SS Scapa Flow

Last Voyage of the Quien Sabe (Scapa Flow) Chapter 10

 C H A P T E R  T E N 


When we reached Freetown, where we would have to wait an indefinite
length of time for transportation back to the United States, the
majority of the Scapa Flow's survivors was taken ashore, but seven of us
were transferred temporarily to a hospital ship in the harbor. Prince,
the gunner with the mangled arm, had to have expert attention. Georgie,
the saloon messman, was suffering from serious boils; the Egyptian
second cook needed treatment for his legs, and the Egyptian fourth
engineer claimed he had appendicitis. The chief engineer and the deck
cadet had semiserious infections. I had passed the worst stages of my
current bout with malaria, but the doctor on the corvette thought I
should spend a few days on the hospital ship before going ashore to the
survivors' camp in Freetown. The hospital ship was a monumental example
of snobbery, a snobbery which took many forms, each contriving to
minimize the usefulness of the ship. This hospital ship stayed at anchor
indefinitely in the harbor of Freetown; it would not leave the harbor
until another hospital ship came to relieve it. At night, though the
port and other ships in the harbor were blacked out, the hospital ship
was lighted brilliantly, floodlights playing on its prominently
displayed red crosses. The Germans were kept informed in scrupulous
detail of the activities of this ship, and most of the patients on it
undoubtedly were safer than they would have been in hospitals in their
home towns. However, it wasn't at all easy to be admitted to the
hospital ship: the fact that you might have been desperately wounded in
an engagement with the enemy wasn't sufficient reason for admittance

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your face happened to be black, or brown, or any of the shades of yellow
except that which inaccurately is called white.

Superficially, the ship was a beautiful expression of modern science,
operated by members of three United Nations: Holland, Britain and China.
The ship itself, originally had been designed as a luxury passenger
liner, and had been under construction in Holland when Hitler invaded
that country. The still uncompleted ship was towed to England, where
her original design was altered and she was made into an ultramodern
hospital ship. Thus, her maiden voyage under her own power was made as a
mercy vessel. Her sea officers were Dutch; her crew, Chinese; her
medical officers and staff, British. Almost needless to say, there was
no fraternity among the members of the three national groups. The Dutch
sea officers thought they were the natural superiors of the British
medical officers and staff; the British medical officers and staff
thought they were the natural superiors of the Dutch sea officers,
although here the British unanimity broke down, because naturally the
British medical officers thought they were superior to the members of
their staff. The British and Dutch alike thought themselves superior to
the Chinese coolie paid crew. What the Chinese crew thought of their
British and Dutch allies and shipmates I don't know, but probably not
much. The hospital ship could accommodate at least half a thousand bed
patients, but there were hardly fifty patients aboard during the few
days I spent on the ship, which meant that the patients were heavily
outnumbered by the men who worked the ship.

A mile or so away the shore hospitals were stuffed with wounded and
disease-ridden soldiers, sailors and merchant mariners, not to speak of
shore civilians; the hospital staffs were dreadfully overworked, unable
to administer efficiently to all their charges, and the death rate was
very high. It would have been easy to transfer many hundreds of the
patients from the shore hospitals to the hospital ship, but this was not
done except in the rare cases when a white patient got into one of the
shore hospitals first by mistake. Although the crew of the hospital ship
was composed of Chinese merchant seamen, it was impossible to bring on
board as a patient a Chinese merchant seaman whose legs had been torn
off by a torpedo blast, or a Lascar seaman suffering from blackwater
fever, or a colored member of His


Majesty's Colonial Army, or a colored member of His Majesty's Navy. The
survivors of the Scapa Flow who were transferred to the hospital ship
were carefully examined by doctors immediately upon arrival. Presumably
the doctors were seeking to determine the exact natures of the ailments
discommoding us, although it is impossible to be sure: they may have
been seeking to assure themselves that our skins were reasonably white
under our sunburn, tan, blisters, boils, infections, matted hair,
mustaches and beards. The majority of the members of our original group
of survivors had contrived to shave and trim up on the corvette, but we
who were less well had not been able to do so, and therefore arrived on
the hospital ship in approximately the same condition that we had been
in when picked out of the water, except that we were less thirsty, and,
paradoxically, hungrier. During our first examination on the hospital
ship there was a stormy moment when it was found that the corvette's
doctor, in the depths of his abysmal ignorance, had seen fit to send to
the hospital ship two Egyptians. The fact that one of these Egyptians
was a thief, a consistent malingerer, and was even then claiming an
attack of appendicitis which was as imaginary as he said it was acute,
was of no interest to the examining doctors on the hospital ship. Their
grievance against the corvette's doctor--and against both Egyptians--was
the color of the Egyptians' skin. Eventually the authorities on the
hospital ship decided that it would be more embarrassing to send the two
men ashore, now that they were on the ship, than to keep them, so they
were allowed to stay. There followed another examination. It was now the
doctors' task to determine what rank aboard the Scapa Flow each of us
had had, so that we might be distributed properly about the ship. It had
apparently become necessary to separate by corridors, wards and even
bulkheads men who had managed to live for seventeen days with equal
rations of water and food, with equal watches at the tiller, taking
equal turns lying in the water in the bilge-bottom of the lifeboat,
supporting the weight of one or more other men. The chief engineer and
the deck cadet were taken off to an officers' ward; the rest of us were
put in a common ward. The authorities found a way to punish the Egyptian


engineer for having a brown skin: they forced him, an officer, to stay
in the common ward. His own defensive snobbery was as great as their
offensive snobbery; his indignation was unbounded, and his squawks
surely would have ruptured his appendix had he had appendicitis. A few
hours later, he looked vastly relieved as he was trundled from our
common wardroom to an operating room, but when he was returned to us a
day later he was utterly crestfallen: not only had he been cut open to
no good purpose, but he had been returned to lie among common crewmen to
recover from his operational and social--cuts. His bed, incidentally,
was marked "S.B." which meant "Strictly Bed" to the medical staff but
"son of a bitch" to most of the patients in the ward. In four or five
days all the hospitalized survivors were sent ashore except two: the
gunner with the mangled arm, and the Egyptian fourth engineer. The
Egyptian was able to leave the hospital ship before the Scapa Flow's
survivors got passage on a ship to the States. But Prince, the gunner,
was still on the hospital ship in the harbor when the rest of us left
Freetown, though we were happy in knowing that his eventual recovery was
assured, and that his mangled arm would be saved. It was the unpleasant
task of the Freetown representative of our shipping company to arrange
for our board and lodging, and for our passage to the United States. We
were on full pay, and would be until we got back to New York. Inasmuch
as our contracts provided for salary plus bonus plus subsistence, the
shipping company representative would have had to use company money for
our subsistence were it not for the generosity of British religious
seamen's missions. There were twenty-one of us, not counting the four
Navy gunners ashore who went to the United States Navy depot in
Freetown, and the two men still on the hospital ship. Actually, the
shipping company representative should have issued subsistence money to
the twenty-one men, allowing us to make our own arrangements for food
and lodging. Instead, he managed to get us admitted to the British
survivors' camp which was run by the religious missions, where we were
fed and lodged for a month, and 


clothed, on money supplied the camp by almsgivers in Britain. Thousands
of seamen had passed, through the British survivors' camp during three
years of war. The camp was situated in a school building which had been
commandeered for the duration. Survivors were given tropical clothes for
use until they were ready to leave Freetown, and then given European
clothes, In all, I got a pair of shoes made in Ceylon, another pair of
shoes and a sun hat made in India, shirts, socks and underwear made in
Hong Kong, a cap made in Australia, shorts made in Sierra Leone, and a
suit made in Manchester. Seamen came into the camp in various stages of
health and array, with the accent on poor in both cases. They might be
members of practically any race or nationality. Their ships had been
torpedoed off the African coast, and they had sailed into the coast in
lifeboats or drifted in on rafts; or they had been picked up near the
coast by merchant ships or British warships or Sunderland flying boats;
or their ships had been destroyed far out in the Atlantic and they had
been picked up by ships having Freetown as their next port of call. Most
of the seamen who reached Freetown stayed in the British survivors' camp
until passage could be arranged for them to, or near, what had been the
final ports of destination of their lost ships. The survivors of the
Scapa Flow, for instance, would await passage on a ship going to some
port. in the United States, preferably New York, even though the
survivors were not all Americans, because the last port of destination
for the lost Scapa Flow had been New York. Some of the survivors in the
camp during our stay there had been out in boats as long as forty days
before rescue; others had had it relatively easy, like us, or had had a
breeze, having been adrift less than a week. One group of Britishers had
been torpedoed almost within sight of Freetown, and had rowed two
lifeboats into the port in less than a day. A Britisher who had lost his
ship told me that his vessel had only just started its journey east
across the South Atlantic when a group of survivors was spotted in a
lifeboat. The men were Norwegians. They had lost their ship only a
couple of days before and were sailing their boat toward Trinidad. The
Norwegians had plenty of room in their lifeboat, as it was a very


large one and their number was small, and they had had time before the
sinking to stock their boat with good amounts of water and food. They
even had a chronometer and sextant for navigation. The Britisher said
that the Norwegians refused to be picked up. They said they'd just come
from Africa and didn't fancy being picked up and taken back there
inasmuch as they were so close to Trinidad. They would appreciate some
cigarettes and rum, however, which were given them. They then set off in
their lifeboat to go the rest of the way to Trinidad. Lucky for them.
Had they got on the British ship they'd only have been torpedoed again.
There were four or five different grgups of survivors in the camp at
Freetown whose ships had been torpedoed, singly, over a period of
several weeks, by the same U-boat. After each torpedoing, the German
submarine commander had brought his U-boat up to the group of survivors,
and, after the usual questioning, as the submarine sped away he had
waved his hand and called, in English: "Remember me to Winston
Churchilll" , One group of American survivors had been out for about
forty days. They had had a dreadful time before they were rescued by a
fast Norwegian freighter. They had even had an unusually hard time
during the sinking of their ship. They had been headed toward the
States, after a ten-month trip to India, when their ship was attacked by
a U-boat. Their ship had left the States soon after we got into the war,
and had not been armed. The U-boat commander, noting the absence of a
deck gun, surfaced his sub in order to get a cheap sinking By shellfire.
A number, of the American seamen were killed in the shell sinking of
their ship, but the rest got off into a lifeboat, which was not molested
by the submarine. The Americans were adrift for nearly six weeks before
they saw their rescue ship. They said the fast Norwegian freighter which
eventually came along looked like a cruiser when they first saw her,
because of her size and speed. The freighter was one of the beautiful
jobs sent to sea by the Norwegians just before Hitler's invasion of
their country. She was about ten thousand gross tons, and her two Diesel
motors allowed her to cruise at seventeen knots, and to make twenty-two
knots at full speed. The survivors said the Norwegian put on a burst of
speed as she approached, and raced 

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right past the lifeboat at a distance of only a few hundred yards. The
men in the boat thought for a few terrible moments that, after six weeks
in their lifeboat, they were being cruelly and deliberately passed up.
But the captain of the Norwegian freighter simply was taking as few
chances as possible on being torpedoed while picking up the survivors.
He made a wide, complete circle at full speed around the survivors'
lifeboat; he wanted to assure himself as well as he could that no U-boat
was around to torpedo his freighter while he was heaving to and bereft
of the great speed which was his ship's chief defense against U-boats.
Then he picked up the survivors. In picking up the drifting men, the
Norwegian captain paused as briefly as possible. Fall ropes having been
made ready from a set of empty davits, the survivors' lifeboat was
hoisted out of the water with the men still in it, and the freighter set
off at full speed before the. survivors and their boat had even been
hoisted up as far as the main deck. The most dramatic survivor story
heard while we were at the camp in Freetown concerned the aftermath of
the torpedo sinking of a transport. There had been a heavy loss of life
in the actual sinking, for the ship had been packed with people and went
down rapidly. But even so there were hundreds of survivors struggling
in the water or aboard the few lifeboats which had been launched. The
torpedoing had taken place about dusk. The submarine surfaced for a look
around. The German commander decided to do what he could for the
survivors. Tow ropes were attached to the lifeboats, and all the
survivors who could not be accommodated in the boats were allowed to
come on the deck of the submarine. He proposed to tow the boats to the
African coast and let them go free there, and also to land the survivors
from the deck of his sub. The U-boat towed the lifeboats all night, and
by morning was nearing the coast. Soon after daylight an American bomber
appeared overhead. The crew of the bomber must have thought the scene
below an amazing one man submarine on the surface, its deck covered With
people, towing several lifeboats full of still more people---for the
bomber did nothing but fly in aimless spirals over the scene for a few
minutes. Then the U-boat commander, using a Morse lamp, sent a message
to the bomber to the effect that he had hundreds of survivors in his
custody and was taking them to the


coast. And would the bomber please go away? The bomber disappeared for a
while, and then came back over the submarine. Bombs began to fall near
the U-boat. The sub commander got all his crew inside and made a quick
dive. The casualties among the hundreds of survivors who had been on the
sub's deck and in the lifeboats were very heavy. Many were drowned as
the sub dived; others were chewed up by the sub's propellers; others
were killed by fragments and concussion from the falling bombs. One of
the lifeboats was swamped before its occupants could cast free the
tow rope attaching it to the diving submarine. The dilemma which faced
the bomber's crew was terrible: if the sub were allowed to get away it
might eventually kill many more people than would be killed
inadvertently if they attacked the sub, not to mention the loss of the
ships which the sub might torpedo in the future; on the other hand,
survivors were sure to be killed in the attack and it was no sure thing
that the sub would be hit. (As a matter of fact, it wasn't hit.) My own
view is that the decision of the bomber crew was wrong, although I do
not hold this view too strongly. It seems to me that this particular
case, considering the number of survivors involved and the certainty
that many of them would be killed in an attack even if the sub got away,
would justify a decision to let the sub land its survivors unmolested.
But the bomber's crew thought differently, and about half the people I
have told of this incident agree with the men in the plane in their
solution of this difficult problem in ends and means. During our stay
in Freetown, liberated Allied prisoners of war began to come into town
from the parts of French Africa which had been under the rule of Vichy.
Many of these released prisoners of war were Allied merchant seamen who
had been torpedoed off the African coast and who had had the misfortune
to make landfall in Vichy territory, where they were put into
concentration camps. Some of these men had been prisoners in Vichy
Africa for more than a year. In the closing days of 1942, they finally
were released, and could now continue to sail against the Axis.


One of the merchant seamen who had been a prisoner of Vichy near Dakar
was a young American whose acquaintance I made at the survivors' camp,
where he was waiting to get passage to the States, like the rest of us.
He had quicker luck than the Scapa Flow's survivors: he got passage on
an American freighter which would take him home. This young American was
an unusually sturdy antifascist and had shipped on a Dutch ship so that
he could fight the Axis during the days of 1941. When he found himself
in a Vichy-Africa concentration camp, our State Department would do
nothing for him. He said that he would occasionally get a message
through to the American consul at Dakar, but to no avail. The United
States was not at war with Vichy; diplomatic relations existed; but our
State Department would not get an American civilian-citizen out of a 
Vichy camp for prisoners of war. This young American made an attempt to
escape but was nabbed by his French communist jailers. This was before
Hitler's attack on Russia, and the communist jailers could be trusted
to guard well prisoners of war who wanted to escape to fight the fascist
dictator whom Stalin was supplying with materials. After Hitler's attack
upon Russia, the Stalinist jailers were replaced by Darlanists. The
young American seaman was put on a diet of wild rice and cassavas as
punishment for his attempt to escape. He didn't get free from either the
concentration camp or his diet until all the prisoners were released
after Vichy's African surrender to the Allies. Although he was still as
antifascist as ever when I got acquainted with him in Freetown, his
neglect by his government's representatives, added to what he had been
able to learn about what was happening in the United States and the
other leading Allied countries, had made him as much against the leading
Allied governments as against the Axis. He argued, in his debates with
me, that antifascism, like charity, should begin at home, and that there
was little use fighting Hitler until the fascist appeasers at home had
been defeated, and big business and its fascist tools had been prevented
permanently from establishing outright fascism in the United States
while so many young men were busy fighting fascism abroad. My contention
was that the fascist forces abroad had to be defeated first, for 

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they were still the stronger, and after that attention could be turned
to the antidemocratic enemies at home. He said he didn't believe there
was enough difference any longer between the leading governments of the
Allies and those of the Axis to justify his continuing to risk his life
in doing his part to defeat the Axis. Much better, he said, to stay in
the States, fighting the enemy at home, which still could be done with
less personal risk than was involved in fighting the enemy
abroad, although more dangerous to oppose big business and their fascist
tools at home than it presently was to oppose the big business and
fascist tools of the Axis countries. He wanted to know how we could be
fighting a war to preserve democracy against fascism when one considered
the present characters of the leading Allied governments. The Roosevelt
administration, he said, had given aid and comfort to Japan almost up to
the time we were attacked by that country, big business had doubled its
yearly profits, after taxes, over 1939, and liberal factions in our
government still were in retreat. England, he went on, was led by
Churchill, a man who had said that, had he been an Italian, he would
have been wholeheartedly with the Italian fascists "from start to
finish"; who had made this statement: "I will say a word on the
international aspect of fascism. Externally your movement has rendered a
service to the whole world"; and who, as recently as December 23, 1940,
had said: "That he (Mussolini) is a great man I do not deny." Russia was
under the dictatorship of the Stalinists, who, the young American seaman
contended, had allowed Hitler to fight two years of war as he pleased,
one front at a time, and had helped him in the bargain. China, he went
on, was under a one-party rule, led by Chiang Kai-shek, who refused to
permit some of his books to be translated into English because they are
so anti-democratic, and whose massacre of agrarian radicals rivaled
Japanese atrocities. I was not able to persuade this young American
seaman that the enemy abroad still was greater than the enemy at home,
and that we should go on fighting abroad until we obtained complete
defeat of the Axis governments, hoping that meanwhile the enemy at home
hadn't grown too ,powerful to be defeated after the foreign phase of
this war; that if the foreign phase were 

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lost the civil phase could hardly be won in a hundred years, but that if
the foreign phase were won the civil phase might be won in a decade, 
After about a month in the survivors' camp in Freetown, the civilian
survivors of the Scapa Flow managed to secure passage on a British
transport which was going from Freetown to New York. The Navy gunners,
except Prince, who was still in the hospital, had gone to the Navy depot
in Freetown to be assigned to gun crews on ships which came into
Freetown. We were the only passengers on board this big ship, which was
going to the States, as one of the stewards said, "for a cargo of frozen
meat and soldiers." Of our number, Flathead and the young Puerto Rican
A.B. had the severest attacks of torpedo nerves on this westward
crossing of the South Atlantic; several times they raced to the boats
when a door was slammed particularly loudly, Our journey west across the
South Atlantic in the transport was a pleasant one, and uneventful as
regards submarines. The ship was an even better place than the
survivors' camp had been in which to rest, eat, and try to catch up with
what was happening in the States. There was a radio at our disposal on
the transport, and the survivors listened to their favorite American 
programs, including frequent news programs. Many of the popular
commentators were heard, far out at sea--John Vandercook, Walter
Winchell, Raymond Gram Swing. Our radio was switched frequently to the
BBC overseas programs for the British slant on things. The men who said
they were going to ship out again told each other what they would do
between ships in New York. By this time we had recovered full health,
and our plans for activities ashore in the States were not quite the
same as they had been in our daydreams in the lifeboat. Soft drinks
were never mentioned. It took the survivors several hours to get off the
ship after we docked in New York. There were more men aboard the ship to
investigate us than we numbered. Most of us had lost our papers in the
torpedoing, and we had to go through a stiff ques- 

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tioning before we could assure Customs officials, Immigration officials,
FBI men, Navy officers, Coast Guard officers, and Army officers, that we
were not enemy agents. A representative from our shipping company came
to the ship from the New York office, but his identification of us did
not serve to cut short the questioning. Eventually we all were able to
get this massed officialdom to admit that we could, after all, set foot
once again in the United States. The representative of the shipping
company had a few dollars apiece for us; we could call any time in the
next few days at the shipping company office to get our money for the
trip. The survivors broke up into many small groups when we got on the
dock. The coolness among us had not changed appreciably. With few
exceptions, the men wanted to get away from each other. We realized we
wouldn't all be apt to be in the office of the shipping company at the
same time to collect our money, so we knew as we stood on the dock that
this probably was the last time we all would be together. We had got our
ship to West Africa with its cargo of war products: we had shared a
victory; we had had our ship and its cargo of war materials sunk on the
return journey to the United States: we had shared a defeat; we had
spent seventeen days together in a small open boat before rescue: we had
shared a struggle for survival. We didn't even have a drink together at
a bar within sight. We split up, waving casual hands at each other. Not
over four or five of our number bothered to shake hands. 

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