By Reggie Ellis
On Oct. 4, 2003, a ceremony was held at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y. dedicating the academy's first monument to midshipmen who died in World War II.
Three life-sized bronze figures on the monument's lower level represent the past, present and future midshipmen at the academy. The figure on the left, dressed in a boiler suit, carries a pipe wrench representing the engineering program. The center figure is standing at parade rest in formal dress and uniform, representing the regimental program. The figure on the right is a female midshipmen taking a celestial sight with a sextant, representing the transportation program. Atop the 21-foot monument stands a fourth figure loading a four-inch shell, one of five that would sink a German raider during World War II, the only record of a merchant ship sinking a German warship.
That figure represents the 142 midshipmen who lost their lives during World War II.
That figure represents a man who sacrificed his life to sink the enemy.
That figure represents Cadet Merchant Marine Engineer Cadet Edwin O'Hara - Lindsay's greatest hero.
The son of Joseph and Elma O'Hara, Edwin graduated Lindsay High School in 1941 and was in his first semester at College of the Sequoias when America entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. O'Hara joined the Merchant Marines and was deployed in early 1942. He was assigned as an engineer on the Liberty ship SS Stephen Hopkins following a teaching cruise aboard the Mariposa.
On Sept. 27, 1942 the Hopkins was en-route to San Francisco from Capetown, South Africa when it encountered a German raider, the Stier, in the South Atlantic. The battle was chronicled by William Mueller in an article titled "Duel to the Death," that appeared in the November 1984 Sea Classics magazine.
"A tremendous explosion ripped the midship section of the Hopkins as one of the raider's shells penetrated the machinery space and exploded in her starboard boiler. All the guns aboard the Hopkins were firing as fast as the guns could be loaded and discharged. There wasn't time to think; just do the drill; feed shell after shell, continue training and firing. Hit after hit was scored on both enemy ships."
Knowing the ship was lost, Captain Paul Buck gave Signalman Jackson the abandon ship order. Buck himself remained, attempting to steer the wounded ship to give the aft gun a better angle on the German raider. About the same time, Cadet O'Hara emerged from the engineer bowels of the ship only to find dead shipmates and constant enemy fire.
"O'Hara was ready. He had never fired a [large artillery gun] before, but he had learned by observing the practice rounds … the explosion deafened him and the backlash from the muzzle made him blink from the heat and pressure."
There were only five shells remaining, all of which appeared to be rusted, when O'Hara took the gun. All five found their mark and the Stier was now sinking along with the Hopkins.
"Cadet O'Hara shouted a victory exultation. His joy was cut short by another shell which exploded nearby, killing him instantly."
The Stier had sunk 30,000 tons of allied shipping prior to that day and was superior in armament and manpower (300 to 57) to that of the SS Hopkins. Only 19 of the Hopkins' 57 crewmembers made it to the lifeboats. Of those only 15 survived 31 days adrift before reaching the coast of Brazil.
When the story of the battle was released many papers, including the New York Times, carried it on the front page.
"The unprecedented sinking of a German man-of-war by an armed merchantman gave a needed fillip to American morale."
The Nov. 26, 1942 Lindsay Gazette carried a full length photo of O'Hara. The accompanying article titled, "Edwin O'Hara missing, Navy Dept. reports," stated that his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph O'Hara, had received notice from Washington that their son was missing in action in the line of duty and presumed lost.
The article said, "Though the Navy Department communication gives little grounds for hope, there remains a possibility that Edwin may yet be reported found. His friends and family will cling to that hope."
Another article in the Jan. 22, 1943 Gazette read in part, "A graduate of Lindsay High School, Midshipman O'Hara was 18 years old at the time he sent the four-inch shells from a crewless gun ripping into the vitals of an enemy vessel."
On March 15, 1943, the fifth anniversary of the United States Merchant Marine Cadet Corps, O'Hara was posthumously awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal, the Merchant Marines highest honor, by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
"The magnificent courage of this young cadet constitutes a degree of heroism which will be an enduring inspiration to seaman of the United States Merchant Marine everywhere," the president's message stated.
The medal was presented by Commander A.O. Brady, US Naval Reserve, to O'Hara's mother during a ceremony on the steps of Lindsay City Hall. O'Hara was only the second mariner to have ever received the honor, but the first to have died in the line of duty.
The Merchant Marine is the only federal service academy whose cadets serve in action, and therefore is the only academy authorized to carry the Battle Standard. One-hundred and forty two cadets gave their lives while still in training serving on USMM vessels.
Gary Davis, 85, is O'Hara's first cousin and the only remaining relative living in Lindsay.
"He was killed on his first trip," Davis said. "He is quite a hero to the cadets. They learn about his history and must pass a class about him in order to graduate."
The academy's first monument is not the first time O'Hara has been honored. Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared Sept. 27 as "Cadet Edwin J. O'Hara Day" in New York City in 2000. The academy's recreation center, O'Hara Hall, also bears his name. O'Hara's heroism is captured in renaissance painting that depicts him firing the gun from the deck of the SS Stephen Hopkins as fallen comrades lay at his feet. It hangs prominently in the academy's museum.
O'Hara's story is greater than anything fiction could have conjured. He is a fitting monument to the bravery and courage of the Merchant Marines and would make an even more poignant subject for a monument in Lindsay's future museum.
Children need role models. People need leaders. And cities need monuments to their heroes to show they have both right here at home.