The Wreck of the SS John D. Gill
By Captain Dave Tilley
On February 1st 1942 U-158 left Helgoland, Germany and sailed into World War II history becoming the 5th most successful U-Boat in German history while earning Kapit'nleutnant Erwin Rostin the distinguishedKnights CrossĂ‚Âť.
U-158 a type IXC U-boat was capable of 17 knots on the surface and 7 knots underwater while carrying 22, T3A torpedoes in 4 bow tubes and 2 stern tubes. The U-158 and her Captain were a formidable fighting machine.
Kapit'nleutnant Erwin Rostin and U-158 are about 24 miles off he coast of North Carolina on the night of March 12th, 1942. Looking through his periscope he finds a tanker moving slowing northward. It had only been 2 days since he had sent the tanker Caribsea to the bottom and with 4 ships total under his belt during this tour he had every intention of making this tanker number 5. All he had to do was get in front of her, set his angle of attack and wait for his intended victim to pass through the cross hairs. There would be a number 5 on this night, he would see to that.
The John D. Gill was a 11,641 ton Steam Tanker built in 1941, capable of carrying 142,000 barrels of crude oil between the oil fields of Texas and the North East Coast of the United States. The John D. Gill was vital to the American war machine and Capt. Allen D. Tucker was determined to get through on their second voyage throughTorpedo AllyĂ‚Âť.
South of Charleston on March the 11th a spotter plane spied a Sub following the Gill and Captain Allen put into the port of Charleston for safety. The following day at 12:45 p.m the all clear was given and The SS John D. Gill cleared the port of Charleston for theAtlantic Refining Company'sĂ‚Âť refinery in Philadelphia and her date with destiny.
That evening as the sun settled along the Carolina Coast, The Gill is slowing making its way past Frying Pan Shoals. Floyd Ready, part of the Navel Armed Guard, and Seaman Gary Potts retired for the evening to their bunks. At around 10 pm Herbert Gardner, one of the wipers, sat in the mess with a hot cup of coffee wondering aloud what he would do if the Gill was torpedoed.
Sitting just beneath the surface of a calm Atlantic, U-158's Kapit'nleutnant Erwin Rostin watched as the tanker moved directly into the crosshairs. Wait¦Wait¦FIRE he called out. The submarine jolted as the T3A torpedo came to life and leaped from the bow tube. The whine from it's engine audible throughout the entire sub. The crew waited in anticipation for the sound that marked a job well done. They waited for #5 to become just another entry in their log book.
It was 10:10 pm when the chair under Herbert Gardner flew out from under him. He knew what had happened. A torpedo had struck the #7 tank on the starboard side near the main mast and Texas Crude with its high gasoline content spewed from the gapping wound covering the sea with a volatile cocktail. Floyd Ready and Gary Potts scrambled to their post at the 5-51 breach loaded Gun mounted at the stern of the stricken vessel. Seaman David M. Lunn, Seaman BobTexĂ‚Âť Senter and Ensign Robert D. Hutchins, their commander, joined them to get at least one shot off at the damned menace lurking around them.
In the mayhem someone through a life preserver equipped with aSelf-Igniting Carbide FlareĂ‚Âť over the side. The flare burst to life and with it the sea around the stricken vessel became a flaming caldron of burning Texas crude. We really wanted to get one shot offĂ‚Âť, Mr. Potts recalled,But the sub could have come'up outside the fire and we wouldn't have seen it anyway. The fire was too bright.Ă‚Âť The men stood by their gun awaiting the opportunity to return fire until the paint of theReady BoxĂ‚Âť began to blister. Finilly the officer in charge Ensign Robert D. Hutchins said, 'Let's get the hell out of here,' " Herbert Gardner and several others climbed into a lifeboat and started to lower it into the boiling sea. The boat suddenly dropped away and 2 of the men were dumped into the sea and a certain death at the hands of the still churning screws of the massive ship. Gardner had graped a line and soon found himself hanging along side a burning, sinking ship. Edward F. Chaney Jr., the ships quartermaster in the meantime had launched a life raft and then pushed it out beyond the burning oil by swimming underwater. His ears and arms were badly burned he called out to his shipmates. Chaney Swam out to at least 2 of his shipmates and dragged them back to the lifeboat. Those that could not make it aboard under their own power were helped by Chaney and later Potts.
The fire had now engulfed the stricken Tanker and the crews of lifeboat #4 and #7 watched helplessly as she slowly sank lower and lower into the dark waters of the Atlantic. "It kept burning and burning and blowing up and blowing up... until it finally just literally blew itself to pieces," Floyd Ready said. At 7:05 a.m., USCGC-186 a US Coast Guard Cutter stationed at SouthPort picked up some of the Survivors. Out of the 42 crew and 7 Naval Armed guard, 26 survived the sinking including Captain Allen D. Tucker. At 9:00am the SS John D Gill took her last breath and sank to the bottom 24 miles off the Carolina Coast. Several weeks later Edwin F. Cheney, Jr. was awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal.
A copy of the citation follows:
Edwin F. Cheney Jr.
Able Seaman on the SS John D. Gill 3/12/42
For heroism above and beyond the call of duty during enemy attack when he released and launched a life-raft from a sinking and burning ship and maneuvered it through a pool of burning oil to clear water by swimming under water, coming up only to breathe. Although he had incurred severe burns about the face and arms in this action, he then guided four of his shipmates to the raft, and swam to and rescued two others who were injured and unable to help themselves. His extraordinary courage and disregard of his own safety in thus rescuing his shipmates will be an enduring inspiration to seamen of the United States Merchant Marine everywhere.