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James M. Mertz oral history interview, July 18, 1989

Date: Jul. 18 1989 | Identifier: OH0116
Mr. Mertz, a native of Greenich, Connecticut and a graduate of Yale University, grew up sailing in Long Island Sound. He was commissioned as a US Naval Reserve officer on active duty in 1941. After subchaser duty in the PC 544 in 1942, he spent six months on the staff of Subchaser Training Center. In November 1943 Mertz assumed command of the USS STURTEVANT (DE 239) in which he participated in convoy duty to the Mediterranean and the Irish Sea. Interviewer: Donald R. Lennon. more...



EAST CAROLINA MANUSCRIPT COLLECTIONORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
James M. Mertz (DECO)
July 18, 1989
Interview #1

Donald R. Lennon:

What I'd like for us to do is to start with your background before you entered service--where you were born and reared and your education--before we actually get into World War II experiences.

James M. Mertz:

I was born in Greenwich, Connecticut, and grew up there--in the back of Rye, New York. I went to a private day-school called Brunswick, doing the twelve years in nine, and then in the fall of '29, entered Yale. I was there four years; the first two years I took ROTC but dropped out because I couldn't accept the commission. It required a summer cruise, and I was rowing through pretty much the end of June and then I had a summer job, so I couldn't take the cruise.

I went to work in the Bank of New York in '33. In '39 I applied for a commission. I'd been a sailor all my life.

Donald R. Lennon:

Other than the rowing that you mentioned, what kind of sailing had you done?

James M. Mertz:

Small boat sailing. Cruising.

Donald R. Lennon:

Long Island Sound?

James M. Mertz:

Long Island Sound. To the east as far as Maine.



So, in 1940 the Navy gave me a DVS commission in the Reserve. Early in '41, I went on active duty and they put me in the 3rd Naval District headquarters in communications. By then, they had created the Submarine Chaser Training Center in Miami and I went there in April of '42. I was in one of the early groups at SCTC and went out as exec on a 176-foot PC.

Donald R. Lennon:

What was the name and number?

James M. Mertz:

It was the PC-544, built in Bay City, and barged down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

Donald R. Lennon:

Once you were assigned to the 544, where did they send you?

James M. Mertz:

Well, we got on convoy duty between Key West and Norfolk from June through September. In early September of '42 the ship was given to the Brazilians. We took it to Natal, Brazil, and gave it to them.

Donald R. Lennon:

While you were on convoy duty there in the South Atlantic, did you at any time see any German submarines?

James M. Mertz:

No. No convoys were attacked.

Donald R. Lennon:

Now in '42, I don't recall that Brazil was beefing up its Navy.

James M. Mertz:

It didn't have anything basically. This 176-footer was their first anti-submarine vessel. We took two down there and handed them over. After that they were sending Brazilian crews and officers up to Miami to the Subchaser Training Center and we were giving them new subchasers on the spot, but this one and the other one with us were the first two given to the Brazilians.

Donald R. Lennon:

Once you delivered the 544 to Brazil, what kind of assignment did you get?



James M. Mertz:

I came back to SCTC and had orders to go to another PC, but Leon Kitburger(?), who was on the staff there, said, "Jim, you're on the staff here for six months, and then you're going to get a DE." We didn't know much about DEs. I knew they were coming, but that was all. So, I spent six months on the staff.

Donald R. Lennon:

Now the DEs they were building were quite a bit larger than the PCs.

James M. Mertz:

There were two types of DEs. There was the short hull, which was originally designed for the British--it was about 256 feet--and then the long hull, which was 306 feet.

In March my term on SCTC was up and I was assigned to the STURTEVANT, DE239, as the exec.

Donald R. Lennon:

It was still under construction?

James M. Mertz:

It was still under construction.

Donald R. Lennon:

Where?

James M. Mertz:

It was the second one out of Brown Brothers in Houston.

Donald R. Lennon:

So you reported to Houston at that time?

James M. Mertz:

No, I went to Norfolk with the crew. The prospective CO went to Houston with a few officers, and I went to Norfolk, where the crew--the enlisted men--were being assembled. In early June we put them on a train, about 150 of them, and the four or five officers and myself went on regular sleepers to Houston. We commissioned in the middle of June and then we were off.

We went down to Galveston to have the bottom painted and over to New Orleans for stores, and from New Orleans to Bermuda for shakedown. I can't remember the exact dates.

Donald R. Lennon:

Who was your CO?



James M. Mertz:

Frederic Hawes from the Class of '34 at Annapolis.

Donald R. Lennon:

He was an Academy graduate?

James M. Mertz:

He was an Academy graduate and had come off the LEXINGTON. The LEXINGTON was sunk about that time.

Donald R. Lennon:

So after your shakedown in Bermuda you were dispatched overseas?

James M. Mertz:

No. We were assigned to Quonolt, Rhode Island, for the month of August to practice with new TBF squadrons that were forming up. We'd go out daily and tow sleds for them to fire their guns at and play target to dummy torpedoes. They would form up and drop torpedoes and we would help in retrieving the torpedoes.

Donald R. Lennon:

And then?

James M. Mertz:

Then, in September we were sent to Norfolk to go on our first convoy to the Mediterranean. I had been recommended for command right at shakedown in Bermuda but the orders didn't come through until we got back from the first trip into the Mediterranean.

It was mid '43 by this time and the United States had actually been in the war for almost two years.

Donald R. Lennon:

You said you had applied for your commission in '39 and received it in '40, so you had been in the Navy for three years.

James M. Mertz:

Well, I actually didn't go on active duty until early '41.

Donald R. Lennon:

I imagine you were getting pretty anxious to get into the middle of things by this time.

James M. Mertz:

Well, yes, but it was very interesting earlier. I was at Ninety Church Street and Brooklyn Navy Yard and I learned a lot about the Navy. We ran an office where we were on duty twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, so we rotated. Some of the



time we were in Brooklyn Navy Yard and some of the time on various ships, including British ships that came in for repair.

Donald R. Lennon:

By the summer of '43, you commenced convoy duty to the Mediterranean.

James M. Mertz:

Yes. In those days the British didn't let us go beyond Gibraltar. We'd only bring the convoy through that far. Incidentally, these were Liberty ship convoys, and very slow.

Donald R. Lennon:

Why didn't the British want you in the Mediterranean?

James M. Mertz:

It was their lake--their private preserve.

Donald R. Lennon:

It would seem to me in '43 they couldn't have afforded to keep the United States out.

James M. Mertz:

That was their policy, so we would reform the convoy on a broad front and these little miscellaneous craft would come out from Gibraltar and take over.

Donald R. Lennon:

How many warships would you have escorting a convoy like that?

James M. Mertz:

The ones I went on (and there were three of them, I think, called UGS) had a CAMPBELL class Coast Guard cutter as the flagship of the screen and about ten to fifteen DEs.

Donald R. Lennon:

And how many Liberty ships?

James M. Mertz:

Around a hundred.

Donald R. Lennon:

That many?

James M. Mertz:

Yes. Roughly a hundred.

Donald R. Lennon:

I'm from the Wilmington, North Carolina, area and we built a lot of the Liberty ships there.

James M. Mertz:

They weren't all Liberty ships, but they were the backbone. We were relatively slow convoys.



Donald R. Lennon:

Any contact with the enemy on these convoys?

James M. Mertz:

No. From Gibraltar the convoy would form up with these British ships as an escort and then the German float planes would come down from the Balearic Islands and beat them up.

Donald R. Lennon:

Were the goods on board the Liberty ships in the convoy destined for British forces in the Mediterranean?

James M. Mertz:

No, for the Americans there. A lot of them went to Oran. I can't remember the details.

Donald R. Lennon:

This was about the time that the invasion of Casablanca and all that action in North Africa was happening.

James M. Mertz:

Yes, that started in late '42. For the first two trips, after we turned the convoy over to the British, we went down to Casablanca to wait for another convoy as it came out.

Donald R. Lennon:

Then you would pick them up?

James M. Mertz:

Yes, and take them back to Norfolk.

Donald R. Lennon:

How many convoys did you make?

James M. Mertz:

Three. I made that one trip in the fall of '43. Then, in early November, after I got back, I took over the ship.

Donald R. Lennon:

How long would each convoy trip take?

James M. Mertz:

I guess it was about an eight-week turnaround.

Donald R. Lennon:

How long were you in Casablanca waiting for those convoys to come back?

James M. Mertz:

Oh, just a couple of days.

Donald R. Lennon:

So most of the time was convoying.



James M. Mertz:

During the second convoy, we went back to Casablanca, but for the third convoy, which was early in '44, we didn't. We were sent up to the south coast of Spain as a barrier patrol to try and prevent German submarines from coming down and getting into the Mediterranean. We came back for just a few hours one night to get some fuel and then took the convoy back.

As a convoy came back to the States, it was broken up into sections: New York, Delaware, and Norfolk. After the second return convoy I was assigned to take the Delaware section and then go back to Brooklyn Navy Yard. Just as I got by Ambrose Light, the TURNER, a new destroyer that had just been on its first trip in our group, blew up.

Donald R. Lennon:

Was it torpedoed?

James M. Mertz:

No. It was handling ammunition. All the officers but two were killed. I didn't see the explosion, but we were right there. In fact, we picked up one of the surviving officers.

A good number of the men survived, but the forward ammunition magazine was the one that blew up, and it was in "officers country.” This was on my first trip as CO.

We made a total of three trips into the Mediterranean. In March of '44 we were taken off that run and put on UC convoys, which went around to the north of Ireland into the Irish Sea and to Liverpool and Scotland. Those were fifteen-knot convoys.

An interesting thing happened. The group that took our place on the Mediterranean run was allowed to go on in all the way.

Donald R. Lennon:

So by '44 they were letting them in?

James M. Mertz:

Yes. This was in March of '44. A close friend of mine was put in command of the HOLDER. He replaced somebody at the last minute, just got aboard in Norfolk. They



joined a convoy and went through the Straits of Gibraltar. They got attacked by the German float planes.

Donald R. Lennon:

Oh, they did?

James M. Mertz:

This guy took a torpedo in his engine rooms. The ship didn't sink. They got it into Oran and finally towed it back to Brooklyn Navy Yard and there it sat for the rest of the war. My friend didn't have any more duty. Eventually, they cut the ship in half and gave the stern to a Coast Guard-manned DE that had taken an acoustic torpedo in the stern. They welded the two halves together. My friend stayed in command all this time.

Donald R. Lennon:

He never got another command?

James M. Mertz:

He never got another command and didn't go to sea. He just sat around in the Navy Yard. In fact, he lived out in Long Island, so he went home every night.

Donald R. Lennon:

The weather and the water would be a bit rougher in the Irish Sea than it was in the Mediterranean.

James M. Mertz:

We didn't take the northern route. We went toward the Azores to keep inside air cover. Then after we got to the Azores, we went northeast. We didn't take the "Great Circle," we went sort of due east and then cut across from the Azores.

Donald R. Lennon:

Wasn't there a lot more danger of submarine activity that much closer to Europe, between the Azores and Ireland, than there would have been taking the northern course?

James M. Mertz:

Well, I don't know. You didn't get the air cover up north and by then the Jeep carriers were out in hunter-killer groups. We never saw them but they were out there.

Donald R. Lennon:

Patrolling the whole area.

James M. Mertz:

In fact, my division went with the CARD one crossing. I was assigned to the convoy itself, however, while the five other ships went with the CARD.



Donald R. Lennon:

You said these convoys were going in to Scotland and England?

James M. Mertz:

To Liverpool and into the Bristol Channel. At first we went into Londonderry, where there was a US base that had been Canadian originally. We stayed there for two or three trips. Then, twice we went into Liverpool. After D-day, we didn't go around Northern Ireland, we went south of Ireland and went into the Bristol Channel.

Donald R. Lennon:

By that point, I think it was relatively safe, was it not? The Germans were so occupied in defending themselves by that time that they were not on the offensive.

James M. Mertz:

Well, they'd lost their submarine bases.

Donald R. Lennon:

How long did the convoys operate?

James M. Mertz:

Well, we were still convoying in '45. In fact, eventually the ships went toward LeHarve and we went into Southampton a couple of times. The last time we came back was in June 1945, after the war was over. We had been sent to Norfolk Navy Yard to get more forty-millimeter anti-aircraft guns put on, and from there we went to Guantanamo in August and on to Pearl Harbor, where we were when the war ended.

Donald R. Lennon:

After the war ended in Europe, they started sending the European DEs to the Pacific.

James M. Mertz:

Yes. We all had assignments to go to the Pacific. I took the ship to Pearl and they were still sending them west. One night we got orders to not go west but to go back to the States. They put my relief on. He rode back with me. We had 158 aviation personnel as passengers. We went into San Pedro and anchored off Terminal Island. The next day I turned the ship over too him. That was the end of the war for me.

Donald R. Lennon:

On your last convoy from Europe, did you bring back any personnel or any passengers?



James M. Mertz:

No.

Donald R. Lennon:

They were not bringing them back from Europe that quickly?

James M. Mertz:

No. On one of those trips back from Southampton, my ship was ordered out practically the day we got there to replace an escort in another group. One of their escorts had broken down and we were ordered to replace it. I came back without five officers. I had let them go up to London because the war was pretty much over.

Donald R. Lennon:

Did it put any strain on the few officer remaining?

James M. Mertz:

We had fourteen officers by then, because they were always putting a lot in for training. The war was winding down. I can't remember, but I don't think it was quite over yet.

Donald R. Lennon:

At that point you really weren't worried about it.

James M. Mertz:

No. Those DEs that were built in Orange and Houston had Fairbanks Morse 10-cylinder opposed-piston main engines. Gosh, we carried 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel and we could have gone on forever. They were very economical.

Donald R. Lennon:

So you didn't have to stop and refuel at all.

James M. Mertz:

No. We never had to refuel. We did practice a couple of times but we never had to.

Donald R. Lennon:

What was your view of the DE as a warship?

James M. Mertz:

They were very good anti-submarine vessels. They had very good sound gear, hedgehogs, and forward-throwing devices.

Donald R. Lennon:

Were those hedgehogs used only on DEs or did they use them on regular destroyers?

James M. Mertz:

I really don't know.



Donald R. Lennon:

In talking to the regular destroyer commanders, I have never heard them refer to the hedgehog.

James M. Mertz:

No. They put them on frigates and things like that but never on destroyers.

Donald R. Lennon:

I had not run into them at all until I started talking to the destroyer escort people. That was a new weapon.

James M. Mertz:

Yes.

Donald R. Lennon:

After your relief from the STURTEVANT, what was your assignment?

James M. Mertz:

I went back to civilian life. I was out of the Navy in September or early October of '45. I had thought of staying in but I had some unfortunate experiences in shakedown at Guantanamo the second time. I'd rather not go into the details.

The reason I stayed on for almost two years as CO was the first exec did not work out so the division commander removed him. The second exec was going to take the ship, but the division commander, after one trip with his new commanding officer on the flagship, put him into a naval hospital in St. Albens and took my exec and put him in command of the flagship. So there!

Donald R. Lennon:

Who was your division commander?

James M. Mertz:

First it was Noah Adair, Jr., and then C. W. Musgrave. I had two and got along fine with them.

Donald R. Lennon:

I was thinking that it was an unusually long tour of duty on one ship.

James M. Mertz:

Oh yes. Most of them lasted for six or eight months and you were told to qualify your exec for command if he had it in him. My second exec was qualified, and he was about to take the ship when the division commander made this hasty change. What



happened was the fellow that was put in command of the flagship really wasn't qualified. He was a wonderful guy, but he hadn't had the experience. He fell apart.

Donald R. Lennon:

I think you would have to be able to take an inordinate amount of pressure and responsibility to command.

James M. Mertz:

Right. Between trips if there was any time, we would always go to Casco Bay, where Destroyers Atlantic was headquartered. We were operating off there one night and the flagship lost a man overboard! This was the very first thing this new CO had to face.

Donald R. Lennon:

After you were separated from active service, where did you go?

James M. Mertz:

I went back to the Bank of New York. I had been in the Bank of New York before the war, and then in '47, a classmate of mine, an earlier graduate of Yale, bought this company. We took over in March of '48 and I have been here ever since.

Donald R. Lennon:

So you've been in the slate business for over forty years now!

James M. Mertz:

Yes.

Donald R. Lennon:

It's a peaceful setting out here with dairy farms and fields, an idyllic setting.

James M. Mertz:

Yes. I've cut the thing back. I'm about to be 78 and I'm taking it a little easy.

Donald R. Lennon:

Any other thoughts that you have on your World War II service, as far as any specific incidents that happened on any of the convoys or your stopovers in Casablanca or England or Scotland?

James M. Mertz:

Not really. They all were pretty much routine.

Donald R. Lennon:

Any other observations concerning the destroyer escort?

James M. Mertz:

Well, I've been one of the leaders of the reunion group and I guess I'm the only one around that was at the first meeting in 1948. For a long time we just had one dinner a year



at the New York Yacht Club, which I belong to. We used to fly Captain McDaniel in from Oakland until he couldn't fly any longer.

Donald R. Lennon:

I know Shelton Kenny is really big on this organization. We're the repository for the Class of '41 of the Naval Academy and he's much more interested in the DECO than he is in the Class of '41!

James M. Mertz:

I don't know whether he told you, but his first duty was on the original STURTEVANT, the four stacker. He was the gunnery officer. It self-destructed in our Key West minefield in '42, and from there he went to SCTC. It just so happened that the name was given to the one that I was assigned to after SCTC, the second DE out of the Brown Brothers.

Donald R. Lennon:

If he has told me that, it slipped my mind. I do not recall. Well, do you have any other thoughts?

James M. Mertz:

That is my background. I've sailed all my life. I've kept up on celestial navigation and I'm still active on the water in Bermuda races and things like that.

Donald R. Lennon:

So you still are racing?

James M. Mertz:

Yes.

Donald R. Lennon:

Once that gets into your blood, apparently...

James M. Mertz:

Right.

Donald R. Lennon:

On the way up, I stopped and saw Stuart Hotchkiss in Connecticut.

James M. Mertz:

Oh yes. I know him well, of course. We've never sailed together, but we've been in many races. He was a few years after me at Yale. I can't remember what class.

[End of Interview]

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