SIXTY HOURS ON A RAFT During World War II, Henry Thomas von Vange served in the United States Navy as a Gunner's Mate First Class. He was aboard the S.S. Pennmar when disaster struck. The ship, crippled by damage to its rudder, dropped out of its convoy and was later sunk by a torpedo, but not before von Vange had bested one submarine in a surface gun battle. Other events of the voyage included the difficult repair of the rudder by the ship's crew, a terrific storm which battered the deck cargo into splinters, and a daylight torpedo attack in which badly aimed "tin fish" sped harmlessly past the ship. Three men were lost on the voyage. One was a heroic 17-year-old Navy man who was lost overboard while helping to repair the rudder. The other two, merchant seaman, were fatally injured while abandoning the vessel after a torpedo struck it amidships. One of them was killed by the ship's propellor, which was still turning, and the other, thrown overboard by the torpedo blast, was struck by a life raft launched from the shrouds. The others aboard the ship floated for 60 hours on rafts until they were picked up by a Coast Guard ship and taken to Nova Scotia, from where the Navy men were sent home on furlough. The sinking occurred in September, 1942. The ship was in a large convoy, and the trip was uneventful until the rudder wrenched loose."We knew we'd be in for it as soon as we had to drop out of the convoy," said von Vange, who had manned a gun on the ship. "We call the place where we were sunk 'Torpedo Junction' because it's infested with U-boats." As the convoy disappeared in the distance, the crew rigged booms to handle the heavy rudder. Cargo was shifted to raise the stern of the ship out of the water. A small boat was put over the side and part of the crew worked from the boat, while the others manned the auxilary rigging. A heavy sea was running, and the repair job was heart-breaking. Many of the crew collapsed from exhaustion, and the Navy gunners took their places. The 17-year-old youth who lost his life was working over the side and was carried away by a large wave which struck the stern. When the rudder was finally repaired, the ship got under way again and ran under forced draft to try to rejoin the convoy; but it never reached the other ships. The storm which struck the ship was of such intensity that it was impossible for anyone to remain on the ship's deck. Solid green walls of water crashed against the bow and thundered along the decks. The Navy gunners and deck crew had to take refuge on the bridge during the gale. No evidence of enemy action was sighted until the last day of the ship's run, and then things happened quickly. At 3 P.M., a lookout spotted the wake of a torpedo speeding toward the ship. An instant later, a second torpedo was sighted. As the crew members held their breath, the two torpedoes grazed past, a little wide of the mark. The gunners manned their posts and lookouts scanned the sea for a sign of the submarine. No more torpedoes were fired, but at 3:30 P.M., the submarine surfaced and von Vange and his mates blazed away at it with their five-inch rifle. The submarine returned their fire, but failed to score. The merchant ship's captain said that he saw one shell hit the submarine and then it disappeared beneath the waves. The ship steamed on through the afternoon with no further sign of the enemy. The ship's fatal blow came without warning, at 10 P.M. A torpedo struck amidships with a terrific jolt. The ship settled fast and the men had hardly time to get off before it sank. There was one lifeboat that held forty-five men, and there were rafts that held eight men each. The lifeboat was leaking badly and required constant bailing out by six men at one time. The men were afraid to sleep; for if they did, they may have never awakened. Although the men were cold, hungry, and miserable, the first day passed uneventfully. A torrential rain had been beating down on them ever since they had abandoned ship. The only protection and warmth, besides the clothing that they were wearing, was afforded by one blanket to each raft. As the rain continued and the waves became rough, the men lashed themselves to the rafts and huddled together under the blankets. As night came, one of the men became emotional and began yelling and pleading to von Vange, " Give me some food ---some cigarettes! I'm freezing to death! Oh, my feet --- they're going to fall off --- I can't feel them. The waves are hitting me, Navy, help, help!" Then he started to cry, and he carried on like that throughout the night. The first day's menu consisted of three malted milk tablets, a half-bar of chocolate and one whole-wheat cookie for each man. One the second day, they had the same fare, with the addition of half a cup of water. For the third day, they had only the three malted milk tablets and a half-bar of chocolate. "The man who took charge of the rationing thought that he'd pull a fast one on us," said von Vange. "He began by slipping himself a share and giving the rest of us ours and then ended off with another share for himself, thinking none of us had noticed. But he should have known we'd all have our eyes glued on him when it came to food. One of the fellows got so mad he wanted to throw him overboard, but the rest of us didn't want anything like that. We took care of him later, though, on the ship that rescued us. I think he got the general idea that none of us approved of his ration method, and we don't think he'll pull a stunt like that again." "Here's a cheerful little bit that did brighten things," said von Vange. "The day before the rescue, one of the boys told us the next day was his birthday, and he wondered what he'd get for a birthday present way-out there in the middle of nowhere. We all assured him he'd get the best present of his life. Somehow we believed it, too; and, sure enough, at noon of the following day we were boarding the rescue ship! At 10 A.M. of "the great day," we saw the tip of its mast come slowly into view; and we sent up two flares, which they spotted; and we were finally taken aboard, as I say, about noontime. The part that affected me most of all at the time of the rescue was how we boys couldn't go wild with the excitement we felt, but we all realized that the important thing was to hold tight to the raft until we actually were climbing aboard,or be swept into the ocean, as the waves were still very rough." The cheers rang out as soon as the men were on the rescue ship's deck. Then they ate, and slept, slept, slept!!!
ACCOUNT FROM "A CARELESS WORD -- A NEEDLESS SINKING" BY CAPTAIN ART MOORE SS Pennmar Home Port: New York, NY Company: Calmar Steamship Corp. New York, NY Master: Sigmond C. Krolikowski Built: 1920 @ Kobe, Japan Dimensions: 385' x 51' x 26' Gross Tons: 5868 Former Names: (a) EASTERN OCEAN (b) GEORGE ALLEN The Freighter, SS PENNMAR, was torpecloed by the German submarine U-432 (Eckhardt) at 2.351 GCT on September 23, 1942 in the North Atlantic (58-12 North/34.35 West) while en route alone, from New York to Liverpool, England via Halifax, Nova Scotia with 7500 tons of general cargo. The ship had been in Convoy SC-lO0 but was a straggler at the time she was at- tacked. Her complement was 38 crew mernbers and 25 Naval Armed Guard. Two crew members were lost. Photo courtesy of Mariners Museum. Newport News, VA. The PENNMAR had escaped two earlier at- tacks. The first at 1655 on September 23, in posi- tion 58-25 North/32-15 West when a torpedo was seen approaching the ship from the starboard quarter. This torpedo was avoided by a hard left rudder. Another torpedo then passed ahead of the ship. The attack was apparently the work of two subs. At 1756, a sub surfaced on the starboard quarter about 2 miles away. The Gun Crew fired four rounds from the 4" stern gun and the sub submerged. At 2351 GCT, a torpedo struck on the port side about 30 feet from the bow near the fore peak oil tank. There was considerable leakage of oil at the point of impact. All damage was well below the waterline. The engines were put full astern to get the headway off the ship. She sank in 11 minutes. The ship was abandoned by all hands at 2355 GCT in one lifeboat and two life rafts. Those on the rafts had to jump overboard in order to get aboard them. One crew member was crushed be- tween a raft and the ship. Another crew member drowned near the ship's propeller. The 61 sur- vivors were rescued by the USCG BIBB between 1200 and 1230 GCT on September 24, 1942. A distress call had been answered by Lands End, England (GLT). The survivors were taken to Reyk- javik, Iceland arriving there on October 2, 1942. On September 21, an Armed Guard member was washed overboard by heavy seas while assist- ing to hand steer the ship from the emergency steering station on the stern. The steering gear mechanism had been broken when a truck, stowed on deck near the steering gear, had shifted in the heavy seas and rolled against the gear. The U-432 (Eckhardt) was sunk in Mid Atlantic on March 11, 1943 by the French corvette ACONIT. ACCOUNT FROM "US MERCHANT VESSEL WAR CASUALTIES OF WORLD WAR II" BY ROBERT M. BROWNING, JR. PENNMAR Date: 9-23-42 Year Built: 1920 Time: 2151 Tonnage: 5,868 Position: 58.12N/34.35W Draft: 27ft. ll 1/2in. Owner: Caimar SS Corp. Cargo: 7,500 tons steel, food, trucks Operator: WSA Power: steam Master: Sigmund Charles Krolikowski Speed: 9.0 Armament: 1-4"; 1-3"; 4-20 mm; 4-50 cal.; 2-30 cal. The Penmar sailed with Convoy SC-100 from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to the United Kingdom. During the trip the ship suffered mechanical difficulties and straggled from the convoy. The freighter proceeded toward Cape Farewell for repairs. The U-432 (Schultze) spotted the lone vessel and fired a torpedo that missed because of the heavy seas. The U-boat fired three more shots, one of which struck the port side thirty feet from the bow at the forepeak oil tank. A lookout spotted one of the two torpedoes passing under the ship. The watch below put the engines astern without orders from the bridge. The ship began to settle by the bow rapidly, and the ship's complement of eight officers, thirty-one men, and twenty-two armed guards abandoned ship in one lifeboat and two rafts. One man died after being crushed between a life raft and the ship. The USCG cutter Bibb (WPG-31) rescued sixty men and landed them in Reykjavik, Iceland. One armed guard had previously washed overboard in a storm. NSS; WACR; WCSR; AG; WJ; Rohwer, p. 125, places the attack at 58.25 N / 32.15 W.
Click to return to Home Page