BERTRAM “BERT” PENNELL of Topsham, a World War II veteran, still lobsters commercially to keep himself busy.

BERTRAM “BERT” PENNELL of Topsham, a World War II veteran, still lobsters commercially to keep himself busy.


You don’t forget the name of the destroyer you lived on for two and a half years, says 88-year-old Bertram “Bert” Pennell.

The ship, the USS Earl K. Olsen, was overcrowded with about 300 men. When he arrived, he was given a life jacket, hunting knife with case and shown to his quarters — located down in the mess hall because the ship was so crowded — a tube with sewn canvas he slept on and tied up in the morning. He had a footlocker underneath for his belongings.

Pennell, who left high school and was working for a short time before enlisting in the Navy in May 1944 at age 18, said he knew he was going to be drafted.

Two days after coming aboard, the Olsen was headed to Europe.

“They were in a hurry,” Pennell said. “German submarines were sinking ships out there faster than they could build them and that’s what this ship was built for, to sink submarines. Next thing I knew, I was on the way to Europe.”

Pennell reflects on the story from the couch in his home in Topsham, where he’s lived for six decades — about a mile from the Green Street home where he was born.

“I love the water anyway,” he said nonchalantly, adding he’d spent most of his younger years in Harpswell. Coming from a long line of fishermen on his mother’s side, he said, “Never got seasick in my life. Never. I laugh at people who get seasick.”

In fact, Pennell still lobsters commercially out of Harpswell, as he has since retiring from the railroad after 39 years — something to keep him busy and out of trouble.

“ I can’t sit there and watch the tube like some people can,” he said.

Pennell completed boot camp at the Navy training station in Sampson, N.Y., and gunnery training for two weeks in Rhode Island. He was qualified for depth charges or aircraft guns, so he could shoot down aircraft or submarines. The Cannon class of destroyers, he said, was the first that had Sonar and could detect a submerged submarine, built to escort convoys. There were K-guns on the ship and they’d drop a 300- pound depth charge, with dynamite, shooting it probably 150 feet off with the Kgun. They would send 10 of those depth charges at a time.

“We’d drop depth charges when we got a contact” and swing back around to see if there was an oil slick, Pennell said, “but you had to go back and take a position in that convoy because if you didn’t, you were leaving it wide open for a German sub to sink an aircraft carrier or troop ship.”

Asked how often they actually hit a submarine, he said, “Only God knows, I guess.”

The ship was also armed with a twin 40mm machine gun, 20mm machine guns, 3-inch/50 guns and a hedgehog projector, as well as depth charge projector and depth charge tracks. The anti- aircraft guns were needed to fight off German aircraft such as the Focke- Wulf or Messerschmitts when they were in the English Channel on D-Day.

“ I was on those guns when we got in that kind of area. That’s why I can’t hear nothing today,” Pennell said, noting that the gunners didn’t wear ear protection. “Day and night that was, it never stopped.”

His convoy was the first to arrive directly from the U. S., but couldn’t get beyond the English Channel until the morning after the landing, which killed 10,000 allies. He remembers debris and dead people floating in the water all around him — some washing into the rivers and others on shore. It’s something he said he doesn’t want to see again.

“That was an awful invasion,” Pennell said. “There was no room for nothing there.”

And the battle wasn’t over after that invasion. He remembers the Germans began launching V-2 rockets, the first used in the war, and you never knew where they’d land. While in England waiting for convoys, he’d hear the sirens sound and knew a rocket was about to strike.

His biggest fear, however, was of his ship getting hit by a torpedo. Full of ammunition and fuel, if it had been struck, Pennell said, “It would have been Normandy here. The whole ship would have been gone.”

But the enemy “wasn’t after us,” he said. “They were trying to get by us to get at a troop ship or an aircraft carrier or something carrying fuel for the troops over there.”

The biggest close call for him and his crew was when a ship got too close and rammed the USS Earl K. Olsen, knocking one of the depth charges right off the ship.

“Why it didn’t go off, I don’t know,” Pennell said.

He and his crew also searched for and rescued two soldiers from the North Atlantic in 40- foot seas after a French aircraft carrier struck an American troop ship, slicing it down the middle at 3 a. m. one morning. Seven men were lost under the ship.

Pennell traveled all over from the Atlantic to the Pacific, through the Panama Canal to Russia, the Philippines and to Japan, where he saw the aftermath of the atomic bomb.

“I enjoyed every bit of it, but I don’t want to do it again,” Pennell said, adding he returned home from the war, “just as fast as I could get there.”

Being home was different.

“You had to start all over again,” Pennell said, and get back to life.

But he still laughs as he remembers rolling up his sleeves to go out one evening.

“My mother let a scream out of her: ‘ Oh my God, he’s got a tattoo!,’” Pennell said.

The baby of the family, he and some comrades had got matching tattoos on a dare in San Diego, with an American flag and eagle. It cost him $ 7, he remembered: “I got my money’s worth.”

He worked for Maine Central Railroad for 39 years and was a signal foreman, traveling around the whole state and also New Hampshire. In 1948, he married his late wife, Lois, known as Marie, who passed away in 2004. The two had five sons and a daughter.

Now 69 years after the end of World War II, Pennell said he was at Normandy Beach and then Tokyo Bay alongside the USS Missouri when the Japanese signed the treaty formalizing their surrender, “so I saw the start of one war and the end of another.”

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