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[This article was submitted by Bob Daly/PC-1181. Chief John J. Brown, USN, Ret. did the research for this article, and Carter Barber, a retired editor in the Chicago Tribune organization, wrote it.]
The PC-496, one of only four "Peter Charlie's" sunk or lost during World War II, lived again.
Circumstances of her sinking in the Mediterranean in 1943 and the unusual makeup of her crew were vividly recalled by two of the survivors.
They were John J. Brown, of Las Vegas, NV and Carter Barber, of San Pedro, CA. A third Patrol Craft Sailors Association (PCSA) member Thomas E. Tragle, Jr., of Hampton, VA was unable to attend.
Five of the 496's crew of five officers and 50 men perished 4 June 1943, in what the Navy variously reported as "underwater explosions" or a single blast. It occurred about 8 miles off the point where the ship was to make a right into the harbor of Bizerte, Tunisia in North Africa.
Both Brown and Barber remember it as a single explosion, probably a mine, although Barber heard years later that it was a torpedo fired by an Italian submarine. He was told that the skipper was courts-martialed for mistaking the PC for a destroyer and wasting a "tin fish."
The 496 was built by the Leatham Smith Shipbuilding Co. of Sturgeon Bay, WI and, after traversing the Mississippi River to New Orleans, was commissioned there in 1942. LT James S. Dowdell, USNR, was the commanding officer, right up to the sinking, which he survived.
After a brief period at the Subchaser Training Center in Miami (most notable, Brown recalls, because "I and another kid were chipping paint on the anchor while we were alongside the pier. We heard a stir, looked up, and there was the Secretary of the Navy coming aboard!"), the 496 was assigned to convoy duties out of Norfolk.
Her first run was to Key West, FL in company with an old "four-piper" destroyer, probably the USS Dupont [DD 152], and a 36-foot civilian cabin cruiser, the Tourmaline [PY 20]. "Submarine attacks were a routine part of the day," recounts Brown, a 496 plank owner and then a coxswain. (The arduous and dangerous duty is well described in by CDR Edward P. Stafford in his book "Subchaser" about SC-692, which often shared assignments with the 496. The book also pays tribute to the 496 for gallantry in their mutual service in the Mediterranean later).
Escorting tankers from Staten Island, NY to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the British frigates picked them up for convoy to Racife, Brazil to take on oil, was yet another task.
But the big push for the little PC-496 came in April 1943, when she helped convoy LCIs from Norfolk across the Atlantic to North Africa.
She first made port at Beni Saf, a little fishing village in Algeria. Successively shifting eastward to Mers-el-Kebir (the port of Oran, where all hands had liberty), she eventually tied up in the torrid harbor of Arzew. An air raid there caused the ship to cast off while the skipper was still ashore. He rejoined between subsequent attacks.
Arzew was most memorable for being the jumping-off place for the PC-496s last voyage. And for the heat.
"It was a great relief to get underway," Barber recalls. "I don't remember any hotter weather during that entire African summer. We ran hoses over the deck plates 24 hours a day. The water didn't really help much. The air when we got to sea was nearly as hot, but at least it was moving."
Arzew also was where Barber, then a Yeoman Second Class, joined the ill-fated ship. That made her crew unusual because, despite temporary duty in the 496s "office," he was essentially a passenger en route to join the PC-545, then patrolling off Libya. After post-Pearl Harbor service on the Western Sea Frontier out of San Francisco, Barber had finally wangled a transfer to the war zone's close-in combat areas. The 545 was an entirely Coast Guard-manned PC, numbering among her crew PCSA members Walter F. Kerrigan, of San Diego, CA and David A. Dickson, of Fort McCoy, FL.
Barber never did catch up with his intended ship.
The sinking of the 496 occurred in the early afternoon. Brown was lookout on the bridge during the lethal blast.
He immediately opened the life jacket storage lockers. Within seconds it was obvious that the ship was mortally stricken, and he cut loose the 10-man raft on the starboard side. "There I was in the water," recalls Brown. Chief Bloodworth and I and others were able to get on the raft. I saw the fire hoses draped over the side, and I guess some used them to slide down, like Reuben Askew, the officers' steward. I remember I remember his saying he couldn't swim."
Barber was off watch and sleeping below when the explosion bounced him out of his rack. He raced up the ladder of the companionway just forward of the thwartships passage between the pilot house and the main superstructure.
"I cut right and literally stepped off the port side of the hull," he remembers. "There was barely a foot of freeboard. That's how fast she was going down."
Indeed, the 496 sank by the stern in less than one-minute.
It seemed like many, many hours in the warn water to the survivors before other escort and patrolling vessels began to pick them up, including two SCs, 638 and 639. In time, all reached the French naval base at La Pecherie, at Lake Bizerte, Tunisia, by then occupied by the U. S. Army elements which had helped chase the remaining Nazi forces off Cape Bon.
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