|Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware||Machinist|
|European||Infantry (unassigned) aboard U.S.A.T. J. W. McAndrew|
Early Life & Family
Thomas Bassett Twilley, Jr. was born on June 15, 1922 in Aireys, in Dorchester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He was the son of Thomas Bassett Twilley (1889–1931) and Florence Vincent Twilley (1881–1980). He had an older brother, Jackson Vincent Twilley (1918–1968).
The Twilley family moved to Delaware County, Pennsylvania, prior to April 14, 1930. Twilley was recorded on the census that day living with his parents, brother, and maternal grandmother at 1177 East 9th Street in Eddystone. Twilley was just eight when his father died of cancer on April 15, 1931. He was still living in with his mother and brother on the next census in April 1940. Although Twilley was still in high school at the time, the census recorded him as being employed through the National Youth Administration. Like the better-known Civilian Conservation Corps, the N.Y.A. was part of the New Deal.
After Twilley graduated from Eddystone High School, he worked as a machinist. When Twilley registered for the draft on June 30, 1942, he was living with his mother at 1177 East 9th Street in Eddystone and working for Westinghouse Merchant Marine in Lester, Pennsylvania.
Military records describe Twilley as standing five feet, 10¼ inches tall and weighing 152 lbs., with brown hair and blue eyes.
On January 15, 1943, the Wilmington Morning News announced Twilley’s engagement to Esther E. Amatuzio (1924–2001, then working for Dravo but working as a bank teller by the time of their wedding). The couple wed in Wilmington, Delaware, on June 5, 1943. An annotation to Twilley’s draft card dated August 28, 1943, stated that Twilley had moved to 823 (North) Market Street in Wilmington.
After he was drafted, Twilley was inducted into the U.S. Army in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 3, 1944. He attended basic training at the Infantry Replacement Training Center at Fort McClellan, Alabama, where he was stationed from July 14, 1944, through November 15, 1944. On November 16, 1944, he arrived at the Parachute School, Fort Benning, Georgia, where he completed airborne training. He was hospitalized at the Army Service Forces Regional Hospital at Fort Benning from January 12–19, 1945, and again from January 25, 1945 – February 1, 1945. He was briefly stationed at the Army Ground Forces Replacement Depot No. 1 at Fort George G. Meade, beginning around February 24, 1945. According to his wife’s statement to the State of Delaware Public Archives Commission, Private Twilley then moved to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, before he went overseas.
Twilley boarded a transport, U.S.A.T. J. W. McAndrew, at the New York Port of Embarkation. He was not a member of a specific unit at the time, but presumably would have been assigned to the 13th, 17th, 82nd, or 101st Airborne Divisions after his arrival in Europe. According to one report, the McAndrew had 1,947 soldiers aboard when she departed New York on March 7, 1945, bound for Liverpool as part of Convoy CU-61.
One of Twilley’s buddies, Private Ben Trackwell (1924–1967), recalled in a letter to Esther Twilley dated July 25, 1945:
Tom was one boy who did not want to go to war. He was not the only one. We had a lot of fun joking about it. I was just [the] opposite. I wanted war. It sounded exciting, and I really had nothing at home. I was willing to sacrifice my life, if someone who had a wife did not have to. That was the irony of fate.
Early on the morning of March 13, 1945, CU-61 was sailing at 14 knots northwest of the Azores (approximate position 41° 54’ North, 36° 00’ West). The air temperature was a mild 58°F though the water was quite cold, about 60°F. As recorded in the war diary of U.S.S. Eisner (DE-192), one of convoy’s escorts, the French aircraft transport Béarn, “suffered an electrical steering casualty and had sheered out to port without warning in poor visibility.” A translated French report included in B. J. Bryan’s book, The Ship That Never Was: A Story of U.S. Armed Guard and the Merchant Ships of World War II, stated that the electrical failure affected not only Béarn’s steering but also her navigational lights and the engine order telegraph, preventing her crew from avoiding the tragedy that happened next.
In a synopsis of the incident in Private Twilley’s Individual Deceased Personnel File (I.D.P.F.), Major Walter B. Morrow wrote that “At about 0340 hours on 13th March 1945,” Béarn collided with J. W. McAndrew,
making a hole below the water-line on the starboard side, the hole was 40 feet wide and ran from deck to keel. Hold # 1 was opened to the sea and it is estimated that all the men washed out into the sea and still unrecovered were in or about the vicinity of lower # 1 Troop compartment.
In his letter to Private Twilley’s wife, Twilley’s friend Private Ben Trackwell (by then a member of Headquarters Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division) wrote that “It was a very uneventful voyage until that wreck.” He shed some light on Twilley’s fate:
Now for Tom, I remember he had been sick most of the day and evening. Spent most of his time that day either lying on his bunk which was just below mine, or in the latrine sick. […] He was in bed, but not asleep when I went to bed. I fell asleep soon, and did not wake up until we had the wreck. It practically knocked me out of bed, as it hit just 15 feet from my bed. I cannot say I saw him go to the latrine and be washed out, but it was the only place he could have been, and still not show up. I missed him the minute I got up, as I noticed his bed empty, and his life jacket lying on his bed which we all used for a pillow. The wreck happened about 3Am [sic] when everyone was sleeping. Evidently he was not the only one in the latrine, as several others were also missing that were known to be sick that evening. The latrine was completely demolished.
Major John S. Hobbs wrote in a statement dated April 7, 1945, that after the collision woke him, he hurried to the damaged area. He added:
I found that the ship’s emergency crew had arrived before me. The emergency crew was holding a rope down into the lower #1 troop compartment and pulling the passengers up to the shelter deck by use of said rope. […]
Two men were hanging from the cargo ladder in the lower #1 troop compartment and were apparently frozen to it. […] I was able to get a rope around the body and under the armpits of one of the men, thereby permitting the emergency crew to raise him to safety. The other man dropped from the ladder and was washed to sea before I could assist him. The lights were on in the hold so that I could see all that was happening quite well. I looked around for any personnel that might possibly be left in the hold, and, as I looked, I saw that the entire hold from a point below the cargo hold to a point as high as the shelter deck had been opened to the seas for a width of about seventy (70) feet, fore to aft, along the starboard side. Every thing at that time that may have been lower than #1 troop compartment, and every man, except myself, had been washed to sea[.]
A roll call revealed that of the 135 men assigned to the compartment at the time of the collision, 80 were unaccounted for, plus one soldier performing guard duty on deck.
Although the Allies had all but won the Battle of Atlantic by that point, the Germans still had submarines at sea. Despite the potential threat, as a memorandum in Private Twilley’s I.D.P.F. explained, following the collision, the “Escort Commander almost immediately requested Convoy Commodore to have all vessels turn on side lights which was done[.]” The crews of the destroyer escorts U.S.S. Roche (DE-197) and U.S.S. Earl K. Olsen (DE-765) also risked using their searchlights in a desperate attempt to locate survivors before they drowned or succumbed to hypothermia.
One of the survivors from the compartment, Private 1st Class Robert Cornelis van Ravenswaay (1924–1983) recalled in a statement:
My bunk collapsed over my feet and all the tiers of bunks were mashed together. I managed to crawl out through [the] wreckage. I reached the hole of the ship. At that time the ship listed and the water carried me out. I was sucked under the water and when I came to the surface, I got caught under some kind of a net but finally escaped. I had no life jacket but grabbed a plank and joined with another survivor […] The man with me also got weak and drowned. The weather was very heavy at that time. I passed several dead bodies in life jackets who were just being beaten back and forth by the waves.
Private 1st Class Edgar Finsmith (1923–2008) recalled:
All the pipes, including the staircase, came down and I thought I’d never get out. The water was coming in very fast. I was about to resign myself to my fate when I felt small objects hitting me and I realized I must be floating. I opened my eyes and took a breath and saw the stars shining above me. I tried to get away from the ship as fast as possible because I thought it was going down. I swam about ten yards and noticed two fellows that seemed to be on a raft. One of them I recognized as a fellow by the name of Wilhelm and later foun[d] that the other was Jacob Cook. I was too weak to climb aboard the group of boards so the other two helped me. At this time I noticed that my hand was ripped open. I rested for about five minutes and then the waves broke the boards apart which we were on and I drifted away from the other two fellows. […] I remember grabbing the rope from the destroyer escort. Two members of the crew went over the side with ropes around their stomachs and about that time I passed out.
Destroyer escort crews pulled the last survivor from the water about five hours after the collision, though they continued searching for about two hours after that. 11 men including Finsmith and Technician 3rd Grade Jacob E. Cook (1922–1992) were rescued by the crew of Roche and transferred to the 79th General Hospital upon the ship’s arrival in England. Olsen rescued another two men and delivered them to Ponta Delgada on São Miguel Island in the Azores, where the Béarn and J. W. McAndrew diverted for emergency repairs. Although the escort crews were willing to take some risks to rescue the living, their commanding officers were unwilling to do so to recover the dead. Some bodies were left adrift and never recovered. Private Twilley and Private 1st Class Herman J. Wilhelm, Jr. (1921–1945) were among the missing following the tragedy.
Though Twilley had been swept from the ship, some of his personal effects were not: two bibles, three booklets, a garrison gap, an envelope with pictures, a belt buckle featuring a parachute insignia, a Sheaffer fountain pen, two sewing kits, and a nickel.
The final death toll was 73: 69 men from J. W. McAndrew (68 American infantrymen and one member of the U.S. Navy Armed Guard) and four French sailors from Béarn. A report dated June 11, 1945, indicated that the incident was the last during World War II involving fatalities to U.S. Army personnel in transit by sea to the European Theater of Operations. The War Department declared Private Twilley dead on July 24, 1945.
Continuing his letter to Twilley’s widow, Private Trackwell wrote:
Mrs. Twilley, if I only could I would tell you there was a chance of him coming back, but I can see no chance. I admire your love for him, and I know what he [sic] meant to him. That undying love you have is wonderful. I would like to find it myself someday.
In 1948, a review board determined that all soldiers still missing from the disaster, including Private Twilley, were non-recoverable. Private Twilley’s name is memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at the Brittany American Cemetery, France; on a cenotaph at the Twilley family plot at East New Market Cemetery, Maryland; and at Veterans Memorial Park in New Castle, Delaware.
Esther Twilley remarried to Joseph Oboryshko (1919–2000) in Wilmington on January 31, 1948. A U.S. Army veteran who fought in the Pacific Theater, Joseph had lost his brother, Steven Oboryshko, during the Battle of Normandy. The couple raised one daughter.
Béarn is referred to as an aircraft carrier in some accounts. Béarn had been an aircraft carrier, though at the time of the collision she was serving as an aircraft transport. That is, planes were aboard as cargo and Béarn was not capable of conducting flight operations.
Special thanks to Bill Swiatek for contributing photos and documents, to Private Twilley’s niece Carol Pierce for valuable information, and to M. T. Benson and the Delaware Public Archives for the use of their photos.
Bryan, B. J. The Ship That Never Was: A Story of U.S. Armed Guard and the Merchant Ships of World War II. Xlibris, 2011.
“Convoy CU.61.” Arnold Hague Convoy Database. http://www.convoyweb.org.uk/cu/index.html?cu.php?convoy=61!~cumain
Delaware Marriages. Bureau of Vital Statistics, Hall of Records, Dover, Delaware. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/61368/images/TH-267-12584-18855-51, https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/61368/images/TH-267-12435-49412-97
Delong, W. F. “War Diary – March, 1945.” 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/295393322
“Engagements.” Wilmington Morning News, January 15, 1943. Pg. 19. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/104972344/twilley-engagement/
“Esther Elizabeth “Betty” Amatuzio Oboryshko.” Find a Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/72063185/esther-elizabeth-oboryshko
“Joseph Oboryshko.” The News Journal, December 21, 2000. Pg. B5.
Pennsylvania Death Certificates, 1906-1967. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/5164/images/42342_2421406260_0656-00342
Sessions, W. A. “U.S.S. Eisner (DE-192) War Diary, March 12, 1945.” 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/295403073
“Ship Sinkings in War Against German and Italy Cost 3,604 American Lives.” War Department Bureau of Public Relations Press Branch. June 11, 1945. Record Group 498, Records of Headquarters, European Theater of Operations, United States Army (World War II). National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://www.fold3.com/image/291168453
Thomas B. Twilley Individual Deceased Personnel File. Courtesy of U.S. Army Human Resources Command.
“Thomas Bassett Twilley.” Find a Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/26803689/thomas-bassett-twilley
Trackwell, Ben. Letter to Esther Twilley, July 25, 1945. Courtesy of Bill Swiatek.
Twilley, Esther E. Thomas Bassett Twilley Individual Military Service Record, March 13, 1945. 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/21574/rec/1
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/4639361_01095
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-T0627-03491-00238
World War II Army Enlistment Records. Record Group 64, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://aad.archives.gov/aad/record-detail.jsp?dt=893&mtch=1&cat=all&tf=F&q=33813008&bc=&rpp=10&pg=1&rid=4267344
World War II Veterans Compensation Applications. Record Group 19, Series 19.92, Records of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/3147/images/43191_2421401759_0556-02074
WWII Draft Registration Cards for Pennsylvania, 10/16/1940–3/31/1947. Record Group 147, Records of the Selective Service System. National Archives at St. Louis, Missouri. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2238/images/44033_04_00489-01176
Last updated on August 1, 2022
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