Scottish Highlanders Rescue SS William H. Welch Survivors


Odlin - Maritime 63

PR l872 (W)


For Sunday Papers
May 14, 1944

Cleared and Issued
Through Facilities of the
Office of War Information 

Highlighted, by self-sacrificing aid given shipwrecked survivors by Scottish "crofters", both men and women, the story of the worst storm ship disaster recently suffered by the American Merchant Marine was disclosed by the War Shipping Administration today. It was during a blinding blizzard on the Scotland coast a few weeks ago [February 26, 1944] that the Liberty ship William H. Welch met her end. Five members of the crew and seven Navy gunners were the only survivors in the vessel's complement of more than 60.

Don HewittA report from Ensign Don Hewitt of U. S. Maritime Service to WSA contains survivors' grateful descriptions of aid given by the crofters, aid extended under most adverse conditions and credited with saving the lives of several.

Crofters, poorest of poor highlanders who eke out meager existences on tiny, bleak farms, left their stone huts in the howling winter weather to help "the American sailors" they learned had been flung upon their jagged coast. First they carried jugs of hot tea, that represented weeks of rations, through hail and sleet and over miles of rocky moors. Finding the few still alive, they made driftwood fires to revive the men exhausted by their battle with the sea and cold. They carried blankets from their own beds to wrap around the frozen survivors.

For hours the crofters searched the beach and cliffs seeking men whose clothing had been washed from them and who had crawled into caves for shelter from the pounding surf and wind. They lowered one of their men into a crevice to haul out a seaman given up for dead, and managed to revive him. At least two of the survivors are alive because the crofters refused to give up their search and restorative efforts after all hope seemed gone.

The William H. Welch, commanded by Capt. Lee Marshall, of 701 South America Street, Philadelphia, who went down with his ship, had delivered her war cargo was on her way to join a homebound convoy when the fierce storm drove her aground in early morning. Mountainous waves soon had her decks awash and the entire crew was forced to seek refuge on the flying bridge. British rescue vessels tried in vain to give aid.

Soon the waves reared higher, the pilot house was smashed, and all hands washed off the ship as she was being dashed to pieces on the rocky shore. Some drowned and others were hurled to their deaths against the cliff over which waves broke. Others flung there died on the cliff of exposure and wounds.

Second Assistant Engineer George L. Smokovitch, 1527 North 18th Street, Ecanaba, Mich., was among the few still alive when cast on the cliff. He relates that, covered by a protective coat of fuel oil, he swam from the cliff, hoping to be picked up. But he was washed back and found there by two old women, who carried him four miles to their little farmhouse.

Other crofters, meantime, stuck to their effort to find and save men cast ashore. At the little hospital where the survivors at length were gathered up, crofters called daily with handfuls of eggs and little jars of precious jam for "the American sailors."

A WSA representative who went to the scene reported:

"The route from the nearest community to the disaster scene is over a narrow winding rutted road encompassed by snow-hooded mountain peaks and ice-covered lochs. For miles the only sign of life is a flock of white-faced sheep or a herd of deer driven down into the glen by the mountain snows. It is bitterly cold and it is not hard to understand how the seamen and Navy gunners succumbed to suffering and exposure in their fight to escape the icy sea or the rocky cliffs against which their bodies were battered."

In addition to Engineer Smokovitch, the merchant seamen who survived and now have been repatriated after their hospitalization are Edward C. Post, boatswain, 5504 Lafayette Boulevard, Norfolk, Va.; Elmer F. Geppert, deck engineer, 284 Wawona Street, San Francisco, Calif.; John Schoen, fireman-watertender, 4205 Buckley Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio; and Anthony F. Kirkowsky, seaman, 173 Pavonia Avenue, Jersey City, N. J.

All who died in the disaster and whose bodies were recovered were given a mass military funeral in Scotland.

The William H. Welch was built at the Bethlehem-Fairfield. Shipyard in Baltimore, Md., being delivered March 31, 1943. She was operated for the WSA by T. J. Stevenson and Company, Inc., of New York, N. Y.

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Photo of Ensign Don Hewitt, USMS, from his book Tell Me a Story: Fifty Years and 60 Minutes in Television, Public Affairs, 2001. Don is the Executive Producer and originator of the long running investigative, award winning television broadcast 60 Minutes. His stint as a London based war correspondent reporting on the U.S. Merchant Marine led to a great career in television journalism. Don's memoirs are great reading.

Alphabetical List of U.S. Ships Sunk or Damaged
WSA Press Releases

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