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Fascinated by ships as a boy, Douglas Burgess—who grew up in Queens, New York—often went to New York Harbor to observe the great ocean liners. When he graduated from Queens College two months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he promptly joined the navy, telling officials he wanted to “go to sea and sail in the Atlantic Fleet.” Burgess got his wish, and then some: he spent three years in the midst of the long-running, high-stakes Battle of the Atlantic. As an officer aboard a new destroyer escort, he survived 26 combat crossings on antisubmarine convoy duty. Burgess left active duty in early 1946, then served in the Naval Reserve for 30 years. He’ll turn 101 on April 22.

Where did the navy send you following officer candidate school?

I was assigned to subchaser training in Miami Beach. Part of that was aboard a destroyer escort, the type of ship that escorts convoys. When we finished, I was assigned to the USS Brough—pronounced “Bruff”—which had just been launched. We had the commissioning ceremony on September 18, 1943, at Consolidated Steel in Orange, Texas. We sailed to New Orleans, then Galveston, and on to Bermuda for a 30-day shakedown.

After that?

We were ordered to the Charleston Navy Yard for upgrading the ship’s armament. The morning we sailed from Bermuda, we hit a nasty storm. I was on the bridge, as junior officer of the deck. The captain, Lieutenant Commander Kenneth J. Hartley, was there too, and he noticed that the canvas cover on the Number 2 gun was flapping in the wind. He and the chief boatswain mate went to tie it down. They were working on it when we took a huge wave over the bow. It knocked the captain down, and he hit his head on the gun mount. They took him to the wardroom, and the officer of the watch ordered me to go see how he was. I went down there, and the captain was lying on the floor with his leg at an awkward angle. His eyes were open. But as I looked at him, he shut his eyes and died. He died right there. We had to turn around and go back to Bermuda, to take his body ashore. It was a bad way to get started on our new ship. Then we sailed on to Charleston, had some work done, and were ordered to Newport News to pick up a convoy sailing the next day for Casablanca. 

Douglas Burgess (Courtesy Douglas Burgess)
USS Brough (Courtesy of Douglas Burgess)

How many ships would be in a convoy?

About a hundred—tankers and ordinary merchant ships carrying war materiel. And there were usually six destroyer escorts around the forward end of the convoy, with the commander in the center. Then there were six more around the rest of the convoy. 

One hundred ships must have covered a lot of ocean.

Horizon to horizon, pretty much, and there was not much room to maneuver. At night, we used only red lights because they can’t be seen very far. We kept station by watching the light on the stern of the ship ahead. That’s how the captain would know where he was. In inclement weather, it was awful because the ships were all over the ocean.

Were there collisions?

We never had one, strangely enough. But if there was a torpedo strike on one ship, everybody else had to get out of the way. It was general mayhem then. That only happened a couple of times.

What was your normal convoy routine?

We would go back to the United States with a convoy of empty ships, to fill up with food and war materiel, and take the next convoy going out. Our normal run was from New York to England. The British would come out to meet us at a point at sea where we transferred control of the convoy. British destroyers would take the ships into port. Then we would go up to Northern Ireland to the River Foyle. Londonderry is where we had our breaks between convoys. They did repairs to the ship there, and we got new supplies of fresh food before we took empty ships back to New York. That break usually took about a week.

What were your duties at sea? 

At first, as an ensign, I was a supply and commissary officer. My job was to order supplies for the kitchens, the food, and whatever was needed. Also, to arrange the meals with the kitchen crew and mess boys, who were my responsibility. Then the navy realized that they couldn’t have men like me, with no accounting experience, handling that kind of thing. So they put a CPA-type guy in charge of the supplies and commissary, and I became the assistant communications officer. I collected all of the notices to mariners of changes in buoys and things like that, which had been made on the charts for the ports we were going to visit. It kept me pretty busy. And standing watch on the flying bridge. 

Did you stand watch at night?

Many times. Usually four of us at a time: the officer of the deck, the assistant officer of the deck, a signalman, and me, as junior officer of the deck. The signalman was there so we could stay in touch with other ships. It was our job to make sure the ships stayed on station and didn’t drift off. We had to herd them along and keep them under control. If it was a clear night and calm, they were easy to see. But in rough seas, it was really a clambake, with ships all over the place. It’s amazing we never had a collision.

Were you out in the open?

Yes. The flying bridge was open-air for visibility, with no weather protection. When we had storms and rough weather, it was bitter cold. Of course, we had our warm jackets and rain gear. But it was cold!

How long did you stay out there?

We were four hours on and four hours off. We had lookouts with binoculars stationed around the ship, looking for signs of sub activity night and day. Once a shift I made a round of the ship, checking on the lookouts and gun crews, making sure no one was asleep. It was scary in bad weather when the ship was rocking and rolling, and waves would come over the bow. Passageways were narrow and wet, and there were no real rails, just steel cables.

Sounds pretty risky.

Yes, convoy duty was a hard business. But I was in my element. I felt extremely fortunate because this was what I had always wanted to do, and I loved it. But the sea didn’t like me as much as I loved the sea. ✯

This article was published in the April 2021 issue of World War II.