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Groton Merchant Mariner Hopes to See Sailor Buddy in Pacific

By Barnard L. Colby (From "New London Day" September 1, 1942)

There were four of them -- Dick, Roddy, Bill and Curly.

They all lived in Groton. They went to school together, chummed around together. They were the gang. They called themselves the Screwball Four.

Then came Pearl Harbor. Bill is building submarines. Roddy is fighting with the navy. Dick and Curly are ducking bombs and dodging mines and watching for topedoes with the merchant marines.

A reunion of the Screwball Four is in progress. Because of the distances separating the four, the reunion of necessity has to be undertaken by stages.

The two merchant mariners -- Richard Baker and Sewall T. Butler -- are home at the moment. And this gave them an opportunity to chew the breeze with the sub builder -- Bill Whipple, who is working at the Electric Boat Company.

A Rendezvous with Roddy

Now they are headed west to keep a rendezvous with Roddy (Roderick Huggan) son of Mr. & Mrs. Xxx Huggan.

Readers of "The Day" met Dick Baker in a feature story in last Saturday's issue. Now they can meet the other mariner -- Sewall (Curly) Butler, 22 year old son of Groton School Supterintendant And Mrs. S. B. Butler of Old Mystic.

Curly came home for a few days rest and bumped into Baker, who was also taking it easy between ships. Learning that Baker was planning to go to the west coast and book aboard some ship which would take him into the Pacific theatre of war, Butler decided to go with him.

Butler graduated from Fitch High School in 1939 and attended the University of New Mexico for two years. He was working at Electric Boat when he joined the merchant marines in February of this year. He served first as a wiper and general handyman in the engine room of a tanker which brought oil northward along the eastern coast to New York. Then he shipped aboard another tanker which took him from New York to New Orleans to Puerto Rico and Santa Domingo.

Lost 14 pounds; Gained 16

"Nothing happened," says Curly, "nothing at all."

And yet nothing is often worse than a lot of something. Other ships plying these routes had gone down before the onslaught of Nazi torpedoes, and Curly knew that at any minute a torpedo might crash into his ship. Curly found it was bad on the nerves. During these first two voyages he lost 14 pounds. But now he's used to it. Since then he's gained 16 pounds.

"You get to be a fatalist," he explains. "We all feel that way. If it's got your number on it, that's all there is to it. If it hasn't, why worry? It's a great life, even in wartime, and if I have my way I'll stay in it after the war."

The case of the Ubiquitous Cat

The only incident during his voyages on the tankers on this side of the ocean which Curly thought worthy of mention was the case of the ubiquitous cat.

When the ship left Puerto Rico, the crew left it's mascot cat behind. It was a disagreeable creature and the crew had been awaiting a chance to drop her off. Halfway to Santo Domingo, engine trouble developed and the ship drifted at the mercy of submarines. A Santo Domingo coast guard boat appeared to stand by while repairs were made. When the tanker finally reached Santo Domingo, the first sight to greet their eyes was the ship's cat, held aloft by a grinning coast guardsman, who thought he was doing the crew a big favor.

Three Ships in Convoy Sunk.

Curly's third voyage was by freighter from New York to England. The ship stood by for a week waiting for a convoy to form. Finally the freighters, escorted by warships, started off. Three of the ships were sunk on the way over. Butler had the 4 to 8 a.m. watch (four hours on and eight hours off) and all three met their fate during this time.

"Working in the engine room, I naturally couldn't see anything," he relates. "We were in the middle of the convoy and the subs picked off the stragglers. Fellows on the other ships told me that all they saw was a sheet of flames and smoke. No warning that a ship was in the neighborhood."

When a ship was hit a convoy rescue ship raced down upon it to pick up survivors and stand by while the convoy churned steadily on, leaving the stricken ship.

Ship Gets Big Reception

It was foggy all the way across and as far as Curly knows, no subs were sighted, although reports that packs of subs were in the vicinity were received continually. The ship docked at an undisclosed English Port.

"It's beautiful country there, " says Butler. "Reminded me of New England. We got a big reception at the English city. People standing out on the banks cheering us, and girls waving to us. Some of the girls wrote their names and addresses and descriptions of themselves on slips of paper, wrapped them around stones, and threw them aboard our ship.

"We learned that our big reception was prompted by the fact that ours was the first ship flying the American flag to be seen in that town for months.

14 Air Raids in the City

"Conditions in that city had improved since the United States had entered the war, we were told; the city hadn't had a bombing for six months. But the very day after our ship arrived, the Jerries came over and pasted the place. We had two air raids a day during the seven days we were there. They didn't bother me much. I slept through all but one.

"The blackouts there are really black. It's weird, depressing business. But the morale of the people was high. Everyone was nice to us.

"Just as our ship was leaving the port, the sirens started screeching warning of a raid, and soon we could hear the anti-aircraft, and the planes, and then the bombs landing. Although some sections of the city had been hard hit, we didn't see any vital spots that had been affected."

Storm Separates Ships

"On the way back the convoy was struck by a severe storm. We were light, without ballast, and the wind and the waves tossed us around like a chip. Knocked us out of our bunks. Had to eat standing up. The ships immediately scattered so they wouldn't crash into each other. The storm lasted for 12 hours and during the worst of it we thought we heard one of the ships near us sound the distress signal. We lost sight of her soon afterwards.

"Every captain knows the position in which the convoy is scheduled to be two days hence, so after the ocean subsided, we set a course for this point and there we met the other ships. The ship which we thought had sounded the distress signal wasn't there, and we all headed towards New York without her, When we arrived in New York there was the "distressed" ship waiting for us. She had beaten us in by three days. What the "distress" signal was we never learned.

"As we came in by Block Island we sighted a submarine and our gun crew got ready to blast it but the sub dived. Later we learned it was a sub from the Electric Boat Co. out on trials. Lucky thing we didn't blast it. Because one of my best friends -- Howard M. Smith Jr., of Groton -- is on the trial crew."

Butler and his friend, Dick Baker, will leave soon by train for San Francisco, there to seek a berth on a merchant ship bound for Australia or some other place where they can find action.

"I've had enough of the Atlantic," says Butler. "Nothing ever happens."

[a list of the rest of his ships]