Henry Wilson Harrison, 85, helped save lives of crew members in World War II

August 27, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Henry Wilson Harrison, who as a merchant marine officer in World War II helped save the lives of 11 of his crewmen after their ship was sunk by a German U-boat, died Friday of Alzheimer's disease at Genesis Heritage Nursing Center in Dundalk. He was 85.

The seamanship and navigation skills he acquired growing up on Tilghman Island helped him sail a 25-foot, sail-powered lifeboat through rough seas for more than 1,000 miles until the survivors were rescued by a fishing vessel off the northwest coast of Africa.

The ordeal began April 11, 1943, when the Liberty ship James W. Denver, sailing in a North Atlantic convoy, was torpedoed by a German submarine. Mr. Harrison, the ship's second officer, managed to take a sextant into the lifeboat he shared with 12 shipmates.

Mr. Harrison knew how to rig a sea anchor to hold the lifeboat in the 35-foot seas that were encountered. He also knew how to "shoot the sun" to locate the boat's position. While the crew worked the red-painted mainsail and jib, he held the tiller and compass.

Aboard were two other Marylanders: Frank Waechter, an officer, and George Green, whose job it was to watch the horizon "for smoke, birds, porpoises, driftwood and anything that moved," according to an account published in The Sun in 1943.

Mr. Harrison gave the crew 2 ounces of water every four hours and extra water if they made good mileage. Their rations consisted of graham crackers, pemmican, a dried meat that was pounded into powder, and malted milk tablets.

Swollen feet, blistered ankles and cold nights on the North Atlantic added to their discomfort in the salt-encrusted boat. A crewman fashioned canvas hats to ward off the sun.

There was no room to lie down all at once, so half of the crew slept while the others sat up.

Through it all, "Harrison sat stolidly with his pilot chart, marking the latitudes and telling the men where they were," The Sun reported.

On the 20th day, second assistant engineer Malcolm Davis died. His body was sewn into a blanket and buried at sea. "Cause of death, exposure, shock and lack of appetite. Body committed to the deep at 7 a.m.," read a log entry from "The Log of Lifeboat No. 3" that Mr. Harrison kept.

On May 4, or 23 days after the ordeal began, smoke was sighted on the horizon. It came from the Portuguese steam trawler Albufeira, which picked up the survivors at 10 p.m.

Each survivor had lost 20 to 25 pounds but otherwise they were in good physical condition.

"All hands wobbly but happy," wrotes Mr. Harrison in his log. "Had a big banquet of cheese, fish, bread, brandy and coffee and did that coffee taste good. These men sure are treating us good. Bound for Lisbon."

Survivors praised Mr. Harrison. "He brought us through, almost by himself," one said.

"Sailed, rowed and drifted 1035 miles in 23 days," concluded Mr. Harrison's log.

Later, Mr. Harrison returned to convoy duty and saw the end of the war aboard a Liberty ship in the South China Sea.

His son, John Harrison of St. Michaels, said his father's calmness and optimism helped the crew members to survive.

"He's always been confident and an optimist and always cool in a crisis," said the son. "He also had a tremendous appreciation for the power of the sea."

Mr. Harrison was a 1927 graduate of Tilghman High School and attended Baltimore Business College before going to work for Bethlehem Steel Corp. as a cargo surveyor, overseeing the loading of ships, in the early 1930s.

He retired in 1972 and moved from Dundalk back to Tilghman Island, where he sailed, fished and crabbed.

"He went on with his life and seldom spoke of what happened during the war years," John Harrison said. "Some people would have an experience like that and never go near a boat again, but not him."

Mr. Harrison said his father, remembering how precious water was to the survivors, couldn't stand to see anyone waste water and never allowed his car to be washed or the lawn to be watered.

Services were held yesterday.

Other survivors include his wife of 58 years, the former Edith K. Lipscomb; two daughters, Leona Kimmel of Randallstown and Judith Dudek of Dundalk; and three grandchildren.

Pub Date: 8/27/96

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