Seaman 1st Class Robert J. Donovan (1923–1943)

Robert J. Donovan (Courtesy of the Newark History Museum)
Home StateCivilian Occupation
DelawareTube maker at Continental Diamond Fibre Company
BranchService Number
U.S. Naval Reserve7225662
TheaterShip
AmericanU.S. Navy Armed Guard (?) aboard S.S. El Almirante

Early Life & Family

Robert James Donovan was born in Newark, Delaware on January 30, 1923.  He was the son of William Everett (1885–1970) and Anna or Annie Elizabeth Donovan (née Webb, 1892–1973).  He had two older sisters and two younger brothers.  He grew up in Newark.  When Donovan was recorded on the census on April 18, 1930, his family was living at 393 Depot Road (now known as South College Avenue).  William Donovan was working as a farm laborer at the nearby experimental farm owned by the University of Delaware.  The April 11, 1940 census recorded the family living in the railroad station house.  He attended Newark High School, but it appears that he did not graduate, since did not appear in the 1941 or 1942 yearbook.

When Donovan registered for the draft on June 30, 1942, he listed his address as the Pennsylvania Railroad Station (today the site of the Newark History Museum at 429 South College Avenue).  He was described as standing 5 feet, 11 inches tall and weighing 165 lbs., with brown hair and gray eyes.  According to the State of Delaware Individual Military Service Record filled out by his father, Donovan was a “tube maker of fibre” before joining the military.  Indeed, Donovan’s draft card listed his employer as Joseph C. Beatty at Continental Diamond Fibre.


Navy Career

The Individual Military Service Record stated that Donovan joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in Wilmington, Delaware on November 9, 1942.  According to the service record filled out by his father, Donovan reported to the U.S. Naval Training Station Newport, Rhode Island on November 11, 1942 and was promoted to seaman 1st class in December 1942.  As of April 1943, he was aboard the Panamanian-flagged vessel S.S. El Almirante.  He may have been a member of the U.S. Navy Armed Guard (which manned guns aboard armed merchant ships). 

On April 18, 1943, El Almirante departed New York City as part of Convoy H.X.-235, en route to Liverpool.  There were at least three dozen merchant ships assigned to the convoy (plus a variety of escorts for portions of the voyage).  Several days into the voyage (probably April 20 or 21), El Almirante was lost after a collision with another vessel, Elias Boudinot.  According to an entry in the Royal Navy’s Admiralty War Diaries: “EL ALMIRANTE sunk in collision with unknown ship convoy H.X. 235 at 1920Z/21.  41° 08’ N. 64° 27’ W. (12?) men missing.” 

If accurate, the ship sank approximately 250 nautical miles due east of Nantucket, Massachusetts.  An entry the following day stated that El Almirante “sank in 8 minutes” and that “56 survivors landed [in] Halifax by NEW WESTMINSTER”, but Donovan was not among them.

Robert J. Donovan in The Newark Post, May 20, 1943 (Courtesy of The Newark Post)

In mid-May 1943, Donovan’s family learned that he was missing in action.  Since his body was not recovered, he was honored on the World War II East Coast Memorial in Battery Park, New York City.  His name also appears on Newark’s war memorial and at Veteran’s Memorial Park in New Castle.​

A May 23, 2014 article in The Newark Post mentioned an anecdote about Donovan:

Robert’s father was the Newark railroad station agent and the family lived in the train station agent and the family lived in the train station with bedrooms upstairs and living room, dining room and kitchen in an addition that extended in back.  When Robert was inducted, his mother placed her Blue Star Mother emblem in the window next to the door now used as the entrance to the Newark History Museum. When he died, she hung her Gold [Star] Mother emblem in its place.


Notes

Siblings

Donovan’s oldest sister, Dorothy Timmons (1914–1992, later Dorothy Wilson Townsend), was his half-sister, born during his mother’s first marriage; both William and Annie had been widowed before they married.

Rate/rating

Two contemporary newspaper articles state that Donovan had a rating of gunner’s mate 1st class, corresponding to petty officer 1st class, which is three grades above seaman 1st class (attested to in all other sources).  That would be very rapid advancement indeed for someone who had been in the U.S. Navy for less than six months.  My best guess is that the seaman 1st class is correct, though he may have been striking (training at sea for a rating) as a gunner’s mate.

Assignment

The memorial volume compiled by the Public Archives Commission for the State of Delaware shortly after the war stated that Donovan was “serving as a member of armed crew of Company 357 [sic] on the S. S. EL ALMIRANTE, a merchant vessel.”  Though this would suggest he was a member of the U.S. Navy Armed Guard, there are some discrepancies.  The memorial volume is based on worksheets filled out by the families of fallen servicemembers and contemporary newspaper accounts, both of which vary widely in their levels of detail and accuracy. 

The document filled out by Seaman 1st Class Donovan’s father only listed Newport, not the U.S.N.A.G. training centers.  It seems Company 357 most likely referred to his initial training at Newport.  It is currently impossible to obtain Donovan’s records from the National Personnel Records Center due to the ongoing pandemic, but it may be possible to solve this particular mystery in the future.

S.S. El Almirante and H.X.-235

According to the Arnold Hague Convoy Database, S.S. El Almirante was a 5,248-ton ship loaded with general cargo during H.X. 235.  The database listed 40 merchant ships in the convoy. The entry for the convoy on the Warsailors.com site states that El Almirante was listed on paperwork as a tanker, but suggested that was in error.  This site stated that 30 ships departed New York and 11 more joined the convoy after sailing from other ports, although some returned to port shortly into the voyage.

Date of sinking/Donovan’s Death

U.S. Navy records give Seaman 1st Class Donovan’s date of death as April 20, 1943.  Similarly, Warsailors.com’s entry for H.X. 235 states that El Almirante “Sank in storm Apr. 20, following collision with Elias Boudinot”. 

However, various entries in the Admiralty War Diaries give the dates as April 21 or April 22, 1943:

An April 21, 1943 entry: “EL ALMIRANTE sunk in collision with unknown ship convoy H.X. 235 at 1920Z/21.  41° 08’ N. 64° 27’ W. (12?) men missing.”

Another entry from April 21, 1943: “SS. EL ALMIRANTE in convoy H.X. 235 was sunk in collision with an unknown ship at 1920Z today in 41.08 N., 64.27 W.”

An April 22, 1943 entry: “EL ALMIRANTE in Convoy H.X.235 was sunk today in collision with ELIAS BOUDINOT.”

Another April 22, 1943 entry: “H.X.235 EL ALMIRANTE Panamanian in collision with ELIAS BOUDINOT and sank in 8 minutes 56 survivors landed Halifax by NEW WESTMINSTER.  List of survivors and missing follows for U.S. Authorities from A.L.U.S.N.O.B. [U.S. Naval Observer]”

Out of the Attic Feature

The May 23, 2014 article in The Newark Post erroneously stated that Donovan was a Marine and incorrectly stated that Donovan was the first Newark man to die during World War II “Before the United States was an official combatant” “when his ship was sunk early in its voyage by a German U-boat lurking off the U.S. East Coast.” 

Although there were American casualties (both military and civilian) during the Battle of the Atlantic prior to the U.S. entry into the war about 1½ years after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  There is no evidence a U-boat had anything to do with his death.  As a side note, the first Newark man to die during World War II was 2nd Lieutenant F. Robert Thoroughgood; Donovan was the second. 

I am not able to verify that William Donovan was indeed “railroad station agent.”  Although that would certainly explain why they were living in the station, his employer was listed as the nearby experimental farm on census records. 

The source of the information in the article is unclear.


Acknowledgments

Special thanks to the Newark History Museum for the use of the photo of Seaman 1st Class Donovan.


Bibliography

“Admiralty War Diaries, 19-4-43 – To – 30-4-43.”  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/301330438, https://www.fold3.com/image/301998908, https://www.fold3.com/image/301330280

“Annie Donovan.” Find a Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/206672491/annie-donovan

“Convoy HX.235.” Arnold Hague Convoy Database.  http://www.convoyweb.org.uk/hx/index.html?hx.php?convoy=235!~hxmain

“Convoy HX 235.” Warsailors.com.  http://www.warsailors.com/convoys/hx235.html 

Donovan, William E. Individual Military Service Record for Robert James Donovan, December 8, 1944.  Record Group 1325-003-053, Record of Delawareans Who Died in World War II.  Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware.  https://cdm16397.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15323coll6/id/18489/rec/1

“Out of the Attic: They died that we might live.”  The Newark Post, May 23, 2014.  Pg. 17. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/79377605/donovan-inaccurate-information/

“Reported Missing in Action.”  The Newark Post, May 20, 1943.  Pg. 1. https://udspace.udel.edu/bitstream/handle/19716/18876/np_034_17.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Robert James Donovan birth certificate.  Record Group 1500-008-094, Birth certificates.  Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware.

“Smn Robert James Donovan.” Find a Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/57941230/robert-james-donovan

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_00829

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-t0627-00546-00299    

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_09_00003-01666

World War II Memorial Volume.  State of Delaware Public Archives Commission, 1949.  Delaware Public Archives website.  https://archives.delaware.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/156/2017/05/WWIIMemorialVolume.pdf


Last updated on June 11, 2021

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