79 Years Ago: Worst WW2 Liberty Ship disaster claimed local soldier

April 20 is the 79th anniversary of the worst US Liberty ship disaster of World War II, the sinking of the SS Paul Hamilton in the Mediterranean Sea by a German torpedo bomber. Volunteers from the non-profit Stories Behind the Stars have written memorials honoring all forty-one PA natives who died in the disaster. Adams County was home to one of them.

Charles Grayson Miller was born on May 13, 1922 in Aspers, PA to Charles Eugene and Irene Marcella Black Miller. Both sides of the family were natives of PA for generations. Miller had a twin brother Raymond Z. and younger brothers Laverne W. and Clyde A. Miller. An older brother, Glen R. Miller, died in infancy. The family worshipped at Christ Lutheran Church in Aspers. Miller’s father financially supported the household, employed as a warehouse manager. He died when Miller was fourteen years old.

Miller’s family moved from Aspers to Idaville and eventually to Gettysburg. Miller received his education in Biglerville, where he completed three years of high school. When he registered for the draft in Gettysburg on June 3, 1942, the unmarried Miller was employed by H. Earl Pitzer’s service station in Aspers. He stood 5’ 11” tall and weighed 160 pounds.

Miller and his twin brother enlisted in Harrisburg together and were inducted into the service on November 17, 1942. After sixteen months of stateside training, Miller was prepared to deploy as a Technician Third Class in the 228th Medical Dispensary (Aviation).

Miller and his unit embarked on the SS Paul Hamilton (Hull Number 227) on April 2, 1944 bound for Venusa, Italy and the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. The Liberty ship departed on her fifth voyage from Hampton Roads, VA as part of Convoy UGS 38. She was carrying supplies, ammunition, and ground personnel of the 485th Bombardment Group and the 5th Reconnaissance Group of the US Army Air Forces. The convoy included dozens of merchant ships, two Navy tankers, and a Coast Guard vessel.

On the evening of April 20, 1944, the convoy was attacked by twenty-three German Junkers Ju-88 torpedo bombers. The location was approximately 30 miles from Cape Bengut near Algiers, Algeria in the Mediterranean Sea. One aerial torpedo hit the Hamilton, igniting the high explosives in the hull. The ship, her entire crew and passengers, a total of 580 men, were lost in thirty seconds. The 831st Bombardment Squadron lost 154 officers and men; the 32nd Photoreconnaissance Squadron lost 317 men. Forty-one of PA’s native sons perished in the sinking of the Hamilton.

The Hamilton’s losses were the worst suffered by any US Liberty ship during World War II. Only one body was recovered from the tragedy. The destroyer USS Lansdale (DD-426) and SS Royal Star were also sunk during the attack.

Miller is memorialized at the Arlington National Cemetery. He is listed on the Tablets of the Missing, North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial, Carthage, Tunis, Tunisia. Miller posthumously received the Purple Heart.

Miller’s brother Laverne was killed in action on January 16, 1945 in Belgium with the 358th Infantry, 90th Division. Miller’s twin brother Raymond served in the Pacific Theater of Operations and survived the war. Miller’s widowed mother remarried in 1944 to Frank Balsavage and lived in Mechanicsburg, PA.

Stories Behind the Stars memorials are accessible for free on the internet and via smartphone app at gravesites and cenotaphs. The non-profit organization is dedicated to honoring all 421,000 fallen Americans from World War II, including 31,000 from Pennsylvania.

To volunteer or to get more information, contact Kathy Harmon at kharmon@storiesbehindthestars.org or visit www.storiesbehindthestars.org.

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