Crossing the Atlantic on the merchant mariner vessel William B. Rogers always made Chief Mate Frederick Wooley nervous. Despite the heavy losses sustained by the German U-boats in 1944, many still plagued the waters, looking for any merchant vessels of the allies carrying supplies for the war effort. Wooley’s job as chief officer bore the responsibility of being in charge of the ship’s cargo and deck crew. His concern was well founded; he had had several run-ins with the U-boats, including one involving a small convoy, a German boat may have sunk one of his ships. The cause may have been exacerbated by weather or by a mechanical failure, but the exact cause was never determined. The ship had disappeared with all hands lost, and it was a memory that would follow Wooley the rest of his life.
The fear of those sailing on merchant mariner ships was justified; merchant seamen suffered a higher rate of fatalities than those from the military services. One person out of each 25 never made it home. With over a 4% casualty rate, this was far higher than the near 3% of the Marines or 2% of the Army. Even worse, while the military services pay would continue regardless if their ship were destroyed, in the merchant marines your wages stopped once you hit the water. If you were declared dead, and then showed up later alive, you were further insulted with now having to pay back any insurance payments that were awarded to your family.
Built in 1942 as part of the war effort, the William B. Rogers was part of the Liberty ship class that had their beginnings at the end of 1941. Over 2700 Liberty ships were built within five years to transport men and supplies to the front. The first Liberty ship took 244 days to construct; that figure dropped to under 40 days by the end of 1945. But, the German U-boats found the Liberty ships easy targets due to their limited speed; in 1943 a new class of merchant ship was created. The new Victory line proved to be faster than the older Liberty ships, making it safer and quicker to move cargo and personnel.
‘Wooley,’ as he was known to his friends and workers, first entered the merchant marines as a cadet in 1940 with his first assignment in 1942. His heart’s desire was to attend forestry school, but he did not have the finances to do so. Initially, he attended art school while boxing on the side for extra cash. After a short while, Wooley realized a new direction was necessary for long-term success. His paternal grandfather had been a merchant mariner. This occupation appeared to be an attractive career, and thus he joined the Merchant Marines.
While his training as a cadet was mostly uneventful, he received a rescue citation for trying to save a shipmate who had fallen into the frigid Galway Bay in Ireland. As reported in The New York Times, “Fourth Class Cadet Frederick O. Wooley of the United States liner Washington, risked his life in an attempt to rescue another member of the ship’s crew from the Bay of Galway, Eire, June 13, has received a commendation “for heroic action in line of duty” from the United States Maritime Commission, it was announced yesterday.” The article described how Wooley was detailed as a handler in a motorboat when, upon returning to his ship, he encountered rough water that threw his fellow crew member into the water. The newspaper continued, “Cadet Wooley dived from the bow of the motorboat and swam about 100 feet to Phillips, who was foundering in the rough waters. He turned Phillips on his back and carried him to within twenty feet of the boat, where John Gorman, a seaman, dived in and aided in bring Phillips aboard. Phillips died later.”
Noted in the article that Cadet Wooley was one of 166 successful applicants in the national competitive examination of the Merchant Marine Cadets, held April 17, 1939. Upon completion of the preliminary training at the Cadet Training Station, Wooley served as a Deck Department Cadet, Fourth Class, on board the liner ship Washington.
The liner Washington had an exciting history during June of 1940. It was designed as an ocean liner and launched in 1932. The 705-foot long Washington carried a crew of 478, along with transporting 580 in Cabin class, 400 in Tourist, and 150 in Third Class. The ship quickly earned a reputation for its high standard of service and luxury, not to mention the fastest passenger liner of its time. Initially slated for the New York to Hamburg, Germany route, it was soon changed to New York-Naples-Genoa due to the outbreak of WWII.
In June of 1940, its last voyage was to repatriate U.S. citizens from Italy and France with a scheduled stop in Galway, Ireland. On June 11th, two days before Frederick Wooley would attempt to save the crew member’s life, the ship encountered a German U-boat off the coast of Portugal. The German submarine first signaling to “stop, heave to” with immediate compliance. The second signal stated that the ship had ‘10 minutes to abandon ship.’ With over 1000 passengers and 570 crew on board, the demand was next to impossible to fulfill.
Captain Harry Manning, the skipper of the liner ship, continued to signal the German submarine that Washington was an ‘American Ship,’ therefore protected as the United States had not yet entered the war. As the Captain would write, “Watertight doors were closed, the general alarm was sounded, and the operation of stowing the passengers in the boats consummated with commendable calm and lack of confusion. Not a passenger showed signs of hysteria or confusion. The crew behaved well, obeying orders without question or criticism. Women and children went first. We maintained radio silence.”
Ten tense minutes went by, and nothing occurred. Finally, the submarine signaled “Thought you were another ship; please go on, go on!" Not too long after, another U-boat appeared off the port beam. Rather than facing another encounter, the Captain swung the ship into the sun. This maneuver possibly blinded the sub and it soon disappeared.
For their work in bringing the ship safely through combat waters, the United States Lines later awarded a medal to each member of the crew, plus a 10% bonus in their monthly paycheck. John Gorman and Frederick Wooley, as previously noted above, both received the company’s Distinguished Service Medal for their role in the rescue of the crewman from the rough waters of Galway. The ship sold for scrap in 1965.
Because of this life-saving incident, Frederick Wooley tended to be more prone to pneumonia for the rest of his life.
Rising quickly in the ranks, his assignment as Chief Officer aboard the William Rogers was his first significant position with the company. At the age of 28, he was second in command of a vital shipping vessel; his next assignment would be Chief Officer to the merchant vessel Sea Serpent in February 1945.
The Will Rogers, however, would suffer damage two months later in the Irish Sea when it was struck by a torpedo on the starboard side, causing flooding of both compartments. Towed to safety, the nine officers, 34 crewmen, and 27 armed guards stayed onboard. She returned to service the following December. In the meantime, Wooley would continue to serve on various merchant vessels until January 1951 when he was released to join the U.S. Coast Guard.
Despite having a successful career in the merchant marines, his time away from the family on these extended trips took a toll. After one return his daughter was crying because she didn’t know who the strange man was. Wooley decided the time was right to join the Coast Guard where he could spend more time with the family.
His assignments in the next twenty-plus years included serving as Operations Officer aboard two ships, and as Executive Officer aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell. Additionally, he spent eleven years in the marine inspection field of work and three years in charge at the merchant marine detail in Bremen, Germany, located in the northwestern part of the country.
Upon his transfer to the CGC Boutwell from the assignment in Germany, the Consulate General of the United States sent a letter to the Commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Bender, speaking highly of Wooley’s performance. The letter, dated July 28, 1970, read in part: “The uniformly favorable and often glowing reports on Commander Wooley have come in the main from Germans in important positions who have had the opportunity to know Commander Wooley and estimate his worth as a professional. These German spokesmen represent shipping and shipbuilding companies, a variety of official German organizations concerned with the broad field of shipping (including the German Navy, police officials, and the German Society for the Rescue of Shipwrecked. The few American businessmen concerned with shipping in this district share the sentiments of their German colleagues.”
In his nearly ten years merchant marine experience, Frederick Wooley served up to twenty vessels of various gross tonnages, in positions of either chief officer or master in charge of the ship. In the Coast Guard, he completed over twenty years of commissioned service, all related to the maritime industry. His vast and extensive career on the sea made him a natural choice to be the first commanding officer of the Coast Guard’s newest ship, the Coast Guard Cutter Jarvis.