SS Scapa Flow



Last Voyage of the Quien Sabe (Scapa Flow) Chapter 7







CHAPTER SEVEN

After the loading of the rubber was completed, the Scapa Flow took on a
small transshipment of Army supplies, which was to be taken to another
Liberian port a few miles up the coast.

The facilities at this next port, our third on the West African coast,
were even more primitive than at the second one. Ships had to be charged
or discharged through the use of longboats. Native crews, composed of
about a dozen oarsmen, rowed the longboats, and a relay of these boats
continued day and night until the Army goods all had been sent ashore.

The Scapa Flow then continued northwestward to our fourth and final West
African port, Freetown, in the British colony of Sierra Leone.

Freetown possesses an excellent harbor but no dock facilities for ships
the size of the Scapa Flow. This latter feature caused little
embarrassment to our ship during the first few days, as the only traffic
originally planned at Freetown was to consist of taking aboard a few
launchloads of food for the feeding of the men aboard the ship.

The crew members were surprised at the speed with which the captain made
arrangements for food in Freetown. There was a tendency, at first, to
attribute this alacrity to a possible apprehension on his part of
further organized protests from the crew. But this was not so. The
shipping company that operated the Scapa Flow had a representative
stationed in Freetown to procure food and store it against demands
from ships owned or operated by them which came to this port. It came to
be pretty well agreed among the crew that the reason the captain had
stalled on getting much food for us at previous ports in West

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Africa was that he had hoped the ship's supplies might be eked out until
the Scapa Flow reached Freetown. Here, owing to the presence of the
shipping company's representative, food could be obtained much more
cheaply than at ports where the company did not have men stationed.
The crew took great satisfaction in saying that the captain had been
frustrated in his earlier attempts to semistarve us until he could
arrange for the purchase of cheaper food. The captain functioned as an
official representative of the shipping company aboard the Scapa Flow.
At the completion of the trip, had he, in the opinion of the company,
kept expenses down as much as possible, he would have received a bonus
quite apart from his regular salary and war risk bonus. (This
arrangement is a common one among shipping companies as a device to
ensure the utmost cooperation from their skippers in the matter of
economy on the costs of a voyage.) The crew hoped fervently that,
because of our organized protest in Liberia, the captain's oppressive
attempts at economy thus far had backfired to the point that he would
get no special bonus for this voyage. The crew did not get shore leave
in Freetown, although the ship remained there for more than a week,
waiting to form part of a small convoy that would take us toward
Trinidad. During this time a serious fire broke out on the Scapa Flow.
The fire was caused by spontaneous combustion in the coal which was
stored in the spare bunkers situated under the bridge. This supply of
coal had been a topic of conversation at various times throughout the
voyage. The Norwegian chief engineer had made several formal requests of
the captain that the coal in the spare bunkers be used to fire the
boilers, as it had been placed aboard the Scapa Flow nine or ten months
before, at the beginning of the voyage previous to the one upon which we
were presently embarked. Even before this Norwegian chief had signed on
the Scapa Flow in Florida, the American second engineer had requested
permission to use coal from the spare bunkers. All these requests had
been turned down by the captain, without explanation. Not once on our
present voyage had this spare coal ever been touched. When the Scapa
Flow had been coaled, the fresh coal had always been used immediately
without disturbing the spare coal, which stayed where it was 

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in the spare bunkers underneath the bridge. When they had made their
respective requests, the chief and second engineers had stated that
there was danger in leaving spare coal undisturbed for a long period. It
is well known that coal in a ship's bunkers has a tendency to grow
warmer---even to the point of danger. At various times during our
voyage, the engineers and the crew had suggested that the reason the
captain wouldn't use this coal was that he wanted to be sure that the
spare bunkers under the bridge remained full against the possibility of
a torpedo hit near the bridge. A great portion of the explosion of a
torpedo practically always is diverted upward, which accounts for the
numerous instances on record in which the hatch covers of a torpedoed
ship have been blown off. It was the opinion of the engineers and crew
that the captain, whose cabin was in the bridge section of the ship,
wanted the spare bunkers to remain full so that they would cushion the
impact of a possible torpedo explosion, and thus tend to safeguard his
own life. The captain may have had another reason for persistently
hoarding the coal, but he never gave a hint of it to any of the other
men on the ship. In any event, when the vessel reached Freetown, the
fears of the chief and second engineers were confirmed, and this coal,
so long stored untouched in the spare bunkers, caught fire. The fire was
first noted by Benny, during the twelve-to-four watch one night. He saw
smoke coming out of the ventilators which ran down into the Number Two
hold. The fire alarm was sounded, and all the men aboard turned-to in
case they should be needed to fight the fire. It was not immediately
clear precisely where the fire was, beyond the fact that it must be
somewhere below, either under the bridge or just forward of it. It was
known that the fire must be quite deep, because the main deck was not
warm over the place from which the smoke came most thickly. It looked as
though the fire was either in the spare coal bunkers or in the Number
Two hold itself. In either case, the danger to the ship was great, as
the coal bunkers were full and therefore impervious to water. Moreover,
the Number Two hold was full of cargo--mostly rubber--and it would take
a long time to 

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move it to get at the fire. The ship was anchored in the middle of the
harbor, and much of whatever shifting of cargo was necessary would have
to be done by the ship's own winches, there being no dock which could
accommodate the Scapa Flow in this port. When the Number Two hatch
covers were taken off, the smoke poured up through the opening as well
as through the ventilators. Most of us thought that the presence of
smoke in Number Two hold was a guarantee that the fire was surely in the
cargo. But the first mate pointed out that it might be that the fire was
in the coal bunkers and had eaten away the bulkhead between the bunkers
and the hatch, thus allowing the smoke to escape into the hatch. This
later proved to be the case, The captain addressed the crew assembled on
the main deck, saying that he was calling for volunteers to go down into
the hold to shift cargo. Some of the cargo could be shifted a bit
forward in the hold, and some would have to be brought up on the deck,
in order to make a tunnel toward the spot where the smoke was thickest.
The captain said he had ordered the fourth mate to Morse ashore a
distress signal, which would eventually bring a crew of British naval
fire riggers, but he added that this crew would probably
take considerable time to assemble and get to our ship; meantime we
would have to do the best we could without help. He admitted that it
would be dangerous in the hold because the hastily shifted cargo might
fall upon the men during the tunneling. The rubber bales weighed a
hundred pounds apiece, and the fifty-gallon drums weighed many times as
much. It was necessary, too, for the men to work without protection from
the smoke, as the shipping company had placed no helmets or asbestos
suits aboard, As the captain addressed us there were tears in his eyes.
Although he didn't say so, it was evident from the tone of his voice
that he knew the crew disliked him intensely and might fail him in his
attempts to save what he, as captain, thought of as his ship. He did say
that he would go below into the hold with the men, and help them shift
cargo. Every member of the crew responded to his call for volunteers,
and so did all of the regular officers with the exception of the
Egyptian fourth 

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engineer. Two of the naval gunners volunteered, out of the dozen on
board, and these two did not include the lieutenant. The volunteers took
turns going down into the hold, those on deck being concerned with the
operation of winches and hoists. Some of the rubber in the hold was
passed by hand to places farther forward in the hold, and other rubber
was sent up on deck. The men in the hold had to change places with their
shipmates on deck at frequent intervals, because of the effect of the
smoke. The captain stayed down in the hold as long as even the hardiest
of the crew, and worked as steadily as any. A couple of hours sufficed
to build a tunnel toward the origin of the thickest smoke, and it
steadily became clearer that the fire itself was in the coal bunkers,
and that, as the first mate had surmised, the fire had eaten through the
bulkhead which separated the spare coal bunkers from the cargo in this
hold. About the time the tunnel to the coal bunkers was completed, a
gang of British naval fire fighters came aboard. The men were equipped
with modern fire-fighting equipment, and they took over in the hold, to
trim up the tunnel. All the Scapa Flow's men came up on deck. The man in
charge of the fire fighters soon stated that there was no more his men
could do. He said the fire was in the coal, which would have to be
removed from the bunkers, as his hoses couldn't be brought to bear on
the source of the fire. It was now necessary to shift operations from
Number Two hold to Number Three, which was abaft the bridge, for
passageways led from the Number Three hold to the spare bunkers under
the bridge. Our captain sent a message ashore calling for the recruiting
of native workmen to come aboard as soon as possible after daylight to
help in getting the burning coal out on deck. The fire fighters had done
all they could, and they were sent ashore. Pending the arrival of the
natives, the crew set to work to bring out the burning coal in
wheelbarrows. At first the work was difficult, but not unduly so, as the
first coal we touched had not yet been reached by the fire. This good
coal was wheeled to other bunkers farther aft. It was not long, however,
before we began to run across coal which, though not burning, was quite
warm. It was decided that to try to save this coal 

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would only be to risk fires in still other bunkers, so from here on the
coal was brought up on deck. Soon hoses had to be sent into the spare
coal bunkers to douse the coal, in order to get it cool enough for the
crew to handle. The work continued without pause, and the mounds of
smoldering coal soon bulked high on the main deck. Some of the crew set
to work shoveling it over board, We had been working on this coal for
five or six hours when a large native gang came from shore to help. The
natives worked right with the crew until the crew became so exhausted
they could not go on. From here the natives carried on alone, their
numbers being continually replenished by fresh recruits from shore. It
was estimated that it would take at least two days to clear the bunkers
and get them cooled off with sea water. The clearing of the coal had
gone on for about a day when exciting news from shore put a terrible
dilemma up to the captain. American and British troops were landing in
North Africa: it was the end of the first week in November, 1942.
President Roosevelt's announcement of the landings was heard in Free-
town, and it was known that U-boats would be pouring toward the South
Atlantic to attack ships in this area. Moreover, the proximity of
Vichy-held Dakar made it possible that Freetown would be attacked. It
was decided to get the ships in the harbor out to sea as quickly as
possible, using whatever escorts were available, Ships began to depart
for the south, north and west. Half a dozen ships were to go toward
Trinidad, under escort of a corvette and a fishing boat which would take
them for the customary few days out to sea before sending them on
individual courses without escort. Our captain had to decide whether or
not to join this convoy. The Scapa Flow was afire, and it had become
evident that the burning coal had eaten away part of the bilge pump
line, meaning that if the vessel sprang even a medium-sized leak while
at sea we might founder for want of a way to pump out the water. It was
a grave risk to take the ship to sea under these handicaps. But it might
be an even graver risk to depart from 

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Freetown a couple of days hence, without temporary escort protection.
The captain decided to put to sea with the other ships and the two
escorts. The gang of native coal heavers was sent ashore, and the crew
kept up the work of moving the coal out, up and overboard as fast as our
strength and stamina would permit. It was significant that, though the
ship put to sea under these conditions, not a man aboard deserted to the
relative safety of shore. Such desertion would have been easy, and might
have been justified later on trumped-up grounds of drunkenness or
illness. The Scapa Flow was in the small convoy and about three days out
to sea when the last of the burning coal was shoveled over the side. The
ship was now out of immediate danger-except from submarines, that
is--but it was plain to all that we would have to have the best luck in
weather, weather mild enough not to strain the ship and start a leak, to
make the crossing to Trinidad, where the bilge lines could get
elementary repair, On the fourth day our escorts turned back toward
Freetown, to get whatever new ships had come into that port and were
waiting for escorts to go on. On the fifth day the Scapa Flow, now
traveling alone, ran into still more had fortune. A hole about the size
of a silver dollar was blown in one of the three boilers. This boiler
had to be cooled, and the ship had to run on the other two. Our speed
was decreased from ten knots to about six or seven. The engineers set to
work to try to repair the damage, some of them going inside the boiler
at times. During the days after the Scapa Flow left Freetown, a third
wave of malaria hit the ship. Two men were affected: the coxswain of the
gunners and I. We both had been caught in the first wave but had missed
the second. We were sent to our bunks. Our fevers were relatively mild
compared with some which had been experienced during the first and
second waves of malaria. On the morning of the seventh day both the
coxswain and I were up and able to move about a little in our respective

[183]

parts of the ship, but I was told not to go back to work for a day or
two. An equal time would be required before the coxswain would be
ready to return to his lack of work. The food situation on the Scapa
Flow was vastly improved, owing to the captain's involuntary purchases
in Liberia and to his voluntary ones in Freetown. All on board were
eating heavily to make up for our earlier lack. When the torpedoes
struck, on our seventh day out, we had only recently finished a heavy
noon meal. A few men, of whom I was one, were gathered in the fo'c'sle
messroom, talking and drinking coffee. The first torpedo made the ship
quiver slightly, like a man jabbed with a hypodermic needle. The cups
and saucers on the tables rattled. I remember looking at the coffee in
my half-filled cup, and though the cup and saucer shook, the coffee did
not spill. I looked up and met the eyes of Great Lakes, who was seated
across the table, "This is it!" he said. The exclamation was taken up by
the rest of us as we got to our feet. I had the impression that the ship
was being shelled, for there was a sharp smell of burnt explosive in the
air. Somehow this impression was dispelled by the impact of the second
torpedo, which followed the first in about ten seconds, although the
second torpedo had much the same effect on the ship as the first, The
men in the fo'c'sle messroom poured out onto the well deck, making for
the bunkrooms. Benny, the ordinary seaman who had been one of the crew's
representatives during, our organized protest in Liberia, crashed onto
Number One hatch a few feet from us. He had been in the crow's:nest,
high up on the forward mast, and had been shaken off to his death.

All the men I saw were moving fast, particularly Alabama and the younger
Puerto Rican, who threw themselves over the side. The ship's alarm bells
had been sounded by the mate on watch, but they rang for only a few
seconds. They probably were cut off when water reached the generators in
the engine room. The first fo'c'sle men to reach the main deck paused to
help 

[184]

the first mate try to launch a life raft, but the raft refused to slide
down into the water. The effort was quickly abandoned, as the raft would
float to the surface anyway when the ship sank, and the first mate gave
the order to make for the boat deck. The captain, meantime, had come out
of his cabin and was calling across the Number Three hatch to the boat
deck, giving orders to the two men who happened to be on this deck
during the torpedoing. They were the Brazilian A.B. and one of the
messmen, who had been washing and hanging up clothes. The captain first
yelled to them to stand by to lower the port lifeboats; then, seeing
that the ship was going down too fast to permit the lowering of any
boats, he told them to jump over the port side. Both men had the good
sense to disregard the captain's orders. The torpedoes had struck on the
port side, and had the men jumped over this side they might easily have
been drawn into the interior of the ship with the water pouring through
the torpedo holes. The ship went under in less than a minute, taking
some of the survivors a little way under with it. Several survivors said
later that they thought they had had the sensation of drowning. I was
one of these. The ship sank as I was climbing a ladder which led from
the main deck to the boat deck. I had managed to get my life jacket and
a sweater from my bunkroom, and had put the sweater on but was still
carrying the jacket in my right hand. The sudden sinking of the ship
caused the water to tear the buoyant jacket out of my hand. I was
carried under perhaps fifteen feet, and stayed under about double that
number of seconds. I was struck twice on the chest, lightly, by what I
believe was the funnel of the Scapa Flow while I was underwater
struggling to get to the surface. It was during this time that I had
what I believe was the sensation of drowning. I saw printed in bold-face
white type, against a black background, the words, "Lars, are you going
to die?" And then, in equally clear white bold-face type, against the
same black background, the word "Copenhagen." The first words are easy
enough to understand, though their presentation seems odd, but I am
still unable to explain Copenhagen. I have never been to that city,

[ 185 ]

and it has no particular significance for me, at least consciously, I
got to the surface with still enough strength to swim, and soon spotted
an empty steel drum, I swam to it and tried to mount and ride it, but it
behaved much as do the rubber sea horses in a swimming pool: I would get
on top only to have the drum spin and put me under again. The drum was
abandoned for a board from a disintegrated hatch cover which I saw
floating a few yards away. I got this board under me and could rest on
it, meanwhile maneuvering by paddling my arms and kicking my legs. There
followed for me a desolate moment. The day was overcast and the sea was
running in long swells. A light drizzle was falling. As I lifted my head
and looked around, I could see only two other men, a messman and an
Egyptian stoker. The messman was swimming in a life jacket, and the
stoker was lying on an empty potato box, groaning, with a hand on the
ribs of his right side. It seemed as if we three were the only
survivors, and it seemed also that under the present circumstances
even we three would not be survivors for long. The messman, Georgie, who
had waited on the officers, called over to me: "How's it goin',
Professor?" "All right, so far," I answered, We started to paddle toward
each other. When we got together, we began to row round in a circle
and finally spotted a life raft about a quarter of a mile off. At first
we couldn't determine whether or not anyone was on it, but we soon knew
there was, for a sail was hoisted and it began to come toward us.
Because of its construction, when the raft was under sail it was capable
only of running or, rather, creeping with the wind, and fortunately for
us we were downwind. The raft came toward us slowly, though steadily,
and we saw there were three or four on it, and that standing by the sail
was the invaluable Brazilian A.B. The other men on the raft began to
break out oars, and it made more rapid progress. The messman and I were
soon aboard. We took our places at the oars and helped row over to pick
up the groaning Egyptian stoker. On the raft we were comparatively high
out of the water and could see that there

[186]

were still more survivors, some on other rafts, and some still in the
water. We could see no lifeboats.

Our raft was the farthest downwind, so the Brazilian A.B. dropped the
sail after we all stood up to make a careful search of the water farther
downwind from us. The other rafts were being manned, and they picked up
the balance of the swimming men. These other rafts began to move toward
us, and we rowed to meet them. All four life rafts had floated free
when the Scapa Flow sank. When all were gathered together it was found
that twenty-eight men had survived the torpedoing, less than half the
roster of men on the Scapa Flow. Thirty-three had been lost, either in
the torpedoing or in the sinking. None of the survivors had been
bothered by sharks While swimming about, although they were to be with
us for most of our time adrift. Apparently what sharks had been in the
immediate vicinity of the sinking ship had been driven off for a time,
or stunned, by the torpedo explosions. Of the five deck officers only
one survived--the fourth mate, the Dane. He took charge. He ordered the
life rafts to scatter temporarily in four directions to look for
survivors and any supplies that might be of use to us. Then the rafts
were to come together again. The Brazilian A.B. on our raft took charge
of it, as he was obviously the best man with the sail, and we set off
toward the northeast, which was downwind. The rest of us helped the raft
along by rowing. We covered a good deal of water, but found no more
survivors. The Brazilian A.B., standing at the raft's little mast, did,
however, make a discovery which was of the utmost importance. He spotted
one of the Scapa Flow's lifeboats, a small steel craft, lying nearly
submerged in the water. We got the raft over to it, and it looked
salvageable, so we called our discovery to the men on the other three
rafts, and asked them to join us after their search. In fifteen minutes
or so all the rafts were together again, and we prepared to work on the
lifeboat. No other survivors had been found. Those of us on the four
rafts still numbered only twenty-eight. Of our number, two men were
badly injured--the Egyptian second cook and one of the gunners. The cook
had shocking bruises on his legs, and could not stand on

[ 187 ]

them; the gunner had had a piece of flesh the size of a tennis ball
gouged out of his left forearm. Most of us had minor bruises or cuts,
but these two men were the only ones who were incapacitated. The
Egyptian stoker, who had been groaning on a potato box before being
Pulled onto a raft, had recovered enough to row, so his bang on the ribs
obviously was not serious. The Dane ordered a couple of men into the
lifeboat to start bailing it out. They were preparing to do so. when
Alabama spotted the periscope of the submarine which sank us. Work on
the lifeboat was abandoned for a while, and we sat or lay around on the
rafts, waiting to see what the men on the submarine would do. About
half an hour had passed since the torpedoing. After getting on the
rafts, and up to the time of the sighting of the submarine, most of the
men had been in good spirits and had co-operated willingly in manning
the life rafts. But now, as we waited idly for the approach of the
submarine, a sharp reaction set in. Very little was said of the
submarine, and after all had taken a look at the periscope, now rising
out of the water, only those men who were actually facing toward the
submarine bothered to keep track of it. Almost all the men were vomiting
up their lunches. The nausea was caused by shock, sea water, and the
strenuous effort of swimming, and rowing. The submarine surfaced about a
half mile away, and slowly began to come toward us. Although we knew
that this sub had just been responsible for the death of more than half
our shipmates and the loss of our ship, and might even now be pre-
paring to kill the rest of us, there was at first no disposition among
us to be frightened. We were too busy vomiting. By the time the
submarine was in hailing distance our crew had recovered enough to take
interest--and some alarm. Three or four men were on the deck of the sub.
Others stood in the conning tower, prepared to man a machine gun that
was pointed at us. The sub obviously was a German, and of medium
size--about seven hundred tons. It appeared to be brand-new.

There was not a speck of rust on its glistening gray-black paint, Most
of the Germans we could see were clean-shaven and tanned, From all
evidence, the submarine had jus~t recently put to sea, 

[ 188 ]

possibly within a week, or since the time President Roosevelt had made
the announcement of the landing of troops in North Africa. A
brown-haired man of about thirty-five, plump, medium tall, tanned, with a
neat Vandyke beard, spoke to us through a megaphone. Probably he was the
U-boat's commander. "Vot vas de name of your ship ?" There was a
perceptible sigh from the men on the life rafts. If the Germans were
going to parley, they weren't likely to dispose of us. Our fourth mate
answered with the name of our ship. We needn't have tried to lie, as the
name of the ship was displayed in many places on the pitiful surface
wreckage always present when a ship goes down--on the canvas backs, on
drums, on life rings, and on the numerous life jackets floating about
with no life jacketed in them. The megaphoner on the U-boat asked next:
"Vere vas your kapitan ?" His accent was so heavy that it took us a few
seconds to understand his question. We looked at each other and then
back at the U-boat, and made thumbs-down motions. Apparently this
satisfied the questioner on the submarine. Next he wanted to know who
among us was in charge, and the fourth mate answered up. As I have said,
he was a Dane. He had been born within twelve miles of the German
border, and knew German as well as he knew Danish, and better than he
knew English. Nevertheless, he took great care to reply to the U-boat
questioner in English, and said just as little as possible, hoping that
his slight accent would pass unnoticed by a man like this German whose
accent in English was so heavy. There was no point in flaunting the fact
that one of our officers was a subject of one of Hitler's occupied
kingdoms, even though the Germans knew that Norwegians, Hollanders and
Danes often sailed on American-owned ships. After the fourth mate
identified himself, the German said: "I t'ink you Cape Verde go now."
The sentence was so short and inverted that it took us a little time to
realize that the German was advising us where we should try to get in
our lifeboat to stand the best chance of making landfall. 

[189]

Our fourth mate had the presence of mind to ask the submarine
spokesman for our position at sea. We had no sextant, but we did have a
compass and charts in the lifeboat, and it would help us to know
precisely where we were when torpedoed. The man with the megaphone
called below, and the submarine's navigator sent up a slip of paper with
our position written on it, just another in the endless list of examples
of the celebrated German thoroughness. The man with the megaphone read
off this position to us. Our fourth mate said afterward that, as nearly
as he could remember, this position checked closely with that which had
been made around noon on the Scapa Flow --not long before the
torpedoing, One of the Germans in the U-boat's conning tower took some
candid-camera snapshots of us. This cameraman was dressed in tennis
shoes and shorts--no other clothes, not even a cap. His costume was the
same as that of all the other men we could see with the exception of the
man with the megaphone. The megaphoner had on an officer's cap, a
quarter-sleeved undershirt, and a pair of shorts. On his feet were
bedroom slippers. After the pictures were taken the man with the
megaphone waved his hand cheerily at us, and called an order below. The
U-boat started to move away. It hadn't moved more than a few feet before
our fourth mate called out to the megaphoner: "Can you do something for
our injured men? They're in a bad way." "Veil," said the megaphoner, "I
vill see vot I can do for dem." He called several orders down into the
sub. The U-boat reversed its motors and came to within a dozen feet of
us. A tin can was passed up to the conning tower and thrown over to us.
The can was full of presses and bandages which undoubtedly saved
the injured arm of our Navy gunner, and possibly his life as well. We
chorused a "thank you" to the Germans. They waved merrily to us,
shouting "good luck" in return. A couple of the Germans had been
scanning the horizon with glasses during the interview. Now all except
the megaphoner disappeared below. As the U-boat purred away the man with
the megaphone paced a few steps up and down the sub's deck. Then he went
toward the hatch in the conning tower. Just before he reached the con-
ning tower he paused a moment to look down at his feet, and 

[ 190 ]

then he went below. There's little doubt but that he paused to see
whether or not he'd got his slippers wet. Apparently the commander of
the U-boat was satisfied that his sub was relatively safe for, though it
was earlier than four o'clock, the submarine did not submerge but
continued on the surface until it was out of sight in the light rain.
The survivors conjectured excitedly over the reasons why we had had such
fine treatment from the sub--that is, fine treatment subsequent to the
torpedoing. One would think that from the "total war" point of view the
sub's commander might easily have seen his way clear to killing all the
survivors. To a varying degree, we were all trained seamen, and, in the
event of our rescue, many of us would be going to sea again to sail
against Germany. Our officers, however wanting they had been found in
some respects, represented years of training and experience which might
again be used against the Axis. The survivors agreed pretty well on some
reasons for the conduct of the submarine commander. First, we had had a
tough time during the torpedoing. We were helpless on our rafts, or
nearly so, and doubtless would have to put up with considerable
inconvenience in the days to come. We thought the German commander might
have left us alone, and even helped us with bandages and directions, on
simple grounds of humanity. Moreover, there is a certain fraternity
among seafarers, which at times overrides their current division into
rival warring camps. Certainly the sub commander did not spare us
because Germany fears possible reprisals against seamen of the German
Merchant Marine. A third possible reason might be that he was trying to
show us that all Germans are not given to the cruel excesses of the
Nazis. Whether this idea was in his mind I have no way of knowing, but
it certainly was in the minds of all the survivors. As we worked on the
lifeboat, preparatory to abandoning the four rafts, we would pause and
look around us at the evidence of the Scapa Flow's destruction. Besides
the surface wreckage from the ship itself, there was much evidence of
the product which had formed about half the Scapa Flow's home-journey
cargo--rubber. Apparently the torpedoes had burst numerous of the
fifty-gallon drums of liquid rubber stored in the ship, for a great
stretch of

[191]

the sea was an undulating coat of this liquid rubber. All of us had
patches of this latex on our bodies, which stayed on for many days,
vulcanized to our hides by the sun. And spotted all about in the sea
were hundred-pound bales of rubber, which floated as heavily and
sluggishly as ice floes. From time to time a man would look for a long
moment at the evidences of the waste of our precious rubber cargo and
say, Jesus. It is probable that our reactions, as we bailed out our
halfsunken lifeboat and transferred provisions to it from the rafts,
were not dissimilar to those of fighting men everywhere in this war who
have said "This is it!" and then lived on, for a while at least. We had
had a strenuous, shocking experience in the course of an hour: we had
lost more than half our shipmates in a battle of less than a minute;
many of us had nearly drowned in the next minute; we had struggled next
against the sea, then against the fear of a slow agonizing death in a
day or so, while mounted on rubber bales or drifting wreckage; we had
then made the great physical effort of manning four widely scattered
life rafts, of bringing these rafts together, of separating for a
further survivor-hunt, and then bringing the rafts together again around
the wondrous find of a serviceable lifeboat; we had been racked with
nausea; we had feared again for our lives at the appearance of the
submarine; we were cut and bruised to at least a minor degree, a gunner
and the second cook very seriously; two of us, the coxswain of
gunners and I, were newly out of bed after bouts of malaria, and would
now have neither quinine nor rest; we all were faced with an
indeterminate length of time adrift on the South Atlantic, twenty-eight
men in a twenty-seven foot lifeboat, with our minds full of the empty
ship, and of stories of madness and death from thirst.

We had suffered grievously from actions by Germans. And as survivors we
were as good a cross section of the United Nations, both civilian and
service, as could easily be found in a group. Yet not once, then or
later, was any hatred expressed for the Germans; it was stated by
several and understood by all that the Germans had been doing their job
just as we had been doing ours. Even when it was clear that we might all
die in our lifeboat, several of us found it possible to refer to the
Germans in the

[I92]

U-boat as "poor c----s" because they had to live and fight in an
undersea coffin.

All our bitter words were reserved for the prevailing powers-that-be in
the United States Navy. We spared the British; they were doing their
share, and more. But it seemed incomprehensible to many of us that after
four years of observing the war and a year of fighting in it, the United
States had provided itself with so few escort ships that it was
necessary for slow, ten-knot ships like ours to travel alone across the
South Atlantic. Several of the surviving Navy gunners announced flatly
that if they were rescued they would refuse to go to sea any more,
unless, as they put it, they "could get into the Navy." ' 

[ 193 ]


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