Standing into Danger: A Dramatic Story of Shipwreck and Rescue
Sidney Allinson is a Victoria-based communications consultant, Canadian
news correspondent for Britain’s The Army Quarterly and Defence, and
author of The Bantams: The Untold Story of World War I.
For as long as naval wars have been fought, danger from enemy action has always been relatively minor compared with the hazards of the sea itself. Yet, the wartime pressures that force ships to venture into the worst of weather, regardless of risk, coupled with the need to stay constantly alert to possible attack, has time and again put naval vessels in extra peril. All too often, these conditions result in multiple shipwrecks. Few such tragedies exceed that which occurred on February 18, 1942, causing one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. Navy history.
That snowy dawn, three American vessels ran aground on the rocky coast of Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. The destroyers USS Truxton and USS Wilkes and the supply ship USS Pollux crashed against the cliffs near two isolated fishing communities. What occurred then was a tribute to the heroism of the local men and women who struggled against a violent storm to rescue as many of the doomed sailors as possible. Until today, it remained a little-known interlude, now commemorated through careful research and deservedly good narrative skill in Standing into Danger.
The three ships were under radio silence to prevent revealing their position to lurking German U-boats. With zero visibility, and navigation instruments made erratic by the storm, they were caught helplessly in powerful currents and buffeted far off course by gale-force winds, to crash against jagged cliffs. The USS Wilkes was re-floated within a few hours, but the other two ships were hard aground, and the sea began to batter them to pieces. Two hundred and three young American sailors died in the next few hours, despite the most gallant efforts of would-be rescuers from shore. One hundred and eighty-five crewmen survived, largely owing their lives to eight men of Lawn and almost the entire community of St. Lawrence, who struggled bravely to rescue them. To read this account is almost to feel the bitter cold and hear the screaming wind and pounding waves of those desperate hours.
Author Cassie Brown lives in Newfoundland and so is particularly able to catch the courage of its people and the sea’s importance in the life of the island. She painstakingly traced and interviewed 26 survivors of the shipwrecks, as well as numerous Newfoundlanders who took part in the rescue. As well, she makes good use of maps, and she drew on many official records, including that of the ruthless U.S. naval courts martial that followed. She tells how many of the senior officers who survived that night found their professional lives also were wrecked. Much contradictory opinion was subsequently brought out through her researches, making one wonder at just how truly unbiased is the predetermined outcome of naval courts in wartime.
However, the book’s real heroes and heroines remain untarnished, clear and clean as an Atlantic gale. The sailors and civilians who were united that night in battling the sea forged an affection that prevails until today. Soon after the rescue, a U.S. Navy admiral wrote that “We owe an eternal debt of gratitude to the local people. Without their prompt and tireless efforts, only a handful of our men would have survived... They are a hardy race of English and Irish descent, quiet, dignified, and reserved. Also with few exceptions, they are poor and with few possessions. It occurs to me that a fitting memorial would be a small equipped hospital at St. Lawrence to be given by the U.S” This was done — an appropriate and practical reminder of the inherent courage of mankind.