Greensburg Daily News
All-American Indianapolis swimmer Al Rust joined the Navy Feb. 18, 1942.
On June 29, 1942, while serving on the SS Thomas McKean, the German submarine U-505 sank his ship at 7:25 a.m. Al was the last man off the ship. As the last lifeboat was pulling away, Al grabbed a rope which was hanging down and swung out to the boat.
He continues his story from last week: There were 15 men in Al’s lifeboat when their journey started. One man died the next day and the remaining 14 men held funeral services for him and slid the body into the ocean. Rust said later, “I didn’t look.”
“About the fourth day out we saw a Navy plane. It circled around us from about 9 a.m. until about 3 p.m. He also dropped us some canned food, which tasted very good.” The plane had circled, dropped the food, and flew low enough that the men in the lifeboat could see one of the men in the plane pointing west. From this they knew that if they were to find land it would be to the west.
The men on the boat had a few chocolate bars, some crackers, some concentrated food, and a little water. They had no idea how long they would be in the lifeboat so they knew they had to ration their food and water. It was desperate enough that each man could have only seven ounces of water a day. There were six blankets to share on the cold nights. The days were hot under the broiling sun and one of the crew got sun poisoning. All of the others were badly sunburned.
When the McKean was torpedoed, Al had time only to grab his swimming trunks and a lifebelt which did not protect him from the blazing sun nor keep him warm at night. Waves from 20 to 40 feet high kept breaking over the sides of the boat and dousing them, allowing them little sleep.
Al said, “The men in the plane were the last we saw of anyone or anything until the morning of the 10th day about 3 a.m. It was still dark so we waited until daylight because we smelled something that smelled like a woods after a rain and the third mate saw something that looked very much like a mountain. Boy was that land a welcome sight that morning of July 8!”
“We started rowing towards the land not knowing where we were,” he continued.
“We noticed that the water was very rough in close to the land, but we decided to try to make it. A man came running out of a hut, waving his arms in the air and then pointed for us to go to the right. We turned right and he came out to meet us in a little row boat. He led us to the little village of Miches on the island of Hispaniola, Dominican Republic. The people received us very well and gave us food and water and a place to sleep.” Al spent nine and a half days in the lifeboat and had lost 12 pounds when the ordeal was over.
The rescue of the men and accounts of their experience were the headlines in most newspapers around the country. One reporter wrote, “He is anxious to get back to sea, where he may get a crack at the German submarine that torpedoed his ship in the wild Atlantic 400 miles off an island.” Another stated, “Local Sailor Seeks Revenge. Swimming champ was gun captain on ship sunk in Caribbean.”
Headlines in newspapers read, “Hoosier cited for bravery - Al Rust has been commended for heroic conduct during engagement with the enemy the Navy Department announced today.” Al was awarded for his calmness in action, helping an injured seaman and the example he gave to the merchant seamen.
The Navy put him on a public relations tour. He traveled the East Coast for the Navy always encouraging war bond purchases, blood donations and support for defense plants. He spoke at schools, businesses, rallies and ship launchings. He also taught swimming and fire and water rescue to navy recruits. He received publicity wherever he spoke. When a reporter asked him to describe how the sinking of the ship felt he replied, “It’s impossible to describe the torpedoing of a ship. There was just a terrific noise and a jolt.” Another reporter thought it must have been exciting. Al replied, “Not quite as exciting as you might think.”
Always in the back of his mind he wanted that German submarine U – 505 caught. Would that ever happen? The conclusion to Al’s story next week.