World War II Veteran Recalls the Night his 'Liberty Ship' Was Sunk
Tom Hebenton served aboard the USS Henry R. Mallory, which was torpedoed off the coast of Iceland in 1943.
As we look back at the attack on Pearl Harbor 69 years ago, and America's entrance into World War II, we cannot simply look at the casualty statistics to get the full impact of what the war cost.
We already know the price: Millions of people died and nations all over the world were destroyed. However, to hear a number in the millions doesn't allow us to grasp exactly what went on in Europe, Asia and Africa. Sometimes, the story one survivor can tell of such a bleak time can provide us with more insight than any World War II history book.
Melrose native and current Tewksbury resident Tom Hebenton, is one of those survivors with a story to tell. At 91 one years old, he stands taller and stronger than most men his age. He remembers vividly the day the merchant marine ship he was assigned to, the USS Henry R. Mallory, got torpedoed by Germans while transporting troops 500 miles off the coast of Iceland.
It's a story he tells in a way that it is neither boastful nor regretful. To see the sadness in his eyes as he tries to avoid talking of those who died, to hear the frustration in his voice as he talks of his dissatisfaction with the Red Cross and to hear his relief as he talks about coming home to see his parents after his ordeal makes the war more personal and more sincere.
"I got a job in the (Boston) Herald-Traveler as a copy boy. Then I worked my way up. I became an office boy in the circulation department," he recalled. "Then the war came. I wanted to join the Coast Guard or the Navy but I ran cross country a lot and was on the track team and I had a heart murmur and I got turned down. So they said 'if you want to go to sea, go down the hall to the United States Maritime Service.' I got accepted there. That was in February of '42, right after Pearl Harbor."
After signing up, Mr. Hebenton went to Hoffman Island in New York to train for the Merchant Marines. He completed his training in June of 1942 and was placed in a "shipping pool." The "shipping pool" was a method for deciding which ship sailors would be assigned to.
"I started going up and down the coast (of the United States)," he said. That was during a time when submarines were hiding just off the east coast looking for US ships to sink. "We couldn't go from New York Harbor to Delaware Bay without a convoy."
In January 1943, he came back to Boston and was placed on the USS Henry R. Mallory, a ship that was used to transport soldiers. He and his shipmates then sailed to New York, where they had to wait a week for a convoy.
"Now that was very unusual. It was fully loaded with soldiers and we were tied up in New York and everybody could see what we had on (soldiers)," he said. "Then we joined a convoy. From New York we went to Halifax, Nova Scotia and waited for a convoy there. Then we went across (to Europe). We got torpedoed on the 7th of February, 1943.
"I was on the 12 a.m. to 4 a.m. watch. My duty was to steer the ship and do deck work. About midnight, they (the Germans) started sinking ships and I just got off watch. I was on the bow look-out. I didn't see anything but I heard plenty going on . At four o'clock in the morning I was supposed to be relieved, my watch was over. But the fella who supposed to relieve me was five minutes late. So I was walking down the deck of the ship when the torpedo hit it. It hit a bulkhead between the engine room and the troop compartment and a lot of troops never got out because they were killed in the explosion."
Mr. Hebenton paused, reflecting, then continued on with his story.
"So I went up to my lifeboat station. My lifeboat was swamped when it was launched. The chief major on the ship dropped dead beside me, he was an old man. And the captain, I don't know what happened to him because he wasn't saved. The lifeboat I was in was full of troops. We were overloaded."
For the survivors on the lifeboats, they had to endure a long and harrowing night in the choppy waters 500 miles off the coast of Reykjavik, Iceland. "It was pretty rough that night … I was dressed. The ones that were dressed were pretty good. But some of these fellas just had t-shirts on and dungarees and they froze to death.
"Finally we saw this escort vessel that was with a convoy. It was a big coast guard cutter and the junior third-mate was in the same lifeboat I was in and he had a flair gun. He then shot the flair at about eight o'clock in the morning. (The ship) started toward us and we said 'boy, we're gonna get picked up!' And he turned and went the other way."
He later learned that the captain of the ship had come into contact with some submarines. The ship dropped some depth charges and then turned around to pick up Mr. Hebenton and the men aboard his life boat.
"I was the last one off the lifeboat because I wanted to make sure all the soldiers got on the (Coast Guard) Cutter," he said. "It was pretty rough. So they picked us up and a lot of the fellas were half frozen then. All day and night they were dropping depth charges and a couple more ships got sunk. They picked up a lot of seamen from a British merchant ship that got torpedoed. They had over 200 survivors on that ship. I slept on the deck with a life-jacket as a pillow because we couldn't interfere with the crew, they had to run the ship. (Due to limited supplies) We got one meal a day."
Since the Cutter was an escort and couldn't leave the ships it was protecting, they couldn't get to shore for a week. After that harrowing week at sea, the crew landed in Reykjavik.
"They took us up to an army hospital camp, which was like a hospital," he recalled. "Once we were there, the Navy questioned us. They wanted to know where we were, what we were doing (at the time of the torpedo strike)."
Heberton had lost his voice because of the effects of the cold and salty air.
Then after three difficult weeks in Reykjavik, Hebenton was transported to another naval base in Iceland called "Happy Valley." There he had wait another two weeks to get a transport back to Boston.
"I had no money. All I had was the clothes on my back," he said.
Luckily he came across a Coast Guard buddy with whom he had attended to high school and that gentleman loaned him five dollars to get home to Melrose.
"My father didn't recognize me. I had lost all my clothes," and a lot of weight," he said.
Tom and his family were reunited again. The hell he had experienced due to the torpedo strike, the freezing cold air, watching other men his age perish and then waiting over a month to get back home, was finally over.
For his family, the mystery of their son's whereabouts had been solved. He was home and safe but due to poor communication, mainly on the part of the Red Cross, they thought he had died.
"The Red Cross said they would let my parents know I was a survivor. And they never did," he said. "My people thought I was dead. I'll never forgive the Red Cross for not letting my parents know I was saved."
Thankfully he hadn't died, and like many other individuals of "The Greatest Generation," he still felt a duty to continue to serve his country. After one month "survivor's leave," he was back on "Liberty Ships" transporting troops, supplies, tanks, cargo or whatever else was needed to support the war effort.
Hebenton even found himself in the middle of the "Battle of the Bulge" delivering supplies to the troops on the front lines. Later, he was on his way to help the war effort in Asia, but two days away from the Panama Canal, he and his shipmates got word that the war was over.
One of the most difficult times in the history of our planet had finished. Millions were dead. Millions of lives had changed. For many people in Europe and Asia, it was time to clean up the mess the war had left. American GIs went home to the lives they had once known, in a country that was grateful for their service. Tom Hebenton went back to the printing presses at the Boston Herald-Traveler.
Eventually, he earned his apprenticeship and became a full-time printer. Later on, he started work with the Lowell Sun and retired in 1987. The pictures around his home pay homage to the family he has raised. He's still married to the same beautiful woman, has three children, two grandchildren and he beams with pride as he shows off their pictures. It's a type of pride that only a person who was once so close to death could emit. This pride has allowed him to be successful in life, career and even with the model ships he used to build and still displays around his home.
As more stories like his are told, it gives today's youth a perspective on just how difficult things were during World War II. It is that perspective that teaches us about sacrifice, perseverance and all the traits needed to be successful in life. Tom Hebenton is successful in life not only because of his career and the money he made or for the beautiful family he raised. He's successful because he took his unfortunate circumstances and did the best he could with the resources he had.