Meet the Navy veteran who actually lived ‘Greyhound’
"We'll see if they've done it right."
Probably no one in central Illinois is looking forward to seeing the movie “Greyhound,” the Tom Hanks thriller about the World War II's Battle of the Atlantic, more than Gordon Smedley of Ashland.
The film, based on C.S. Forester's 1955 novel “The Good Shepherd,” tells the story of a U.S. Navy destroyer that is part of a 37-ship convoy delivering material to England, all the while dodging “wolfpacks” of German U-boat submarines.
Now 95, Smedley experienced the real thing, making 11 trans-Atlantic trips as a sonarman on the USS Hammann, a U.S. Navy destroyer escort ship, between 1943 and 1945, largely without incident.
Smedley, who is temporarily living in Springfield after having colon surgery in May, remembers the sights and sounds of the experience: dropping depth charges of 300 pounds of explosives, bunking in tight and spartan quarters and navigating 60-foot waves on the seas.
Smedley was just 17 when he joined the navy — his mother had to sign for him — and had never journeyed further than central Iowa before frequenting European ports like Liverpool and Gibraltar.
“Sure, we were potential targets, but I wasn't thinking about that all the time,” Smedley said in a recent interview at the home of his daughter, Sandra Davis, on the city's west side. “I've been scared (in war), but I don't think it ever kept me from doing my job.
“There wasn't any hero stuff. I just done my job like everybody else did. I didn't save anybody's life or didn't shoot anybody.”
“I think he's a hero,” countered Davis, of her father, in a separate interview at Smedley's home in Ashland. “He gave up how much of his life (for his country)? But he was also a good citizen.”
Encountering the enemy
Smedley had once been turned away by the Navy because he told a recruiter he was “a sleepwalker.” On a second attempt to join, he found himself at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Chicago on the brink of his 18th birthday.
One of the tests? Learning how to sleep on a narrow canvas hammock without rolling onto the floor.
It would serve him well.
“The bunk rooms,” Smedley recalled, “were three high and below were three lockers where all your goods went in. The guy in the lower bunk, you had to get him out so you could get in your locker. So it was pretty crowded.”
Originally a radio man, the Navy sent Smedley to sonar school in Key West, Florida. He would serve as a sonar operator — usually there were six operators, plus a chief working on the ship during the nearly two-week convoys–for all 11 of the round-trips.
Smedley's job was to give officers the range and the bearings from sound beams going out from the ship's sonar — sonar that was manufactured by Sangamo Electric in Springfield — and coming back at about 2,000 feet per second.
“I'm not positive we came across any (German) U-boats,” Smedley said. “We did throw quite a few depth charges (as a precaution), but we never picked up any debris or any bodies coming up (through the water). My opinion was that we were killing the ship, the submarine, not the people aboard.”
Smedley also recalled “the Black Pit,” stretches of days when the British couldn't provide air cover and the potential for a rendezvous with U-boats ratcheted up a notch.
“We always felt a little safer,” Smedley said, “when we could see an airplane.”
Smedley said his ship, which maintained a lot of the same crew members for its 11 trips, docked at Londonderry five times and Liverpool or Gibraltar three times each. The ship went to different ports, including Casablanca in northern Morocco, usually for five to seven days before heading back to the States.
The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest continuous military campaign of World War II, even preceding U.S. entry into the war. England relied on the material being sent over, everything from arms to iron and steel to foodstuffs at a time it was being choked off in Europe by Germany.
It came at a price: some 3,500 Allied merchant ships and 175 warships sunk resulting in the deaths of about 80,000 crew members and troops. An estimated 28,000 to 30,000 German U-boat crewmen died.
“Getting supplies over there, that was important,” Smedley acknowledged.
Smedley said the ship would get false reports “that we were going to run into this or we were going to get bombed. We were in Londonderry and Axis Sally (a European version of Tokyo Rose who broadcast English-language propaganda) made the remark we were going to get bombed there. I don't think they ever bombed Northern Ireland during (World War II).”
One ship detail Smedley adamantly remembered is “no lights at night. If we went out on the deck at night, the lights went out behind us. You couldn't smoke. Nothing at night. All dark.
“I was on the bridge (one time) when the convoy commander came on the speaker and said, 'Such-and-such ship, you have a light showing.' Then pretty soon he said, 'You have a light showing.' The next time he said, 'You get that light out or I'll shoot it out.'”
Weather, Smedley said, could be another inhibitor.
Crews battled up to 60-foot waves on the unforgiving ocean, which could make for queasy stomachs. Coffee cups would slide off tables or end up in crewmen's laps.
“We pretty much got used to (the motion),” Smedley said. “Actually, you felt it more once you got off the ship.
“I talked to a battleship sailor and he said, 'We didn't have any trouble with the battleships. We went through (the waves). You went over them.'”
During its last run in February-March 1945, the USS Hammann picked up 70 men from the USS Lone Jack including a sailor from Springfield, Smedley recalled —after a torpedo attack.
“Seventy more men means they were sleeping on our bunks, wearing our clothes and eating our food,” said Smedley, noting that his ship already had around 200 crew members. “(Food) was getting pretty scarce. They only had the clothes they had on.”
'Proud of his service'
After that run, Smedley transferred to the U.S. Naval Training School at Norfolk, Virginia, to learn Morse code. After a sonar school refresher in Key West, he returned to Norfolk where he was stationed until his discharge in January 1946.
Smedley returned to Ashland and married Winnie Jo Wankel in April 1947. He worked as a security guard at Stateville Correctional Center in Romeoville and briefly at Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing in Springfield, in addition to farming for his father-in-law, Harold Wankel, around the Petersburg area.
Smedley later became the Ashland postmaster and then a rural carrier, spanning 36 years before retiring in 1989.
Smedley served as a volunteer fireman in the community. He was also active in the VFW and American Legion in Ashland.
Another daughter, Lyn Dietz, lives in Jacksonville. Smedley has four grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. Winnie Jo Wankel died in 2006.
“(Growing up), he mostly talked about the fun times, going to different countries and cities, like Casablanca,” Davis said. “But we have no idea what it was like (back then).
“He was proud of his service.”
“Greyhound,” which can be viewed on Apple TV+, was directed by Academy Award-winner and Springfield native Aaron Schneider.
While there were no real-life battle scenes for Smedley, he's interested in how “Greyhound” portrays the details of ship life and what his crew had to go through in an overlooked, but important segment of the war.
“It will take me back in time,” he said. “We'll see if they've done it right.”
©2020 The State Journal-Register, Springfield, Ill. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.