In the summer of 1942, the tide of World War II was turning against the fascist Axis powers, but the struggle for control of the North Atlantic shipping lanes between the U.S. and Great Britain was still being fought in the sprawling Battle of the Atlantic. And if German submarines could continue sinking thousands of tons of U.S. merchant vessels bound for Great Britain with vital war supplies, they might swing the struggle back in their favor.
On the afternoon of August 24, 1942, the US Coast Guard Cutter Muskeget weighed anchor in Boston harbor and set sail for a weather station in the North Atlantic about 560 miles northeast of St. John’s, Newfoundland. There were 121 men—most of them Coast Guard sailors—aboard the ship.
They wouldn’t return. After sending coded weather information for about two weeks, the Muskeget suddenly went silent on September 9.
The Muskeget’s ill-fated crew included four civilians who were employed by the U.S. Weather Bureau, the predecessor to today’s National Weather Service. The weathermen— Luther Brady, 27, of Atlanta; Lester Fodor, 27, of Cleveland; George Kubach, 24, of Sandusky, Ohio; and Edward Weber, 24, of New York City—had volunteered for service in the Atlantic shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Brady, who’d earned degrees from Emory University and the University of Georgia, had worked at Weather Bureau stations in Savannah, Washington, D.C. and Boston before volunteering for duty in the North Atlantic. Fodor had served at Weather Bureau stations in Cincinnati, Buffalo and Boston. Kubach had been posted to stations in Akron, Ohio; Syracuse, New York and Boston. Weber had been assigned to a Weather Bureau station in Boston before going aboard the Muskeget.
They weren’t dodging bullets, but they were doing vital work for the war effort. And it was dangerous. Weather information and forecasts were weapons of war, said James P. Delgado, Director of Maritime Heritage for the National Marine Sanctuaries.
Little was known about weather patterns in the area where the Muskeget was stationed. Information about conditions there was crucial to the transports making the hazardous journey to Great Britain through waters infested with German submarines, Delgado said. Rough weather at sea might make life uncomfortable aboard the transports, but it also made it very difficult or impossible for German subs and aircraft to spot and sink them.
“Both sides expended considerable effort to establish weather stations and post weather ships in the North Atlantic,” Delgado said. “And, in consequence, weather ships and stations became strategic targets for both sides.”
On September 13, the USCGC Monomoy arrived from Boston to relieve the Muskeget, but there was no sign of the ship. The Monomoy’s captain later reported perilous conditions where the Muskeget had been. The area was “a seething and continuing mass movement of convoys and enemy submarines.” Dozens of German U-boats had been within striking distance of the Muskeget’s station every day, he said.
Eventually, the US Navy officially declared that the missing Muskeget had been lost in action and all 121 men aboard her were declared dead. The Coast Guard sailors aboard the ship were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, but since Brady, Fodor, Kubach and Weber were civilians, they didn’t receive that recognition.
Decades would pass before the likely fate of the Muskeget was known.
In 2014, the log of the German submarine U755 was discovered. The U-boat’s commander, Kapitänleutnant Walter Göing, noted that on the afternoon of September 9, 1942 he’d fired three torpedoes at a ship on station at the Muskeget’s last known position. Two of them hit the ship, Göing wrote in the log. No trace of the Muskeget or its crew were ever found.
After the discovery of the submarine’s log, Brady, Fodor, Kubach and Weber were declared eligible to posthumously receive the Purple Heart. On November 19, members of their families accepted the awards honoring their ancestors in a ceremony at the Naval Heritage Center in Washington, D.C.
“As we remember the weathermen and their ship today, let us remember that they served a noble cause; they knew that they might not return, and in doing so they made a difference,” Delgado said during the ceremony. “They helped gain the necessary knowledge to help the ships and planes get through to Europe. They helped win the Battle of the Atlantic, and thus they helped win the war.”
After the war, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill explained the importance of the Battle of the Atlantic and the part that weather ships such as the Muskeget played in winning it.
“The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war,” Churchill later wrote. “Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea, or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome.”
North Carolina author Willie Drye will discuss his new book, For Sale-American Paradise, during the November 30 webcast of “WeatherBrains,” which begins at 8:30 p.m. Central. And on December 7, he’ll be doing an hour-long interview and taking listeners’ phone calls on WLRN, Miami’s NPR affiliate, starting at 1 p.m. Eastern.