USS GANNET, Attack & Survivor’s Narrative
By Eric T. Wiberg, Esq. www.uboatsbermuda.blogspot.com, December, 2014
USS Gannet (AVP 8), built in 1918 and sunk on 7 June 1942 by U-653 under Gerhard Feiler.
Photo source: http://www.uboat.net/allies/warships/ship/5193.html
USS Gannet was laid down at Minesweeper Number 41 at the Todd Shipyard Corporation of New York, NY on the First of October, 1918. Launched on 19 March 1919, she was commissioned at the New York Navy Yard on the 10th of July that year. On the 17thof February 1920 the ship received the designation AM-41.
The minesweeper displaced 840 tons and had a length of 187’10”, beam 35’5”, and draft 8’10”. Manned by 85 officers and men, the vessel achieved 14 knots. A single 1,400 s.h.p. engine built by Hollingsworth Corporation drove one shaft. Her weaponry consisted of twin 3-inch guns on dual-purpose mounts.
The Gannet had a career which covered a variety of weather zones. Leaving New York it performed shakedown maneuvers in Cuba before joining the Pacific Fleet in San Diego. Among her many duties she tended aircraft squadrons, towed, transported ships and passengers. In 1926, 1929, and then from 1932 to 1935 the Gannet supported aerial surveys of Alaska and the Aleutian islands. On the 30th of April 1931 she was reclassified a minesweeper with duties with aircraft. In January 1936 the ship was reclassified as a Small Seaplane Tender and given the numerals AVP 8.
In August 1937 the Gannet was sent to Coco Solo, Panama to tender aircraft there. Then in June 1939 the vessel went to Norfolk Virginia, tending US Navy airplanes in Key West, Bermuda, Saint Lucia and Trinidad. In September 1941 she was sent to Kungnait Bay, Greenland, setting up an advanced seaplane base. In November she returned to Norfolk. When Pearl Harbor was attacked on 7 December 1941 the Gannet was in Hamilton, Bermuda. After a short trip back to Norfolk she returned to Bermuda for the balance of her war.
From the 15th of June 1941 until the ship’s demise on the 7th of June 1942 her commander was Lieutenant Francis Edward Nuessle. On the 1st of June the British steam ship Westmoreland was sunk by U-566 under Dietrich Borchert roughly 220 nautical miles north of Bermuda. The ship sent out an SSS or SOS which was received by shore stations.
Lieutenant Commander Frances Edward Nuessle, in command of the USS Gannet at the time of her loss.
Rear Admiral Jules James, officer in charge of the Naval Operating Base, Bermuda, ordered the Gannet and HMS Sumar to rescue the 65 survivors (unbeknownst to authorities in Bermuda the survivors were in fact picked up by two merchant ships, the Cathcart and the Henry R. Mallory shortly after the sinking). Several aircraft were sent to the site of the sinking from Bermuda as well.
Vice Admiral Jules James, USN, in charge of the NOB Bermuda during 1942.
Photo source: https://navy.togetherweserved.com/usn/servlet/tws.webapp.WebApp?cmd=ShadowBoxProfile&type=Person&ID=572696
The caption for this photo at the Grosse Pointe (Michigan) Historical Society is “The David C. Whitney Yacht ‘Sumar’ named after Susan Marshall Whitney.
Photo source: http://www.gphistorical.org/whitney.html
The yacht Sumar was commissioned by David C. Whitney (1865-1942) of Grosse Point, Detroit Michigan and named for his wife Susan Marshall. It was built of steel by the Todd Shipyards Corporation in Brooklyn NY, the same yard as the Gannet was built, except it was built by their Tebo Yacht Basin subsidiary.
The vessel was 160 feet long and propulsion was twin diesel engines which turned two propellers and produced 13 knots. The naval architect was Henry J. Gielow. Her beam was 26 feet and tonnage 319. The engines were built by Cooper-Bessemer and developed 420 horsepower. The vessel was manned by a crew of 21. In 1927 her captain was B. Madsen and in May she was in transit from Manila to Colombo Sri Lanka via Singapore.
Built in 1926, by April 1931 the Sumar had logged 85,000 nautical miles of cruising, including a circumnavigation of the planet. She ranged from the east and west coasts of the Americas, the Mediterranean and Black Seas, the British Isles, Scandinavia, and the Caribbean. The first part of her route took her to Port of Spain, Rio, Montevideo, then to Hammerfest Norway. Her captain in 1930 was Barney, who had skippered the British war prize Germania and been responsible for 104 idle Hog Island-built ships for two years.
Sometime before June 1942 the Sumar was sold to the British and commissioned as HMS Sumar. In Bermuda she was listed as an anti-submarine vessel and was at one point under the command of Lieutenant Commander C. A. King, DSC, RNR. In July 1941 she was simply fitting out in Bermuda, but appears to have stayed there. The Sumar was based at Her Majesty’s Dockyard in Bermuda.
Lieutenant-Commander Gordon Emerson Kernohan, transferred to Winnipeg, Manitoba,
Photo source: Winnipeg (Manitoba) Free Press, January 1, 1945 (newspaperarchive.com)
HMS Sumar’s commander was a Canadian named Lieutenant Gordon Emerson Kernohan of the Royal Canadian Naval Voluntary Reserve. A 1926 graduate of Upper Canada College, Lt. Kernohan hailed from Winnipeg and Toronto. He was one of the survivors when the armed merchant cruiser (AMC) HMS Forfar (F 30) was sunk on the 2nd of December 1940 by Otto Kretschmer in U-99 west of Ireland. 172 of her complement of 193 perished, 21 survived.
Nuessle on the Gannet was expecting a corvette to rendezvous with him five nautical miles east of what is now Gibbs Hill Light. Instead he and his men were unpleasantly surprised to find the converted yacht Sumar. It got worse. They had no common communications signals, the Gannet didn’t have a working sonar and neither did the Sumar, and both the radio and compass on the Sumar were defective. The resultant erratic changes in course made the Sumar yaw so much that Nuessle wryly observed she might has well have been zig zagging.
The converted yacht could only make 10 knots, and so the Gannet took up station, laboriously trying to stay within 500 yards of its companion during the voyage northwards. In order to stay in contact with each other, both ships rigged lights for the other to see, making them easier prey to lurking submarines. Since the airplanes found no survivors from the Westmoreland (they had already been rescued), at 1:00 pm on the 6th of June both navy ships were ordered back to Bermuda. By then they had sailed into the sites of a German U-boat, U-653 under Kapitänleutnant (later Korvettenkapitän) Gerhard Feiler.
Feiler was a determined adversary, however he underestimated the draft of the two ships he was aiming for. He described his targets as a “navy tender” and a “large escort” and also describes seeing a “white-painted destroyer.” They were first sighted at 12:22 German time (about 6:22 am local time). He finally lined up his torpedo shots at 4:20 am on the 7th of June, which translates to roughly 10:20 pm local. Remarkably, all four shots – all of them with the modern G7e homing torpedo – missed the mark. Feiler was exasperated, logging “So much for our first attack in all this time – four misses! A bitter disappointment.”
By 7:42 am (1:42 am local) he fired another pair of torpedoes, these ones set for just 2 meters or about 7 feet depth. After 38 seconds he wrote that “Tender blows up immediately, presumably the magazine. Once the explosion cloud has cleared we can see only small pieces of sinking wreckage, debris from the blast is spread far and wide.” He noted that the Sumar turned and headed towards the U-boat and observed seeing “emergency signals for about 10 min.”
Apparently HMS Sumar didn’t see the emergency signals, or mistook them for more mundane communications from her escort, as the ship motored on for Bermuda, arriving there without the Gannet the following day and causing a damaging rift between the American and British navies.
The explosion was indeed devastating to the Gannet and to 14 men of her company who were killed in the blast. The vessel only stayed afloat for four minutes before rolling over and sinking, taking with it two lifeboats and leaving the 62 survivors to cling to flotsam and a pair of rafts. Nuessle was sucked underwater by the sinking ship and barely managed to escape with his life. Once on the surface he ordered the injured to be placed on the rafts and the other men to tread water nearby, holding on. In this state the majority of them were doomed to spend 17 hours
Because of the Westmoreland sinking and numerous sightings of life rafts reported to the air arm in Bermuda, and by a good measure of luck, the US Navy Mariner airplane whose specific call sign was 74 (for the squadron) P 2 piloted by Lieutenant W. L. Pettingill came upon the survivors. Having no idea that the Gannet had been sunk, he presumed the men to be merchant mariners and radioed base in Bermuda to receive permission to land, which was against standing orders.
In Pettingill the men of the Gannet were blessed with the right man at the right time. When he flew low over the survivors he determined (correctly) that they were in need of immediate medical attention, and were desperate. Disregarding his orders and protocol, he landed his flying boat on the rough seas and was shocked to learn that they were his compatriots from the Gannett. He immediately raised the alarm via radio and though his plane had been slightly damaged on the struts by his landing, managed to gather 11 of the worst cases into the plane and take off from Bermuda. So bad was the condition of some of the men that one of them died en route. On learning of the fate of the Gannet men, and not knowing of the activities of the Sumar, Rear Admiral James immediately dispatched more aircraft as well as USS Hamilton, USS Trippe, and USS Owl.
USS Hamilton (DMS 18, ex-DD 141) the Wickes-class destroyer which rescued 40 survivors of the Gannet.
Photo source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Hamilton(DD-141)#mediaviewer/File:USSHamiltonDD141.jpg
The USS Hamilton was a flush-decked “four-stacker” destroyer built in 1918-1919 at Mares Island Naval Shipyard near San Francisco. She was commissioned as a destroyer (DD 141) on the 7thof November, 1919 and decommissioned on the 20th of July 1922. The vessel was re-commissioned on the 20th of January 1930. On 17 October 1941 the ship was re-classified as a fast minesweeper and given the designation DMS 18.
Hamilton was 1,090 tons, 314’5” long, 31’9” wide and 8’8” deep. She was capable of 35 knots’ speed when built and manned by 113 officers and men. Her main weapons were four 4-inch guns, three .30-caliber machine guns and 12 torpedo tubes. Between 1939 and 1941 the Hamilton patrolled the Grand Banks out to Iceland and Greenland. When the US joined the war she escorted convoys as far south as Panama.
On June 7th Admiral James ordered the Hamilton to rescue survivors of the Gannet north of Bermuda, in coordination with the naval aircraft also assigned to the task. These aircraft succeeded in attracting the Hamilton commander, Lieutenant Commander Harold Oscar “Swede” Larson’s attention and vectored the former destroyer to the location of the forty remaining men.
Specifically Lieutenant Commander J. W. Gannon in the Mariner 74 P 7 guided the Hamilton to the scene, and he too, bravely landed on the open sea and retrieved 11 of the most ill men, including Lt. Cdr. Nuessle. Both the plane and the Hamilton then returned to Bermuda, where the survivors were landed and some placed in the Naval infirmary there.
The War Diary dated the 8thof June records laconically that “Enroute to Base Mike [Bermuda] escorting the JOSEPH T. DICKMAN HAMILTON left convoy to do some sub elimination duty and picked up some survivors of USS GANNET.” Because of the military nature of the loss and rescue, the events did not make the local press. Convoy arrived Base Mike with STANSBURY escorting.”
After supporting Operation Torch in North Africa, then supporting the US Marines’ invasion of Kwajalein Atoll, USS Hamilton was re-classified as a miscellaneous auxiliary (AG 111) on the 6thof May 1945 and struck from the Navy Register on the 1sst of November, 1945. She was sold for scrapping just over a year later. HMS Sumar was used as a training ship in 1944 and sold out of the service in 1946.
One of the conditions of the US Navy regarding the Sumar incident was that Lt. Kernohan no longer command any Allied ships. Not being interested in participating in courts-martial of an ally, however, they sent most of the witnesses including Lt. Nuessle, to the US mainland quickly following the incident.
There were heated exchanges of letters between Read Admiral James and his British counterpart, Admiral Sir Charles Kennedy-Purvis. The gist of these were that the Americans didn’t want to be given substandard ships and inferior commanders who passed up an opportunity for bravery in glory in counter-attacking a U-boat and rescuing their allies. The British retorted that if the ship was so lacking, why was it sent on a mission for which it was grossly ill-suited by the American admiral?
Lt. Kernohan went on to command, by September 1943, the Naval Reserve Unit named HMCS Cataraqui (also spelt Cararagin) in Kingston, Ontario. By June 1945 he was in command of HMCS Chippawa, a naval base in Winnipeg, Manitoba where 28,000 Canadian naval personnel had to be processed for civilian life after demobilization. It was the naval establishment’s rough equivalent of being sent to Siberia.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Brooklyn, NY, USA, Thurs. Feb 13, 1930, “Yacht Skipper Was Blockade Runner,” for the story about Capt. Blarney
Fold3.com – for the war diaries and deck logs and Eastern Sea Frontier and NOB Bermuda
Holm Lawson, Dame Siri, www.warsailors.com
Jordan, Roger, The World’s Merchants Fleets 1939, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1999
Mason, Jerry, www.uboatarchive.net
Morgan, Daniel and Taylor, Bruce: “U-Boat Attack Logs: A Complete Record of Warship Sinkings from Original Sources 1939 – 1945,” Seaforth Publishing, Pen & Sword Books, Barnsley, Yorkshire UK 2011
Mozolak, John, “New York Ships to Foreign Ports, 1939 – 1945,” http://janda.org/ships/
Newspaperarchive.com for the articles from the Associated Press
Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 2 May, 1927, “Shipping Notes” on Sumar’s world cruise
Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 23 January, 1932, for spec of the Sumar,
“A True Ocean Nomad – Whitney Yacht Sumar Logs 75,000 Miles,” http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/singfreepressb19320123-220.127.116.11.aspx
“A True Ocean Nomad – Whitney Yacht Sumar Logs 75,000 Miles,” http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/singfreepressb19320123-18.104.22.168.aspx
St. Petersburg Times, July 12, 1942 for a story about Alderman Stansel who survived the Gannet, “Survivor of Ship, Sunk by Sub, Visits Parents Here.” http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=888&dat=19420712&id=JSJPAAAAIBAJ&sjid=eE0DAAAAIBAJ&pg=2648,6392183
“Survivors Statements”, from NARA, in Washington DC, as found by Michael Constandy, www.westmorelandresearch.org. Formal citation: Survivor’s Statements (1941-1942) Series : Papers of Vice Admiral Homer N. Wallin, compiled 1941 – 1974. Record Group 38: Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1875 – 2006 Entry P-13. National Archives at College Park – Textual Reference (Military) 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740
Uboat.net for much of the information, including photos of U-boat Commander and its victim, http://www.uboat.net/men
Wartimememories, for information on Lt. Kernohan’s early career, http://www.wartimememoriesproject.com/ww2/thosewhoserved/k-ww2.php?pagenum=3
Wrecksite.eu for specifications and history
Wynn, Kenneth, U-boat Operations of the Second World War, Volume 1 and Volume 2, 1997