By Gene Peterson
On May 3rd, 2011, I received the following email from Commander Eric Tidwell:
My grandfather (now 92) was one of the 11 survivors of the Jacob Jones (DD-130). I’m very interested in trying to schedule a dive trip to the site in the next six months.
I have had my Advanced SCUBA qualification for several years (but would need a refresher) and have always wondered if there is a specific dive shop that “services” that wreck? I don’t know how far off coast the wreck is or when the best time of the year would be to make the trip. Thanks for any info you might be able to provide.
CDR Eric Tidwell
I contacted Commander Tidwell and after a phone discussion, I set out to plan the dive for Eric and initiate considerations for his family. Eric’s main goal was to pay tribute to his grandfather by diving the Jacob Jones.
Joseph Paul Tidwell was one of only 11 sailors that survived the torpedoing and sinking of the U.S. Navy destroyer Jacob Jones. The USS Jacob Jones was commissioned in October of 1918. She was 314 feet long and had a 32-foot beam. This four-stack warship displaced 1,090 tons and could reach a top speed of 35 knots. Armed with four four-inch guns, two three-inch machine guns and 12 21-inch torpedo tubes, the Jones was a formidable attack ship despite her age.
Under the command of Fregattenkapitän Ernst-August Rehwinkel, the U-578 prowled the coast of New Jersey and succeeded in sinking the tanker R.P. Resor off Barnegat Light on February 27, 1942.
Operation Drumbeat, the code name for the German U-boat battle off the American coast, was in full rage. Numerous U-boats were deployed to sink allied ships transporting supplies to England. After the sinking, the Jones was quickly dispatched from New York. The destroyer was assigned to patrol the area from Barnegat to Cape May hunting for German invaders. In the early morning of February 28th, 1942, the U-578 attacked the Jones. Two or three torpedoes struck midship killing most of the crew and officers. As the stern sank to depth, the detonation of the ship’s own depth charges killed nearly all the crew on the surface.
Escaping the ship, Joseph Tidwell and 10 other crew members survived the bitter February night miraculously in an open life raft. Joe reflected upon his survival after the sinking. A few minutes before the U-578 attacked, Joseph was ordered from his post to bring back some sugar for the officers on the bridge. He was fortunate to be in the galley during the attack. His assignment to get sugar saved his life, a torpedo struck the bridge where he had been, and the main magazine exploded near his post. All but five officers perished from the blast including the captain. He and a few other crew members in the galley were knocked down to the deck by the blast. Their section remained afloat for nearly forty-five minutes allowing them to add a layer of underwear. Joe said he took a gulp from a ladle of hot coffee and jumped into the icy cold water. He then pulled himself aboard an open life raft. He and 11 others lay in the frigid seawater for several hours before being picked up by the patrol boat Eagle 56 as a winter storm ensued. One of the remaining 12 men died from his injuries and the hypothermic conditions while being transported to Cape May.
It is interesting to note, the Eagle 56, was later sunk by the German submarine U-853. Only 13 of the 62-crew survived on the Eagle 56, lost on April 23, 1945. The cause of loss was initially classified as a boiler explosion. In 2001 research evidence provided to the Navy reclassified the sinking and determined it was lost due to enemy aggression. The ship’s wreckage was discovered in June 2018, by a team of New England divers. Their historical evidence proved the sinking as a combat loss. A video taken by the divers showed the boilers to be intact proving the sinking was due to enemy action.
In 2011, Joseph Paul Tidwell was the only crewmember left out of the 11 and his frail health was of concern. The window of opportunity was very limited, so we had to act quickly to honor him. This was Eric’s main goal as his grandson.
On Thursday, July 21, 2011, I met with Eric Tidwell at the Atlantic Divers shop. From there, we drove to Bainbridge Quarry in Pennsylvania to do a preparation dive. In the placid water, Eric would be able try out the equipment he would be using for the Jacob Jones dive in a more sedentary setting. The owners of the quarry, Steve and Sue graciously opened the lake for us to do our dives. My son Sam came along to meet Eric, and to keep me company on the long ride to Bainbridge, Pennsylvania.
Eric adjusted to the new cold-water equipment with ease. His Super-Hornet aptitude made him a quick learner. We dropped down to the brisk 42-degree thermocline and he handled it well. During our surface interval, we talked about how his grandfather must have felt jumping into the 39-degree water on that cold February night in 1942. Joseph Tidwell had no thermal protection, except an extra layer of cotton underwear, when he swam to the open raft. In the icy water he and the others barely clung to life waiting to be rescued for more than five hours. Incapacitated by the horrid cold, Joe later recalled in our discussion, he could hear calls for help in the darkness. The cries faded as less fortunate sailors succumb to the elements.
That day, we did a few more practice descents, made some adjustments and trimmed gear until Eric felt prepared. Eric proved to me that he had the right mindset and the skills necessary to safely dive to 120 feet on the Jacob Jones. We packed up, discussed our dive plan for the Jones and I pledged my full support to make his dive quest a reality.
Leaving the quarry, Eric had to go to Philadelphia to pick up his dad. His father is a long-time musician from Jacksonville, Florida. He was good friends with Ronnie Van Zant and jammed with him in a little band called the One Percent. Some of those band members later formed the renowned rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. When I told John Copeland, safety diver scheduled for the trip, he remarked that this adventure just kept getting better and better.
After Eric departed to pick up his dad Sam and I did a dive. The last time Sam was in the water was when he was 14. At 21, he was still a natural and we had great time. Sam was impressed by Commander Tidwell’s ability to quickly adapt to the techniques used in deep cold-water diving. Meeting a real super hornet commander pilot was indeed a cherished thrill. On the way back from the quarry, Sam and I got caught in traffic just outside Philadelphia for a few hours. We had some time to discuss the day and what an honor it was to spend time with Eric. This day remains an unforgettable memory for both of us. It was nice for Sam to participate. Giving Eric the opportunity to pay tribute to his heroic grandfather was an honor for all that partook in the event.
That week, I deliberated over the weather with Rusty Cassway and Brian Sullivan, owners of the RV Explorer. We were trying to select the best prospective day to dive. We corresponded frequently and made the decision that Friday would be ideal for a trip to the Jacob Jones. A light southwest wind was predicted; the rest of the weekend was questionable. We needed practical conditions for a safe dive considering all the factors. We were under pressure to safely and honorable pay tribute to a living icon. Joseph Tidwell’s family was counting on this event. The local region understood this dedication was taking place and the media would be analyzing the event. There were many risks involved to make this dedication a success. I had planned the details to safely execute this event with a veteran team of first-class wreck divers devoted to accomplishing the task. Everyone was eager and supportive, moving the event date on short notice was anticipated.
Friday July 22, 2011
The decision to step-up the dive was made. These seasoned wreck divers were accustomed to weather issues and understood the magnitude of this dive. At nine that morning, we met Eric, and his dad Jim at Utch’s Marina in Cape May. Loaded and already on board the RV Explorer were the dive team including Rusty Cassway, Brian Sullivan, John Copeland, Steve LaGreca, Bart Malone, and underwater photographer Steve Gatto. Additionally, local newspaper writers were onboard and at the dock to document the event. Departing the inlet with the Tidwell’s and a loaded boat of crew, cameras, and gear, we sailed to the Jones followed by a light southwest breeze. As predicted, the weather was cooperating, and our plans were falling into place. Excited to be a part of such a historic dive, each of us shared our convictions with Eric and Jim.
On the way out, I laid out a strategy for the dive. Brian Sullivan and John Copeland would tie us into the wreck assuring a fixed tether to the hull. Then they would run a navigation line so that Eric and I could easily traverse the site without any preoccupation. This way I could fully focus on Eric, guiding him throughout the dive. After a predetermined signal from John and Brian that all was secured and the navigation lines were set, Eric and I would enter. Steve Gatto would follow to record the dive. Steve LaGreca, Bart Malone, and Rusty Cassway would help prepare Eric on the boat. After Eric’s tribute dive they would recover the navigation lines and pull the hook.
Some good story telling was made on the way out to the site. We listened attentively, as Eric explained what is like to land a supersonic jet on a moving aircraft carrier. We gathered around the table as Jim Tidwell told us how he was an eyewitness to Jimmy Hendrix’s first time playing of the national anthem in a small Jacksonville night club. Our time spent together was too short to get the full appreciation of this fascinating family. They had unique and remarkable life stories of a World War II shipwreck survivor, a rock n roll insider, and a super hornet Pacific fleet pilot / commander.
As Rusty coaxed the RV Explorer over the stern of the Jacob Jones, we pondered the morning of February 28, 1942.
Nearly 70 years earlier unspoken suffering took place over this site. This day the surface of the sea was calm and warm in retrospect to that fateful day. A feeling of reverence occupied our emotions as we prepared for our descents. This was a sanctified site. Over 130 sailors perished here, and now only one crewmember, Joseph Paul Tidwell remained, representing their sacrifice. It was with great resolve that we succeed in paying this final tribute.
John Copeland and Brian Sullivan set the hook and lines as Eric and I waited. Steve Gatto entered with his camera to test his lighting. Bart, Steve LaGreca, and Rusty went through the safety checks with Eric and away we went. Surface visibility was a good 40 feet, but as we got down to the bottom it diminished to a dark 20. We did a lengthy tour around the mid-section and then to the engine and boilers. We then stopped by a disintegrated torpedo. Here Steve Gatto took several pictures of Eric as he hovered above the explosive mechanism. We moved to a collapsed boiler where a lobster was tucked back in the hole. I signaled to Eric to look where my light shone on its large orange crusher and carapace. We followed the guidelines circumnavigating around the wreck. Steve snapped photos throughout the tour. At the final minutes of the dive, I tossed a small lobster in front of Eric. He reached for the little bug as it quickly darted back into a crevice. It was time to call the dive. I signaled to Eric and we ascended. Reaching our first stop, we shook hands to the success of our visit. The sun glimmered down on us as we ascended to the warmer water to decompress.
Emotions peaked onboard as we realized the achievement. A grand tribute was earned by all the crew, safely satisfying the vision of the grandson of this remarkable World War II survivor. Eric Tidwell had fulfilled his dream by returning to this site honoring his heroic grandfather and the lost sailors of the U.S. Navy destroyer Jacob Jones.
Back on the RV Explorer, Brian grilled up some lobster and burgers as we enjoyed a nice ride back to Cape May. Our discussions ranged from war to music and dive stories. It was a good end to a fine day. Eric had paid tribute to his grandfather, his entire family and to those lost sailors. Joseph Paul Tidwell’s survival enabled his descendants to endure and to flourish.
After that epic dive on the Jacob Jones, Eric invited the divers and their families to meet his grandfather that following Sunday at the Cape May World War II Memorial Tower. We met “Gramps”, Joseph Paul Tidwell, and his family. Some other World War II veterans were in attendance, and they also shared many insightful tales. That ephemeral meeting was an emotional tribute to a diminishing generation of men that battled for our freedom and their lives during a terrible war. I was glad my family and friends were at the event to share that time with those veterans.
After the short gathering ended due to the threat of an impending storm. I joined Eric as he walked out to his car with his grandad. Helping Eric get Joseph in the front seat, I was able to lean through the door and say farewell to this heroic sailor. I thanked him for serving our country and for the suffering he endured after the sinking of the Jacob Jones.
In a soft-spoken voice, he thanked me for making the arrangements for Eric’s dive. He then said. “Live a long life and enjoy it.” This experience, diving with Eric and getting the chance to speak with Joseph Paul Tidwell and hearing of his sacrifices, made me better understand his words.
The following is an excerpt of Eric’s reflections and desire for his grandfather tribute.
My 92-yo grandfather is part of a slowly withering treasure trove of historical WWII National Assets and has a unique tie to Cape May, although he never even lived there. He is one of 11 survivors of the USS JACOB JONES (DD-130), which was torpedoed by a German U-Boat off the coast of Cape May on the morning of 28 February 1942. I am not sure, but he may also be the sole remaining survivor of this tragedy and after being picked up following several hours in a lifeboat, was brought to Cape May to recover.
It occurred to me (and my wife) that when my grandfather dies, I will miss a tremendous asset that I can never thank enough for his service and dedication to this country. I also came to the realization that every day we lose more and more of these National Assets and I felt it important to ensure my Grandfather’s story didn’t die with him.
James “T-Bone” Tidwell
CDR, U.S. Navy
Joseph Paul Tidwell, at the age of 93, passed away peacefully on Sunday evening, March 3, 2013 at home surrounded by his family.
We as Americans should never forget the sacrifices made for our way of life and freedom by those few that have given so selflessly.