Collision at Sea
on the diary of the late Edgar Roy Cochrun, Chaplain, United States Army
It was less than 2 hours past midnight, the early morning
hours of 17 October 1942. There was no moon. A convoy of seven ships, among
which was the USAT George Matthews, was heading north toward Port Moresby, New
Guinea. It was sailing in the Coral Sea under complete blackout conditions
to avoid Japanese submarines.
The convoy had been proceeding without
incident for several days in calm waters. Only hours earlier it had departed
the area of the Great Barrier Reef via Grafton Passage.
without warning at 1:32 a.m. there was a tremendous blow on the port bow! The
Liberty Ship Egbert Benson, which had been steaming south also in total
blackout conditions, had side-swiped the USAT George Matthews. Its position at
the time was latitude 14° 46' south, longitude 146° 13' east.
The collision immediately awoke Majors Egleburger, Medical Corps, and
Cochrun, Chaplain. Egleburger shouted, "Chaplain, we're hit!" and they bound
from their cots and raced to the deck. The chaplain took "1 ¼ seconds"
first to put on his pants and shoes and joined the doctor on the dark deck.
The George Matthews had stopped as the remaining six ships in the
convoy continued on their way northwards as ordered, remaining in blackout.
The Matthews was afire, a lighted target for any submarine that might happen to
be patrolling the area.
Suddenly the ships whistle began blowing and all
floodlights were switched on. The captain was shouting orders
"All hands! Fire on
port gun deck." The doctor and chaplain were on that deck, but on the starboard
side, from where they observed an Army truck ablaze. It had been crushed and
the friction from the collision had ignited it. Chaplain Cochrun noted how well
the crew worked, with great speed and coolness, while the 250 soldiers on board
remained calm and responded very quickly to orders. The fire was rapidly
Once order had been restored, roll call was held and it
was discovered TSgt. William J. Theodore of the 391st Engineers had been thrown
overboard from the truck that burned. He and another soldier had been sleeping
in the truck and Theodore, asleep on the side next to the deck rail, had been
flung cot and all into the sea. A boat was lowered to search for him, but he
could not be found even with the aid of the ship's powerful searchlights.
The sergeant's companion had been thrown to the deck, burned and
seriously injured, but he survived.
For its part, the George Matthews
had not been damaged badly. The gun deck rail was partially wrecked. Two lifeboats
were smashed and the bow of the ship dented and ripped. But all damage was high
above the water line. The Matthews proceeded on its way an hour and 10 minutes
after the collision. It left alone and unprotected the Egbert Benson, which
also had lost a man. Those were the rules of war.
At 10:00 a.m. the
following morning, Sunday 18 October 1942, Chaplain Cochrun held a memorial
service aboard the George Matthews for the missing soldier. Sgt. Theodore was
from California. Today his name can be found by searching for it at the
Monuments Commission site. Sgt. Theodore's name is listed on the
Tablets of the Missing at Manila American Cemetery, Manila, the
The first time I ever heard a
version of this story, it claimed that the ship was sailing directly toward the
Coral Sea the night before the battle there. All ships were under orders of
radio silence because of that impending battle, but because these were troop
ships entering the area and not combatants, the Navy broke radio silence to
warn them away. According to that story, one ship went port and the other went
starboard and it was then they collided. As subsequently discovered in my
grandfather's diary, the "Coral Sea" story was a "mis-telling." The Battle of
the Coral Sea had taken place about 400 miles away from the site of this
collision some 5 months earlier.