From the Editor

The SS Elihu Yale

Kathrin Lassila ’81 is editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine.

Seventy years ago this February, the SS Elihu Yale was bombed and sunk off Anzio, Italy. By chance, Welford Macon Durrer, Seaman First Class, had been transferred off the Yale just a month before. Years later, he started telling his grandson Navy stories. One day the grandson, Wesley Oliver—now ’09JSD and a professor at the Duquesne University law school—got into Yale. “It was the funniest thing,” he writes. “When I got into grad school, I got him a book on the school so he could see where I’d be going.  He was looking through it and said, ‘Well, this does seem like a right nice place.’ I said, ‘Well, they say that it is.’  That’s when he noticed the Elihu Yale connection and fetched his two authorizations to wear bronze stars.”

The Yale was one of the World War II Liberty Ships, which transported troops and supplies from the United States to the theaters of war. The Liberties were freighters, and they weren’t sleek; Time magazine, in a 1942 article about the nation’s all-out effort to mass-produce them for the war, called them “unbeautiful but worthy.” Still, they were vital to the war effort.

The first Liberty was the Patrick Henry; the original idea was that all the ships should be named for eminent figures in American history. Many of the 2,710 Liberties that were eventually built ended up carrying obscure names, but many others were more august, such as the Frederick Douglass, the Alexander Graham Bell, and, yes, the John Harvard.

Durrer—now 92 and writing his memoirs—told his grandson that during his time on the Yale as a gunner, the ship traveled mostly to North Africa and Europe, and the materials it transported included food, guns, trucks, and even mules. The Yale also carried troops. Once, Oliver writes in an e-mail, the ship transported a group of the famous Tuskegee Airmen—the first African American military pilots in the US armed forces—from Norfolk, Virginia, to Italy. The airmen’s destination was Bari, on the heel of the Italian boot, but the Yale dropped them off elsewhere in the country. As Durrer heard it, it would have been dangerous for the airmen to travel to Bari on the Yale, because a cargo ship would have been an obvious means of transporting pilots—and the African American airmen would have been prime targets for the Nazis. So the Yale proceeded to Bari without them, Oliver writes, “essentially a decoy for the Tuskegee airmen as it entered the heavily bombed port of Bari.”

The Liberty Ships were dangerous assignments. According to the website of Project Liberty Ship, Inc., the Navy Armed Guard—the men who, like Durrer, defended the Liberties and other merchant ships—sustained a casualty rate that “grimly rivals the casualty rate of any of the Armed Forces during World War II.”

Oliver writes, “We have the flag that flew on the Yale during one of the intense battles for which the entire crew was awarded bronze stars. The combination of the winds of the North Atlantic and the battle itself left intact only about half the flag.” The entire right side was ripped off, leaving only shreds. The rest of the flag is punctured with bullet holes throughout. Oliver says that sometimes, when he stops and really looks at the flag, he gets tears in his eyes.

The SS Elihu Yale represents just one of the many Yale-connected stories about World War II, from the postwar Quonset huts on campus to the Yale men who saw combat. If you have a story to share, please tell it in a letter to the editor. It’s history that should be remembered.

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