Local naval officer was last to leave sinking

<i>This article was originally published in June 1994 for the 50th anniversary of D-Day.</i>

John Kemmerer's career in the military began before World War II and went  on long after it.

"In 1937, I joined the U.S. Navy," Kemmerer says.

His first ship was the U.S.S. Savannah, a cruiser. It was a happy time,  that is until the start of the war in Europe in 1939. "I was on the West Coast until the early part of 1941. Then one night they ordered us through the  Panama Canal under cover of darkness. We began at that point escorting convoys to England. We were not officially in the war yet, but we were sinking German  subs," he says.

Kemmerer re-enlisted in the Navy in 1942and was reassigned to a troop  transport, the Susan B. Anthony, named for the American woman's rights leader. To her crew she was simply the "Susie B."

In November 1942, the ship participated in several U.S. troop landings in  North Africa. In July 1943 she was involved in the U.S. landings in Sicily.  Several times, Kemmerer recalls, bombs were dropped near the ship.

It was on May 13, 1944, that the ship left Boston for Glasgow, Scotland.  When she arrived on May 23, the captain got word to take her south to Milford  Haven, Wales. This was where she was to prepare for her roll in the invasion  of France.

"Word came to us that we were going to be carrying a group of combat  engineers that would be going in on June 7. They had a three-star general with them. They were going to be put ashore at Utah Beach and were to be used to  re-open the port of Cherbourg," says Kemmerer, a chief petty officer who  worked in the engine room.

Early on the morning of June 7, the Susan B. Anthony was moving in a column with other ships off the coast of Normandy.

As Kemmerer remembers it, a sudden explosion shook the ship. "It was an  electronically controlled mine. We did not hit it but it went off due to the  movement of the ship. The ship jumped up in the water when the mine exploded," he says.

According to the official report on the sinking, a copy of which Kemmerer  has kept, the explosion ripped open a riveted seam under the "Susie B.'s" Nold No. 4. When that happened all power, even emergency power, was lost. The  ship's rudder made a hard left and stuck there. By 8:05 a.m. the "Susie B."  was taking on water in Holds 4 and 5. Water was about 5 feet deep in the hold. It caused the ship to list about 8 degrees to starboard. The troops were told  to rush to the port side. When they did this the "Susie B." became more  stable.

Kemmerer went down to the lower levels of the ship. "I could see right away that the seams were opened up when the rivets were loosened. I knew right away the oil tanks were ruptured and what I saw confirmed it. They had begun to  catch fire, but fortunately the fire was burning very slowly," he says.

It was fortunate that the "Susie B." was in relatively shallow water. As it slowly settled to the bottom, the USS Pinto came beside the damaged troop  ship. At 8:40 a.m. the "Susie B." was burning in the engine room. Holds 4 and  5 had now filled with 12 feet of water. The captain passed the order to  abandon ship. All the classified documents were destroyed and the Pinto, the  HMS Mendip and HMS Norborough picked up the troops and crew. Kemmerer, on  order of the captain, was the last one to leave the ship.

According to Kemmerer, the "Susie B." went down at the stern or rear.  Unfortunately, the way she sunk left a part of her sticking up above the  water. Because of the location the ship was a hazard to the navigation of the  rest of the fleet. So, depth charges were used by several destroyers to finish the "Susie B." off. She disappeared under the waves, her role in World War II  over.

Kemmerer was picked up by the British army, then sent north to Scotland  with the rest of his crew.

He returned to New York for a 30-day survivor's leave, then was reassigned  to the South Pacific where his new ship took part in the invasion of Okinawa.  Kemmerer stayed in the service after World War II, retiring from the Navy in 1966.

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