Seventy-six years years after the end of World War II, that singular event continues to capture our interest and fascination. There’s a reason for that; the war combined two greatly compelling things — the epic, historic sweep of large-scale battles and the personal stories of the individual young men who fought in them with determined resolve and humble heroism.
My guest has written a book that deftly combines both of these elements into a thoroughly memorable tale. His name is James Sullivan and he’s the author of Unsinkable: Five Men and the Indomitable Run of the U.S.S. Plunkett. Today on the show, Jim shares the story of the Plunkett — the only Navy ship to participate in every Allied invasion in the European theatre — as well as the stories of a group of men who served on this destroyer. We begin with the personal connection Jim has to the Plunkett, and how he got interested in learning more about the ship. Jim then explains the role the Navy’s destroyers played during WWII, before getting into the backstories of some of the men who served aboard the Plunkett. From there we delve into the escorting and landing operations the Plunkett was involved in leading up to its arrival along the Italian coast at Anzio, where a dozen German bombers bore down on the ship in one of the most savage attacks of the war, and how the ship yet lived to fight another day. We end our conversation with what happened to the men Jim profiled, how the war affected their lives, and how their lives affected Jim.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- How Jim became immersed in the tale of the Plunkett
- The importance of destroyers in the US Navy
- How Jim found the men of the Plunkett and the connection with his Great Uncle
- What was the Plunkett doing before the US entered the war?
- The Plunkett’s first taste of action
- The casualties that befell the men of the Plunkett
- What happened to the ship after the war?
- What did Jim take away from studying the lives of these brave men?
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast
- The Lumberjack Commandos of WWII
- The Story of the Skiing Soldiers of WWII
- Millennials as Human Wormholes to WWII
- Das Boot
- Ed Burke
- The Merchant Marine and the War Against Hitler’s U-Boats
- HMHS Newfoundland
- Battle of Anzio
Connect With James
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Read the Transcript
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. 76 years after the end of World War II, that singular event continues to capture our interest and fascination. And there’s a reason for that; the war combined two greatly compelling things, the epic historic sweep of large-scale battles and the personal stories of the individual young men who fought them with determined resolved and humble heroism. My guest has written a book that deftly combines both of these elements into a thoroughly memorable tale. His name is Jim Sullivan, and he’s the author of the book “Unsinkable: Five Men and the Indomitable Run of the USS Plunkett”.
Today on the show, Jim shares the story of the Plunkett, the only Navy ship to participate in every Allied invasion in the European Theater, as well as the stories of a group of men who served on this destroyer. Jim then explains the role the Navy’s destroyers played during World War II before getting into the backstories of some of the men who served aboard the Plunkett. From there, we delve into the escorting and landing operations the Plunkett was involved in leading up to its arrival along the Italian coast of Anzio, where a dozen German bombers bore down the ship in one of the most savage attacks of the war and how the ship yet lived to fight another day. And we end our conversation with what happened to the men Jim profiled, how the war affected their lives and how their lives affected Jim. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/unsinkable.
Alright, Jim Sullivan, welcome to the show.
Jim Sullivan: Well, thank you for having me, Brett.
Brett McKay: So you got a new book out called “Unsinkable: Five Men and the Indomitable Run of the USS Plunkett”. So what led you in doing this deep dive in the history of this World War II destroyer, the USS Plunkett, and some of the men who served on it?
Jim Sullivan: Well, it started with a family trip I was planning to Italy in 2016. We were gonna go to Rome and Florence and Venice, and we were thinking about a side trip to Pompeii. But logistically from Rome, it’s a big day trip, so much closer and of more interest to my kids were the beaches at Anzio. And Anzio was also the site of a famous battle during the Second World War and two of my grandfather’s brothers were involved in that. And there was this one story that my great-uncle Frank Gallagher used to tell. He was one of five Gallagher brothers, four of them went away to the war. And Frank used to tell the story his whole life about this reunion that he had with his brother, John, who was in the Navy, right before they both went into Anzio. Frank was a medic in the Fifth Army. And right before they went into Anzio on this amphibious landing, Frank realized that his brother’s ship, the USS Plunkett, a Navy destroyer, was part of the task force that would be taking the landing craft in. There were 36,000 men going in.
So Frank steals out of camp, he’s got a Jerrycan have filled with red wine, and knowing Frank, I’m sure he was hauling off at all the way into Naples. He wasn’t supposed to go in there. They had typhoid. They said stay out, but he wanted to get in. And he gets in and he goes to the flagship and they tell him that, “Yeah, well, the Plunkett’s in the area,” they wouldn’t tell him where. So Frank jumps into this little bumboat, a wooden boat, and has this Italian boatman row him out among these harbored out Navy ships, and he’s looking for the profile of a destroyer and its hull number 431. And he finds it. And so he has this Italian boat man row him up to the fantail, which is about four-and-a-half, five feet above over the waterline. And he clambers up on board, uninvited, defying all protocol, with his Jerrycan of wine, and the ship is coming to general quarters because it’s dusk, which is the most perilous time of day for a Navy ship. You’ve got bombers coming in the roadstead at that time of day, and he thinks it’s for him. He thinks that they’ve turned up because he’s done something wrong.
Well, he did do something wrong and the captain comes down from the bridge and is chewing him out. And as that’s happening, one of the gunners on the ship is looking over at the apron of his gun tub, and he sees this guy getting chewed out by the captain. He says, “Jeez, that looks like my brother.” And then he realizes it is his brother. And he runs to the fantail and explains what’s going on to the captain. And well, they had their reunion. So Frank told that story his whole life. In my family, we’d heard it, each of us, so many times. And when I started heading to Italy in 2016, I thought I should… I know very little about this story except what Frank said, maybe it’s time to find out more.
Brett McKay: And so what I liked about this book is… I’ve read a lot of books about World War II, but they usually have been about land warfare. So the one-on-one tank warfare. I’ve read a lot of books about air warfare during World War II. And this is one of the few books I read about naval warfare. So I learned quite a bit. So before we get into the story of the Plunkett and your great-uncles, can you give us some history behind the destroyers in the US Navy, like first off, what what makes a destroyer, a destroyer?
Jim Sullivan: Sure, sure. Well, it’s one of five iconic Navy ships. There’s the battleship, the aircraft carrier, the submarine, the cruiser and the destroyer. And the destroyer is about… The size of a destroyer is 1650 tons. That was the size of the Plunkett. It displaced 1630 tons of water. Now, battleship is… Its displacement is 38,000 tons. So it’s like 20 times larger than a destroyer. And the destroyer’s job was really to shepherd other ships, whether they be in convoy, Liberty ships, merchant ships that are crossing the Atlantic or the Mediterranean to supply ground forces, or it’s to work along the outer edges of a task force as they’re going into an amphibious landing. There were six of them in North Africa and in Europe during the Second World War. And they were fighting submarines below the water, they were fighting aircraft above, and to a much lesser extent they were engaged in surface combat on the water. So that’s the destroyer. It’s built to go fast. The hull on a destroyer is only three-eighths of an inch thick. They called them tin cans for that reason.
On a battleship, the armored plates are… It’s a foot thick. So these ships that are about as long as a football field and most of its endzones, they could really move up 37, 38 knots, which is 43, 44 miles per hour is their top speed, what they called flank speed. And that’s about as fast as a racehorse goes. So, think of this ship that’s as long as a football field moving that fast at flank speed. And there were occasions that during the war when the Plunkett was moving out that fast. So that’s the basics on a destroyer. I like to think of them as sort of the grunt on point in the jungle. They were always first in harm’s way, sort of the minute man behind the stone wall. And there’s a certain romance that goes with a destroyer that maybe isn’t there with the battleship or the carrier. So they’re distinctive. They think of themselves as… The men, the sailors who are on destroyers think of themselves as destroyer men. It’s something of a breed apart.
Brett McKay: What sort of weaponry does a destroyer typically have?
Jim Sullivan: Well, during the Second World War, and the Plunkett in particular had four five-inch guns. Destroyers generally had five five-inch guns, but they always had problems with… They were top heavy, so the Plunkett removed one of its five-inch guns and put a 1.1-inch gun mount in place. It takes a dozen men, four barrels on a 1.1-inch gun. So you’ve got four big five-inch guns and they run up and down the center line of the ship. You’ve got the 1.1-inch gun, which is essentially on the center line of the ship. And then all around the edges of the ship, you’ve got a half a dozen… There were six 20-millimeter guns. And the five-inch guns would go after the dive bombers and the aircraft, the high flyers that were really far away, and the 20-millimeters would go after torpedo bombers or aircraft that would sweep in low because their range wasn’t as far.
Brett McKay: Do you have any idea how many men typically served on a destroyer, like a rough idea?
Jim Sullivan: Yeah, there were generally 250 men, and I think that was the number on Plunkett at its greatest. They also were the flagship for their squadron. There were seven other ships, or six other ships in their squadron, and so you had a complement of six junior officers and the squadron commander, so about 250 enlisted men and then a dozen officers.
Brett McKay: And what was the destroyer’s role during World War II? So let’s talk about at the beginning, and then how did that change as the war progressed?
Jim Sullivan: Well, in the beginning, they did a lot of hunter-killer work. That was the term they used when they went after submarines at the beginning of the war. Before we were really in the war, there was the Phony War, where the Germans were in the North Atlantic taking out merchant ships. We were trying to supply Great Britain with material before we got into it through the lend-lease program. So there was a lot of convoy work early on in the war, and they were doing a lot of with sonar, looking for submarines. Later in the war, a carrier-based aircraft became a more effective means of getting at submarines, but early on it was the destroyer. And when you think of some of those old World War II movies… Not too long ago, I saw Das Boot again, and there was nothing a submariner wanted to see less in his periscope than a destroyer plowing a V right at them. So that’s, especially in the Atlantic theater, that’s what they were doing early on in the war.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I guess that Tom Hanks movie, Greyhound, that’s kind of like what they did, protecting merchant marines.
Jim Sullivan: That’s right, yeah, I think they were escorting a convoy of Liberty ships.
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, and I just watched Das Boot for the first time this week, and it’s intense. It’s a really good movie.
Jim Sullivan: It is.
Brett McKay: It’s a really good movie. So do we know how many destroyers there were at the peak of World War II?
Jim Sullivan: I think 514 destroyers went into the war in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, and 71 of them were lost to the likes of torpedoes and aerial assault, especially in the Pacific. The Pacific was much more the Navy’s war than the Atlantic or the Mediterranean, and it’s in the Pacific at the likes of Guadalcanal and Leyte Gulf where you had those real fire away Flanagans, where battleships were going toe-to-toe with 14-inch shells. That didn’t happen in the Atlantic. The Pacific was all about carriers, aircraft. And destroyers were pivotal and critical in the Pacific because they had to watch out for submarines around the fringes of the carrier task forces. In the Atlantic, it was much more a matter of destroyers and cruisers. And the battleship by this time, really, it was almost obsolete.
Brett McKay: Alright, so your book focuses on a few of the men who served on the Plunkett. There’s your great-uncle, of course, but who are the other men you decided to focus on, and why did you focus on those guys?
Jim Sullivan: Well, before I knew it was a book, there was that family trip I mentioned to Italy. And before we went over there, I began to wonder, knowing that we were gonna go to Anzio, I began to wonder, “Are any of the men who were on that ship still with us?” It just seemed so improbable. This is 2016. So I jump on the internet and I start looking, and I run into a website for their last reunion in 2011, the USS Plunkett had had its last reunion. There was a phone number for a man at the bottom of the page. I just rang him out of the blue, and he had been on the Plunkett during the war, but he came on after Anzio. And we had a really nice talk, and I asked him if he knew of any of the men who had been on the ship at Anzio, were they still around? And he said, “Well, yeah, there’s this one fella named Jim Feltz, really nice guy, and I’m sure he’ll talk to you.” So he gives me Jim’s two phone numbers, his cellphone and his home phone, and I call him on a Saturday morning. I catch him on… He’s at a home show, which I think is just great. He’s 91 years old at a home show. He’s gonna do a kitchen renovation. [chuckle] He’s not giving up, this guy.
And so we start talking, Jim and I, and I tell him I’m just interested in the Plunkett. And for about five or six minutes we’re talking, and he says, “Well, look, would you give me a call back tomorrow? We can pick it up at home. I’ll be happy to talk to as long as you like.” And I said I would, and I told him before I hung up, I said, “I just wanna let you know, my uncle was on that ship. I have a personal connection, and his name’s John J. Gallagher,” and I hear this silence on the other end of the phone, and I’m thinking, “Well, here’s a man who’s in his 90s trying to remember back 70 years, 250 men, he doesn’t wanna disappoint me.” Because I’d heard that from other people. And then I think my call was dropped. I look at my phone and it wasn’t. And when Jim comes back to me, there’s a smile in his voice as big as the moon, and he says, “Johnny Gallagher was a very good buddy of mine.” And I knew from that moment that more was going to have to be done with this story. So again, it began really with that phone call with Jim Feltz. I just pivoted. I was standing in my driveway, I made this phone call, it was just curiosity. And I think by the time I had hung up the phone, I knew that I was gonna have to do something significant with this story.
Brett McKay: Alright, so Jim was sort of the guy, sort of the linchpin to this. He was able to give you this first-hand account, and one of the men that you talked about in the book, and I’m sure Jim talked to you a lot, was about the commander of the Plunkett. The Plunkett had a few commanders, but the one you focused on in the book was this guy named Edward Burke. What’s his story, what was his background, and how did that prepare him for the leadership of the Plunkett?
Jim Sullivan: Sure, yeah, Eddie Burke, what a character. He was born 1907, just outside Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, grandson of a coal miner and the son of a man who began work in the coal mines and then came out of the mines, became semi-professional, but who never moved his family out of that neighborhood. So, Eddie Burke grew up fighting all the time. That’s what he did, and it was actually a… Grantland Rice, the renowned sportswriter, once wrote a sports-like column about Eddie Burke, and writes about his youth. This is back in the 1920s. So Burke, he gets an appointment to the Naval Academy, or he’s in the class of 1929, starts boxing as soon as he gets to the academy, or continues fighting as soon as he gets to the academy. And he was a light heavy-weight in his senior year. In 1929, he loses the National Light Heavyweight Collegiate Championship to this guy, O’Malley, from MIT. So, at the same time that he’s boxing, he’s also playing football, and he’s one of only just a handful of men who became all-American from the midshipmen on the academy’s football team.
In fact, they played at Soldier Field in 1928 against Knute Rockne’s Ramblers, before they were called the Fighting Irish. And the sports crowd was 110,000 people. It was the largest group of spectators that had ever gathered in the history of the world for a sporting event up until that time. There’s this great photo of Ed Burke staring down this other… The captain of the Ramblers. And so, Burke had this. He was a guy who knew how to play offense and defense at the same time, and both of those skills we’re gonna be necessary at Anzio, where he had to play offense and defense for the course of that 25-minute run with the German Luftwaffe.
Brett McKay: Well, the way you described his relationship with his men, then he wasn’t the nicest captain. They’ve had other commanders that they liked a lot more. This guy, Burke, was a little tougher.
Jim Sullivan: He was, yeah, and he followed… The captain of the Plunkett, who preceded him was Lewis Miller from Texas, who ran with Jack Simpson, one of the five men at the heart of my book. He said that Lewis Miller, Captain Miller, ran a happy ship. And I think that was a Navy term that they used back in the day. A happy ship was a ship where you had a really good, well-respected commander who kept his men well fed. I think that was the principal attribute of a commander of a happy ship was that he got good food for his guys. And Burke, Jack Simpson always said he was an incredible wartime commander, but he did not run a happy ship. They all respected him, but he was, at the same time, a man who brook no discord, who brought boxing gloves on to the Plunkett, and who would’ve take his shirt off on the fantail and say, “Look, my shirt’s off, my gloves are on. Anybody who wants to go toe to toe with me, please step up. Nothing will be said after the fact.” And I think he did a lot of sparring. But at the end of the day, they respected him to no end, and it was a remarkable journey that Burke had with him.
Brett McKay: Another one of the veterans of the Plunkett that you got to talk to in person was this guy named Ken Brown. What’s his story and how did he end up on the Plunkett?
Jim Sullivan: Right, yeah. Ken is from Glen Ellyn, Illinois, not far from Chicago. His father was a typewriter, Royal typewriter salesman. And they were a middle-class family, fairly well-to-do. His father bought him a new car when he turned 16 or 17 years old. And Ken was the kinda guy who was making as much as he could of what it meant to be a kid in the 1930s. He loved to drive his car, to drive fast, he loved parties, he loved boozing it up as a kid, girls, the whole thing, music. When you look at pictures of him in the 1930s, you can almost read from the smirk on his face that he was up to a lot of a no good. And horse races, he loved the horse races. And his father decided him… Ken’s got not plan for his future. And this is Ken telling me all this. But his father does, and his father decides that Ken should go to the Naval Academy. He’s a smart kid, Ken is, and didn’t work, he said, very hard at it, but he was smart enough, and he got an appointment to the Naval Academy, class of 1942. And so, he gets to the academy and it’s the same thing.
He and some other guys, they carved an illicit room into Bancroft Hall, where they were living their first year, and they’d have this private drinking chamber. Those are the sorts of stories that Ken tells about his time at the academy. And so, he’s in the class of 1942. And in the fall of 1941, as the war seemed imminent. The U-boats are causing havoc all up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States, and it’s only a matter of time now before we’re gonna get into it. And so, the academy bumps up its graduation from June to February, and then Pearl Harbor, on December 7th, and they bump up the graduation again to December 19th, 1941. So, Ken, thinking that the war was gonna be really active in the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean, he had put in for an assignment for the Atlantic. But then after Pearl Harbor, it became clear that the Navy’s greater mission was gonna be in the Pacific. But he’s on his way to the Atlantic now. He goes home for the holidays. And in January, he took a train from Chicago to Boston and reported for duty on the Plunkett.
Brett McKay: The story that I enjoy the most following was Jim Feltz’s story. Tell us… We’ll talk about what happens, ’cause there’s this epic battle that happened that the Plunkett took part in. But before that, what was Jim like? What was his life like before joining the Navy? How old was he when he signed up, why did he join the Navy, etcetera?
Jim Sullivan: Right. Well, Jim, he got his year into high school and then into a second year, and he just decided that high school wasn’t for him. One of his good friends broke his leg and lost his job at the local Five & Dime. Jim called Mr. Siegel and said, “Can I have his job?” And he said okay. Jim’s mother signed the paper. He got out of school and he went to work as a stock boy. This is in a little town just outside St. Louis, Overland, Missouri. His father had been a skilled, semi-skilled laborer, but he’d had an accident, was crippled. And Jim lived in a house with his brothers, and sisters, and their wives, it was crowded. He slept on a cot in the living room. There wasn’t a lot of money, and he’s working in this Five & Dime. And one day, he’s 16 years old, and this girl walks into the store, and he’s smitten, and she doesn’t think much of him, but her aunt who was only six years older than she is, her name is Betty Kneemiller, and her aunt is named Mickey, she thinks the world of Jim, ’cause he was essentially, just a kid of great integrity, who had grown into a man of great integrity. And she wants her niece to connect with Jim, and Betty agrees.
And she goes out, they… Read a lot of the letters between them, and she was really mean to him, and she admitted as much later during their early days, but he hung in there. She loved nothing… To do nothing so much as dance, swing dance, and jitterbug, and the imperial style, and Jim couldn’t dance a lick, and wouldn’t even try. He was just, he said, too bashful, and he’d never do it. So, the deck was sort of stacked against him. Not only that, but Betty’s father, while he liked Jim well enough, but he had higher aspirations for his daughter. And so, the deck was stacked against Jim. And now here comes the war, and he’s in the Five & Dime, he’s trying to make this romance stick, and as Jim once told me, he said, the war swept down Maine Street in our town, and it just swept us up, all along. And he went into the Navy, because guys were telling him that the Navy is where you debunk, and where you get hot food, and you don’t have to sleep on the ground. And that made sense to him. So that’s how in April of 1942, he was swept into service.
Brett McKay: But, during his service, him and Betty, they stayed in touch?
Jim Sullivan: They did. And it was remarkable. I had asked Jim early on if they were writing, as everybody was writing back then, and he said, they had. And I went out to visit him several times, and I asked if he ever saved any of the letters, and he says, “Yeah, I think I’ve got a few of them around here. I haven’t looked at them in years. Betty wanted me to destroy them, but I always saved them.” And he takes me into this closet in his house, and he opens this cardboard box, there’s literally hundreds of letters from the war. And by that time I was writing and researching, and it was just a gold mine. And I asked Jim if I could read some of them. And he picked up the whole box and said, “Here, have at it.” So, I’ve got this really interesting relationship of this romance that began in 1941 between these two kids. She was 15, at the time, he was 16, and that ran all the way through the war. And I mean, it’s priceless stuff. I’ve persuaded Jim that at some point, those letters need to go into an archive or a museum or somewhere. So yeah, that was just fascinating to get that kind of information and access to that.
Brett McKay: I’ll admit, that was one of my fear. I was wondering, “Okay, are Jim and Betty gonna make it?” It was, throughout the whole book. ‘Cause there’s this great picture of them. Just a great looking couple, and you wanted a way it can work for them, so we’ll see if it works for ’em, here in a bit. So these guys get on the Plunkett, what sort of duty did the Plunkett do early on in the war?
Jim Sullivan: Well, early in the war, there was a lot of training to be done, up and down the Eastern seaboard. I mean, you’ve got, what the Germans called the happy time. There was a happy time and a second happy time, because there was a lot of initial resistance. I think that’s sometimes forgotten, that we didn’t prowl into the Second World War guns blazing. There was a lot of resistance to our getting involved in another European war. And President Roosevelt was biding the country’s time and reading the mood of the country. He knew that he had to lead from behind, and there had to be… The American public had to be persuaded this was something that we had to do. Well, he got that event precipitously at Pearl Harbor. But even leading up before Pearl Harbor, the U-boats were prowling up and down the East Coast of the United States, and businesses up and down the East Coast were reluctant to follow the dim light ordinances and to black out the cities and the coastal communities. Because if you’re a merchant ship and you’re coming up the Eastern Seaboard from the Gulf with a tanker of oil, if the lights of a city are behind you, well, your ship is silhouetted by that city, and the Germans loved it. And that’s why they called it the happy time, because it was just so easy to take down merchant ships.
So, there was a lot of that happening up and down the East Coast. So the Plunkett is there, in the early part of the war, and they are up and down and into the Caribbean. And then they started on the convoys. After lend-lease came into play, early on… Before we actually even got into the war, the destroyers were called upon to help transport the material from the United States to supply Great Britain. They were… After the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, they were hurting pretty badly. We had not yet got into the war and they were down to the bare minimum, and so the convoys were re-supplying Britain. So the Plunkett is back and forth to the UK and to Scotland, which is where the convoys often ended up. And it was only… It wasn’t until November of 1942 that these guys waded into the war in a meaningful way.
Operation Torch in November of 1942 was the first Trans-Atlantic Convoy that transported men from the United States to North Africa. This is where we were gonna prosecute the war first. And the Plunkett was in… Was part of this first task force in the second wave. And they ended up in Casablanca of all places. In fact, on the day that the movie Casablanca, the Bogart and Bergman movie came out, premiered at the Hollywood theater in New York, and the Plunkett was in Casablanca on that day that it premiered. There was no Rick’s Cafe, of course, but Jim… I’ve got some interesting pictures of Jim and my great-uncle, John Gallagher, out on Liberty that day. They went into a photography store, studio and took all these great pictures with locals and foreign sailors. And so they were happy to get into it. They were bored in the beginning, they really wanted to get into it. They were desperate to get into it. And this was how they were commemorating, their first invasion. It wasn’t much of an invasion for them, ’cause they came in in the second wave, all the major fighting had been done. They were even calling Casablanca the “Ice Cream Front” at that point. But those things would change for them soon enough.
Brett McKay: When did the Plunkett see its first real action during the war?
Jim Sullivan: So that was… Let’s see now, so this is… Casablanca is November of ’42. And once we had brought all of our… The Allies had come into North Africa, engaged Rommel. There were months of fighting before we finally took charge there. I think it was all the way into May or so before North Africa was settled. The Plunkett had gone back to the States and went back to Casablanca, back to the States again. And then finally, in May of ’43, they went back over to North Africa. And now that North Africa has been relatively pacified by the Allies, it’s time to turn their attention to Europe. And in July, the Allies planned the invasion of Sicily. I think it was July 9th, and Plunkett is part of that first wave in now, on this invasion, at Jayla. There were three landing spots on the island of Sicily. It was eventually gonna take the Allies 30 days to get the Germans off Sicily, and they did. Patton, along the north shore of Sicily, moved the Germans right up toward Messina, and they escaped across the Strait of Messina. It took 30 days to mop it up. That’s where Plunkett first engaged in battle. And then from there on, pretty much from July 10th, 1943 right up through Anzio, all the way through Omaha Beach, they were in the thick of it.
Brett McKay: You talked about one story where they played a pivotal role in defending… There was, I guess a British hospital ship got bombed, and the Plunkett was there to defend. What happened there? What was going on there?
Jim Sullivan: Yeah, that was the HMS Newfoundland. It was a British hospital ship, there happened to be 100 or so American nurses that had been going into Salerno a couple of days after the landing. Frank Gallagher was part of that. He’s ashore now, getting his first taste of combat in September of 1943. So Sicily was July, early July, now we’re up to September. The Allies are now, for the first time, they have gone ashore on mainland Europe at Salerno, which is south of Rome, south of the Amalfi Coast. And the Newfoundland now is coming in to deliver this contingent of nurses, who were excited to be the first nurses to come ashore during the Second World War. But it was too hot. In fact, the landings at Salerno were so bad, Frank Gallagher used to say, “We had Panzer tanks right down in the sand with us, it was so bad.” And it was so bad, that beachhead, and so hot for a week that there was a chance that the Germans were gonna throw the Allies right offshore back out to sea. And Navy commanders were beside themselves because they said, “We have never done this. You guys need to do what you do to maintain that beachhead.”
And so, Mark Clark, he was the commander of that army, he did what he could. They avoided disaster. In the meantime, the Newfoundland, which was about to land, moved way back offshore and it gets bombed by the Germans. You’re not supposed to bomb a hospital ship. The thing’s got… It’s lit up like a Christmas tree at night with all kinds of streamers and lights. There’s a huge red cross on the roof of the deck houses, so there’s no mistaking it, but the Luftwaffe dropped one on it, killed a couple of dozen people, none of the nurses, but the thing is burning, and it’s full of medical supplies that are needed because the beachhead, their hold on the beachhead is still tenuous. And so Plunkett is one of the ships that responds to this crisis, and they steam out to where the Newfoundland is, and they do… They spend 24 hours fighting that fire.
Jim Feltz, he says he was the first… He was on a repair party. It was his job on the Plunkett, when a bomb struck or a torpedo struck, or there was fire, the repair parties were the guys that… The men that got to it. And so, Jim and a dozen men jumped over onto the Plunkett and they fought that fire for in bouts of like an hour and a half, and then they’d pull them all back aboard the Plunkett and the ship would circle around. So there was a lot of that happening, and finally they just decided that the ship couldn’t be saved and they had to scuttle it, so they… Ken Brown, who was the gun boss on the ship, who commanded the ship’s battery of guns, he put 40-some odd five inch shells into the hull of that hospital ship until it sunk. So there were incidents like that, all the way from the summer now, it just… It was almost like a whirlpool that just kept getting hotter and hotter for these guys. The Newfoundland was one and The Buck was another, another destroyer that was torpedoed.
Brett McKay: Well, everything leads up to this epic battle off the coast of Anzio, Italy, so… And it was 24 minutes long, lots of damage. What led up to this battle that the Plunkett was involved in?
Jim Sullivan: Right, so the Allies are ashore now and they’ve been ashore since September. They came ashore at Salerno, but they can’t get up the Italian boot. If you picture Italy, think about a line that’s cut right across the middle of Italy. That was the Gustav line. The Germans had fortified this line, knowing that the Allies eventually would sweep up from the south. And they had their guns on the high ground, especially at Monte Cassino, which is sort of famous for… Because the Allies couldn’t get past it. It was the Rapido and the Volturno rivers, the Allies were trying to punch up either of these river valleys to get to Rome, but they couldn’t do it, so Monte Cassino was too tough. So Winston Churchill, who is famous for wading into among his generals on a tactical level, he decides that what they need to do is an end run around Monte Cassino, land the Allies at Anzio and Nettuno, its two beaches, and then they can just make the final push up to Rome, which was 25 miles to the north.
It sounded great in conception, except that the Germans anticipated the Allies landing there because they were the natural… They were these two stunning beaches, perfect for amphibious landings. And so they anticipated it. They got ready, and when the Allies came, they plugged ’em for five months. They couldn’t move off that beachhead. And by beachhead, I mean a swath of land that was maybe five miles deep and 10 miles wide, the Allies couldn’t break out of that. So that was the plan, the run up to Anzio was a way to sort of do an end run around the Monte Casino, and it just, it didn’t work out as planned.
Brett McKay: And so what was the Plunkett’s role in all this? Why were they there?
Jim Sullivan: So the Plunkett, was part of the task force. There were 36,000 men that were landed at Anzio Nettuno. And when you’re moving that many men in landing craft, which is, if we’ve all have seen Saving Private Ryan, have a picture in our minds of those Higgins boats and the landing craft with the bow that flaps down. It’s the destroyer’s job, it was the Plunkett’s job to guard the fringes of this task force, this convoy of landing craft that were moving North. They moved North along the coast of Italy and then they made this huge right turn and went in for the landing. So it was the Plunkett’s job to mine the fringes of that convoy against incursion by E-boats, which are kinda like PT boats, those were the German boats and submarines, and they were successful over the first two days. The men on the Plunkett described it as a milk line. That landing was nothing like Salerno, everybody got ashore. They were gonna be stuck for five months, but they all got ashore. It was two days after that landing, that’s when thing really turned south for the Plunkett.
Brett McKay: And what happened then? Was it… What were the Germans doing, were they… Did they bring in ships? Was it airplanes? What happened?
Jim Sullivan: They were planes. The Germans would… There were five amphibious landings, during the second world war, in Europe. There was Salerno, Anzio, I guess now was the second… Third actually, after Sicily. So when the Germans would come in on one of these amphibious landings, what they’d do is they’d… These squadrons, these waves of bombers would come in over a roadstead, the harbor where the ships would call in, and they’d pick a target, and they dropped their stick of bombs on targets that came in their sites. These individual ships would be in the thick of it for three or four minutes, and then squadron would sweep by, another squadron would sweep in, and they’d go after some other ships. But at Anzio, they changed strategy a little bit in early 1944. This was something that the Navy was writing about in these magazines in early 1944. They decided that they were going to focus on a single ship, and for whatever reason, the Plunkett was on a picket line about five miles off the coast of Anzio, just doing routine patrol two days after the landings. And the first of what became 12 or 14 German bombers, swept in on the Plunkett, and they harried them for the next nineteen minutes and then five additional minutes. So that was the Plunkett’s situation at the beginning of this battle.
Brett McKay: And what were the roles of some of the guys that you followed? Ken Brown, Jim Feltz, your uncle, what were they doing during this battle? Were they manning guns? What were they… How were they responding?
Jim Sullivan: Sure, well Ken Brown is the gunnery officer on the Plunkett, also known as the gun boss. And his job was to command the four five-inch guns, the 1.1-inch guns, as well as the 20-millimeter guns, around the perimeter of the ship. Except that with the 20-millimeter, it was more a matter of, if you see them, shoot them. With a five-inch guns, they were controlled, they had primitive analog computers in the combat information center behind the bridge. And so, Ken with five other men was in this little compartment shaped like a bread box, seemed no bigger than an old telephone booth, at the highest part of the ship. There are six of them squeezed in there, hatches, so they’re popping in and out in the midst of the battle. And they are tracking these incoming planes, and it’s their job to communicate with the combat information center. And with each of the gun bosses who are in the four big… The four mounts or turrets that run up the center line of the ship. So that’s Ken’s role during this battle. He’s coordinating these four five-inch guns and the 1.1 inch gun.
And the six other men, the 20-millimeters are all manned by these gunners. My great uncle John Gallagher was a gunner on one of the 20-millimeter guns that was behind the number two stack on the starboard side of the ship. And those guys would go after the torpedo bombers. You couldn’t get to the dive bombers with a 20-millimeter. The torpedo bombers swept in close. Some of the men even reported that they could make eye contact with the pilots on the torpedo bombers, they were that close. So that’s where the… The 20-millimeter guys are going after those planes. Ken Brown is going after the dive bombers and the high-flying bombers that are dropping glide bombs at them.
Jim Feltz, meanwhile, is in the fire room, he had been on the mid-ship repair party, until two weeks earlier, but he became… He was really good at his job, as an engineer, and so at battle stations, now at general quarters. His job was in the fire room. And he’s down in there, listening to request for speed changes from the bridge, as Burke is navigating the ship, in the midst of this battle. He’s calling for speed changes, and course changes, and it’s Jim’s job, along with the other men working in his fire room. In the fire room, that’s where they had the boilers that would heat the water to make the steam to drive the ship. And so that’s what he’s doing during the midst of this battle, and Jim is counting, as each of these bombs falls, and the ship shudders, because they’re getting pummeled from a dozen planes, swarming them.
Brett McKay: But Jim at one point decides I gotta go up there and help out, I’m not doing anything down here. So he kind of breaks protocol. To go…
Jim Sullivan: He does, he does. He’s 19 minutes into this battle, they have dodged a couple of torpedoes, two is what some of the accounts say, but the action reports say one. The action reports say, there were I think eight bombs, that they missed, including a couple of these radio-controlled dive bombs. But 19 minutes into this battle, one of the dive bombers, dropped his stick of bombs, and the fifth bomb in that stick, hits the ship square, on the 1.1 inch gun mount, where you have a dozen men working. That explosion, obliterated 29 men, were listed as missing, they were killed, but it was gonna take a year for them, to be officially recognized as such. And that explosion, the ship was in flames, and when that bomb hit, Jim was in the fire room, and he said it was as if a hand had come down from the deep, and it had taken the ship…
And it had pulled the ship down, I mean, he distinctly remembered that. And I talked to one other man, who said the exact same thing, that experience of the ship being pulled straight down. And it came back to the surface, and now Jim is up on the fire room, on a destroyer, has two levels, and he’s on the top watch, on the great, on the second level. And the chief petty officer says, “Take a look at what happened… Find out what happened,” and he didn’t mean for Jim to leave, the fire room, but Jim throws open the hatch, of the fire room, and he’s up there, he sticks his head out, the ship is in flames, it’s a wall of flames, in the middle of the ship. Right behind the number two stack, and he is watching this conflagration, and he’s looking for men, who are fighting this fire, who should have jumped to… And it occurs to him then that, the mid-ship repair party, is not fighting the fire because, maybe they’re not there anymore, and it’s true, 9 of the 10 men on that repair party, were killed. So, he does, what he’s not supposed to do.
One of the things in the Navy, that they tell you, “You don’t leave your battle station,” but he didn’t see any choice, but to jump out, and to go for, what he called a… Is a handy Billy pump. This portable pump weighs about a 100 pounds. He’s trying to pull it out of this locker, and this other sailor, he never remembered who the man was, came and helped him. And the two of them, grabbed this handy Billy pump on either side, they’ve got a hose, that they throw over the side of the ship. They revved this thing up, almost like a lawnmower you start the thing, and they get water on that fire. He’s 18 years old, this ship is burning. They know, that if that fire gets to the magazines, that the whole thing is gonna go up. They saw it happen with the Roland, they saw it happen with the Maddox, they knew that it was only a matter of time. And so Jim is fighting that fire, and Burke is dispatching the forward repair party, and other junior officers, they’re making their way back now, in the wake of this bomb-hit to do what can be done. The depth charges need to be set on safe, they should have been set on safe, but you needed to make sure, and so, there were all these things all of a sudden, that were happening, to ensure the survival of the ship.
Brett McKay: Alright, so it lasted 24 minutes, 29 men were killed. Did Americans back home, know about this battle? Did it make the papers?
Jim Sullivan: They found out soon enough. Because, I think it was three days after the battle, the notice came, to my great-grandmother, that her son, had been killed. Frank Gallagher, was on the beach, when this was going on, and he saw the Plunkett hit. He said he did, his whole life, I have no reason not to believe him, it just seemed so unbelievable, that he could have seen that. He… Frank carried a camera during the war, and he took this one picture, at Anzio, of the anti-aircraft fire, going up on the beach, because at the same time that this swarm of planes, had come down on Plunkett, there were dozens and dozens, maybe as many as a 100 Luftwaffe bombers, that had finally hit the beachhead at Anzio, and they were coming down on the beachhead. So it was just… It was all evening long, and Frank saw the Plunkett hit, and saw that it was a significant explosion didn’t know, what had happened, of course. Wasn’t going to be able to find out what happened, while he was there. And only found out months later, that his brother had been killed, on the ship. John survived the initial blast, and lived for six hours, and had some pretty interesting things to say before he died, but that was how the Americans at home, did find out several days after the battle.
Brett McKay: And how old was your Uncle John, when he died?
Jim Sullivan: He was… Let’s see, he’s born in 1916. This was ’44. So, he was 27 years old, I think he was gonna turn 27, 28 that year. So yeah, 27 years old.
Brett McKay: Did he have a family, like, wife, kids?
Jim Sullivan: He did not. And he was single, Frank was single. John had… His correspondence was going, with this woman, that I was never able to find out anything about. And I discovered these six letters, right at the end of the writing of this book, and realized that he had this relationship, that was moving along. Frank did too. Frank was going to end up marrying the woman that he was corresponding with during the war, and I kind of think, that John might have… The same thing might have happened to him, as well. So he didn’t lose his family. But his family lost him.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so, I mean, thanks to the actions of these guys, the Plunkett was able to be salvaged. They were able to fix it up, then continued to serve, throughout World War II. What other roles did it play there?
Jim Sullivan: Well, you’re right. It did survive. It limped into Palermo, they buried their dead, in a temporary… There were 24 dead, they were covered, they buried them there in Palermo, in a temporary grave yard. And then the Plunkett steamed back, to the United States, to Brooklyn, to the Navy yard, and I think they were were only able to move at 11 knots, because they lost one of their screws, one of their propellers, and one of their engines. One of the engine rooms was completely obliterated. But they get back to Brooklyn, and all of the stuff is waiting for them dockside. The new stack, the new engine, the propellers, the shafts, everything. And it’s fitted out, and they steam back in May, once again, to the UK, and they begin massing for the invasion at Normandy. This was gonna be the fourth European invasion, of the war, and the Plunkett, was the only ship, that the Navy knows of, that was in on every invasion in North Africa, and all five, in the European mainland.
And what’s kinda interesting, about what happened to the Plunkett at the Normandy invasion, is about a few days before they were able to set off, a VIP comes aboard the ship, he’s a chief petty officer in the Navy, but he’s also John Ford, the famous film director, that everybody knows, because they’d all seen the movies, How Green Was My Valley, and Being Former, and John Ford at that time, cut a pretty big swathe. He hung out with the enlisted men a lot, and they knew that if the likes of John Ford, was on their ship, he had produced a documentary, during the war MidWay that was received with great acclaim. They knew that they were heading into something significant. And sure enough, when the allies went into Normandy, when they went into Omaha Beach, the Plunkett was part of that amphibious landing. They were at the rear of the convoy, and somehow things got turned around, and pretty soon they found themselves, at the head of the convoy, so close to the shore, in fact that they were all but scraping sand in the hull. Their hull in the sands of the beach so…
That was its next big moment was the… Were the D-Day landings. They went on later to the bombardment of Cherbourg that opened up a port. The allies, until that time, were landing all the material on the beaches and in these harbors, but once they got to Cherbourg, they were able to bombard the Germans into submission there. That port opened up. And now, here we go. Now, the land war in Europe begins.
Brett McKay: And what happened to the Plunkett after the war? When did it… Did it serve in the Korean war at all? When was it retired?
Jim Sullivan: No, it was was decommissioned in 1946. They went on from Omaha, Normandy to the invasion of Southern France, and then they headed over to Japan, like they hadn’t done enough in Europe, so it was time for Japan. By the time they got to Japan, the war was over. Jim Feltz was ready to go home. It comes into port in South Carolina, he got his papers, and to this day, he regrets that, he said, “I got those papers. I still have this thing going with Betty,” and he said, “I didn’t say goodbye to anybody. I got my papers, I got off that ship, and I got on a bus and I went home.” [chuckle] The Plunkett was decommissioned in 1946, and then it was reactivated in the 1950s and given to the Taiwanese and it was used as a destroyer in the Navy of Taiwan until early 1970s when it was scrapped.
Brett McKay: Well let’s talk about what happened to the men. What happened to… Let’s talk about Ken Brown. What happened to Ken Brown after the war?
Jim Sullivan: Well, Ken… He got command right after the war. He was commended… The work that he did on the Plunkett at Anzio, they took out three, maybe four planes at Anzio, and Ken was a big part of the success that the Plunkett had. And until that point, he and Burke had this really fractious relationship, and he said, “Everything between me and Burke changed after Anzio.” It was just completely different. He got command of a destroyer escort, which is sort of like a smaller version of destroyer right after the war. He was appointed to the number two man at the Naval Academy in the 1960s. But Ken was a guy who never… He was outspoken, he always… If he saw something, he said something. He could never keep quiet about things that he thought weren’t right. He didn’t like hazing at the Naval Academy, and he tried to end it. And for his sins, they sent him to Vietnam. [chuckle] The Navy was not prepared to end a tradition like that, and they sent him to Vietnam, he was [0:48:56.2] ____ to General Westmoreland stuff for a year, and then the commander of a squadron for another year.
Then he was, as he said, put out to pasture, commanding ROTC for four years in the late ’60s, early ’70s, when he retired after 30 years. That was Ken Brown and Burke’s career, he took command of a cruiser, the Des Moines, in the 1950s, a small world moment. My father’s brother David was on that cruiser when Burke was commander. I didn’t know that until I had seen these records. But that was Burke. If they gave you a cruiser in the Navy, they were gonna make you an admiral and he retired as a rear admiral in 1965 or six, and died shortly thereafter of emphysema. He received the Navy Cross for what he had done at Anzio, and even the Navy Cross might not have been enough for the brilliance of what he had done there. Jim Feltz jumps on a bus that breaks down on route to St. Louis, sticks out his thumb and gets a ride and goes home, goes right to Betty’s house, knocks on the door, and he remembered the first two words that he said to her when she opened the door, “Surprise, surprise.” He said, she didn’t know he was coming. They got married, he started dancing. He launched a truck parts business that thrived for a number of years. He kept a dozen men employed for all those years, and poor Jim, he had to bury his wife and then he had to bury each of his three sons, but I talked to him yesterday and he’s doing well. That’s them at the end of the war.
Brett McKay: As you talked to Ken and Jim in particular, how… Were you able to get a feel of how that experience, particularly in Anzio, how it affected them or influenced them for the rest of their lives?
Jim Sullivan: Yeah, that’s a good question. I asked Ken Brown once, I asked him this question about Anzio and how it had rippled through the rest of his life. Once I’d done all my research and saw what they had down there, I asked him if it was the defining experience of his life. And he had this great, deep granite voice, he was a slight man, maybe five eight, five nine and not very heavy, but he had the voice of a man who was twice as large. It was disconcerting and really interesting. And he says, “No, Jim,” he says, “I think if I were to talk about the defining experience in my life, it would be getting command of that destroyer escort.” And then he said, “No, maybe it was when I was a squadron commander picking up down pilots in Vietnam. Then he thought of something else, and he avoided that one thing, but it occurred to me after Ken died that sometimes we can’t articulate or define what it is, if any of us are asked what is the defining experience in your life, how can we know?
But when it came time to bury Ken Brown two years ago at the age of 98, there was one… There was the name of only one ship on his gravestone, and it was the Plunkett. And there was only one job recognized on that same stone and it was gun boss. That day rippled through the rest of his life, and it did that for all of the men. The destroyer is a little bit of a different ship in the Navy, there were only 250 men on that ship. And there is that, anthropologists talk about Dunbar’s number, the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable social relationship. This goes back to early man, and they say that that number is about 150 men. There’s 150 people that you’d feel comfortable inviting to go out with a drink. That’s the most that we can maintain. And you have… You’re close to that on a destroyer. There’s this thing that they had, these men on the destroyer, that was little bit like family. They had that kind of intimacy. And then you had the shared experience of war.
The most cataclysmic event of the 20th century, maybe of all time, and then you had what happened to them at Anzio. That bomb really galvanized this connection with them. And I think those three things together forged something that it’s just hard to imagine, for those of us who haven’t been through it, and it became for many of them, I think, the defining experience of their lives. And even as they drifted into the rest of their lives, they were gonna lose touch, but they never lost grip, and I saw that even in these men into their 90s, just how ardently they held to the memories of these men that they’d lost and with whom they were still in contact.
Brett McKay: And spending so much time looking into their stories, talking to Jim and Ken, what did you take away personally? Did you learn anything about what it means to be a man, like talking to these guys, interacting with them.
Jim Sullivan: Yeah, it’s a question that would percolate in me as I was going through this. I did not wear the uniform. I’ve never been through anything like that, but I think all of us as we’re coming up as young men, we’re wondering how would I be… That eternal question that never really leaves you maybe… And I remember asking that of Ken, and of Jim, how did you get through this? Because from where we sit today, we look back on this thing, this cataclysm, I mean 2000 years ago… What was it? The Trojan was 3000 years ago. We’re still talking about that war. One can only imagine how long we’re gonna be talking about this one. And they were part of that. And how did you get through that? While they were in the thick of it, they don’t recognize it for what we do when we have the luxury of time to look back and perspective, and they both would say the same thing about what it was like to be out on the deck of a ship, when they were under aerial assault, when there was plenty of opportunity for fear. How did you get through that?
And they both said the same thing and they said it the same way all the time. Jim would always talk about it as work. He said, “It was just a matter of doing your job. You didn’t have time to be afraid, you only… We were trained, we knew what we had to do, and we went and we did it, and that’s how we got through every day by staying committed to the work, to the job.” They didn’t think of it as combat. They thought about what they had done as doing their job, and it might be that euphemism… Maybe how we can sometimes get through things. We don’t extrapolate and provide too much perspective, we stay focused, we do what we’re supposed to do, and that’s how we get through.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that idea, I mean, you ask a lot of World War II veterans, the ones that are still around, but they would say the same thing. How did you… “Oh, I just did my job”, and I think that influenced their humility about the war. A lot of these guys, they did these amazing things. They wouldn’t talk about it and you ask them, “Man, how did you do that amazing thing.” And they will say “Yeah, I was just doing my job.” That was it, that was it.
Jim Sullivan: It just seems so ordinary to them. We look at it as completely extraordinary. But they were just doing what they had to do.
Brett McKay: Well Jim, where can people go and learn more about the book and your work?
Jim Sullivan: Well, there are a lot of pictures at a website, and the book has a website, ussplunket.com, and there are lots of pictures up there. There are links to where the book can be sold. I think it’s in independent bookstores, the national retailers. There is even up on that website, there’s some video, and I talked early on about that story that Frank Gallagher told… Well, in 1998, I sat down with him and a tape recorder and had Frank tell me that story, and that’s up there with a little bit of video as well, so yeah, ussplunket.com is about the best pivot point for readers.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Jim Sullivan, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure
Jim Sullivan: Thank you very much Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Jim Sullivan. He’s the author of the book: “Unsinkable”. It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere, you can find out more information about the book at his website, unsinkableplunket.com. Also check out our show notes at AOM.is/unsinkable where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.
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