It may seem hard to believe, but 40 percent of Americans cannot identify even one of our foes during World War II. For those Americans who do know something about World War II, there are some indelible images: the shock of Pearl Harbor; the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust; D-Day; the atomic explosions over Japan — and so much more.
However, there are many stories associated with World War II that are little-known and under-publicized. One such story involves the enormous number of airmen who died within the borders of this country in aviation accidents — more than 15,000! That's more than 10 per week for nearly 4 years. Another under-publicized event is the enormous number of ships sunk off the East Coast during the first two years of the war.
The Germans had a code name for their aggressive hunting of Allied shipping off the coast: "Operation Paukenschlag." It was more commonly referred to by U-Boat commanders as the "Second Happy Time." The first "happy time" occurred off the coast of England from July 1940 to October of 1940.
During that period, German submarines feasted on Allied shipping until new defensive measures including the use of convoys reduced the wholesale slaughter. During one eight-month period during the second "happy time," German U-Boats sank 609 ships off the North Carolina coast alone, an area that came to be known as "Torpedo Alley."
American Rear Adm. Adolphus Andrews commanded the defense of the East Coast shipping, but his force was ill-equipped to deal effectively with the U-Boat threat. He commanded 7 Coast Guard cutters, 3 PT boats made in 1919, 2 gunboats that were nearly 50 years old, 4 wooden submarine chasers, about 100 dated aircraft with very short range, and 4 converted yachts. One of these converted yachts was named the USS Plymouth. Dr. Roger Fuller of Connecticut served onboard the Plymouth as the ship's doctor. His ship was torpedoed off the Carolina coast 70 years ago this week.
The Plymouth, a converted yacht once owned by the Vanderbilts, typically escorted convoys from Key West to New York City. Around 9:30 on the evening of Aug. 5, 1943, U-566, commanded by Kapitanleutenant Hans Hornkohl, fired a torpedo into the Plymouth. The effects were devastating. In just over 2 minutes, the boat disappeared from the surface of the water. Of the 155 men onboard the Plymouth, 75 died.
Roger Fuller donned his life jacket and jumped overboard into very rough water infested with sharks in the middle of the night. An excellent swimmer, Fuller gave his life jacket to a shipmate from Iowa who couldn't swim, thereby saving his life.
A Coast Guard cutter named Calypso was nearby and came to pick up the survivors. Its task was daunting. Working at night in rough seas with a U-Boat still lurking nearby, the ship had to avoid hitting survivors in the water; additionally, 2 men manned machine guns to shoot the sharks.
Having been pulled aboard the Calypso, Dr. Fuller worked with that ship's pharmacist's mate to tend to dozens of wounded men, some burned very badly. Their heroic actions undoubtedly saved many lives. Only 3 men who were pulled aboard Calypso died. The violent movement of the ship disabled its gyrocompass, so it had to navigate back to Norfolk, VA, very carefully through rough seas, fog, and a minefield.
About six weeks after the incident, U-566 came under aerial attack near Spain. It became disabled and had to be abandoned. All 36 members of the crew made it back to Germany and served again. Hans Hornkohl later met Dr. Roger Fuller at a military reunion in 1970, where they shook hands and made their peace.
Roger Fuller continued his career with the Navy after the war. He later served as a pathologist at the naval hospital in Bethesda, MD, before being transferred out to San Diego in 1963, where he finished up his naval career.
Born in Suffield, CT, in 1913, Dr. Fuller was educated at Yale and at Tufts Medical School, graduating from there in 1938. He died in 1997, just 3 days shy of his 84th birthday. He was one of six Fuller brothers who served during the war and, despite his heroic actions, is inexplicably the only one not to have his name remembered on a war monument in Connecticut.