Seaman First Class, U.S. Navy Armed Guard
The Story of Jesse E. Ramella, Last Known Survivor of the Sinking of the S.S. CHALLENGER
Seaman First Class Jesse E. Ramella was born in Williamson, West Virginia. He attended Williamson High School but, like many young men during the Depression, did not graduate. However he later earned his GED at the age of 54. During World War II Jesse served in the United States Navy Armed Guard.
Mr. Ramella's first assignment was as a Navy Armed Guard aboard the 7,667 ton cargo ship, the S.S. CHALLENGER. The CHALLENGER left the port of New York, destination Trinidad, Table Bay (Capetown, South Africa), Bandar Shapur and Abadan (two petroleum centers in Iran), and then on to Bombay, India. The CHALLENGER experienced engine problems and was about 20 miles north of Granada in the Caribbean Sea when German submarine U-155 spotted her unescorted and zig zagging. On May 17, 1942, two torpedoes hit the CHALLENGER and it sank in less than an hour.
Just before the attack, Mr. Ramella was manning one of the guns when another Armed Guard (probably Wilbur Asbury "Junior" Dillmore from Bridgeport, West Virginia) relieved Mr. Ramella for a few minutes to get a cup of coffee to help him stay awake because it was oppressively hot. That Armed Guard was never seen again. Ramella helped others into life rafts and was in the water for over 13 hours before the survivors were spotted by a plane. The survivors were taken to Trinidad for medical attention and given fresh clothing. Fifty-six men abandoned ship. Two Armed Guards, one passenger and five merchant crewmen paid the ultimate price. The survivors were then taken back to the United States aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. RANGER.
After the Challenger sinking, Mr. Ramella was assigned to the S.S. JEFFERSON DAVIS. On board the JEFFERSON DAVIS, he served in the Middle East and New Zealand, and ended up in Chile, returning through the Panama Canal to New York. "I enjoyed some of the things I did but some of the hard experiences, air raids, torpedoes, and things like that, laying all those things aside, I enjoyed my time in the U.S. Navy," Mr. Ramella stated in his official account written two years prior to his passing.
After receiving an honorable discharge in 1945, Jesse Ramella started out in the electrical business. He worked other jobs before beginning employment with the Defense Construction Supply Center for the Federal government. There he wired conveyors and rewrote programs for several different types of machinery they used to improve the way they ran. He received several awards for his suggestions and ideas according to his daughter, Linda Burns. At age 55, Mr. Ramella retired on medical disability.
Jesse Ramella married Mildred Vipperman on April 19,1944, in Louisa, Kentucky. They had seven children, the first of whom, Saundra, died at birth. Their other children were Linda Burns (now 60), Steve (58), Donna Calloway (56), Kenneth (50), Darrell (47) and Dale (44).
Jesse and Mildred were blessed with eleven grandchildren, Stephanie, Anthony Ramella, Heather Craig, Amanda Ramella, Shannon Gligoria, Darin Ramella, Steven Lanthorn, Phillip Oliver, Sara Herdman, Jason Ramella and Brianna Ramella. In addition, they had two step-grandchildren, Dan Burns and Anissa Bush. The Ramellas also had 16 great-grandchildren. Melody, Zach, Kiera, Sydney, Emmy, Jordan, Jonelle, Jayden, Darian, Jillian, Caleb, Evan, Gordon, Kaylee, Kari and Ian, as well as two step great-grandchildren, Savannah Seiber and Michelle Bush.
Mr. Ramella started going to church regularly after the war. In 1948 the Ramellas began attending Calvary Apostolic Church in Columbus, Ohio. A few years later, he became pastor at Calvary Apostolic Church in Chillicothe, Ohio. He and Mildred lived in Columbus and drove to Chillicothe two or three times a week before moving to Chillicothe in 1957. Mr. Ramella pastored there for seven years and then moved back to Columbus. When he passed away in February 2007 he was attending Grove City Church of the Nazarene in Grove City, Ohio. At the time of his passing, Mr. Ramella and his wife Mildred resided in Reynoldsburg, Ohio.
According to his daughter, Linda Burns, Jesse Ramella "never knew a stranger. He had a good life after the service. He always loved the ocean and wanted to go back to see it just one more time before he died but was never able to make the trip. Dad talked about his service in the Navy all the time. He was proud to have served as an Armed Guard."
Furthermore, Reverend Jesse Ramella described in his own words what happened on May 17, 1942, when the German submarine attacked. It is quite a remarkable story of coincidence and bravery. Please read the actual account of the attack to better understand the danger the Armed Guard faced on the high seas during World War II.
Jesse Ramella (left); Jesse Ramella and Mildred Vipperman (center); Jesse and Mildred Ramella (right)
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