Jay G. Lopez, Radio Operator, Four Star Seaman (torpedoed 4 times)
Lieutenant Jay G. Lopez, U. S. Maritime Service, was one of 6 Merchant Seamen authorized to wear a red, white and blue Combat Bar with 4 Stars, symbolizing 4 torpedoings.
Lopez was Radio Operator on the SS Barbara on March 7, 1942 when a German torpedo struck her port side while she was off the north coast of Haiti. The SS Barbara, built in 1913, was zigzagging unarmed, carrying passengers from Baltimore to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Lopez ran to the radio shack, found it a complete wreck. The nearby deck was damaged so severely that he could look down into the burning engine room.
He covered his head with a stewardess' fur coat to help keep out the smoke as he worked his way through the stifling smoke to rouse his shipmates.
The scene was chaotic: the fire on the boat deck was mast high, and none of the lifeboats could be launched because of the fire.
The Master gave the "Abandon Ship" order and launched a few rafts and a hatch cover. Lopez stepped from the listing ship into the water, and swallowed oil as he came up. Finally, he climbed aboard a raft.
On the third day, the raft with 16 men and the stewardess, whom they affectionately called "Grandma," was rescued by a PBY flying boat. The Navy officer who risked two landings and overloaded his plane was cited for the act. Another raft with 21 aboard with Able Seaman Maximo Murphy in charge, landed on Tortuga Island after 3 days of rowing. Murphy earned a distinguished Service Medal for bringing the raft safely ashore and then walking 18 hours to get help. Eighteen crew and 8 passengers were killed.
Three Torpedoes Find Their Mark
Lopez's second torpedoing occurred on May 20, 1942, during the maiden voyage of the Liberty ship SS George Calvert heading for Iran from Baltimore with over 9,000 tons of cargo. Two tin fish hit the ship in quick succession, one in the #3 hold, the other at the stern, where it killed three Armed Guard gunners. Lieutenant Lopez was off watch and had just walked into the radio room to check equipment. He turned on the emergency generators, but both main and emergency power failed.
The crew abandoned ship in three lifeboats. The submarine surfaced and its Commander questioned the Master regarding the ship's name, cargo and destination. The submarine confirmed for them the course to Cuba which the Master had already given his men, and allowed them to proceed. A third torpedo then struck amidships, breaking the ship apart. The motor boat towed the other lifeboats, arriving at Cuba next morning.
Blown Through Door
Lopez's next ill-fated ship was another Liberty, the SS Thomas Ruffin. On March 9, 1943 she was 175 miles north of British Guiana returning from the Suez, when she was one of 5 ships in Convoy BT-6 that was torpedoed in rapid succession by U-510. When the general alarm was sounded, Lieutenant Lopez was off watch, asleep, and ran to the radio room to start the emergency generator. He was standing up with the headphones on when the torpedo found its mark.
The explosion blew him through the door into the passageway and onto the deck. Lopez ran to the master's quarters and dropped the code books over the side.
Then he and the second mate returned to the radio shack with a flashlight in an effort to get off a signal, but the battery-room equipment had been knocked out. He was ordered to abandon ship.
There was a heavy sea and everyone had difficulty descending the hand lines to the bobbing lifeboats. While dangling on the line, waiting for a chance to drop into the boat, Lopez lost his grip and fell.
As he plunged down his ankle became fouled in a line leaving him hanging upside down. Another seaman cut him loose, but not before he received some blows on the head from swinging against the ship's side. As he finally reached the lifeboat, the swinging falls hit him in the head.
Lieutenant Lopez recalls trying to lie down, but afterwards, the third mate told him that he was trying to crawl out of the boat without realizing it.
The torpedo killed three of the engine crew outright, and one crew member and 2 Navy men died of steam burns on the rescue ship. Survivors were picked up immediately by an escorting corvette, landed in Trinidad, and returned home by plane.
A "Friendly Torpedo"
His fourth torpedoing came on August 21, 1943, in the Mediterranean. The C-1 SS Cape Mohican was in convoy MKF-122, heading for the U.S. when an escort vessel accidentally fired a torpedo during a nighttime alarm. This time Lopez was on watch, but he was blown over backwards by the concussion. Getting to his feet, he started the emergency equipment but noticed that the antenna ammeter did not register. Just then the Navy operator arrived, and Lopez directed him to stand by and lash the doors back while he went topside to check the faulty antenna and report to the master.
Lopez and the Navy man repaired the emergency antenna lead-in and within ten minutes got the distress signal off, bringing an escorting destroyer alongside to take off part of the crew.
The officers and a few men who remained took turns below shoring up the water-tight door to the shaft alley, keeping the vessel afloat. The Cape Mohican was then taken in tow to Malta, where the remaining members of the crew rejoined for the long tow to England.
Lopez shipped out again. Questioned as to why he, and others like him, continue to go to sea, he said:
"I've sat in a lifeboat and made a vow that if I ever put my foot on dry land again I'd stay there. But when I get home, most of my friends are at sea, and I remember the friends who didn't get back. I guess it's a sort of personal fight with me."Sources:
The article above is an edited version of "Four-Star Seamen," MAST Magazine, United States Maritime Service, April 1945
A Careless Word - A Needless Sinking: A History of the Staggering Losses Suffered by the U.S. Merchant Marine, both in Ships and Personnel, during World War II, Captain Arthur R. Moore, American Merchant Marine Museum, Kings Point, NY: 1998
U.S. Merchant Vessel War Casualties of World War II, Robert M. Browning, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996
Men and Ships in WWII
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