Local WWII vet recalls sinking of German sub

| Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, 9:42 p.m.

The early spring dawn had barely come and gone the morning of April 16, 1944.

A mere 150 miles off the coast of Nantucket Island, Mass., the North Atlantic Ocean swayed silently beneath the USS Gandy — U.S. Navy Destroyer Escort 764.

It was less than eight hours since the Gandy shipped out at midnight from the Brooklyn Naval Yard in New York City along with two U.S. Coast Guard destroyer escorts — the USS Joyce and the USS Peterson — in a protective convoy surrounding the USS Pan Pennsylvania.

The Pan Pennsylvania was a 10,000-ton Allied tanker bound for England that was loaded with 140,000 barrels of gasoline during World War II.

Just before 8 a.m., John J. Hudock Sr., then a 19-year-old machinist's mate third class aboard the Gandy, had just been relieved from a 4-to-8 watch. He was making his way from the craft's engine room to the ladder room when an unmistakable sound pierced his ears.

“I heard this explosion,” recalled Hudock, 87, a longtime resident of Mt. Pleasant and a past commander of the James E. Zundell American Legion Post 446 in the borough. “Then I looked out and saw the Pan Pennsylvania burning.”

The reason it was burning was because it had sustained a single torpedo strike into its stern from the German Naval submarine U-550, which was under the command of Kapitanleutnant Klaus Hanert.

“We got called to general quarters and that's when everything started happening,” Hudock said. “When you're at general quarters, they lock all the hatches down.”

During what was Hudock's first military convoy, Adolf Hitler's Nazi Naval forces had met him — and America's eastern seaboard — head on.

That's when Hudock, his fellow sailors and America's Naval and Coast Guard forces began to fight back.

Upon sustaining the torpedo hit, a fire broke out in the engine room of the Pan Pennsylvania and the craft was quickly abandoned, Hudock recalled.

The Gandy, Joyce and Peterson subsequently picked up 56 survivors from the crew of 81 on the Pan Pennsylvania, leaving 25 men missing, he recalled.

The Pan Pennsylvania eventually capsized and sank.

After that, the three destroyer escorts soon converged on the attacking the 252-foot, German sub, he recalled.

“I knew they were looking for the submarine,” Hudock said.

Picking up a solid contact with her sonar gear, USS Joyce closed on the target and made a depth-charge attack that quickly brought U-550 to the surface, he recalled. “It surfaced right in front of us,” Hudock said.

As gunfire from all three escorts converged on the surfaced submarine, surviving German sailors exited the craft's hatches and briefly returned fire, Hudock recalled.

It was at that point which U.S. Navy Capt. William A. Sessions of the Gandy gave what Hudock referred to as being “an unforgettable command.”

“He yelled ‘Prepare to ram,' and we were already moving,” Hudock said.

Shortly thereafter, the Gandy collided with the submarine.

“It sort of screeched like an automoble wreck,” Hudock said.

The German sailors soon abandoned ship, after which 12 survivors from the submarine and one body were picked up by the USS Joyce, while 42 other men were lost. The bodies of three more German sailors were eventually recovered.

As for the U-550, the sub eventually sank stern first to the ocean floor in roughly 55 fathoms of water, where she rested undiscovered in the shadowy depths for nearly the next seven decades.

Discovery of the U-550

On July 23, 2012, after years of hard work, research and multiple field searches, the final resting place of the U-550 was finally discovered by a team of amatuer divers which included: team leader Joe Mazraani, a New Jersey attorney; Eric Takakjian; Tom Packer; Steve Gatto; Anthony Tedeschi; Garry Kozak and Brad Sheard.

“When I was about 15, I began diving and boating,” said Mazraani, now 34. “As far as this crew, I've known each of them for about 10 to 15 years. They come from different trades and professions — engineers, electricians, mechanics and accountants.”

Finding the submarine, one of the last undiscovered German U-boats sunk off the American coast during World War II, has been of interest to historians, World War II buffs, and divers for many years, according to a booklet which the group produced titled “The Discovery of the German Submarine U-550.”

Previous efforts to locate the wreck, however, proved unsuccessful, the booklet reads.

The U-550 was finally located using side scan sonar technology, the booklet reads.

It was found lying mostly intact on the ocean bottom in approximately 100 meters of water, the booklet reads.

Photographic and sonar imaging was used to identify the wreck, the booklet reads.

One veteran's perspective

Upon making the much-publicized discovery of the U-550, Mazraani and his fellow crew members set out to find veterans who were aboard the involved ships to gain their personal perspectives on the day it was sunk.

Recently, that led them right to Hudock's door.

“Obviously, with any of the guys that served on the destroyer escorts or the submarine, you get to really hear how it happened,” Mazraani said.

Hudock — accompanied by two of his three sons, Alan Hudock, 60, of Latrobe and Richard Hudock, 57, of Bellefonte in Centre County — on Oct. 27 greeted Mazraani, Sheard and Gatto for an day of reflection and fellowship focused on the memory of that fateful day with one of roughly a dozen individuals still living among the American and German survivors.

“John was great in that he really wanted to talk about it ... some don't want to, they'd rather forget about it,” Mazraani said.

That Hudock wanted to share in the detail he did took his sons Alan and Richard, along with his eldest son, John J. Hudock Jr., 65, of Avella, Washington County, by surprise.

“It's a shock to me,” John J. Hudock Jr. said. “Those kinds of things were not open to me in our growing years. Nothing of this ever came to light up until the last couple of years.”

Alan Hudock, who with brother Richard watched Mazraani's crew interview their father first-hand, came away impressed with the respect the group showed the veteran.

“They were very cordial, and they were extremely appreciative for dad to take his time with them,” Alan Hudock said. “They gave him an incredible amount of respect. They really treated him like a veteran should be treated.”

After the interview, John J. Hudock Sr. treated the men to a meal at Leo & Sons' Grille 31, where a photograph of him in his white sailor's uniform at age 19 is on display along with those of many other photos of local veterans.

“I thought it was great. They were nice guys. They were friendly. You think you'd known them all your life,” he said. “I'm glad to get my story on the record.”

As was Richard Hudock, who approached Mazraani about meeting with his father to conduct the interview which was recorded and may be part of a documentary going forward.

“I feel like it's kind of bringing things full circle. Dad is very appreciative of people still paying attention to the service committed by veterans,” Richard Hudock said. “That's why they erected the Veterans Memorial Wall in Mt. Pleasant. My father's name is on there.

“That's just kind of the legacy of the town. It's more than just my dad. There's an opportunity to transfer that history there, as well.”

A.J. Panian is a staff editor with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or apanian@tribweb.com.

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