World War II ended 70 years ago this week when Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced on the radio Aug. 14, 1945 his nation was surrendering to the Allies.
The formal surrender ceremony, presided over by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, was held 16 days later on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri which was moored on Tokyo Bay.
In prior columns, I have written about the WW II combat histories of several U.S. Navy warships with Nevada-related names, such as the USS Nevada, USS Churchill County, USS Carson City, USS Douglas County, USS Minden, USS Reno, USS Washoe County and the USS Las Vegas Victory.
Just recently, however, I learned about the wartime record of another WW II ship that bore the name “Nevada.” It was the U.S. Army Transport Nevada, a 221-foot, 1,685-ton cargo ship built in 1915 (a year after the battleship USS Nevada was launched) that served two years during the war delivering tanks, trucks and other heavy military equipment from the U.S, to Canada, Greenland and Great Britain.
The dramatic story of the USAT Nevada’s destiny is known by only a handful of military historians, and I believe this column today is the first newspaper report of the ship’s final hours.
On Dec. 15, 1943, the USAT Nevada was to meet its tragic fate in the Arctic waters of the North Atlantic about 200 miles south of Greenland.
According to records I have received from the Historical Section of the U.S. Coast Guard in Washington, D.C, the USAT Nevada, while en route from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Narsarssuak, Greenland, became separated from other cargo ships in Convoy 5G-36 during a heavy gale.
As raging 20-foot high seas and 60-mile-per-hour winds battered the ship and snow squalls cut visibility to near zero, the Nevada’s lower compartments and holds flooded and its pumps couldn’t keep up with the inflow of water.
Capt. George P. Turiga, the Nevada’s commanding officer, realized his ship was in dire straits and radioed an urgent “Mayday” call for help, the seafarers’ traditional distress call that signals a ship was in danger of sinking.
The 165-foot Coast Guard cutter Comanche was the closest ship to the Nevada, and it took seven hours to reach the Nevada, which by now was wallowing at its bow with a 30-degree list.
When the Comanche came close to the Nevada, the cutter’s skipper, Lt. Langford Anderson, ordered its floodlights be turned on, and they showed the Nevada’s lifeboat davits were empty and the vessel appeared to be abandoned.
After circling the Nevada twice without finding any signs of life, the Comanche discovered two red flares in the distance and raced to them to find a lifeboat bobbing in the waves with 32 men aboard, according to the official Coast Guard records in my possession.
The men in the lifeboat “could be heard praying, singing and shouting ‘thank God’” as the Comanche approached to pick them up. But the lifeboat “one minute lay in a trough in the sea far below the Comanche’s rail and the next minute was lifted far above the Comanche’s deck on the crest of a huge comer,” according to a Coast Guard after-action report dated July 15, 1945 and titled “History of the Greenland Patrol.”
After many failed attempts to bring the lifeboat alongside the Comanche, its crew finally succeeded in attaching a line from the cutter to the lifeboat, hauled it to the ship’s side and pulled the survivors aboard. Three men who attempted to jump from the lifeboat to the Comanche fell into the sea and were lost. The Comanche also located a life raft with a half-dozen survivors, and they also were brought aboard.
Several Comanche crewmen, attired in rubber suits, jumped into the water and rescued five others who had fallen from the raft into the surging waters. The survivors also included the ship’s mascot, a dog named “Grondal,” reported Comanche captain Anderson in a Jan, 1, 1944, dispatch to Coast Guard headquarters marked “Confidential.”
The USAT Nevada’s other lifeboats and rafts were never found despite widespread searches by the Comanche and three other cutters, the Storis, Modoc and Tampa, and the disaster’s final toll was 31 missing and 26 rescued. Among the missing was Capt. Turiga, the Nevada’s skipper.
As for the fate of the Nevada, which, miraculously, was still afloat three days after its foundering: The captains of the four Coast Guard cutters determined the 28-year-old freighter was too damaged to be towed to a port and salvaged. As they were making plans to sink the ship by gunfire in order to prevent it from becoming a danger to navigation, the relentless storm had the last word.
On Dec. 18, 1943, the USAT Nevada, carrying 950 tons of military cargo, sank by its bow.
The 26 survivors and mascot Grondal were transported by the Comanche to Narsarssuak, Greenland, where they were delivered after a five-day voyage to the USAT Fairfax, which was waiting for them at the pier.
As for a footnote relating to the cutter Comanche:
Ten months before it rescued crew members of the USAT Nevada, the Comanche had participated in the rescue of passengers and crew who had been aboard the 368-foot Army Transport Dorchester that had been torpedoed and sunk by German submarine U-223 off the coast of Newfoundland.
Only 230 of the 904 aboard the Dorchester were rescued. Among those lost were four U.S. Army chaplains: Two Protestant ministers, a Roman Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi who had given their life vests to passengers jumping into the sea as the Dorchester was sinking.
The Dorchester disaster and the heroism of its four chaplains have been memorialized in many books, newspaper and magazine articles, and a 2004 one-hour television documentary titled “The Four Chaplains: Sacrifice at Sea.”
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.