Worst WWII Liberty ship disaster claimed four from Berks County

Written by Stories Behind the Stars.

April 20th is the 79th anniversary of the worst US Liberty ship disaster of World War II, the sinking of the SS Paul Hamilton in the Mediterranean Sea by a German torpedo bomber. Volunteers from the non-profit Stories Behind the Stars have written memorials honoring all forty-one PA natives who died in the disaster. Berks County was home to four of them.

Stanley Lane Askey was born in Philadelphia, PA on December 24, 1920 to Vincent T. and Ella E. (Ward) Askey. He had four older siblings: Harriet, Ruth, Raymond, and Vincent. Askey’s father worked as a carpenter. The family eventually settled in Reading, PA.

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When Askey registered for the draft on February 16, 1942 in Reading, he was a high school graduate, was employed by the Parish Pressed Steel Company, and was single. Askey left a new job manufacturing radios to enlist in the Army Air Forces in Allentown, PA on August 8, 1942. He received stateside training for the next nineteen months and attained the rank of Sergeant.

Photo courtesy of Stories Behind the Stars.

Philip Morris Bloom was born on January 29, 1916 in Reading, PA to Hyman (Herman) and Esther (Knoblauch) Bloom who were immigrants from Russia and Poland, respectively. Their family included Fannie, Philip, Leo, and Samuel. Bloom’s father financially supported the household initially as a hat sizer and, later, started the Hymen Bloom Furniture Company.

Bloom attended school in Reading and took college preparatory classes in high school. He played tennis, basketball, and participated in the drama club. Bloom completed four years of college and was a manager at his father’s furniture store.

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Bloom registered for the draft on October 16,1940 and enlisted in the Army on April 7, 1942 at New Cumberland, PA. For the next two years, Bloom received training stateside and became a commissioned officer. He married Fay Brisk on August 2, 1943 in West Hartford, Connecticut.

Lester Denton Care was born on May 7, 1913 in Birdsboro, PA to Benjamin Harrison Care and Myrtle Irene Care. He had an older sister Daisy. Care’s father financially supported the family as a plumber in the local iron works and in a lengthy career working for a steel foundry.

Care left school after eighth grade and became an apprentice in a printing shop. When he registered for the draft on October 16, 1940 in Shillington, PA, Care was employed by the Birdsboro Foundry and Machine Company. Care left his foundry job to enlist in the Army Air Forces in Allentown, PA on August 5, 1942.

Care fell in love with Marie Annabelle Riegel who lived in Spring Township. She was a supervisor at an optical factory. The couple exchanged vows on June 18, 1941 in Dade County, Florida.

Jesse Jay Thompson was born on December 10, 1923 to Jesse and Eda Thompson in Wyomissing Hills, PA. He had an older sister, Eda, and younger sister, Joyce.

Thompson’s father was a World War I veteran and worked for many years as a plant foreman and engineer at a candy manufacturing company.

Thompson graduated from Wyomissing High School where he was active with the Dramatic Club, the Hi-Y Club, and the Stage Crew Electrician. He attended the Polytechnic Institute for a year and worked at Textile Machine Works. Thompson enlisted into the Army Air Forces on November 27, 1942 in Philadelphia, PA. He attained the rank of Sergeant.

Askey and Care were assigned to the 831st Bombardment Squadron, 485th Bombardment Group (Heavy). The group trained with the B-24 Liberator heavy bombers. 1LT Bloom was assigned to the 228th Medical Dispensary Aviation Unit. SGT Thompson was assigned to the 32nd Photoreconnaissance Squadron, 5th Reconnaissance Group.

Askey, Bloom, Care, Thompson and their units embarked on the SS Paul Hamilton (Hull Number 227) on April 2, 1944 bound for Venusa, Italy. The Liberty ship departed on her fifth voyage from Hampton Roads, VA as part of Convoy UGS 38. She was carrying supplies, ammunition, and ground personnel of the 485th Bombardment Group and the 5th Reconnaissance Group of the US Army Air Forces. The convoy included dozens of merchant ships, two Navy tankers, and a Coast Guard vessel.

On the evening of April 20, 1944, the convoy was attacked by twenty-three German Junkers Ju- 88 torpedo bombers. The location was approximately 30 miles from Cape Bengut near Algiers, Algeria in the Mediterranean Sea. One aerial torpedo hit the Hamilton, igniting the high explosives in the hull. The ship, her entire crew and passengers, a total of 580 men, were lost in thirty seconds. The 831st Bombardment Squadron lost 154 officers and men; the 32nd Photoreconnaissance Squadron lost 317 men. Forty-one of PA’s native sons perished in the sinking of the Hamilton.

The Hamilton’s losses were the worst suffered by any US Liberty ship during World War II. Only one body was recovered from the tragedy. The destroyer USS Lansdale (DD-426) and SS Royal Star were also sunk during the attack.

Askey, Bloom, Care, and Thompson were listed on the Tablets of the Missing, North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial, Carthage, Tunis, Tunisia. Each of them posthumously received the Purple Heart. A cenotaph Bronze Memorial honoring Thompson was placed in Forest Hills Memorial Park, Exeter Township. Care’s widow gave birth to his namesake son on December 8, 1944.

Stories Behind the Stars memorials are accessible for free on the internet and via smart phone app at gravesites and cenotaphs. The non-profit organization is dedicated to honoring all 421,000 fallen Americans from World War II, including 31,000 from Pennsylvania. To volunteer or to get more information, contact Kathy Harmon at kharmon@storiesbehindthestars.org or visit storiesbehindthestars.org.

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