The Sinking of the Empire Javelin

Family sacrifices during wartime go unnoticed. Given that, by law, Fort Benning must be renamed, let’s encourage the Naming Commmission to formally recognize the role of the military family by naming Fort Benning in honor of Julie and Hal Moore. 

World War 2 touched every American and Julie’s family was no exception. Along with everyone else, Julie experienced the stress and worry about the survival of loved ones. No internet, no TV news, articles in newspapers dribbled in… and maybe the occasional letter. For Julie and her mother, the worst time was hearing about a very close call…

2nd LT Louis Compton was commissioned into the horse Cavalry in 1917. He subsequently transferred to the Field Artillery and deployed to France for the last few months of World War 1. Over the next 24 years, his career followed the normal progression of assignment into positions of increasing responsibility including being an aide to General George Marshall.

Compton in North Africa

By 1942, he was a Colonel, and assigned as the commander of the 224th Field Artillery Group, 4th Army as it prepared for deployment to the European theater. As a field artillery officer, he recognized the need for precision in supporting combat operations. This included timing for movement, the launch of attacks, and, most importantly, the simultaneous impact of artillery fire from multiple units arrayed across the battlefield. To organize these requirements with confidence, he invested in a Gallet watch, relying on its accuracy for success. Unknown to him, his ability to manage time would become critical to the survival of 1,692 soldiers on December 28, 1944.

The 15th Army was activated on August 21, 1944, by transferring personnel from the Fourth Army. COL Compton was designated the commander of the 15th Army from November 2, 1944, through January 2, 1945, and had the responsibility to move the unit into the European theater of operations. To this end, the 1,040 soldiers assigned to the 15th Army, along with 652 additional soldiers, received orders to board the Empire Javelin troopship and begin their movement to France. The ship sailed from Southampton at 0900 on December 28 and was torpedoed amidships at approximately 1440 forty miles from La Havre.

Empire Javelin loading - sketch by Hazen
Empire Javelin loading – sketch by Hazen

As the commander of the troops on the vessel, COL Compton took immediate action to confirm the wounded were adequately cared for. He then went to the bridge and conferred with the Captain to determine the best course of action since there were lifeboats for only a small fraction of the personnel on board. Checking the time, they determined there was no prospect of a rescue vessel arriving before darkness.

To defend the ship from a second attack, they ordered the escorting frigate to patrol the area to suppress the submarine’s ability to fire a second torpedo while awaiting rescue. COL Compton took action to organize the soldiers and keep them calm. His Bronze Star award stated, “COL Compton maintained complete composure in this extremely serious situation and his calm and assuring attitude as he stood on the bridge in full view of all the troops, drinking tea with the ship’s Captain, was without a doubt the principal factor in preventing panic among the troops.”

Empire Javelin sinking - sketch by Hazen
Empire Javelin sinking – sketch by Hazen

At approximately 1630, the ship began to break in half amidships with rescue craft still hours away. COL Compton and the Captain decided to call the frigate alongside and start transferring the troops to that vessel despite the risk of freeing the submarine to renew its attack.  COL. Compton directly supervised the transfer, and it was only through his persistent and aggressive action that he persuaded the men to abandon all their personal equipment. The transfer was complete at 1700.

At 1715, a second torpedo slammed into the Empire Javelin near the number 4 hatch. Thankfully, this occurred as the frigate pulled away from the troopship. Mortally wounded, the Empire Javelin sank minutes later at 1725. The frigate sustained damage with many fused depth charges rolling about the deck and punctured fuel tanks spilling gasoline. Despite this, the frigate was able to eventually transfer the soldiers to the rescue vessels.

Upon arrival in La Havre, the Army billeted the men in partially destroyed buildings under primitive conditions with no water, heat, lights, few blankets, and little food along with primitive sanitation.  COL Compton was consistently visible to the troops and suffered with them in the same conditions. He took aggressive action to work with the port headquarters to secure water, food, blankets and eventually fully equip the troops for movement to the front. On January 3, 1945, having completed these actions, COL Compton turned over the command of the 15th Army to Major General Porter.

The only two personal possessions COL Compton retained from the sinking ship were his watch and the Randall fighting knife he wore on his belt. COL. Compton continued as the Artillery Officer for the 15th Army, ensuring the many artillery formations in the Army were used to their best effect as the 15th Army helped reduce the Ruhr Pocket and obtain the subsequent capture of approximately 325,000 German soldiers.

French Frigate LEscarmouche
French Frigate LEscarmouche

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