Matt Sampson, weather.com
February 17, 2012 — A deadly storm took the USS Truxton, USS Pollux, and USS Wilkes by surprise early on February 18th, 1942. Now, 70 years later, both the men and women of Newfoundland, and the sailors on those ships are honoured and remembered for their encounters that day.
In the dark of the pre-dawn hours of February 18th, 1942, enormous waves, high winds, and blinding snow produced by a winter storm caused a pair of US Navy ships to stray off course. Carrying hundreds of American sailors and thousands of pounds of military supplies, the ships ran aground a few hundred yards off the coast of Newfoundland.
"When we ran aground I was tossed from my fifth row bunk to the floor. I grabbed a pair of shoes, I don't know whose they were, and made my way out into the storm," said Lanier Phillips, who was a young African-American mess attendant from Lithonia, Georgia aboard the USS Truxton.
Once up on the ship's decks, the sailors were faced with a terrifying decision: Stay on the sinking ship, or brave the icy, churning sea.
"They warned me not to go in the water, as I would surely drown. But I knew if I stayed on that ship I would freeze," said Lanier.
The Truxton, a US Navy destroyer, was serving as an escort to the USS Pollux, a ship loaded with wartime supplies destined for the Alliesí European war effort after stopping off at the naval base at Argentia in Newfoundland. A third destroyer, the USS Wilkes, was with Truxton and Pollux, but was able to limp away from the grounding that would swallow the two other ships.
Navigating through "torpedo alley," waters patrolled by German U-Boats, the three ships found sonar technology rendered nearly useless by the storm. The navigator plotted the ships' position by the stars above. Because of the storm, he was forced to make several best-guesses as to the envoy's coordinates based on the last time he was able to see the sky.
When the Truxton ran aground, the crew had no idea of their location. Panic quickly spread.
Once the sailors became of aware of their predicament, any hope for an orderly evacuation was abandoned. Survival meant reaching shore through treacherous waters in nothing more than a wooden lifeboat. The men watched in horror as boat after boat was lowered over the side of the mighty iron vessel, only to be smashed to pieces against the ship by the enormous waves.
Soon, all that were left were small, inflatable, rubber life rafts.
"The water all around us was full of black oil leaking from the ship, and the men that were in the water were covered in it," Lanier said.
The moment proved to be a great equalizer for a crew that, on the ship, had been separated by race, according to US military policies at the time.
"We were all covered in black, there were no white or black men there, no difference," Phillips said. "We were all just men trying to survive."
Upon hitting the frigid water, the oil formed a cold, gelatinous tar that surrounded the Truxton and reached all the way to shore. Men who were washed overboard by the waves found themselves caught in the thick oil. Most drowned or suffocated, gasping as their lungs filled with the oily sludge.
The rescue begins
When the first raft finally reached the rocky shore, a lifeline was secured to a rock and the raft was sent back to the ship to repeat the process. However, success was fleeting, with a few rafts reaching shore, while others ended up dumping the sailors into the ocean.
Unfortunately, even for those who survived the crossing, safety remained firmly in the distance. Once onshore, the men found themselves facing a perilous climb up jagged, frozen, 300-foot cliffs. An ascent would have proved difficult for a fully equipped professional climber, much less the exhausted, half-dead men of the Truxton. With nothing more than knives to cut holes in the ice, two sailors managed to scale the icy cliff.
After reaching a dilapidated shed the two men rested, covering themselves with hay for warmth. One of the men, Edward Bergeron, still wet and freezing, dressed in nothing more than what he grabbed back on the ship, set off into the snow to find help - if any help was to be found. Along the cliff's perimeter stood a wooden fence stretching as far as the eye could see, offering no sign as to which way to go. Before the young man, in every direction stood a snowy, wild unknown.
Miraculously, Bergeron chose the correct way and trudged through the elements until at last he reached the Iron Springs mine near St. Lawrence, Newfoundland. In 1942, St. Lawrence was nothing more than a tiny, isolated mining town, population 900, with only one telephone and not a single road connecting it to the rest of the world. The area was accessible only by boat.
The men of St. Lawrence were hard at work at the nearby Iron Springs mine when the exhausted American sailor reached them. They sat Bergeron down by a fire, and tried to comprehend his description of what the Truxton had been through as he recounted his crew's nightmare, unfolding near their tiny, idyllic town. World War II had arrived in St. Lawrence.
Once word spread of what was happening to the Truxton just a few miles away, the citizens of St. Lawrence gathered supplies, placed the mine on work-stop, and a rescue detail set out for the coast.
Upon arriving at the cliff and peering down upon the battered and broken Truxton, the men of St. Lawrence took in exactly what had been described to them - a still-unfolding human tragedy. The water was awash with oil, bodies, and near-frozen young men, some still clinging to the side of the ship, ice covering their heads and bodies.
With only the ropes and tools they could carry, the rescuers began what would one day be taught to Canadian school children as a true example of heroism. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the tragedy and the subsequent heroic effort, with a large-scale memorial ceremony planned in St. Lawrence on the 17th and 18th of February.
Ropes were dropped down for the weary men to fasten around their bodies, but the sailors were too weak and laid limp at the end of the rescue lines, getting scraped and bruised as they were pulled up the side of the cliff. The rescuers decided to lower themselves down, harness themselves to the sailors and carry them up, an exhausting ordeal for sailor and savior alike.
Death on the USS Pollux
Meanwhile, the crew on the other ship, the Pollux, found itself facing a similar situation farther down the shore, involving a second rescue mission including men from the town of Lawn, a nearby village.
Early in the rescue effort for the Pollux, the lifeline from the ship to the shore became tangled on the rocky sea floor. Rescuers waded out to shoulder depth to attempt to free the line, to no avail. The rescuers were close to drowning and had to make their way back to shore, trapping the men on the ship.
The surf at the Pollux rescue proved even more deadly, as powerful waves slammed body after body against the rocks. Soon, the inlet became a graveyard of floating corpses.
"The lifejackets also caused problems. Many men did not fasten the ties below their chins and when they hit the water, their lifejackets rode up over their faces and jammed their arms straight over their heads. Many men died in place like that, their heads trapped underwater, their arms reaching straight up, and their lifeless bodies bobbing around in the waves and debris," according to the Memorial University of Newfoundland.
Back at the Truxton, a raft connected to a lifeline carried Phillips from the ship to shore, capsizing just feet from the rocky beach, leaving him covered in oil. Exhausted and freezing, Lanier remembers wanting nothing more than to lie down on the rocks and sleep.
Realizing that resting at this point, exposed to the elements, would mean certain death, Phillips mustered the strength to press on.
With delirium setting in, Lanier remembers making his way toward the village "but I passed out somewhere along the way and was put on a sled." He was transported to the mine, where a makeshift triage center had been assembled, and the women of St. Lawrence were cleaning sailors and dressing their wounds.
"I was lying naked in front of a white woman," Lanier remembers. Back in Georgia, he could have been beaten or hanged for speaking to a white woman - it was unimaginable for him to be naked in the presence of one. "There I was, lying naked as they cleaned the ship's oil from my body.Ē
He listened as the women spoke about him. They were worried because they couldn't get the oil off his body no matter how vigorously they scrubbed. Lanier realized these women had never seen a black man before. "That's just the color of my skin, itís not coming off," he shyly whispered.
Many of the sailors, including Lanier, were suffering from the effects of the freezing temperatures. The women rubbed and massaged the men's arms and legs to get their blood flowing and keep frostbite from setting in.
"I lay perfectly still as the women worked on me, not knowing what my fate would be after this was over." Phillips had no idea what his punishment would be for allowing these women to touch him - regardless if their actions were life-saving or not.
At that time in the US Navy, blacks were only allowed to serve food, shine shoes, and clean up after the white sailors. Phillips remembers having to eat standing up in a small pantry because segregation kept him from being near the rest of the crew. As a young boy back in Georgia, the Ku Klux Klan burned down his school and kept Lanier and his family in constant fear of violence. Lanier had little hope for a life free of fear.
Survival and beyond
"The last two survivors of the Truxtun reached shore at about 3:00 in the afternoon - almost 11 hours after the vessel had gone aground," according to a report on the incident by the Memorial Univeristy of Newfoundland. "By 4:30, there were about 122 men standing on the cliff ledge and no one left in the disintegrating USS Pollux."
Back in St. Lawrence, Lanier had been cleaned up in the mine by Violet Pike, and was ushered by Violet back to her home. Violet nursed the young sailor over the next night; feeding him, clothing him, and taking care of him as if he were her own son. Lanier makes no bones about "having a hatred" for white people while he was growing up. No white person had ever had a kind word for him, yet here he was under the care of this white woman, this stranger who had never met him but was now showing him the greatest compassion he had ever known.
"When the Navy came to collect me the next day, they took me away so quickly that I didn't have time to thank Mrs. Pike." Neither Mrs. Pike nor Mr. Phillips knew that day what a profound impact her kindness would have on him. "The way she treated me, I took that with me through the rest of my life." Lanier was now aware that blacks and whites were not required to be at odds with each other. His eyes had been opened, and what he saw could not be unseen.
As his career in the Navy continued, Lanier felt he could no longer stay silent about the need for a civil rights transformation. He overcame overt racism and physical violence to finally become the Navy's first black sonar technician in 1957.
After leaving the Navy, Phillips enjoyed a successful civilian career in engineering and sonar technology. He also continued the civil rights campaign he took up years earlier, and eventually joined the famous march with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery.
In May 2008, Memorial University of Newfoundland gave Lanier an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree for his resistance to and capacity to rise above repression. Dr. Lanier Phillips is now retired in Gulfport, MS, but his story is not over. Today he is a sharp 88 year old man who continues to travel and speak out on both civil rights, and the memory of his time aboard the USS Truxton.
"These valiant men must never be forgotten," said current St. Lawrence Mayor Wayde Rowsell. "Their memory must be perpetuated through the telling of this story. Both the men and women of Newfoundland, and the sailors on those ships showed us the best of human nature that day."
A New York Times article headline in 1942 referring to the disaster stated, "ROOSEVELT PRAISES AID: Message to Newfoundlanders Says Action Was Typical of Proud Seafarers."
Three hundred, eighty-nine officers and enlisted men set sail aboard the two vessels in 1942, and 203 of them perished.
Seventy years after he crawled out of the sea onto the Newfoundland shore, covered in oil and nearly dead, Lanier returns to pay his respects to his fellow seaman, and to the people of St. Lawrence who not only nursed him back to health, but showed him he could have a different life, a better life.
Special thanks for their contributions to this story: Lanier Phillips, Mayor Wayde Rowsell, Heather Wareham, Maritime History Archive at Memorial University, St. Johnís, NL, and Nicolas Parkerson.