Naval History – Annapolis

The crew of the Coast Guard cutter Bibb (WPG-31) haul aboard survivors of the SS Henry R. Mallory. Those rescued quickly were indeed fortunate; the water temperature was only 50deg, and those not on rafts soon perished.

Lifesaving medals rarely were awarded during World War II, despite the many heroic actions that occurred. The predominant rationale during wartime was that there was little time to give awards, and the details of any Allied sinkings were war secrets. One dramatic rescue took place early on the morning of 7 February 1943, when the Bibb was sent astern of Convoy SC-118 to put down the trailing U- boats. The Bibb, commanded by Commander Roy L. Raney, was rejoining the convoy from a position approximately 15 miles away. The British rescue ship SS Toward, the only other ship equipped with high-frequency direction-finding (HF DF) equipment capable of obtaining lines of bearing from the Uboats’ radio signals, recently had been sunk. 1 The Bibb’s HF DF equipment was most important in providing the convoy indications and warning of enemy submarines.

The Bibb’s log recorded the midmorning wind as from the southwest at force 8, and the barometer had plummeted 37 hundredths in the nine hours since midnight. The surface water temperature in the North Atlantic was 50deg Fahrenheit, and the air temperature was 47deg. Low, amorphous nimbostratus clouds covered the entire sky, and the sea condition was 7 (a rough sea). 2 Visibility on young Lieutenant (junior grade) Henry Keene’s earlier 0400 to 0800 bridge watch had been poor because of an early-morning fog. 3

Shortly after sunrise, the crew spotted a red flare to the west of the Bibb. 4 Twenty minutes later, “the area ahead of the vessel was seen to be full of little lights. These developed into the small flashlights that were worn on the life jackets of the survivors,” Lieutenant Keene recalled. The Bibb slowed from near top speed, and the crew found themselves in the “middle of a huge number of people in the water. Some were on wooden rafts, some on rubber rafts, others clung to wreckage.” 5

Commander Raney readied his crew to recover survivors from the torpedoed troopship SS Henry R. Mallory. In the rough and choppy sea, the only practical method of retrieving the survivors was to throw lines with bowlines in the end. The survivor would drop this over his head and under his arms, wherein the momentum of the Bibb’s rolling motion would create a sling-shot effect and hoist him aboard. Sometimes, the Bibb’s crew went down the scramble nets that were hung over the side and assisted survivors who did not have the strength to climb themselves. 6

Lieutenant Keene assumed his rescue position in the Bibb’s starboard whaleboat, which was swung out. From there, he could throw a line to a raft where a survivor could grab it. Keene would then pass his end of the line down to the deck, and the raft would be brought alongside for the removal of survivors. 7 This process continued for almost an hour, while the Bibb maintained minimum steerage among the survivors and Admiral Karl Donitz’s U-boats.

At one point, Lieutenant Keene heard Captain Raney yell, “Someone get that damned dog!” Lieutenant Keene then jumped down from the starboard boat, ran aft, and jumped onto a raft going down the port side with the dog. He lowered the rescue bowline over his head and under his arms, grabbed the dog, and was hoisted aboard. Lieutenant Keene dropped the dog (whose name he later learned was Rickey) and returned to his starboard whaleboat, where he and his shipmates resumed the rescue of more survivors. 8

George K. Dunningham, the cook on board the Henry R. Mallory, owned Rickey and was afraid he had seen the last of his canine companion. He recalled, however, that “the dog drifted up later, as proudly and nonchalantly as if it were an everyday matter.” Dunningham later gave Rickey to the crew of the Bibb, who had constructed a special life jacket for the dog. 9

Lieutenant Keene’s rescue efforts were not over. Sometime during the recovery operation, Seaman Second Class Phillip Luke, one of the Bibb’s rescuers, fell overboard. When Lieutenant Keene saw Seaman Luke floundering in the rough seas, he jumped over the side and rescued his crewmate in the same fashion as he had Rickey. The shock from diving in from the height of the boat broke Lieutenant Keene’s tooth, and he lost his favorite watch, which had been a graduation prize from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. 10

Meanwhile, the escort commander on board HMS Vanessa repeatedly had ordered Captain Raney to return to the convoy. But Captain Raney “would not do so until every American sailor and soldier he could find was retrieved from the water.” 11 Captain Raney confidently told his executive officer, Lieutenant Commander H. F. Stolfi, “We are going to pick up these men.” 12 After rescuing all survivors of the Henry R. Mallory, the Bibb picked up speed to return to the convoy. En route, however, her crew sighted and rescued 33 survivors from the torpedoed Greek merchant vessel SS Kalliopi. Three of the rescued crewmen of the Henry R. Mallory died that night and were buried at sea.

The 0800-1200 watch log entry of Lieutenant (junior grade) Ellis Perry reads simply: “Crew at General Quarters throughout the watch. 235 survivors of marine disasters brought aboard during watch. Phillip Luke, Sea 2/c, placed off duty this date by medical officer for treatment for exposure to sea water.” 13

Some months later, the U.S. escorts were taken off the North Atlantic convoy routes and assigned to the North African convoys. Despite the specter of “Loose Lips Sink Ships” and the implied penalties for discussing the details of Allied sinkings, the Bibb’s crew was overwhelmed upon returning to Boston by journalists whose interest was piqued by stories from survivors of the Henry R. Mallory.

Lieutenant Keene was dispatched to the Coast Guard’s Washington Headquarters for ten days to participate with Commandant Admiral Russell Waesche in a national radio program and other ceremonies. Lieutenant Keene, ironically, was singled out for having saved Rickey and was recognized publicly for being the best friend of man’s best friend. The American Humane Society and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals each awarded medals to Lieutenant Keene for saving the dog. Although Captain Raney had an option to recommend a number of the Bibb’s crew for lifesaving medals, he declined, saying that everyone had only done his duty and that no one would be singled out. 14

Rickey-the ungrateful rescued dog-ran away as soon as he set paw on Boston’s wharf.


  1. Charles W. Griffin. “The Surrogate of the Lord,” Bibb/Mallory 50th Anniversary, 1943-1993, Convoy SC-118, 1993.
  2. USS Bibb (WPG-31) Ship’s Log, National Archives, 7 February 1943.
  3. Henry C. Keene, Jr., letter to the author, April 1993.
  4. VAdm. Roy L. Raney, USCG (Ret.), USS Bibb
  5. Henry C. Keene, Jr., letter to the author, April 1993.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. VAdm. Roy L. Raney, USCG (Ret.), USS Bibb War Diary.
  10. Henry C. Keene, Jr., letter to author, April 1993.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Capt. John M. Waters, Jr., USCG (Ret.), Bloody Winter, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1967).
  13. USS Bibb (WPG-31) Ship’s Log.
  14. Henry C. Keene, Jr., letter to author, April 1993.