2 Wayne Countians perished on ships during World War II

2 Wayne Countians perished on ships during World War II

The USS Pollux, above, which James Hixson served on. The Wooster native was lost when the ship ran aground in an incident during WWII.


Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series in May on Wayne County soldiers who lost their lives in World War II. The names of the men are from the Wayne County War Memorial in Wooster Cemetery.

James H. Hixson grew up on a farm in Wooster Township, just southwest of Wooster. He attended Wooster schools, a member of the Wooster High Class of 1935. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, he felt compelled to join the fight and enlisted in the United States Navy on Dec. 29, 1941. After a rapid fire training period, he was assigned to AKS-2, a supply ship named USS Pollux.

The USS Pollux was launched Dec. 16, 1939, and commissioned May 6, 1941. She was 460 feet long, 63 feet wide and weighed 7,500 tons, empty. When her holds were full, she could weigh out at twice that.

On Feb. 15, 1942, Pollux departed Casco Bay, Maine, loaded with aircraft engines, bombs and radio equipment, among other items. She was escorted on this voyage by two destroyers. One, the USS Wilkes, like the Pollux, had been a commissioned Navy ship less than a year. The other, USS Truxtun, had been a commissioned Navy ship for 20 years. The small convoy’s destination was Argentia, Newfoundland, the site of a U.S. Naval base and air station.

On Feb. 17 the convoy encountered a powerful winter storm. Ice was fouling the deck and equipment of all three ships. Visibility dropped to near zero. The presence of German U-boats in the North Atlantic required strict radio silence, making cooperative navigation extremely difficult.

Wilkes, unlike the other two ships, was equipped with an early version of radar, so it wasn’t cruising completely blind. It could see where the other ships were, as well as rudimentary land formations. But the icing seriously impaired these capabilities.

Suddenly, Wilkes saw on radar contacts that looked like land formations. Despite the combined experience of three leadership crews and perhaps because of the lack of experience of many on all three ships, they all ran aground in the early hours of Feb. 18, 1942, on the Burin Peninsula of Newfoundland.

The south side of the Burin Peninsula is characterized with narrow beaches and extremely high rocky cliff faces, meaning outside help was difficult to acquire, so all three ships were on their own at the outset of this event.

Wilkes’ captain was able to transfer enough weight to the stern to raise the bow and free the ship. Truxtun and Pollux were not so fortunate.

Truxtun and Pollux were irreversibly lodged on the rocks of Burin Peninsula. The oversized waves, driven by the winter storm, began to break the two ships apart. Desperate measures were made to save the lives of the sailors on both ships. Finally, one sailor from the Pollux was able to make it to shore. He scaled the sheer rocky cliff and summoned help from a local mining company. Over the next few hours, the local Newfoundlanders saved who they could save and recovered the fallen from the frigid waters on those northern beaches. In all Truxtun lost 110, and Pollux lost 93.

Unfortunately, James Henry Hixson was part of the latter group. Besides the War Memorial, he is memorialized and interred at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Wooster.

Robert Leo Eckstein was a 1938 Wooster High School graduate. He was the son of Jacob and Maude Eckstein. Jacob was vice president of Kemrow Company in Wooster. Robert married Roberta Graber in 1941, and they lived on North Grant Street.

In March 1942 Robert Eckstein joined the U.S. Navy, training as a motor machinist’s mate. He was assigned to the destroyer escort USS Frederick C. Davis, DE136. The Davis was a new ship, commissioned in July 1943. The rest of 1943 and 1944, Davis participated in many escort assignments and the Allied landing at Anzio.

In April 1945 the Davis and her crew were on patrol, roughly halfway between Newfoundland and the Azores, searching for snorkel-equipped German U-Boats. The snorkel allowed U-Boats to remain submerged while operating with their diesel engine. Davis and U-Boat U-546 spotted each other almost simultaneously. Both turned to engage each other. The U-Boat launched a torpedo. The torpedo was special. Known as a “Gnat” by Allied navies, it was an acoustically guided weapon that could steer itself.

The Gnat found its target and exploded with great force. The Davis began to sink and soon split in two. The crew had to abandon ship so rapidly they had no time to set battle-ready depth charges to “safe.” As the Davis sank, her own depth charges were detonating, sending deadly concussion waves through the water. Some who would have otherwise survived likely perished as a result.

The USS Frederick C. Davis was the last U.S. Navy warship sunk in the Atlantic during World War II. U-546 was lost to U.S. Navy depth charges later that day. Thirty-two additional German U-Boats would perish before war’s end.

Eckstein did not survive the event, and his remains were never recovered. In addition to the Wayne County War Memorial, he has cenotaphs at his parents’ gravesite in Wooster Cemetery and the East Coast Memorial at Battery Park in New York City.

Looking Back is a feature on area history from local historian Mike Franks, who was raised in Apple Creek and has lived in Wooster most of his life. He can be emailed at bh_looking_back@aol.com.

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