Harry Wayne Pierce was born in Paoli, Pennsylvania on Dec. 31, 1919, the son of Lewis Ezra Pierce and Hannah Elsie Pierce (née Mercer). Based on his headstone and census records, he went by his middle name. The fourth of eight children, he was the only one not born in Delaware, though his family soon returned there. Pierce grew up living on New London Road in Newark. After graduating from Newark High School, he began working at Continental Diamond Fibre.
Pierce joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in September 1941. After training at Great Lakes, Illinois, and Newport, Rhode Island, Pierce spent his career crewing a series of small vessels operating in coastal waters along the Eastern Seaboard. Little heralded, these warships performed escort and antisubmarine duties during the Battle of the Atlantic. He served aboard the patrol craft U.S.S. PC-617 from Aug. 28, 1942, through Jan, 16, 1943, followed by the minesweeper U.S.S. YMS-7 from April 2, 1943 through November 30, 1943. Not long after he was promoted to signalman 3rd class on June 1, 1943, he married his wife Maxine in Maine on June 14, 1943.
On Dec. 7, 1943, Signalman 3rd Class Pierce joined the crew of a gunboat, U.S.S. St. Augustine (PG-54). The vessel, with 145 men aboard, set sail on her final voyage on January 6, 1944, escorting the tanker Tydol Gas south from New York. Two additional escorts (the U.S. Coast Guard cutters Argo and Thetis) rounded out the small convoy.
That night, the seas were heavy. About 60 nautical miles southeast of Cape May, New Jersey, St. Augustine’s crew investigated a radar contact which turned out to be a large tanker coming from Delaware Bay, S.S. Camas Meadows. Multiple attempts to contact the ship with a signal lamp were unsuccessful because the Camas Meadows did not have a signalman on duty. A mistake by St. Augustine’s officer of the deck brought the gunboat directly into the path of the tanker. The tanker collided with St. Augustine, inflicting massive damage on the gunboat. St. Augustine sank within five minutes.
Of the 145 men aboard St. Augustine, at least 100 (including Signalman 3rd Class Pierce) managed to abandon ship. Despite valiant rescue efforts by the coast guardsmen aboard the two accompanying patrol boats, all but 30 succumbed to the frigid water before they were rescued. Pierce died less than 150 miles from where he grew up.
After services at the Robert T. Jones Funeral Parlor on Jan. 16, 1944, Pierce was buried at the White Clay Creek Church Cemetery in Newark.