Sunken sub brings Bill Smith's firsthand story to light
Cheney man was there when Coast Guard crew sank a recently rediscovered German U-boat in World War II
By BECKY THOMAS
Last month divers discovered the remains of a German U-boat off Nantucket Island, Mass. that was sunk by U.S. ships in April 1944.
Last week on the other side of the country, Bill Smith sat in his Cheney home recalling exactly how the submarine ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic. It took nearly 70 years to find the remains of the U-boat, but the battle that sunk it was over in a few hours.
On April 16, 1944 Smith was 17 years old, an apprentice electrician with 16 months under his belt with the U.S. Coast Guard. He was aboard the USS Poole, one of six destroyer escort ships traveling with a group of around 30 ships—mostly tankers and some troop transport ships—making their way from New York to Ireland.
They had left New York the night before, and when morning came a German torpedo struck the SS Pan Pennsylvania, a gasoline tanker that was part of the convoy.
“The convoy wasn't organized yet,” Smith said, and the ship was lagging behind. The Poole was sailing alongside it to get it in line when the attack happened.
“I was down washing dishes,” Smith said, when the impact blew him off his feet.
Almost instantly, the quiet day at sea became a battle. The Poole, the flag ship of the convoy, dispatched the USS Joyce to the doomed Pennsylvania to pick up survivors. Twenty-seven men were killed in the blast.
As the Joyce pulled away with survivors, its crew pinpointed the German submarine below the water and dropped depth charges on it. The charges found their mark, and the U-boat came to the surface.
At this point in his story, Smith was reminded of another U-boat contact from a month earlier. Some of the same ships, including the Poole, the Joyce and the USS Leopold were sailing south of Iceland when they detected a U-boat March 9, 1944. The Leopold went after it, a fight ensued and the Germans won. The Leopold sank, along with 171 men in one of the biggest Coast Guard tragedies of the war. Many of those lost were friends of the crews on the other ships.
“She never got any credit, even at the time,” he said.
Smith recalled that day because the memory of the Leopold was still fresh April 16.
“When we ran into this thing, the guys were maybe thinking about that,” he said. “The guys were maybe overly aggressive.”
When the damaged U-boat surfaced right next to the convoy, the USS Gandy immediately rammed it. A gun fight ensued between the Gandy, the Joyce and the U-boat. According to a Coast Guard history, the German survivors fled the vessel and were taken prisoner.
The American crews were able to apprehend 12 German prisoners, and the rest, 44 men, went down with the ship. The prisoners were later handed over to the British.
Smith, now 85, was happy to hear that the wreck had been found. The Associated Press reported that a privately funded group had been searching for the sub for the past several years, and a team discovered the submarine, located about 70 miles south of Nantucket Island, using side-scan sonar July 23.
Smith said the discovery adds to the history of World War II, and of the Coast Guard's significant influence in the war.
But the battle was also a very small portion of the war he experienced, and not an uncommon occurrence.
On countless trips across the Atlantic, and later to Asia and the South Pacific, Smith said he had to be ready for attacks at all times.
“The moment you left the harbor, you expected attacks,” he said. “It wasn't until you got into a port or something that you could breathe easier.”
He only experienced a handful of fights with U-boats, though, and most of the time the ships dropped depth charges on their targets but they lost track of them, never knowing if the submarine sank due to damage or snuck away unscathed.
Smith saw a lot of difficult things in more than three years of service, including the effects of the war on individuals as he served aboard a ship that transported injured soldiers from the shores of Normandy.
“You saw everything,” he said. “But I was so young, it was like water off a duck's back.”
Smith joined the Coast Guard at the age of 15. As a teenager in Florida, he said he was in and out of school, without much direction.
“When the war started I wasn't doing nothing but running around Miami getting into trouble.” He saw enlistment as a way to improve himself, and joined in December 1942.
He lied about his birth year and his mother signed the papers, deciding that the military would do over reform school.
For the next three years, Smith traveled to dozens of different countries, met many new friends and learned to be an electrician. He was discharged from the Coast Guard as an electrician's mate/2c in February 1946 after a couple trips to Japan to transport troops and Japanese citizens who had been interred during the war.
Later, he moved to Richland, Wash. with his new wife Phoebe, and worked at Hanford for many years. He worked for the Navy in Vietnam and Singapore, and in the 1980s, he and his family settled in Cheney, where Smith acquired apartment complexes that he still manages today.
Over the years he said he still thinks about his experiences in the war, and specifically of the battle on April 16, 1944.
The battle itself was quick, and soon after they turned over 12 German prisoners to Marines in Ireland. Smith laughed looking at photos of the crowd that formed to get a look at the enemy.
“They've all got their guns, making a big show. Like [the unarmed German prisoners] are going to do something,” he said.
Smith said he feels empathy for the Germans who died inside the submarine, and he's well aware of his good luck—he was never injured. Seventy years later, he doesn't have negative feelings toward his former enemies.
“You can't hold it against a guy who was doing what he was supposed to do,” he said.
Becky Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.