Manchester veteran reunites with his World War II friends

NEIGHBORS

June 28, 2000|By Pat Brodowski | Pat Brodowski,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

FRIENDS YOU CAN'T forget are those with whom you've shared the most exciting times of your life.

Conrad Sigmon of Manchester has four such friends and has a quest to find six others, all of whom served on an 11-man Navy armed guard unit aboard the USS George Westinghouse, a merchant ship that convoyed supplies to troops in Europe during World War II.

"I feel like they're still around and it's just a matter of finding them," Sigmon says of the "gold-star boys," as they were once known.

He enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Bainbridge, in Cecil County, for an immersion course in semaphore. Instruction took place in a bare room with a bare light bulb.

In a few months, Sigmon could read Morse code and was immediately sent into the war.

Felix Price, from a nearby Virginia town, was placed in the same boot camp and assigned as gunner in Sigmon's guard unit aboard the Westinghouse.

They spent three years together.

Since the war's end, they've exchanged occasional letters.

Recently, Sigmon started linking with their other shipmates.

"What gets lost there [in the war] is a part of yourself. You bond with these buddies. It's a bond that lasts a lifetime," Sigmon says.

Sigmon is in touch with the friend everyone called "Tennessee" William Howell of Tennessee and with Thomas Puckett of Mississippi.

A few months ago, he found a mate surprisingly close to home. He had a photo of Herman Twigg taken the day Sigmon caught a fish off their ship's deck near Trinidad. It was a pleasant surprise to discover Twigg living on the Chesapeake Bay in Fishing Creek, Md. Sigmon drove down for a poignant reunion.

"He started to cry, and told me, `I just knew I'd never see anybody from the ship again.' I was real pleased I got to go down to see him," Sigmon said.

Sigmon had spent three years on the Westinghouse, where the crew maintained a 24-hour armed watch aboard the unarmed merchant ship.

The supply ships traveled as a convoy of up to 10 ships from the United States to LeHavre, France, to unload cargo on amphibious vehicles.

When empty, the ship anchored offshore before crossing the English Channel to Southampton, England, where the ships were loaded with rock ballast for the return Atlantic crossing.

The ballast was needed to keep the ships deep in the water to resist stormy waves and wind.

It was between LeHavre and Southampton, running without ballast, that the ship encountered an unforgettable storm.

As a signalman, Sigmon could converse through semaphore with signalmen on other ships.

He was able to piece together events of the storm.

"It was one of the worst storms anyone could remember. We were empty and bobbing like a cork on top of the water, taking 45-degree rolls, which is almost [lying] flat on the water. It destroyed all of our lifeboats. I don't know how many times we almost collided with other ships. We couldn't hardly steer because the ship was out of the water as much as it was in, so the propeller wasn't doing any good. Lights blink on shore only every five minutes. You couldn't tell where you were. Someone told me, but I can't verify this, that we lost seven ships that night. I was on a ship that made it through.

"That was probably the most exciting thing in my life. I've never forgotten it. Thank the Lord I'm still here," Sigmon said.

His saddest experience was accidental death at sea.

"Sometimes they would hold gunnery practice [while crossing the Atlantic]. A shell accidentally fell on an English ship and killed three sailors. We were close enough that we watched as they buried them at sea, for the English ships didn't have refrigeration.

"Things such as this, you think about every once in a while. You know how unfortunate they were and how fortunate you are," Sigmon said.

Sigmon would enjoy news of other crewmen of the armed guard aboard the USS Westinghouse, 410-239-8435.

Blood drive

The American Red Cross is seeking blood donors for the community blood drive Friday at Hampstead Fire Hall, Main Street, Hampstead. The blood drive takes place 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Registration is advised, although walk-ins are welcome.

Information: Red Cross, 800-448-3543.

Pat Brodowski's North neighborhood column appears each Wednesday in the Carroll County edition of The Sun.

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