TIMOTHY R. BROOKES
A dramatic, but nearly forgotten, story from East Liverpool's wartime past was first brought to my attention in the mid-1980's when my late grandmother gave me two letters written during the final weeks of the Great War (as World War One was known until the 1940's.) The letters were written by Charles "Chick" Robinson while he was in training at Camp Jackson, South Carolina, and were originally mailed to my great-grandparents, John and Elizabeth Brookes of Dresden Avenue.
A friend of the family, Chick had been employed as a fledgling newspaper man prior to being drafted. He was a son of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Robinson of Lincoln Avenue.
The earlier letter chatted about the tedium of military training, the early effects of the Spanish flu epidemic, Liberty Loan parades and even a plane crash. He referenced my grandfather, Charles R. Brookes, then behind the trenches in France with the Sixth Division.
The second letter, however, dated October 25, 1918, focused exclusively on the "sinking of that boat my brother was on."
Chick's brother, Harold "Dutch" Robinson, had been part of a field artillery replacement detachment that had left Camp Jackson in September for overseas service. An inkling of the disaster was suggested to Robinson when a telegram reached the camp seeking the names of the men who had so recently shipped-out. In his own words, "It hit me hard to begin with, because I heard of it here several days before it got into the newspapers as to who was lost. I knew Dutch was with the 4 Battery, and those who went with him, because I marched up to the train to see them leave, and I shook hands with all those East Liverpool boys. Then one night there came a wire into this Regiment saying the entire battery was lost, and that 16 or so were saved." It would be several days before Robinson learned that his brother was among the handful of survivors.
The story of this sinking was not readily discoverable at first. No mention of it appears in Harold B. Barth's History of Columbiana, Ohio published in 1926. A copy of the 1934 Centennial edition of the Evening Review disclosed only that four East Liverpool soldiers were killed when the troop transport Ticonderoga was sunk by a German U-boat on September 30, 1918. The names of the local victims were listed as Joseph Bancroft, George Sheffler, Anthony Simballa and Alfred Wedgewood.
On going to microfilm resources, I found that the two daily East Liverpool newspapers were slow to mention the sinking or the tragic loss of local soldiers. This may have been due to wartime censorship or simple confusion. The loss of the Ticonderoga was not officially reported until October 11 and that particular Associated Press release did not identify any of the victims. Four days later it was reported that Harold Robinson of East Liverpool was one of only 24 survivors.
Finally, 21 days after the sinking,, The Morning Tribune carried the headline "FOUR LOCAL BOYS VICTIMS OF U-BOAT." The accompanying article named the four East Liverpool fatalities and two others from the county; William Perkins of Wellsville and Orris Polen of Salineville.
All six had left from Wellsville on July 26th as part of a draft contingent numbering 245 men. Joseph Bancroft, age 23, had been an employee of the Tribune before being drafted. Sheffler, 32; Simballa, 31; and Wedgewood, 24, had all been potters before their induction.
A cruel mistake somewhere in the military bureaucracy resulted in the families of the victims receiving postcards on October 23rd notifying them that their family member had arrived safely in Europe. These notices caused tremendous confusion and, for a time, encouraged the hope that the earlier reports had been mistaken. These hopes were soon crushed and no explanation was every forthcoming as to how the false information was generated.
The Ticonderoga was a small freighter of German origin which had been confiscated when the United States declared war in 1917. The vessel had previously completed three round-trip voyages to France carrying troops and military cargo. For her fourth trip the Ticonderoga left New York on September 22nd, under the command of Lieutenant Commander James J. Madison with a crew of 122 men and 115 U.S. Army artillerymen as passengers.
During the night of 29-30 September, the Ticonderoga experienced engine problems that forced her to fall behind her convoy. At about 5:45 AM on the 30th, a submarine was spotted on the surface ahead. As the ship's two gun crews prepared for action, Lt. Commander Madison unsuccessfully attempted to ram the U-boat. The U-152, a heavily-armed cruiser submarine with two deck guns, opened fire on the merchant ship, quickly knocking out its forward gun, and destroying the ship's radio. Lt. Commander Madison was badly wounded but kept himself on the bridge in a brave, but losing, attempt to inflict mortal damage on the submarine. Eventually the U-boat destroyed the Ticonderoga other gun and continued to inflict heavy casualties on the crew and passengers. Most of the lifeboats were destroyed by the German shells. At about 7:45 a single torpedo struck just aft of the engine room after which the ship quickly sank.
Only one lifeboat and a raft were left in a usable condition. The Germans seized two naval officers from the lifeboat and one raft, but failed to locate Lt. Commander Madison who had survived but was incapacitated by severe blood loss. The remaining survivors, 14 soldiers and eight naval personnel, were left adrift and were not rescued for four days. A total of 215 men were lost.
The Evening Review published a letter from local survivor Harold Robinson on October 25, 1918, editorializing that the attack was "carried out in violation of every rule of civilized warfare on the high seas." Robinson's letter described the one-sided battle and the disproportionate U.S. casualties. He claimed that the U-boat continued its shelling, despite the raising of a white flag and that after the ship sank he saw a number of men drown, unable to secure sufficient wreckage to cling to. On the third night after the sinking, a gale nearly capsized their lifeboat, but they were still afloat and alive the next morning when a British steamer rescued them. Robinson closed his letter by stating that he expected to return shortly to East Liverpool on a furlough and that he might be discharged from further service. (in fact, the Armistice, signed on November 11, 1918, would make it a moot point.) Robinson made no specific mention of the other four men from the city, but did state that, "I still dream of submarines and awake suddenly in the darkness of night with the horror of the damnably German atrocity gripping me like a nightmare."
Lt. Commander Madison would receive the Medal of Honor for his "exceptionally heroic service" but was hospitalized for most of his remaining life which ended on Christmas Day, 1922.
The two naval officers taken aboard the U-152 survived their ordeal and were frequently photographed amongst the German crew on their return voyage. They reached Kiel, Germany four days after the Armistice and were quickly repatriated.
Harold Robinson, the sole Last Liverpool survivor, did receive an early discharge for "physical disability" on December 28, 1918. He later worked for the City of East Liverpool. He died on December 26, 1977, at the age of 85.
The East Liverpool Historical Society would love to find photos of (1) Harold Robinson, (2) Joseph Bancroft, (3) George Sheffler.
If you have or know of someone who does have one of the above pictures why not email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
EAST LIVERPOOL VICTIMS FROM THE "TICONDEROGA"
1. Pvt. George W. Sheffler, age 32 Occupation: Kiln-placer at the McNicol Pottery Local Address: 820 Morton Street, East Liverpool, Ohio 43920
2. Pvt. Anthony Simbaila, age 31 Occupation: Potter Local Address: 909 Bank Street, East Liverpool, Ohio 43920
3. Pvt. Joseph P. Bancroft, age 23 Occupation: Employed at the East Liverpool Tribune Local Address: 1006 Avondale Street, East Liverpool, Ohio 43920
4. Pvt. Alfred H. Wedgewood, age 24 Occupation: Potter Local Address: 838 St. George Street, East Liverpool, Ohio 43920