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At 0047, 2 May 1942, the patrol yacht USS Cythera (PY-26), broken into two sections during a torpedo attack, slid beneath the waters of the cold North Atlantic. She had been at sea just 21 hours 45 minutes, bound from Norfolk, Virginia, to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was initially assumed by the US Navy that all 71 crew members had been lost and their families were notified on 2 June 1942 of their "missing status". However, for two crewmen this was not the case.
Our story begins on 20 September 1906, in Leith, Scotland, when Ramage and Ferguson LTD. launched the yacht Agawa. She was sponsored by Mrs. C. W. Harkness. Articles at the time describe her cabins as "elegant" and her hull lines "graceful".
Mr. William L. Harkness, New York City, a renowned "oil baron "with heavy investments in Standard Oil, also owned a second yacht---the Gunilda. She too had been built at Ramage and Ferguson LTD. During a fishing trip on 31 August 1911, the Gunilda sunk in Schreiber Channel off of Lake Superior. The Harkness family was safely transferred to a nearby tugboat. According to reports at the time , Mr. Harkness refused to pay for a local guide to assist the craft through the channel and let the task fall upon his crew - -- a very costly mistake.
Shortly after the United States entered World War I on 6 April 1917, the Cythera [ex-Agawa] was leased by the family to the US Navy. Her gleaming white hull soon gave way to a painted black/white camouflage pattern. After refit, she was placed in commission on 20 October 1917. Her first commanding officer was Lt.Cdr.Walter G. Roper, a Georgia native, who would later be awarded the Navy Cross for his wartime service. Her second CO, a Captain Raymond Jack, USCG, would also receive the same award.
On 1 November, the USS Cythera (SP 575) departed Newport, Rhode Island, for Gibraltar --------arriving safely on 29 December 1917. En route, she towed the yacht USS Margaret. Based at Gibraltar, the Cythera was assigned to escort and patrol duty in the Mediterranean Sea. The DANFS (Dictionary of American Naval fighting Ships) credits her with two rescue operations: 27 May 1918 -rescued 35 survivors from the torpedoed SS Ariel, 3 October 1918----rescued the crew of the torpedoed SS Uganda. After the Armistice, the USS Cythera returned to New York City on 5 February 1919 and was decommissioned. The following month, on 19 March 1919, she was returned to her owners.
Three weeks after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, 31 December 1941, the US Navy purchased the Cythera from the Harkness family. The vessel was delivered to the Philadelphia Navy Yard where she again underwent a refitting for naval service. Three 3"/50 gun mounts were installed plus two stern dept charge racks. Upon completion of the refit, the Cythera was placed in service on 3 March 1942 as a patrol yacht ----designation PY-26. Her specifications were : tonnage 1,000 , length 215' , beam 27'6" , draft 12' , speed 12 knots, and complement 71.
Lt.Cdr. Thomas Wright Rudderow, age 56, was assigned as commanding officer. He had served aboard the transport USS De Kalb during the First World War and afterwards remained active in the reserves. When recalled to active duty in January 1942, he was the superintendent/commanding officer of the Pennsylvania Nautical School ship Seneca. Joining him aboard the Cythera were Lt. Casper L. Zacharias, USNR, Ensign Robert Earl Brister, USNR, Ensign William Logan Bunker, Jr., USNR, and Ensign Stratton Christensen, USNR.
New recruits, sprinkled with some "old hands", were assigned to the various departments. A substantial number of men were from the greater New York area. A typical sailor was Sea2/c Edwin J. Klenk, age 21, from Audubon, N.J. His father was the president of the Audubon Heating Company. Young Klenk had been a well known lifeguard at the Ocean City beach and in the past had won competition medals for lifesaving skills.
Finally, the USS Cythera received orders assigning her to the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. At 0300 hrs. 1 May 1942, she departed Norfolk, Virginia, and set course for the Panama Canal.
Two weeks prior, the patrol yacht USS Beryl (PY-23) had departed for the Pacific----passed through the Panama Canal on 26 April-----underwent repair work at San Diego----and safely arrived at Pearl Harbor on 29 June 1942. She would spend the rest of the war at Pearl and Midway Island ----not returning to the West Coast until November 1945.
The USS Cythera would not be as fortunate.
On the evening of 1 May 1942, the U-402, commanded by Baron Siegfried von Forstner, was cruising on the surface some 100 miles off Cape Fear, North Carolina. She was on her third war patrol----with negative contacts ----and was shortly due to leave station for St. Nazaire, France. The bridge look-out around mid-night spotted a small warship zigzazzing on a southerly course. Forstner performed an "end around run" on the spotted craft, submerged, and proceeded to launch a torpedo attack. Two torpedoes shortly struck the USS Cythera splitting her in half. As she sunk, the dept charges on her stern exploded causing casualties. The U-402 shortly surfaced and rescued two survivors, Sea2/c James Monroe Brown and PHM1/c Charles Harold Carter. They were taken aboard the U-boat for the return trip.
Regarding their care, Capt. John Waters, Jr., USCG, Ret., in his book BLOODY WINTER quotes portions of a letter from Forstner to his wife. The Kapitanleutnant related "We should really have kept them locked up and all that , but a U-boat is not spacious as you know and they were nice chaps and friendly ---and they joined us in our meals , and we brought them home in our own way , and nobody the worst for it. At our arrival , they were met by an escort and taken away in the usual manner thought fit for prisoners of war, much to the consternation of my crew, whom they had invited to come and see them back home in the States after the war."
Sea2/c James M. Brown later provided a written statement about the sinking (dated 4 July 1945). In his words:
"On 1 May 1942, at 0300, the Cythera departed from Norfolk, Virginia. According to the scuttlebutt, we were proceeding to Hawaii to take up duty there.
At approximately 0045, 2 May 1942, the Cythera was struck by a torpedo. Just previous to that time I was standing watch as a trainer on the forward gun mount. I was looking out to starboard and saw two flashes of white on the water. The full moon was off the port quarter at that time. It was a very clear night and the sea was calm. As soon as I saw the flashes, I gave the warnings to the man on the telephone just aft of the gun mount. Immediately after giving the warning, I saw a torpedo wake passing under the bow. I then saw another wake directly approaching the ship. A couple of seconds late the ship was struck about amidships and there was a terrific explosion. I was thrown in the air and landed on my knees on the gun mount. I couldn't see the stern but in my opinion the ship broke in two immediately, just aft of the bridge.
The forward part of the ship started to sink and heel over to port. The gun was useless and I found it impossible to get to the point of damage. I heard a sound which I took to be machine gun fire, and crowded behind the solid railing [about 21/2 feet high] on the deck. At this time I saw the legs of two men going over the side near me. Very shortly thereafter, I heard two muffled explosions. I then went over the side myself. As soon as I broke water, two large waves swept over me.
After the waves passed, I looked around and saw the last part of the ship, the bow-sprit, sink from sight. A minute or so later I saw Carter, PHM1/c, USN, sitting in a life raft about fifty feet away from me. I shouted to him and when he answered, I started to swim towards him and on the way picked up a life ring which was floating in the water. When I reached the raft, Carter was sitting on part of a hatch cover he had laid across the raft. With Carter's aid, I climbed partially into the raft and then we looked around in the water to see if we could see any other survivors. We could see none, and only a very small amount of debris. After a couple of minutes, we heard the submarine surface. We saw it slowly circle around toward us. We attempted to hide in the water but the moon gave away our position and the submarine closed and picked us up. While on the conning tower, Carter and I again looked around for other survivors before we were taken below. The German submarine personnel later told us that they had seen no other survivors or bodies.
We were put ashore at St. Nazaire, France, on or about 21 May 1942."
Ten days after the USS Cythera went down, another warship was sunk off the coast of North Carolina. The HMS Bedfordshire, a British AS trawler, was torpedoed 12 May 1942 by the U-558 (Gunther Krech) with a loss of all hands. She had been based at Morehead City, N.C. Four bodies were later recovered from the sea.
The lack of communication with Cythera and her failure to appear in the Canal Zone forced the Navy to announce the ship lost "due to suspected enemy action." Accordingly, on 2 June 1942, a notice was sent to family members advising that their husbands/sons had been placed in a "missing status." It was policy to hold personnel in this status for one year before declaring them dead.
However, a few weeks later an article appeared in the German newspaper DEUTSCHE ZEITUNG IN DEN NIEDERLAND announcing that two American sailors "Charles and James" had been brought back from Atlantic coastal waters. It was noted that their ship had been a "Coast Guard cruiser formerly luxury yacht owned by Mister Harkness."
The two POW's were shortly writing to their families back in the States, Sea2/c Brown to his parents Mr. & Mrs. J.M. Brown, New York City, and PHM1/c Carter to his wife Willie Irma Carter, Corsicana, Texas. These families soon learned that there were no other survivors from the sinking. Within a short time, families of the other "missing" crew members were contacting the Brown's and Mrs. Carter to obtain information about their loved ones. Not knowing what to say to them, they contacted the Navy Department for guidance. After review, the Chief of Naval Personnel, on 23 January 1943, sent a second letter to the families acknowledging that two enlisted men from the USS Cythera were being held "as prisoners of war at Marlagmilag, Nord, Germany." It noted that no other prisoners were reported from the patrol vessel and "as time passes, the hope of your son being found necessarily becomes more remote." The letter concluded by stating that the crew would be "carried as missing for a period of one year."
In May 1945, the two survivors were released and returned to the United States.
Baron von Forster retained command of the U-402 for the rest of her career. He was awarded the Knights Cross on 9 February 1943 and subsequently promoted to Korvettenkapitan. The U-402 had participated in the wolf pack attack on Convoy SC-118 in February 1943. In that attack, she sunk the American tanker R. E. Hopkins and the transport Henry R. Mallory. On 13 October 1943, the U-402 went to a watery grave north of the Azores after being struck by a MK. 24 homing torpedo dropped by Lt.Cdr. Howard M. Avery, squadron commander VC-9, USS Card (CVE-11). There were no survivors.
Two months after V-J Day, the Navy lost a second patrol yacht, the USS Southern Seas (PY-32). A former Army transport, she was acquired by the Navy and commissioned on 23 December 1942. The USS Southern Seas served as a quarter's ship at Auckland, Noumea, Tarawa, Kwajalein, Saipan, Guam, and later Okinawa. On 9 October 1945, she sunk with a loss of 13 men when Typhoon Louise struck Buckner Bay, Okinawa. The Southern Seas was awarded one battle star for World War
In keeping with the US Navy tradition of retaining the names of lost warships, the yacht Abril, purchased on 14 July 1942, was commissioned as the USS Cythera (PY-31) on 26 October 1942. She spent her war career at New London, Connecticut, conducting training exercises with submarines. She was transferred to the Maritime Commission on 6 November 1946.
Further, the Navy named two destroyer escorts after officers lost on the USS Cythera. They were the USS Brister (DE-327) launched on 24 August 1943 and sponsored by Mrs. Blanch Brister (the mother of Ensign Robert Brister, USNR), USS Rudderow (DE-224) launched on 14 October 1943 and sponsored by Mrs. Thomas W. Rudderow (wife of Lt. Cdr. Rudderow). The USS Rudderow was the class leader of 22 destroyer escorts whose armament was upgraded to 5"/38 cal. dual -purpose guns.
Destroyer Escorts in Action. Carrollton, Texas: Squadron/Signal Publication, 1997.
Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Vols. 1-6, Naval History Division, Navy Department, Washington.
Waters, Capt. John M. Bloody Winter. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press [Bluejacket Books], 1994
Navy Casualty Case Files, USS Cythera Box 20, National Archives at College Park, College Park. MD.
www.harry-tate.org.uk - Harry Tate's Navy/Stoker Sam Nott remembers the HMS Bedfordshire
"Convoy SC-118: Worst Convoy Battle of WW II" by Robert Waters, in Sea Classics, June 2003.
"The Armed Yachts of World War II" by Robert P. Sables, in Sea Classics, December 2000.
"The Coastal Patrol Yachts of World War II" by Robert P. Sables, in Sea Classics, July 2001.
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