“The Greatest Generation”
By Kathleen Knowles
World War II ended seventy-three years ago in 1945. Those who lived through the depression and fought in that war are quite often referred to as the “Greatest Generation.” As Blue Water Healthy Living honors those that fought and preserved American freedom, it would be remiss to leave out those that not only preserved freedom for Americans, but for those throughout the world.
With each passing year, we lose more of our “Greatest Generation,” as not many of them are left among us. Donald Edward Tuthill, born February 10, 1926, is alive and well and living in Marysville, Michigan. He grew up in Ferndale with his parents, Morris and Josephine Tuthill. Donald attended the Taft Junior High and Lincoln High School, from which he graduated in January 1944.
With World War II well under way, and as many young men did, Mr. Tuthill entered the United States Army in July 1944. He was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas for basic training. He trained there for seventeen weeks as well as training for the Horse Calvary. Upon completion of basic training, Mr. Tuthill reported to Fort Ord in California. While there, a liberty ship came into port. They loaded 317 mules from boxcars onto the ship. The mules were to be transported to Calcutta, India where they would join Merrill’s Marauders (named after Frank Merrill), which was a United States Army long range penetration special operation warfare unit. They fought in the Southeast Asian theater of the war (also known as the China-Burma-India Theater).
The model of the ship built by Mr. Tuthill
On December 28,1944, the SS Peter Silvester (the liberty ship) shipped out. His unit’s job was to care for the mules. They were not informed of where they were going at the time they sailed to Melbourne, Australia. After a day and a half, and the loading of supplies, the ship headed out. While at sea for a couple days, the crew was finally told they were headed for Calcutta, India.
Mr. Tuthill estimated the ship had been at sea about six to seven days, and around 800 miles west of Perth, Australia when tragedy struck.
February 6th at about 9:45 at night, the ship was torpedoed. Mr. Tuthill was below deck in the sleeping quarters when it struck. Lying in his bunk, talking to his buddy, he was knocked out of it. The second torpedo struck, and he was thrown into the air and blown down by the engine room. Mr. Tuthill was knocked unconscious. The salt-water flooding into the ship forced him to consciousness. When waking, he found himself in the pitch-dark with no knowledge of whether there was an escape ladder. He was drawn to a small red light which was attached to the life preservers. There was an officer standing right on top of where a ladder was welded to the side of the ship.
Though injured and exhausted, Mr. Tuthill climbed up the ladder and got up on deck. He laid there for three or four minutes. Summoning his strength, he got up and headed for the lifeboats. Before he could board, two more torpedoes slammed into the crippled ship. Once again, Tuthill was blown off his feet as the bow of the ship split in half and went down. He was handed a life preserver and got into the lifeboat. When it lowered and hit the water, the drainage plugs failed; the boat began taking on water. Spotting a small red light in the distance, he swam over to it, but not without difficulty. The water was rough, and every time he tried swimming away from the ship, he was slammed up against it. Eventually, Tuthill conquered the waves and swam away.
The life boat Staff Sergeant Tuthill spent 22 days in
Unfortunately, when he arrived at the lifeboat, it was already full of personnel, and he was unable to board. While in the water, a German submarine surfaced and shelled the ship. The stern was still afloat. Unable to completely sink the ship, they submerged. In addition to the shelling the ship received, it had been hit by a total of six torpedoes. Mr. Tuthill remained in the water for more than an hour before informing the other men he was bleeding badly and could attract sharks if there were any in the vicinity. The decision was made to allow him into the lifeboat.
Each lifeboat contained some food and water, but certainly nowhere near enough to sustain the twenty men trapped on the boat. What food that was available was rationed heavily and did not last very long. The lifeboat also had jars the size of Gerber Baby Food jars which contained malt tablets. They were given two rations of that a day, about a half jar in each ration.
Hours turned into days with no rescue in sight. As if the men did not have enough to deal with, two very severe storms came up. “The waves looked like mountains coming at us,” Tuthill said. “We were tossed up and down. The storm lasted five or six hours. Then there was another one.”
Around the eighteenth day, a pool of whales appeared. Several of them were underneath the lifeboats. The men were concerned if the whales upended the boats, they would perish due to extreme weakness and exhaustion, inhibiting their ability to save themselves.
Having been floating on the ocean for nearly three weeks, some men were hallucinating. Several thought they saw ships, only to their disappointment, there had not been any there. They spotted non-existent planes; one even thought he had seen an island.
On the twenty-second day, one of the men again thought he had spotted a ship. No one paid much attention because so many times before, they had all been false alarms. Mr. Tuthill said, “Then another fellow saw a ship. We all looked and sure enough there really was one there. It came alongside of us, dropped a cargo net and lowered a rope ladder on the side of the ship. I was the second one up. I wasn’t going to let go of that ladder. They would have had to drag me across the Indian Ocean first, after having spent twenty-two days in that lifeboat.” When he got to the top of the ladder and on the deck, Donald Tuthill passed out, too weak to take another step.
“I weighed 160 pounds at the time I entered the service. When they weighed me aboard the ship, I was down to 125 pounds, a loss of 35 pounds.”
He learned they had been rescued by a British Aircraft carrier, an HMS Activity. They were out on maneuvers for kamikazes. One of the officers had seen something shiny. He told the captain about it and where he had seen it. Tuthill remembered, “It was about two hours before they picked us up. It had been known lifeboats such as ours were used as decoys for submarines. They determined this was not the case. We were finally rescued.”
Taken to Perth, Australia, the men were removed from the ship on stretchers as the ambulances awaited them. They were sent to the Hollywood Military Hospital in Perth. Mr. Tuthill was not certain of how much time he spent in the hospital, but maintains it had to have been three or four weeks due to his condition and weakness.
Once discharged from the hospital, the men were assigned to an American Submarine base, spending several months there before being sent to the east coast of Australia. They boarded a Dutch merchant ship and shipped out to the Philippines for amphibious training for the invasion of Japan. While in route, President Harry Truman had ordered the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. After the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered.
The crew continued on to the Philippines. Mr. Tuthill was again hospitalized due to his weakened condition. When he left the hospital about a week later, he was assigned to Headquarters in Manila. He worked in the discharge section where he took care of military discharges.
In August of 1945, Mr. Tuthill returned to Fort Ord, California. He was then sent to a military base in Illinois where he was discharged from the Army on August 19, 1946. He served approximately 25 months. Since the war had ended, many men were discharged as the military no longer needed the large numbers that had been fighting the war. Donald Tuthill left the service, having achieved the rank of Staff Sergeant.
Staff Sergeant Donald Tuthill’s medals
With the war and his service behind him, he returned to his home in Ferndale, Michigan. After spending two years there, he left his hometown and went to Lexington. He worked on a farm and attended Business College in Port Huron. Enrolling in St. Clair County Community College, he earned an Associate’s Degree. He got a job working for the United States Post Office Railway Mail Service. Mr. Tuthill left there when he landed a job with the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department In 1954. He went on to work there for thirty-one years.
During his time with the Sheriff’s Department, he worked the first eleven years as a road deputy. Receiving a promotion, he spent the next twelve years as a detective. That followed an appointment to undersheriff for eight years. Mr. Tuthill retired in 1985.
In 1950, Donald Tuthill met Virginia Garner. After a short courtship, they were married on April 15, 1951. The couple had two children, a daughter, Jeanne Tuthill Sawdon who lives in Saint Clair and a son, James, who lives in Port Huron. They have four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
When asked to elaborate about the twenty-two days he spent on the lifeboat, Mr. Tuthill had this to say, “We talked a lot about food because we didn’t have any, and about our life back home with family. Many times, it went through my mind that I might never return to them. I thank the good Lord for saving me. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the Lord.”
Mr. Tuthill spoke of the other men. “There wasn’t any panic among them. We moved from one position to another; rotated around the lifeboat for some exercise. Although, the last three days the men did become a bit irritated with each other.”
When he spoke of the rescue, he repeated, “I thanked the Lord for getting me back home with my family.” He talked about what they must have gone through. “After the ship was torpedoed, my family received a telegram that I was missing in action in the South Pacific. It was probably a month and a half to two months before they received another telegram telling them I had been rescued.” He said there was no telephone or telegrams available to him to let them know he was in the hospital recovering.
Speaking of the ship, he related, “One hundred-seventy-four men were on the ship. We lost thirty-three, as well as all the mules we brought with us. When asked why he thought they were spared, Mr. Tuthill said, “I think for the simple reason, it was a German submarine. I believe if it had been Japanese, we would have been strafed. Since the Germans surfaced within thirty to forty feet from me, they knew there were survivors. They left us alone.”
Looking back on his life, Mr. Tuthill said he would not have changed his mind about serving. “If there had been a war the next day, I would have joined again.” He recommended the service to young people today. “It is a very good thing. It teaches them respect and sacrifice.”
Regarding his service, he said, “Not a day goes by I don’t think about it. I have it in my mind all the time.” Like all veterans, he has had flashbacks and reminders of that time constantly. It was one of the reasons he built the model of the torpedoed ship. “I think about it all the time and I just wanted to see that ship. It takes a lot of the pressure away from me, which I still have. I am sure I will never lose that. It is ingrained in me.”
Mr. Tuthill represents a generation of Americans, the Greatest Generation,” which had a love of country, their God and their family. They stared down death and stood up to tyranny so that all of us could continue to live in freedom. Those of us who have never experienced the horrors of war will never completely understand what Donald Tuthill and those like him have done for the rest of us. They left their homes and their families to fight a war half way around the world. They suffered injuries, living in horrible conditions and many paid the ultimate price. Heroes do not carry pigskins or star in movies. They stand up and protect their country and their fellow citizens. They put their lives on the line for the greater good……for Americans like you and me.
Staff Sergeant Donald Edward Tuthill did just that. He put his life on the line so the rest of us could live in peace and freedom. He, along with his fellow Soldiers, Sailors, Airman, and Marines told the rest of the world, we will not tolerate tyranny and will fight for that we hold dear……Freedom.
Thank a veteran today, for you owe your very freedom and way of life to them. They are our protectors…our HEROES.
Thank you, Blue Water Healthy Living, for honoring our local heroes for the month of November.
Kathleen Knowles Contributing Writer
You can read about the SS Peter Silvester in the books pictured left.
Kathleen Knowles is a life-long resident of Port Huron and a 1973 graduate of Port Huron High School. After attending St. Clair County Community College, she has worked for credit unions all of her life as well as a professional dog show handler, known for handling Pekingese. Kathleen has been writing fiction for years as a hobby, having posted many stories online.
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