Bill Carlson grew up near the Duluth harbor and dreamt of traveling by sea. When he was seventeen years old, he joined the Naval Reserve. It was 1939, two years before the US would join World War II.
Now 94, Carlson will be honored for his service on March 29, 75 years to the day he survived the sinking of his ship, at the 31st annual National Merchant Marine Convention and Reunion in Reno, Nevada.
In the Naval Reserve, Carlson served on the USS Paducah where he was trained as a gunner to protect Merchant Marine ships.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Carlson was assigned to the SS City of New York. It was a passenger and cargo ship that ran from New York to Cape Town, South Africa. It was dangerous because the Germans patrolled near New York in their U-Boats and torpedoed hundreds of US ships.
On the way back from a trip to South Africa, the SS City of New York was hit by a torpedo from a U-Boat. Carlson manned a gun and fired at the submarine, but the waves were too tall, and they stopped the shells from reaching the German sub.
The Germans submerged and then fired on the other side of the ship. After that hit, the order to abandon ship was given. By the time Carlson grabbed his coat and life jacket, the main deck was under water up to his knees.
A lifeboat nearby saw him get into the water and helped him in. It took 36 hours for them to be picked up by another ship. Carlson saw something on the horizon, so he climbed the mast of the lifeboat with a flashlight and started flashing SOS in Morse code – the only letters he knew.
26 people died in the sinking of the SS City of New York while 106 survived.
Carlson continued serving throughout World War II. He let his enlistment expire in 1950, so he could be home more with his young children.
In 1958, he re-enlisted in the Naval Reserves. He started spending so much time at sea that his children didn’t know who he was when he came home, so he left the reserves again. He worked for Cummins Diesel for thirty years before retiring. Since retirement, he has been active in veterans groups and the local Shipmasters International Association Lodge, Duluth News Tribune reported.
The Gary Sinise Foundation is flying Carlson to the convention. Carlson is looking forward to talking about his tale of survival. He hasn’t spoken to anyone from the SS City of New York since 1942. He hopes to meet some of the descendants of others who served on that ship.