The wind was out of the northwest with whole gale force, bringing heavy snow, and sleet. The ship had come in from The Minch and tried to enter Loch Ewe, on the western, Rossshire coast of Scotland. She was loaded only in ballast, high out of the water, hard to handle. When she struck the rough granite shoulder of the island near the loch entrance, she did not have a chance. She was the American Liberty ship William H. Welch. It was at 4:20 A.M., February 26, 1944, that she grounded on Fura Island in Black Bay, then instantly began to break in half. She was the vice commodore's ship, the second in a single file column of ten vessels that formed Convoy EN 50 bound for the Royal Navy base at Aultbea for orders. The waves, smashing fifty feet high, cascaded over her wheelhouse topside and flying bridge. The strain upon the hull was intolerable. She snapped in half at 6 A.M., her longitudinals broken along the after side of Number Three hatch. All that kept her together then were her twin antimagnetic mine cables, and they almost instantly parted. The height and fury of the waves made the use of both lifeboats and rafts impossible. The men gathered on the flying bridge. The ship's complement was seventy-four men. Captain Lee Marshall was last seen on the bridge. He was lost with the ship, among sixty-two others. He had done his best. She grounded with such sudden violence that he could do no more than ring down the Full Astern order on the bridge telegraph. That was obeyed, but the engine room was already awash with water that came through the ripped bottom plates. Captain Marshall fired distress flares, and those, despite the vast, twisted sheets of snow, hail and spindrift around the ship, were observed ashore. Charles Macdonald, the local Coast Guardsman in charge of the rocket apparatus, was sent to the site to make a line-throwing attempt. But the island where the ship had grounded was a quarter of a mile offshore; the distance was too much for his line to carry, White-crested, black and evil waves surged over her, each tearing away a few more of the men who clung to her bridge rail. Macdonald and his companions left the rocket gear and went down the cliffside to the shingle beach. They waded out shoulder-deep into the surf and began hauling in the men who were pitched asprawl, pitifully inert toward the shore. The only surviving officer was George L. Smokovich, the second assistant engineer. He reported in a sworn statement the details of the disaster within his knowledge. He said: "At the time we struck bottom, I was in the galley; I had just come off watch. I recall that 4:02 A.M., before I had come up on deck, I had received orders from the bridge for Full Ahead; however, others bells were being given while I was in the galley. I believe we were making Half Speed at the time we hit. I heard a loud noise and the ship suddenly stopped and began quivering. I could hear the telegraph ring Full Astern immediately after the impact, "I stayed in the galley until the General Alarm bell rang, which was about two minutes later. An oiler came up and informed me that the engine room was filling rapidly; when I came out on deck I noticed that our ship had a heavy port list and was down by the stern. It was snowing and hailing and the visibility was very poor. I went to my boat station, which was #4; because of the rough seas, it was impossible to launch any of our boats or any of the square rafts. "At 6 A.M. the vessel broke in two across the after end of #3 hatch; the two halves were held together by two torpedo cables. The decks were awash continuously both fore and aft. At daylight rescues were attempted by a British escort tug; however, these were unsuccessful. This tug had fired three lines toward us for the purpose of making a breeches buoy but all three attempts were unsuccessful The water came higher and higher over the ship as the vessel settled. At 10:45 A.M. all the crew were on the flying bridge. At 11:15 A.M. two large waves came over the bridge, smashing the wheelhouse and casting the crew into the water. All the men were wearing life preservers. "I was washed ashore on a high cliff. I swam out again expecting to be picked up but the oncoming seas were so heavy that I was washed back on the cliffs. I was covered with fuel oil and this fuel oil probably saved my life. Two old women came down the steep rocky cliff and carried me to their home four miles away. An ambulance took me to Gairloch Hospital which was seven miles from the accident." The women who saved Smokovich were some of the very poor crofter folk who lived out on the open, exposed moor. But word of the disaster had been brought to them from Cove, a hamlet of a couple of crofters' cottages at the road's end from Loch Ewe. All of the local people, although isolated in one of the most remote regions of the western Highlands, were extremely aware of the hazards of war. The young men of the district, fishermen by trade, were away, serving in the Royal Navy. The majority of the older men worked at the Royal Navy base at Aultbea. That had been since 1942 the assembly point for the North Russia convoys, and to it, bringing the dead, the wounded and the survivors from vessels lost in the Arctic battles came the re- turning convoys. The effort to save the crew of the William H. Welch was very determined and thorough. There were a few of the older men at home in the vicinity of Cove when the ship grounded. They went at once to the beach and began rescue work. Among them were John Duncan and Kenneth MacLean, brothers, and John Mackenzie, Roderick MacDonald, and Donald Urquhart. Their women went with them, some wearing men's seaboots, others heavy brogans. The pair of elderly women who saved Smokovich climbed down the cliffside with the wind battering and howling. They carried shawls which held flasks of hot tea and their proudest possessions, their sheer white, very soft blankets, hand-made of Highland wool. The spindrift on the shingle leaped head-high as they went along the shore to Smokovich. He was naked, his lifejacket, his clothing, his shoes stripped from him by the action of the waves he had fought for half an hour. His right arm was fractured, and he had been thrown repeatedly against the granite pinnacles of the cliff. He was an exceptionally strong man, but now the ultimate degrees of his endurance were almost exhausted. The women drew him back, beyond the terrible rush of the breakers. They first opened his mouth wide and pulled out the gob of congealed fuel oil, baseball size, that would soon choke him to death. They cleansed his nostrils, his eyes, and his ears. Then they wrapped him closely in the blankets and gave him tea to drink. He stirred, said a few words. But he was past helping himself. He lapsed into coma. The women picked him up, tight in the blankets, a clumsy and difficult weight for the climb up the narrow way along the cliff. Between them, in the snow, the sleet, the wind banging at them, their brogans thick with encrusted fuel oil, they hauled the big man to the top. They crossed the moor through the bogs and fens, the snow gathering fast on the heather. Then, inside their cottage, they let him sag to the floor. One of them had strength left to put peats on the fire and prod it into flame. Tea was heated and given to Smokovich. The women were fully resolved that he would live. Benjamin G. Forbes, the area supervisor for Y.M.C.A. canteens, was stationed at Poolewe, some few miles from Loch Ewe, at the time of the disaster. He was informed of it very early in the morning of February 26 by Captain Edmond L. B. Lockyer, D.S.O., R.N., the officer in command of the Aultbea base. Mr. Forbes decided at once that he should get as close as possible to the scene of the wreck with canteen supplies for the survivors and rescue workers. But the velocity of the gale was much too severe for him to use one of his mobile units. It would, he knew, be knocked down, tea urn, buns and all, by the storm. He took instead his own small, private car. He loaded it with everything that it would hold, brought along an assistant, Miss Eleanor Tennant, and started out for Black Bay, where the ship lay broken. There was only a winding, rutted track across the moors to Black Bay. It was practically impassable. Mr. Forbes recalled of that day: "Time and again we stuck in bogs. But we ultimately reached the top of the cliff overlooking the sea. "Through the blinding snow and sleet we could dimly see half of a ship sticking out of the water. Several of the crew could be seen clinging to the rails, and every few minutes a huge wave would engulf the wreck. Each time this happened, several men could be seen struggling in the water, ten or twenty yards from the ship. It being impossible to regain the deck, the men had no option but to go with the wind and waves, toward the shore. Many failed to make it. "No small boat would have lived in such a sea, and the local lifeboat dare not put out. One after the other, the remaining men lost their grip on the ship's sides until finally all had disappeared into the sea."The crofters led us to a break in the cliffs where therewas a tiny beach of shingle. It was heart-rending to see manyof the members of the crew being washed westwards, away from the beach, and dashed onto the cliff, to be smashed to death by the huge breakers. "The crofters lit fires to guide the men and to heat the pots of tea which the women had brought in their shawls,Further helpers from the naval base at Aultbea arrived withstretchers and first aid equipment, as also did the members of the Highland Field Craft Training Center under their O.C., Lord Rowallan." Lord Rowallan's headquarters were at Poolewe. He took a very active part in the rescue operations and detailed a number of his men to the work. His unit of the British Army was organized for the training of officer candidates who, if they accomplished the rigorous demands of the course, were commissioned and assigned to Commando duty. Lord Rowallan was a sturdy veteran who said of his indoctrination of the young potential officers: "We were known as the 'Drying Room' of the Army and our job was to help them to grow up and develop their initiative, responsibility and resources." They received an extreme test of these qualities at Black Bay. One of the officer candidates was W. F. Pullar. His company was stationed at Turnaig, on the eastern shore of Loch Ewe. He described the circumstances of the rescue work in which he and his comrades participated: "We did rough Army training in the hills of western Rossshire ten days at a stretch, with one day off. But after five days, if we could get back to our base, we were free in the early afternoon. This was the case on the Saturday afternoon. Some of my colleagues and I had arrived home earlier than the rest of the company and had the benefit of an early shower and were dressed and intended making for Poolewe, three miles off, to have an evening 'out' away from the camp. "The time must just have been about three in the afternoon. There was swirling snow falling and a leaden sky when a sergeant burst into our hut and said that a ship had gone aground. About 20-25 of us were bundled into a waiting lorry and we were off over the snowy Highland roads, down through Poolewe and along the west side of Loch Ewe until the road petered out at Cove. "We were then led by a local crofter in the gathering darkness and increasing snow over the hilly moorland to the scene of the disaster. We saw the ship in two parts about half a mile apart outside the mouth of Loch Ewe about two miles from Cove. "Wreckage and oil littered the rocky shore and the few bodies--alive and dead--were laid out. Silently and quickly, a groaning, oil-covered seaman who rambled aloud at times was strapped to a stretcher and six of us were detailed to start the long, very rough way back to Cove---four carrying, two in reserve, changing every ten minutes or so. "Darkness had fallen by this time, about 5:30. It was a long, exhausting time---once the stretcher fell out of control because of the extremely difficult country and the very slippery snow. This journey was a nightmare with a delirious seaman to carry," During the last quarter mile he was ominously quiet, and when at last about 9:30 P.M. we reached the road-head and ambulances at Cove, the waiting doctor confirmed that the seaman had died. The six members of our stretcher party were exhausted, but in the lorry on the way back to camp we were told that some members of our sister company who were out on an exercise along the shore of Black Bay had come across the first victims and raised the alarm somewhere around noon." The other officer candidates were equipped with ropes and field rations. They were, Lord Rowallan said, ready to meet any emergency during their exercises. He described a rescue they made: "There was a pinnacle rock separated from the shore by a gap of ten to twenty yards, in which the waves and the tide were carrying driftwood and every type of flotsam. They came to a point opposite this rock and on it saw a Negro who was barely able to raise his arm to call their attention, "They set about rescue operations at once. One of them managed to get across the gap and climb up to the top of the pinnacle where the Negro was lying and found that there was a steep slope on the other side of the rock. "He was brought back safely to shore where a fire was made and some tea brewed for him. They made an improvised stretcher and were carrying him across the moor. They had got about half way to Aultbea when a Navy team came out and took charge of him." Back at the small stretch of shingle beach, more of the young Army men worked at great risk to themselves. Two in particular went into the wild roil of the breakers and dragged forth bodies that might nor might not still contain life. The breakers came crashing down on the beach with incalculable force, and the undertow was enormous and instantaneous in its effect. The men from the William H. Welch, their orange lifejackets black-slathered with fuel oil, their faces masked with the stuff, their eyes clotted with it, were almost powerless to help themselves, and already, out in the surf, had their senses knocked from them. The rescuers worked with desperate haste because in the approaching darkness it would be impossible to distinguish the bodies that briefly, partially emerged from the surf. The lithe Army men and the gray-haired, heavy-shouldered crofters, joined now by naval ratings from the base at Aultbea, dragged the people out of the surf and across the shingle to the fires that had been built. The beach was a shambles of smashed hatch boards, dunnage and indiscriminate flotsam. The crofter women tended the fires, heated the tea, and wrapped the bodies in the blankets. Mr. Forbes described the scene. He said, "Every body recovered, alive or dead, was laid on a stretcher and wrapped in blankets. Hour after hour the work went on, and it was well into the afternoon until we finally left the scene, ail hope of finding more men alive having been abandoned." But the crofter folk persisted. They clambered along the cliffs in the darkness, and they found more survivors. John M. Schoen, a fireman-watertender from the ship, was picked up from where he had been wedged unconscious between towering rocks. The crofter men fashioned a stretcher from driftwood, and started over the moors with him to Gairloch Hospital. Anthony F. Kirkowski, an able-bodied sailor, lay in coma where the waves had pitched him, high up among the rocks, snow a white crest on his unmoving body. Crofter men and Royal Navy ratings carried him on an improvised stretcher to Gairloch. The ship's bosun was a powerfully built man named Edward C. Post. He had lost nearly all of his clothing in his struggle to survive the sea. He hunkered in the lee of rocks, out of the wind as far as he could crawl, semiconscious and already suffering severely from exposure. He was taken to Gairloch along the same moorland route where a flashlight was little good in the thickly driven snow. Elmer F. Geppert, the deck engineer, was able to swim ashore with two of the Navy gunners from the Armed Guard complement. They began to walk to the nearest crofter cottage, white-washed and dimly visible to them once they had gained the top of the cliff. But Geppert collapsed on the way. The Navy gunners lifted him up and carried him to the cottage. The local Coast Guardsman, Charles Macdonald, had worked all day at rescue on the beach and in the surf. Now,with nightfall coming, he asked the officer in charge of an Army detachment to make a search of the hillside back from the cliffs. A survivor was found, the faltering, bloody and oil-marked footsteps followed in the snow. He had taken refuge in the heather, lay comatose there. Macdonald said, "The lad was nearly done. But he came round. Wasn't I pleased." The lighthouse-keepers searched the cliffs and the moors also, and discovered two more survivors who had wandered into the heather. Alfred MacLennan, the district bus driver and a husky man, had brought his bus to Cove to pick up survivors. But while he waited he served whiskey from his pocket flask to those who lay on stretchers on the beach.Then he took a man on his back and carried the survivor over the moor track to Cove. He returned and got another,and that man was conscious and warm with whiskey, and hooted as MacLennan lifted him into the carrying position, "Here's the fella that's got the double Scotch? Mrs. John MacKenzie baked bread with all of her available, strictly rationed flour at her cottage in Cove. She put the tea kettle on the hob and invited in the cold, hungry and exhausted rescue workers. The two young women who as members of the Women's Royal Naval Service served as ambulance drivers drove back and forth from Cove to Gairloch with survivors. The road was treacherous, single track, and the mixture of snow and sleet on the windshields dangerously reduced visibility. But they kept at their driving throughout the night. They did not wear their handsome, shovel-brimmed hats and brass- buttoned, skirted blue uniforms. Those had been changed for pants, seaboots, sweaters and balaclava hoods, the sweaters topped by the long, fleece-lined leather jerkins worn by Royal Navy seamen aboard ship. When they were between trips in Cove, they enjoyed Mrs. MacKenzie's hospitality, stood close to the fire and got warm. Miss Edith Belle Manwaring, in charge of operations in Scotland for the American-founded United Seamen's Service, was informed through Royal Navy channels of the disaster. She was told there were survivors of an American merchant ship at Gairloch Hospital, and that she should come and evacuate them. Her query about the men's needs was simply answered. "Tell the lady if she can imagine us naked as the day we were born she'll know what to bring." Miss Manwaring's headquarters were in Glasgow. Loch Ewe and Gairloch Hospital were 250 miles north. She collected five cases of clothing for the survivors, then took the train for Inverness. She reached Gairloch Hospital by truck, across 100 miles of snowy, mountainous roads. Surgeon Commander Arthur Long, R.N., the Medical Officer, greeted her. She said in her report: "I found our survivors recovering from shock and although their arms and legs were not yet in good condition, the C.O. felt they could join me the following day and go to Glasgow. The men, most of whom were very young, were as excited as kids over their new clothes. They hobbled about the ward exclaiming over them and exhibiting them to the other patients who seemed very much interested in the whole procedure. When they found they would be permitted to leave the next day, they refused the offer of financial assistance, but asked if they could share their cigarettes and candy with the few British patients in the ward." Then she spoke about the crofter folk, and their intense poverty, completely forgotten during the time of disaster. She mentioned the crofter women's fine, really irreplaceable blankets, and gave their answer to her question. "What," they said, "is a blanket more or less when a man is dying?" The crofters, men and women, walked the snowy track in the bitter weather, made daily visits to see the survivors. Beneath their shawls, the women had a handful of eggs, or a tiny jar of precious jam for "the Americans." Before the survivors left for Glasgow, the women arrived with a final gift. It was small bunches of flowers, bluebells, the famous bluebells of Scotland.
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