Tuesday, June 15

TombstoneTues: the USS Gherardi and Lester Franklin Harris

29 October 1942
The USS Gherardi off Philadelphia Navy Yard
(National Archives photo 19-N-40021)

Named after Rear Admiral Bancroft Gherardi, the USS Gherardi (DD-637) was a Gleaves-class destroyer launched 12 Feb 1942 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard minutes after her twin, the USS Butler (DD-636).

Although both were laid in adjacent slipways on 16 Sep 1941 and launched within minutes of one another, outfitting the Gherardi took longer and she wasn't commissioned until 15 Sep 1942, exactly one month after the Butler. Trial runs and shakedown training followed in Delaware Bay and at Casco Bay, Maine.

On 30 Nov 1942, the Gherardi arrived at Torpedo Station Annex, Coddington Cove, Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, for torpedo training in preparation for her first convoy escort voyage on 1 January 1943 to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

One of approximately 26,000 26-foot motor whaleboats
manufactured for the US Navy between 1927 and the late 1950s
to be carried aboard every Navy vessel for use as a "shore boat"
and "man overboard" rescue craft. Top speed: 8 knots

Minutes before midnight on 1st Dec 1942, 17 mostly-inexperienced sailors from the Gherardi returning from shore leave in nearby Newport RI piled into a 26-foot motor whaleboat (like the one shown above) at Government Landing for what should've been a 30-minute trip back to the ship moored 4 miles north.

Instead, a sudden and violent squall swamped the small craft, then capsized it. Only two of the crew managed to cling to the side of the overturned boat and escape death in the frigid waters of Narragansett Bay. The bodies of five who weren't so lucky were found the next morning along the south shore of Conanicut Island, 2 miles north of Jamestown, RI.

Over the next eight months, the remains of eight more Gherardi crewmen would be recovered, one of whom was Fireman 1st Class Lester Franklin Harris, the 24-year-old eldest son of Charly and Georgia Harris of Dunlap, Morris Co, Kansas.

Dunlap, Kansas
(photo by Tom Parker of KansasPhotos.com)

Mr. Parker's photo brilliantly captures the prevailing perception of Dunlap...a forgotten backwater on a road rarely traveled. I've lived within 60 miles of it most of my life and have only been through it once, and only because I took the wrong road out of Council Grove. Some might call Dunlap a ghost town, but because people still live there, the correct term is "quiet", the designation for a town whose schools have closed.

Perched on the Neosho River and founded by Joseph Dunlap in 1869, Dunlap didn't become a thriving community until 1878 when African-American Benjamin "Pap" Singleton, who'd escaped from slavery in 1846, directed hundreds of Freedmen called Exodusters to relocate there from the post-Reconstruction South.

Because their presence made white residents uncomfortable, the Exodusters settled just beyond the edge of town. And so it went for the next fifty years, whites in one part of town, blacks in another, with separate schools and churches.

In its heyday, Dunlap had been an important shipping point for crops grown in the area, but by 1910 the population had shrunk to 333. The Great Depression only accelerated the decline. Undoubtedly from the need to pool resources, however, segregation evaporated in Dunlap decades before it did in other parts of the state.

By the time Lester Harris came of age in the last half of the 1930s, Dunlap was in its death throes. Most of its young men had already left to find jobs elsewhere, never to return. No doubt Lester saw the Navy as his once-in-a-lifetime ticket to far-off lands, never dreaming he'd get no farther than the coastal waters of the good old USA.

In Feb 1943, the USS Gherardi made the first of 10 transatlantic convoy escort voyages. In late July and early August 1943, she saw her first surface action along the northern coast of Sicily. Between August 1943 and Feb 1944, she made more convoy escort voyages from New York to Northern Ireland and England, touching at Belfast and Londonderry, Ireland and Swansea, Wales. Back to Northern Ireland in May 1944 for rehearsals for the D-Day invasion of Normandy, which took place on 6 June 1944. From Normandy to Malta in July, to train for the invasion of Southern France on 15 Aug 1944. Then back to New York to be refitted and reclassified as a minesweeper before steaming through the Panama Canal to participate in major battles in the Pacific that culminated in the surrender of Japan in 1945. In 1946, she was back in the Atlantic fleet, based in Norfolk, VA. For the next 9 years, she participated in routine exercises in the Atlantic until decommissioning on 17 Dec 1955.

Among the honors the USS Gherardi earned for service in both the Atlantic and Pacific in WWII, perhaps the most remarkable is the one for not losing a single crew member in combat.

Dunlap Cemetery, Dunlap, Morris Co KS
from Find A Grave Memorial# 51441899
Photo and memorial by Mae

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LondonGirl said...

A fascinating story, thanks!

pinkpackrat said...

You know, I love this Tombstone Tuesday post-- I have a special soft spot for the Navy and always think remembering those who have served is something we should all do. So thanks for this

Dimitris Mita - De Greek said...

Well, I have managed to find how to post a comment after all. Fascinating is the only word that can be properly applied to this. It took me ages to get through though, because of the various links you have included, each of which is a find in itself. I was particularly interested in a small detail in the story of Benjamin Singleton (must have been a very special and courageous person) and the possibility of his organising a migration to Cyprus in 1883. Cyprus came under British Colonial rule in 1878, so just 5 years later plans were made for such a move. It would be so interesting to find out the history behind this and you would certainly find an audience for this in Cyprus. Are there any sources? Wonderful stuff this.

JamaGenie said...

DG, so glad you're finding your way around. As for Benjamin Singleton and Cyprus, what a tantalizing possibility! I'll see what I can find.