Memorial Day 2013: A Story Worth Telling

Published: Thursday, May 23, 2013 at 06:13 PM.

One of the more comprehensive accounts of the Hamilton was written by Jim W. Dean for Veterans Today on the 67th anniversary of the ship’s sinking in 2011. He cites the declassified documents as well as a video interview of Howard Morseburg, who witnessed the sinking from aboard another ship.

The Hamilton, on just its fifth voyage, was part of an 87-ship convoy that was headed to Tunisa and Italy. After safely crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the convoy made its way into the Mediterranean Sea. About 30 miles off the coast of Algiers at sunset on the evening of April 20, 1944, the convoy came under attack from German torpedo planes.

As a troop transport, the Hamilton had few guns to defend itself, and presumably, the German pilots would have recognized the ship for what it was, so that it was targeted would not have been a surprise.

There are many stories of World War II ships taking hit after damaging hit but continuing the fight against the enemy, testimony to the industrial might of the United States during the war. Such was not the case for the Hamilton. One torpedo struck the ship, and in an instant, it exploded with such force that night turned to day. George Nemeth, and all 579 others aboard, most likely never knew what happened to them.

Turns out, the Hamilton was not only carrying troops, but also high-explosive ammunition, something that was kept hidden in classified documents. Troop ships were not supposed to carry such cargo, and the destruction of the Hamilton and the loss of all 580 lives aboard showed why. It was one of the largest losses of life on any liberty ship during World War II, according to some websites, and the largest according to others.

That one German torpedo produced such a massive explosion that the ship ripped apart, raining debris on the rest of the convoy, and went down in about 30 seconds. Flames jumped 1,000 feet into the air.

According to Dean, just two bodies were recovered. Families of the other 578 men most likely were informed — by telegram — that their son or husband was missing in action. Then later, a second telegram would have listed their loved one as presumed dead.

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