Alfred J. Elam was part of a little-known fraternity entrusted with protecting the war supplies for North Africa and D-Day -- The U.S. Navy Armed Guard.
Elam, 84, of Belleville, said being a chief gunner's mate aboard merchant ships was boring duty with a lot of potential for hazard. German U-boats sank or damaged more than 500 merchant vessels during 1942.
"I volunteered for the Armed Guard because they promised me two men per compartment, a waiter for meals, a menu to order from and the promise of being torpedoed. They kept their word," Elam said.
The torpedo came on March 9, 1943.
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Elam was in charge of the 5-inch gun on the aft deck of the S.S. James K. Polk, his first ship.
They made a run around the southern tip of Africa and up to Egypt, where they delivered tanks to British Gen. Bernard Montgomery before the invasion of Sicily. They had no escort and were heading back empty when they encountered U-510, a sister ship to the German submarine on display at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, off the northern coast of South America.
"The first I knew we'd been torpedoed was when I picked myself off the deck," Elam said.
The torpedo hit the engine room, disabling the ship and killing a signalman. Two others were hurt. Elam was scraped up. The forward and aft guns were both disabled when the torpedo's impact whipped the barrels back, knocking them off their carriages.
The 18 members of the Armed Guard stayed at battle stations for 12 hours manning machine guns until the order came for them and 42 crew members to abandon ship in lifeboats. The German U-boat only fired the single torpedo and moved on.
During that single day, U-510's Capt. Karl Neitzel sank three allied ships and damaged four others in addition to the S.S. James K. Polk. He was awarded the Iron Cross shortly thereafter.
"Being a kid you don't worry about it. You just wonder what else is going to happen," Elam said.
The back of the ship was partly submerged and had to be towed back to port for repairs. Elam got to take leave for being a survivor.
Elam enlisted in the Navy at age 18 because he and his sisters were orphaned. The Navy made him a rich man with $21 a month, even after they took out $5.50 for expenses. It also gave him indoor plumbing, regular meals and got him out of the houses of charitable neighbors who raised the Elam children in South St. Louis after their parents and grandparents died.
During World War II he served aboard six ships, including two tankers, a cargo ship, a troop ship, an ammunition ship and an aircraft repair ship. Things got much better as the war continued, because the U-boat threat dropped significantly and they got modern guns with hydraulic drives that made them Cadillacs compared to the World War I-vintage weapons with which they began.
He saw the world during the war, with lots of travel in the Caribbean, three trips to England to supply the D-Day invasion, one to France after the invasion, around Africa, to Antarctica and South America, through the Panama Canal, into the Persian Gulf and into the Pacific including the Philippines and Japan.
"The Pacific was like a Sunday compared to being in the Atlantic. There was much less danger and we had doctors and a laundry," Elam said. "On those merchant ships you did your laundry in a bucket because they didn't want to run a motor on a washing machine. They didn't even want you running an electric razor for fear the sound would be picked up by a U-boat," he said.
The Naval Armed Guard gunners were popular for warships because they were well trained. The Navy put experienced gunners on ships with inexperienced ones at their base in New Orleans.
"You didn't get too close to people," he said. "The gun crews were split up when you got back to New Orleans."
Elam stayed in the Navy for 11 years, seeing most of his combat during Korea. One of his three sons followed him into the Navy and served during Vietnam.
"I always wanted to be in the Navy," he said. "I don't really know why."