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MELVIN SARGENT


Born: October 2, 1922
Place: LaPorte, Hubbard County, Minnesota
Military Service: Seaman First Class, USNR
Died: December 27, 1943
Place: Alutian Islands, Alaska



U.S. Naval Fueling Station
Navy 629, c/o Fleet P.O.
San Francisco, CA
31 December 1943

Mrs. Lura Sargent
LaPorte, Minnesota

My Dear Mrs. Sargent:

Weak and fruitless will be any attempt of mine to communicate to you by letter my heart felt sympathy in this hour of sorrow as you mourn the loss of your son, Melvin Sargent. Anything I might do, whatever I may say will on serve to add my condolence to those already received. However, I feel it my duty, as your son's commanding officer, to tell you something of the facts which surrounded this most unfortunate accident; not be means of sending you a copy of official statements, that have been made for the records, but rather thru this personal letter.

Your son, no doubt, has acquainted you with such facts regarding our station as censorship permits to be disclosed. We are not a very large base and, consequently, I am very close to all my men. I know their habits, their likes and dislikes, and many of their very personal problems.

Your son, Sarge, as he was familiarly known to most of his shipmates, was one of my good boys. His experience in the Navy had been very limited when he arrived here but he responded well to his training and developed very satisfactorily. During most of the time he had been on the station he had been assigned to one of the boats' crews. This was the type of work he was interested in. In fact, the only time that his performance was not especially satisfactorily was for a short period when he was taken out of the boats' crew and given the job of mess cook for about two months. He had too much energy for this latter assignment and I was very happy when it was possible to get him in the boat again.

He usually acted as coxswain and he took particular delight in operating his boat. He never complained about anything he had to do, so long as he had to make use of the boat in order to carry out his orders. He seemed to enjoy being out in his boat most when the water was a little rough and he had to wear his foul weather gear, rain clothes and goggles. To use an expression that to me would seem to characterize him best, "The tougher the going the better he liked it."

Since two days before Christmas our weather had been particularly bad. Monday morning, December 27, 1943 started out to be about the usual day. A moderate wind was blowing and there was some snow and sleet falling. I was at the dock when two of my officers came up to inform me that they were going out in one of the boats on a routine trip. I granted them permission to proceed and thought no more about them for about an hour and a half. Many times these trips require most of the morning.

About ten thrity I did inquire of one of my officers if he had seen anything of our boat. By this time it was becoming a little squally and visibility was poor, due to heavier sleet and snow. The wind was blowing but it was not stiff; the water was choppy but it was not too rough around the dock.

Suddenly my signalman rushed up to me and said, "Commander, our boat has capsized out in the harbor about a mile and half out and 250 yards off shore." I couldn't believe it until I noticed that in the direction of the harbor entrance there was evidence of small "williwawa," and when they come in they move in rapidly.

I immediately asked who was in the boat and was informed the two boarding officers, Lt.(jg) J.F. Orloff and Lt.(jg) Leonard Springer and the two regular members of the boat's crew, Melvin Sargent and Paul Jones were the only ones known to be aboard.

This was an emergency. Speed would be necessary, judgment would be required. Things did move promptly and efficiently. Our second motor whaleboat was on the marine railway, disabled without a rudder, but the boys launched an outboard motor boat, which I probably would not have permitted had I been there, and without regard for their own safety headed up the harbor. A small fishing schooner, of a friendly flag, was at the dock and I got aboard and the Captain got her underway.

By this time I had learned that one of the officers who was in the boat had swum ashore and made his way back to the officer's quarters to report the accident. By now the schooner had cleared the dock; the wind was howling and the visibility had closed in to half a mile at best. I had the doctor, my executive officer and several of my men aboard and we headed up the harbor, keeping the shoreline in sight, because from reports I felt that the boys had made the beach.

I knew there were life jackets in the boat, but I also knew that the boys did not like to wear them, and it was certain in my mind that if they did not have time to get them on their chances of getting ashore were not good. The officer that swam ashore and gave us the report was a swimmer in college, a well built boy who has plenty of stamina.

It has been proven that, life jackets or no life jackets, a man cannot expect to live in these waters longer than fifteen or twenty minutes. He may no drown, but he will simply freeze to death. So I knew that these boys had to be on the beach, and not too far from the scene of the accident, or they would never come back to us alive.

As we proceeded up the harbor on the schooner, I saw that our small outboard had been driven upon the beach by the wind. Also, a life boat that was launched by a ship in the harbor was on the beach at about the same spot. The wind now seemed to be at gale force, judging from the song it was singing as it whistled thru the rigging. We were running before it. My hopes began to dim as we passed a raft, dropped by one of the ships not to far from the scene of the accident, and the boys were not on it. But I said to the Captain of the schooner, "Keep going until we reach a position opposite the point up ahead."

When we got just beyond the point we saw two men running up and down the beach and then we could make out a life boat at the far end of the cove. This was about three miles from the station and a mile and a half from the accident, and I couldn't believe that these could be our boys.

The force of the wind was so terrific we could not think of entering the cove and their was no use for us to launch a boat with little chance of it reaching the beach safely and if it did it certainly could not get back to the schooner.

We decided that our only chance of reaching these men was overland, so we brought our boat about and headed back for the dock and directly into the teeth of the gale. The Captain of the schooner has spent many days at sea, but he told me that he had never experienced such a strong wind.

Our little craft trembled and shuddered with every gust. At times with our engines going full ahead we were barely holding our own. Twice I had visions that we might end up where the life boats had come to rest, shipwrecked on the beach right in our own front yard, and we too might have to swim for the beach.

To reach the boys on the beach, and it had to be done, because we knew that some of the boys in the life boats crews were wet and there could be serious results due to exposure, meant a tough journey over rugged terrain made more difficult by high snow drifts and a very strong wind sweeping and swirling snow before it.

Finally, we made the dock with our little craft. It then was reported to me that the second officer in the boat had made the shore about one and a half miles up the beach. He was standing in the water waist deep practically exhausted when rescued. He was at sick bay when I saw him and his condition did not seem to be too bad.

I had all hands get chow as quickly as possible. A resue party of three men was to go out in the first group and head for the men farthest up the beach (3 miles). For this party we picked our strong boys and they carried two blankets each. They left about 1300.

I then decided that subsequent parties would go out at about one hour periods, so that fresh men would be leaving at intervals who would be able to intercept and assist some of those who had gone to more distant points and needed help. Some parties carried a stretcher, others hot coffee in insulated jugs, and others took brandy and more blankets.

About four thirty one boy from the first party out came in. He reported that his party had reached the men they were sent out to contact and given them the blankets they had carried. Also he said the life boat's crew fartherest up the beach had covered our two boys from the water, both had life jackets on but they were dead. The member of the life boat's crew who went into the water to recover the bodies was not in very good condition because of exposure.

About this time we sent out our last rescue party. Five men were in this party including a pharmacist mate. They had flashlights, a jug of coffee and blankets. Their specific instructions were to get everyone back. They had to bring everyone in; no one was to be left behind.

Soon after they departed I went out to meet a boy who had gone out in the first party. He was barely able to stagger in. When I got to him he said, "I'm all right, Captain," as he leaned on my shoulder, "but if you don't get to those boys pretty soon they're never going to make it."

For about a week I had had a dose of cat fever and it left me about as weak as a cat. I really don't know whether Hoover helped me or I helped him into sick bay.

At this time I received a report that there were two members of this life boat's crew farthest out who were dead.

Our last party had gone out and the instructions given them were definite. But I wasn't sure the results would be that which I had asked for -- it was a big order. The wind continued stiff and it was now dusk. A storm in the daytime can make things difficult, but a real storm at night is terrifying -- and we were have a real storm.

Everything possible had to be done. Now it was our wits against the wind. The two boys we had gone out to rescue were gone, we knew that, but there were now eleven men in the rescue parties still out who had to be saved. I felt that they could not make it back overland and unless we got a change in the weather we could not get them off the beach in a boat.

Finally, it was decided that we would load a life boat with essentials including dry clothing, more blankets, some hot food, a bale of oil-soaked rags, etc. Then we would tow this life boat out by the schooner to a ponit off the beach where we wanted to land it. The life boat then would be cast off and paid out on a tow line so that possibly we might have some control over it as we attempted to float it safely ashore.

It was now about eight o'clock at night and we were almost ready to leave when I looked up and saw a string of lights coming up over the last ridge. It was more rescuers to be sure, but how many were left behind. I came up from the dock to meet them. Some were being partially carried and dragged while others were under their own power, although not in good condition. We got the first bunch into sick bay, there were five of them. They were exhausted and their faces, hands and feet were very cold but apparently not frozen. I said to one of them "Where is Harper?", he was reported to be in bad shape and the reply was "He's coming in and we think he'll make it." "What about the two members of the life boat's crew who have been reported dead?" "No sir," this man replied, "they are only in very bad shape but they are bringing them in. They need assistance if you have any fresh men you can sent out."

We mustered a relief crew and they went out to give assistance. I told them that they were the last men we had and it was up to them to be responsible fro themselves and they had to get back without assistance. Within half an hour they were back with three men in very bad shape. After Doc had worked on them awhile he reported to me that they would come thru.

Doc was a busy man most of the night. Some of the men we had moved out of the sick bay into their barracks were becoming hysterical and Doc had to give them knock out shots. By this time I had no strength left so I turned in. I slept very little and altho I went to bed late it was a very long night.

By morning the wind had subsided somewhat. I got up but felt weak, got dressed and went down to the dock. No sooner did I arrive than I turned around and came back to my house and barely made it. Doc said that I would have to stay in that I was allright but in perfect shape to catch anything.

I gave instructions to send a boat up the beach to recover the bodies. About one o'clock their mission completed, this boat returned. I had had lunch and felt a little stronger so I went down to meet it.

We kept the bodies here until the next day, Wednesday, when a boat came over to take the remains to Dutch Harbor, where they will be buried.

All the boys have felt the shock. Partly, perhaps, because we are a small station and we live so closely to one another. They are not anxious to go out in the boats, and I didn't receive many volunteers for a boat's crew. I am sure that these boys would be brave in battle, but this all seemed different. It was not the same as if these lives had been lost as a result of enemy action. It seemed to come as a tragedy. They were not the first to meet their death in these waters but they were the first men I had lost.

I feel that proper safety precautions were taken before the accident occurred and that by getting into their life jackets the boys responded well to the instructions they had been given. Had they been stronger swimmers they possibly would have made the shore. I also feel that after we received the word everything possible was done to effect their rescue.

It was not my original intention to give you a letter of such lenghth but I have given you the full story of everything that took place as I now remember it. We haven't fired a shot except in practice and we haven't had a bomb dropped on us, but there are times when we find that we have a battle on our hands. A battle with the elements, the wind and the sea. Both can be treacherous opponents. Unless you are strong and well equipped when you have to face them you may not survive. This afternoon you might properly have named the harbor "Mirror Lake," but by morning all the reflections will have been erased.

The Plan of the Day for 28 December 1943, carried the following tribute:
"Today the station mourns the loss of our two shipmates, Melvin Sargent, S1c, and Paul Jones, S1c, who gave their lives in the line of duty. May we not all accept their sacrifice as a direct challenge to carry on our assignment here to the best of our ability and strength."

Three ships in the harbor furnished commendable assistance and I sent this letter to two of them:
"The Commanding Officer wishes to convey his deep and sincere appreciation to you and your brave life boat's crew, who without regard for their own safety, launched their boat during a 'williwaw' in the harbor and made every effort to rescue from the water two American Sailors whose boat had capsized. Later your men exhibited fine courage and spririt in making a three mile overland journey over difficult terrain and against a wind of gale-like velocity, after it had become necessary for them to beach their boat. This act shall ever serve to further cement our pleasant friendship."

To the third vessel, the schooner I made the trip on, I sent this letter:
"The Commanding Officer wishes to convey his hearty thanks and sincere appreciation to you for your efforts in assisting us with your vessel in a search for missing crew members of our small boat that capsized and sank. The dispatch with which you got your ship under way and cleared the dock under unfavorable weather conditions demonstrated fine ship handling. I accept your assistance as an act of truest friendship and fine cooperation."

This is my record of the most difficult experience of my life. There may be others ahead and for the reason we are here we stand ready to face them.

For you and the other members of your family, I fully realize that you have suffered an irreparable loss. May you enjoy God's blessing.

Cordially,
E.S. LEE
Lt. Comdr., USNR


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