USS Paul Hamilton–A Small Story of Great Loss

Only 6 weeks before the D-Day invasion we lost one of Liberty ships off the coast of N. Africa near Algiers.   This was at a time when we were set to start the final act of WWII.   The Germans were already reeling from their losses on the Eastern Front and Stalingrad and it had been a year since we and the Brits had defeated them in N. Africa and taken Sicily and were pushing up the Italian boot.   Everyone knew lots of hard fighting remained but things were looking our way and we had literally millions of troops ready to throw on the shores of France in a few weeks and materiale beyond comprehension.

In 1941 the first EC 2 ship was built in the US.  It was based on a British design.  The parts were fabricated at many locations then the ship would be assembled at a dockyard.   There were many dockyards used for this purpose.  These ships were specifically designed to transport troops and material needed for the battle against the Nazis.  At the dedication Roosevelt made a comment about how these ships would bring “liberty to Europe”.  From then on they were known as the Liberty ship.  They were 441 feet in length and had a beam of 53 feet.  Before the war was done we build over 2700 of them.   Truly astonishing when you think about it because that was done while we built tens of thousands of jeeps, trucks, tanks, and airplanes at the same time.  In April of 1944 one of those ships was loaded in Southhampton England with materiale and troops.  There were the troops, the merchant marine crew and a contingent of the Naval Armed Guard since they manned the weapons on these ships.  It was part of a convoy to Algiers and then on to Italy to supply and reinforce the troops and campaign there against the Germans.

By spring of 1944 we had air supremacy in all of Europe and mastery of the seas.  That means in the strategic sense.  The Germans were no longer capable of denying us the skies or the oceans on a consistent basis or in a manner that would prevent us from achieving our overall objectives.  That didn’t mean that there was no danger to the sailors on those ships.   The Germans were still building subs and planes.  In fact the Germans didn’t reach their peak of airplane production until late in 1944.   That is amazing when you realize how much destruction we had already caused with our bombing of German to that date but they were in for even worse from then to the end of the war in May 1945.  The ship that sailed from Southampton was the Paul Hamilton.  It had on board 580 souls, troops, merchant marine sailors and the Armed Guard.  The convoy it was in passed the Pillars of Hecules (Gibraltor) and was nearing its destination in Algiers. 

Late in the afternoon 15 German planes came upon the convoy.  They were Heinkels 111’s and Dorniers.  These were fighter bomber aircraft.  Even though we had mastery of the skies that didn’t mean the Germans simply quit sending their aircraft out on missions.  They simply couldn’t make as many aircraft as we could and their biggest problem was training pilots.  The longer the war went on the less training their pilots received and thus so many were lost shortly after entering combat because of that lack of training.  The planes made a sweep and damaged ships in the convoy and then another.  On the second sweep and bombing run a bomb hit the Hamilton.  It was loaded with munitions to the gills in addition to the troops on board.    It is not known  exactly where the bomb struck but apparently it went to one of the holes that had the munitions.  The ship literally exploded to nothing.  The ball of fire and debris went over a thousand feet into the air.   There is a photo of this moment caught on a camera at that time from another ship in the convoy. 

There were searches for survivors.  But there was virtually nothing left of the ship.  All hands and troops were lost in a flash of time.   The loss was kept secret for a long time.  This was common during the war for security reasons and for propoganda reasons.   The next of kin were simply notified that their son was missing in action.  All 580 souls were sent to their Maker in a second.    Even the most routine of events during the war was fraught with danger.  Most convoys by this time made their journeys without incident but that fact was of no avail on this April night. 

We rightly mourn the loss of 20 of our men in Iraq or Afghanistan but WWII  puts things in perspective for us or at least it should.  About the same time during a practice landing for D-Day the German E boats from Normandy attacked the fleet on Slapton Sands in southern England we lost over 700 men during that attack and no one ever knew about it for years.  The relatives were not informed of the circumstances of the death of their loved ones.  The Germans were still attacking at the coast of England only a month before D-Day!   

Life is precious and can be lost in the twinkling of the eye.   Those lives were lost so I could write these words and you could read them.   Rights and freedoms don’t come without a price.


Filed under Foreign Affairs, geography, history, military history

2 responses to “USS Paul Hamilton–A Small Story of Great Loss

  1. Anonymous

    My father was the Group Commander of the 154 men from the 831st Squadron, 485th Bomb Group lost in 30 seconds on the Paul Hamilton. The veterans of the 485th and their families still mourn and honor the memories of their lost buddies at every annual reunion. They are not forgotten.

    • olcranky

      Thank you for the note. Our fathers did us proud and made our nation a better place, if only we can now preserve what that they handed to us. I hope their sacrifices are never forgotten.

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