Stafford veteran recalls golden WWII mission
Most people are lucky enough to handle maybe a few ounces of gold over the course of a lifetime.
But what would it be like to be in the presence of 30 tons of the precious metal?
Just ask Adam C. Glover. As a 17-year-old deckhand serving on a Navy destroyer escort during World War II, he helped move a small mountain of Polish gold from Africa to New York in a top-secret mission to keep it out of the hands of the Nazis.
Glover, now 86, recalled the unlikely March 1944 adventure in a recent interview.
“We pulled into Dakar,” a port in French West Africa, “and there was a whole convoy of trucks coming in,” said Glover, who lives in Grafton Village in southern Stafford County.
There were so many men on the gangplank that, “They looked like ants, all of them carrying one box on their shoulder,” he said.
Glover, and the rest of the crew aboard the USS Breeman, knew they were on an urgent mission, but not what the cargo was.
“The first indication we got was when they started bringing depth charges and putting them in the sleeping compartments,” to make room for gold in the ammunition storage area, he said.
“We found out from the first guy who came aboard. He said it was gold. It was a big surprise just how much it was.”
Glover’s reaction: “Do my job.” Any thought beyond that never entered his mind, he says.
Besides, he said, smiling, “Everybody was standing around with guns. Where are you going to take it?”
Glover helped move the boxes onto the ship—one of two destroyer escorts dispatched to pick up the cargo. The other was the USS Bronstein.
MILLIONS IN GOLD
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Sheldon Kinney, commander of the Bronstein, described the scene in “Tin Can Gold Rush,” his postwar account to the U.S. Naval Institute:
“Aboard the ships, ammunition was being shifted to make space for the heavy load. Each box was about 12 inches deep, 24 inches long, and 10 inches wide. Within each, four gold bars were packed in sawdust.”
The boxes were secured with iron bands and sealed “with the ‘BP’ of the Bank of [Poland],” Kinney wrote. The value of the gold was estimated at the time to be about $65 million.
Glover says it took hours to stow the crates, then the ship slipped out of port that night for the three-day voyage to New York.
They steered clear of the Cape Verde Islands, off Africa’s West Coast, to avoid detection by German agents known to report on Allied ship movements there.
On the third day, the flotilla detected an enemy submarine, but the Breeman and Bronstein—both sub-hunters—didn’t pursue it. Their orders were to proceed directly to New York City.
Glover managed to get a copy of the ship’s orders, marked “Top Secret,” from Vice Adm. William A. Glassford, head of the American Mission in Dakar, to Breeman’s captain, Lt. Cmdr Edward N.W. Hunter.
It read, in part: “Receive from, with receipt to, Mr. Stephan Michalski, Director of the Bank of Poland, an agent of the Polish Government, a shipment declared to contain gold.”
And, “Upon arrival at destination deliver the shipment to the Federal Reserve Bank ” in New York.
On April 3, 1944 when the Breeman arrived in New York Harbor, Glover says, there was a big welcoming party, so to speak.
“There was a battalion of Marines, Army, New York police, and probably Secret Service, there on a Saturday night.”
Since the Federal Reserve Bank was not open, “We had to sit there with all that money” overnight, he recalled. The next day, it was unloaded and the Breeman left for Tunisia to resume its sub-hunting duties.
A LONG JOURNEY
According to Kinney’s report, and other historical accounts, the saga of the gold began in September 1939, with the Nazis’ unprovoked attack on Poland, located on the Baltic Sea between Germany and Russia. One prime objective: secure gold reserves to fund its war machine.
As the Germans advanced, the directors of the Bank of Poland had gold loaded onto trucks bound for Romania, a neighboring country to the south.
Over the coming months, the gold went through Lebanon, where it was loaded on French ships, then sent by rail to Paris. As the Nazis closed in on the French capital in the spring of 1940, the gold was moved again, to Casablanca in North Africa, then to the jungle outside Dakar, where it was stored until the American ships picked it up.
The gold was returned to the Polish government after World War II. But by then, parts of Poland were annexed by the Soviets, so the efforts by the Allies to save the treasury for the Polish people were largely in vain, according to postwar records.
Glover said he doesn’t want the true story of the Polish gold to be mistaken for the fictional story of a gold heist depicted in the 1970 film “Kelly’s Heroes,” in which some World War II GIs conspire to steal a cache of gold stolen by the Germans in France.
“The [real] gold was never captured,” Glover said. While the gold shipment was the most unusual mission for the the USS Breeman, Glover said, the ship spent more than two years hunting down subs in the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to northern Russia.
On one wartime voyage, Glover was injured after the ship encountered a German submarine.
“We had sunk the sub and some prisoners came off a life raft,” onto the Breeman, he recalled.
During the commotion, he walked under the ship’s 3-inch gun, which the captain had ordered to fire and scuttle the raft.
The concussion from the muzzle blast damaged Glover’s eardrums, and he was nearly knocked overboard.
“They got infected,” Glover said of his ears, and he was hospitalized three times. He still has difficulty hearing.
The Breeman rescued 32 German sailors during that engagement in mid-1945.
Glover’s ship was part of a battle group formed around the carrier USS Block Island, initially, then the five destroyer escorts of the group transferred to another air-carrier group led by the USS Card.
Another harrowing moment came when the Breeman was hit by a huge wave during a storm in the North Atlantic.
The 306-foot-long vessel rolled 76 degrees, so far that water got into the smokestack.
“After the ship came back up and everybody realized they were alive, it took care of all the atheists on board,” he said with a chuckle.
“Most of the time, everybody was seasick. You were on duty four hours, off eight. If you had battle stations [alarm] when you were asleep, you’d get your butt up and go. When you’re 17 years old, you do what you are told and get your a– up. It was very exciting.”
The Breeman, he said, was credited with sinking two enemy subs.
Glover’s Navy career ended in March 1946. The Breeman’s last voyage was to Green Cove Springs, Fla., on the St. Johns River, where that ship and many other destroyer escorts were decommissioned. The Breeman was sold to China, and ultimately, sunk to create a dock in Taiwan, Glover said.
Only one of hundreds of destroyer escorts built during the war remains. The USS Slater is a floating exhibit at the Destroyer Escort Historical Museum in Albany, N.Y.
Two of Glover’s brothers, James and Gene Glover, served in the Army during World War II.
Glover still sees a few of his buddies from the ship during annual reunions. But he said, sadly, only seven of the crew of more than 300 are left.
Glover says most people have no idea about the Navy’s role in safekeeping the gold of Poland, “but it’s still a hot topic when we get together.”
Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431