Rosalie Ungar is the author of IN A HEARTBEAT: The Ups & Downs of Life with Atrial Fib.
Joseph Wellington Plaine died exactly 100 years ago on February 11, 1918. He was my uncle, my father Victor’s older brother, born 1899 in Newark, Ohio.
Joseph Plaine died in World War I. Known as the Great War, the First World War was fought mostly in Europe from 1914 – 1918. My uncle enlisted the day he turned 18, August 1, 1917, two months after the United States entered the war. He wasted no time in showing patriotism for his country.
Though I heard vague references to this uncle while growing up and that he died at an early age in WWI, I knew very little about him. Now my interest in studying genetics related to my family signaled a new interest in Uncle Joseph. Did he have the same genes as the rest of the family who all suffered from heart problems, atrial fib and eventually death?
Trained as a signalman in the United States Navy, Joseph Plaine attended the Naval Training Station in Newport, Connecticut. In November of 1917 he was assigned to three different merchant ships that were crossing the Atlantic to Europe and back.
In the last letter to his parents January 20, 1918, he wrote saying that he would be leaving again for Europe the next day. The official report was received by his parents (my grandparents) 6 months later from the Navy stating in part, “the records show that Joseph Plaine was a seaman signalman on board the SS Merton Hall which was sunk February 11, 1918, and the case (whatever that means) has been taken up with the commander of the Naval forces operating in European Waters.”
Officially it was stated that about 2:30 PM the SS Merton Hall (a British merchant ship on its way to France) was torpedoed by the German submarine U-boat-53. The ship went down in a minute and a half in the English Channel 30 miles off the island of Ushant. It is confirmed that Joseph Plaine was the only US military person on board.
Purely my speculation: My research shows that the SS Merton Hall was a cargo ship and could have been carrying armament (even though it was officially stated as carrying a cargo of steel). As a naval signalman, Joseph’s job could have been to signal friendly ships of the presence of enemy ships. The explosion happened too quickly for that.
Another fact to tie into this story is that after training at the Naval Training Station in Newport, Connecticut, Joseph was assigned to the U.S.S. Arizona in Norfolk, Virginia. Twenty-three years later the Arizona was bombed at Pearl Harbor triggering our entry into World War II.