The SC-654 was one of 438 SC-497 Class Submarine Chasers built during the war. Each cost about $500,000. She was laid down September 18th, 1941 by the Westergard Boat Works, Biloxi, MS. SC-654 was launched seven months later on May 4th, 1942 and finally commissioned on July 18th, 1942 under the command of Lieutenant Joel T. Williams, Jr.
Like the other vessels in her class, the SC-654 was built with a wooden hull and the type were known as the smallest commissioned warships in the US fleet. Overall length was 110 feet, 10 inches, beam was 17 feet, 11 1/2 inches and draft was only 10 feet, 10 inches.
She displaced 98 tons and with her twin 880bhp General Motors 8-268A diesel engines, Snow and Knobstedt single reduction gear, and two shafts she was capable of 15.6 to 21 knots, depending on which source you believe. Her cruising range was a maximum of 1,500 nautical miles at 12 knots.
Armament tended to vary as it changed throughout the war based on availability and adaptations, but at the time of the rescue SC-654 is believed to have been equipped with One Bofors 40mm Mark 3 mount on her foredeck, two 20mm Mark 10 machine canons amidships (1 starboard, 1 port), possibly a third 20mm center/aft on a raised platform, two depth charge projector "K Guns," and two depth charge racks at the stern with 3 charges each. I don't believe she was equipped with the Mousetrap rails on the bow per the drawings below until later in the war.
Though originally designed as an off-shore submarine chaser, SC-654 seems to have been primarily utilized as a short range escort, bringing larger vessels into port. Despite their designation, the class did not have any success against axis submarines during the war. 17 of the vessels were lost during the war (1 as a PGM conversion).
From her crew rosters, I have been able to piece together SC-654’s Commander History:
September 1942 through March 1943 - Joel T. Williams Jr. (Hopkins. XO)
June 1943 - W.L. Hopkins Lt(jg) USNR (Boutall, XO)
September 1943 through December 1943 - John C Boutall, Ensign USNR (Engelman, XO)
March 1944 through September 1944 - Ralph Engelman, Ensign USNR (Finch, XO)
December 1944 - William R. Finch, Lt.(jg) USNR (Schweitzer, XO)
March 1945 through December 1945 - Samuel S. Schweitzer, Ensign USNR (Cochran, XO)
At the time of the Cape San Juan rescue, SC-654 was commanded by John Charles Boutall, Ensign USNR (profiled below).
Her normal complement was 25 crew and 3 officers, though at the time SC-654 had just had 3 men transfer off and their replacements had not yet arrived.
Unfortunately, no War Diary currently exists on Fold3.com for the SC-654’s involvement in the rescue. Based on references from other vessel’s and navy base’s War Diaries I have been able to piece together SC-654’s movements from soon after her commissioning up to the point she was directed to assist with the rescue efforts:
July 25th, 1942 - At U.S. Naval Section Base, Burrwood, LA (Note: identified as SC-654, not PC-654, which conflicts with navsource.org's info)
August 1st, 1942 - Departed Key West for Miami, arriving same day.
September 29th, 1942 - At U.S. Naval Section Base, Galveston, TX
October 18th, 1942 - Assisted escorting convoys PK-111 and KG-609 (Key West to Guantanamo).
December 25th, 1942 - At U.S. Naval Operating Base, Key West, FL
December 29th, 1942 - At U.S. Submarine Base, Coco Solo, Canal Zone
December 31st, 1942 - USS Patuxent departed Balboa (Canal Zone) acting as a fuel supply ship for the following vessels destined for the Southwest Pacific: SC-504, SC-505, SC-514, SC-531, SC-640, SC-654, SC-668, SC-669 and SC-748. The tanker was to accompany the submarine chasers as far as Bora Bora from whence they would proceed onward independently.
February - March, 1943 - At Havannah Harbor, Efate, New Hebrides
April - August, 1943 - At Espiritu Santo
September, 1943 - At Ile Nou Great Roads, Noumea, New Caledonia, took part is tests of Auxiliary Floating Dry Dock ARD-2. It was during this time that Boutall was believed to have taken command of SC-654.
November 5th, 1943 - Escorted tanker SS Esso Annapolis into Nandi and then departed for Suva, Fiji.
November 6th, 1943 - Escorted MV Matua (British) out of Suva bound for Auckland, NZ, then directed to proceed to Tonga for duty.
On the morning of November 11th (12th according to Suva’s war diary), SC-654 and YMS-241 were directed to depart their base in Tonga and proceed to the vicinity of 22° – 11’ South 178° – 03’ West, a little over 200 miles away, and render assistance to the Cape San Juan. It appears that the two small vessels did not arrive until early the next morning. At 15 knots it would have taken about 12 hours to cover that distance.
According to the War Diary of the USS McCalla (DD-488), SC-654 was first spotted about a half hour after they spotted YMS-241, sometime between 0447 when they spotted the flare from the survivors and 0503 when they first spotted the rafts. SC-654 was about 7 miles away bearing 335° True. About 1004 all the survivors appear to have been picked up.
Boutall's SC-654 picked up 152 men.The fact that they were able to pick up that many of the Cape’s survivors on their small craft in moderate seas is nothing short of astounding. Unfortunately, Boutall did not have enough fuel to make it to Suva. At 1425 they maneuvered along the starboard side of McCalla and by 1445 SC-654 completed the transfer of her 152 survivors to McCalla and left the group to proceed back to their base at Tonga Tabu on their own.
USS SC-654's crew of 22 at the time of the rescue consisted of:
In addition, Boutall’s Executive Officer was Ensign Ralph Engleman. As these vessels were known to have three officers, that may have been William R. Finch or perhaps someone yet to be identified.
Using the same technique as above, I was able to reconstruct SC-654’s movements in the days and months after the rescue:
December 2nd, 1943 - Took part in anti-submarine training exercises around Fiji with USS S-38. Boutall is believed to have left SC-654 at the beginning of the year and was replaced by his XO, Ensign Ralph Engelman.
May 15th, 1944 - At Espiritu Santo
August 28th, 1944 - Took part in submarine training exercises around Las Perlas Islands (Pearl Islands) off Panama.
October, 1944 - At Espiritu Santo
November 16th, 1944 - Helped screen vessels off Guadalcanal
April 3rd, 1945 - Departed Guadalcanal for Suva via Espiritu Santo
August 11th, 1945 - At Guam. "At about 1000 King today the USS SC 654 went aground on Western Shoals north of Berth 24. The USS SC 654 was pulled off at high tide and will be dry-docked for repairs. The Industrial Department kept her afloat with additional pumps while divers put emergency patch over hole".
August 12th, 1945 - SC 654 went into ARDC-3 for repairs.
August 15th, 1945 - Official word of Japans surrender was received at Guam.
August 25th, 1945 - SC-654 released from dry dock.
December 11th, 1945 - Decommissioned
December 18th, 1945 - "The hulk of SC 654 was towed out to sea, approximately five miles from the mouth of the harbor, and sunk by two charges of dynamite".
It is unclear why the SC 654 was referred to as a hulk, other than her being decommissioned on the 11th. There is mention of a heavy storm or Typhoon on October 4th, during which several vessels broke their moorings. It is possible she was damaged during that storm.
The Bruning family owned the famous Bruning’s Seafood Restaurant, and his father Charles managed it and John worked there as a waiter growing up. The restaurant was one of the oldest in New Orleans and unfortunately was later badly damaged in Hurricane Georges in 1998 and finally destroyed by Katrina in 2005.
John graduated from Metairie High School and went on to graduate from Tulane University Law School in 1940, on the eve of WWII. According to the October 25th, 1942 edition of the Times-Picayune Newspaper, John was one of “nine young men from the New Orleans area commissioned as deck officers in the Naval Reserve after completion of a three-month V-7 training course at the Naval Reserve Midshipman’s school, New York City.” His was the eighth class to graduate, which included 753 young men.
Training would have taken place at the New York Navy Yard on the converted old battleship USS Illinois (BB-7), which was renamed IX-15 Prairie State. Young men like John that took part in the intensive 3 month course and graduated as Navy Reserve midshipmen were known as “90-Day Wonders”.
By June of 1943 he was a young 22-year-old Ensign serving as Executive Officer (XO) on the Submarine Chaser SC-654 in the South Pacific under the command of Lieutenant (j.g.) W.L. Hopkins. By September of 1943 Boutall was in command of the SC-654 himself, at the age of 23, a position he held at least through the end of December when he moved on and was replaced by his XO, Ensign Ralph Engleman.
He next appears in the records joining the Destroyer Escort USS O’Toole (DE-527) on September 4th. 1944 as a Lieutenant (j.g.). The transfer notes that he was received from the U.S. Naval Damage Control Training Center in Philadelphia, PA. The O’Toole was an Evarts-class Destroyer escort similar to the USS Dempsey, and was commanded by Lieutenant Victor Stallworth Mauldin. On May 1st, 1945 John was promoted to Lieutenant.
According to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, during this period “On 9 September, O’Toole stood out of New York Harbor on her first escort of convoy mission. Acting as communication liaison ship between CTG 27.5 and convoy NY 119, she shepherded the small craft convoy to the Azores, thence to Falmouth, England, arriving 18 October.”
That passage from the dictionary sounds almost mundane, but the reality was that convoy NY 119 was about as dramatic as it gets. Not because of German U-Boats as you might assume, but because of Mother Nature.
The convoy was comprised of a motley collection of seventy-six vessels, most contracted to the US Army and manned by civilian crews. These consisted of:
14 steel railroad car floats
14 wooden cargo barges
13 large seagoing tugs (LT-63, LT-374, LT-492, LT-521, LT-536, LT-537, LT-579, LT-580, LT-581, LT-643, LT-651, LT-653, and LT-784)
14 small harbor tugs (ST-501, ST-510, ST-511, ST-676, ST-677, ST-718, ST-719, ST-720, ST-742, ST-748, ST-750, ST-751, ST-752, and ST-747)
16 self-propelled harbor oil barges (Y-17, Y-34, Y-48, Y-49, Y-81, Y-82, Y-83, Y-84, Y-86, Y-104, Y-105, Y-106, Y-126, plus three others unidentified)
HMS Pretext (AN-76, British net tender built by American Car and Foundry Co.)
HMS Astravel (Small amphibious transport)
SS Suerte (Panamanian merchant)
In addition, there was also the fleet oiler USS Maumee (AO-2) and the sea-going tug USS Abnaki (ATF-96). The Army vessels were greatly needed in the ports the allies had recently liberated in France in the months after the D-Day Normandy landings.
Beside O’Toole, the escorts consisted of the Destroyer Escorts USS Edgar G. Chase (DE-16), USS John J. Powers (DE-528), USS John M. Bermingham (DE-530), and finally USS Mason (DE-529), the latter known for being the only US warship having a mostly “negro” crew. Like the men of the 855th, they would prove their mettle.
To complicate matters further, due to the capabilities of the vessels being escorted, convoy speed had to be held to an excruciating 5 knots, later reduced to 3.5 knots during the bad weather. This convoy then headed across the Atlantic into one of the worst hurricane seasons on record.
By the time they reached England they had lost 8 of the steel railroad car floats, 5 of the wooden cargo barges, 3 of the small harbor tugs, but miraculously only 18 men.
The ST tugs were all Army Design 327 (steel 86x23x10 650hp diesel):
The 18 men lost on the harbor tugs were all due to the small vessels foundering in the heavy seas. The sequence was as follows:
26 September 1944 at about 0230: ST-719 (Smith Shipyards, Pensacola Florida 1944) turned over without notice and sank. Weather at the time: Wind NE, 22-27 knots, Seas 5-8 feet from NE. USS John J. Powers (DE-528) saved 4, 10 saved in total. 2 crew lost:
Janos, Thomas – Cook
Malone, William L. - First Officer
18 October 1944 at 0515 ST-511 (United Boat Service, City Island New York 1944) turned over and sank. Two groups of survivors made it into rafts but sea conditions prevented successful rescue (Visibility less than 500 yards, seas 40-50 feet, wind 40 knots from west, very choppy, spindrift, and rollers continuous). A.B. Joseph D. Holliday was picked up by O'Toole and another man (unidentified) by LT-580, 9 crew lost:
Ambjornsen, Pedar A. - Cook
Canning, Horace M. – Master
Carey, Emmet T. – Oiler
Dunker, Richard J. – 1st Engineer
Evanson, Ivars – Cargo Officer
Hughes, George G. – A.B.
Larsen, Harry A. – A.B.
Walker, John Francis – A.B.
Wolcott, Josiah O. - Chief Mate
18 October 1944 ST-720 capsized at 0500 (Smith Shipyards, Pensacola Florida 1944) Winds in excess of 60mph, seas 40-50 feet. USS John J. Powers (DE-528) saved 4:
Buswell, Charles – SM2c
Forbes, Robert – Oiler
Lamude, Frederick – 1st Engineer
O’Leary, Michael – A.B.
7 crew lost:
Crossman, Richard Terrence – Chief Mate
McFarlane, James – A.B.
Moran, Stephen R. – A.B.
Scrivener, James E. – Chief Engineer
Sutcliffe, Thomas – A.B.
Thrasyvoulos, Joannides – Cargo Officer
Wallace, Edward A. – Master
Perhaps John’s previous experience during the Cape San Juan rescue on SC-654 helped in the rescue of some of the crews.
The Dictionary continued summarizing O'Toole's service: “On 8 November she departed for Reykjavik as escort to Abnaki (ATF–96). From Iceland she proceeded to Norfolk and New York, where she rejoined CortDiv 80. In mid-December the escort sailed with convoy UGS 64 [comprised of 72 merchant ships] for North Africa, returning 23 January 1945. Completing another Mediterranean run in April, she was enroute home from Algeria when the war in Europe ended.
Arriving at New York 23 May, she operated off the New England coast until mid-July when she proceeded to Miami, for a brief tour as school ship. In September, she moved north, reporting for inactivation at Charleston on the 10th. Decommissioned there 18 October, she was struck from the Navy List 1 November, and scrapped in March 1946.”
It is not clear from the O’Toole’s war diaries or rosters exactly when John left the vessel or when he was discharged, but it known that he did not stay in the Navy for long.
He married Marilyn Bartol and they had four children together; Richard, Charles, Katherine and William. John was very active in local organizations and he and his wife were known for their love of dancing.
John passed away on May 7th, 1998 from an apparent heart attack at East Jefferson General Hospital at the age of 77.
I was fortunate to have located his family through Ancestry.com, however, unfortunately they have elected not to participate at this time.
Ancestry.com for information on John C Boutall.
DANFS – Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships website for history of the USS O'Toole.
Fold3.com for military reports relating to this story.
GenealogyBank.com for information on John C Boutall including various newspaper articles.
Navsource.org for information on SC-654 and her type.
Spalding, Cheryl for information and photos of SC-654, on which her father, Robert C Heinze, served from March 9, 1944 (F2c) to September 17, 1945 (MoMM2c).
US Merchant Marine website at usmm.org for information on the Convoy NY119 casualties.
Wikipedia free on-line encyclopedia for summaries on miscellaneous topics related to this story.