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Memorial Day Tribute: The Amazing World War II Tale of Survival and Heroism of Roger H. Fuller

Navy doctor from Suffield miraculously survives German torpedo attack and saves others.

Mr. And Mrs. Arthur L. Fuller of the Warehouse Point section of East Windsor had plenty to worry about during World War II.

All six of their sons – Roger, Lawrence, Walter, David, Erwin, and Willard – were in the armed forces at the same time, with all but the youngest, Willard, on active duty during the war.

The Fuller brothers had spent most of their formative years in Suffield; consequently, the names of Lawrence, Walter, David, and Erwin Fuller can be found today on the Suffield war memorial, as that was their home address when war broke out (see photo).

Roger, the eldest brother, had received his M.D. from Tufts in 1938, after having been a pre-med major at Yale University. Roger had married Janet Richmond of Windsor Locks, daughter of Dr. E. Harvey Richmond, and was practicing medicine in Simsbury when the war broke out.

Dr. Roger H. Fuller joined the U.S. Navy after war was declared in December 1941. Commissioned as a lieutenant, he became ship’s doctor on the USS Plymouth (PG-57), and the story of his survival is nothing short of remarkable. The Plymouth was a convoy escort ship – a patrol gunboat (PG) – that cruised the East Coast, protecting the supply convoys so vital to the war effort.

Its usual run was between New York City and Key West.

On the evening of August 5, 1943, just after 9:30 p.m., the Plymouth picked up evidence of a nearby German U-boat on its sonar. While the Plymouth was maneuvering to drop depth charges on the U-boat, the German submarine fired a torpedo which struck the 264-foot Plymouth abaft of the bridge.

The incident occurred about 90 miles off the coast of North Carolina, almost directly in line with Kitty Hawk – famous for the Wright brothers’ first manned aerial flight.

This area was commonly known as “Torpedo Alley,” as German U-boats hunted down Allied convoys there, sinking over 300 ships; a vastly under-publicized reality of World War II.

 Lt. Fuller was below deck when the explosion occurred. According to the only surviving Fuller brother, my Uncle Erwin Fuller, Roger had told him that he had rehearsed a plan if his boat had ever gotten torpedoed. He donned his life vest and ran up to the deck of the ship.

He immediately jumped overboard and urged others to do so. Undoubtedly, Roger’s quick response saved his life, as the Plymouth, staggered by the explosion, sank in less than two minutes!

In spite of his escape from the ship, significant danger remained. He was 90 miles from land; the sea was very rough; it was nighttime; other ships in the convoy presented a danger, and there were sharks everywhere. Fortunately, the Coast Guard cutter Calypso was only 8,000 yards away.

Piloted by the very skilled Lieutenant Woodward B. Rich, the Calypso rushed toward the Plymouth. What happened next borders on the miraculous and is described well in the following excerpt from a Coast Guard press release about the incident:

Storm, shipwreck, fire, sharks, and fog were the elements pieced together in an East Coast port today by the crew of the Coast Guard cutter Calypso, in an amazing tale of rescue in the North Atlantic…Lieutenant Rich ordered flank speed into the smashing waves. Forward gun crews clung desperately to their stations as cascades of green water poured over the bow and flooded the decks…Lt. Rich was faced with the desperate possibility of having to drop depth charges among shipwrecked American sailors in the event of a sudden submarine attack.

“I don’t know if I could have done it,” he said later. “It was one of the most terrible decisions an officer can be forced to face”…The cutter slowed…as she approached the survivors, rapidly being scattered by high winds and struggling to keep afloat in the enveloping oil.

As the Calypso threaded among them in a daring feat of seamanship, men were hauled over the ship’s rail by hand…Some had lifejackets; others none. Some were barely clothed; others, naked. In seas littered with debris, only good seamanship spared the men from being crushed…

Another problem soon became apparent to those on the Calypso: the strong wind was scattering the survivors too fast for the Calypso to gather them by herself.

Ensign William T. Gray of Philadelphia requested permission to launch the ship’s lifeboat to pick up sailors, who were quickly being scattered downwind. Also volunteering for this hazardous job were Gunner’s mate 3rd Class Herman H. Kramm, Seaman 1st Class Stanley Korowicki, Seaman 2nd Class John A. Barrett, and Soundman 2nd Class Charles J. McGrath.

Meanwhile, lookouts on the Calypso spotted shark fins approaching the survivors. Lt. C.E. McDowell of Salisbury, Md., and Ensign G.P. Jacobson of South Dakota manned 30-caliber machine guns to protect the survivors from sharks. Then, a fire of unknown origin broke out in the aft section of the Calypso. Firemen rushed forward and put it out. The ordeal, however, was far from over, as the following excerpt from the Coast Guard press release reveals:

The doctor of the shipwrecked Plymouth [Roger Fuller] was now brought aboard and joined with Edward Yancavage, Pharmacist’s Mate 1st Class of the Calypso in caring for the dozens of severely burned, shocked, and water-logged survivors. Out of over 60 survivors brought aboard, only three died.

Later in the afternoon, patrol planes reported that all survivors in the water had been picked up and none had been seen to drown…The seas continued to mount during the night as the Calypso fought her way to the nearest port. None of the survivors could be left on deck…The violent movements of the ship had disabled the gyro-compass, and the ship was now forced to navigate under this additional handicap.

As the wind subsided inshore, she ran into heavy fog banks. With a safe port just through the fog, Lt. Rich now faced the danger of proceeding through minefields under the most trying of conditions. Under reduced speed, the cutter picked her way through, and landed her survivors on the dock where ambulances were waiting to rush them to hospitals.

The safe port through the fog happened to be Norfolk, Va., and it was there that Lt. Roger Fuller and 79 other shipmates found relief. Overall, 75 members of the Plymouth’s crew perished in the attack by U-566 and its crew of 36 commanded by Kapitanleutnant Hans Hornkohl. 

At least one crew member of the Plymouth owed his life to Roger Fuller. Realizing that a seaman near to him in the water could not swim, Lt. Fuller removed his own life vest and gave it to him. Having been trained as a lifeguard for Boy Scout camp as a youth, Lt. Fuller felt comfortable enough without his vest to aid another; but, clearly, in rough seas he risked his own life to save a crewmate.

According to his youngest daughter, Ruth Hiett, of Corrales, New Mexico, her dad’s experience aboard the Plymouth made him a powerful advocate for teaching Navy recruits how to swim.

Kapitanleutnant Hans Hornkohl’s U-566 came under American air attack within two days after the sinking of the Plymouth. His gunners shot down both American planes.

However, on October 24, 1943, off  the coast of Spain, U-566 came under aerial attack again. It was damaged beyond repair and scuttled by the crew. All 36 members of the U-566 crew escaped into lifeboats. A Spanish trawler picked them up. Eventually, they all made it back to Germany by rail to continue in the war.

Interestingly, after 28 years in the Navy, retired Captain Roger H. Fuller met Hans Hornkohl at a military reunion in 1970, where they shook hands and made their peace.

As for the Calypso, it eventually was sold to the Circle Line boat touring company in New York City, where it carried over 1 million passengers (including me) on tours around Manhattan Island for many decades until it was retired on November 2, 2008. Fundraising efforts to preserve the Calypso failed to meet their goal, and she was scrapped.

In Greek mythology, Calypso, daughter of Atlas, is a sea nymph. She delayed Odysseus in his journey home to Ithaca for 7 years but provided him with a safe harbor during that time. When Zeus sent Hermes to tell Calypso to send Odysseus on his way, she once again helped him with materials and information for the safe journey home, though it broke her heart.

Like her mythological namesake, the Coast Guard cutter Calypso undertook a near miraculous recovery and provided a “safe harbor” for the 85 survivors of the USS Plymouth, including Lt. Roger H. Fuller of Connecticut.

(Note:  Part II of the Fuller brothers' service in World War II will appear next week.)

Notes, Sources and Links:

  1. Lt. Rich of the Calypso, in perhaps the biggest understatement in Coast Guard history, referred to the Plymouth rescue incident in his report as “a routine action at sea!”
  2. The commander of the Plymouth, Lt. Ormsby M. Mitchel, Jr., was awarded the Navy Cross for heroism. Having suffered serious leg injuries, Mitchel remained at his post, directing the ship’s evacuation. His leg was later amputated.
  3. Franklin Alexander McGinty of Georgia, a Soundman Third Class on the Plymouth, was also awarded the Navy Cross—posthumously—for his heroic actions in saving a crewmate near the ship’s magazine. He was trapped by flames and was unable to escape. A naval destroyer, the USS McGinty  (DE 365) was named after him.
  4. Roger Fuller’s middle name was “Holden” – his mother’s maiden name. His 1st cousin was Richard “Dick” Holden, gunnery officer on the famous WWII submarine Seawolf. Dick Holden later commanded the submarine “Gato,” which saved many B-29 crews in the Pacific. He was from Rutland, VT.
  5. navsource.org
  6. uscg.mil/history.asp
  7. worldwartimeline.com/battleatlantic
  8. The Plymouth was originally built as a yacht known as the Alva. It was  made for Wm. Kissam Vanderbilt II in 1931. Ironically, it was made in Germany. Vanderbilt gave it to the Navy in 1941, and it was converted into a gunboat for escort.
  9. Captain Roger H. Fuller was born on November 11, 1913; he died on November 8, 1997, 3 days shy of his 84th birthday.
  10. For many years, Captain Fuller was Deputy Director of Pathology at the Navy's hospital in Bethesda, Md. He moved to California just prior to John F. Kennedy's assassination in November of 1963. Had he not moved, Capt. Fuller almost certainly would have assisted in President Kennedy's controversial autopsy there.
James September 11, 2011 at 01:10 PM
Outstanding article. My grandfather, Dwight Hopkins Hazlett was one of the survivors from this attack and his story was amazing. You hit it right on the head, it was like I was hearing it come from my grandpa himself. CTN1 James Bodley USN
Thomas Bolick September 18, 2011 at 03:35 AM
Thank you for publishing this article. I have been trying to find out more details about the sinking of the USS Plymouth. My Uncle, Alonzo W. Bolick, was one of the crew that went down with the ship. His Purple Heart Medal is one of my most cherished pocessions.
Lewis Miller February 03, 2012 at 04:45 AM
My father Howard Jules Miller was on this ship. I am very proud of him. He was one of the hero's who "selfishly swam about aiding those of your shipmates who were wounded or in distress". Dad was a Radioman Second Class. For his bravery he received a letter from Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs. Dad died in 1993. We cherish the letter from the Navy and his memory and deeds will stay with his family for ever. Lewis Charles Miller
Maria Giannuzzi February 03, 2012 at 01:21 PM
Lewis, your father was more than a hero, he was a good man.
Janelle mcaleer May 31, 2012 at 11:37 PM
I just ran across this researching my grandfathers coast guard service he was WIlliam T GRay from the Calypso. Ruth I would love to talk with you

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