Empire Javelin (1944)
Schoichet's account of the sinking of Empire Javelin
The docks at Southampton did not present a very inviting picture at the end of the long hike we made to reach them. I can remember gaping holes torn in the roofing of the enclosed portions, mute evidence that this had not always been a one-sided war. The waterfront section through which we had tramped under the full weight of packs, gas masks, etc., had been plastered thoroughly, too, and in some places reconstruction was still under way. It was afternoon when we reached the end of the march route and a cold wind had thoroughly chilled us. Standing on the dock did not improve our situation. We got colder by the minute. There have been varying
estimates on how long we waited before we were permitted to board HMS Empire Javelin which was lying at anchor when we arrived. It must have been well over four hours. The end of this period found us sitting, lying down, in short, sprawled allover the docks and grumbling at the apparently unnecessary delay. At long last the line started to move jerkily and we struggled back under our gear to board.
The ship was long and sleek and rode easily beside the pier. Most of us, as we mounted the gangway, were mentally comparing the Empire Javelin to the Aquitania, on which we had made the Atlantic crossing, and there were a few laughing references to how many Empire Javelins would go to make one Aquitania. Estimates ran as high as one thousand.
The decks were very narrow in many places. She had not been built as a troop carrier. In spots, it was impossible for a man to squeeze by with full field pack and duffel bag. So, frequently we had to turn sideways, dragging the bags after us or pushing them before us. There was a good deal of bad humored muttering at this.
The long wait on the cold pier had exhausted all of us and we were feeling mean and nasty. After a seemingly eternity of wrestling with uncooperative equipment and baggage, we passed through a door into the warm interior of the ship. The effect of the heat on our morale was almost instantaneous. The world suddenly assumed a more pleasant expression.
The ship's interior fairly crawled with close-packed men and their impedimenta. Our arrival only added to the confusion and shouting. The line crawled around corners and along walls. We descended what seemed to be innumerable stairways. Then the line stopped completely. We fidgeted and griped until word filtered back up to us that there was no more room below. So a few went in search of an officer. When he arrived we had already settled ourselves in the ship's cafeteria, and didn't intend to move again for a long time. It was decided that we should be permitted to live in the cafeteria for the trip, unless accommodations could be found later, sleeping
on the steel tables at night and vacating the cafeteria during mealtimes in order to permit the serving of meals to the troops on board.
Perhaps sleeping on a steel table does not sound much like comfort when one is accustomed to an innerspring mattress, but to us it was heaven. We were warm again! The wonder of that alone was sufficient to make us content with out lot. Besides, the tables were well spaced and that gave us much more room per man than the
bunks below, placed three high. The cafeteria was only one deck below the open decks, which gave us convenient access to fresh air, too.
We slept like pigs that first night aboard the Empire Javelin. When morning came we discovered that we were still tied up to the pier. Time moved lazily along all that day and that evening. We had nothing to do and were enjoying ourselves at it. There were countless card games in progress everywhere aboard, and the clarion
call of the clinking cubes was plentifully audible. We were having one helluva time. That night we bunked in the cafeteria again. We began to wonder when we were to leave. The suspense became slightly annoying. So, no one felt sorry when the next morning brought the noises of preparations to cast off. There was a general exodus to the open decks and many of us watched the slowly retreating outlines of England with more than a tinge of regret. We had missed a good many of the comforts of life there, true, but nevertheless our immediate future was at least uncertain and bound to bring with it much more pronounced discomforts than we had already experienced.
We laughed and joked but none of us could drive from our minds the implications of the sudden and unexpected German counter-attack in the Ardennes which had, by the time of our sailing, all but overrun the city which was to be our destination. Some of us carried in our wallets maps clipped from newspapers which showed the tentacles of the German advance reaching out to envelope Dinant. We worried too about the welfare of the handful of men who had preceded the main body to make arrangements for its arrival. None knew for sure how
they were faring in the face of the German advance, but rumors came thick and fast.
We had had no mail for some time and it was conjectured that it was being held for us at our destination. There was a good deal of speculation on the possibility that our letters and packages would fall into enemy hands. To have this fate befall our letters would have been regrettable, of course, but the very thought that the contents of our Christmas packages might serve to fill Nazi bellies was even more repugnant. To say that we faced the end of our journey with rather mixed emotions would be to understate the case considerably. But, like it or not, we were on our way and the die was cast.
Life aboard ship was singularly monotonous with nothing to break the even tenor of our existence excepting our two daily meals and the interminable gambling. Those of us who did not gamble either read, wrote, or slept. There was little else to occupy us. Sightseeing became pointless when the outlines of England faded from view. As far as the eye could see there was water and nothing else except an occasional passing ship. A look cast from the stern revealed the rest of the convoy of three ships of which the Empire Javelin preceded. One might well have imagined that we were repeating our Atlantic crossing were it not for the two transports following.
Noon of December 28 found us approaching the half way mark in the channel. Few of us knew what our immediate destination would be but it was rumored that we were to disembark at Le Havre. We talked about this and wondered whether the docks would be as severely damaged as had been those at Southampton. By mid-afternoon the open decks had lost their attraction to most of us, and there was a general drift towards the cafeteria which was not, at the time, being employed for service of food. A large number of men went below decks to their bunks to snatch a few more hours of fitful sleep. Most of the medical section men were in the cafeteria, still their quarters, engaged in various pastimes. Some were washing and shaving out of helmets; others were playing cards. Suddenly, without warning, the whole world erupted.
For a fleeting second there was nothing in the universe but the roar of a terrific explosion and the ship staggered
as from the impact of a tidal wave. Most of the men found themselves on the floor, there the force of the blast had thrown them. First impulses were to crawl under the shelter of the steel tables on which men had been playing to avoid injury from falling debris. Lights had blinked out at the moment of the blast and an impenetrable darkness descended. The cafeteria had suddenly become a black sea of waving arms, legs, and heads which appeared unaccountably from all directions to impede progress of assistance. The emergency lights went on and at the same time, the "Emergency Station" klaxon superimposed it's fearful wail upon the din of noise created by the shouts of hundreds of men.
Men staggered to their feet quickly amid the cool shouting of a few individuals to the effect that all was well and that they should take it easy. No one knew exactly what happened but the sense of seriousness was somehow injected into the minds of each man present. There were mass movements toward the stairways which led to the deck, but these were hopelessly inadequate to care for the headlong rush of an impetuous crowd. One man lost head head for a moment and rushed forward wildly shouldering others aside, but one of the cooler heads
managed to block his progress and prevented the spark of panic from spreading. Then began a hurried but nevertheless orderly rush for daylight.
First thing noticed on deck was the pools of blood of individuals not so fortunate to get above deck without injury. Sight of it made men hesitate momentarily but the press behind forced all forward to line up against the wall on the bow. Single file was all that could be effected as the passageway would not accommodate two thus denying passage to those whose duty it was to provide assistance to wounded or to help navigate the stricken ship.
Already life rafts were falling from the uppermost deck into the water. Someone was throwing them overside just as quickly as they could be unlashed. The first person to reach the rafts made the blunder of throwing them overside without first making them fast with ropes to the railing so that the rafts could float near the ship. This was corrected by those who came to assist and the rafts continued to thunder past us and rode gently on the calm sea by the ship.
Meanwhile all men by this time had arrived on the open decks with the exception of those busily engaged on necessary duty and those injured or otherwise incapable of mounting the steps. There were as many opinions as to what had happened as there were men aboard, and an equal number of estimates of the damage we had sustained. There were even those who laughingly treated the whole incident as another training experiment and still another individual who jokingly wanted to sell a "non-waterproof watch". But all fell silent quickly when the long chain of litter-borne casualties began to file past us into the life boat in which they were to be evacuated.
Some of us were called upon to assist in the carrying of these litters and others in the care of the injured; those who did were glad to take their minds off the seriousness of the situation and devote their efforts to the care of others. The ship had not yet begun to settle noticeably and there was little fear evidenced on the faces of the men assembled on deck. It is to be remembered though, that despite the characteristic December chill a good many men were perspiring profusely and mopping their faces with unsteady hands.
The more venturesome made hurried trips below to retrieve valuables and no attempts to stop them were made until the stern of the ship began to acquire a noticeable list. We were all visibly heartened when a sleek craft raced into sight, evidently intent on rendering whatever assistance we required. It was identified as a French Frigate named "L'Escaramouche". This was deduced from the writing on the bow, read by an officer possessing
a pair of field glasses. She announced her arrival by roaring from her loud speaker "Ahoy Empire Javelin have you any wounded aboard?" The answer, if there was one, went unheard and it is to be assumed that radio communication had been established.
By this time, the life boat which contained the most seriously injured men attended by a surgeon had pulled a considerable distance from the ship and the men in it were fondly waving to us. One who could not wave to us
and nevermore to be seen was one of the boys of the Medical Section -Bob France - who lay unconscious in the boat. He had been struck by the fall of a large searchlight at the time of the explosion and had suffered a severe injury at the base of his skull. From later reports, we learned of his tragic death while under operation in a British General Hospital where all the injured were taken upon their rescue from the channel.
There was a good deal of scurrying about and we learned that some men were trapped in the hold. The French frigate was asked for an acetylene torch to help extricate the men from their watery prison. It pulled alongside but only after circling around our ship. It was then that we realized that whatever the cause of the damage might well be lurking yet in the quiet waters around us, waiting to be sure that the blow it had dealt would be fatal - it was that which was not a comforting thought. The frigate went in search and returned on the port side.
Other troop ships that followed us up to the time we were hit, veered sharply from their course and raced off. This was understandable since the first responsibility of a ship's commander is the safety of the thousands he has aboard his craft. It was left up to a fighting craft like the "Escaramouche" to help defend us. The French ship was lost from sight on the port side of our ship and presumably the torch was being passed over. Almost all the soldiers who were aboard the ship were crowded on one side to counteract the list. We did not realize that the Frigate had actually tied up alongside until we were motioned forward in small groups and ordered to abandon ship by jumping from one rail to the other.
When the men reached the rail on the far side and were ordered to jump, it was then noticed how dangerous the transfer of personnel from the decks of one ship to another could be. The two crafts, riding one beside the other, thumped ponderously together with the swell of the sea. When they came together with the swell of the wave, the steel plates of the frigate groaned and buckled. Suppressed was the thought of what might happen if one were to miss his footing and fall between the two. He would be crushed to an unrecognizable pulp. Fortunately
enough no accidents occurred as 1,800 men made the leap from the decks of the "Empire Javelin" to the decks of the other with the assistance of the French sailors who stood by to catch us on our leaps.
The frigate was a small ship, not intended for passengers, and manned by a crew of about 85 men. Before we were through there must have been almost two thousand aboard. It was later reported that, the others who remained had been taken off in a landing craft from the port side of the destroyer. More would have been removed by another landing craft had not the risk of too much bumping of the ships, made the venture dangerous.
As soon as we had taken aboard all the survivors that could be handled, lines were cut and the destroyer moved away from the fast settling Empire Javelin as quickly as could be done. Fifteen minutes later, and again without warning, there was a tremendous explosion. Those who were below on the destroyer jumped with fear and tried to cover it with bravado. We heard almost immediately from the men above who witnessed the scene that the ship we had just left had been hit again and was even at that moment plunging downward on its last voyage. The force of this last explosion had thrown the few men who remained aboard into the churning sea and they clung like ants to the life rafts until they succeeded in climbing aboard them. They barely managed to clear the floundering ship in time to avoid being sucked below by the tremendous overtow which it created in sinking.
Duffel bags floated everywhere on the surface carrying all the worldly possessions of every enlisted man aboard but we were, not inclined to view this as a great loss at the time since we were beginning to realize with a sick, violently uncomfortable feeling in our stomachs that our escape from a possible watery grave had been a narrow one.
So it was that the men found themselves jammed into every conceivable space on the frigate. We sat or squatted as best we could, endeavoring to take up the least possible amount of space. This was true allover the boat. There were so many of us aboard that every corridor was alive with the standing and reclining men
who crammed themselves even more closely together to permit the crew members to get through to operate the craft. Some of the crew, out of sympathy for our thoroughly exhausted condition, brought out what must have been their highly prized bottles of their native wine to offer us. With so many men to drink their offerings it did not last long.
What was required however for the men was a good hot meal for all of them had not eaten since breakfast. Frigates are not designed for comfort and their size makes them very uneasy riding for those who are not seasoned seamen. This fact, coupled with the effects of our all too recent experience and the weakened feeling of the men, was beginning to take its toll among us. Men fainted in the crammed quarters; some quickly revived, but one had to be carried to the ship's sick bay. Ship's doctor could not take care of the numerous sick as the dispensary itself was crowded with ill and wounded. A volunteer group composed of one medical officer and three enlisted men of the Medical Section pitched in to assist the hard pressed ship's doctor.
Duties of the men were nominal for a first aid man... washing blood and oil from open cuts and holding aromatic spirits of ammonia under the noses of men on whom the excitement was beginning to show its effect. Also treated by the application of spirits of ammonia were the many cases of seasickness. We were told that the French ship was going to Le Havre; but then, unaccountably, this was changed and we were informed that the
bulk of the men aboard would be taken off in landing craft and the wounded, together with the small volunteer medical detachment to care for them were to return to Portsmouth.
Night had long since fallen and we moved rapidly through the blackness. The heat below deck was stifling. The unpredictable motion of the ship contributed little to our comfort, but we were, at least for the moment, safe. Or so we thought. For the silence was now punctuated regularly by the sound of exploding depth charge. It was to this macabre accompaniment that we pounded on our way. In the early morning hours our course was changed again on orders received by radio and once more we were headed for Le Havre. The depth charges continued to intrude upon the steady thumping of the engines.
Men slept, sweating profusely in the overwhelming atmosphere of tightly compressed humanity. Men were kept busy as best they could. Medical aid men picked their way over prone forms in an attempt to make things easier for those who were in pain. For others not much could be done for the equipment on hand , was not adequate.
Daylight was slow in coming.
We sighted land early on the morning of December 29th. It was Le Havre. Landing crafts were waiting for us with ambulances to evacuate the sick and wounded and later to carry the rest of us from where the ship had anchored to the beach. The process of disembarking was rapid and the choppy waters between the Escaramouche and the French shore provided still another source of uneasiness to finicky stomachs. Eventually the landing craft ground ashore, let down its ponderous gangplank, and we walked off unsteadily to the graveled surface of the shore.
To be remembered very vividly was the sight of the first structure to meet our gaze. It was a shell of what had once been a fine hotel. Now it looked blankly across the channel from gaping holes in the crumbling masonry which reminded very strongly of the empty eye sockets of a skull. Glancing beyond the hotel one could only see the complete and utter destruction of all buildings for a half mile around.
We were tired and mounted the trucks waiting for us, with a half conscious feeling. One blanket was given to each man to wrap around himself for the short ride to seemingly more auspicious quarters. Men were sick, hungry and cold, and sheer exhaustion caused quite a few to drop off to sleep despite the crowded conditions in the truck. We had arrived in France. We were safe.
This document was generously provided to MaritimeQuest by Ann Ferguson Cooper on behalf of Francis Henderson, a survivor of the Empire Javelin. And also in loving memory of her father Chauncey Dwight Ferguson, Jr. also a survivor of the Empire Javelin.
It is not known who Schoichet was or when he wrote the account or how Mr. Henderson came into possession of it, but MaritimeQuest is grateful to all involved for allowing us to publish it and making this available for everyone.
Page published July 3, 2010