Born: April 14, 1918
Hometown: Melrose, MA
Class: 1940 – USMMCC Cadet Officer
1939 – Massachusetts Nautical School
Service: Merchant Marine
Position / Rank: Second Mate
Date / Place of death: July 14, 1943 / Avola, Sicily
Date / Place of burial: July 14, 1943 / Lost at Sea –
According to U.S. Maritime Commission records, George W. Alther was assigned to the SS President Monroe as a Cadet Officer in September 1939. Prior to being assigned to the President Monroe he was employed aboard ship as a Quartermaster for the Eastern Steamship Company. In 1940 George Alther was promoted to Third Mate aboard the SS
President Monroe. He subsequently served in the same capacity aboard the SS President Buchanan until 1942. Sometime in April 1942 George Alther signed on aboard the MS Chant, the former MS Hulda Maersk, which was owned by the War Shipping Administration and operated on their behalf by American President Lines.
The Chant sailed for Scotland where it was loaded with aviation gasoline
in drums plus a deck cargo of coal and two motor launches for the embattled island of
Malta. The Chant sailed in convoy WS-19Z to Gibraltar with three other ships. Upon
their departure from Gibraltar to Malta the ships and their escort became part of one of
the great convoy battles of World War II, Operation Harpoon. The convoy was
escorted by a powerful task force of twelve Royal Navy ships, known as “Force X”
which included the anti-aircraft carrier cruiser HMS Cairo. The escort proved to be not
quite powerful enough. On the run through the Mediterranean, the convoy and its
escorts fought off attacks by Italian cruisers, destroyers, high altitude bombers, dive
bombers and torpedo bombers. On June 15, 1942, after days of fighting off attacks, a
bomber got through the escort’s anti-aircraft fire, hitting the Chant with one of its
bombs. The bomb struck the Chant at #4 hold, igniting the gasoline and setting off
explosions in the rest of the gasoline and the ammunition for the ship’s guns. George
Alther and nearly all of the crew were able to abandon ship and were rescued by the
British Minesweeper HMS Rye (J-76). He arrived back in New York aboard the SS
Queen Mary on September 19, 1942.
George Alther signed on as Second Mate aboard the SS Timothy Pickering at the port
of New York on December 11, 1942. Also signing on were four Cadet-Midshipmen;
Christopher Brennan (Deck), William Lyman (Deck), Warren Marks (Engine) and
Lawrence McLaughlin (Engine). On the morning of July 13, 1943, just three days after
the Invasion of Sicily began, the Timothy Pickering arrived off the British Army’s
invasion beach at Avola, Sicily with 130 British soldiers aboard. In addition, the ship
was carrying an almost identical cargo to that of the ill-fated MS Chant; munitions, TNT,
high octane gasoline, artillery pieces and trucks. On the morning of July 13, the vessel
was anchored in the harbor, about half a mile from shore, with the bow in and the
starboard side closest to the shore. The crew had begun unloading the vessel’s cargo.
At 1040 GCT, the allied shipping off Avola was attacked by German dive bombers.
One of them dropped a single 500-pound bomb on the Timothy Pickering at its Number
4 hold. The bomb detonated in the ship’s engine room, causing a massive explosion of
the ship’s cargo with resulting fire. The explosion left a gaping hole in the starboard
side of the ship causing it to quickly begin sinking. With no time to either launch
lifeboats or be given an order to abandon ship the crew began to leave the ship
immediately, leaping over the side into the oily waters, or sliding down ropes and the
anchor chain. In May 1944 he Academy’s newspaper, Polaris, printed a report on the
loss of the Timothy Pickering which expanded on the report of the sinking by Cadet-
Midshipman Brennan, one of only 29 survivors.
“The ticklish cargo of explosives and high-test octane was being gently
worked over the side to waiting supply barges when one such raider
appeared and began to attack. The plane’s bomb landed squarely into
the open number four hatch of Brennan’s ship. The explosion was
instantaneous. Sheets of yellow flame and billowing clouds of smoke rose
hundreds of feet in the air. Two adjacent ships were set afire; others were
bombarded with huge chunks of metal. Cadet-Midshipmen on other
vessels heard the explosion some 50 miles out at sea. To stunned
observers nearby, the doomed ship seemed to dissolve into thin air.
However, Brennan was the only survivor of four Cadet-Midshipmen who signed on
aboard the Timothy Pickering. The other three perished in the explosion and ensuing
fire. In addition to the three Cadet-Midshipmen, nineteen other crew members, eight
Naval Armed Guard Sailors, and 100 British soldiers perished.
Second Mate George W. Alther, Jr., the Timothy Pickering’s 25-year-old Second Mate
and 1940 Cadet Officer was killed while helping the ship’s wounded Armed Guard
Officer abandon ship. For this action he was posthumously awarded the Merchant
Marine’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award. His citation reads,
The President of the United States takes Pleasure in Presenting the Merchant
Marine Distinguished Service Medal to
George W. Alther, Jr.
Second Mate on SS Timothy Pickering
October 14, 1943
For heroism above and beyond the call of duty.
The vessel in which he was serving in 1941 was bombed by enemy planes and again a
ship in which he served in 1942 was bombed and sunk. During an enemy air attack on
a Sicilian port [Avola, Sicily] his third wartime vessel, loaded with ammunition, TNT,
aviation gasoline, and British troops, was hit by a 500-pound bomb. The ship was split
in two–ammunition exploded in the holds–and the water around the ship was a surface
of burning gasoline. The Gunnery Officer was wounded on the lower deck amidship
which was enveloped by flames, but with utter disregard for his own safety, Second
Officer Alther went to his assistance and in so doing gave his life.
In unhesitatingly risking, and subsequently giving, his life in an heroic attempt to rescue
a wounded fellow officer he maintained and enhanced the finest traditions of the United
States Merchant Marine.
For the President
Admiral Emory Scott Land
For his merchant marine service, George W. Alther was also awarded the Mariner’s
Medal, Combat Bar (with two stars), Merchant Marine Defense Bar, Atlantic War Zone
Bar, Mediterranean-Middle East War Zone Bar, Pacific War Zone Bar, the Victory
Medal and Presidential Testimonial Letter. In addition, the Liberty Ship George W.
Alther was also named in his honor.
George W. Alther was the oldest George W. Alther, Sr. and Hilda Alther four sons.
George’s younger brothers were Edward, Frederick and Richard. Hilda Alther died in
1940. The 1940 and 1930 U.S. Census indicates that George Alther, Sr. was a railroad
fireman working on steam locomotives.