fancy restaurant in Boston. This was unheard of, the
Commanding Officer associating socially with a P.O. I hesitated to accept
the invitation but he assured me it would be OK.
After the war Mr. & Mrs. Williams stopped to see me while I was working at the
Container. I don't know what he told them, but I was told some important man
wanted to see me. Hurry up and see what he wants. Stay as long as you like.
Don't check out; just see what he wants. We had a very nice visit. They
settled in Lafayette, Indiana. He was working for his brother-in-law in the
optical business. After they were in Lafayette a short time they requested we
spend a weekend with them. Dean showed us movies of the convoy, firing the
5"-38 and discussed my promotion to not standing watch after my confrontation
with Lt. Keys. How did you know the Navy Law? Were you placed on the
Excelsior to report any irregularities? You really had us worried!
Dean and I still correspond and he gives me a telephone call at least once a