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80 Years Ago: The Amazing Wartime Survival Tale of Connecticut’s Roger Fuller

By Philip R. Devlin
(August 4, 2023) — Dr. Roger H. Fuller joined the U.S. Navy after war was declared in December 1941. Dr. Fuller had recently moved to Simsbury from Windsor Locks (my hometown) before the Pearl Harbor attack. Commissioned as a lieutenant, he became ship’s doctor on the USS Plymouth (PG-57), and the story of his heroism and survival is nothing short of amazing.
The Plymouth (above) was a convoy escort ship – a patrol gunboat (PG) – that cruised the East Coast, protecting the supply convoys so vital to the war effort. Its usual run was between New York City and Key West, Florida. Eighty years ago this month, on the evening of August 5, 1943, just after 9:30 p.m., the Plymouth picked up evidence of a nearby German U-boat on its sonar. While the Plymouth was maneuvering to drop depth charges on the U-boat, the German submarine fired a torpedo, which struck the 264-foot Plymouth abaft of the bridge.
The incident occurred about 90 miles off the coast of North Carolina, almost directly in line with Kitty Hawk – famous for the Wright brothers’ first manned aerial flight. This area was commonly known as “Torpedo Alley,” as German U-boats hunted down Allied convoys there, sinking more than 300 ships–a vastly under-publicized reality of World War II.


Lt. Fuller was below deck when the explosion occurred. According to his younger brother, my Uncle Erwin Fuller, Roger told him that he had rehearsed a plan if his boat had ever gotten torpedoed. He donned his life vest and ran up to the deck of the ship. He immediately jumped overboard and urged others to do so. One sailor from Iowa did not know how to swim, so Roger Fuller, an expert swimmer, gave him his own life vest. Undoubtedly, Roger’s quick response saved his life, as the Plymouth, staggered by the explosion, sank in less than two minutes!

In spite of his escape from the ship, significant danger remained. He was ninety miles from land; it was dark; the sea was very rough; other ships in the convoy presented a danger, and there were sharks everywhere. Fortunately, the Coast Guard cutter Calypso was only 8,000 yards away. Piloted by the very skilled Lt. Woodward B. Rich, the Calypso rushed toward the Plymouth. What happened next borders on the miraculous and is described well in the following excerpt from a Coast Guard press release about the incident:

“Storm, shipwreck, fire, sharks, and fog were the elements pieced together in an East Coast port today by the crew of the Coast Guard cutter Calypso, in an amazing tale of rescue in the North Atlantic…Lt. Rich ordered flank speed into the smashing waves. Forward gun crews clung desperately to their stations as cascades of green water poured over the bow and flooded the decks…Lt. Rich was faced with the desperate possibility of having to drop depth charges among shipwrecked American sailors in the event of a sudden submarine attack.

“’I don’t know if I could have done it,’ he said later. ‘It was one of the most terrible decisions an officer can be forced to face’…The cutter slowed…as she approached the survivors, rapidly being scattered by high winds and struggling to keep afloat in the enveloping oil.”

As the Calypso threaded among them in a daring feat of seamanship, men were hauled over the ship’s rail by hand…Some had lifejackets, including a non-swimming sailor from Iowa to whom Roger had given his lifejacket; others none. Some were barely clothed; others, naked. In seas littered with debris, only good seamanship spared the men from being crushed.

Another problem soon became apparent to those on the Calypso: the strong wind was scattering the survivors too fast for the Calypso to gather them by herself. Ensign William T. Gray of Philadelphia requested permission to launch the ship’s lifeboat to pick up sailors, who were quickly being scattered downwind. Also volunteering for this hazardous job were Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Herman H. Kramm, Seaman 1st Class Stanley Korowicki, Seaman 2nd Class John A. Barrett, and Soundman 2nd Class Charles J. McGrath.

Meanwhile, lookouts on the Calypso spotted shark fins approaching the survivors. Lt. C.E. McDowell of Salisbury, Maryland, and Ensign G.P. Jacobson of South Dakota manned 30-caliber machine guns to protect the survivors from sharks. Then, a fire of unknown origin broke out in the aft section of the Calypso. Firemen rushed forward and put it out. The ordeal, however, was far from over, as the following excerpt from the Coast Guard press release reveals:

“The doctor of the shipwrecked Plymouth [Roger Fuller] was now brought aboard and joined with Edward Yancavage, Pharmacist’s Mate 1st Class of the Calypso in caring for the dozens of severely burned, shocked, and water-logged survivors. Out of over 60 survivors brought aboard, only three died.

“Later in the afternoon, patrol planes reported that all survivors in the water had been picked up and none had been seen to drown…The seas continued to mount during the night as the Calypso fought her way to the nearest port. None of the survivors could be left on deck…The violent movements of the ship had disabled the gyro-compass, and the ship was now forced to navigate under this additional handicap.”

As the wind subsided inshore, she ran into heavy fog banks. With a safe port just through the fog, Lt. Rich now faced the danger of proceeding through minefields under the most trying of conditions. Under reduced speed, the cutter picked her way through and landed her survivors on the dock where ambulances were waiting to rush them to hospitals.

The safe port through the fog happened to be Norfolk, Virginia, and it was there that Lt. Roger Fuller and 79 other shipmates found relief. Overall, 75 members of the Plymouth’s crew perished in the attack by U-566 and its crew of 36 commanded by Kapitanleutnant Hans Hornkohl. According to Roger’s youngest daughter, Ruth Hiett, of Corrales, New Mexico, her dad’s experience aboard the Plymouth made him a powerful advocate for teaching Navy recruits how to swim.

Kapitanleutnant Hans Hornkohl’s U-566 came under American air attack within two days after the sinking of the Plymouth. His gunners shot down both American planes. However, on October 24, 1943, off the coast of Spain, U-566 came under aerial attack again. It was damaged beyond repair and scuttled by the crew. All 36 members of the U-566 crew escaped into lifeboats. A Spanish trawler picked them up. Eventually, they all made it back to Germany by rail to continue in the war.

Interestingly, after 28 years in the Navy, retired Captain Roger H. Fuller met Hans Hornkohl at a military reunion in 1970, where they shook hands and made their peace. As for the Calypso, it eventually was sold to the Circle Line boat touring company in New York City, where it carried more than a million passengers on tours around Manhattan Island for many decades until it was retired on November 2, 2008. Fundraising efforts to preserve the Calypso failed to meet their goal, and she was scrapped.

In Greek mythology, Calypso, daughter of Atlas, is a sea nymph. She delayed Odysseus in his journey home to Ithaca for seven years, but provided him with a safe harbor during that time. When Zeus sent Hermes to tell Calypso to send Odysseus on his way, she once again helped him with materials and information for the safe journey home, though it broke her heart. Like her mythological namesake, the Coast Guard cutter Calypso undertook a near miraculous recovery and provided a “safe harbor” for the eighty survivors of the USS Plymouth, including Lt. Roger H. Fuller of Connecticut—one of six Fuller siblings to serve in the war.
Photos: Roger Fuller from Devlin Family Album                                                              USS Plymouth from U.S. Navy (public domain)

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