The keel for the SS Robert E. Peary was laid down in Richmond, California at the number 2 shipyard on November 8 th 1942 at 12:01 a.m. and 4 days, 15 hours and 29 minutes later, on November 12 th she was launched. The US Registry listed her on November 14 th 1942 as 7,176 tons and her armament as 1 4”/50 and 5 20mm with a complement of 17 US Naval Armed Guard and 43 Merchant Seamen. She was owned by the War Shipping Administration, operated by Weyhaeuser Steam Ship Company and sailed under the United States flag.
On November 22 nd 1942 at 02:55 the Peary went to war as she sailed singly from San Francisco to Noumea, New Caledonia with a cargo of food and war equipment. She made no contact with the enemy cruising at slightly better than 12 knots on a zigzag course, arriving at 09:15 (ships time) on 14 th December 1942. On 21 st December Ensign Clinton S Noel reported the 4”/50cal tested to find the electric switchbox was improperly installed, which caused the gun to fire prematurely, so the box was moved so that the gun could be fired electronically.
After unloading the cargo, bulk nitrate was loaded and she sailed to Espiritus Santo, Guadalcanal and on to Suva. They sailed to Antofagasto and Iquique, Chile, on to Balboa, Canal Zone to Cristobal and to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. From there to Savannah, Georgia via Key West, Florida, arriving April 3 rd 1943. Additional armament, winter clothing and personnel were added. Armed Guard personnel now were 29 including an officer. Armament was now 1 3”/50cal forward, 1 4”/50cal aft and 8 20mm placed as recommended, plus smoke float racks and smoke chutes. She ailed to New York where they took on a cargo for Great Britain. Ensign Noel was replaced by Lt (jg) John I Marsh.
The Peary left New York at 09:00 on 7 th May 1943 in a 35-ship convoy and the convoy picked up another 11 ships at Halifax, Nova Scotia. They arrived in Liverpool at 12:00 on 22 nd May 1943 with a few depth charges being dropped by their escorts on 8 th May. On the night of 13 th May a noise was heard by heard by the crew which sounded as if something had struck the hull on the starboard side, near the water line and on 14 th May the engines broke down and number 3 hold had filled with water. A rip in the ship’s hull was repaired in England and the Peary returned to New York at 13:00 on 15 th July 1943 with no enemy action.
The Peary sailed for Casablanca with no enemy action and returned to Norfolk, Virginia on 24 th September with POWs onboard. The next trip was to Jacksonville, Florida and on to New York where they joined a 36-ship convoy and 5 escorts headed for Loch Ewe, Scotland, arriving on 28 th October. The next ports of call were Firth of Forth, South Shields and Newcastle, where Lt Marsh suggested the number of Armed Guard crew be reduced due to the Merchant Seamen Cadets and experienced seamen on board who had been trained to assist if under attack. The removed Armed Guard could be used to relieve regular Navy personnel elsewhere. The Peary sailed from Newcastle to Boston arriving on 28 th November. Lt Marsh was then replaced by Ensign Harvey D Butler on 4 th December 1943.
The Peary sailed to Halifax and on to Liverpool arriving 21 st April 1944 after sailing through rough waters, which broke over her fantail, and after many depth charges were dropped nearby. On 9 th April, 5 explosions were felt and thought to be depth charges. She was in Liverpool for 4 weeks being fitted with special equipment and on 17 th May they set sail for Oban and on to Cardiff, arriving 31 st May. Here they were loaded with military transport, equipment and men. On June 2 nd along with 10 escorts they headed for Normandy in a convoy of 35 ships under the British Sea Transport Command at 8.9 knots.
Continuous air cover was given by the RAF and US Army Air Corps. The number of aircraft ranged from 1 to hundreds, too numerous to count. Contact with the enemy was at 13:13 on 6 th June. One of the escorts flew a black pennant and depth charges were dropped and at 13:18 the black pennant was hauled down. At 14:25 escorts again flew the black pennant and depth charges again were dropped. At 14:37 a US destroyer dropped four depth charges and the submarine was thought to have been hit and sunk. At 14:58 the SS Peary passed over a very large oil slick in which some of the crew thought they saw bodies among the debris. At 15:55 the black pennant was flown by a Canadian corvette that dropped 8 depth charges and that submarine was also presumed sunk.
At 07:29 on the 7 th June the Jebediah S. Smith was two ships astern of the Peary when it moved of course slightly to port and struck a mine on the port side aft but did not sink and made the anchorage. At 09:50 while at the Omaha beach anchorage a ship was mined, burned and sank. During that time the Peary’s crew went through nightly attacks and daily shelling. On 8 th June at 01:10 they were attacked four separate times by JU-88’s. There were an estimated 6 to 12 planes in each attack and they dropped three bombs nearby. At 02:00 on 9 th June they were attacked by 6 planes and were later shelled by shore batteries. At 13:07 a small landing craft was hit by this shellfire nearby and at 14:35 another LCT was struck off Peary’s port quarter. By this time shells were falling within 50 yards of the Peary. With the shells whistling through the rigging they were ordered to change anchorages.
At 20:25 they were again attacked but by ME-109’s. There were three separate attacks made by 8 planes. During the first attack they were strafed by 50 calibre shells, striking their forward deck. The enemy planes had allied under markings with German upper markings. Four were seen to be hit, three falling into the sea and one onto the beach. One of them hit about 50 yards off the Peary’s starboard bow and the gun crew had hit this plane several times. Later some spitfires flew over the anchorage and the Peary, unlike some others held its fire; unfortunately one of the British planes was shot down.
At 03:50 on 10 th June the Peary was attacked by a ME-210s and at 03:55 there was a direct hit on the No 5 hatch of a Liberty Ship laying about 200 yards astern. There was a low cloud ceiling and the plane just glided in dropped it’s bomb and flew away without the ship’s defences having time to react. During the same day the Peary was subjected to shellfire from inland. A beached Liberty Ship about 11/2 miles off the Peary’s starboard side sustained a direct hit and soon shells were falling within 20 yards of the Peary.
The Peary returned to Falmouth and left on the 13 th in a six-ship convoy along with four escorts. At12:08 the escort the Peary’s starboard beam set off 4 depth charges. During this period a total of 49 depth charges were heard and seen to be dropped by the escorts. Later that day another 11 were set off. At 02:25 on 14 th June an enemy aircraft was heard in the vicinity. At 02:40 a bomb struck about 100 yards off the starboard quarter. Five minutes later a further 3 bombs hit the water at only about 10 yards off the port quarter. The plane had come down to about 1200 feet to drop it’s bombs and also strafe the Peary along it’s starboard side, bullets were seen striking the water alongside. The Peary didn’t return fire because friendly forces nearby. There was no delay in Peary’s turnaround time and she headed back to Falmouth under Spitfire and Avenger air cover.
There was nearly a week’s delay in returning to France due to a 40-knot gale, which partially destroyed the Mulberry Harbours and slowed down the unloading of supplies to the beachhead. On the 16 th Peary once again sailed from Falmouth to Franc and no enemy activity was encountered. All hands stood to as Peary was unloaded and on the 20 th they retuned to England, but were delayed by heavy fog.
On June 30 th Peary sailed again for Utah Beach and came under air raid warnings but no enemy aircraft were seen. The ship hit an unidentified submerged object but no damage was found. She left for England on 3 rd July and during the crossing 3 depth charges were dropped but no enemy was seen. On July 4 th one of the escorts fired on an unidentified aircraft but the aircraft dropped I.D. flares and turned on it’s navigation lights to signify “friendly”.
The Navy Department Board of Decorations and Medals submitted to the Secretary of the Navy on July 26 th 1944 the following recommendation.
The Board has considered the conduct of the US Naval Armed Guard of the SS Robert E Peary during action against the enemy aircraft in the English Channel on 9 th June 1944 as described in the basic correspondence. The Board finds no basis for recommendation of personal awards in this case. However the Board recommends that meritorious entry be made in the service records of the members of the Armed Guard crew listed in the basic letter. By direction. H. G. Patrick
Approved July 29, 1944, by A. E. Watson, Senior Member – Board of Medals.
Peary’s officer was still Lt H D Butler and on 7 th July they again sailed from Falmouth for France. On 25 th Naval personnel embarked on a ships boat for the purpose of going to the “Breakwater Ship”, known as the “Gooseberry” in order to procure spare gear, such as gun parts, signal gear, winch parts and signal flags etc.
At about 15:20 on the same date, D P Baird master of the Peary reported to Lt Miller USNR, the Armed Guard commander that coxswain H E Stroop had been taken to the 261 st Field Hospital after stepping on a land mine and losing both feet. All hands had been ordered to stay off the beaches in the assault area. H E Stroop and another of the Armed Guard were in strict violation of these order and Stroop aid the price. On 3 rd August C T Beadling coxswain, replaced the injured H E Stroop.
The Peary made many more crossings of the channel carrying supplies for the beachheads. While on the way to Southampton on 9 th August, the Peary struck another submerged wreck sustaining damage to the starboard deep tanks and carried on to Southampton for repairs. Again on 10 th August the Peary ran over buoy H-3 damaging the fresh water tank. One trip was from France to Barry Roads, via Cowes and on to Southampton, back to France and on the 15 th back to Barry Roads, Southampton and then to Swansea. On the 18 th Peary left Swansea for New York calling in at Milfordhaven, Bangor Bay and Ireland for repairs, arriving New York on 9 th October 1944. On the way home the accompanying escorts dropped 5 depth charges.
On 25 th January 1945 the Peary sailed to Le Havre via the Isle of Wight with Lt Charles C Wright as Armed Guard Commander replacing H D Butler. The ships master D P Baird, was also replaced by Arnold Zambik. At 16:00 on the 1 st February the convoy had 20mm gun practice on the forward guns. During the practice Cornelius J Carmody received a cut on the head due to the premature explosion of a round of ammunition, which blew open, the magazine on the gun he was firing. Carmody realising the danger that the partially exploded magazine presented the ship and crew, quickly removed the damaged magazine and threw it overboard. Had it not been for Camody’s quick thinking and action the ammunition in the magazine might have exploded and caused serious injury to himself and his shipmates. Peary was unavoidably delayed at the Isle of Wight for about 2 hours when an anchor chain became fouled.
The Peary sailed for Boston from Le Havre via Swansea and arrived on 25 th March 1945. Regular drills were held and classes for those wanting advancement in ratings. The Peary sailed for Antwerp and after unloading departed on 2 nd May, arriving in New York on the 22 nd. June 1 st saw Peary leave New York bound again for Antwerp via Downs in England, arriving on 17 th June. Peary departed Antwerp on 23 rd June for New York, via Downs, arriving in New York on the 7 th July after having maintained an average speed of 10.6 knots, no zigzag course.
On 7 th November 1945 all present Armed Guard personnel were removed, except for the signalman and replaced with one GM2/C and one S1/C to maintain the guns until they could be removed along with other Armed Guard equipment. On 13 th November the signalman was relieved by another in Boston and Peary headed for Yokohama. She left Yokohama on 12 th December and arrived at Colon, Panama on 13 th January 1946. The gun crew were detached as soon as all the guns and equipment were removed. The Robert E Peary was scrapped in Baltimore, Maryland in June 1963. She had earned her place in history.
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