Writer’s note: Feb. 18, 2022. marks the 80th anniversary of the wrecks of the USS Truxtun and the USS Pollux on the southern shore of Newfoundland, Canada. Charles Carmen Crisafulli, gunner’s mate second class, was among the casualties and the first Oswego citizen to sacrifice his life for his country in World War II. This article makes use of recently uncovered documents about the tragedy. … Sincere gratitude is extended to Ms. Joanne Paino, niece of Charles and Mary Crisafulli, for granting permission to use documents and photographs in her possession relating to her “Uncle Chuck.”
When a convoy of three ships, the USS Wilkes, USS Truxtun, and USS Pollux set out from Portland, Maine, on Feb. 15, 1942, no one could foresee the disaster about to occur on the southern coast of Newfoundland three days later.
Aboard the Truxtun was native Oswegonian Charles Carmen Crisafulli, a member of the 15th Division U.S. Naval Militia which had been federalized shortly after Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. Originally assigned to the USS Chemung, Crisafulli was transferred to the Truxtun on Nov. 30, 1941.
Bound for the naval-air base at Argentia, located on the eastern shore of Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, the destroyers Wilkes and Truxtun were assigned to protect the
cargo ship Pollux, laden with war materiel, as it made its way to the base. Since the area was known to be patrolled by German U-boats, the ships were following a zigzag course designed to diminish the danger of torpedoes.
All went reasonably well until the night of Feb. 17, when a fierce storm arose with huge waves crashing over the decks, blinding snow, and heavy winds. Only the Wilkes was equipped with radar. The primitive system could not be depended upon in conditions such as the convoy was beginning to experience. Radio silence was strictly enforced and signalmen using lights carried out communication between ships. In the blinding snowstorm, the probability of messages being received and answered was decidedly reduced.
Other factors contributed to the impending disaster. Inexperienced crew members, faulty fathometer readings, disagreements between officers, and minor navigational errors, complicated by gale force winds and unpredictable currents, combined to drive the three ships off their original heading. Instead of proceeding towards Placentia Bay, located farther to the east, they were being driven northward toward the shore. By the time the radar, which had to be freed from a thick coating of ice, picked up the looming coastline, it was too late. All three ships plowed into the southern shore of Newfoundland shortly after 4 a.m. on Feb. 18.
Farthest to the west was the Wilkes whose captain was soon able to reverse engines and move his vessel back into deeper water. Although it had sustained some damage, it remained in the area to assist with rescue efforts. Once it had been established that help was impossible due to the conditions, the ship limped to Argentina to inform naval authorities of the situation and to request that aid be sent as quickly as possible.
The Pollux was grounded on Lawn Head to the east of the Wilkes and her situation, while grave, was not imminently dire. The captain ordered men to put on layers of warm clothes and all-weather gear. They also collected food and blankets. The brave actions of a handful of sailors resulted in establishing a lifeline between the ship and the shore. The death toll on the Pollux was 93 out of 233 sailors.
The situation on the Truxtun was much more serious. The ship had run aground on a reef at Chambers Cove. In very little time the submerged rocks had torn off the screws and pierced the bottom of the ship. The Truxtun suffered more damage each time a wave came crashing over it, eventually breaking into three pieces. The lifeboats were destroyed in the effort to get them into the water. Six rafts enabled 24 sailors to reach shore before becoming hopelessly entangled in the rocks and ropes. Some crew members had come up to the deck ill-clad for the terrible weather and were quickly overcome by the conditions. Unable to return below decks on account of the rising water, many froze to death. Others were swept overboard because they were unable to cling to ropes or rails coated with oil and ice. Of the 156 men aboard the Truxtun, 110 died. Crisafulli was one of those casualties, becoming the first Oswego County man to lose his life in World War II. The details of his death would not be known for almost half a century.
Crisafulli, born on April 13, 1912, was a son of Joseph and Josephine Calderone Crisafulli, immigrants from Messina, Sicily. He was the second of eleven siblings. By the war’s end, four sons had donned military uniforms, three in the Navy and one in the Army-Air Corps.
Crisafulli, described as “friendly and affable” by younger brother Fred, was educated at St. Paul’s Academy and Oswego High School. He attended St. Joseph’s Church and was a member of the Holy Name Society. As an adult he worked in a tailoring and dry cleaning store at Fort Ontario and as a messenger for Western Union. He had ambitions of becoming a fireman and, according to published reports, was number four on the Civil Service list for such a position. He was an early member of the Oswego Drum and Bugle Corps. A year before being called to active duty he had joined the Knights of Columbus. He enlisted in the U.S. Naval Militia on Sept. 6, 1938, and ultimately attained the rank of gunner’s mate second class. On July 4, 1939, Crisafulli married Mary J. Paino, daughter of Italian immigrants Frank A. Paino and Jennie DeStefano.
Feb. 18, 1942, was Ash Wednesday and, like those brave men and women in St. Lawrence and Lawn, Newfoundland, who rescued the Truxtun and the Pollux survivors, Catholics in Oswego, including Charles’ wife Mary, went to Mass. She could have no idea of the events unfolding in Canada which would so dramatically impact her life. A telegram from the Navy on Sunday, Feb. 22, conveyed the terrible news to her that Charles was dead. The Palladium-Times announced her husband’s death with a lengthy, two column obituary on Monday, Feb. 23.
Not until Tuesday, Feb. 24, however, did the Navy release to the public the information concerning the two shipwrecks. By Feb. 25, newspapers throughout the United States were making the story front page news. In Oswego the Crisafulli family planned a requiem Mass but since Charles’ body had not been recovered, preparations were halted.
Mary had to wait until March 1942 for further news about Charles. She received a letter from Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox dated March 14, 1942, stating, “I desire to offer to you my personal condolence in the tragic death of your husband … It is hoped that you may find comfort in the thought that he made the supreme sacrifice upholding the highest traditions of the Navy, in the defense of his country.” The Palladium-Times, however, erroneously announced on March 18 that the Navy had confirmed the recovery and burial of his body in Newfoundland.
Fred Crisafulli was only 16 in 1942 and for many years knew nothing of the circumstances surrounding his brother’s death. He accidentally stumbled upon the story, as he himself related in 1992, when he read Pollux survivor Henry Strauss’ article about the disaster in the April 1989 issue of the Reader’s Digest. Fred Crisafulli contacted him for names of Truxtun survivors. Edward McInerney, one of the last survivors, provided details of Crisafulli’s final moments. His written testimony reads, in part: “We on the Galley Deck House constructed a make shift raft by stuffing a canvas gun cover with … ammunition boxes. We launched our raft on the lee side to Port as the sea was coming at us from starboard. Four shipmates, Sedwick, Butterworth, Thursby and Bramlett went over the side with our raft. When they tried to board the raft it turned in the water like a ball and no one was able to board it. Almost immediately they were yelling to be pulled back aboard. Three of the four were thrown a line and were pulled back to the side of the ship at the forecastle opposite gun one. All three Thursby, Bramlett, and Butterworth were covered with oil and weak from their efforts, all three were unable to tie a rope around themselves to enable us to pull them aboard. At this juncture two Gunner’s Mates, Chuck Crisafulli and Bill Kremple each with a line tied around himself went over the side. Chuck and Bill got a hold on Butterworth but we were unable to raise them up. The situation was continuing to deteriorate as the list was increasing, the wind was rising, the footing was bad, the lines were oily and areas exposed to the wind were iced over. Chuck and Bill were getting weak so the order was given to bring them back up which we did with great difficulty … Chuck [and] Bill were oil covered and freezing so were taken to shelter in the Radio Shack. Their wet oil soaked frozen clothing was removed and they were given a stimulant … When Bill and Chuck re-appeared on the wing of the Bridge the ship was just about on her side. All three men were clad in only their underwear bottoms and bare legs. Each had on an officer’s dress coat … The temperature was reported to be 20 below zero. The wind was fierce and building. The sea was rising and the waves were completely inundating the ship. About this time three giant waves rolled completely over the ship and took between 30 to 40 into the water. I believe Chuck was one of this group … After this series of waves I never saw Chuck Crisafulli again.”
Using McInerney’s testimony as evidence of Charles’ heroism, Fred, Mary, local military organizations, and political figures such as Rep. Frank Horton, began a quest to gain some sort of Navy medal for him. Although the effort was stymied for several years on account of regulations governing time limits for awarding such medals, in 1996, the Navy posthumously granted Charles Crisafulli the Navy Commendation Medal. Mary and Fred accepted it on Aug. 18, 1996, aboard the USS Oliver Hazard Perry when it put into port in Oswego as part of its Great Lakes cruise. Gov. George Pataki also awarded him a posthumous Conspicuous Service medal. The current location of these medals is unknown.
It is important to note that, so far as the Navy is concerned, Charles Crisafulli’s body was never recovered. At war’s end the sailors interred in Newfoundland were exhumed and returned to the United States for burial in Long Island National Cemetery. Identities of men previously considered “unknowns” were subsequently established through dental records. Others are still classified as unidentified. Mary’s long search for her husband’s body was in vain. To this day the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency includes him among “the missing in action or buried at sea.”