We cast this wreath in memory to honor those 11 Merchant Marine Sailors and 1 Armed Guard Gunner aboard the S. S. Blackpoint when it was sunk by the German U. Boat U-853 on May 5, 1945. Sunk just 2 1/2 miles off the Point Judith Light in the Narragansett Bay. BYLINE: THOMAS J. MORGAN DATE: 08-24-2000 PUBLICATION: Providence Journal Company EDITION: All SECTION: NEWS PAGE: B-01 The past and the present clasped hands yesterday when a group of aging ex-sailors aboard a chartered ferryboat paused off Point Judith to remember both the dozen wartime comrades who have rested fathoms below since 1945 and the young seamen who died last week when the nuclear submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea.
"We salute the 118 Russian sailors who lost their lives," Craig Loomis, of Providence, said in a prayer whose words were whipped away in part by a quirky breeze and a mischievous public address system. "I thought it was appropriate," Loomis, chaplain of the Rhode Island and Eastern Massachusetts chapter of the U.S. Navy Armed Guard, would say later of his tribute to the Russians. "Here we were, out to sea, and those guys were down." Yet his focus, and that of those who attended his words, lay on something closer to hand and nearer to heart. Let their graves forever rest undisturbed, Loomis implored, referring to a pair of wrecks below one friendly, one enemy, relics of a long-ago war. Most of these grizzled men were mere teenagers when they served as merchant sailors aboard U.S. civilian ships in World War II, or belonged to the U.S. Navy Armed Guard, which provided gunners for defense. What drew them here was one of the last sea battles of World War II in the Atlantic, one in which members of both services participated. And died. On the floor of Block Island Sound lies the wreckage of the SS Black Point, the last ship sunk in the Battle of the Atlantic. Eleven merchant seamen and one member of the Armed Guard died when a torpedo blew it in half. Not far off lies another dead submarine, not nuclear, but conventional; not neutral, but enemy. The German U-853, which fired the fatal torpedo into the 5,353-ton Black Point on May 5, 1945 never left Rhode Island waters. The Coast Guard and the Navy crushed the undersea vessel with depth charges the day after the Black Point sank. "This was the only enemy ship sunk in U.S. waters since the War of 1812," said veteran Robert Sullivan of Southwick, Mass.
It was thoughts of that struggle 55 years ago that brought the Block Island ferry Manitou, its services donated by the Interstate Navigation Co., to the place where the Black Point went down. More than 100 veterans, relatives and friends came from all over the country to witness a wreath cast upon the waters. A diver, Bill Campbell of Northeast Divers, who also donated his services, took a plaque below to fasten it to part of the Black Point's hull.
"We did this once before, but we will probably never do it again," said the coordinator of the trip, Gerald Greaves, of Foster, chairman of the Armed Guard chapter. "They are all in their 70s - I'm almost 75," Greaves said as old men, many wearing baseball caps, some carrying canes, made their way carefully here and there on the pitching ferryboat. Only two members of the crew of the Black Point attended yesterday's memorial. One of them, Abel Gomes, of East Providence, struggled against infirmity to tell his story. Gomes, a messman, had been in the Merchant Marine since 1939. He was going on duty when the explosion came, about suppertime. In the swirl of events he tried to help shipmates, then climbed aboard a lifeboat when the ship went down. This was his first memorial service, he said. "You don't remember me, do you?" came the cheerful voice of Luke "Rod" Pelletier, of Orland, Maine, who extended his hand. The two men talked, for the first time in 50 years. Pelletier, purser on the Black Point, had just had dinner in the officers' mess with the second engineer. He rose to head aft, to where the Armed Guard had a shack on the stern near the venerable 40- pounder gun they manned, a survivor of the Spanish-American War. In that shack sat a steam iron, for Pelletier had intended nothing more dramatic than ironing his uniform pants in anticipation of stepping ashore some hours later when the Black Point was to dock in Boston with its humble cargo of coal. He never did iron those pants. Just as Pelletier and the second engineer stood up, the torpedo struck the engine room and knocked them both back down. "I ran out to a catwalk aft, and there was no ship left there," he said. "If the damned thing had hit a few minutes later I wouldn't be here. Five minutes that's all it took to make the difference." The blast tossed one of the Armed Guard off the stern. "He landed on the catwalk, bleeding," Pelletier said. "We hauled his ass back. Then they tried to launch the lifeboats, and it didn't go well." He indicated a nosedive with his hand: "One of them went straight down." Pelletier got aboard a raft mounted on tracks so it could slide straight into the water. But it stuck, its tracks corroded. "The raft wouldn't budge. The boatswain finally got it loose. There were 17 of us in the raft, including the captain." Among those killed was Pelletier's best friend, Boatswain's Mate Lonnie Whitson Lloyd, the only member of the Armed Guard to die in the attack and, according to the veterans, the last Navy man to die in the Battle of the Atlantic. That's why Charles A. Lloyd was there yesterday. Lonnie was Charles Lloyd's older brother. Five of the Lloyd brothers went to war. "Three of us boys were in the Armed Guard, one was in the Merchant Marine and the fifth was in the Marine Corps. I was the youngest," said Lloyd, who lives in Raleigh, N.C. Only Lonnie fell in harm's way. So Lloyd held half of the wreath yesterday, and Lonny Brooks of Wareham, Mass., clutched the other. Brooks is past national president and current commanding officer of the New England chapter of the Armed Guard. "We cast this wreath in memory of all those who perished May the 5th, 1945," intoned John A. Notte III, whose father was an officer in the Armed Guard and later governor of Rhode Island. The floral tribute splashed overboard at a point where even today the charts carry the warning: "Unexploded depth charges May 1945." A few roses worked free as it washed slowly astern, spinning gracefully in the swirl created by the slowly rotating propellers of the ferryboat.
Notte recited a name. A bell clanged. Another name, another bell one for each of the 11 merchant sailors and the Navy gunner who perished on May 5, 1945, when surrender in Europe was two days away. As the clear notes rang out, the silence was broken only by the hum of the idling diesels and the cries of gulls. SURVIVOR: Abel Gomes, of East Providence, was one of only two members of the Black Points crew who attended yesterdays memorial. TRIBUTE: Diver Bill Campbell swims out with a wreath and memorial plaque that he affixed to the hull of the Black Point, which was sunk only days before the end of World War II. The German sub that sank the merchant ship was destroyed a day later by the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy.
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