U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program
Interviewee: Raymond O'Malley
World War II Coast Guard veteran & survivor
of the sinking of the cutter Escanaba (WPG-77)
Interviewer: Ensign Gary
Date of Interview: 2004
Place of Interview: Telephonic interview
USS Escanaba, CG; the original caption of the photo read: "Survivors of the ESCANABA. Melvin A. Baldwin, BM 2c (left) Raymond F. O'Malley, Sea 1c. (right) These men were rescued by the USS RARITAN. This picture shows the men standing on the starboard side of Raritan's stack."; 18 June 1943; Photo No. 24; photo by LTJG MacNeill, Photo Officer.
The following oral history interview was provided to the Coast Guard Historian's Office through the courtesy of (then) Ensign Gary Murphy, who was assigned to the "current" Escanaba (WMEC-907). Ensign Murphy interviewed World War II Coast Guard veteran Raymond O'Malley, who served aboard the first cutter named Escanaba (WPG-77) and was one of only two survivors of that cutter's loss in 1943. To this day no one knows for sure what sank the Escanaba but at least two U-boats were reported in the vicinity.
The Historian's Office would like to thank Mr. O'Malley for taking the time to give future generations a look into what life was like in the Coast Guard during World War II and more specifically what it was like to survive the tragedy of the sinking of the first cutter to bear the name Escanaba. Our thanks to Ensign Murphy too for conducting the interview and providing us with a copy. It is only through such efforts that Coast Guard history is preserved.
Q: How are you doing? My name is Ensign Gary Murphy. I’m stationed on the Escanaba [WMEC-907] now, and starting with you Sir, I don’t know if now’s a good time or maybe if we can talk to you another time. We’d like to ask you just a couple of questions about some of your old experiences if that’s alright with you Sir?
MR. O’MALLEY: Sure, it’s alright.
Q: Okay. Is it alright if I record it Sir?
MR. O’MALLEY: Yes, sure.
Q: Okay. One of the first questions we have for you Mr. O’Malley is if you could describe your youth for us a little bit and tell us how you found the Coast Guard and how you came into being in the Coast Guard.
MR. O’MALLEY: Alright. The war was going on and I just went down and I tried the Army, Navy and the Marines and they were all loaded with their quotas.
MR. O’MALLEY: And the next room was the Coast Guard and I went in there and I took a physical, One, Two, Three and they said to report Monday and that was it, or whatever day, I can’t remember.
Q: Sure. How would you describe your career in the Coast Guard? Was it a good experience for you?
MR. O’MALLEY: It gave me responsibility and . . . it taught me responsibility I should say and discipline and made a sailor out of me. I don’t know. I served my country and duty of my country. You know I was out making weather patrols before the war started.
MR. O’MALLEY: But before we got into it I should say. It was called a weather patrol but I was on the Hamilton and that went from, I guess Greenland or Iceland down to Bermuda, you know, to refuel down there. We went to Saint George and then we went into Katcha, Newfoundland. You know I was all over the North Atlantic.
MR. O’MALLEY: Convoys weren’t in the – they used to call it the rouges [phonetic] then – but I made a lot of weather patrols.
MR. O’MALLEY: I’m trying to think what else. We had a couple of rescues but I can’t remember what they were. I do remember that we’d seen submarines. I wasn’t in the radio room but I guess they were noted through the radio or somewhere because very shortly after you’d see British aircraft around but I don’t know if they sunk the submarine or if they spotted it, or what it is, but we would say, “Something sighted”, which came from, as I say, in the radio room, so I wouldn’t know what transmission there was.
Q: Sure. What was your main job on board Escanaba [WPG-77], Sir?
MR. O’MALLEY: I was a seaman. And . . . well, you know, whatever the seamen were assigned to do. I scrubbed down decks. I stood wheel watches. I stood watches on the wing, on the bridge, on the bow; all over, and if we got into rough weather - and it was cold up north there when you were . . . and taking green water over the bow, why ice formed on the shroud and everything and you’d be out there with axe handles breaking the ice off.
MR. O’MALLEY: And there were times when the water was so rough that we had to put up lifelines along the sides so if you went topside you had a lifeline that you had to hold onto to go from one end to the other. But most of the time we’d go through the boat from stem to stern and that was about it. I was a sailor, let’s put it that way.
Q: Yes, I understand Sir.
MR. O’MALLEY: I can’t go into anything else. You know I had assignments as a seaman.
Q: Sure. Would you mind telling us a little bit about what happened on June 13th, 1943 Sir?
MR. O’MALLEY: Oh yes. I was roused from my bunk and I went up on wheel watch at 0500 and I’d gotten an order to . . . well, you know, we were zig-zagging. We were in the convoy – I forget the number – and we’d have maybe a hundred ships in the convoy with only three or four escorts, but this time because of . . . I forget his right name, he was the Tokyo Rose for Germany. The transport; the APA, the U.S.S. Fairfax was returning from Greenland from a civilian war mission. They had just constructed a port up there and he came out, I guess it must have been June 11th or – I don’t remember the exact date – but on the radio he said the Fairfax would never reach the United States and at that time – now I’m not going to give you an exact number – but there were the [Coast Guard cutters] Algonquin [WPG-75], I guess the Mohawk [WPG-78], the Escanaba, the Storis [WAGL-38] and we were underway.
MR. O’MALLEY: We formed an arc around the Fairfax so as it was on the backside and kept going with the sonar. We already started our – I can’t remember which – two on and two off for whatever the watch thing was.
MR. O’MALLEY: And on June the 13th at five o’clock they came down and got me out of my bunk and . . . oh no, I’m sorry, we had started out from the fiords. Normally we’d have a hundred ships in the convoy and you’d have four or five escort vessels and this time we had five escort vessels with just the Fairfax. And we started out and an Army airplane coming in said that they saw a submarine in the fiord. So as we were going out the watches changed again - everybody alert – and we started out and, as I say, at five o’clock we were just starting to get into the icy water, you know, just beginning to get out of the fiord where there was ice.
MR. O’MALLEY: You know when you get a frozen Daiquiri or something; you know how you get shaved ice on it?
MR. O’MALLEY: Well that’s what we were going through at the time.
MR. O’MALLEY: And at five o’clock I went up on the bridge and took over the wheel and I had my first order for the zig-zag. I guess I turned to starboard with the Fairfax going by and there was this big explosion from the torpedo and the ship was split in half because the bow came up and the stern came up. You know it was going down now.
MR. O’MALLEY: I went down originally with the ship. As I hit the water on the bridge – when the water hit me I should say – I’d seen the bow coming up and I’d seen the stern coming up; both coming at me, and my first thought was to swim away because I didn’t want to get hit by either one. I don’t know why but the thought was I was going to get hit. And as I started to go I got pulled down with the ship and I don’t know how far down I went but I was swimming very hard to get back to the surface and now there’s another explosion - and depth charges were kept on a, I don’t know, maybe a 50-foot or 100-foot detonation and I forget just what it was on, or if it was the boilers - but I was pawing up to the surface, you know, struggling to get up. Swimming wasn’t doing much good and then this big explosion just popped me up and as I came up the only thing that I could see was . . . well I’d seen a couple of seamen in the water. I’d seen some people in the water. I don’t know if they were seamen or who they were but I did see the commanding officer [LCDR Carl Peterson, USCG]. And there was the strongback - I don’t know - maybe 50 yards away or something and we started to swim towards him and there was one man next to me, or not next to me. As I was swimming this one man said, “Help me”, and I grabbed his lifejacket by the neck and I started to pull him with me and we were both bleeding. I had some blood down the front of my face. I guess I got cut. I guess that I had hit the overhead and something came flying out, hit me in the head, and I had bleeding from my head but it didn’t last too long. You know the ice cold water I guess or whatever it was . . .
MR. O’MALLEY: And this other man was just covered with blood. But anyway, I grabbed the collar of his lifejacket and I started to swim with him towards the strongback and all I had in my hand was his lifejacket. I guess with the cold water or whatever it was, he just passed out and he slipped out of his lifejacket. Don’t ask me how, I have no idea, but I never got him to the strongback.
When we were on the strongback there was the captain, Baldwin, me and two other men I don’t know, and I put my arm on the strongback and the next thing I know I’m laying on a table in the strongback mess decks.
MR. O’MALLEY: And we just started . . . we hit the rough water. Somebody had left a hatch open I guess on the deck and we got water on the deck and all over below, you know, until they closed it, and I guess we were unconscious for over an hour. I talked to – I forget who it was – one of the combat things and I can’t remember which ship. Anyway, the first thing was he had just looked up . . . we were supposed to be about a thousand yards apart and he said he looked and he saw the Escanaba making a turn and he turned around and went to the starboard side of his ship and he was looking out to port and he heard an explosion. He turned around and when he turned around and looked back all he could see was blue smoke where the Escanaba had been. His guess was that it went down in less than two minutes.
MR. O’MALLEY: As I say, it was actually cut in half I guess. And watertight security . . . I don’t know. Anyway, he said that it was like . . . figuring from the time that the sound of the explosion came back to the other ship, he said within a minute or two minutes the ship was gone.
MR. O’MALLEY: The third one, when I talked to him he said that he was in his bunk and he heard something on the skin of the ship, you know, like the whirl of a propeller or something. He said it was just something that kind of set him off. He said he jumped out of his bunk and he ran up two ladders and just as he hit the outside deck the water hit him. The ship was hit before he got to the – I forget what it’s called, whatever it was – and he told me that the same thing happened to him; that he was being pulled down by the ship and when the second explosion came on he was blown on up to the top too.
MR. O’MALLEY: And after that he just said that he swam to the strongback and he doesn’t know. He said he came up to the top of the water. He started to swim. He’d seen a rope on the strongback and he swam to it and he passed out.
MR. O’MALLEY: Now two of us were pulled down with the ship and after the strongback picked us up we were picked up we were below decks and they were working on us, but in the meantime picked up – I can’t think of the lieutenant’s name now; the executive officer – Lieutenant [Robert A.] Prause; P-R-A-U-S-E I think it is.
MR. O’MALLEY: They picked him up. They threw him a heaving line. He was swimming and they threw him a heaving line and he wrapped it around his wrist and they pulled him onto the Raritan [WYT-93] and then they pulled him on deck. But when they got him below they worked on him . . . well they worked on us I guess for about an hour and brought us back. I was unconscious myself. People tell you that they see white lights and flashes and some different things. I got on the strongback. I’d seen the Storis go by and I passed out and the next thing I remember is I woke up on a mess deck table and everything was black. I was unconscious. I mean there were no white lights, no angels, no anything. I was just unconscious until they brought me back.
Q: Yes Sir.
MR. O’MALLEY: They worked on him, oh, for an hour after they brought us back and he never came back to life and they buried him at sea. I don’t know where but on the way to Newfoundland they buried him there.
Baldwin and I split wheel watches – gee, that was the 13th. See, that’s another one. Lieutenant Prowesnow – I can’t remember how to spell his name. He was commanding officer of the Raritan and he and Baldwin and I, I guess, after the second day out the three of us stayed on the bridge and we were on the helm all the way back to Argentia. Now it was from June the 13th to Sunday I think it was; June the 21st, that we got to Argentia.
MR. O’MALLEY: And then they flew us to Boston and I went to the hospital for, I don’t know, a checkup and then the next thing I knew I was in Grand Haven on August 7th, you know, the Coast Guard birthday celebration.
Q: Right, Coast Guard Day.
MR. O’MALLEY: August 7th they always have a celebration of the Coast Guard and that’s the first time I put a, it was called "Jelly Bark" at the time, and that’s the first time that I put a wreath down by the mast; August 1943, and I’ve been there every year since.
MR. O’MALLEY: They used to have parades I’m told. I made a wreath every ceremony but I never made every parade so I don’t know how many parades they’ve had. Are you on the "Es-key" [Escanaba] now?
Q: Yes Sir, I am.
MR. O’MALLEY: Are you in Boston?
Q: I am Sir.
MR. O’MALLEY: Well all right. I’ve been to Boston three times if I remember right and that’s where we celebrate the anniversary on June 13th.
Q: Yes Sir.
MR. O’MALLEY: Decoration Day. And November 11th; Armistice Day, for the first couple of years I’d be called to Grand Haven for assistance with the ceremony but that was overall. It wasn’t strictly the Escanaba.
Q: Yes Sir.
MR. O’MALLEY: It was for all of the service. And good old Decoration Day is one thing and Armistice Day was another; November the 11th, and May 31st. I made three of those if I remember right.
MR. O’MALLEY: Then I’m still bothered by, I guess they call it frostbite or hypothermia, I don’t know. My hands and feet are . . . the whole time, especially in cold weather, but I don’t walk well but I’m attributing that to old age.
MR. O’MALLEY: What else can I tell you? We made a bond tour; Baldwin and I both made a bond tour, but Admiral [and Coast Guard Commandant Russell R.] Waesche gave both of us a Purple Heart and I can’t remember the day, but his statement at that time was, “Here’s a Purple Heart for the tour. Now every man that was on the Escanaba on the 13th all have received Purple Hearts.”
He sent us on a bond tour and we went from Boston to several states – I don’t recall everything now – but we wound up on the Jimmy Simms show in Hollywood, California; on the radio show. Both of us walked out and she introduced us, “These are two survivors of the Escanaba that sunk”, and throughout the whole time we were all selling war bonds in Washington, D.C. and out of Washington, and Chicago. The war bonds . . . we went from Boston to California.
Q: Yes Sir.
MR. O’MALLEY: We’d get on the train here and then we would be transported by a state trooper from one small town to another making speeches and telling them about everything that happened, and selling war bonds, you know, going to lunch and going to dinner or something. And as I say, we ended up on the Jimmy Simms show.
We got a call from Phillip Morris, you know, Johnnies. I don’t know how old you are but Philip Morris had like a bellhop and he would come out and say, “Call for Philip Morris”, and that’s when the show would start.
And now it was time for questions. I can’t think of . . . I do remember one. The search and rescue operation was just beginning with helicopters and we were in Chicago with the commandant and we went down the Chicago River, and the helicopter came in – I was on a raft – and they had what was known as a Gibson Girl. I don’t know if they still have it. You know, a crank that you turn and it sends out an SOS.
MR. O’MALLEY: And the helicopter would come over and I’d hook onto the harness and they’d pull me up in the helicopter, not all the way up. They’d pull me up in the helicopter and then just over to the shore to be dropped off or whatever it was and I’d get off and go on that.
MR. O’MALLEY: And I don’t know what else I can tell you.
Q: The one other thing I would ask you Sir is if you had some kind of message that you’d kind of leave as a legacy for all the Escanaba sailors in the future; some kind of message or lessons learned.
MR. O’MALLEY: I don’t know about a reprimand but I can say this. You know with Vietnam and Desert Storm and now Iraq, there’s a pro and con about “We should be at war, we shouldn’t.” To me the young men of today are about the same as we were. When the war was going to begin there were men that went out to volunteer and join the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard, and they were just as courageous as they are today, you know, that they’re going, and I don’t know how many people know about it but the red stripe in the flag is a symbol of the courage and the dedication by the servicemen who served their country and died or were injured.
You know there’s a whole thing about the flag; the red, white, blue and the stars, but the red stripe is the big one. It shows courage and I’ve often gone by that. I fly the flag all the time in front of the house. For a while there I had that POW [Prisoner of War] and MIA [Missing in Action] flag and Coast Guard flag but I have them in the front of my home. I’m still proud that I was a serviceman. I don’t . . . with the old stories that we hear still, I have no animosity - is what you call it - towards any president; commander-in-chief, that sent us to war. I feel proud that I was a member of the Coast Guard and was out there. I must have made at least 20 convoys from Argentia to Ireland and when you’re out there . . . and there were days when things were so bad, you know, with the wolf packs that you can say what you want about the soldier being on land and fighting and everything, but we were out there. We didn’t know if we were going to get torpedoed. We didn’t know if we were going to get sunk. Men slept in magazines right by the guns. You know, maybe call it fear but it’s just as much on a ship out at sea as it is in a landing. I can’t think of anything much else to tell you.
Q: This has been really great Mr. O’Malley. I really appreciate you taking some time out of your schedule to talk with us here about your story.
MR. O’MALLEY: Tell me; were you out of town on Christmas?
Q: We were. We got back just a couple of days before Christmas.
MR. O’MALLEY: Well you did get in at Christmas?
Q: Yes, we pulled in a couple of days before.
MR. O’MALLEY: Oh, because I was trying to call and I didn’t get through at all. How long did you stay in?
Q: It was short; just maybe a month.
MR. O’MALLEY: Oh. Tell me Ensign . . . I’m now kind of working with the Auxiliary here . . . and the flotation jacket; I don’t suppose there is an extra large on your ship that you could loose and put in the mail for me?
Q: Sure, I think we can work that out Sir.
MR. O’MALLEY: Give me the biggest one that you have.
MR. O’MALLEY: I’m a very big man.
MR. O’MALLEY: You know the one I mean?
Q: Yes, the bright orange one.
MR. O’MALLEY: Yes, because as you see, I’m working with the Auxiliary but the only thing they give me is a little life jacket and it gets cold there. In Chicago it gets pretty cold sometimes.
MR. O’MALLEY: And that flotation jacket will be perfect if you could find one lying around.
Q: Sure, I think we can arrange that Sir.
MR. O’MALLEY: Who’s your commanding officer now?
Q: It’s Commander James McPherson.
MR. O’MALLEY: Who?
Q: His last name is McPherson.
MR. O’MALLEY: Oh, McPherson.
MR. O’MALLEY: Commander?
Q: Yes, that’s correct.
MR. O’MALLEY: Oh. Is there anything about telling what the Grand Haven is doing this year; anything? Have you heard?
Q: We have not heard anything yet. We’re still up in the area with our next patrol, which is coming up here in a couple of weeks.
MR. O’MALLEY: Where are you, in the Caribbean?
Q: That’s probably where we’ll end up again, yes. Our last patrol we were down off of Haiti and so it looks like we might be heading back down that way somewhere.
MR. O’MALLEY: Alright. Anyway, post it on your bulletin board for me.
MR. O’MALLEY: Ray O’Malley says, “May God hold all of you in his hand and that all members of the Escanaba on June the 13th.” Every year on the 13th of June I go to church and I say a prayer for the ship that went down and for Escanaba Three.
Q: Yes Sir.
MR. O’MALLEY: And keep them safe.
Q: Yes Sir, I’ll do that Sir.
MR. O’MALLEY: Can you do that for me?
Q: Yes Sir, no problem.
MR. O’MALLEY: I think maybe I missed . . . in the 60 years I missed maybe two, maybe three. I just . . . you know my mind is flighty these days but I’ve only missed a couple sermons where I didn’t go to church - and I’m a Catholic - and I lit a candle for both ships.
Q: Well that’s great. We appreciate that.
MR. O’MALLEY: For the men that went down with the "Es-key" and then I light another one and say a prayer for the safety of the men on "Es-key" Three.
Q: Yes Sir.
MR. O’MALLEY: So would you just tell them that?
Q: I will pass that along for you Sir.
MR. O’MALLEY: Because I’m getting pretty old and I don’t know how much longer I’ll go.
Q: Alright Sir.
MR. O’MALLEY: And I do get out once in a while but most of our patrols are on the river, and I appreciate it very much.
Q: No problem Sir.
MR. O’MALLEY: Thank you and thank the captain for anything and everything that he does for me, will you?
Q: Will do Sir. Again, I appreciate you talking with me here today.
MR. O’MALLEY: Okay.
Q: Alright Sir, take care.
MR. O’MALLEY: Yes.
END OF INTERVIEW