The ship named after William Jackson Palmer, a mid-19th century railroad man and Union Army cavalry general during the Civil War, was laid up in the Permanente Metals No. 1 yard in Richmond , in California on September 25, 1943, and launched just 24 days later on October 18. She was one of 2,710 Liberty ships built in the United States during World War II, the ships that carried the products of the “arsenal of democracy” to the Allies and the United States. forces all over the world. Some credit the Liberty ships with being the key factor in victory in the war.
On the opposite coast near Gretna, Virginia, Elmer Cocke had just graduated from high school. He was the son of a farmer, and because he was engaged in farming, he was excluded from the project. But by 1944 the United States desperately needed more soldiers and sailors and began to tighten postponements. Elmer could sense he was about to be drafted. His close friends wanted to join the United States Marine Service – the Merchant Navy – and that’s how Elmer learned about this option.
To use an expression of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, William J. Palmer and Elmer Cocke had “a date with fate”.
Elmer reported to the U.S. Marine Training Station at Sheepshead Bay, NY, in November 1944 and underwent six weeks of indoctrination and training, which was divided into a preliminary training branch and six advanced instruction branches :Deck; Motor; cooks and bakers; pursers; Hospital Corps; and Chief Steward Course. Apprentice sailors could apply for admission to any of the courses except that of chief steward. Additionally, they could compete for admission to the US Maritime Service Radio School or the US Merchant Marine Academy.
Elmer was 20 when his young wife, Hilda, visited him while he was in Sheepshead Bay, on a Trailways bus to the big city, the one-way ticket bought with the last penny she had. Elmer was paid $18 a month as an apprentice sailor, and she had relied on him for the return ticket and any expenses they might have in New York. Finally, after seeing the sights of the city, Elmer was completely broke – they only had two pennies to their name, but another site was on their agenda: Coney Island. The subway was then 5 cents, so the first 10 cents got them to the park, and the last 10 cents got them back. But to get home by bus, Hilda snagged her wristwatch at a Brooklyn pawnshop. (Elmer later returned to that establishment and repurchased the watch. It wouldn’t be the last time he played near the edge.)
Elmer and his friends from Gretna opted for the US Maritime Service Radio School and showed up at this facility on Gallops Island in Boston Harbor. The instruction was intense: eight hours a day to learn radio theory, construction and Morse code. He later said, “Learning Morse code was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” He discovered that the dots and dashes came so fast there was no time to think, for example, “Say-dah, well that’s an A.” To be able to understand it at the necessary speed, the process is almost unconscious; you should immediately recognize dit-dah-dit as an R and dah-dit-dah as a K. They were tested at the end of each week, and those who did not copy and send at the ever-increasing speed required been made to spend the weekends working out and doing household chores. Elmer succeeded. Its send and receive rate reached an accuracy of 30 words per minute. He was graduated and promoted to Warrant Officer, USMS, and was now earning the princely sum of $22 a month.
William J. Palmer had made its way to New York, and Elmer joined her in the late spring of 1945. The war was over in Europe by then, but not in the Pacific. The ship was laden with 460 horsepower and set out for the Mediterranean, calling first at Gibraltar and then at Barre. He sailed independently, not in a convoy, but zigzagging in a dark ship in case a rogue submarine still lurked in the Atlantic. Orders were changing, but his final destination was Trieste.
Whether the captain inadvertently navigated into a known minefield or through an unexplored minefield is not clearly established, nor is it known who it was – German, Italian or British – but which whatever his origin, he and William J. Palmer met around noon on August 4, 1945, in the Gulf of Trieste in the Adriatic Sea, between Barre and Trieste.
Elmer was one of three radio officers and was on duty in the radio shack just aft of the bridge when the mine went off. He recalls: “It was the loudest bang I had ever heard!” He was thrown over the radio room by the explosion, and the two main radios were destroyed and disabled. The senior radio officer came into the radio room, relieved Elmer, and managed to trigger a distress signal using an emergency radio, a crude crystal set. A British naval unit acknowledged the call.
Elmer was assigned to No. 4 lifeboat on the port side. The ship took an immediate port list, but the boat was rocked, only to be prevented from becoming buoyant by a gangway which had been dislodged by the explosion and tipped over into the boat’s path. Elmer jumped on the accommodation ladder and helped pull her away. When the boat became buoyant it became apparent that the man who had been responsible for releasing the man ropes had not done his duty so the boat was entered by means of a Jacob’s ladder fell from the main deck. There was great confusion; some men helped, and some were helpless and frozen with fear. The men in the boat soon realized that their feet were wading in ankle-deep water. The man in charge of fitting the drain plug had not done his duty. Elmer noted that the ship did not regularly conduct fire and lifeboat drills.
Finally, when the boat was boarded by those assigned to it and jettisoned the rapidly sinking vessel, the survivors discovered that the oars had been tied to the seats and the knots had to be cut. The only man with a knife was frozen in fear and couldn’t move. The knife was taken from him, the oars detached and the boat pulled away from the vessel. Elmer remembers how water spilled over the side of the ship as it began to sink. He remembers the roar of the water, the noise, as it poured like a waterfall over the port gunwale of William J. Palmer. He remembers horses swimming and trying to get into boats. So much water had entered the lifeboat through the drain before it clogged that the boat was unstable and the occupants had to bail out furiously lest they capsize. When asked if he was scared, he immediately replied, “Yes! I was scared, and any man who says he wasn’t is a liar! According to Elmer, the ship sank in 10 minutes, stern first. The small British ship that came to their aid was reluctant to approach, but remained on the horizon due to concerns about mines. The four boats were tied together and the one with a motor pulled them to the rescue vessel, which they boarded as night began to fall.
Not a single man was lost in the abandon ship or the explosion, and somehow six horses of the 460 survived. Elmer had only the clothes on his back and nothing else, but he was alive and in one piece. The British ship took the crew to Trieste, and they were put up in a hotel for two days. A British radio man invited the three radio officers to lunch on the third day. Back at the hotel, they found that all of their shipmates had left for Venice. Someone in authority gave the three a truck, a gun, a POW to deliver, and directions to Venice, where they joined their comrades, delivered the prisoner, and waited two weeks.
Elmer and the others received spare clothes from the British, and he and his comrades then boarded a ship for Naples which was occupied by the American army. The stay in Naples lasted about three weeks. Elmer took a $10 draw on his captain’s salary; the shipwrecked sailors had no other money but used a daily issue of a pack of cigarettes by the army for 6 cents. They could sell the cigarettes to local kids as young as 6 for $2 a pack. With this windfall, they bought clothes. While in Naples, they learned that a secret weapon, an atomic bomb, had been dropped on a Japanese town; a few days later, we learned that the war was finally over. Elmer boarded a ship bound for New York in Naples and upon arrival found himself once again a radio officer working on another Liberty ship bound for Marseilles, France, empty and in ballast. . This ship was equipped with rudimentary berths in the holds, stacks of up to five, which allowed the ship to embark hundreds of victorious soldiers, happy to return home to America by any means. Elmer remembers the smell that emanated from the holds as hundreds of these soldiers became terribly seasick during the voyage, which lasted about two weeks.
This trip completed, Elmer was paid and sent back in January 1946 to New York, to return to Gretna and Hilda and resume life on the farm. When asked if he would do it again if he could go back to 1944, he said he would probably wait until he was drafted.
Elmer Cocke, a member of the American Legion Post 232 in Gretna, will reach his 98th birthday in April 2022. He drives his car and still hunts deer on his farm near Gretna which he inherited and expanded, purchasing adjacent properties over years. While previously living in South Carolina, he converted an air-cured tobacco barn on this property into a hunting lodge overlooking a pond he occasionally visited. He now lives there, independently, in this well-built former tobacco barn, full time.
Enemy action during World War II resulted in the loss of 1,768 merchant ships sunk, damaged beyond repair, captured or detained. More than 8,300 men lost their lives and 12,000 were injured, 1,100 of whom succumbed to these injuries. One in 26 men who set sail on merchant ships between 1941 and 1945 perished in the struggle to deliver the goods. William J. Palmer was raised in 1949, towed to Trieste and scrapped. The only things found in the wreckage were horse bones and shoes.
Steven Turner graduated from the US Merchant Marine Academy in 1961 and served in the US Navy for 30 years. He is a member of American Legion Post 177 in Fairfax, Virginia. Elmer Cocke is his first cousin.