Posted by: Aaron Lisec | May 19, 2010

Chasing Submarines

SCRC’s holdings include several dozen diaries from World War I,  and another handful from World War II.  Only one such collection spans both wars: the Lawrence C. Brewster Diaries (Vertical File Manuscript 1926).  Born in 1899 in Portland, Maine, Brewster enlisted in the United States Navy in 1916 and was assigned to the destroyer U.S.S. Tucker.  When the United States entered World War I in April 1917 the Tucker was ordered to Queenstown (now Cobh), on the southern tip of Ireland,  to escort convoys of ships carrying troops and supplies to and from England and France.   Brewster and his fellow sailors on the Tucker and a handful of other destroyers based at Queenstown were the first Americans in action, beginning in May 1917, months before any American soldiers deployed on the Western Front.

Brewster’s diary aboard the Tucker reads as part ship’s log, recording routine chores and daily changes in weather and position, and part chronicle of the convoy system, devised by the British to thwart German U-boats, which threatened to cut Britain’s vital ocean supply lines.   Merchant and troopships crossed the Atlantic in large groups, flanked on all sides by destroyers and other warships which kept a constant lookout for submarines.  Once a U-boat was spotted, one or more destroyers would leave the convoy in pursuit, dropping depth charges (nicknamed “ash cans”) and waiting for the telltale oil slick that was sometimes the only evidence of a “kill.”  When the U-boats managed to evade the escorts and sink one or more of the convoy, the destroyers were there to pick up the survivors, sometimes a perilous undertaking in the teeth of a North Atlantic gale.

In his diary, Brewster meticulously listed the names of the ships in each convoy, along with the escorting vessels.  His descriptions of enemy action are matter-of-fact and stirring.  On August 9, 1918, he recorded an encounter with a U-boat.

Lawrence C. Brewster Diary, August 9, 1918

“About 3 00 P.M. a submarine was sighted on the port bow running submerged.  We gave chase and dropped an ash-can on her.  She was next sighted on our starboard quarter coming to the surface.  We fired the gun and the third shot it is thought smashed her steering gear.  We again circle her and dropped 17 more depth charges.  The sub. tried to come to the surface but on account of her steering gear she was unable to.  The depth-charges landed directly on her.  Oil covered the ocean .  The submarine was seen laying on her side and then sank.  She was completely destroyed.  It was a very calm day.”

Brewster’s World War I experiences cover two diary volumes.  After the war, he sailed on ships hauling grain from Montreal to Antwerp, returning with glass and other finished goods.  A third volume chronicles these voyages, recording the sometimes hellish weather encountered on the North Atlantic passage.  In 1922 Brewster traded the sea for a mechanic’s life, and courted the woman he later married.  But a fourth diary volume begins with Brewster back in the Navy in late 1942, posted to a Submarine Chaser (SC 504), a 110 foot vessel that carried 27 men.  SC 504 initially escorted convoys through the Caribbean, and Brewster found himself again hunting U-boats.  In early 1943, the ship transited the Panama Canal and headed for the Solomon Islands, off New Guinea, where the crew witnessed the last days of the Battle of Guadalcanal, ferrying troops and supplies to the island from their nearby base at the port of Tulagi.  The defeated Japanese continued to harass the Americans from the air, and Brewster recounts a pattern of daily alerts and frequent raids.  During one such raid, on June 16, 1943, as the ship came under attack, one of the SC 504 crew was struck by a swiveling 20 mm. gun barrel.

Lawrence C. Brewster Diary, June 16, 1943

“As I was helping him put bandage on to stop the flow of blood, plane overhead but out of sight dropped bomb about 200 ft ahead of us.  Went full right rudder and two more bombs dropped one to starboard and one to port about 100 ft distance.  Heard the screech of bombs as they came down which was the only warning we got.  Bombs exploded underwater throwing spray of water and clouds of black smoke into the air.  Keep circling around outside Purvis Bay but plane had apparently dropped its full load and did not again bother us.”

As in previous diaries, Brewster carefully noted all the other ships accompanying SC 504 on its island hopping patrols, and any news he hears about vessels based at Tulagi.  One ship not mentioned was PT 109, commanded since April by Lieutenant John F. Kennedy.  Brewster’s diary ends on July 1, 1943, a month before the action that left PT 109 at the bottom and made Kennedy a hero.  The whereabouts of a fifth volume, if one exists, are unknown.  Brewster survived the war and died in Portland in 1974.  For more on his diaries, click here.


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