Letter from John H Newland

Hello, Ray Mullaney:

Your letter was received here two days ago.  My message to "Airforce" magazine was very slightly misquoted in what was sent to you.  It should have read "The Amerika...carried as passengers 53 RCAF aircrew officers of whom 16 (including me) survived..."  Your "Notes" quoted the RN, I'm sure, which said "Amerika was sunk in the early hours of the 22 April 1943."  But that was the RN way of recording happenings - always on Greenwich Mean Time.  On local time I'm pretty sure it was about 2030 hours, 21 April 1943.

You have no doubt heard that the flower class corvettes tended to roll in moderate to heavy seas.  The saying was that "corvettes would roll on wet grass."  I was walking the deck just before the sinking of the Amerika, as I usually did in the evening, and the Asphodel was rolling practically to beams end, as she had been rolling since the weather turned bad.  It was something to see.  Back and forth, sometimes completely visible from our ship, sometimes out of sight in high seas with only the mast heads visible, and sometimes not even that.  Asphodel was always behind the Amerika, which was the last ship in the longest column.

When the Amerika was torpedoed, Asphodel took immediate action, sailing straight through the convoy between the columns and across the front of it, then returning to pick us up.

I was one of two survivors of the last boat to leave the ship, which sank out from under the boat which was on chocks, not on davits.  The lifeboat rolled over.  I came up some distance from the overturned boat, which had a few survivors on it, and swam to the lifeboat that had been on the windward side of the ship and had also been on chocks.  It was awash, so it was a case of getting out of the water and into the water.  Eight RCAF aircrew officers were in the fore end of the boat and about the same number of ship's crew were in the other end.  One teen-age seamen was in the bow of the boat.  The third mate (or was it the bos'n?) was in the boat, but he jumped out and swam to a life raft and survived.  The young sailor in our end of the was struck  in the head by a floating timber and killed.  Two of the RCAF aircrew officers aboard died, one of exposure, the other by a six-by-six timber which came over the boat on a wave, hit him and carried him far beyond where we could reach him.  By that time none of us were able to handle anything that could have helped him since we were stiff with cold, to the point where we were imagining we would probably have to have our hands and feet amputated if we were rescued.  The ship's crewmen in the other end of the boat were carried away by the seas that swept over the boat.

I lay down on one of the boat's seat with my head on the gunwale to rest, only to be awakened by waves coming over me.  The last time I was awakened I saw Asphodel.  The man next to me woke up when I shouted "corvette!" and we both waved our survivor lights and shouted.  The RCAF types in the bow didn't believe it until they smelled the smoke from the corvette.  Then they joined the chorus.

The Asphodel came to the boat.  I remember we complimented whoever was handling the corvette when she arrived at the lifeboat.  I believe it was Lieutenant Carse on the bridge and a veteran seaman at the wheel.  Not a bump! We couldn't grab a rope.  All we could do was hold up our arms for help, and they pulled us aboard.  I was grabbed by a sailor and came close to pulling him overboard because he was a little guy.  But one of the other RN men grabbed him, and here I am.

Norm Loudoun and I were loaned bunks in the Asphodel's forepeak, and we got a drink of rum to help us warm up.  I understand that's not the way to go.  Rum can be harmful in such a situation, I'm told, but it didn't hurt us.  Only the steel of the ship's bow was between us and the ocean, and when the Asphodel crashed into a sea, it sounded like a torpedo hitting us.  But we slept, and in the morning we were ready to get up and move in with the crowd of survivors in the officers'mess.  The seamen who loaned me his bunk asked if he could have my unused survival suit, and I was glad I had something to repay him for his generosity.

We had the freedom of the corvette, practically.  I remember visiting with the officers on the bridge, one of them an Australian or New Zealander who went on leave when we landed at the port near Glasgow.  From there we RCAF types went on to an RAF base for grub and showers and haircuts, then on south to Bournemouth.  And Asphodel went to Londonderry for re-fitting.

I was in touch with Lieutenant Carse only once after that.  I sent a few pounds as an expression of gratitude to the Asphodel for saving my neck, and got a thank-you letter from him.  I didn't hear about the loss of the corvette for some months after it happened.  In talking with Asphodel crewmen I had been told that in case of the enemy hitting the corvette, the action was not to get hold of the nearest piece of lumber to save oneself (there was very little lumber on the corvette anyway), but to grab a piece of steel because you were sure enough going to go down.

Of course I'll always remember the K - 56 Asphodel as a brave Royal Naval vessel and the heroes who saved my life.

John H Newland