Heroes: the U. S. Navy


"...The U-Boat was close aboard -- 200 yards and nearly abeam. The destroyer dropped one depth charge on the sub. It couldn't use its guns as the sub was too close and it was impossible to train the guns so close without inflicting damage back on itself..."



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 George J. Parness



This Time
  • Branch of Service: U. S. Navy
  • Unit: Nicholson, DD 442
  • Dates: 1941 - 1947
  • Location: North Atlantic - Convoy Escort
  • Rank: Signalman 1C
  • Birth Year: 1925
  • Entered Service: New York City, NY






George J. Parness served in the Navy from December 1941 until July 1947. Recalled during the Korean Conflict, he served an additional two years. Honorably discharged as a Signalman First Class. 

His first ship was the destroyer Nicholson, DD 442. His memory is of one of the earlier convoys and their return to the states. The time was February 1942. He was 16-years-old. He relied on deck logs and personal memories for the following:






    Our first run in with a convoy-wolfpack battle was in February 1942. It involved the destroyers Nicholson, Edison, Lea and Bernadou. These four comprised the navy escort for Convoy ON-67, westbound for Halifax via Iceland, from the United Kingdom. In charge of the escort was Edison's skipper. My ship, the Nicholson, had the only radar that worked consistently, and Bernadou was just out of "mothballs."

    We left Hvalfjordur, Iceland, on February 16, 1942, and picked up the convoy three days later. The convoy consisted of 35 ships steaming in 8-column formation. Falling in, the destroyers relieved  the British escorts, with the exception of the Canadian ship, the H.M.C.S Algoma. The Algoma was directed to stay with the convoy as long as her fuel permitted. Among the 35 merchant ships was the British rescue ship, the S.S. Toward, equipped with special life-saving gear and carrying "Huff-Duff."

    I should give some explanation of "Huff-Duff ' and how it performed: Early in the war the British Navy developed a method for determining the general location of U-boats at long range. The principle was to intercept the submarine's radio transmissions and then obtain cross-bearings by means of the finders stationed along the coast. The U-boats were continually transmitting messages of one kind or another and these high-frequency finders could intercept these transmissions. 



    ON WITH THE TALE: The convoy proceeded at 8 knots. The escorts were stationed about 4,000 yards from the convoy's rectangle, the destroyers patrolled at 12 knots. At night the destroyers retained the circular coverage, but the defense was shifted to the convoys front. The hours of February 19 and 20 were uneventful. 

    The morning of the 2lst the convoy was different. The visibility was about 10 miles, and the merchant ships were billowing smoke as obvious as an Indian smoke signal for stalking U-Boats. Early afternoon the Edison had a contact and dropped five depth charges. Contact was lost and she returned to her patrol position as the afternoon wore on. 

    Visibility improved and at 1730 (5:30 p.m.) the rescue ship Toward picked up a contact. The weather didn't help and if you were lucky, you were able to get the submarine's signal on the "Huff-Duff' gear. The destroyer Lea went out to search but made no contact and resumed her station. At 0305 (3:05 a.m) the following morning a U-boat attacked the left rear flank of the convoy. Thunder boomed in the night. Mushrooming smoke and orange fire, two ships staggered to a halt, hard hit. Flares from the torpedoed ships lit the sky, reminiscent of a July 4th celebration-but only death, cold and icy waters greeted these celebrants. It was awful. I was just too young to appreciate that we could easily have our roles reversed, we could be the ones in the water. And most of us were just hoping to get through this episode alive. Our ship, the Nicholson, fell back to join Toward and  Algoma in picking up survivors. I remember helping some of the survivors come aboard when one thanked me and mentioned our decks were warm. (He had no shoes on). The night was cold, as only the North Atlantic can be in February, and it was pitch black. We couldn't use flash lights as we would be a beacon for the U- Boats and we stumbled and held on for dear life. This man spoke in a language I didn't recognize, and he let me know he was Norwegian.  I took him below and rummaged about and found my pea coat to wrap around the shivering sailor; he explained that he had been asleep when the ship was struck. Later, as I fought the frigid North Atlantic air, I remembered my dubious generosity. 

    AS OUR SHIP GOT UNDERWAY again, we all knew survivors were still on those icy, churning waters. The fellow I had just awarded my pea coat pleaded, "But my brother is still out there!" The ship continued plowing through the water, because if we were to stay we would have been an easy target for the U-Boats. It was reasoned that it was better to lose a few men then the Nicholson as well as her crew and thus jeopardize the entire convoy. I was upset with the thought of leaving those people, but it had to be done. 

    February 22, 1942, dawned to a sea clear of submarines. No enemy was sighted and the rest of the day we spent trying to repair the damage the ship suffered in the heavy seas. Our clothing was damp and needed washing and the berthing spaces were awash with seawater. The weather continued to be brutally cold and the wind never ceased. 

    With the weather so bad we were forced to use catwalks rigged above the main deck to go forward or aft, as the main deck was constantly awash. We were apprehensive about the submarines and had extra lookouts on the bridge. When we cared to eat, (which was our only diversion), our meals consisted of sandwiches. 

    Cooking was impossible in such furious seas. 

    When I was topside, which was not too often because of the weather, I would crouch next to one of the blowers coming from below to get what little heat emanated from them. My mind would try to visualize the sun and warn weather. 

    I had a name for these day's, "dead days." Day in and day out was cold, cloudy and devoid of sun. The weather couldn't be worse, it was just awful. At 12:10 the next afternoon (February 23) the Edison picked up a sound contact, and it was considered a definite. The Edison let loose a pattern of five depth charges and searched the sea but was unable to make further contact. The convoy continued and she (the Edison) was over the horizon and had to rejoin the convoy at 25 knots. 

    Later that day the Bernadou picked up a sound contact at l6:15 (4:15 p.m.) twelve miles on the convoy's port beam. Depth charges were once again dropped, but the target seemed to evaporate. At this point the captain made the announcement that we were in the middle of a wolf pack and we made every effort to avoid an ambush. We continually changed courses to throw the enemy off track. That was two hours on one course, three hours on another, and two hours on still another, through the day and night, still herding and attempting to guard the merchant ships. 

    It was a frustrating time. The seas were rough, the weather uncooperative, the enemy all about. But in spite of our vigilance and precaution, the U-boats got in. 




    THE THOUGHT OCCURRED to me that maybe I was too anxious for adventure.  Nonetheless, I never regretted leaving home and joining the Navy. That is until the next morning when the first strike came. The date was February 24th and it was a night to remember, a night that I shall never, never forget. The first torpedo attack came at 12:30 a.m. in the morning. Thereafter successive attacks were made until 6:45 a.m. The convoy was attacked from both quarters by five or six submarines. 

    Four merchant ships were torpedoed. The Toward picked up foreign signals on her "Huff-Duff," She steamed 15 miles ahead to investigate the direction-finder bearing. At that point, we on the Nicholson sighted two surfaced submarines. I really couldn't believe my eyes, I got so excited I dropped my binoculars on the deck, my hands shook so badly. Captain Keating ordered a single-handed double-play, forcing the two U-boats to dive, and keeping them down until after dark. I was on starboard wing of the bridge, I picked up my binoculars and brought them up to my face. Suddenly a voice behind me screamed,"Sailor, see that wake down there?" I turned around and it was the captain. I replied, "Yes Sir," and he shouted, "That is a torpedo and if you see another, let me know immediately!"  At the same time the Lea dropped astern to run down a direction-finder bearing. She was sent out 20 miles on the convoy's  starboard flank. There she encountered a U-boat on the surface. When the sub submerged, Lea went after the target with depth charges. The captain of the Lea reported he thought that the sub sustained some damages. 

    At dusk, like snipping dogs the wolf pack closed in hungrily.  Following their favorite method, the U-boats surfaced after dark to run ahead for high-speed lunges at the advancing convoy. Not long after nightfall Edison picked up a sound contact on the convoy's starboard bow. Then the lookouts sighted a U-Boat silhouette slinking through the moonlight. The silhouette slid out of sight before the deck-gunners could get in a shot, but the Edison dropped depth charges in the vicinity where the U-Boat submerged. At this time the Edison directed six depth charge attacks and stayed in the vicinity but was unable to regain contact. 

    Returning to the convoy at 0205 a.m. (2:05 a.m.) in the morning of the 25th, Edison spotted another submarine. The U-Boat was close aboard--200 yards and nearly abeam. The destroyer dropped one depth charge on the sub. It couldn't use its guns as the sub was too close and it was impossible to train the guns so close without inflicting damage back on itself. We just couldn't believe what was happening. Would we ever get some rest? We were so tired but excited too. As a result of the anti-submarine efforts, we had no attacks on the convoy during the night of February 24-25. But daylight didn't dispel the submarine peril. Later that day fog moved in and soon after we had another suspicious contact to deal with. More depth charges were dropped and we continued on with our escort duties. 


    DAYLIGHT BROUGHT THE Coast Guard cutter Spencer steaming through rough seas to join us. She was a welcome reinforcement. At this point we were on the home stretch. All in all we lost four ships. Another two, although damaged by torpedoes, were able to make it home. The return to Halifax, Nova Scotia, brought an end to my first navy cruise. We had a great liberty ashore with good food and solid footing without the pitch and roll. I made another three convoys, to Scotland and Ireland. We had further contacts, dropped depth charges and ran down some submarines. At times I thought we would never defeat those U-boats. It seemed that ship's being sunk by enemy submarines were a natural occurence. Of course loss of lives and the needed supplies in Europe could never be considered a natural happening.



Original Story submitted 27 September 2009.

Story updated on 27 September 2009