CAPE MAY — Retired U.S. Navy Master Chief Joseph Tidwell will return to Cape May on Sunday for the first time since he was rescued during a submarine attack off the coast in World War II.
Tidwell, 91, worked in the engine room aboard the USS Jacob Jones, a destroyer that was hunting German submarines off Cape May County.
He was one of only 11 survivors in the Feb. 27, 1942, attack that sunk the ship and killed 131 sailors. He is returning to Cape May all these years later because his grandson, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Eric Tidwell, dived on the wreck 25 miles off Cape May.
The dive Friday marked an intersection of generations and career choices that have defined the two men. The events of that freezing morning off Cape May 69 years ago nearly spelled oblivion for Tidwell and his descendants.
“It was quite a day,” Tidwell recalled by phone from his home in Middleburg, Fla.
The destroyer was named for Commodore Jacob Jones, a naval hero who defeated the British ship Frolic off the Delaware Bay during the War of 1812. The massive ship, more than 300 feet long, was built in Camden and launched in 1918 in a ceremony that featured Jones’ great-granddaughter.
Tidwell and his destroyer steamed out of New York Harbor on Feb. 27, 1942, to patrol the New Jersey coastline. German U-boat attacks were an increasing menace off the American coast in the early years of the war, prompting the hasty construction of lookout towers such as the one in Lower Township that still stands today.
Almost immediately, the crew was dispatched to the sinking oil tanker R.P. Resor about 5 miles off Manasquan Inlet. Smoke and flames from the torpedoed tanker could be seen from beaches in Monmouth County, an account in the Asbury Park Press states.
Finding no survivors, the destroyer continued its patrol that night, heading south to the Delaware Bay. Tidwell and the rest of the 141 men aboard had no idea they were being stalked by the same German U-boat that sank the tanker.
At dawn the following day, according to accounts in the Naval Historical Center, German submarine U-578 fired a spread of torpedoes at the Jacob Jones, striking it at least twice. The first torpedo hit the ship’s starboard bow, causing its store of armaments to explode. The entire front of the ship was blown apart.
“I was on watch in the engine room when we were hit,” Tidwell said. “We came to a complete stop in the water. We passed the word to abandon ship.”
Tidwell and the men in the engine room scrambled to the deck. A second torpedo struck the ship’s aft. The destroyer was sinking fast.
Tidwell and about 30 survivors cut five or six rafts free from rope cradles that hung alongside the railings. Then, Tidwell said, they jumped into oily water just above freezing.
“If you wanted to survive, you swam. I was pretty good,” he said.
When he finally clambered into a raft, he saw for the first time the damage the torpedoes had wrought on the Jacob Jones.
“There was a big hole in the side of the ship where the torpedo hit right under the officer’s quarters,” he said.
As the ship sank, the destroyer’s anti-submarine depth charges detonated, killing more survivors on the surface.
Tidwell said the men in his raft huddled together to stay warm. He was fortunate because he was still wearing the foul-weather gear he had donned for his shift on watch, he said.
“It was cold, ice-cold water. One fellow I heard, I couldn’t make out what he was saying,” Tidwell said. “He was praying.”
The men were on the open ocean for hours before a search plane arrived. Many succumbed to hypothermia and frostbite. An hour later, a rescue ship plucked 12 survivors from the rafts. One died en route to safe harbor in Cape May, Navy records show.
Tidwell married later that year. He remained in the Navy after the war and retired as a master chief. He rarely spoke of the disaster.
His daughter Janet Tidwell said she was an adult before she stumbled on a framed American Red Cross certificate in her father’s home that referenced the attack off Cape May.
“I took it downstairs and said, ‘Dad, what’s this?’ He said, ‘Honey, it was just something that happened before you were born,’” she said.
But she and other family members are fascinated by the story of Tidwell’s narrow escape.
“It’s amazing. My daddy was one of 11 men who survived that,” she said. “It certainly could have changed the course of our lives.”
Two generations later, Tidwell’s grandson followed him into the U.S. Navy, where he has enjoyed his own 17-year career.
Cmdr. Eric Tidwell, 39, of Jacksonville, Fla., is heading to Japan, where he will command a fighter squadron. He has served as a flight officer aboard Super Hornets during five deployments, including in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.
But first he wanted to dive on his grandfather’s ship. Cmdr. Tidwell said he read everything he could find on the Jacob Jones. He was excited about the prospect of seeing the wreck and knew the implications had his grandfather been counted among its unlucky victims, straining to count his many cousins.
On Friday, he explored the wreck in 120 feet of murky water.
Little but machinery is left of the destroyer, he said. But seeing the wreck helped him understand the enormity of the disaster.
“It just solidified the whole story in my mind and the tremendous destruction,” he said. “Now there’s coral and fish everywhere. I think it’s a suitable memorial.”
Originally, his grandfather had hoped to be in Cape May for the dive, which was set for Sunday. Good weather pushed the dive up to Friday.
The family will hold a reunion this weekend in Cape May.
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