Escape from the Empire Javelin, A Survivors Story
By Staff Sergeant Joe Bein, U.S.A.

December 28th 1944, bright and early, we went to sea. The weather was clear and crisp. I wasn't the least bit seasick (which is unusual) and everyone was in high spirits. Most of the morning everyone spent out on deck watching the passing ships, trying to figure out what type each was. No one seemed to know much about the ships so that when anyone said that he knew a ship to be of a certain type, we all believed him.

My bunk was at the rear of the ship, below the main deck. There was a large square hole in our deck through which cargo was lowered by crane into the hold, which was below us. There were huge timbers each about 18" x 18" in size covering the hole, except that a few of the timbers were piled back on the others on one side, so that you could walk down a staircase and get into the hold. The boat was so crowded with men that some men were quartered down in the hold. At about two o'clock the First Sergeant came around and told the men down in the hold that they had to be out of the hold and up on deck before three o'clock or they would be put on K.P. (Kitchen Police)

A few minutes after three I was leaving the latrine and on my way to my bunk when there was an explosion, I felt a terrific jar and heard the crashing of timber as well as the rushing of water. I steadied myself against the nearby bunks and put my hand over my face for a second as things were flying around. The lights went out and there was the smell of burnt cordite - all was quiet. It seemed that everyone else was up on deck so I decided to make my way back to my bunk, get my life-preserver, and go on deck. As I passed the opening to the hold, the sound of rushing water became more distinct. The explosion had moved the heavy timbers so that they completely closed the opening, but above the noise of the water I heard a voice that will be with me the rest of my life. It was the voice of a pleading, hurt, dying man realizing that his time had come, and fighting his best to survive. He yelled, " Save me, help me, save me", and then he yelled for his mother. I tried to see if there was any way to raise the timbers, but couldn't budge them. I groped my way to my bunk, got my life-preserver, and went above deck. I told an officer of the condition down below and he sent a party of crew members to see what they could do. They came back a few minutes later and shook their heads.

I was freezing and wanted my coat so I borrowed a flashlight and went down to my bunk. By this time there was an inch of water on the floor, so I grabbed my coat and went back above deck quickly. I noticed that the water from the hold was slapping against the heavy timbers, and it made me feel not too good. On deck there was glass and blood all over. Men were bearing stretchers to where medics were set up on the deck. The rear of the boat was settling so everyone was sent towards the bow. Rafts were being dropped overboard in hopes that some of the rafts might reach some of the men that were thrown overboard by the concussion.

A lifeboat with many wounded was lowered and tied to the stern. Then the rest of the wounded were put in another lifeboat and more men were ordered into it to help man the boat. I and two of my close friends got into that second boat. We were dropped into the water with a thud, and then the fun began. The water kept raising and lowering us - one moment we would be under the curve of the side of the boat and the next we would be scraping the deck railing. In addition to that we had to dodge the big iron hook that had held the life boat onto the larger boat. We were at all sorts on angles and were thrown every which way like a cork against a rock. To add to our troubles we were bumping against the wounded and they were screaming in pain. I was all set to be overturned at any moment, and spent my time trying to figure out the best way to jump if we actually did overturn. I was situated on the side next to the stricken ship, so I got a few nice bumps. One of the wounded boys was across my legs, and couldn't move as there were other wounded all around him.

After many hazardous moments we finally cleared the sinking ship and were free to paddle for ourselves. We paddled around in circles, bobbing like a cork. Most of the boys got seasick and soon the boat was filthy. We joked, and sang and did what little we could to keep the wounded comfortable. I watched the stricken ship settling lower and lower.

A boat came in sight, and after an exchange of signals it came alongside the sinking ship and tied up to it. After the wounded men had been taken aboard from the lifeboat that had been tied to the stern, the rest of the men jumped from the stricken ship to the deck of the ship tied alongside. The swells were treacherous and at times the deck of one ship was 20 feet below the other. Over a thousand men made the jump and we were told that only one man was killed while doing this. When all the men except a few crew were aboard, the ship untied and pulled away. Ten minutes later the ship exploded and went down immediately. The ship that came to the rescue was a French frigate. The skipper had violated all the rules of the sea by tying up to a ship that he knew was sinking. In everyone's mind there is no doubt that the skipper was truly a hero.

As the last men were jumping from one deck to another, another ship came in sight. It was a British destroyer-escort. They came alongside our lifeboat and lowered a rope net. Some of the crew came down and took our wounded. I was on the side of the boat next to the net, so I scrambled up. My legs were numb and quite useless, but I managed to use my arms and get up quite fast. The strong arms of a sailor caught me as I was nearing the top and pulled me onto the deck. We had been in the water for three hours and I was glad to get on a large boat again. Land would have suited me much better, but survivor's can't be choosers.

We were immediately taken below deck. Our names were taken, and some of the boys that felt like it, ate. I soon became sick to my stomach and spent the next hour or so running to the latrine. The crew were as kind and considerate as they could be and they gave us everything that they had, that we might need. One of the sailors took me on deck to get some air in the hope that it would make me feel better. It was dark and cold out. We were talking of the sinking and such things when he happened to remark that if this ship were hit, we would all have to take to the water for their lifeboats were all in England being repaired. I immediately became sick, but in a different way. I asked him not to tell the others what he had told me for they would not appreciate it.

Well, we were all pretty well shaken up and nervous as a natural result of what we had been through. The boat was pitching and tossing, and many boys were pretty seasick. Over the ship's loudspeakers came the announcement that they were going to drop depth charges. The crew told us to prepare for a loud explosion, so we sat there all tense. The explosion came and the boat rocked even more - we all jumped a mile high. There were a few more explosions and on each one we jumped. Here was a repetition of the same noise and jarring that we had gone through earlier in the day.

Despite our protests, some of the crew members gave us their bunks, so we tried to get some sleep. About an hour later they dropped depth charges again after they had warned us over the speaker system. Again we jumped and got all the more nervous. On the deck there were about 24 positions from which they drop and toss depth charges. They would usually fire one or two positions at a time. I finally went to sleep, only to be awakened by a deafening explosion that felt like a strong earthquake. The boat trembled heavily. As I got up I saw the crew and everyone else dashing for the ladder to get up to the deck, and heard the alarm sirens sounding, I could very plainly see myself swimming around in the freezing water in the black night. I was seasick as the devil, and quite weak, in no mood to go swimming, so I just lay back down on my bunk and decided to wait for everyone to clear out first. All my resistance was gone and I was resigned to my fate. No question that death was just ahead.

During this wait I remember well seeing in my minds eye, a soldier knocking at our door, my mother answering it, and the soldier handing her the telegram telling her that her son had been killed in action. That is practically all I could think of - the grief that this was going to bring my mother. I also gave thought as to whether or not I should pray. I am an atheist or agnostic, and decided that at this time when I felt certain I was going to die, there was no reason to change my mind about the existence, or non-existence of God.

In a few minutes, just as the last men were going up the ladder to the deck, they stopped and turned around and started coming back down. The underwater radar, ASDIC, had picked up something very big, very close to the boat and had let go with all 24 depth charges at once. As a result, we had dead fish all over the deck - it was a school of fish, not a submarine that the ASDIC had picked up. A few hours later we were awakened for breakfast. We were due to reach Le Havre at 8:00 AM. At about 7:00 AM we noticed that we weren't moving. Half an hour later we started moving again. One of the crew came down and explained that we had hit a sand bar and run aground. What else can happen to a ship? At about 8:30 we went up on deck and our nightmare was finished. An invasion craft came alongside which took us to shore. We kissed the lovely rocks on the shores of France.
Joe Bein, U.S.A.
Staff Sergeant, 15th U.S. Army Headquarters

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Page published Feb. 21, 2015