Camas man honors shipmates killed in WWII submarine attack

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

Published:

 
photoBill Minton in uniform 70 years ago.

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Did you know?

The Japanese submarine that torpedoed the S.S. William Dawes —the I-11 — had an airplane that was housed in a hangar built onto its deck.

CAMAS — This was the second time Bill Minton had floated on that piece of the Pacific Ocean, about 12 miles off the Australian coast.

The first, in 1942, Minton was in a lifeboat as he watched the S.S. William Dawes burn. Then the submarine that had torpedoed Minton's ship — and killed five of the men who shared his quarters — came to the surface.

Was a bad night going to get even worse?

"We'd heard cases where submarines rammed lifeboats or machine-gunned them," Minton said.

After the conning tower hatch opened, a Japanese officer emerged.

"He didn't say anything. He just looked us over. I could see a flash of light as he lit a cigarette," the 89-year-old veteran said.

The officer climbed down the sub's hatch and the vessel submerged. Within hours, an Australian fishing vessel came out and towed four lifeboats containing 54 survivors of the Dawes to the coastal city of Merimbula, south of Sydney and east of Melbourne.

Seventy years later, that city -- and some of the people who took part in the World War II rescue — welcomed Minton back to New South Wales. Accompanied by several family members and Dale Dutter, a local Veterans of Foreign Wars chaplain, Minton was able to take care of some unfinished business.

On April 1, a charter boat took them out into the Pacific over the spot where the Liberty ship had settled on the ocean floor. The wreckage marked the final resting place for the four Navy sailors and the one U.S. Army soldier who never made it off the ship.

During the memorial service, Dutter offered a prayer and a bugler played. Then Minton cast a wreath onto the ocean in a tribute to his five shipmates.

"That was the reason I went. That had been gnawing at me for some time," Minton said Wednesday afternoon in his Camas home. "They were in a lonely place: just a wave for a gravestone."

Minton might have shared their fate. The victims were among nine military personnel aboard the merchant ship, which was hauling supplies. Eight of them were part of the U.S. Navy's armed guard, which handled communi

cations duties and manned the guns aboard merchant ships.

"The soldier was aboard because we were carrying Army gear," Minton said. All nine shared quarters in the ship's stern, near the point where a torpedo exploded.

"Five died and four survivors all went to the hospital, including me," Minton said.

The power had been knocked out, and it was pitch black when Minton awoke.

"We had to go by feel to get to a hatch so we could get out onto the deck."

The hatch frame must have been sprung by the explosion, because he couldn't get it open. Then another sailor showed up, "And the two of us reefing on it got it open."

When Minton saw that all but one lifeboat was gone, he knew someone had given orders to abandon ship. Minton and another sailor got to work launching that last lifeboat. It was supposed to be a seven-man job, Minton said, but "we had reason to work."

After the lifeboats docked in Merimbula, Minton got out and tried to walk. That's when he realized he was wounded: "A piece of shrapnel went right through my thigh."

Minton and another wounded sailor were loaded onto a flatbed truck and taken to a nearby hospital.

Minton was able to return to duty. He sailed on convoys in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean, and some of them were attacked.

"The ships I was on got by unscathed, and ships next to us were blown up," Minton said.

He knew what those sailors were going through; he'd been in their place, after all.

"It brings back memories," he said. "You wonder how many will survive."

Long after the war ended, a few things came together enabling Minton to pay tribute to his old shipmates.

In 2004, divers discovered the S.S. William Dawes at a depth of about 440 feet, setting a New South Wales diving record.

Merimbula celebrated its 100th anniversary this year, and city officials thought that a commemoration for the lost American servicemen would be fitting part of the centennial.

Minton was gratified to learn that his shipmates were still remembered in Merimbula.

"When I found out how much those people cared, it took a weight off my shoulders," Minton said.

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com/col_history;tom.vogt@columbian.com.