From Liberty Ships, the Ugly Ducklings of World War II, by John Gorley Bunker, 1972
The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest and most bitterly fought battle of World War II. It started on 3 September 1939, when a German submarine torpedoed the British liner ATHENIA less than 12 hours after the outbreak of hostilities between England and Germany. It ended on 5 May 1945 when Grand Admiral Carl Doenitz sent a signal ordering all U-boats to cease combat operations and return to Germany. For Britain the message ended 68 months of unremitting warfare on the North and South Atlantic sea-lanes.
With England a besieged island completely dependent on ships for all imports of food, oil and U. S. aid, it was apparent that the Atlantic was to be the battleground on which the war could be won or lost. Doenitz declared in 1940 that "the U-boat alone can win the war." His prophecy came close to fulfillment. Mass production of American Liberty ships, plus the development of antisubmarine weapons and tactics such as hedgehogs, hunter-killer groups, and radar, which the Admiral had not foreseen, were the factors that decided this sea war in favor of the Allies. But for many months in 1942 and 1943 it was "touch and go." The disasterous month of May 1942 marked the peak of Germany's war on Allied shipping when U-boats sank 125 ships of 600,000 gross tons in all areas of the Atlantic.
"The Battle of the Atlantic," according to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, "was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, sea, or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome, and amid all other cares we viewed its changing fortunes day by day with hope or apprehension."
In his book, Grand Alliance, Churchill wrote that American presidential adviser Harry Hopkins, in summing up the feeling of American war leaders, predicted that the Battle of the Atlantic would he the "final decisive battle of the war." It was the only battle in World War II, except for a brief foray by Japanese submarines against the West Coast, that brought the fighting to U.S. shores.
The initial U-boat onslaught in American waters was made by U66, U130, U106, U103, and U123. Lieutenant Hardegen's U123, which had already sunk more than 100,000 tons of shipping before joining other subs for the American incursion, opened the offensive by sinking the British freighter CYCLOPS on 11 January 1942, about 160 miles south of Nova Scotia, with a loss of 87 men. The battle off the Atlantic Coast began 14 January when U123 torpedoed the Norwegian tanker NORNESS 60 miles southwest of Montauk Point, Long Island. She next sank the British SS COIMBRA. The tanker GUIJTRADE was sent down just 20 miles off Southampton, Long Island. The U123 also sank the freighter CITY OF ATLANTA and tanker ALLAN JACKSON off Cape Hatteras with large losses of life.
In ten days these five submarines torpedoed 25 ships totaling 200,000 tons between Long Island and Cape Hatteras while meager sea and air defensive forces scouted the coast in a vain hunt for the enemy. Such unpreparedness would have been laughable were it not costing so much in ships, lives and cargoes. The U-boats soon grew so daring that people on shore could see the smoke and flame of burning ships. Oil and flotsam from U-boat victims littered Atlantic beaches from New Jersey to Key West.
One of the first Liberty ships sunk by a U-boat was the THOMAS MCKEEN sailing, unaccompanied, from New York to the Persian Gulf, loaded with planes, tanks, machinery, and ammunition. She was torpedoed some 1,200 miles east of Jacksonville, Florida, on 29 June 1942. The torpedo merely set her on fire so the U-boat surfaced and put 57 shells into the vessel before she finally sank. Five men were killed. The survivors abandoned ship in three boats, all of which arrived safely at various Caribbean ports.
A good many ships went down in the battle of the Atlantic before the last Liberty was sunk. That was the CYRUS H. MCCORMICK, torpedoed at noon on 18 April 1945, 68 miles off the coast of France. The MCCORMICK, carrying 8,400 tons of locomotives, cranes, trucks, and other heavy equipment, sank in a few minutes with a loss of four merchant crewmen and two Armed Guard sailors.
Within a few weeks, after German submarines began operations on the U. S. East Coast, they moved into the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, where crowded shipping lanes made for good hunting. Before the war ended, the count of American merchant ships sunk in the wide-ranging battle of the Atlantic reached 141 in the North Atlantic, 78 along the American coasts, and 27 off the Normandy beachhead. An additional 122 were lost in the Caribbean area. The submarine war ended nearly three years later when the last American victim, the Boston collier BLACK POINT was sunk by U853 on 5 May 1945, just a few miles off Newport, Rhode Island. The collier lost a number of crewmen; the U853 was hunted down and depth-charged by a large fleet of vessels and sank with the loss of her entire crew. The action was quite a contrast to the time in 1942 when coastwise colliers were torpedoed and no attempt was made made to find or sink the enemy.
Unlike other battles of World War II where opposing naval forces slugged it out with heavy guns, aircraft and bombs in definitive short, furious engagements, the Battle of the Atlantic was a never-ending series of minor skirmishes between hunter and hunted. And all too often, the victim never knew she was being hunted until it was too late.
The ALEXANDER MACOMB was on her way from New York to join a trans-Atlantic convoy at Halifax when a submarine sent her down the morning of 3 July 1942, with a cargo of tanks, planes, plane engines and ammunition destined for the Russian front. Ten men were lost.
Despite an escort of two Free French frigates, the GEORGE THACHER was sunk by a U-boat on 1 November while en route from Charleston, South Carolina, to Freetown and Takoradi, West Africa. She carried a load of trucks, ambulances, road-building equipment and gasoline in drums. Two torpedoes hit forward and aft, exploding the gasoline and setting the ship ablaze. Casualties included the captain, first mate and the Armed Guard officer, plus 18 gunners, merchant crewmen and Army passengers.
Such heavily loaded ships went down fast. The JULIA WARD HOWE, headed for North Africa with a high priority cargo of 60 medium tanks, straggled from convoy UGS4 on 27 January 1943, southwest of the Azores. A U-boat fired two torpedoes at her, missed with one but broke her in two with the other, and in five minutes the ship was gone, taking her captain and chief engineer with her. The submarine surfaced, questioned survivors in the two lifeboats and gave them a course to steer to the Azores. The U-boat's crew were in high spirits and the executive officer, in good English, told them they were the thirtieth ship this raider had sunk. The two lifeboats were picked up by the Portuguese destroyer LIMA and taken to Ponta Delgada in the Azores.
At Ponta Delgada the second mate, who had been taken aboard the submarine for questioning, saw a familiar face on the street. It was, he later swore to American authorities, the U-boat skipper, in the uniform of a Portuguese Army officer.
The JEREMIAH VAN RENSSALAER was hit by three torpedoes and set afire early in the morning of 2 February 1943, en route from New York to England in convoy HX224. Two boats capsized on launching, and 46 out of the merchant crew and armed guard contingent of 70 men were lost. The VAN RENSSALAER burned and had to be sunk by gunfire from a convoy escort.
The convoy rescue ship HMS ACCRINGTON, seeing distress signals astern of the convoy, raced back and found the VAN RENSSALAER ablaze. In strong wind and heavy seas, the little British ship, with Captain A. W. R. M. Greenham in command, searched and found a lifeboat and two life rafts carrying the 24 survivors. Too exhausted and cold to grab lines thrown to them, these men owed their rescue to Captain Greenham's expert seamanship and the bravery of able seamen Mclntyre and Thomson, who went overboard and secured lines to the survivors so they could be hoisted aboard.
March 1943 was one of the worst months of the war with 120 merchant ships being sunk in the Atlantic, mostly by U-boats. Of this total, 82 went down in the North Atlantic -- a loss of 470,000 tons of shipping, a vast amount of food and war material, and hundreds of merchant seamen.
One of the March casualties was the WADE HAMPTON which had dropped behind convoy HX227 in heavy weather when a U-boat torpedo blew off her stern. Most of the survivors were picked up by HMS VERVAIN but able seaman Rexford Dickey and boatswain John Sandova were not seen in the darkness and drifted off in the night on board a small raft. Sandova died of exposure but Dickey, water-soaked and half-frozen by wind and spray, was determined to live. He kept moving his arms and legs while he clung to the tumbling craft, rubbing his feet when they became numb, talking, singing and shouting to keep himself awake when he felt the pleasant drowsiness that presages death from the cold. His determination to live was rewarded three days later when HMS BEVERLY, the former American four-stack destroyer USS BRANCH, spotted what looked like a U-boat conning tower and was ready to open fire on it when it was identified as a raft. Dickey soon was picked up, wrapped in warm blankets, and given a shot of hot rum. Sandova was buried at sea.
The MERIWETHER LEWIS, carrying ammunition and automobile tires, disappeared from the same convoy four days after the WADE HAMPTON was hit. "Torpedoed and presumed sunk at 62 degrees ten minutes north, 28 degrees, 25 minutes west," said the official report. A convoy escort searched for two days in an attempt to locate survivors but found only a 30-mile-long line of floating tires.
Convoy HX228 was bound from New York to Liverpool in March 1943 when submarines attacked. There ensued a battle within a battle that contained all the elements of exciting sea fiction, considerable general confusion, and a mass panic that was near comedy but ended in tragedy. On the dark, moonless night of 10 March, submarines were about and HMS HARVESTER managed to ram and sink U444 but was badly damaged in the collision. Next, another submarine put torpedoes into the WILLIAM C. GORGAS, which carried 900 tons of TNT. Amazingly, both torpedoes missed the TNT but the engine room watch were all killed.
Fifty-one survivors from the GORGAS were picked up by the HARVESTER, which was then attacked by the U432. Damaged in her battle with the U444, the HARVESTER was unable to take evasive action and was torpedoed. She went down so fast that many men were unable to get topside and go overboard. This put the survivors of the GORGAS in the unenviable position of having been torpedoed and sunk twice in one evening.
The U432, which had been depth-charged by the Free French corvette ACONIT during her attack on the HARVESTER, then suddenly surfaced. The ACONIT opened fire at 7,000 yards, ran the submarine down as she dove again, dropped more depth charges, forced her to the surface once more, and then opened fire again and sunk her. Then she rescued the survivors of the GORGAS once more. The score for the evening was two German submarines and two merchant ships sunk. Only 12 men from the GORGAS survived.
The next day, as waves ran 30 feet high, the HENRY WYNKOOP collided with an unidentified submerged object. The ship rolled far over to starboard and crewmen heard "a rumbling and roaring sound under the keel." Nothing was sighted afterward to account for the collision; it was just possible the ship had unwittingly added another U-boat to the roster of those that never returned from patrol and were listed as "lost from causes unknown."
As the WYNKOOP slowed down while she was inspected for damage, some of the crew assumed she had been ordered abandoned. Disregarding the fact that there had been no such order from the captain, 33 of them lowered lifeboats in the stormy sea for a precipitous departure that was successful but left the ship drastically short handed. The WYNKOOP got underway again and recovered eight of her men from one boat but had to go on without the rest. The corvette K58 picked up 16 but went on about her duties without returning them to the WYNKOOP. The British steamer STUART PRINCE rescued five. The corvette K57 picked up one man who had not waited for the boats but had jumped overboard and was still swimming. Three men lost their lives in the panic.
Astern of convoy HX228 came convoys HX229 and HX122, eastbound on parallel courses and numbering 100 ships between them. In one of the most powerful and determined U-boat wolf-pack attacks of the war, at least 40 submarines harassed the convoys and sank 21 ships, including four Libertys, before they reached the protecting cover of antisubmarine aircraft 600 miles off the English coast.
The WALTER Q. GRESHAM, carrying 9,000 tons of powdered milk, sugar, and other supplies, took a torpedo hit in number five hold, which blew off the propeller and left her helplessly out of control. Two lifeboats capsized in heavy seas. An unnamed but courageous Armed Guard sailor swam from the overcrowded raft on which he had taken refuge to an empty raft and helped to transfer ten men to it. This saved 20 who might otherwise have been lost.
The JAMES OGLETHORPE went down with a load of planes, tractors and trucks and many of the crew and Armed Guard detachment. About two hours later, a submarine torpedoed the WILLIAM EUSTIS but did not sink her. It was impossible to attempt a tow while the battle was in progress so one of the escorts sank the EUSTIS by dropping depth charges close alongside. There were no casualties.
Convoys were often trailed by U-boats looking for "lame ducks" -- ships that had dropped behind because of engine trouble -- or for stragglers separated from the brood by fog or stormy weather, a frequent occurrence in the North Atlantic.
The WILLIAM PIERCE FRYE, a lame duck in convoy HX230 from Halifax to England on 28 March 1943, was hove-to making engine repairs when two torpedoes missed her by a matter of feet. Repairs were hastily concluded and the FRYE started off at top speed, with the submarine paralleling her course several thousand yards away. Heavy seas were running and this, plus evasive action, enabled the FRYE to evade the U-boat, but the next night two more torpedoes hit her and set off the cargo of explosives. She sank so quickly there was time to launch only one lifeboat. Some men jumped overboard, climbed into an LCT that was being carried on deck and floated off when the ship sank and were picked up five days later by HMS SCHIKARI. Only seven men out of 64 survived.
The commodore of convoy HX230, on 31 March, radioed to Commander-in-Chief, Western Atlantic: "W. P. FRYE torpedoed when straggling. Do not intend detaching ships to search unless situation improves. U-boats shadowing all last night in spite of sweeps. Straggler JOHN EATON rejoined." Stragglers and lame ducks had to take their chances; EATON won, FRYE lost.
On 5 April 1943 the JOEL ROGER POINCETT helped to pay back the debt that many an American owed to the little British rescue ships that accompanied the North Atlantic convoys to save torpedoed seamen. The POINCETT assisted HMS LOOSESTRIFE in picking up 129 survivors from the British WAROONGA. The torpedo that sank WAROONGA hit many hungry Englishmen right in their pantries, for she was carrying 8,360 tons of butter, cheese and meat.
Another chapter in the Battle of the North Atlantic began on 11 April 1943. The brand new Liberty ship JAMES W. DENVER had straggled from her convoy in a heavy fog, then stopped when overheated engine bearings made it necessary to shut down for repairs.
While the black gang labored with sledges, calipers, and scrapers to repair the bearings and get going again, two torpedoes sent the ship down as though she had been scuttled. In the excitement, one lifeboat overturned and the men were spilled into the sea, but were hauled out again.
Somehow or other, all the deck officers wound up in the same boat, with the result that two of the boats had no one with any knowledge of navigation. To complicate matters, all the boats were soon separated by heavy seas and never sighted one another again, but resourcefulness and determination carried all of them through their ordeal with the loss of only one life.
Deck engineer Dolar Stone was in a boat carrying 18 engineers, stewards and Armed Guard gunners, only two of whom knew anything at all about small boat seamanship. Although he knew more about deck winches and ship's gear than he did about small boats, Stone took command as being the man aboard with the most seagoing experience.
Captain Everett W. Staley gave each boat a course to steer toward the nearest land, and a last command: "Hoist sail and let's get going."
"There was some light-hearted joking at first," said Stone, "but all in all it was a solemn leave taking from the JAMES W. DENVER. We hated to lose our ship and especially to see her go down without ever having fired a shot from all those beautiful new guns."
On the third night out the bow lookout on Stone's boat sighted a vague shape in the dusk and someone yelled, "Destroyer dead ahead!" To attract attention, they switched on their life jacket lights. Almost before they realized what was happening, a submarine appeared directly across their course.
"It was a big one," Stone recalled, "and we were careening right down on to it." The lifeboat grated against the hull and a German officer shouted at them from the conning tower.
"Where are you from?"
The German laughed. "That's where the baseball comes from," he said in good English.
As DENVER was stencilled on the lifeboat equipment, they answered up readily enough when the officer asked the name of their ship: "JAMES DENVER." The German laughed again so the men guessed this was the submarine that had sunk them.
"Well, well," he said. "You are from one of the new Liberty ships." A German sailor handed them a carton of cigarettes. From the bridge the officer shouted a course for them to steer, and the U-boat moved off into the night on the hunt for more victims.
In another boat, some unidentified man, probably first mate Andy Del Proposto, kept a log of their 23 day ordeal. Such chronicles are rare. This one is well worth reading because it fittingly describes the fortitude and patience of men who waited out their fates for more than three weeks and won:
April 11: Ship hit at 5 p.m. Second explosion 9:40 p.m. Rough and large, choppy sea. Wind northeasterly all night.
April 12: Lost sea anchor 11 a.m. Rig up new one and put over side 12:05. Mounting sea. Sea anchor out all night. Men living on one cracker, two ounces water.
April 13. 6:00 a.m. Hoist sails. 6:30 a.m. Take sails down. Sea too rough. Put sea anchor out again. Boys feeling fair. Still living on two crackers, four ounces water. Found out had no flares. Cans empty. No chocolate in food containers. Drifting southwesterly. Out 48 hours.
April 14. 5:30 a.m. hoist sail, heading south. Wind NNE. Medium sea and swell. Men living on two crackers, four ounces water. Sun came out for first time today. 9:45 a.m., chop sail. Sea too large. Put out sea anchor. Wind force 6. Lost sea anchor at 6:53 p.m. Had to rig up another from two oars. 9:45 p.m. cleared up a little. Hoisted sail. Head south. Wind during night. All men have wet clothes now four days.
April 15. Day started clear. Sea moderate with westerly winds. Force 3. 7 a.m. set sail heading south by east. North wind. Sun out again and feels good. 11:30 pm. wind died down. Everything calm, put out oars. 3 p.m. wind sprung up from northwest. Force 3. Put up sail and made good time. Raining. Everything wet.
Friday. April 16. Raining. All calm. Try to catch water. No luck. Went to three ounces of water, two crackers and pemmican also one malt milk tablet. 12 noon approximately 600 miles from coast. Try fishing. No luck. Fish all around. Won't bite. Air stirring a little. 5 pm. Breeze freshing to NNE. Making a little time. Sun out. Maybe we'll dry out. Everyone's clothes damp. Getting on everyone's nerves. All snapping at one another. Set regular watches. Five men to watch. 5:30 a.m. Men talking of food and water and what they like to have. Also talking of religion. Rain during night. Try to catch water. No luck.
Saturday. April 17. Eight miles south of yesterday's position. Calm sea. Air stirring slightly. Might have to row. Back to two ounces of water. Havn't seen a thing in six days now. 10 pm started to row. Men got extra two ounces of water. 11 pm wind freshing to northwesterly. Quit rowing. Getting small sea. Up speed. Continued sailing all night on easterly course.
Palm Sunday. Clear NWly breeze. Continued sailing easterly course. Men got four ounces of water but not eating much. 12 N. Still sailing easterly course. Small following sea. Making good time. 3 pm gave men extra two ounces water. Wind change to westerly. Have not see a thing yet. Men feeling pretty good. Doing a little singing. Now and then a man is a little seasick. Have not eaten since in boat. Given extra two ounces of water. First ass't and lieutenant pretty sick. Given extra water. Deck cadet feet swelling. Can't get in shoes. Clothing starting to dry out a little now, but with night everything wet and cold again. 11 pm continued on easterly course. 4 am rain squalls. Still heading easterly. Wind westerly. Following small sea.
Monday, April 19, Fresh westerly breeze. Force 3. Large following sea. Occasional squalls. Men growling now and then. Sea getting worse. Shipping water. 8 pm Took in sail. Wind change to northerly. Can only make leeway. 12 M. Cold and damp. Full moon. Jib up only makes leeway. Saw few birds today. Men got 4 ounces water. Must have 450 miles to go.
Tuesday, April 20. Bob has birthday. 27 years old today. Gave men six ounces of water. 6 pm moderate northerly sea and swell. Put up main sail. Can't seem to get clothes dry and makes men cold and snappy. Can't get civil answer anymore. 8 pm small northerly Sea and swell heading easterly. Second assistant pretty sick. Made 75 miles today.
Wednesday, April 21. Clear and calm. Wind mod. northerly. Heading southeasterly. Making fair time. App 400 miles to go. 6 pm. Clear, full moon. Occasional rain squalls. Making fair time.
Thursday, April 22. 6 am clear and bright. NW wind and mod. sea. Quite a sharp current southerly. Men singing a little and hoping to be picked up soon. 12 M. Wind NE and mod sea. Cold damp. Overcast.
Friday, April 23. Overcast. Beam sea. Fresh NE breeze. Not making any time. Men pray now before breakfast and after supper. Not a thing sighted as yet. Still have hope. Body starting to ache. Damp clothing. Can't keep them dry.
Saturday, April 24. Overcast and cloudy. Cold NE winds. Heading south. Tide to west. Large, rough, choppy, quarter seas. Shipping sea occasionally. Must bale frequently. Everybody's nerves on edge. Still living on six ounces of water, crackers and pemmican. Now and then men will talk of home and what they would like to be doing or different food and wine. Worst part is you can't lay out straight. Always cramped up. No wonder we ache.
Easter Sunday, April 25. First time and hope it is the last I ever spend Easter in a life boat. Not sure of your position or anything. Day started clear. Put up sail. Wind from east, force 3. Large swell. Shipping water occasionally. Heading south. 12 noon. Men got treat. Half can of pemmican, ten ounces water. Nothing in sight. Still have hope.
Monday, April 26. Heading south. Drift to west. Large mountain sea and swells. 7 am lower sail. Shipping too much water. Drifting to west. 12 N wind much same. Hoist sail, head south again. Can't seem to get any easting at all. Dear God, how we pray for a ship to pick us up or for the sight of land. Men starting to lose hope now. Second assistant talking out of his head regularly now. Cut down on rations. Have enough to last 11 days reduced ration. Cold and damp. Can't seem to get warm. Most of men joints swelling. Rough beam sea all night. Force 3.
Tuesday, April 27. High mountainous beam sea. Wind northeasterly. Force 4. Shipping water. Temperature 72 degrees. Everything damp. 12 N. Cut down on rations again. Can't see anything. Must make food and water last. Try fishing. Nothing bites. Have no bait. Let's hope we see something soon. Men's feet swelling at joints and every word a complaint. Hoping to hit mainland or Cape Verde Islands. Strong westerly winds and sea. Small swell. Making fair time. Heading SE.
Wednesday, April 28. Daybreak clear. Nothing in sight. Hurley thought saw submarine but did not surface. Wind NE. Force 2. Small swell. Heading SE. Must have app. 150 miles to mainland. Taking one box crackers, two cans pemmican, eight ounces water for 11 men now. Making mash. Lets hope what we have left lasts till picked up.
Thursday, April 29. Daybreak clear. Had prayer and breakfast. Small sea. Easterly swell. Wind NE heading SE. Made app. 50 miles yesterday. Men starting to break. Sure wish I was in my ap't, with my wife and baby. Hope I can keep up my courage and stop thinking of home too much. Made fair time last night.
Friday, April 30. Daybreak clear. Plenty of hope left yet. Cut down to one can of pemmican, one box of crackers, eight ounces of water. Expect to see land sometime this week yet. Wind from E. Heading SE, small sea and swell. 12 N Took sight for latitude. Everything looks all right. About 75 miles to go if calculations right. Bound to hit coast this week. Wind change NEly. Second assistant very low. Small sea and swell.
Saturday, May 1. Second assistant passed away during night. Gave burial at sea this morning 7:20 am. Men feel bad. 12 men went in swimming for a bath. Water felt good. Wind force 3. Making good time.
Sunday, May 2. Daybreak cloudy. Wind force 2. Small sea and swell. Force 1, making little headway. 11:25 a.m. sighted plane. Sent out smoke bomb. Think we were seen. Sure felt good after 21 days to see something. Will know within 24 hours whether we were or not. If not, expect to see land tomorrow if calculations right. Wind from E. Making little headway.
Monday, May 3. Daybreak clear and calm. Drift SW. Losing quite a bit of distance covered. Small sea and swell. Sight seven whales at 10:05 am. Close enough we could have hit them with a stone. Sighted raft at noon. Boarded it to look for food and water. No luck. Found some marine growth so ate that. No sign of life yet. Looks like plane did not see us yesterday.
Tuesday May 4 (position 21 degrees 55 minutes north. 17 degrees, ten minutes west). Sighted smoke on horizon but too far away to signal. Makes one feel low to see help so near yet so far. Daybreak clear. Wind strong NE. Heading SEly. Sighted fishing vessel 10 pm. Sent up flare. They sighted us and picked us up. We were 30 miles from African coast. Fed us and wined us in style. Now heading for Lisbon. Will be there in five days. Treat us like gentlemen. Gave us clothes and washed ours. Fed us again, gave up their bunks so we may sleep. They keep feeding us everytime we open our eyes. They really are wonderful people. They just can't seem to do enough for us.
Wednesday, May 5. Aboard the Albufeira. Daybreak clear. Making ten knots. Had fish for breakfast and soup and wine. Then a nap. Feel like a million. Now supper. Cabbage and beef noodle soup, beef and potatoes. Abeam Canary Islands now. Only three days to Lisbon. Had spot of tea before going to sleep. These men give you their bunks and sleep on deck. Too bad there is nothing we can do in return.
Friday, May 7. Breakfast coffee and sea biscuit. Had bath. Dinner fried fish and potatoes bread and wine. Supper fish chowder and rice, baked fish wine and bread. Tea before retiring. Eat, sleep.
Saturday May 8. 4 pm Casablanca abeam. 8 pm today ends clear.
Sunday, May 9. Passed Cabo de Sae Vicente.
Monday, May 10. Passed pilot boat at mouth of Tagus River and proceeded up river to Lisbon where we disembarked at the pier about 5 am amid many officials, police and a large crowd. After clearance with local officials proceeded at once to the British Hospital.
In the captain's boat there was a sextant but no mathematical tables, so he relied on dead reckoning, steering with a compass held between his legs. Several men tried to jump overboard -- a phenomenon of human behavior in almost every lifeboat trip of any duration -- but were restrained. When food ran out they wondered if they would live to sight land again or if some passing steamer would eventually find only their mute skeletons.
The captain had a chart and each day's dead reckoning position provided a constant reminder of their progress and was a great morale builder. Sometimes the captain would strike up a song and most of them would join in. He would dole out the water with: "It's only water now, boys, but keep your spirits up and you'll be drinking champagne one of these days soon."
Finally, on 5 May, the twenty-fifth day after leaving the ship, they made land -- the beach at Rio del Oro, West Africa. They were so weak no one could walk. They crawled up the beach on hands and knees, exulting in just being on dry land, but their joy was considerably mitigated by the discovery that they had landed on a desert -- no water, no signs of human life, nothing. After five days of blinding sandstorms and unrelenting bright sun, intensified by the burning sands, they might have died there had it not been for another German submarine.
In a strange paradox of war, a U-boat had been sighted and depth-charged offshore by British planes a few days before and on 10 May a plane hunting for evidence of this marauding German sighted the DENVER's lifeboat. Some hours later a patrol vessel, which was also hunting for the U-boat, landed several armed men who thought at first that the DENVER's crew might be German survivors. They were soon aboard ship and headed for a hospital where all of them recovered from their ordeal. Hardy sailors, most of them went back to sea when they returned to the United States.
As Convoy HX332 was making a trans-Atlantic crossing in April of 1943, seaman John W. Welch of the JAMES JACKSON saw a submarine surfacing about 5,000 yards astern. Gunners opened fire within seconds. Seven shots from the JACKSON were short but the eighth was seen to hit squarely at the base of the conning tower. Other merchant ships, as well as the escorts, were firing by that time, and some of the submarine's crew were seen crawling out of the conning tower and jumping overboard. The gunners of the JAMES JACKSON claimed credit for the kill--the U175--but credit for it was later given to the convoy escort, the Coast Guard cutter SPENCER.
As convoy ON202 made its way from England to New York in September 1943, the FREDERICK DOUGLAS was lead ship in the port column. The morning of 20 September, a torpedo exploded in number five hold and the DOUGLAS began to settle by the stern.
Seconds later, a torpedo struck the THEODORE DWIGHT WELD, exploded the boilers, blew the lifeboats overboard, and broke the ship in two. Survivors jumped overboard; the good swimmers found rafts to cling to. The stern section sank within a few minutes.
The rescue ship RATHLIN, hurrying up to help, reached the DOUGLAS first but, seeing that she was in no immediate danger of sinking, sped on. From the floating bow section of the WELD, she rescued 38 men, choking and half-blinded by fuel oil from ruptured tanks.
Next the RATHLIN picked up all hands from the DOUGLAS, which carried a part Negro crew and -- unknown until then -- a Negro woman stowaway. Then she went back to cheek the bow section of the WELD to determine whether a destroyer escort should be called up to sink it with gunfire. There one more man was seen waving from the hulk; RATHLIN launched a boat and picked him up.
Tobacco, fertilizer and a deckload of P47 fighter planes nearly went down when the JAMES NESMITH was torpedoed on 7 April, almost within sight of the British Isles. She was towed to Holyhead, beached, refloated, then towed to Liverpool, unloaded and finally repaired.
Fortunately, not all Atlantic convoys were harassed by U-boats. Many a lucky crew never saw a submarine or a torpedo or witnessed the awesome sight of a ship sinking beneath the waves. As a result, most log entries were uneventful watch-by-watch and day-by-day accounts of courses run, speed, wind, weather, and fuel consumed, such as a 12-to-4 deck-log entry for the CYRUS W. MCCORMICK, bound from Charleston, South Carolina, to Belfast in June 1943: "Observing convoy regulations. Watch uneventful. Weather fine and clear."
But crews never knew when an "uneventful" watch might suddenly be shattered by the call to battle stations. The next day the MCCORMICK's log read: "June 30. 2:50 p.m. Sounded general alarm. Sighted what appeared to be a periscope forward of the port beam. Guns fired at the object, which disappeared."
The thrills and uncertainties of convoy life when U-boats were on the prowl were tersely reported by Lieutenant (junior grade) Earl G. Hardt, Armed Guard commander on the JOHN JAY, which sailed in USG6. As usual, stragglers were picked off by submarines.
March 4. Two ships in convoy collided and returned to port. Two depth charges dropped by destroyer on forward port side of convoy. General alarm sounded. Destroyer on port side of convoy firing machine guns.
March 6. Sighted life raft on port beam. Notified destroyer.
March 7. Two 45 degree turns to port. Submarine alert. Two white rockets fired from ship on starboard side of convoy. Sounded general alarm.
March 12. 1600 hours. S.S. KEYSTONE dropped out of convoy.
2117 hours. Bright white light on port side of convoy. Two 45 degree turns to starboard. Two rounds fired from large gun from ship on starboard side of convoy. Three depth charges dropped. More gun fire. Two emergency turns to port.
2118 hours. General alarm sounded.
2315 hours. About 15 depth charges dropped in 15 minutes.
March 13. Received message, S.S. KEYSTONE torpedoed.
March 15. 0300 hours. Eight flashes of gunfire on starboard quarter. Red glow appeared on horizon.
0330. Depth charges dropped ahead of convoy. Alarm sounded.
1854. S.S. WYOMING hit by torpedo, then by second torpedo, both from starboard side.
1907 hours. WYOMING sunk.
March 16. 1900 hours. Ship torpedoed on starboard side of convoy. Sounded general alarm. Heavy gun fire began on starboard side of convoy. Ship in vicinity of number thirty three position fired large aft gun at object which broke water on its port quarter. Following each shot, black oil substance splashed about five feet out of water. Probable hits. Range 1500 yards.
1920 hours. Twenty millimeter gun number three on JOHN JAY fired thirty rounds at object breaking water on starboard beam.
1934 hours. Three inch fifty gun opened fire on object trying tosurface one point on port bow. Range 700 yards. Eight rounds expended. Destroyer pulled into convoy on starboard quarter of JOHN JAY and then made sharp turn to port and dropped two depth charges on starboard bow at 100 yards.
1937 hours. Conning tower (identified as object at least six feet in diameter) broke water three points forward of port beam at 200 yards. Three fifty opened fire immediately. All 20 millimeters on port side also fired at surfacing object.
1945 hours. Port side 20 mm. jammed during firing. Francis Spencer, gunner's mate third class, had three fingers on left hand cut off trying to clear the jammed gun.
March 17. 1829 hours. Aircraft dropped flares two points forward of port beam indicating submarine.
1932 hours. Paul Kirsh, Slc, spotted torpedo wake. Reported torpedo one point forward of port beam and fired. Sixteen rounds expended. Gun number four fired twenty rounds at same object. Captain and first mate gave orders "hard right" and blew two series of six short lasts on whistle.
1934. Torpedo crossed ahead of bow of JOHN JAY.
1935. Ship in center of convoy hit by torpedo.
2020. Number six gun fired at object on port beam at 20. Porpoise hit.
March 18. 2008 hours. Periscope sighted two points abaft port beam, traveling 90 degrees true, same course as convoy. Port side 20-millimeters opened fire immediately. Convoy made 45 degree emergency turn to starboard.
The danger was not always from submarines. A ship on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland logged: "Dense fog. Sounding whistle signals. 7:12 p.m. Sighted large iceberg abeam, port side." And one on a North Atlantic passage noted: "Wind from Northwest, increasing. Ship rolling heavily. Taking spray fore and aft. Called out the watch to secure lifeboats."
Rough seas could be expected at any time in the unpredictable North Atlantic. The RICHARD HENRY LEE met heavy weather on a springtime crossing in April 1942, and labored so heavily that the forward cargo booms went adrift. All hands were called out and the booms were finally secured after several hours of extremely hazardous work on the forward deck, which was being swept by boarding waves.
At 10:30 a.m. that day the ship ahead of the LEE signalled "man overboard" -- the shortest description of a tragedy at sea that can be written. With mountainous seas running, there was little chance of rescue for anyone under those conditions.
Although submarine activity in the Atlantic reached a peak in late 1942 and the first half of 1943, U-boats were a menace to a lesser extent up to the end of the war. The MARTIN VAN BUREN was en route from Boston to Halifax on 14 January 1945, when a U-boat put a torpedo into the ship just ahead, the British FREEDOM. Fifteen minutes later, the VAN BUREN was hit by a torpedo that blew off the rudder, flooded the shaft alley, and knocked the stern gun into the sea.
Three Armed Guard gunners, blown off the after gun platform, were lost. Unable to maneuver, the helpless vessel was abandoned.
When the submarine did not follow up this attack, the crew tried to reboard the ship but were prevented by rough seas. The ship drifted ashore on Lobster Claw Ledge near Sambro lightship, Halifax, and became a total loss. If a skeleton crew had remained on board, the VAN BUREN could have been towed to port and her cargo of food, trucks and locomotives saved.
The wreck was a bonanza for fishermen and anyone else who could beg or borrow a boat big enough to get to Lobster Claw Ledge. None of the local citizens had any use for a locomotive but they helped themselves to the 350,000 cases of canned food, dehydrated potatoes, cigarettes and truck tires. Before representatives of the U. S. War Shipping Administration took charge of the hulk and its load, a goodly portion of the $3 million cargo had disappeared.
A crew of calm, cool sailors were aboard the RUBEN DARIO in convoy HX332, out of New York for the Mersey, when she was torpedoed on 27 January 1945. Although two holds were flooded and the vessel was far down by the bow and could make only 8 knots, the crew stayed on board and took her into Liverpool with her 8,000 tons of grain and gliders. Why gliders were still being shipped to Europe long after all invasions were past is one of those unexplained mysteries of wartime cargo movements.
Submarine attacks and storms made life hazardous for sailors, but sometimes sailors themselves managed to create havoc. Wartime operations being what they were, some of the most spectacular catastrophies of the North Atlantic were the result of ships in a convoy colliding with each other. The J. PINCKNEY HENDERSON was making her maiden voyage from the East Coast to England in August of 1943. Six hundred miles east of Halifax, late at night and in dense fog, she collided with the American tanker J. H. SENIOR, which was carrying high-octane aviation gasoline and a deckload of aircraft and plane parts. The HENDERSON had a highly inflammable load of 10,000 tons of cotton, magnesium, magnesite, glycerine, resin, wax, oil and other combustibles. Deliberate planning could not have brought together two more dangerous cargoes. Only nine men on both vessels survived the explosion and fire that followed.
The night of horror was described by messman Karl O. Ruud of the SENIOR in Ships of the Esso Fleet in World War II, an official history of the wartime tankers operated by the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey.
"Sometime after 10 p.m., I was in the messroom playing cards with Messman Eskild Lundsgaard, Able Seaman Sixten Johansson and Junior Engineer Levi Eliassen. I felt a terrific jar. Someone said the ship was on fire, so I ran to my room, grabbed a life jacket and went up on the poop deck ... the galley and messroom were ablaze ... l forced myself through the fire and jumped overboard on the port side, aft.
"The flames were like a torch and burning oil had spread on the water to 100 feet or so from the vessel's side. I swam underwater away from the flames, coming to the surface only to breathe. I was severely burned about the face and hands, but I continued swimming around in the water. Then I ran into Junior Engineer Frank Freundlich, who was badly burned, and we stayed together. Second Engineer Harry Sondergaard finally drifted along on a small life raft and picked us up. Later, one of the lifeboats passed by with Navy gunner Walter A. Gawlick, S1c, and Fireman Sture Wihlborg. I jumped from the raft and they pulled me in."
The other lifeboats were destroyed in the flaming oil when the fire burned the the falls, and they dropped into the water. Gawlik and Wihlborg had pulled themselves into a burning boat and, with Ruud's help, managed to put out the flames before the fire reached cans of gasoline stored for use in the outboard motor that it carried.
After an hour or so, the men were picked up and taken to St. Johns, Newfoundland. Five men survived from the SENIOR, four from the HENDERSON. Despite the raging fire, neither ship sank. The SENIOR was towed to St. Johns and the HENDERSON to Halifax, where she burned for several weeks. Marine surveyors who inspected the ship said it was the most completely gutted hulk they had ever seen.
The following documents show the payments made to families who lost members of the merchant crew and gun crew in the collision:
Page 1 of 3
Page 2 of 3
Page 3 of 3
Collisions were by no means uncommon; it is surprising that there were not more of them, especially in nighttime maneuvers in convoy when course changes had to be made on whistle signals. The fires and explosions that sometimes followed made such collisions spectacular, yet despite such dangers many ships survived mid-ocean crashes. Two such fortunates were the coal-laden HOWARD GIBSON and the British tanker GEORGE W. MCKNIGHT, which collided near the Azores in October of 1944. The tanker's cargo ignited and swept both ships with searing flame. The GIBSON's crew abandoned ship. The USS HOLTON, a destroyer escort, put fire fighters aboard the ship despite the intense heat and smoke and exploding ammunition, and the fire was brought under control in an all-night battle.
According to a Navy report the GIBSON's forward section "looked like a Swiss cheese from the effect of exploding shells." After the fires were put out, the GIBSON's crew reboarded their vessel, sailed her to Casablanca, discharged cargo, and returned her to the United States. But there it was found that repairs were impractical and she was sold for scrap.
With the GIBSON's fire under control, the fire fighters from the HOLTON and the AHRENS, another destroyer escort, next headed for the MCKNIGHT, which was blazing fiercely several miles away. Volunteers clad in asbestos suits and armed with foam extinguishers boarded the ship by a dangerous climb up lifeboat falls that were hanging over the side and swaying with each roll. They poured foam onto the flames through the tank hatches and extinguished the fire. The MCKNIGHT, too, was able to make port.
Some collisions might be caused by inexperienced crews and new ships, but they happened to even the biggest and most experienced ships at times. The giant British liner QUEEN MARY, veteran of numerous Atlantic crossings, and the Royal Navy's antiaircraft cruiser, HMS CURACOA, collided on 2 October 1942 in the eastern Atlantic.
The "Mary," making 30 knots with 15,000 American troops on board, sliced through the CURACOA, which sank in five minutes with a loss of 313 men.
Shipwreck was always a possibility in the Atlantic. The wreck of the WILLIAM WELCH was as harrowing as anything in fiction. The ship had delivered her cargo to the British Isles in 1944 and was on her way to join a homeward convoy when she ran into a howling blizzard off the bleak northern coast of Scotland where the retreating Spanish Armada had been wrecked hundreds of years before. Wind and seas put her on the rough and rocky shore. Huge waves smashed against the ship flooding the deck with cold, green water that swept everything before it. Boats and life rafts were carried away. They probably would have been useless anyway in that cauldron of breaking seas. The crew were forced to the flying bridge. It was impossible for British rescue vessels to reach them.
Then the pilot house was smashed and all hands were washed off the ship. Men drowned or were flung to their death by powerful seas that broke against the cliffs in a terrifying fury. Hardy Scot farmers risked their lives to climb down rocky cliffs to the boiling surf and recover bodies. Those men found still alive were warmed by driftwood fires, then carried to their homes to be revived.
Second assistant engineer George L. Smokovitch was one of the survivors. Two women carried him four miles to the nearest farmhouse. Out of a crew of 60 merchant seamen and Navy gunners, only 12 survived.
The routine tasks of delivering cargoes across the North Atlantic involved excitement and thrills, but such events were recorded only in the daily logs of the ships involved. A typical instance was a masterful display of seamanship and ship handling by Commander Irvin S. Stephens of the Coast Guard-manned destroyer escort MERRILL and Captain Ralph M. Lill, Jr. of the BENJAMIN HOLT during an Atlantic storm in 1945.
Carpenter Norris Wainwright on the HOLT had his arms crushed when a heavy steel hatchcover fell on him. A request for medical aid was sent to the convoy commodore, who dispatched the MERRILL to give assistance.
Both ships maintained a parallel course rolling and pitching in the stormy seas until the MERRILL, after two unsuccessful attempts, finally put a breeches-buoy line across to the HOLT.
Then the injured man was inched over 200 feet of tumbling waters to the MERRILL. Had there been faulty seamanship -- bad judgment in steering or ship handling -- the line would have carried away and the injured man would have been lost.
More than once in the North Atlantic the safety of ship and cargo depended on the ingenuity and quick action of officers and crew, many of whom, on the basis of age, hardly qualified as old sea dogs.
When a boiler-room blower shaft broke on the CHARLES TUFTS during a North Atlantic crossing in 1944, Captain Herbert N. Simmons, 26, faced the prospect of dropping out of the convoy while engineers took the fan apart, welded or replaced the shaft, and assembled it again, a task that might take many hours. In the meantime, the ship would be a sitting duck for lurking U-boats. Simmons and chief engineer Robert Hargis, 36, decided to try a novel expedient. Working at top speed, crewmen ripped out 12 porthole fans and installed them in the engine room to replace the regular blower. Every man on the ship had his fingers crossed when power was turned on for the makeshift blower, but the jury rig worked like a charm and the CHARLES TUFTS rejoined the convoy and reached England without further difficulty.
Although the worst of the Atlantic battle was in the northern latitudes, German submarines ranged over thousands of miles of ocean, from the Arctic Circle into the lonely reaches of the Atlantic south of the Equator. No vessel was safe merely because she was far from the heavily travelled shipping lanes.
The STAR OF OREGON, second Liberty ship to be launched, was on the homeward leg of her maiden voyage -- Durban to Trinidad with 4,000 tons of manganese ore -- when a submarine torpedoed her off the coast of South America on 30 August 1942. The crew abandoned her, but when she showed no signs of sinking the U-boat surfaced and put 17 shells into her. All hands were picked up by an American patrol boat and landed the next day at Port of Spain.
Another ship with a short life was the GASPAR DE PORTOLA. On the last leg of her maiden voyage, from Bombay and Calcutta to New York, she ran aground on Quena Suene Bank in the Caribbean. Crewmen jettisoned 1,500 tons of ore and unloaded another 1,600 tons of jute, burlap and hides into the SS FLORIDA before the Navy tug ARSIZ and the salvage tug KiUerig could budge the DE PORTOLA from the reef. She continued on to Key West, where she was condemned for active service and was turned over to the Coast Guard for use as a fire-fighting school.
On the evening of 6 October 1942, the crew of the WILLIAM GASTON, running alone from Takoradi to Baltimore with manganese, mahogany logs and cocoa beans, heard distant gunfire and saw gun flashes on the horizon. At the same time the radio operator received an SOS from the JOHN CARTER ROSE. The GASTON changed course immediately and at 12 knots put as many miles as possible between herself and the supposedly ill-fated JOHN CARTER ROSE.
That ship was headed from New York toward Freetown, Sierra Leone, when lookouts spotted a U-boat several miles away running on a parallel course. The captain immediately changed course to bring the 5-inch stern gun to bear and, while the radioman got off an SOS, the gunners got off five shots, one of which appeared to hit the raider's after deck. At least, the submarine disappeared and the ROSE continued on, with frequent changes of course and with from ten to twelve lookouts on duty at all times. The ship had no more trouble from submarines that night.
Shortly after midnight on 8 October, two torpedoes hit in quick succession, starting a gasoline fire in two holds. The radio operator sent out another SOS and the ship steamed on, but the fire became so intense that the crew had to leave her. A third torpedo hit after the lifeboats had been lowered and pulled away.
Soon after this the submarine surfaced and her officers questioned the survivors. One man still in the water was picked up by the Germans and transferred to a lifeboat, but not before they showed him a piece of paper with the names, JOHN CARTER ROSE and WILLIAM GASTON. "Which is yours?" he was asked.
The submarine's conning tower bore a red shield with a golden lion's head and a quarter moon. She seemed to have a mixed German-Italian crew. As in numerous other sinkings, the Germans gave the men cigarettes, brown bread, and first aid supplies, and told them what course to steer toward the nearest land, in this case, Venezuela.
The American SS West Humhaw picked up 18 men of the Rose crew on 13 October and landed them in Freetown. The Argentine tanker SANTA CRUZ found two lifeboats with 35 survivors and took them to Recife. Five merchant crewmen and three of the Armed Guard were killed.
There was a clear, moonlit sky and a rough sea when the REUBEN TIPTON was torpedoed near Trinidad on 23 October 1942 while bound from Colombo to New York with 3,000 tons of chrome ore, 2,000 tons of rubber, 600 tons of cocoanut oil and 3,000 tons of other freight. The torpedo blast put her down by the bow and she slowed to three knots, but kept her course. An SOS was broadcast and the confidential papers were thrown overboard as a precaution against her sinking so suddenly there would not be time to dispose of them properly. That was a good move. Four hours later two more torpedoes completely wrecked the midships section of the ship. She went down so fast that the crew swam off the main deck to life rafts. Most of them were picked up three days later by a British motor torpedoboat and taken to Barbados. The captain and one seaman were rescued from a raft by a U.S. Navy Catalina aircraft.
The following month the JEREMIAH WADSWORTH, en route from New Orleans to Bombay with 8,000 tons of assorted cargo and a deckload of trucks, was 270 miles south of Cape Agulhas and almost in the Indian Ocean on 27 November, when the U146 attacked her. Two torpedoes hit the ship. As the WADSWORTH's crew prepared to abandon ship, a jammed engine throttle valve made it impossible to turn off the steam. The WADSWORTH, out of control, sailed around in circles at seven knots and swamped one of the four lifeboats before she finally went down by the bow with the propeller still turning. The three surviving lifeboats were soon separated by a storm, during which one disappeared. The others were picked up by the American JOHN LYKES.
Everyone on the MARCUS WHITMAN was lucky when a torpedo blew off her rudder and propeller on 9 November as she was en route from Cape Town to Dutch Guinea. After the crew abandoned ship, a second torpedo hit in the engine room but still the WHITMAN did not sink. The submarine then surfaced and fired 20 shells into the ship before she finally went down. The four lifeboats reached the African coast within a few days, and there were no casualties.
It frequently took more than one torpedo to do in a Liberty. Then either the submarine, or an escort ship, had to sink the hulk by gunfire. The MOLLY PITCHER, en route from New York to Casablanca in convoy USG6, was torpedoed by a U-boat, but she finally had to be sent to the bottom by gunfire from the USS CHAMPLAIN.
One of the longest open-boat trips of World War II began in the South Atlantic on 9 February 1943, after the ROGER B. TANEY, under Captain Tom Potter, was hunted down by a U-boat one night. The first torpedo was seen as a white streak that missed by 20 feet or so. "There wasn't time to change course or maneuver," said Donald Zubrod, the purser, "just time enough to sing out 'torpedo off the port bow.'"
All hands immediately went to general quarters. Zubrod, while he wondered what it would be like to catch a piece of shrapnel or go over the side into a lifeboat on such a rough night, kept repeating to himself: "Remember to get the ship's papers and throw the confidential material overboard. Don't forget. Don't forget."
The sound of big diesels soon let the crew know that the submarine had surfaced in the darkness and was chasing them. The chase continued for an hour but the TANEY could not outrun the raider, and at 2200 a torpedo hit the starboard side in the engine room, killing the third assistant engineer, the oiler and the fireman on watch.
Zubrod was on a wing of the bridge when the ship was hit. "I looked overside and saw flames. It was the oil from our fuel tanks on fire. All the 20-millimeter guns started firing at once at imaginary targets but it was quite impossible to see anything. The bo'sun reported that the two lifeboats on the starboard side had been knocked overboard by the explosion."
Captain Potter ordered the crew to stand by the port boats and soon afterward gave the order to abandon ship. The machinery spaces were ruined and the TANEY was a virtual derelict, a real sitting duck for another shot.
Getting the ship's papers and throwing confidential codes overboard took longer than Zubrod had anticipated. When he reached the boat deck the two lifeboats were pulling away in the black of the night. He shouted for them to wait, clutched a bag of ship's papers against his chest, took a deep breath, and jumped. Fortunately, one of the boats returned for him, and as he was being hauled aboard a second torpedo hit the TANEY and within a few minutes she went down.
An hour or so later the submarine came within a few yards of the boats and put a searchlight on them. An officer shouted in excellent English: "What was the name of your ship?"
When no one answered, he said, "It doesn't matter. We know all about your ship." He offered them a tow but the offer was refused and the U-boat disappeared in the night.
After a conference the officers decided to strike out for the southeast trade winds and the coast of Brazil, but the boats were soon separated by rough weather. The first mate's boat was picked up 21 days later. The captain's boat, in which Zubrod was riding, sailed through everything from flat calm to half gales to a violent tropic storm in which winds were close to hurricane force for a brief period.
There was no room for a man to stretch out or get even a minimal amount of exercise during long days and cold nights. The wind whipped the spray over the men as they hunched their backs and bent their heads trying to escape the salty blast.
Worst of all was the confinement. "Try sitting in a chair for a full day at a time without getting up," Zubrod said. "That will give you some idea of how it is riding an overcrowded lifeboat. Sometimes you get so nervous you want to yell or scream or just stand up and jump out of the boat."
The men talked about food -- steaks, ham and eggs, mountains of ice cream, and good old American hot dogs and hamburgers -- but their biggest worry was water. No rain fell for 30 days. Then, just when the water beakers went dry, a rain squall gave them a chance to spread the sail and fill the beakers again.
After 33 days they saw several birds and knew that land must be near. Two days later coxswain Sam Lo Presti speared a dolphin. They drank its blood and cooked the meat in a bucket over a fire made out of an extra oar.
After 40 nights they saw a distant glow of lights. The glow was brighter the next night. The following day they shipped their oars and began to row. For the first time in 42 days they saw a distant ship, then several more. Finally a Brazilian passenger ship spotted them, changed course and picked them up.
Despite their cramped condition, all hands were able to climb up the Jacob's ladder and reach the vessel's deck unaided. Captain Potter had brought his men safely through a 42-day ordeal during which they sailed more than 2,600 miles.
The survivors of the STEPHEN HOPKINS may not have sailed so long and so far after their ship went down, but their battle against overwhelming odds ranks as one of the truly great epics of the sea, which should have been told by Joseph Conrad or Stephen Crane.
On 27 September 1942 the STEPHEN HOPKINS was eight days out of Cape Town en route to Dutch Guinea. The trip had been routine and the sea was calm. At 0930 two strange ships broke out of a bank of haze off the starboard bow and third mate Walter Nyberg called Captain Paul Buck to the bridge.
The captain took one look at the strangers and ordered the general alarm sounded. "I don't like the looks of this," he said "Two ships wouldn't be stewing around here like that if they were freighters. They're up to something." The crew of the STEPHEN HOPKINS did not learn until much later that the ships were the German commerce-raider STIER of 4,800 tons and the blockade-runner TANNENFELS. The STIER carried six 5.9-inch guns -- enough for a destroyer -- and two torpedo tubes. The TANNENFELS had a lighter armament. Both had machine guns, and both used incendiaries, shrapnel and contact fuses. The STEPHEN HOPKINS had one 4-inch gun on her stern, two 37-millimeter guns on the bow, and four .50 caliber and two .30 caliber machine guns.
As merchant marine sailors and Armed Guard gunners dashed to their stations, Captain Buck ordered first mate Richard Woyhoski to break out the ensign and check all boats. Woyhoski hoisted the U. S. flag; it was larger than the usual ensign and had never been flown before. Almost at the same time the strangers ran up German flags and opened fire, and a shell splashed into the sea within a hundred yards of the STEPHEN HOPKINS. The next shell hit amidships, killing Gus Tsiforos and Charles Fitzgerald just as they hurried on deck with helmets and lifejackets. Two more shells hit as the captain ordered a port turn and George Papas put the wheel hard over to swing the ship and give the stern gun a chance at the enemy.
As the Armed Guard officer, Ensign Kenneth Willet, ran across the boat deck toward the stern platform, shrapnel from one of the shells knocked him down. Despite a severe stomach wound, he staggered on and took charge of the gun as it returned the German fire. The first shot from the HOPKINS threw spray over the foredeck of the STIER and the next made a solid hit, with smoke and a plume of fire to prove it had done damage. Navy gunners and merchant seamen yelled and cheered.
"Aim low and make every shot count," Willet told the gun captain, who did exactly that. The gun crew urged Willet to go for medical aid but he leaned against the ready ammo box and kept saying, "I'm all right. I'm all right." Between shots he yelled down the ammunition hoist, encouraging men who were passing up shells and powder from the magazine under the steering-engine room.
When the German ships closed the range to a thousand yards or so they opened up with small guns. Hot lead chattered and pinged against gun tubs and deckhouses. In the first excitement of battle, everyone around the stern gun was talking at once, but as machine-gun bullets sent a sailor reeling against the splinter shield with blood streaming from his chest they fell silent. A few moments later he died without saying a word.
In the engine room, boiler fires sputtered with the concussion of the stern gun, the electric lights shattered and went out, and the emergency lamps were switched on. Fireman Mike Fitzpatrick stood between the boilers watching the water in the gauge glasses jump with each shell burst. When a shot hit amidships the glasses broke and hot water dripped onto the deck. Shock knocked insulation from the steam lines, and asbestos covered the floor plates like snow.
Hemmed in by a maze of pipe and steel third assistant engineer Kenneth Vaughan and oiler Andy Tsigonis could only wonder what was going on topside and wish they were on deck. The chatter of machine guns came down the ventilators like the racket of riveting hammers. They never knew what happened when a salvo of 5.9-inch shells from the STIER smashed through the thin hull plates, and the engine room filled with live steam, water and choking cordite fumes. After that hit, the bridge rang the engine room but there was no answer.
With the boilers wrecked, the engine slowed down and stopped. The ship lost headway but the guns kept firing, and as the raiders swung around for broadside fire on the HOPKINS, her 37-millimeter guns got in some telling hits on the STIER. The bow guns, under the direction of second mate Joseph Lyman, kept on firing until the gun tub was filled with empty cartridges, the platform was a mass of vwisted metal from enemy hits, and finally every man there was killed or wounded.
It was evident that the engagement would soon end but in the last few moments STIER and TANNENFELS moved in close enough for the STEPHEN HOPKINS to use her machine guns, and they swept the decks of both enemy ships until many of their guns were silenced and the gunners killed or wounded. On the stern gun of the HOPKINS, with all shell handlers and gunners dead or wounded, Ensign Willet tried in vain to lift one more shell into the breach. Edwin O'Hara, a U. S. Merchant Marine Academy cadet, fired the last five shells left in the ready box. As he rammed the last one home -- the fortieth fired by that gun in the action -- the after magazine blew up, rocking the ship and sending flames up the ammunition hoist.
Two more hits by the Stier wrecked what remained of the midships deckhouse, demolished the radio shack, and killed Hudson Hewey as he tapped out the SOS that was never heard. Twenty minutes after the battle began, the STEPHEN HOPKINS was on fire in a dozen places fore and aft and was going down by the stern. Captain Buck gave the order to abandon ship, and seconds later a shell hit the bridge where he stood with a weighted box containing the ship's confidential papers. He was not seen again.
Woyhoski was wounded by the same explosion, but when steward Stilson and seaman James Burke tried to carry him to a boat he refused to go. "Get into the boats yourselves," he said. "Get off before it's too late. I'm done for. Don't bother with me."
Carpenter Hugh Kuhle and Ensign Willet, now so weak he could hardly stand, dropped a life raft alongside the ship. As they crossed the deck to release a second raft, both were cut down by machine-gun fire. O'Hara, who had fired the last shell from the stern gun only moments earlier, ran to help with the raft and he, too, was killed. As second engineer George D. Cronk helped lower a boat, a shell hit just above it, killing Andy Yanz and Bill Adrian and wounding four others. Cronk jumped overboard, took command of the boat, and stuffed blankets into the shell holes. It was no boat for an ocean voyage of hundreds of miles with wounded men, but the survivors manned their oars and pulled away just as the gallant STEPHEN HOPKINS, ablaze from bow to stern, went down with her new American flag still flying.
The STEPHEN HOPKINS was gone, but her gunners had done well. Prior to that day the STIER had sunk four ships, a total of 29,000 tons, but the HOPKINS left her a flaming wreck, and the TANNENFELS moved in to take off the survivors. As the survivors of the HOPKINS searched among wreckage to pick up several more men who had gone overboard and were clinging to planks or rafts, they rowed within 500 yards of the STIER, with smoke billowing out of her, but the Germans made no effort to intercept them. Perhaps they admired the spirited battle put up by the HOPKINS, for she was merely a freighter although she had fought like a cruiser. Outnumbered and outgunned, the HOPKINS could, in all honor, have surrendered without firing a shot, but her crew chose to do battle against superior odds in a manner befitting the JERVIS BAY or the ESSEX and fought one of the great ship-against-ship battles of World War II.
The lifeboat finally held 19 men, five of them painfully wounded, all that were left of 60 Armed Guard and merchant sailors. As they sailed away under a freshening wind, the Germans were soon obscured by mist and rain. Some time later a thunderous blast reached them as the STIER finally blew up and sank.
Late that afternoon the lifeboat party sighted six more survivors on a small raft, some distance away, but couldn't recognize them, although they thought Jean Zimsel, the second cook, and one of the Navy gunners were among them. The wind blew the raft out of sight in the mist before the boat could overtake it. Then they saw third mate Walter Nyberg in the wreck of another lifeboat that also disappeared in the drifting mist before they could reach it.
The next day two rafts were sighted -- the sign of another ship gone down -- but no survivors were aboard. They took food and water from the rafts, but even so, by 1 October they had to cut their rations to six ounces per day so as to have more for the wounded men. All they could do for them was to soak their bandages in saltwater.
In the days that followed, the survivors of the STEPHEN HOPKINS had plenty of time to recount the battle as each one had seen it and to fully detail the fate of their shipmates. Second mate Lyman had been killed at one of the bow guns, along with Herbert Love, messboy. Boatswain Allyn Phelps was last seen clearing away the wires of the shattered aerial so Hewey could send an SOS. The chief engineer had picked up Pedro Valez, a wiper who had been hit by a shell, and carried him to the messroom for first aid. They reached the messroom just before a salvo landed amidships and demolished the place. The steward found Henry Engle crawling along a passageway toward the messroom and ran to get bandages but it was too late. "I couldn't do anything for him, nothing at all."
Eugene McDaniels, a cook, died on 6 October and Leonardo Romero, a steward, died two days later. Gunner Wallace Breck had a bad wound in his shoulder, and they operated on him without any anesthesia and removed a piece of shrapnel. He survived. But during the next two weeks Demetrades and Gelagates, firemen, died.
Finally, on 27 October, the lifeboat pulled up on a Brazilian beach 22 miles north of Rio with 15 survivors from the Liberty ship whose lone battle against two heavily armed raiders will long remain an epic of the sea. The United States Maritime Commission honored the STEPHEN HOPKINS by naming her one of the "Gallant Ships" of World War II and commending "the stark courage of her valiant crew in their heroic stand." The Royal Navy's Captain Stephen S. Roskill in The War at Sea, which described British and German actions, wrote of the men of the STEPHEN HOPKINS that "They fought an action of which all the Allied Navies and merchant marines would be proud..."
The last word came years later, and from a German. Vice Admiral Friedrich Ruge in Der See Krieg, described how the STIER met her end when "...she encountered the U.S. Liberty ship STEPHEN HOPKINS which bravely used her guns, and to good effect."
It was merchant seamen such as these and their naval comrades who fought -- and finally won -- the Battle of the Atlantic. In paying well-deserved tribute to those whose vigilance was never relaxed in that long battle, Winston Churchill wrote:
"Especially was this true in the North Atlantic, where even the daily routine of ship operation was often an ordeal testing the determination and fortitude of stout hearts. Dire crisis might at any moment flash upon the scene with brilliant fortune or glare with mortal tragedy. Many gallant actions and incredible feats of endurance are recorded, but the deeds of those who perished will never be known. Our merchant seamen displayed their highest qualities, and the brotherhood of the sea was never more strikingly shown than in their determination to defeat the U-boat."
Click to return to Ship Logs and Reports
Click to return to Home Page
Click to return to Home Page