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

Robert J. Donovan (Courtesy of the Newark History Museum)
HometownCivilian Occupation
Newark, DelawareTubemaker 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 Donovan (1885–1970) and Anna or Annie Elizabeth Donovan (née Webb, 1892–1973). He had an older half-sister, an older sister, and two younger brothers.

Donovan grew up in Newark. When he was recorded on the census on April 18, 1930, his family was living at 393 Depot Road (now known as South College Avenue). His father 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 Pennsylvania Railroad Station house (now the home of the Newark History Museum at 429 South College Avenue, along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor). He attended Newark High School but dropped out of school after completing 10th grade.

Donovan was a tubemaker at Continental Dimond Fibre prior to entering the service. When he entered the military, his military paperwork described him as standing five feet, 10½ inches tall and weighing 162 lbs., with brown hair and blue eyes.


According to his personnel file, Donovan volunteered for two years of service in the U.S. Navy in the fall of 1942. He was accepted for the U.S. Naval Reserve in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 9, 1942. On November 11, 1942, Apprentice Seaman Donovan reported for boot camp at the U.S. Naval Training Station Newport, Rhode Island.

Donovan was promoted to seaman 2nd class on January 5, 1943. The following day, he left Newport for a week of leave. On February 19, 1943, he was transferred to the Armed Guard School Annex at the Naval Training Station at Norfolk, Virginia, arriving there the following day.  The U.S. Navy Armed Guard manned guns aboard armed merchant ships.

Seaman 2nd Class Donovan reported to the Armed Guard School at Little Creek, Virginia, on February 20, 1943. On March 19, 1943, after completing training as a member of a gun crew, he was transferred to the U.S. Navy Armed Guard Center at Brooklyn, New York. He reported for duty there the following day. On March 22, 1943, Donovan was promoted to seaman 1st class and assigned to a gun crew aboard the Panamanian-flagged merchant ship S.S. El Almirante.

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, 1943), 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.

Donovan’s family was informed around April 29, 1943, that he was missing. In a letter dated January 25, 1944, the Navy confirmed Donovan’s death.

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

Since his body was not recovered, Donovan 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 Veterans 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

Rate/Rating

Two contemporary newspaper articles erroneously stated that Donovan had a rating of gunner’s mate 1st class, apparently due to confusion about the fact that he was a seaman 1st class who was assigned to a gun crew.

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, there is no evidence a U-boat had anything to do with his death. 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 and to the Newark Post for permission to reprint the page above.


Bibliography


Last updated on December 9, 2022

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