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Jax Beach Wreck and the SS Gulf America

Jax Beach Wreck and the SS Gulf America

It’s 10:00 p.m. The German submarine, U-Boat 123, surfaces to periscope height. It has been stalking the American tanker, S.S. Gulf America, for hours and she is now fully silhouetted against the bright lights of Jacksonville Beach. 10:15 p.m. U-Boat 123 turns port to westerly heading. A torpedo has been armed and loaded. Commander Reinhart Hardegen gets a clear focus, checks range and baring one final time and calls off the numbers. The Second Officer repeats the coordinates quickly and sharply. 10:20 p.m. Hardegen gives his command,….. “Fire.” There’s nothing but silence as he waits. The concussion from the explosion is felt throughout U-Boat 123 as it announces the hit. The Gulf America has been fatally wounded and it lights the night with a huge ball of fire that is witnessed for miles along the Florida’s northeast coast.

There was a warm west wind blowing that spring night in April of 1942. The fire and smoke from the explosion is being blown to the east and it prevents Hardegen from fully assessing the damage. He brings his sub to the surface and orders the crew to man the deck guns. The sub is maneuvered to the port side of the Gulf America, which once again becomes a clear target because it is now silhouetted by its own flames. The survivors are desperately trying to abandon ship from the port side to avoid the flames as Hardegen orders the deck guns to fire. A few minutes later U-Boat 123 slips below the surface and disappears.

The survivors are now left to the mercy of God and the sea. They hear each others screams and yell to one another for comfort as they make their way through the thick bunker C oil which is spreading rapidly across the surface of the ocean. They desperately struggle to escape the flames but their swimming motion is restricted by the cumbersome cork life jackets. Time passes and the screams subside as the men get together in small groups, the stronger encouraging the weaker and injured to hold on. Occasionally calling out to a lone voice in the night, “Over here, this way.” They wonder if anyone had seen explosion. Would help come? When? “Oh God… please hurry.”

Yes, it was seen, in fact by hundreds of people along Jacksonville Beach. Yes,… help would come, but it would be slow because the United States was not prepared to defend itself, let alone get involved in a world war.

One of those who witnessed the sinking of the Gulf America was Carpenters Mate Third Class Howard Grisham. He was a young Naval Reservist stationed at Mayport. Howard had liberty that night and as customary of most sailors, he stopped by one of the local bars at Jacksonville Beach. When the explosion occurred, everyone ran to the boardwalk and oceanfront to witness and experience this terrible act of war right at our shoreline.

Howard realized what had happened and immediately started back to Mayport. On the way, he made a quick stop for one final drink and found the bar open but completely deserted, so he mixed his own and left an I.O.U. Honesty… one of those fine American traits that the “New Generation” seems to have forgotten or were simply never taught.

When Howard arrived at Mayport he immediately reported to the Officer of the Day who ordered him to collect all the guns from the “Gun Shack” (not armory), and report to the Captain’s Gig. They boarded and left for the Gulf America. The Captain’s Gig was an old wooden Chris Craft characterized by a center wheelhouse and a small open turret at the bow. This would be Howard’s position for the next 7 hours and even more amazing, there where no life jackets on board and they had been ordered ram anything that appeared hostile.

The fire surrounding the Gulf America is now covering the entire ship and a huge area of the ocean. The smoke is thick and the heat so intense that attempts to get in close would endanger the lives of the crew on the Captain’s Gig. However, one seaman from the Gulf America is located and brought aboard. It was Carpenters Mate Howard Grisham and other sailor that administered CPR until all attempts to save the valiant seaman’s life were exhausted and he was pronounced dead. The hours of confinement in the small forward turret caused Howard’s legs to cramp so severely that he was barely able to walk when they returned to Mayport the following day. He was confined to quarters for several days and required medical attention which was administered by the base Pharmacist Mate Frank Grisham. That’s right… Howard’s brother.

The war was only four months old and the U.S. Naval fleet was practically non existent. The Federal Government had commandeered many private and commercial vessels to help build up its fleet while the production of warships got underway. Private yachts and shrimp boats were converted to patrol boats as well as ships of armament. Some of the vessels were converted to carry depth charges, which were known as “ash cans” in those days. But these conversions proved to be inoperable because they had no launch system. The “ash cans” were deployed by simply rolling them over the side and the speed of the vessels was to slow to escape the explosion. Other vessels were modified to appear as if they were armed. Carpenters Mate Howard Grisham fashioned a deck gun made of wood, complete with canvas covering, to give one of these vessels an appearance of being armed. Several of these converted vessels were also dispatched to assist in the rescue. A close personal friend of mine who survived the Gulf America was Gunners Mate Lee Watson. He told me he was in the water about six hours before being picked up by a converted private yacht named Tardaka.

There were a total of twenty-nine Merchant Seamen and Navy Personnel on the Gulf America that night and all were eventually picked up. Twelve would lose their lives and remaining seventeen survivors were administered medical care at Mayport by Pharmacist Mate Frank Grisham.

Another person who witnessed the tragedy was Townsen Hawks. He was also a friend of Frank and Howard, and at the time he was a lifeguard at Jacksonville Beach. In the forties and fifties the Lifeguard Corps used lifeboats for assisting distressed swimmers as opposed to the buoy which is use today. These boats were launched in the surf and physically rowed through the breakers. Townsen managed to get one of these lifeboats launched and rowed it out to the Gulf America by himself. However, his heroic and patriotic attempt to help in the rescue would not be well received by the military and he was severely reprimanded for his actions. Shortly after this reprimand Townsen enlisted in the Coast Guard.

Imagine in your mind’s eye what these survivors had to endure and picture yourself in the same situation. You’ve managed to get off the vessel and now you’re floating head high in a mixture of thick bunker-C oil and diesel fuel that’s burning and rapidly spreading across the surface of the ocean. Your life jacket is a crude device that is constructed of hard cork that has been sewn into a canvas covering. It’s cumbersome and greatly restricts your ability to swim or fight back the flames. Your head and body become coated with bunker-C and diesel fuel. The diesel fuel has saturated your clothing and is beginning to chemically burn your skin. After an hour of being immersed in seawater, the wave action and the hard life jacket begin to rub away the softened skin from around your arms and neck. Hypothermia sets in as your body temperature drops. And it will be several more hours before you are rescued.

My history is unclear as to whether there was time enough to get the lifeboats deployed before the Gulf America went down. Some say there wasn’t. If there was time, chances are the lifeboats were probably “life rafts.” The life rafts of that era were constructed of cork and were little more than a large rectangular shaped raft with a webbing bottom. Much like the cheap lawn chairs are made today, except the webbing was canvas. Once they were manned, the webbing constantly rubbed the body. If you were lucky enough to have gotten in a lifeboat your chances of survival would be pretty good, but in a life raft… your joinery was just beginning. Hours in a rolling sea seated against the canvas webbing would definitely rub your body raw.

The Gulf America did not immediately sink. The torpedo struck the starboard side near the engine room and the vessel sank stern first. The bow of the ship would remain above water for several more days and during that time the crews from Mayport returned to salvage the forward deck gun. The United States involvement in World War II was only four months old when the Gulf America was lost and salvaging that one deck gun was essential to our defense. The total armament of the Mayport Navy Base at the time of the attack was one Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), one Thomson Machine Gun and two 45 Cal. pistols. When Howard was ordered to go to the “gun shack” and get all the guns, the command meant just that. One man could in fact… carry the entire base armament.

Part of Americas’ defense was sky and beach patrol, which was done by both civilian and military personnel. Towers, very similar to those used today for observation of forest fires, were constructed for the purpose of watching the skies. They were manned mostly by women because the men had gone to war. They were trained to identify aircraft by using placards that pictured all the aircraft of that period. Armed only with binoculars, they would spot, identify and report their observations.

The incident with the Gulf America caused Jacksonville’s beaches to go “dark.” All lights had to be extinguished at sundown and if lights were left on in a house or building, the windows had to be covered with dark shades. Part of Howard Grisham’s duties was patrolling the beaches and enforcing the blackout. The Mayport base had to be defended too and this was another one of his duties. This was done by “standing watch” in the sand dunes along the oceanfront around Mayport. Today, the area is known as Hanna Park. The hours were long and boring, and mosquitoes were a bigger threat to life than the enemy. Occasionally, someone would walk across the dunes from the base to deliver a sandwich and coffee. You stood your watch armed with an antiquated Marlin Machine gun. The bullets were fed into the gun breach by a fabric belt and the weapon was totally unreliable. Howard reports, “If… you could get the gun to fire, it seldom fired more than once before it jammed.”

On one of his night patrols Howard saw a “light of recognition” coming from seaward. A “light of recognition” is one prolonged light followed by another in an almost slow motion fashion. This was the method used by the German subs to contact their spies that had infiltrated and were living along our beaches. Once the contact was made communications could be conducted by Morse code. Howard was in the area when a Boatswain Mate, who was on duty with the Shore Patrol, questioned two women and a child who were walking along the bulkhead that evening. The Boatswain Mate asked if they had seen a light coming from anywhere along the beach. They acknowledge that they had and directed him to a house. Howard took the initiative to review the logs and discovered that numerous reports of “lights of recognition” had previously been filed. He spent most of that night compiling a report on what he had discovered in reviewing the logs. The following morning he submitted his report to the Officer of the Day, but sadly, this Officer refused to accept the report and it was trashed.

Howard was later transferred to Savannah and on a weekend liberty he came to Jacksonville. He and his date were at the beach on Friday evening when he saw another “light of recognition.” He ran to a small store that was located at the corner of 10th. Avenue and 2nd Street were he located a pay phone and contacted the duty Chief who was actually headquartered at the Police Station. This time, the duty Chief followed through and the FBI and Naval Intelligence were notified, and by Sunday, four German saboteurs were caught at Ponte Vedra Beach. Howard reported, “They had life rafts, large amounts of U.S. Currency, explosives, poisons and enough munitions to do in most of Jacksonville.” The quick response and personal initiative demonstrated on behalf of Howard Grisham possibly save many lives and extensive damage to Jacksonville and the beaches. Because he was on liberty from Savannah and not directly connected to the Mayport unit at that time, it was the Boatswain Mate that was credited for the action. Carpenters Mate Third Class Howard Grisham was never recognized or received the credit he deserved for his patriotic actions.

There were five Grisham brothers that served our country during World War II, and it was my pleasure to have recently met Mack. Mack is the youngest of the five brothers and he spent most of his life in California. He had ridden his Gold Wing motor cycle from California to Jacksonville to visit his sister and brother-in-law, Pat and Emily Murphy. Mack was naval pilot, he served our country for 23 years and flew 29 different aircraft. On the back of his riding jacket, and helmet, he has fashioned a logo that says it all. There are 5 stars arranged in a circle with number 79 in the center. The stars represent the 5 brothers and the 79 represents the total number of years the Grisham Brothers proudly served in United States Navy. Underneath the circle logo are the words, “Aged Rider.” Mack will be 78 in February 2003.

Four of those patriots, Howard, Frank, Bud and John were founding members of the Jacksonville Offshore Sport Fishing Club. It’s moral character and a quality of people like the Grisham brothers and their sister, Emily Grisham Murphy, that are the foundation upon which successful organizations like the Jacksonville Offshore Sport Fishing Club are built. I asked Howard if he ever went back to the Gulf America on any of his fishing trips. He said he had not and actually had no desire to return to the site. He had seen all he wanted to see in the pervious years.

It was the great span of oceans that border both sides of the United States that bought the time that was needed to get America’s defenses ready for war. Japan was to far from home base and Germany was fighting on to many borders. The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were our moats of defense. World War II is a chapter in history, but the fighting goes on and as demonstrated on September 11, 2001… America is as vulnerable today as it was on December 7, 1941. Today, more than ever… all Americans need to be more aware of the “lights of recognition” and heed those warnings.

The next time you fish over the Jax Beach Wreck… whisper a prayer for all of those valiant men who were on S.S. Gulf America and for those who participated in the rescue.

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