World War II Veteran Who Survived 2 Ship Sinkings Shares Story

USS Fiske broken in two and sinking in the Atlantic Ocean on 2 August 1944, after she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-804. Note men abandoning ship by walking down the side of her capsizing bow section. (Photo: U.S. Navy)
USS Fiske broken in two and sinking in the Atlantic Ocean on 2 August 1944, after she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-804. Note men abandoning ship by walking down the side of her capsizing bow section. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

A young Walter "Irby" West Jr. never imagined that just 10 months after surviving the sinking of a destroyer escort in the Atlantic Ocean in World War II, he would be in another in the Pacific.

More than 70 years after the sinkings, the 91-year-old and his wife, Almeda, detailed the incidents on camera last week for the Veterans History Project, an effort by the Augusta Historical Society that has resulted in more than 800 videos.

"I knew this was going to be an interesting story," Fred Gehle, the project coordinator, said of his decision to seek out West. "I know of no other person who has been involved in the sinking of a vessel and then go to another theater and have a repeat event."

West's military story began months before his 18th birthday when he dropped out of the Academy of Richmond County to join the Navy.

"I wasn't too interested in school," he said.

After a training period, he went to Charleston, S.C., to board the USS Fiske, a destroyer escort, as a seaman.

On Aug. 2, 1944, the crew detected submarine activity, probably more than one, and moments later they were hit midship.

"It started breaking in two right fast," West said. "The torpedo just broke it apart."

West, like the rest of the crew, donned a lifejacket, jumped in the chilly waters of the North Atlantic and started swimming or clinging to lifeboats until help arrived.

"I think they said it (the water) was like 35 degrees," he said.

West was one of the lucky ones who survived to be picked up by another destroyer. Reports indicate about 200 were aboard the Fiske; 33 were killed and 50 more were badly wounded.

On Sept. 8, during West's first survivor's leave, he reconnected and married Almeda, whom he had known since childhood, but he soon left for more than a year of duty on a brand new destroyer escort, the USS Drexler.

West was on picket duty when Japanese kamikaze planes attacked May 28, 1945. Historical documents indicate one plane missed and the second was shot down by the crew, but the third struck in the middle.

"They say after it was hit it was about 49 seconds before it was sinking," West said.

The rapid sinking caused heavy casualties and would later result in an investigation. Reports differ on the number of men lost. The death toll ranges from 140 to 170 with about 50 more seriously injured.

"You don't understand how the Lord saves some but some he doesn't," West said. "I guess he'll explain it to us one day."

After surviving two sinking ships, West spent the rest of his military career on land.

"I got to thinking about it and maybe the Navy decided not to put (me) on any more ships," West said. "They let me stay in Charleston, S.C., for a year on shore duty, and you don't normally get that long."

Ten days after being discharged, West returned to Augusta and started a new job at Southern Bell, where he worked for 39 years.

A copy of West's video recording will be sent to the Library of Congress to join others recorded for the project. Two more copies will be sent to the Augusta University library.

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