June 30, 1921 - June 13, 1943

William Perley Thoman 

The pages of the Pelham Sun in the late 1930s are filled with mentions of the awards and accomplishments of the young boy scout, William P. Thoman. He was racking up merit badges at a rapid clip on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout in one of the seven troops of Pelham Scouts. In November 1935, he received eight merit badges (more than any other scout), including for athletics, civics, first aid, and swimming; the next year he was awarded five more, including in life saving and safety. But five years after his 1938 graduation from Pelham Memorial High School, he perished in the icy waters of the North Atlantic while serving as a Coast Guard Lieutenant aboard the USCGC Escanaba during World War II.  

Above:  USCGC Escanaba (1932 -1943)

The Escanaba was first commissioned and stationed in 1932 at Grand Haven, Michigan, to perform search and rescue and light ice-breaking in the Great Lakes. With the outbreak of World War II, the 165-foot cutter was re-deployed in 1941 to Boston to serve in convoy escorts and search and rescue missions in the waters around Greenland.

William Thoman was attending Columbia University when war clouds began appearing. He joined the United States Coast Guard in 1939. After graduating from the USCG Academy in 1942, he was assigned to the Escanaba. Within months, he was part of a rescue mission in February, 1943 when the SS Dorchester, a transport ship carrying 804 troops, was sunk by a German submarine. The Escanaba and other ships plucked 133 from the water; 681 perished (including the now famous “Four Chaplains” – a priest, a rabbi, and two protestant ministers, who refused to leave the ship, giving their life vests to others).

In June that year a few weeks short of his 22nd birthday, William Thoman and the Escanaba were part of a convoy accompanying a large transport ship from Greenland.  The waters were infested with German submarines.  Lieutenant Thoman was on the bridge as the Escanaba, zigging and zagging in evasive maneuvers, was struck broadside, splitting the ship in half and sinking it almost instantaneously.  Of the 105 crew, just two survived (and only because they were kept afloat unconscious after their arms had become frozen clinging to debris).

The body of Lieutenant William Perly Thoman was never recovered, but he is remembered and honored in four locations: on the World War II Plaque in the Lobby of Pelham Memorial High School, at the East Coast Memorial in Battery Park, at the Escanaba Memorial in Grand Haven, Michigan, and at a family gravesite in Boxford, Massachusetts.  On Memorial Day 2024, he will again be remembered in Pelham when his name is read (this year at the Manor Club) among all those who gave their lives in defense of our country. 

Watch a documentary recording from a survivor and eyewitnesses of the sinking of the Escanaba

Escanaba Memorial in Grand Haven, Michigan

Photos by Pelham Town Historian, 2021

Arthur L. Scinta, Town Historian

Mailing Address:
Pelham Town Hall, 34 Fifth Avenue, Pelham, NY 10803
Office Address:

Daronco Town House, 20 Fifth Avenue
Pelham, NY 10803, US

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