PAWTUCKET – George Patrick Duffy’s name is well-known around this city, most commonly associated with the 70 years he has spent coaching youth sports. What most people don’t know is that Duffy endured a frightening experience while serving in the Coast Guard during World War II.
The 90-year-old gentleman sat in his living room two weekends ago and answered questions about his military career, speaking in the measured tones he developed while serving as publicity director for the old Providence Steamrollers and radio announcer for the Rhode Island Reds.
“I got out of high school in 1940,” he began. “Went to work at the old H&B machine company in South Attleboro, packaging 75 millimeter shells for the British government. In April of 1942, I was walking around in downtown Providence and heard somebody call my name. It was Ray Coulombe, who had played ball against me in high school. He was now a recruiter for the Coast Guard. On April 20, 1942, I joined the Coast Guard.”
Duffy was stationed around New England for a year.
“I ended up in a lighthouse in Chatham,” he said. “There were security concerns with our coastline and we had Coast Guard personnel in Boston, Provincetown, Chatham, looking for any activity. I came home one day and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I have to volunteer for sea duty.’”
Duffy ended up in Texas on the crew of the newly commissioned USS Menges, a destroyer escort ship bound for duty in the European Theatre of war.
“My job was to man a 20-millimeter anti-aircraft gun on the starboard side of the ship,” Duffy recalled. “I also worked the depth charge rack. Our mission was to escort cargo and troop ships to North Africa. The ocean was filled with ships as the buildup for the invasion of Europe began.”
In April of 1944, the Menges and its crew rescued 128 sailors from the USS Lansdale, which came under attack from German airplanes and submarines in the water off North Africa. On May 3, the Menges was 15½ miles astern of its convoy, chasing down a radar contact when it was hit at 1:18 in the morning by a torpedo explosion so violent that the back third of the ship was destroyed, killing 31 and wounding 75.
“People were crying and yelling,” Duffy recalled. “A friend of mine was cut in two when hit by a washing machine that was knocked free of its mooring and slid down the deck like a human knife. The ship tilted and began taking on water. We were preparing to abandon ship but Commander McCabe waited and the ship hung on. The steel that got twisted from the explosion swept upwards and prevented water from coming in.
“We got an SOS out and then just floated in the water like a cork,” Duffy continued. “The big fear was that a German sub would surface and blow us away with its deck guns. But fortunately that never happened.”
The Menges was taken in tow the next day and went back for repairs. Its front two-thirds that survived the torpedo were welded together with the back third of another ship that had been torpedoed in its front end with a new ship coming out of the process.
Duffy and some of his crew mates landed in a hospital in Long Island where they stayed for two or three months, he recalled. The war was over for them.
“The scene the night we were torpedoed stayed in my mind for a long time,” Duffy said. “I came home and began to put my life back together. I got a job doing publicity for the Providence Steamrollers and sat in on the second meeting held when the NBA was forming. I later became play-by-play announcer for the Rhode Island Reds hockey team. My life was back on track but I don’t think you ever really forget your war experience. It comes back to me sometimes. I was fortunate to come home.”
Helen Duffy, who married George back in 1944, had been sitting quietly until now.
“Remember that fellow who worked for the restaurant on Federal Hill?” she asked. “What was his name? He was one of the 128 sailors you rescued and he was so grateful. We had dinner with him at his restaurant.”
George Patrick Duffy nodded.
“He ended up as part-owner of the restaurant,” Duffy commented.
“Did he pay for your dinner?” someone asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” Duffy recalled with a laugh.