THE PERSIAN GULF By the winter of 1942, the Allied powers were faced with an overwhelming logistical problem, that of supplying Russian forces with the munitions needed to resist German attack along a vast front. The situation was complicated by bitter weather conditions in the North Atlantic and limited port facilities in northern Russia. There was urgent need for an alternative or supplement to the Murmansk-Archangel supply line with better weather conditions and a reduction in the intense air, surface, and submarine harassment that was decimating the North Russian convoys. New supply routes by way of the Persian Gulf provided a possible solution to the problem, but they offered primitive port facilities and the lack of good transportation from the Gulf to the Russian border. Except for the British-built port of Basra in Iraq, shipping facilities were archaic. The Shah of Persia had built a railroad to the Russian border but, not trusting his neighbors, had purposely made it of different gauge than connecting lines in Russia and Iraq. American engineers sent out to the Persian Gulf to survey the available facilities were quickly followed by construction crews that built docks, roads, railroads, and terminals for handling a vast flow of supplies for the hard-pressed Russians. Soon after port improvements started, the United States began to send a fleet of ships on the long run to the Gulf. They carried every conceivable kind of war and industrial equipment, vital supplies without which the Russians would have collapsed and World War II would have had an entirely different ending. The Mediterranean at that time was still closed to Allied shipping, so ships had to take the long way around, as they did in the days of the Portuguese and Spanish trade to the Far East several centuries earlier. Three routes were followed. Ships from U. S. East Coast and Gulf ports sailed to Trinidad, then crossed the South Atlantic, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and sailed up the east coast of Africa through the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. The second route was from Panama down the Pacific coast of South America, eastward around Cape Horn and across the South Atlantic to the Cape of Good Hope, then across the Indian Ocean as before. The third route was from Panama across the South Pacific and around South Australia to Fremantle, then across the Indian Ocean to the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. It was impossible to convoy ships over such a long route, so they proceeded individually. Ships sailing to the Persian Gulf used the once-primitive Iranian ports of Khorramshahr, Bandar Shapur, Bushire, and Ahwaz, which had been modernized with quays, rail spurs, and truck-marshalling yards. Big over-the-road convoys ran from the Shatt-Al-Arab area to the Russian border where American drivers, who were not allowed to cross the border, were relieved by Russians. Basra was used mainly by British vessels. In 1942 and through part of 1943, the Iranian ports were unable to handle the vast flood of incoming supplies from the American arsenal. During the period October, 1942, to February, 1943, the average turnaround for ships there was 55 days. During the first five months of 1943, 59 ships stayed 40 days or more; 46 stayed 50 or more days; 33 were there at least 60 days; 22 ships waited 70 days or more; and nine ships languished in the Gulf area for 80 long days. Three unfortunate freighters waited three months for cargo discharge, and one forgotten crew totaled up 124 days before they slipped their lines and headed down the Gulf toward home. The supply routes to the British in North Africa and to the Russians in the Persian Gulf were harassed by both German and Japanese submarines. Many ships were sunk in the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and especially in the Mozambique Channel, a favorite hunting ground for submarines. An indication of both increased cargo traffic and submarine activity in that theatre is shown by the fact that in 1941 only 20 Allied merchant vessels of all kinds, totaling 73,155 tons, were sunk by enemy action in the entire Indian Ocean. In 1942 the score leaped to 205 ships, a total of 724,485 tons. It dropped to 82 ships in 1943, 50 in 1944, and to only three in 1945. Among the first American Liberty ships to make the Persian Gulf run were the Francis L. Lee, Ralph Izzard, Jonathan Grout, and Abraham Lincoln. The Izzard had sailed from Philadelphia in October, 1942, and had been waiting to unload for three months when the Grout arrived. The Francis L. Lee sailed from the East Coast in August, 1942, and took the Cape Horn route by way of the Panama Canal. Luckier than most ships at that stage of the war, she laid at anchor only two weeks in the Shatt-Al-Arab before proceeding to Khorramshahr for discharge. Then came a long trip to Rio de Janeiro for orders, thence to British Guinea for bauxite. She returned home almost a year after starting her initial loading in June of 1942. The Jonathan Grout reached the Shatt-Al-Arab in March, 1943, 80 days out of New York. From Panama on, she sailed without escort and had sighted but one other vessel between Panama and Fremantle. In the Indian Ocean, British naval forces warned the Jonathan Grout to be alert for enemy surface raiders and submarines. The next night lookouts saw a bluish flare, too bright to be a falling star. It was assumed to be a signal from a German or Japanese submarine, and the guns were manned. The next day, Captain Foster called his crew together for a talk that began with "We are in dangerous waters," and ended with "If we meet the enemy between here and our desti- nation we will man our guns until the last shell is fired." But the Jonathan Grout, more fortunate than other ships, sighted no enemy vessels as she plodded on toward the Shatt-Al-Arab, where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet and the fabled garden of Eden once grew. The crew, with imagination working overtime, could almost smell beer, wine, and exotic perfumes, hear the sharp tinkle of glasses, and see the dark-eyed belly dancers that made things lively "east of Suez," according to the movies. Finally, the afternoon of 3 March, they saw what appeared to be treetops on the distant horizon; but the trees turned out to be the masts of anchored ships, and there was no port or city to be seen. The Jonathan Grout anchored, far from the Persian shore, among three other American Libertys, several British ships, and a Norwegian. One vessel signalled the discouraging news that she had been there since 19 January and added, "Hope you have cigarettes." But the Jonathan Grout had a high priority cargo of aviation supplies and ammunition and two days later went up to Abadan, where for two weeks cargo was discharged by barefooted laborers who knocked off work to rummage through the slop buckets when they were carried out on deck after each meal. At Abadan, the crew of the Jonathan Grout watched other Liberty ships come and go; the Benjamin Goodhugh, Will Rogers, William Patterson, and Timothy Pickering, which met a tragic end during the invasion of Sicily. Later, the Jonathan Grout steamed a few miles farther upstream to the American-built port of Khorramshahr, where she completed off-loading, then moved to Basra in Iraq and loaded thousands of aerial bombs for Suez. The bombs, of course, had merely been stockpiled in Iraq. There was a saying among old hands sailing to that part of the world that the Persian Gulf exported only three things: dates, oil, and syphilis. The Abraham Lincoln left New Orleans on her maiden voyage on 14 January 1943, transitted the Panama Canal, and reached Fremantle, Australia, on 28 February. She stopped only long enough for fuel and freshwater and a brief run ashore for the crew. One man, full of Australian beer, jumped overboard and I tried to swim back and rejoin the Fremantle "sheilas" as the ship got under way. "Manned a lifeboat," said the ship's log, "rescued the man, hoisted the boat aboard, and proceeded out to sea." The Lincoln reached the Shatt-A1-Arab on 22 March, proceeded to Abadan, and began discharging cargo four days later. By 15 April, the cargo was discharged and the vessel was chartered by the British Ministry of War Transport to haul stockpiled war materials from Basra to Suez. Some ships didn't make it to the Gulf. The ammunition-laden American steamer La Salle was one of those routed across the South Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope, but she never arrived at her destination, becoming one of the mystery ships of World War II. La SaUe was probably the victim of a submarine that also failed to return, for no clue to the vessel's fate was obtained from German submarine records after the war. The Armed Guard officer, Lieutenant (junior grade) Carl F. Zeidler, had resigned as mayor of Milwaukee in order to enter the Navy. The George Gipp's second voyage took her from Philadelphia and Norfolk to the Persian Gulf in November of 1943. With the Mediterranean open then, she had a much shorter voyage by way of Suez. She left Norfolk on 14 November and was back on 8 March, steaming 9,491 miles at an average speed of 11.5 knots. The Anne Hutchinson was en route home from the Middle East when she was torpedoed near Port Elizabeth on 26 October 1942. The torpedo broke the ship's back, and the crew abandoned her. A South African minesweeper and a tug tried to salvage the wreck but, like two ants trying to lug off a cube of sugar, they found the job too much for them, so they dynamited the half-severed sections apart. The after section sank, but they towed the forward part to Port Elizabeth. The Pierce Butler was off Durban on 20 November, headed toward Suez with 9,787 tons of military cargo, when a U-boat put two torpedoes into her. She sank within 30 minutes. After abandoning ship and being questioned by the submarine's officers, the crew spent some hours in the boats before being picked up by HMS Fortuna and taken to Durban. The enemy was not the only danger ships faced on the Persian Gulf run, as the crew of the Richard Stockton could well testify. En route from the Persian Gulf to Capetown, this ship ran into a storm during which 125-mile-an-hour winds "pushed the ship around like a toy," blew the paint off the deckhouses, poured water down the stack, and produced a good many prayers. Said an officer, not irreverently: "Every one of us who believed in God was praying during those hours for our deliverance and salvation. Our ship," he added, "miraculously came through." Liberty ships met many strange experiences on their trips to far corners of the world, but one of the most unique had a touch of the Arabian Nights about it for it involved a man who went for a ride on a magic carpet. The man was Second Cook Helmar Schmidt of the Richard D. Spaight, which, on 10 March 1943, was in the Mozambique Channel between Madagascar and Africa. Early in the evening Sehmidt was relaxing on a mattress he had placed atop a forward hatch and was talking to Messman William J. O'Brien when a torpedo hit the ship right beneath them. The blast blew the hatches off the ship and threw the two men higher than the masts. O'Brien was never seen again but Schmidt and his mattress were hurled over the ship and into the sea. The mattress landed still right side up and Schmidt was still on top of it. One of the lifeboats picked him up later, unhurt. The Spaight was struck by another torpedo, but the submarine had to surface and put more than two dozen shells into the ship before she finally went down. All hands were saved except for the unfortunate messman, and after a four day voyage the lifeboats landed safely on the coast of Africa. The Mozambique Channel and the approaches to Durban were favorite hunting grounds for U-boats. The Harvey Scott was only a few hours out of Durban on 3 March 1943 en route to the Persian Gulf in an 11-ship convoy, when a submarine got her. There were no fatalities. Just two days later, the James Stephens was torpedoed in approximately the same area, broke in two, and sank. Survivors were picked up by the British ships Norwich City and Nigeria. One man was lost. The ship carried a strangely assorted cargo of empty beer bottles, empty ammunition cases, and damaged propellers. The next loss was the William King, en route from Bahrein with 18,000 barrels of oil. She was torpedoed by the U51 on 6 June 1943. Captain Owen H. Reed was taken aboard the submarine, which later delivered him to a prisoner-of-war camp in Java. Six men were lost; the survivors were picked up after three days by a British patrol ship and landed in Africa. The Alice F. Palmer was torpedoed and shelled on 10 July, but all hands were saved. The William EUery was hit 20 days later but made port under her own power. The Lyman Stewart was torpedoed on 7 September but not badly damaged. She managed to get off 15 rounds from the 4-inch stern gun, firing in the general direction from which the torpedoes had come, without seeing the submarine. No more attacks were made, and the ship continued on her way. A more determined submarine got the Robert Bacon in the Mozambique Channel on the night of 13-14 July 1943. At about 2330 a torpedo just missed, but a second hit the port side, forward. After the crew abandoned ship, the submarine made another hit. Shortly after midnight a third torpedo blasted the vessel. She sank in ten minutes, taking five of the crew with her. An unwary U-boat almost ended its career when it sent a torpedo into the Cornelia Spencer on 21 September and then surfaced at the indiscreet distance of only 100 yards, probably intending to finish the job with shells. But the Spencer's gunners were eager for action and forced the U-boat to crash-dive almost as soon as it broke the surface. An hour later the discomfited raider put another torpedo into the Spencer. The after magazine exploded, killed two of the gunners, and destroyed the rudder and propeller. The Spencer floated until a third torpedo sent her to the bottom. Crewmen lost no time in abandoning the Elias Howe after she was torpedoed and set on fire on 24 September. The ship was carrying explosives, and 15 minutes after being hit she blew up--"disappeared before the flash and smoke of the explosion had cleared away." Two men were killed in the engine room. The Henry Knox was sunk by a Japanese submarine as she headed up across the Indian Ocean, en route from Fremantle to the Persian Gulf, with 8,200 tons of supplies for the Russians, including tanks, P-39 fighter planes, and a thousand tons of gunpowder. The night of 19 June 1943 a torpedo hit in number three hold, the gunpowder blew up, and the entire ship shook from the concussion. The forward holds erupted with balls of fire that shot higher than the masts. A rain of blazing debris killed and wounded men trying to release the boats. The flaming cordite fell all over the ship, ignited the deck cargo, blistered paint, and set the boat falls on fire. The boats fell into the sea as the falls burned through. Main engine controls jammed and the ship gradually stopped, sinking slowly by the bow. Men jumped over the sides and boarded life rafts or the three boats that drifted free. The submarine circled, then approached, and survivors were questioned by a young officer who spoke good English. The submarine's crew was dressed in clean khaki shorts, V-necked blouses, and sandals and appeared quite excited about sinking a valuable ship and cargo. The Japanese wanted to know the name of the ship, the port from which it had sailed, whether it had stopped in Australia, how many airplanes were in the cargo, and whether the crew had seen any battleships in New York. The Americans tried to be as evasive as possible in their answers. The Japanese then inspected one of the boats, took the charts, mast, and sail, and left. The men were not harmed. All 41 survivors out of the crew of 67 men eventually rowed their boats to the Maldives, from which the last group reached Colombo on 27 July. The Jose Navarro was torpedoed between Aden and Colombo on the night after Christmas of 1943. The torpedo blasted a big hole in the bow, and the Navarro settled almost to the level of the main deck, forward. All hands, including 83 American soldiers, got off. But there was a touch of pathos to the scene, because the ship had a deckload of mules that had to be left behind. Early the next morn- ing, the captain, chief engineer, and 28 volunteers reboarded the vessel to see if she could proceed under her own power, but they judged her too unseaworthy for this and left her again. All 166 men were picked up by the Rajputana of the Indian Navy and landed at Cochin. A plane searched the area two days later to find only pieces of flotsam where the ship went down. That same day, the Robert F. Hoke was torpedoed off Somalia but remained afloat and was towed to Aden. Many a lonely soldier in the Persian Gulf Command never received his 1943 Christmas mail because some 500 bags of it went down when the Albert Gallatin, en route from Aden to Bandar Shapur, was sunk by a submarine on 1 January 1944. After the ship had been abandoned, there was a violent explosion, then she broke in two forward of the mainmast and sank. Moments later, survivors were amazed to see the bow pop back to the surface, float for a while, and go down again. About 15 minutes after the ship had sunk, there was an exceptionally violent explosion in the water that was heard aboard the HMS Britannia six miles away. There was speculation that the tremendous delayed blast was caused by some unusually powerful explosive in the cargo of which captain and crew were unaware. All 71 of the men aboard survived. The crew of the Walter Camp was also lucky as she steamed from Aden toward Colombo on 25 January 1944. A submarine torpedo sent her down in 15 minutes, with a cargo of barges, steel, truck bodies, cranes, and earth-moving machinery. All hands were picked up by HMS Danae and landed at Aden. A Liberty ship operated by the government of China, the Chung Cheng, was the victim of a German submarine just before midnight on 3 February 1944, while bound from Chochin, India, to Aden with 8,350 tons of ilmenite. Besides a merchant crew of 29 Chinese and an Armed Guard contingent of 27 Americans, the Chung Cheng was carrying eleven U. S. and four Chinese merchant marine officers. Like many other ships that were torpedoed while carrying cargoes of heavy ore, the Chung Cheng sank so quickly that all of the boats could not be launched. Twenty men were lost. Japanese submarines were active in the Indian Ocean area in 1944, and one of them got the Richard Hovey, homeward bound from India, on 29 March. After the crew abandoned ship, the Japanese pursued their accustomed practice of shooting at the survivors and running down the lifeboats. Either their aim was bad or their heart was no longer in their work, for only four crewmen were lost in this sadistic endeavor. Many more men would have been lost, however, if John Drechsler, a junior assistant engineer, had not been able to fashion a primitive still and make 60 gallons of fresh water for the 38 men who spent 16 days in a life boat under a torrid equatorial sun before being rescued by the British Liberty ship Samuta. The other boat, with 25 men, was picked up after only three days by another British Liberty, the Samcalia. The Liberty lean Nicolet also met a Japanese submarine, but with much more tragic results. She was homeward bound down the Arabian Sea on 2 July 1944 with a merchant crew of 41, an Armed Guard contingent of 28, and an Army and civilian passenger list of 30, many of them men returning home after two or more years in the Persian Gulf. The first torpedo hit in number two hold and the second in number four. The vessel took a heavy starboard list. All hands abandoned ship safely in four lifeboats and two rafts. The submarine soon surfaced and began shelling the deserted hulk. After firing ten or twelve rounds at the ship, the raider circled around the wreck to the rafts and lifeboats, and an officer on the conning tower shouted to them through a megaphone: "All come here!" The first boat to approach the submarine contained about 25 merchant seamen, Navy gunners, civilians, and soldiers. As they climbed aboard their life preservers were snatched from them. Japanese sailors also took their watches, wallets, and shirts and shoes. The survivors were then prodded with bayonets onto the forward deck, where they were ordered to kneel and their hands were tied behind them with wire, lines, and strips of clothing. William Musser, a messboy who did not kneel fast enough, was shot in the back and thrown over the side. So began a night-long orgy of torture and murder. One by one, the boats and rafts were ordered to the submarine. A machine gun was trained on each boat as it came alongside. Men were clubbed with lengths of pipe and cut with knives and bayonets. When Lieutenant Deale, the Navy Armed Guard officer and five of his gunners tried to paddle away on a tiny doughnut raft, the Japanese turned on a searchlight and then opened fire. A man was hit and fell over the side, but the others flattened themselves on the raft, and the searchlight was soon cut off, the Japanese evidently assuming they had been killed. The men lay as still as they could while the submarine circled the slowly sinking ship and listened to the screams and cries of their comrades. As the night wore on, men succumbed to wounds and beatings and were shoved off the submarine into the sea. Others were forced to run a gauntlet of clubs, pistols, knives, and pieces of pipe. When Charles Pyle, the first assistant engineer, hesitated, a sailor hit him on the head with the butt of a pistol. Another kicked him in the back and sent him reeling through the line of yelling, flailing seamen, until he stumbled over the side into the sea. The cold water revived him and he paddled away, struggling to free his hands. He was about to give up when Able Seaman Stuart Vanderhurst hoisted him head first onto a floating hatchboard. Vanderhurst had slid off the bow of the submarine and swam away unnoticed earlier in the night. His wrists had not been tightly fastened and he freed them with a clasp knife the Japanese had overlooked. By then the submarine was almost indistinct, marked by the glow from its hatches and lights carried by crewmen as they moved up and down the deck. The cries of the captives gradually diminished as they were beaten unconscious, one by one, or kicked overboard. About dawn, when a distant aircraft was heard, the submarine hurriedly submerged, leaving several survivors still on its deck to flounder in the sea and drown but for a Navy gunner who, like Vanderhurst, had secreted a knife in his trousers, cut his own bonds, and then freed the others who were still afloat. Minutes later, a Catalina patrol plane flew overhead, made a few lazy circles and left. It returned several hours later to drop life preservers and food. Some 30 hours later the frigate Huxac of the Indian Navy picked up the 23 survivors of the 99 men on the lean Nicolet. As prosaic merchant ships plodded up the trade routes where a "quinquireme of Ninevah" once carried "ivory, apes and peacocks," it would have been only fitting that one of them carried something more exotic than jeeps, mules, and C-rations. Such a ship was the John Barry, a most unlikely looking treasure ship as she steamed across the Arabian Sea in August of 1944. But securely crated and locked in her holds was a fortune more fabulous than even Ali Babi and his forty thieves could have hoped for--S26 million in silver bullion. On 28 August a submarine put two torpedoes into the John Barry. The sea flooded two holds, the ship's back broke, and she went down in 1,000 fathoms of water. All but two of her crew were rescued by the Dutch tanker Sunetta and another Liberty, the Benjamin Bourn. Somewhere in the Arabian Sea one of the richest treasures of all time waits, well protected by a mile of saltwater, for the future technique that may enable salvage crews to bring it up. Even more intriguing than the treasure in the John Barry was the mystery in her. What need could there have been, among all the military supplies sent to the Russians, for $26 million in silver? Why was such a fortune shipped in an unescorted, 10-knot Liberty ship? The answers will probably remain hidden among other unexplained mysteries of World War II. By the time World War II ended, the little-known Persian Gulf run had become a vast shipping operation. More than 30,000 American service troops were stationed in the various Gulf ports to handle the food, ammunition, and military equipment bound for Russia. Hundreds of American engineers and workmen had modernized Persian Gulf ports with docks, roads, and other facilities. Shipping losses in the Persian Gulf run were lumped together with all other parts of the Indian Ocean, so the number of Liberty ships sunk while on definite runs to the Gulf is not easily ascertained. In the first three years of the war, only 45 ships were sunk in the entire theatre. But in 1942, the year Liberty ships started on the Persian Gulf run, 205 ships were sunk. All together, 385 ships were sunk in the Indian Ocean. More than a few of them were the hard-working Libertys.
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