In one of the first convoys to cross the Atlantic and deliver supplies to Liverpool, England, in World War II, 19-year-old William A. “Whitey” Wodowski Jr. kept a sharp eye out for German submarines lurking just beneath the surface of the ocean.
He knew all too well that the subs were on the hunt for U.S. Merchant Marine supply ships and that it was his job as a Navy gunner to protect them.
Assigned to a 3-inch/.50-caliber gun on the bow of the SS Ethan Allen, Wodowski said he occasionally spotted the periscopes of German subs and would open fire.
“In that first convoy to England, I’d say we lost about 20 ships,” he remembers. “You wondered if you would be the next one to sink. We wondered if there were any survivors. We never saw any.”
So it was with zeal that he would shoot at the U-boats.
“You could see little wakes from the submarines for a very short period if they were close to the surface. I’d shoot at them and our escort ships would drop depth charges. I don’t think we ever sunk any submarines, but we chased them away,” Wodowski recalls.
During the stop in Liverpool, the German air force raised havoc with bombing raids.
“The sirens were going all the time,” he says, “and there was a complete blackout. We were there about three weeks. We loaded up with deck cargo for the invasion of Africa – all kinds of vehicles, heavy trucks and Jeeps. We also had food and rum.”
When asked if he managed to get a taste of the rum, he said, “Oh, I had a few shots, but I got sick, and I haven’t had rum ever since.”
Back at sea, the Ethan Allen joined up with other ships headed to Africa to drive out the Germans. “Every morning, the dozen soldiers who were aboard our ship would start up the trucks on the deck to make sure they were running,” Wodowski says. “They wanted to be sure they would be able to get them right off the ship when docked.”
From a distance, he says, he spotted the Rock of Gibraltar as they cruised into the Mediterranean Sea, dodging water mines planted by the Germans.
“We docked off Oran and unloaded the equipment while the Army was already making the push against the Germans,” Wodowski says.
After three weeks, it was back to the United States, where he was assigned to Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island before heading south to Opa-locka Naval Air Station near Miami.
“Our planes would fly supplies to South America, where we picked up prisoners from a German battleship that was trapped in a bay at Montevideo, Uruguay. We flew them back to Miami,” Wodowski said, adding that he also served in Santa Cruz, Brazil, repairing and fueling Navy planes.
Toward the end of the war, Wodowski and his outfit, VR-7, transferred to the Philippines, where they flew freed American prisoners of war to Guam, from which the POWs were then flown to Hawaii.
“Our guys were pretty well beat up. They were happy to be free, but they were down and out. … They needed a lot of medical attention,” Wodowski says.
As a civilian, Wodowski found work as a locomotive engineer with the New York Central Railroad, which later became Conrail. He and his wife, Ruth Stachowiak Wodowski, raised a family of six boys and one girl. He retired from the railroad in 1988.
In his 68th year of marriage, the 90-year-old veteran remains devoted to his wife, who is in a nursing home.
“She’s been there a year, and I go every day and visit her,” he says, “She’s a wonderful person. Can you imagine all she went through, seven kids and me?”
William A. ‘Whitey’ Wodowski Jr., 90
• Branch: Navy
• Rank: Aviation machinist’s
mate second class
• War zones: Europe, Pacific
• Years of service: 1942-45
• Most prominent honor:
European, African, Middle
Eastern Campaign Medal
with battle star
• Specialty: Gunner assigned
to Liberty ship in Merchant
Marine; assisted in air
transport of freed American