At the beginning of the Second World War, it was decided by the Allied forces that perhaps Newfoundland was more strategic of a location than they had previously thought. Being closer to Europe that anywhere else in North America, and being an island, gave it an advantage that land-based ports didn’t have. Unfortunately, the effects of the Depression and the FIrst World War were still being felt, and Newfoundland could not afford to build any new defences on its Island shores. The Americans built two bases – one in St. John’s, on the site of Pleasantville (the old training grounds of the Newfoundland Regiment) and one in Argentia, along the south shore.
One night in 1942, however, this arrangement would prove costly for two ships of the American fleet: the USS Pollux and the USS Truxtun. This weeks entry is going to focus on the loss of the Truxton.
Displacement: 1,215 tonnes
Speed: 35 knots
The USS Truxtun had a fair career under her belt before the start of the Second World War. She had sailed with the Asiatic fleet through the twenties, cruising between the Philipines and China, and joined the Battle Force in Hawaii in the thirties. Sailing as far north as Alaska, and as far south as the Panama Canal, she and the rest of the American fleet guarding their nations shores. Then, at the start of the Second World War, she sailed through the Panama Canal and joined the Atlantic fleet, sailing to North Africa, Europe, and Florida. From there, she was assigned to convoy duty, escorting ships to and from North America.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, the number of men enlisting in the American Navy spiked considerably. Some of these men were sent to the base in Argentia, Newfoundland, to train and participate in patrols of the waters surrounding the island. They were also responsible for participating in convoys; delivering valuable military munitions to various locations to support the war effort.
On February 18, 1942, one such convoy was underway along the unfamiliar Newfoundland shore. Made up of the USS Truxtun, the USS Pollux, and the USS Wilkes, the ships were heading for the American base in Argentia. The Pollux was loaded with ammunition, and the other two ships were acting as its escort. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans, and a brutal winter storm blew up, hammering the ships with waves and freezing spray. The ships were blown off course, and before too long, they spotted land. The captain of the Truxtun gave the order for hard astern, but it was too late. In no time, the Truxtun was on the rocks near the community of St. Lawrence, and the men on board began to fight for their lives.
The ship began to break up in almost no time, the huge February waves pounding her hull as she lay helpless against the rocks. The men first tried to cast lines ashore, but this failed as the oil began to flow from the ship, coating everything (and everyone) in the water. The members of the shore communities were alerted, and in a show of bravery which we have seen before in these stories, the men descended onto the shore to pull the struggling, soaked, and oil covered sailors from the water. Although the men fought through the night to get ashore and survive the icy water, the Truxtun lost 110 of their crew on that night.
The local residents climbed down the ice-covered cliffs with ropes around their waists to the survivors below. The survivors were scooped from the water and brought up along the cliff side; many half conscious and badly wounded. They were brought to the nearby Iron Springs mine, which had been quickly made into a makeshift hospital. While the local men were bringing survivors in, the local women put them into dry clothes, fed them hot soup and coffee, and bundled them up before sending them into the town. From there, the local townspeople took in who they could into their homes, giving them a safe place and nursing many of the men back to health.
One famous story that goes along with this tragedy is the story of Lanier Phillips. An African-American male who had been a victim of racism for years, he had joined the Navy only to deal with more of the same. During the wreck of the Truxtun, he was pulled from the water and taken to the mine. All the men were covered in oil, so the women set about washing as much of it off as they could. As the story goes, Lanier was being tended to by a couple of women who were very concerned because they couldn’t seem to get all of the oil off of his skin. After a few minutes, he realized that these women had never in fact seen a black person before, and that they were trying to scrub his skin, thinking it had been dyed by the oil in the water. After he told them this was just the colour of his skin, he was amazed to find that he wasn’t treated any different from the other men who had been pulled from the water. After facing so much discrimination in his life, the kindness of the Newfoundlanders inspired him to go back to the United States and join the civil rights movement.
The wreck of the USS Truxtun has been ravaged by weather and time, and only a bit of her hull and bits of her can be found along the shore now. A piece of her superstructure actually rests on top of one of the cliffs; thrown there by the weather as she broke apart. If you are ever down the Burin Peninsula and want to see a piece of her, the Provincial Seamen’s Museum in Grand Bank has one of her ladders in their collection, placed on one of their walls. When you know where it comes from, it’s a bit unsettling – you can almost imagine the men scrambling along it as she sank below the waves.