He Earned It!
This Reticent Cadet is the Real Thing
By Cadet-Midshipman J. D. Miller
Sketch by Cadet-Midshipman John D. Hart
The qualities that make up real American leadership --- humility, self-reliance, thoughtfulness, bravery and initiative --- are contained in Cadet-Midshipman William M. Thomas, one of the few holders of the United States Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal.
When questioned about his experiences at sea, Cadet Thomas went into detail about the torpedoing but failed entirely to mention himself or his heroic deed that earned for him the coveted medal.
"It was nothing at all. I just thought it had to be done and there was nobody else to do it. The poor fellow was trapped down there. Anyone else would have done the same thing under the circumstances."
And that sums up the character of this Cadet, typical of hundreds of others who make up the Cadet Corps.
In relating the story of the submarine attack on his ship, the Edgar Allan Poe (the name now has been released for publication), Cadet Thomas said:
"We took the ship out of Portland, Oregon, and had completed two round trips between Honolulu and the mainland. Then we went on the ill-starred voyage to New Caledonia. On the way over we had no action. Then we started on the return trip. We were only a short time out of Caledonia --- it was on November 8, 1942, at about 1950 --- when the torpedo struck.
"Just one was fired into our ship, which was without escort at the time. The ship began to list and then settled on the sea. Later we discovered that the engine room bulkheads held and that kept the vessel afloat. As it held firm upon the water, the submarine, anxious to discover what was keeping the ship afloat, surfaced.
"Just at that time, the Navy gun crew, standing anxiously by its guns, fired three rounds at the enemy. I guess all were direct hits as we learned later that the sub had been destroyed.
"I was in my bunk at the time of the explosion and I ran to my station for the emergency. We had four lifeboats but only two could be used. Of the others, one was tossed on top of the bridge during the explosion and the other was hurled on No. 4 hatch.
"Both boats got away by the time I returned to deck. Six of us were there so we lowered away a liferaft; one of those small affairs made of balsa wood with net sides and slats. It was pitch dark when we went over. Early the next morning we located an empty liferaft and transferred. Aboard this raft we found a yellow flag, which we ran up on a small mast.
"Soon afterward we saw a red sail in the distance and went toward it. It was the skipper with a large lifeboat. He took all of us aboard and treated the injured oiler. Then we came back toward the Edgar Allan Poe and kept within sighting distance of her.
"A short time later a patrol plane of the United Nations circled the stricken vessel and ordered us to clear away, probably believing a sub was hovering nearby. We sailed in the direction of land and at 1630, or near that time, a destroyer picked us up. I returned from New Caledonia on an Army transport. I guess that's about all."
What Cadet-Midshipman Thomas failed to relate was his own heroism. Even when questioned about it, he admitted the details with considerable reticence.
Here is actually what did happen. After rushing from his bunk after the explosion, Thomas took up his designated station. The engineer and a fireman on watch had been killed when the torpedo struck the engine room. Damage to the ship was severe and a gaping hole was in the side of the vessel.
Thomas, an engine Cadet, began to ponder over the situation below the decks. It did not take him long- only a few seconds. Then, without aid, he began to descend into the badly battered engine room. The explosion had knocked out all lights and every step was a hazard. He made his way into the room and then shouted. A weak voice answered.
"Who are you?" Thomas hollered. "I'm Hutchinson. I've been hurt," came the reply. Thomas knew Hutchinson, a 25-year-old oiler from Portland. He maneuvered his way over the debris, lifted the stricken oiler to his back and then began a laborious climb to the deck.
Thomas' strength, plus his indomitable desire to help the injured man, enabled him to make the ascent. Four other members of the crew were huddled there. Under his guidance they lowered the raft, carried Hutchinson to it, and pulled away. The Portland oiler had a deep head wound and other injuries. He was suffering from loss of blood and the first aid practiced by the Cadet helped considerably.
Thomas came into the Cadet Corps because "he wanted to do something worthwhile" and because "it has a great future." He spent a year at San Francisco Junior College and a year at General Motors Institute. "I wanted to go to sea when I graduated from high school but my folks talked me out of it." His "folks" are Mr. and Mrs. W. Morris Thomas of Alameda, Calif.
Polaris, Cadet Corps Publication, U. S. Merchant Marine Academy, June 1943
Distinguished Service Medal Awarded to Cadets
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