Saturday, May 26, 2007


Plain Township man recounts German U-boat attack in 1942

By Ed Balint
May 26, 2007

Stationed above the main deck of an American merchant ship, Jack Hannan recalls the day in June 1942 when another shipmate asked him to trade spots on the vessel as each man kept watch.

The shipmate was facing the early morning sun. Hannan did not want to swap spots on the freighter. "Oh, he begged and begged me," Hannan recalled. "I finally traded sides with him."

Hannan, who had enlisted in the Navy during World War II, says the decision saved his life. Moments after switching, a torpedo struck the ship, right beneath where Hannan had been standing.

"If I hadn't traded sides with him, I'd be gone," said Hannan, 85, who lives at the Inn at Belden Village in Plain Township and has family in Stark County.

A German U-boat, U-505, among the most famous in World War II, attacked Hannan's ship, the Thomas McKean.

Hannan, however, was not unscathed; shrapnel ripped open his right hand. Abandoning ship, he and the others climbed into lifeboats. Hannan and 13 men squeezed into one of the four boats.

With the help of another shipmate, Hannan aided a merchant marine, who had been napping on a cot on the main deck when one of the two torpedoes struck. "He just got a lot of injuries and so forth," Hannan said. "He was hardly able to walk."

Hannan would receive a commendation for helping the wounded seaman, who later died in a lifeboat. Hannan also received a Purple Heart for his hand injury.

Before leaving the Liberty ship, Hannan scurried to grab his diary, fearing it could wind up in enemy hands. After the men boarded the lifeboats, the U-boat shelled and sunk the Thomas McKean.

The submarine surfaced and the German captain offered assistance. "He said, 'I'm sorry, this is war,' and went away on the surface," Hannan said.


Drifting in the lifeboats, and surviving on food rations, Hannan, unlike other men aboard, was fortunate to be underneath a canopy, where he rested and was shielded from the sun. An American plane dropped canned food to the men by parachute.

The lifeboats bobbed in the water, at times battling stormy waters and waves 10 to 12 feet high, Hannan said.

Another time, "three sharks came up right around the lifeboat, and one of the sharks was bigger than the lifeboat, and if one of the those sharks rammed the lifeboat, they'd have had a real good meal," he said.

After more than a week at sea, Hannan's lifeboat reached land in the Dominican Republic, the last of the four to make landfall. "Oh, boy," Hannan recalled, "you talk about a relief."

"It was beautiful," said Hannan, a Mansfield native who later became a chief petty officer and did not serve on a ship again in World War II, instead rallying public support for the war effort on a speaking tour to sell war bonds.

Hannan said the first place he went to at the Dominican Republic was a church: "We thanked the Lord for saving our lives."


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