Lester Brayton Wingate
1923 – March 9, 1944
Born in New Jersey, Lester Wingate moved to Albany as a child. His father, also named Lester, worked as a chemist at a textile company. Lester’s mother Emily worked as a doctor’s assistant and later in a beauty shop. Lester and his younger brother Gifford sang in the choir and attended Sunday School at St. Andrew’s. Lester attended Albany High School, where he was a member of the track team and the National Forensic League, a speech and debate club.
Lester Wingate joined the Coast Guard in 1942. He became a sonarman, maintaining and operating the sonar used to detect submarines. The Coast Guard had been taken over by the Navy in November of 1941. By 1942, Coast Guardsmen were manning Navy ships, often as escorts to convoys carrying supplies across the North Atlantic. When the first Destroyer Escort (DE) ships were built, designed for protecting convoys from submarines, many were given Coast Guard crews.
In December of 1943, Lester Wingate shipped out on the USS Leopold DE 319. The newly built ship, after a short “shake down” trip to Bermuda, was assigned to escort a convoy to Casablanca. While en route Lester took time to write to Father Findlay, thanking the Rector for the Christmas box he had received from the Church. While not able to say where he was, Lester told the Rector he was somewhere warm, adding “I don’t imagine it’s very warm in Albany right now.”
Lester Wingate’s next convoy assignment wasn’t a warm one. The USS Leopold was part of a 27 ship convoy, leaving New York March 1, 1944 to escort oil tankers across the North Atlantic to Ireland. Eight days out, when the convoy was 400 miles south of Iceland, the Leopold detected a submarine on its sonar. After requesting permission to investigate, the Leopold turned toward the submarine. Before it could begin to reach full speed in pursuit the Leopold was hit by an acoustic torpedo, a new undetectable German weapon.
The torpedo struck forward of the bridge, cutting the Leopold nearly in two. The captain gave orders to abandon ship, and sailors began to jump for the life boats. Many were trapped onboard as the stern of the ship quickly broke away and sank. Others remained on the bow of the ship, or floated on or near the lifeboats. Night was falling and the men could barely see the rest of the convoy sailing away. A growing storm made the situation worse, as chilling winds and high waves threatened the survivors.
A sister ship, the USS Joyce, also a Coast Guard-manned Destroyer Escort, had been designated the convoy’s rescue ship in case of a sinking. It attempted to approach the survivors of the Leopold but was unable to stop as the U-boat continued its attack. The Joyce drew near enough only to call out to the men in the water “We’re dodging torpedoes, God bless you, we’ll be back.” At dawn the Joyce was finally able to come near enough for a rescue but only 27 of the 199 aboard the Leopold had survived.
Lester Wingate’s body was never found. A plaque in his memory is mounted among the Tablets of the Missing at the Cambridge American Cemetery in Cambridge, England. On Easter Sunday, one month after his death, Lester’s final letter to Fr. Findlay was printed in the service bulletin. The first member of St. Andrew’s to die in the Second World War, Lester was 21 years old.