A 'third survivor' of Escanaba surfaces after disaster

History buffs fascinated by the tale of the USS Escanaba’s sinking and survivors are well versed in the drama that unfolded on the North Atlantic on June 13, 1943.
Kevin Collier
Dec 9, 2013

An explosion rocked the ship, sinking her within 3 minutes and taking all but two of her 103-men crew to a watery grave. The lone survivors of the tragedy — Melvin Baldwin and Raymond O'Malley — were rescued by the Raritan.

It was reported a torpedo from a German U-boat took out the Escanaba, but her sinking has never been fully explained. Sound contact with a U-boat in the area was never established by the nearest ship to the Escanaba at the time of her demise, the cutter Storis. Nor did any U-boat claim the kill.

It's been theorized a drifting mine may have caused the explosion.

Grand Haven was shocked by the news of the cutter's fate.

For years, the Escanaba's two lone survivors appeared at the Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival, O'Malley religiously. They participated in ceremonies paying tribute to sailors lost onboard the Escanaba.

Only one victim was from the Tri-Cities — Layton Counselor of Grand Haven. Counselor was originally a native of Scott County, Mo. While in service, his wife, Doris was residing in Spring Lake at the time.

Melvin Baldwin died on Sept. 24, 1964. Raymond O'Malley died on March 8, 2007.

Officially, they were the only two survivors, and are observed as such in a special memorial booklet issued by the Junior Chamber of Commerce in Grand Haven on May 30, 1944.

But for a few days in May 1945, a third survivor of the ill-fated ship surfaced — a 22-year-old Chicago resident named Ralph J. Mahovlick.

The initial report surfaced in a St. Joseph newspaper, baffling many Grand Haven residents. It appeared a third man survived the sinking. The Grand Haven Tribune picked up the story from The Associated Press wire and published it on the front page of the May 16 edition.

A man identified as Ralph J. Mahovlick had skidded and rolled his car over in an accident on U.S. 31, just north of Benton Harbor. Mahovlick was rushed to Mercy Hospital and treated for minor injuries, then arrested and taken into custody by the Berrien County Sheriff's Department.

He was issued a ticket for operating a vehicle without a license and upon his questioning, officers became suspicious when Mahovlick refused to “reveal the name of his wife,” whom he said “was in Grand Haven.”

A search of Mahovlick found on his person “several newspaper clippings” of his arrest, with another Chicago man, which took place in Grand Haven, concerning a charge of kidnapping. Apparently, the two originally were apprehended in Grand Haven on an arrest warrant from Illinois, with extradition to face trial.

Apparently, Mahovlick and an accomplice abducted a liquor store owner name Joseph Wezanky of Hammond, Ind. It was reported Wezanky was taken from Hammond to Illinois, where he was robbed of $120. It likely was more of a personal money dispute than kidnapping as the charges were reduced to armed robbery. Berrien County authorities reported “final disposition of that case has not been learned.”

Whether Mahovlick had a wife in Grand Haven was in dispute, too, as no one in the city seemed to know of he or a wife.

According to initial the news articles, which the Tribune topped with the headline, “Man claiming survival of Escanaba sinking in custody at St. Joe,” Mahovlick claimed “to be a survivor of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba, sunk by a torpedo in the Atlantic.”

With all Escanaba crew accounted for, it seemed too fantastic to believe. But for a few days, it became the talk of Ottawa County.

Mahovlick then wrote the Tribune a letter that reversed the story. The Tribune published an update of the front page of its May 19 edition.

“In a letter received today by the Tribune, Mahovlick denies that he ever was a survivor of the ... Escanaba, as appeared in a news dispatch from St. Joseph,” the Tribune reported. “He states that he was on the ship but got a change of orders six months before the ship was torpedoed in the North Atlantic while on convoy that day.”

Whether a Ralph J. Mahovlick was ever stationed on the Escanaba or not remains in question. As does whether a man named Ralph J. Mahovlick ever existed. There is evidence suggesting that the name was an alias.



Update — Just heard from a former sister-in-law of Ralph J. Mahovlick. The name was not an "alias," but his real name, according to her. The caller's sister divorced Mahovlick soon after the incident written above. Turns out he did live in Grand Haven with his wife, but it was more of a "hideout." Ralph had a buddy — both conducted shady business in Chicago, with some operations in Hammond, Indiana. The caller said she was thrilled when her sister divorced this guy, as he was "nothing but trouble." She had never heard of the "Escanaba" survivor claim until reading the column above last Monday.

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