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Milwaukie WWII veteran Bill Treadwell shares harrowing high-seas tale

From 1943 to ‘46, Bill Treadwell, a resident of Deerfield Village in Milwaukie, served in the Navy in the North Atlantic.

RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - Milwaukie resident Bill Treadwell in 2015.In honor of Veteran’s Day, Treadwell, 89, agreed to share the story of his most dangerous Navy “adventure” on April 26, 1944, when he was part of the crew assigned to protect cargo ship MV Colin. She was a former Italian tanker captured in North Africa that came back to Brooklyn, N.Y., for refurbishment and use as an Allied supply ship. Due to engine problems, she straggled behind the convoy and became a sitting duck.

Milwaukie resident Bill Treadwell in the 1940s.At about 3:50 p.m. while two days off the Canadian coast, a German submarine torpedo struck MV Colin. As sulphur fumes immediately covered the ship, Treadwell grabbed the life jacket on his bunk and ran for the gun station.

Treadwell was following crew mate Joe Ginda when a second torpedo caused the ship to roll, knocking Treadwell back against a wall and knocking Ginda into Hold #6. Treadwell was sure that Ginda was dead after having disappeared down the approximately 60-foot hold.

MV Colin’s merchant crew left the ship on lifeboats, while the Navy men remained stationed on the guns for another 20 minutes before the military ensign gave the order to abandon ship. Treadwell only had on an old Kapok lifejacket, and he wasn’t sure it would keep him afloat.

“So I grabbed two more jackets and put one under each arm then went over the fantail into the water,” Treadwell said. “I found that the one life jacket I had on kept me afloat so I started to swim away from the ship, because if it sunk while I was near, the suction from it would have pull me under.”

About 100 yards from the ship, Treadwell saw a lifeboat approach, and a set of hands reached down and pulled him aboard. To his astonishment, that set of hands belonged to none other than Joe Ginda, presumed dead.

“Joe told me that the water knocked him down into the hold of the ship, and just as he got to the bottom, the ocean water had entered the torpedo hole, and the water broke his fall,” Treadwell said. “As the ship settled in the water, the water rose in the hold, and when it got near the top, one of the merchant crew members saw Joe and pulled him out.”

The German sub surfaced as Treadwell helped row the lifeboat back to the ship for supplies. It sent another torpedo into MV Colin, and when the fumes cleared, she was gone.

Its captain spoke English and treated the Allied crews in lifeboats well, Treadwell said. After asking for MV Colin’s name, cargo and destination, the captain offered to take any injured crew members aboard the sub for treatment. (No one took him up on that offer.) The sub didn’t have room to take the approximately 40 survivors of HV Colin as prisoners of war.

After making sure they had food and a compass, the sub’s captain told them their latitude and longitude 1,000 miles off the coast of Ireland, so they calculated that it would take about 30 days to reach land in a life raft with sails and oars. Treadwell spent a cold night on the lifeboat, huddled under the sail facing his often-seasick crew mates to try to keep in their body heat. It was the first and only time that he regretted enlisting.

“I talked my mother into signing for me when I was 17, and she initially wouldn’t do it, but I just kept bugging her until she relented,” Treadwell said. “I was 18 years old, and full of piss and vinegar, so I enjoyed a lot of it.”

Luckily, after only two days, they were rescued by a British destroyer HS Bentley and taken into Gourock, Scotland, where they had to go into a meeting with the Allied military to tell their story and describe what this German captain looked like. After getting new gear, they were sent to Southampton.

“We were supposed to get 30-day survivors’ leave, but instead I was put on a 184-foot tugboat, and I was part of the crew clearing the area for the Normandy beach invasion,” Treadwell said. “When the Germans left the area, they blew up all the ships tied up in the docks, so we got logs to build new piers.”