Joseph Pauro


One minute Navy sailor Joseph Pauro was standing near the rail overlooking the vast Pacific Ocean from the highest part of a Liberty ship carrying cargo.

The next minute he was running for his life and diving without a life jacket into the Indian Ocean 250 miles from land. There he drifted for nine days amid storms, caught rainwater with his mouth, encountered sharks and finally landed in the remote Maldive Islands inhabited by friendly but primitive natives who spoke no English.

Pauro, a World War II veteran, lived to tell about that 1943 ordeal and a second sinking in 1944 while he was a U.S. Navy Armed Guard on Liberty ships, which were operated by the merchant marine and transported all types of cargo across the oceans for the war efforts.

His sagas are recounted in vivid detail in a World War II diary he not only wrote, but rewrote twice because his diaries kept going down with the sunken ships.

"Nobody wanted our jobs as gunners on merchant ships. So many ships were being blown out of the water," said Pauro, 82, of Audubon, formerly of Pennsauken.

"We didn't realize at first it was almost like a suicide mission, that we would be the most hunted. The Navy drafted us specifically to man these guns on merchant ships because nobody wanted to do it -- the Army or the Marines," Pauro recalled.

Pauro reflected last week on his good fortune with his twin brother, Phillip, as Veterans Day approached.

While he was in the Navy, Phillip joined the merchant marine, became a crewman on tankers carrying gasoline and sailed the world without a mishap.

"I'm just happy that he's alive and that we both made it back," said Phillip Pauro, who lives in Pennsauken.

Joseph Pauro was among 35 of 68 crewmen aboard the Liberty ship S.S. Henry Knox who survived its sinking after it was torpedoed by Japanese submarines at 7:10 p.m. June 19, 1943. He also survived the sinking of the S.S. Juan De Fuca on a reef off Mindoro Island in the Philippines Dec. 31, 1944, by a torpedo dropped by a Japanese plane. The entire crew rowed lifeboats safely to shore but lived in foxholes and tents for three weeks under aerial attack.

He said his life was saved on the Henry Knox by what he believes was a guardian angel who pushed him out of position and behind the ship's smokestack.

"The merchant seamen and the naval gunners were on general quarters looking out over the sea to spot the enemy and be ready in case of attack when I felt something on my shoulders turning me around at the rail and heading me toward the back of the smokestack," he said.

He said it was then that a torpedo struck the port side of the ship where the ammunition was located and blew the bow off the ship.

"If the hands of the Lord had not turned me away, I would have been burned to death," he said. Instead, he suffered minor burns.

The diary describes the fire from the explosion as he viewed it while swimming: "It was burning like hell. The metal seemed to be screaming as it twisted and fell. There was another series of explosions and the night seemed as though it was day."

"I could hear the cries of men, some yelling, 'Oh, help me God!' It seemed as though I was having a nightmare."

In the Maldives, the survivors ate coconut, fruit and fish and drank coconut milk. With the help of a visiting native who spoke English, Joseph Pauro and his fellow sailors were taken to the capital of the islands and eventually to Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, where they arrived in native sarongs and blouses to a Navy welcome.

"They gave us a few cartons of cigarettes and the Australian Red Cross gave each of us a bag of toiletries with two suits of pajamas. They could not help but laugh at the way we were dressed," he said.

He called his war years "an experience you could not buy for a million bucks."

"It had to be done and you were proud. It was a great country then," Joseph Pauro said, with his brother nodding in agreement.

Today they both said they are disappointed with the direction of the country and the ongoing Iraq War -- they believe was not well thought out before it was started.

"I don't think there is any end to it," Phillip Pauro lamented.

The twins became printers after the war, but Phillip said his brother should have stayed in the military.

"I should have because I love the Navy," Joseph Pauro agreed. "It's my one regret."


"We were floating in wreckage and while we were trying to move it away from us to keep nails from putting holes in our inflated tires, one of the fellows floated away in his tire. Before long he was out of reach and soon disappeared into the darkness. We called to him to keep up his courage and maybe by morning things would be different."

"Once we heard a hissing noise and found one of the fellows going down, but in no time we had him on another (tire). It seemed as though that (first) night would never end."

Originally published in the Courier-Post (Cherry Hill, NJ) on November 12, 2007

By Carol Comegno
Courier-Post Staff
Reach Carol Comegno at (609) 267-9486 or


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