Fire on the Savannah!

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jarad A. Denton
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
It was Sept. 11, 1943. The U.S.S. Savannah was continuing its offensive against the German shore defenses in Salerno Bay, Italy.

Unknown to the crew of the Savannah, a German warplane was flying high overhead - preparing to release a type of radio-controlled glide-bomb they called a Fritz X.

"The Germans were really upset and decided they wanted to do-away with us," said former U.S. Navy Chief Warrant Electrician, Patrick O'Neill. "They sent out 40 planes to get our ship."

Mr. O'Neill said the Germans were flying Dornier Do 217 medium-range bombers. Once the pilot passed overhead, they activated the Fritz X - which caused it to smoke.

"We all thought it must be a dog fight, and ignored it," he said. "Then, all of a sudden, the pilot cut it loose and guided it down into our number three gun turret. Immediately, we lost 206 of our crew from the concussion."

When the bomb struck, it passed through 18 inches of steel and three decks before finally exploding in the ammunition-handling room, Mr. O'Neill said. The primary and secondary explosions caused the ship to catch fire.

"As the bomb passed through the ship, it caused the forward section to catch fire before exploding out the other side," he said. "All the water that rushed in from the hole in our ship kept the fire from being as bad as it could have been. It was the only thing that saved our ship."

Mr. O'Neill said the Savannah was taken to Malta for repairs, where the surviving crew laid their fallen shipmates to rest.

"We buried most of our crew at sea," he said. "They're still there, in Salerno, just a few miles south of Naples, Italy."

Today, Mr. O'Neill is 90 years old and has never forgotten the sacrifices made by his fellow servicemembers; or how fortunate he was to have survived the attack.

"Until three months before the attack, I was the electrician on the number three turret," he said. "Once I got promoted, they moved me into the electrical shop on the third deck. It was a miracle I got out of there."

He said the experience made him proud to be counted among the men and women who served, or are currently serving, in the military. Since his time in the service, Mr. O'Neill has been an active member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

"It's given me a new appreciation for the men and women serving in the military," he said. "All veterans, past and present, are all asked to do amazing things every single day. The least we can do is take one day out of the year and honor them for it."

Editor's Note: This story is the fourth part of a series highlighting our Nation's veterans.