Signalman 3rd Class Harry W. Pierce (1919–1944)

Harry W. Pierce (Courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives)
ResidencesCivilian Occupation
Born in Pennsylvania, moved to Delaware by around age 2Tube maker for Continental Diamond Fibre
BranchService Number
U.S. Naval Reserve6500420
TheaterShip
AmericanU.S.S. St. Augustine (PG-54)

Early Life & Family

Harry Wayne Pierce was born in Paoli, Pennsylvania on December 31, 1919, the son of Lewis Ezra Pierce (then working as a laborer, 1886–1954) and Hannah Elsie Pierce (née Mercer, 1890–1957).  Based on his headstone and census records, he went by his middle name.  Both of his parents were born in Pennsylvania but moved to Delaware as children.  Correspondence from his mother to the Public Archives Commission in Delaware dated March 19, 1945 stated that the family spent an 18-month period living in Paoli, during which Wayne was born.  The fourth of eight children, he was the only one not born in Delaware.  He had two older sisters and an older brother, as well as three younger brothers and a younger sister.  One of his younger brothers, Raymond, died very young.

The family was recorded on the census in April 1930 living on New London Road in Newark; Wayne’s father was working as a farmer at the time.  A January 20, 1944 article in The Newark Post stated that “Pierce was a graduate of the Newark High School where he was active on the football team and other athletic sports.”  The Pierce family was recorded on the census again on April 25, 1940, living at 403 New London Road (Road 313).  Both father and son were now working at a fibre mill: Lewis as a press operator and Wayne as a tube maker. 

When Pierce registered for the draft on July 1, 1941, his employer was listed as Continental Diamond Fibre.  He was described as standing 5 feet, 11 inches tall and weighing 185 lbs., with black hair and blue eyes.


Military Career

Pierce joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in September 1941.  According to the State of Delaware Individual Military Service Record form filled out by his mother for the Delaware Public Archives Commission, Pierce enlisted on September 6, 1941 in Wilmington, Delaware; U.S. Navy muster rolls state that he enlisted on September 17, 1941 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  His brother Donnell served in the U.S. Army and his brother Harold in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

After training at Great Lakes, Illinois and Newport, Rhode Island, Pierce spent his career crewing a series of small vessels operating in coastal waters along the Eastern Seaboard.  Most of his service occurred during the backdrop of the Battle of the Atlantic.  Pierce and his shipmates were among the thousands of largely unheralded sailors who helped turn the tide against German U-boats. 

Signalman 3rd Class Pierce reported to the receiving station in Boston, Massachusetts, where he joined the crew of the patrol craft U.S.S. PC-617 on August 28, 1942, the same day she was commissioned.  On January 16, 1943, he was reduced back to seaman 1st class because he was “Unqualified for rating” and transferred off the vessel to Tompkinsville Section Base (Long Island, New York, where the vessel was docked).  Seaman 1st Class Pierce joined the crew of a minesweeper, U.S.S. YMS-7, from Receiving Station Casco Bay in Portland, Maine on April 2, 1943.  He must have completed his training at sea, because he was promoted back to signalman 3rd class on June 1, 1943. 

Pierce married Maxine R. Lewis (1907–1970) of Portland, Maine on June 14, 1943 in Maine. 

On November 30, 1943, Signalman 3rd Class Pierce was ordered to Receiving Station New York for transfer to the U.S.S. St. Augustine (PG-54).  A gunboat affectionately known to her crew as Augie, the vessel was commanded by a World War I veteran, Lieutenant Parker C. Hatch.  Pierce joined the St. Augustine’s crew on December 7, 1943. 

According to the Naval History and Heritage Command summary of the vessel, St. Augustine had originally been the yacht Viking, “completed in 1929 for George F. Baker at Newport News, Va., by Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co.; she was later sold to Norman B. Woolworth who renamed her Noparo.  The Navy purchased the vessel on 5 December 1940 at New London, Conn.; and she underwent conversion to a gunboat at the Bethlehem Steel Corp. yard, Boston, Mass. Designated as PG-54, she was renamed St. Augustine on 9 January 1941; and commissioned on 16 January 1941”.  St. Augustine was 272 feet, 2 inches in length, displaced 1,720 tons, and could reach a top speed of 14 knots.  The vessel was based at Boston, Norfolk, and finally Tompkinsville.  From Tompkinsville, the gunboat escorted convoys between New York City and Key West, Florida.


U.S.S. St. Augustine photographed from an airship on May 22, 1943 (Official U.S. Navy photograph, Naval History and Heritage Command)

Tragedy off Cape May

According to a report in the War Diaries of Commander Eastern Sea Frontier, “Loss of USS ST. AUGUSTINE,” the vessel was lead escort a convoy which departed New York City on the morning of January 6, 1944.  Bound for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the convoy initially consisted only of the tanker Tydol Gas and three escorts (St. Augustine and two U.S Coast Guard patrol boats, Argo and Thetis), though two additional ships were scheduled to join off the Virginia coast.  Seas were fairly heavy, rated force seven on the Beaufort scale.  According to the report, “an inexperienced junior officer relieved the skipper” at 2000 hours.  About 60 nautical miles southeast of Cape May, New Jersey, “At 2220 that night, the radarman reported that he had picked up an object on the radar screen at 35,000 yards,” which the crew determined was a vessel approaching at high speed. 

Around 2300 hours, St. Augustine notified the Coast Guard cutters that she was going to investigate the contact, which according to the report she subsequently identified as “a large tanker moving on a course which would bring her directly across the track of the southbound convoy.”  The vessel was the S.S. Camas Meadows, sailing unescorted from Delaware Bay en route to Trinidad.

St. Augustine’s officer of the deck called Lieutenant Hatch to the bridge, but it took a few critical minutes for him to arrive.  As the range closed to 3,000 yards, the officer of the deck instructed a signalman to make contact with the tanker.  The name of the signalman was not given in the report; it may have been Pierce, but records state that there were seven other signalmen aboard.  The tanker did not respond to the signal lamp, nor when “the running lights of the ST. AUGUSTINE were flashed on to attract attention”.  The signalman continued to challenge the tanker, which gave no indication that she had seen the signal even as the range closed to 2,000 yards. 

In fact, the tanker had seen the signal but had no signalman on duty.  Under regulations in place at the time, a merchant ship sailing alone was only required to have one signalman aboard (not one on duty at all times), though the author of “Loss of USS ST. AUGUSTINE” noted that “all licensed officers were usually qualified to send and receive blinker signals.”  Whatever the reason, the Camas Meadows’s third mate, serving as the officer of the deck, sent for his signalman rather than trying to answer himself.

Lieutenant Hatch arrived on the bridge of St. Augustine and was not pleased with the situation.  A witness “recalled later that ‘the skipper was pretty mad because she (the tanker) was coming right at us.’” The officer of the deck gave a one more order to the helmsman: “Turn to base course.”  It was a fatal mistake.

The author of “Loss of USS. ST. AUGUSTINE” explained:

The ST. AUGUSTINE always responded slowly, and when this order was given the vessel was doing only two-thirds speed.  Apparently the OD [officer of the deck] failed to judge accurate the sluggishness of his own ship and the speed of the approaching tanker, for the order, “Turn to base course” required a sharp turn to port which forced the ST. AUGUSTINE to cut across the bow of the oncoming tanker.  Within a few seconds, it became apparent that the order was a mistake in judgment; that the ST. AUGUSTINE did not have enough time to cross.  The Captain stepped in to do what he could, and gave the order,

“Full left rudder.”

At the same time, the Captain rang up the speed indicator to the black gang [engine room crew].  In a matter of seconds, the Captain shouted, “Stand by for collision.”

Aboard the oncoming tanker, the “third mate ordered the engines put full astern [and] the wheel put hard right.”  It was too late.  The tanker collided with St. Augustine amidships on her starboard side at approximately 2325 hours, inflicting massive damage upon the gunboat.  Some of the crew were undoubtedly killed in their bunks as the crew quarters took a direct hit.  Others fell victim to steam escaping a ruptured boiler in the engine room. 

Lieutenant Hatch ordered the crew to abandon ship.  One of the gunboat’s lifeboats was damaged in the collision, and the vessel was sinking rapidly enough that there was only enough time to cut the boats and rafts loose rather than load them.  Most of the men ended up in the water.  About two-thirds of the crew managed to escape the vessel, but their ordeal was just beginning: “Within three to five minutes after the collision, the St. AUGUSTINE settled by the stern, stood on her beam’s end, and sank, leaving more than one hundred men scattered in the freezing water of that cold night.” 

St. Augustine sank at approximately 38°12’N, 74°10’W, a mere 133 miles from Signalman 3rd Class Pierce’s hometown.  He was one of the men who escaped the gunboat, but the water temperature was approximately 38°F, cold enough to induce lethal hypothermia in as little as thirty minutes.

The crew of the Camas Meadows made no attempt to rescue the survivors.  The captain of the tanker later told a board of inquiry that he felt that it would be impossible to get his ship into position to launch his vessel’s boats without running down the survivors in the water.  Furthermore, he argued “that the seas were running so high that he believed they were more than the lifeboat crews could overcome, especially since his crew had been on board less than ten days, and many of them had never before been to sea.”

The crew of U.S.C.G.C. Argo had been observing the incident unfolding from a distance of about 2,000 yards, but initially believed that St. Augustine had simply passed in front of the tanker.  It was only after Argo’s officer of the deck observed “that the bow of the ST. AUGUSTINE appeared to loom up out of the water at a very high angle” that he began to suspect something was wrong.  Suddenly, Argo’s officer of the deck lost sight of St. Augustine.  Unable to raise the gunboat by radio and observing that Camas Meadows “had stopped and had put on all running lights”, the officer of the deck “immediately called the Captain of the ARGO [and] sent the coxswain of the watch to rouse all officers and crew.”

The survivors had been in the water for about 20 minutes when Argo arrived at their position; the report about the accident stated that her crew had to make no choice but to triage in order to save the most lives possible:

Because of heavy seas, it was difficult to tell which men to rescue first, but it was decided to leave the individual men until last in order to get to the largest groups which might be washed off rafts and scattered if left.  As soon as men had been taken from rafts, heaving lines were thrown across bodies of individual men in the water.  If they failed to respond to the line, it was presumed that they were dead and preference was shown to those who were waving lights or showing other signs of life.

Several coast guardsmen from both Argo and Thetis risked their lives by jumping into the frigid water to reach survivors, one officer staying in the water for about 40 minutes until he was hauled back aboard his vessel in a station of exhaustion.  In spite of their efforts, the coast guardsmen rescued only 30 men from St. Augustine’s crew of 145; Argo saved 23 and Thetis another seven.  Rescue vessels recovered 67 bodies, including that of Signalman 3rd Class Pierce. 

The author of “Loss of USS ST. AUGUSTINE” wrote:

The conclusion of the Board of Inquiry was that the officers responsible for conning the ST. AUGUSTINE put the vessel on a collision course through failure to properly estimate the course and speed of the CAMAS MEADOWS; that the situation was further aggravated by a turn to port in changing to base course, which placed the ST. AUGUSTINE directly across the bow of the oncoming vessel, thus resulting in collision.  It was further stated that if there had been a signalman on watch on the CAMAS MEADOWS to reply to the challenge from the ST. AUGUSTINE and to receive information and orders from the Convoy Escort Commander, it is probably that no collision would have ensued.

Another report in the War Diaries of the Commander Eastern Sea Frontier (“Signalmen on Merchant Vessels”) stated that

On 17 January 1944, the President of the Court of Inquiry concerning the loss of USS ST. AUGUSTINE wrote to the Chief of Naval Operations” and “recommended that all merchant vessels be required to have a signalman on watch at all times, with means instantly available for signaling.  He further pointed out that every effort should be made to brief outbound vessels which will cross convoy lanes of the traffic which they may be expected to encounter.

Both recommendations were denied: the first due to insufficient personnel and the second due to security concerns.

After services at the Robert T. Jones Funeral Parlor on January 16, 1944, Signalman 3rd Class Pierce was buried at the White Clay Creek Church Cemetery, where his parents and two siblings are now also buried.  Maxine Pierce remarried to Thomas J. Gallagher in Marion County, Ohio on December 18, 1945.


U.S.S. St. Augustine on May 27, 1941 (National Archives via Naval History and Heritage Command)

Notes

Wife’s Name

His wife was also known as Maxine Burke; she had been widowed before she met Pierce and there are marriage records for the couple under both names.


Acknowledgments

Special thanks to the Delaware Public Archives for the use of their photo.


Bibliography

“Harry Wayne Pierce Killed in Sea Crash.”  Wilmington Morning News, January 15, 1944. Pg. 1. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/63776873/harry-wayne-pierce-uss-st-augustine/

“Loss of USS ST. AUGUSTINE.”  The War Diaries of the Commander Eastern Sea Frontier, January 1944 through December 1944.  World War II War Diaries, 1941–1945.  Record Group 38, Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.  National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://www.fold3.com/image/273585297  

Maine Marriages 1892-1996 (except 1967 to 1976). Index obtained from Maine Department of the Secretary of State, Maine State Archives. https://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?dbid=6904&h=308440&indiv=try&o_vc=Record:OtherRecord&rhSource=60541

Muster Rolls of U.S. Navy Ships, Stations, and Other Naval Activities, 01/01/1939-01/01/1949. Record Group Number 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel. National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.  https://www.fold3.com/image/304964971?rec=278966309, https://www.fold3.com/image/304965127?rec=278966652, https://www.fold3.com/image/304965113?rec=278966635, https://www.fold3.com/image/304965127?rec=278966653, https://www.fold3.com/image/304965113?rec=278966634, https://www.fold3.com/image/311965361?rec=302486663, https://ww.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/1143/images/32863_254990-00046, https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/1143/images/32863_254990-00050, https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/1143/images/32863_254990-00078

Ohio, U.S., County Marriage Records, 1774-1993. Ancestry.com Operations, Inc. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/61378/images/TH-1-19301-46647-11

“Personal Items.” Journal-Every Evening, June 12, 1942.  Pg. 16.  https://www.newspapers.com/clip/63821581/harry-wayne-pierce/

Pierce, Hannah.  Harry Wayne Pierce Individual Military Service Record and related correspondence, March 19, 1945.  RG 1325-003-053, Delaware Public Archives. https://cdm16397.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15323coll6/id/20286

“Pierce Rites Held Sunday.”  The Newark Post, January 20, 1944.  Pg. 1. https://udspace.udel.edu/bitstream/handle/19716/18911/np_034_50.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

“Signalmen on Merchant Vessels.” The War Diaries of the Commander Eastern Sea Frontier, January 1944 through December 1944.  World War II War Diaries, 1941–1945.  Record Group 38, Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.  National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://www.fold3.com/image/273585371

“St. Augustine (PG-54).” Naval History and Heritage Command.  https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/s/st-augustin.html

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920.  National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6061/images/4383794_01188, https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6061/images/4383794_01189

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930.  National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6224/images/4531890_00875, https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6224/images/4531890_00876

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940.  National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2442/images/m-t0627-00546-00338

“USS PC-617 (PC-617).”  https://uboat.net/allies/warships/ship/8594.html

“War Diary, U.S. Naval Base Cape May, New Jersey.” January 1944. World War II War Diaries, 1941–1945.  Record Group 38, Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.  National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://www.fold3.com/image/271075360

WWII Draft Registration Cards for Delaware, 10/16/1940-03/31/1947.  Record Group 147, Records of the Selective Service System.  National Archives at St. Louis, Missouri. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2238/images/44003_10_00006-01317


Last updated on May 29, 2021

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