I had always heard the story — not so much a story as much as a line of information — that my mother’s uncle, my great uncle, died during World War II.
It’s not so dissimilar from other families. After all, more than 400,000 Americans died fighting for this country during that war.
But what is different is the story surrounding the death of Cpl. George Andrew Nemeth Jr. was not known to us — and actually not known to the world for 50 years. All my mother knew was that he was on a ship that was bombed. That was the information. With Memorial Day approaching, the time seems right to learn the story.
When World War II started, George Andrew Nemeth Jr. was 16 years old and in the ninth grade. According to 1940 census records, he was born in the United States to immigrants from Hungary and lived in a mostly Hungarian neighborhood on Sherwood Road in Cleveland, Ohio.
He was the youngest son of George Nemeth, a worker in a steel mill, and his wife Barbara. His older brother, Edward, my grandfather, was 30 years old, married and living in the same house. He had two young daughters, Dorothy and Mary Lou, my aunts. My mother had not yet entered the picture, coming along in October of 1943. She never had the chance to know her uncle.
At some point in 1943, George Andrew Nemeth Jr. entered the U.S. Army Air Corps. Documents show he completed a course for aircraft welders at U.S. Army Air Forces Technical School on July 6, 1943, in Illinois.
He then ended up at Fairmont Army Air Field in Nebraska, where he likely continued to train and work as an aircraft welder. After all, Fairmont Army Airfield was home to various bomber squadrons that trained for action in Europe, and he ended up with the 831st Bomb Squadron, part of the 485th Bomb Group. The squadrons, with B-24 and B-25 bombers, eventually flew missions from Venosa, Italy, attacking oil refineries and railway yards in places such as Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia — and even Hungary.
On Dec. 31, 1943, he made out and signed his will. The single corporal named his parents as beneficiaries, and upon his death, they received monthly payments of $61.80 until 1954. His will was probably a routine matter, something military personnel were required to complete before heading overseas for the war.
Still, as an aircraft welder working on long-range bombers that were normally based well behind enemy lines, one would think his occupation would have been relatively safe, if any job could be considered safe during a war. Unfortunately, that proved not to be the case.
The SS Paul Hamilton
George Nemeth, now 19 years old, boarded the SS Paul Hamilton when it left Hampton Roads, Va., on April 3, 1944.
The Hamilton, a liberty troop ship, was constructed by the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company in Wilmington in 1942. It was named in honor of Paul Hamilton, who served as the secretary of the Navy from 1809 to 1812. According to the Naval Historical Center, he served during the American Revolution and was also elected to the South Carolina House and Senate before eventually becoming that state’s governor.
For more than 50 years, what exactly happened to George Nemeth and 579 others aboard the Hamilton wasn’t completely known. What was known was that the ship was attacked and sunk. But the full account of the sinking had been classified and kept hidden.
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.
On Memorial Day
It wasn’t until a trip back home to Ohio a couple of years ago that my mother obtained the documents and an old photograph of the uncle she never knew. Tied up in a blue plastic bag from the Stop-n-Shop was also a small blue box that held a Purple Heart. Inscribed on the back are the words “For Military Merit George A. Nemeth.”
As we looked through the documents and examined the photo at her dining room table last week, I asked my mother why she cared so much to learn the story of a man she never knew.
“I don’t know,” she said, looking at my father, himself a retired Marine, sitting across the table. “I think it’s important to me because of your father.”
She married that young Marine 51 years ago. They lived on this base and that one, and in the process raised four children, each making a contribution to this world in his or her own special way.
George A. Nemeth Jr. never had the opportunity to marry, and he never had any children. But, he contributed to this world in his own special way. And that is a story worth telling.