NARRATIVE BY CHIEF HUNTER WOOD, USCG, ON USS SAMUEL CHASE--
ALGERIA - NORTH AFRICA
Hunter Wood, Chief Boatswain's Mate, USCG, was questioned at some length, on June 11, 1943, at Navy Headquarters in Washington, D. C., by Lieut. Comdr. Moran of the Combat Narrative Section of the Office of Naval Intelligence. The vivid description, given by Wood of the SAMUEL CHASE in Algeria, and also of the sinking of the HMS AVENGER, close by, follows almost as he gave it:
I am Chief Boatswain Mate, Hunter Wood, USCG. I entered the Coast Guard December 17, 1941 and served aboard the Coast Guard Cutter ACTIVE. I also saw lifeboat training and various other details to which I was assigned.
My vessel, the USS SAMUEL CHASE, twenty-thousand ton Navy Transport to which I was assigned, was an amphibious force task vessel, heavily armed I might say, and put her in commission and served aboard her for nine months. We trained with the amphibious forces under Commander Jamison in Chesapeake Area (Ocean City) and operated out of N.O.B.
This period of training lasted about three months, I should say. I also went aboard the USS JOSEPH HEWES, for special training in landing operations. We operated with the Army ashore as to details in beach warfare, how to dig slit trenches, how to fall with a rifle, and seek cover as best one could under attack conditions.
We got underway from New York, I don't know the exact date, proceeded to Halifax and there joined convoy bound for Belfast, Ireland. Proceeded in convoy to Ireland, stayed in Belfast a little over a week, unloaded all our cargo, and restowed it, due to improper stowage in New York. The troops at this time were sent ashore for more extensive maneuvers in Ireland. When they returned, with us were the ships STONE, LEEDSTOWN, ALMAACK and my vessel the CHASE.
We maneuvered into the Perth of Clyde and anchored off the town of Inverary, Scotland and there proceeded with more maneuvers, with the Black Watch from Scotland. We stayed in Inverary for a little over a week. I being Chief Boatswain's Mate of the 9th Division; Division of which consisted of approximately forty-eight men, specially trained and picked for landing operations with the Army. Went ashore there in Inverary, went up into the hills with the Army and received instructions from Captain Lombardi, of the U. S. Army and Colonel Brown. There were long hikes and dummy runs, so to speak. As to landing operations, we made one complete landing
operation one evening, which lasted all night, our opposing enemy being the Black Watch. After this training period was over we proceeded in convoy to Greenock, Scotland, and there took on a few additional supplies and proceeded in convoy toward Algiers and the Mediterranean.
I was in the first invasion November 7th, at Cape Matifou, Algeria. My division, I operated under Ensigns McLyn and Banks who were assigned in charge of the 9th Division, landing operations beach party. We got mustered and received photographs, profiles of the sketches and charts, descriptions of the terrain to be expected, studied it so that we could readily visualize it, readily notice the, or recognize rather, the profile of the land which we were to land at. We went over the side at 10 o'clock at night, November 7th, with the Army.
The first encounter we had with the enemy, was about abeam of Oran, the day previous to our landing operation. Some aircraft, either recognizance or level bombers, were sighted at approximately 4,500 feet off our port bow. Our British screening fleet opened up on these planes, not hitting any. We all opened up. I might say there was no panic. We had been given pamphlets to read on what to expect of the dive bombing tactics. That is the crews reaction. However, I saw none of this. We proceeded on in and went on with our landing operations. We picked up a submarine who gave us the signal, as had been previously arranged for the exact spot we were to heave to. We were to lie approximately five miles off the beach. When the troops went over the sides we went over with them, the complete 9th Division. The Division was split up and put into various landing boats and proceeded to shore. There was a low-lying fog on the water at this time and it was quite dark. An unidentified bi-plane came in from overland, flew out toward our ships, did not identify itself, showed no recognition signals. She was opened up on by my ship the CHASE, didn't hit her. However, that seemed more or less to disclose activities out there where we were.
The fort at Algiers turned on a huge, a very powerful searchlight and commenced to sweep the area. This light was one of the most powerful I have ever seen. After that, as we proceeded on in during this time, the guns of this Fort at Algiers opened up. There were eight-inch guns there, at the time. Two of our destroyer screen opened up on the fort. The exchange of gunfire continued all the way into the beach, and well on into the early hours of the morning.
There was very little opposition on the beach, with the exception of some few rattled French or Senegalese and Arab snipers. They didn't do much harm to us, however. My beach party then went on with the regular beach party operations, which is establishing a beachhead keeping the traffic lanes open for incoming and outgoing landing boats, repairing damaged ones. There was very slight surf at this time, ideal weather conditions for landing. The spot had been well picked. We landed at RED Beach, that is Division.
The next morning two planes were sighted at approximately twenty-two hundred feet. They came in, they were fired on, and they got away. I might say there was no aerial support whatsoever during this first initial landing operation, due to the fact that our troops were to take over the airport at Algiers, the port, and the town itself, the City of Algiers proper. And until the airport was taken over, there would be no field, no spot for our British air arm support to come in and refuel. They used the fighter plane type, which was all we needed during the first few days. After those planes disappeared, the enemy came back about two hours later - approximately nine or ten bombers. Junkers 88 type - and commenced dive bombing tactics on our fleet. One or two vessels were hit at this time, though not seriously. My vessel, the SAMUEL CHASE, had two near misses. During this engagement several planes were shot down. My vessel was credited with four at the time, the LEEDSTOWN with one, I believe, and the ALMAACK several others. I might say that the gunfire was terrific, FLAK was thrown up into these planes, crews reacted in a splendid manner, like seasoned veterans. After all, taking into consideration that these men were from ages 18 to 24 or 26, had never been under gunfire before, it was really credible the manner in which they stuck to their post and handled their guns and the landing of boats under dive bombing attacks.
The Army on the beach, also, during these attacks, had their Bufors set up and opened up on the planes, scoring several direct hits on some. During the evening, a torpedo bomber attack occurred. About 17 torpedo bombers came in over the hills and out toward the fleet. They seemed intent on destroying or damaging the Army source of supply. They didn't seem to bother us much on the beach, except for an occasional strafing when they came over us, after having bombed the fleet lying a mile and a half off shore. By the way, the fleet had moved in within a mile and a half of our beachhead. That was in order to proceed in a more easy manner with landing operations and heavy tanks, jeeps, bulldozers, ammunition, food supplies, gas, oils and medical equipment and such. During the entire torpedo bombing attacks, I can relate one in particular, that was directed against my vessel. A torpedo bomber came in at 2 points on our starboard bow approximately, and dropped two torpedoes. The exact name or type of that plane, I don't know. It might have been a Heinkel type design. She dropped two torpedoes. One of them missed our bow, that is the stem, by three feet; the other one went down our starboard side. This torpedo that missed our stem went off the port, hit the stern of the troop transport LEEDSTOWN, and knocked the steering gear out of commission.
By the way, I might say of the troop transport STONE, her steering gear had been put out of commission prior to the landing operations. She was the third ship astern of us in convoy position. She was torpedoed by a torpedo bomber, which peeled off and banked right over our fan tail. Nobody fired at this plane. It seemed that the STONE showed all her lights. We heard a dull thud back off but didn't realize she was the hit. It was more or less the first
time we had encountered this sort of attack. The STONE then went off into Gibraltar I believe, or was towed on in. That's right, she was towed on in to Algiers, so that she could proceed with her landing operations. She got all of her supplies and equipment off for the Army.
Lt. Comdr. C. Moran:
Q. As I understand it, the RED Beach No. 1 on which you landed is just south of Cape Matifou?
A. That is correct.
Q. How many men do you recall being landed on that beach during the course of the morning?
A. I should say approximately four or five thousand.
Q. Did you have any trouble coming in with compasses?
A. There was a little difficulty with compasses continually. The exact cause was that the magnetism there conflicted with the compasses.
Q. Did the infrared signals, between the landing parties and the shore parties already established, seem to work?
A. Well, they did on several occasions. The British WARLIONS which let our first wave in used infrared light to quite satisfactory effect.
Q. After the first wave had landed, did the boats immediately turn about and go back to the transports or did they wait until the second landing had been made?
A. There was no waiting at all. They immediately shoved off and proceeded back to the vessels.
As I understand it, you didn't get a surf until about the early morning of the next day.
A. That is correct. The surf built up there, until approximately the third day it was very heavy.
The landing operations were more or less completed by the third day and the ships with the exception of the LEEDSTOWN, that is the rest of the division, moved around to the northern tip of Cape Matifou.
Q. Do you want to talk about the losses of any ship during that landing operation?
A. Yes, the LEEDSTOWN, which I saw dive bombed and torpedoed, I can tell you exactly about her, as I witnessed the whole affair. She was completely a Navy-manned transport. I had half of my beach party underneath the cliffs of the town of Ayantags. We were undergoing salvaging operations. We were picking up gear that had been soaked in some of these swamped boats. By the way, there were quite a few boats lost during this landing operation not due entirely to the fault of the coxswains, but I should say more or less the inadequate boats for traffic control. The traffic control boat's duties are to take the landing boats which have broached to on the beach, lead a line to them, in the best manner possible and snake them off, get them out of the way so that you keep the beach clear for other incoming craft. On several occasions these plywood jobs, ramp boats, which I am not in favor of personally and a great many aren't either, were hit by or side-wiped by a heavy tank fighter coming in and crushed like eggshells.
Q. As I understand it, your transports were about 5 miles off shore.
A. The transports were 5 miles off shore in the first landing, that
is the first invasion, the first wave. The next morning, they came in to within approximately a mile and a half off shore.
Q. How long did it take you to make the average run of 5 miles? What time did you leave the transport and what time did you land about?
A. Well we went over the side at 10 and got in the beach at approximately, well I should say 2045. That was about the time going in. We went in under muffled exhausts and a regulated speed which instructions had been given the Coxswains.
Q. How long about, on the average did it take to load the boat, from the side of the transport?
A. Well, I can tell you of my vessel alone. I think that as far as landing and loading boats both with a boom and with a whaling davit, it was done in exceptionally fast time. I should say when the order was given by Captain Heimer of my vessel to away the boats, everybody was at his station. Of course everybody knew what to do. We had trained over and over again on this job. Those boats were in the water in approximately twenty-six to twenty-seven minutes - all boats, including tank lighters.
Q. How long did it take the troops to go down the rope ladders? The nets?
A. Well, I couldn't say exactly. The troops were already at the nets, the red, yellow, blue, green, and so forth. They had all been assigned to their nets. I think they went over the side as fast as the boats came up along side the vessel to pick them up, one after the other, the boat pools. I should say the troops from our vessel were all away by approximately 2½ to 3 hours.
Q. Going back to the plywood landing boats, when they were sunk, were there many casualties?
A. There were no casualties during this occasion but there were several bruises. To go on with the LEEDSTOWN incident: It was approximately three in the afternoon, not using the seagoing term for time. At that time the planes were heard overhead. We looked up and saw a Junkers 88 come out and make a long shallow bank, to the starboard, and come in sort of a level dive - it could be expressed that way - toward the LEEDSTOWN. She dropped three bombs, as they all did at one time, and those bombs did not hit the LEEDSTOWN. They were a near miss, landing on her port side. Another Junkers came in to starboard and dropped three more on her. They were also a near miss. There was gunfire from the LEEDSTOWN and some from the British corvette which was lying off her port bow. About a minute later, there was a terrific explosion in her starboard side amidships, and we believe a submarine was in there and put two torpedoes into her. It was either a submarine or else this Junkers carried torpedoes with her and had dropped them. But I hadn't seen them drop from her. I saw the bombs. She rolled over and after settling she commenced to settle down to starboard, listing quite heavily to starboard.
Q. Was "H" hour at two?
A. Yes, it was.
Q. Was there any postponement?
A. No, not that I know of.
The crew of the LEEDSTOWN was seen to abandon ship, all in rafts about five men to a raft, and one ramp boat got away. In this ramp boat were stretcher cases and men taken from sick bay aboard. The rest of the rafts, I should say approximately 28, drifted directly down to my beach, where we were. The sea by this time was very heavy, and there was a very, very, strong undertow from the beach. I dispatched what men I had with me out along the beach over into the rocky section of it on both ends and some on the sandy place where we were. There was very little place there, or sandy stretch that is, for a raft to come in on. However, it seemed good luck or the fates that brought the sailors from the LEEDSTOWN in there. The majority of those rafts managed to get right in to the sandy area. The wind blew them directly on a
straight line from the stern of the LEEDSTOWN, directly to the town of Ayantayo, where our boys were. As they came in on these rafts, the sailors singing and trying to keep up the morale, the way they do, they didn't realize the treacherousness of the surf. The surf never looks as large as it really is from the seaward side. As they came in, we took off our clothes, took small liner of the bowline and went out into the surf as far as we dared go. We sang out to these sailors to get out of their rafts and hang on to the sides. Some of them heard, some didn't. The rafts, however, came in, and capsized right in the surf. There was a terrific look of shock and strain on the faces of the sailors as they came in from that abuse, after having been bombed and torpedoed.
They were floating around there in the Kapoks, faces down, rendered more or less unconscious, the rafts having come down on top of them after they had been capsized. Some rafts that had already been emptied were swept back by the undertow and banged right into them. All hands worked until they were nearly exhausted. The people from the town of Ayantayo came down to the beach afterwards and they also went into the water to snake these sailors out. The Army also gave us a hand there. The beach was quite a scene of activity there, for I should say 2½ to 3 hours.
The sailors from the LEEDSTOWN were taken up into a theater, an old theater there in the town of Ayantayo where straw had been strewn all over the deck, and the sailors were made as comfortable as possible. They were shivering, of course, as it was quite chilly at the time there. They were given alcoholic beverages to straighten them out a little. The French people, I might say, were very fine towards the sailors, very friendly towards them, gave them shoes and clothing in a great many cases.
The LEEDSTOWN, however, didn't sink exactly that night. She kept. She just lay there and listed, and I went into the little villa that we have on the beach that night. I took a last look at her at dusk and saw she was all right. She still listed though. At 12 o'clock that night there was an explosion and the LEEDSTOWN sank. I don't know the exact cause of that explosion. The next morning at dawn when we looked over there all that could be seen was the truck of her mast, in the water. She was sunk.
The crew of the LEEDSTOWN were brought back to lower Scotland aboard the USS SAMUEL CHASE. The sailors, of course, were nervous a little bit, as all hands were, for we were in a pretty hot zone there. Of course, they did not have many clothes, the men aboard ship. The stores were opened up to those sailors, and also the majority of the crew of the CHASE gave whatever clothes they could spare to these boys.
That is about all I can tell you on the LEEDSTOWN incident.
Going back to England, however, the British aircraft carrier AVENGER joined our convoy and took the position dead astern of my
ship, approximately 500 yards distance and that, well, we were well outside the Straits of Gibraltar when I was Chief Bos'ns Mate of the watch, from 12 to 4 and at approximately 0330 a.m. the general alarms sounded. I just finished making my rounds of the gun crews, and reported to the OD on the Deck "all secure on deck."
I want below for coffee and no sooner got there than general alarm sounded, and went to battle stations. My gun was forward. By the way, I was assistant battery officer then on the 3-inch 50 and 20 mm. I no sooner got up to the station than there was a terrific muffled explosion dead astern of us, and a sheet of flame approximately 200 feet high went straight up into the air, and dense black smoke and objects seemed to fly through the air on fire. These were bodies of the crew of the AVENGER. She was hit on her port side amidships and these torpedoes ignited her high octane gas tanks. She broke completely in half and her flight decks extended at terrific angle both fore and aft. She then warped out into a U shape towards starboard and disappeared and was engulfed in black smoke and the night. We could hear the cries of the men aboard the AVENGER and feel the heat of her. Our five-inch gun crew aft on the fantail had to hold their hands against their faces, for the heat of the nearness of the explosion. Two other vessels were hit at this time. A British corvette and the USS ALMAACK. The ALMAACK was hit amidships on the starboard side, I believe the fireroom. There were several casualties aboard her. By the way, we brought several of her crew back to the United States aboard our vessel from Gibraltar. When I last saw her, she was lying there alongside the quay, along the coal supply base.
The HMS AVENGER, sank in approximately seven minutes. I think I am quite safe in saying that out of a crew of approximately five hundred forty some odd men, only a handful of survivors were picked up by a British corvette. We proceeded back to Greenock, Scotland and took aboard British troops then returned to Algiers and on this return trip, however, we went right on into the city proper, alongside the docks and debarked the troops. There was very little activity during this second trip. From there we went into Gibraltar and lay there nineteen days waiting for a convoy back to the States. During that nineteen days, however, it might be interesting to mention they had sort of a suicide gang of people, I don't know whether they were Spanish or German, that used to swim out and attach a mine or torpedo to the vessels that were lying at anchor there. Four vessels, I understand, were sunk in this way right outside of Gibraltar lying in there near the town of Laielis. However, we had our landing boats circling our vessel all night long and had a special watch set on deck to look out for anything that appeared to be a human torpedo, as they were referred to. We left Gibraltar for the United States on New Year's Day.
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