Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

January 31, 2013

The incredible story of Albert M. Rust Jr.: Part I

Pat Smith
Greensburg Daily News

Greensburg — Albert M. Rust Jr. rests most of the time these days.

His eyes are still amazingly blue, some might say as blue as the ocean where he once had an incredible encounter with a German Submarine. He is 95-years-old. It’s been 71 years since his ship, the S.S. Thomas McKean, and the German sub U-505 met. Originally from Indianapolis, Rust now lives in a continuing care facility in Greensburg so he can be about half-way between the homes of his loved ones.

Before he joined the Navy Feb. 18, 1942, Al was an All-American swimmer. In the 1936 Chicago and 1937 Yale University National Swimming Championships, he won the 50-yard freestyle event and came in third place in the 100- and 220-yard freestyle.

The Jack Schafer Memorial Trophy was retired to him in 1956. He won that trophy six years straight (1935 to 1940) for scoring the highest point total in the Indianapolis Swimming Championships. He was the center for the Indianapolis YMCA undefeated water polo squad. He placed second in the Indiana-Kentucky AAU 2¼ mile White River Swim and at George Washington High School Al lettered in both track and cross country.

After joining the Navy, Al was a gun captain on the SS Thomas McKean (named for a governor of Pennsylvania). The McKean was on her maiden voyage carrying a cargo of general supplies, gasoline, trucks, tanks, and 11 airplanes bound for Trinidad, Cape town, and the Persian Gulf.

The German submarine, U-505, sank his ship June 29, 1942, 500 miles off the coast of Trinidad. It was 7:25 a.m.

Al was midship and asleep in his bunk when the first torpedo hit. He had just come off guard duty.

The order was given to abandon ship and he only had time to grab a pair of swimming trunks and a lifebelt. He headed toward his post but it was underwater. The condition of the vessel, after the first torpedo explosion, made it impossible for any of the defensive armament to be brought into use. He looked for three of his missing gun crew and helped an injured merchant seaman to a lifeboat.  

This is how Rust described the sinking of the ship just after his rescue: “The Thomas McKean sailed from New York bound for the south. It was sunk June 29 by sub. Three of our armed guards were lost; one merchant sailor was on the after deck of the ship when I got back there. He was face down in some water and blood and breathing hard. I had two of the gun crew pick him up and carry him to one of the life boats. I tried to find the men that were sleeping back aft and also the other man on watch, but I could not find them anywhere. Everyone left the ship. On the Starboard side, the lifeboats were leaving, so I ran over to the Port side where the boat I was assigned to was, Number 4. They were pulling away from the side, also. So I jumped out about 10 feet and grabbed a rope which was hanging down and swung out to the boat, which was the last one leaving.”

Al was the last man off the sinking ship.

He continues the story: “We got out away from the ship about half a mile and the sub came up very slowly and circled around the after part of the ship and shot several shells into her. They also looked the ship over closely. Before the ship sunk, they had put 57 shells in it. The torpedo hit us at about 7:25 a.m. and the ship did not sink until 8:50 a.m. The sub then went over to the second mate’s boat and talked to him for a while and gave him some first aid for the wounded Merchant sailor and then went off in the distance on top of the water. I guess he was up for about two hours.

We all got together finally, and the captain took all of the Navy Instruments and we stayed together for the first day. The second day we could not see the captain and first mate, so we stayed back with the second mate figuring he would pull us up with the other two at the end of the day because he had a motor in his boat, but he refused. We went along with him a few days but that night the water was so rough that we could not keep track of him because he did not put up any light so we could see him.”

The incredible story of Albert M. Rust Jr. will be continued next week.