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Gray man was lost at sea during WWII

April 18, 2018 GMT

(This is part of an ongoing series about World War II veterans from Somerset County. Close to 500 veterans from that war die daily, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The newspaper will tell the stories of those who remain and of those who have died as they and their families come forward. It’s the Daily American’s effort to document an important part of the nation’s history.)

Dewey Della was only 19 years old when his boat was sunk by a German submarine in World War II. After the boat was hit by a torpedo, the crew got on lifeboats. The U-boat surfaced and took the captain and first mate prisoner. They left the rest, including Della, for dead. His father, a coal miner in Gray, was later notified by the War Department that his son was missing in action.

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“(His) father never accepted the fact that his son was dead,” said his nephew John Rucosky. “He always held hope that somewhere out there Dewey was somehow still alive.”

Della joined the Navy early in the war. He was part of a crew of 59 onboard a turbine tanker called the Caddo, which left Louisiana for England with a cargo of fuel oil and gasoline in the fall of 1942. At the time, U-boats were scouring the East Coast of the United States.

One submarine, the U-518, which was helmed by Friedrich-Wilhelm Wissmann, had sunk seven ships and damaged two others by the time it came across Della’s ship 300 miles off the coat of Nova Scotia.

Germany was the first country to employ submarines in war as substitutes for surface commerce raiders, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. They were first introduced during World War I. They were enormously successful in World War II until radar began being utilized as well as air escorts for ships at sea.

One lifeboat that was loaded by Della’s crew after the ship sunk headed southeast for Bermuda but capsized in heavy seas days later, killing nine. Eight others were eventually picked up by a Spanish freighter 650 miles away and taken to the United States for medical attention. The 40 remaining men, including Della, who stayed at the site of the torpedo strike, were never heard from again.

“Prevailing Atlantic currents reveal the lifeboats would most likely have drifted northeast, somewhere between Iceland and England, into colder waters,” Rucosky said. “With winter coming on, it was one of the worst places to be drifting aimlessly north.

“The Caddo was the final victim of U-518. It’s tour of duty over, the boat headed back to port a few days later. Decades later German children would build plastic models of it, and Wissmann would be revered as a legendary skipper.”

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