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American who defended Ohio dies

Grateful for letters after The Times appeal

Francis A. Dales

Francis A. Dales

A brave American sailor who distinguished himself during Operation Pedestal, the Santa Marija convoy to Malta in 1942, has died in Augusta, Georgia.

Francis A. Dales, known as Lonnie, was a young cadet midshipman on board the ill-fated SS Santa Elisa during the critical convoy from Gibraltar in August 1942 and was awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal "for heroism beyond the call of duty."

The following is an account of his efforts and that of junior third officer Frederick August Larsen as carried in the US Merchant Marine website:

"Their ship was a freighter, the SS Santa Elisa, carrying drums of high octane gasoline, one of two American ships in a small British convoy to Malta. Orders were to 'get through at all costs.' Heavily escorted, the convoy moved into the Mediterranean and before noon of that day, the enemy's attack began.

"From then on the entire convoy was under constant attack from Axis planes and submarines. Assigned the command of an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the bridge, Larsen contributed to the successful defence of his ship for three days. At 4 a.m. on the fourth day, torpedo boats succeeded in breaking through and two attacked from opposite sides.

"Sneaking in close under the cover of darkness, one opened point blank fire with four .50 calibre machine guns, sweeping the bridge. The other fired a torpedo into the opposite side of the freighter.

"The explosion of the torpedo ignited the gasoline cargo and the American ship was in flames. Reluctantly, orders were given to abandon her. Two hours later, the survivors were picked up by a British destroyer which then proceeded to take in tow a tanker that had been bombed and could not manouvre (the Ohio, which was also American, although British crewed).

"After five hours of constant dive-bombing, the tanker was hit again, her crew abandoned her and the destroyer was forced to cut her loose.

"But the cargo she carried was most important to the defence of Malta, and it had to get through. The rescue destroyer and another destroyer steamed in, lashed themselves on either side of the stricken tanker and dragged her along in a determined attempt to get her to port. The tanker's decks and superstructure had been almost completely wrecked by the incessant bombardment.

"But Larsen's anxiety to get into the fight caused him to take inventory of her armament. He found an anti-aircraft gun mounted abaft the stack which needed only minor repairs to put it into action. The young cadet of his own ship, Francis A. Dales, a British gunner's mate and three of his men volunteered to help him. Though the ships were then constantly under attack, they boarded the Ohio, repaired the gun and manned it, with Larsen taking the trainer's position and the gunner's mate and the cadet alternating as pointers. The shackled ships, inching along and, making perfect targets, were assailed by concentrated enemy air power.

"All that day, wave after wave of German and Italian bombers dived at them and were beaten off by a heavy barrage. Bombs straddled them, scoring near misses, but no direct hits were made until noon the next day, when the tanker finally received a bomb down her stack which blew out the bottom of her engine room. Though she continued to settle until her decks were awash, they fought her through until dusk that day brought them under the protection of the hard fighting air force of Malta.

The magnificent courage of this young third officer and cadet-midshipman constitutes a degree of heroism which will be an enduring inspiration to seamen of the United States Merchant Marine everywhere."

Simon Cusens, who coordinated the Operation Pedestal commemoration last September, said it had been a great pleasure and privilege for him to have recorded Lonnie's first hand account of the convoy on audio tape in January last year.

"Lonnie was by then approaching death within days, but almost miraculously improved following an appeal I sent to The Times which led over 50 grateful Maltese well wishers of all ages to write to him to thank him for his contribution in 1942 and to wish him well and promise him their prayers. Although he could not be with us last September, the letters won him a lease of life for several months.

"Lonnie's humility was such that he asked me to tell the people of Malta the he has always remembered them and will never forget them and the gratitude they showed him for defending the SS Ohio after his ship went down.

Frederick August Larsen died in 1999.

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