David van Epps, in a duffel coat, with members of the 894 Royal Naval Air Squadron. He and other Americans chose to fight for Britain before the U.S. entered World War II.
Between the outbreak of World War II in Europe in September 1939 and Hitler’s declaration of war against the U.S. in December 1941, 22 American citizens ignored the country’s Neutrality Act and joined the Royal Navy to fight for Great Britain. They flouted the law despite the draconian sanctions threatened by the act, including imprisonment, heavy fines and the loss of citizenship. These motives of these volunteers varied—some were gung-ho Anglophiles, others wanted to battle Nazi tyranny and still others joined up simply for the adventure.
The volunteers were given dangerous duty in the Atlantic and in the Murmansk convoys that skirted the Arctic Circle to supply the Soviet Union. Two of the Americans were eventually put in command of British vessels. Other equally brave American volunteers served with the Royal Air Force; the story of Eagle Squadron is relatively well known. Their compatriots at sea are now the subject of “Passport Not Required,” a slim but occasionally deeply moving book by Eric Dietrich-Berryman, Charlotte Hammond and R.E. White.
The book’s title refers to the fact that the Royal Navy, in its struggle against the German U-boat menace, was not about to quibble over paperwork when it came to enlisting any Americans who stepped forward. To help the volunteers avoid trouble over citizenship, the navy waived the requirement to swear allegiance to King George VI, and other British legal considerations were organized for the Americans’ convenience.
The U.S. Justice Department, after all, was unbending: In July 1941, a U.S. citizen, Philip Stegerer, who had volunteered for the Royal Canadian Air Force at a time when taking an oath to the king was still required, was refused re-admission to the U.S. His family, Stegerer told the press, had lived in America since before the Revolutionary War. He went to Canada, he said, “to fight for democracy and I wind up a guy without a country, without a job and without a dime.” The authors say that Stegerer’s later fate is unknown.
Eventually the U.S. allowed Americans who had volunteered for its allies to come back and fight for their homeland. But the U.S. military did not appear to place much value on their wartime experience. Boston-born William Homans, an idealist who is described in the book as “a crusader who left simply to fight a colossal evil,” found his hard-earned Royal Navy experience entirely set aside in March 1943 when he joined the U.S. Navy. Homans had served two years in the Royal Navy and been promoted to lieutenant; the U.S. Navy made him an ensign, as if he were a landlubber going to war for the first time. He ended his wartime career as the garbage-supervision officer on the Boston docks, then went on to graduate from Harvard Law School in 1948 and pursue a career in criminal law.
As the authors note, Americans have a long history of volunteering for British fights. Adm. Nelson’s command in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar included 23 Americans; a U.S. citizen won the Victoria Cross in the Royal Navy in Japan in 1864; and 20 Harvard men died on the battlefields of World War I before America entered the fray. But never was the British need for a few good Americans more urgent than in the Battle of the Atlantic from 1939 to 1943.
Winston Churchill said after the war that the struggle against German U-boats—and the threat of national starvation posed by their attacks on shipping—worried him more than any other front. By war’s end the German submarines had sunk 175 Allied warships and 2,603 merchant ships, killing 30,246 Allied merchant seamen. But the cost to Germany was also staggering: More than 700 U-boats were destroyed, out of a total of 1,162 commissioned; of 39,000 German submariners, 27,491 died.
The 22 Americans who forsook their country’s isolationism and braved its legal sanctions came from a wide variety of backgrounds. Remarkably, few of them had maritime experience and only three—Draper Kauffman, William Taylor and Henry Ripley—had professional military backgrounds. Otherwise the volunteers represented the American Everyman. In addition to the idealistic William Homans, there was Derek Lee, whose family owned a textile company; Charles Porter, who was in real estate; John Stilwell, in theater advertising; Carl Konow, a New York yacht broker and mail pilot; and John Parker, a Boston sales executive and former Navy enlistee.
The volunteers included three bankers: Edmund Kittredge from Cincinnati, Alex Cherry (a fierce Anglophile) and Edward Ferris, both from New York City. Oswald Dieter and Francis Hayes were doctors; Edwin Russell, a journalist; Gurdan Buck, a Maryland farmer. George Hoague, a naval architect; John Hampson, a California rancher. Peter Morison built warships at Bath Iron Works. Three of the volunteers—David Gibson, John Leggat and David van Epps—were too young even to have careers. “They were romantics prospecting for adventure,” the authors write.
The one thing these men had in common was a willingness to step forward and risk their lives for a good cause without being asked. As Prince Michael of Kent, honorary rear-admiral of the Royal Navy Reserve, writes in his introduction to this fascinating book: “No man can do more for another country than to volunteer to fight for it.”
In October 1941, a German U-boat wolf pack attacked a 50-ship convoy in the North Atlantic. One of German subs fired a torpedo at HMS Broadwater, a destroyer protecting the supply ships. “The detonation blew away the upper bridge works and bow,” the authors write. Forty-five officers and crew members died aboard the Broadwater, including Lt. John Parker, the Boston sales executive. He was serving bridge watch when the torpedo struck and was killed instantly.
At age 51, Parker was among oldest lieutenants in the Royal Navy, although his superiors didn’t know it. He had lied about his age, and the British were not inclined to probe his story: They needed good officer material, and Parker had served in the U.S. Navy during World War I. Of the 22 American volunteers for the Royal Navy, Parker was the only fatality. “He died as he would have easily chosen to die,” wrote his school friend and cousin Charles Curtis in the Groton School Quarterly, “killed in action, and among the first because he was among the most gallant.”
Lt. John Parker was old enough to have two adult sons, both of whom also fought in World War II. The eldest, Frank, followed his father’s example and signed up to fight Hitler before America did, enlisting in the Canadian army in 1940. He was taken prisoner during the misbegotten Dieppe Raid in France in 1942; he later escaped from his German POW camp and made his way to England. Parker’s other son, also named John, enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was killed in 1945 during a mine-clearing operation on Okinawa. These Parker men, the authors note, pursued different routes into the war but shared the same desire: “to fight a great menace.”
Mr. Roberts is the author of “Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945.”
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