Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in a booklet titled “The Seafarers in World War II.” Written by the late SIU historian John Bunker, the 44-page digest recapped the often-heroic work of Seafarers during the war. (More than 1,200 SIU members lost their lives during World War II.) The tale of the SS Henry Bacon is the tome’s final entry. It is presented here as both a respectful nod to the union’s history – and a descriptive reminder of why the U.S. Merchant Marine is known as America’s fourth arm of defense. Twenty-seven people, most of them SIU members, perished as the Bacon was attacked and then sank. The vessel was the last Allied ship sunk by German aircraft during the war.
No better finale to the story of SIU ships in World War II could be written than the epic account of the SS Henry Bacon, an SIU-manned Liberty operated by the South Atlantic Steamship Company.
Cold were the Artic waters and forbidding was the sky when the Henry Bacon added its name to the list of valiant fighting freighters.
Besides her crew, the Henry Bacon carried 19 Norwegian refugees as passengers, when she headed back toward Scotland after a voyage to Murmansk, North Russia, in the early winter of 1945.
After leaving the White Sea, the Bacon had been in convoy, only to lose contact with it on the 19th of February because of heavy weather. She rejoined it on the 20th, then dropped out again two days later when trouble developed with the steering gear. A heavy gale was blowing, and Captain Alfred Carini radioed his plight to the convoy while the black gang worked on the steering mechanism.
With this finally fixed, the Bacon proceeded, meeting up with more moderate seas, but seeing no sign of her companions which, Captain Carini then decided, they must have passed during the night as they hurried to rejoin the fleet. Having lost radio contact, and there being no response to his messages, he decided to turn back over his course for just one hour in the hope of picking up their companion ships.
It was while doubling back on her wake that the Henry Bacon was suddenly attacked by a huge flight of 23 torpedo planes that pounced upon the lone Liberty almost as soon as the thundering roar of their engines was heard through the leaden sky, sending the crew running to battle stations.
Twenty-three planes against one merchant ship! It was odds enough for a battleship or a cruiser. Many a big aircraft carrier that thought itself hard pressed in the Pacific thundered back at half as much opposition with a hundred times the firepower that this unattended freighter could muster for its defense there amid the bleak, rolling waters. There was not another ship around upon which to call for help.
The bombers were Junkers 88s, coming in off the starboard bow in an extended, wing-to-wing formation no more than 30 feet above the jumbled wave tops.
All Guns Working
Every gun on the Bacon went into action as soon as the canvas covers could be pulled off the barrels, and the magazines clamped onto the breech of the 20-millimeters. The sky around the ship was pocked with shell bursts as the fighting merchantmen and the vessel’s armed guard drove off sally after sally by those audacious bombers that attacked simultaneously, one to a side, darting away through a hail of 20-millimeter shells.
The gun on the bow boomed out at point blank range, blowing one bomber to pieces as it banked and exposed its belly to the Bacon’s forward gun. Another Nazi nosed into a wall of 20-millimeter fire and dived into the sea in flames. A third wobbled aimlessly over the waves with smoke pouring from his engine. He probably crashed into the steep, green seas soon after, but the crew had no time to worry about verifying their hits.
When the Germans swooped down on the unaccompanied Bacon they probably were expecting an easy time of it. Three or four torpedoes and the laboring Liberty would sink beneath the waves, they no doubt thought. If they expected any resistance at all, they were certainly unprepared for the flame and fire of battle with which the men of the Bacon met this overpowering assault.
The 20-millimeters stopped firing long enough only to load more ammunition, to change overheated barrels. A bomber which tried to get in at the ship from dead ahead ran into a storm of this small shellfire and disintegrated into a thousand pieces, as tracers found the torpedo slung beneath the fuselage and blew up plane and occupants in a terrible explosion of steel and flaming debris.
Torpedo after torpedo missed the ship when the pilots faltered in their aim in the face of such concentrated fire from this fighting Liberty. For twenty minutes the gunners of the Henry Bacon, standing side by side with the men of the merchant crew, held off this armada of Junkers bombers that had by now become so madly exasperated by the heroic defense of the ship that, once their torpedoes were wasted, they flew at her with machine guns blazing.
But such a fleet of planes had only to persist, if nothing else, to be successful against one unescorted ship, and a torpedo finally hit the Henry Bacon on the starboard side in number-three hold, forward. When another tin fish found its mark soon after, Captain Carini ordered the ship to be abandoned.
Not All Leave
The fateful signal to “leave her”’ was sounded in long, solemn blasts from the whistle while the Junkers – about eight or nine fewer than when they had begun the fight – roared away from the scene toward the coast of Norway 200 miles to the east. The doughty Bacon had kept them in action longer than they wanted.
With their gas getting low, they could find no satisfaction in winging around as this “bulldog” settled beneath the waves.
The order from the Skipper was “passengers first” and, though two of the lifeboats had been smashed in high seas, the Norwegian refugees – man, women and children – were put safely over the side into the first boat launched, along with some of the merchant crew and Navy gunners. Into the second lifeboat went as many more as could be accommodated. It could not possibly hold them all, but still there was no rush for seats of safety. These SIU crewmen and their Navy comrades waited quietly as Third Mate Joseph Scott counted the regular crew assigned to the boat, and then called to the deck above for half a dozen more to climb down over the scramble nets and take their places between the thwarts. During this time Bosun Holcomb Lemmon was making what the survivors later described as “heroic efforts” to help his shipmates over the side into lifeboats and onto several life rafts which had been launched into the chilling waters. This done, he hurried about the sinking ship gathering boards to lash together as emergency rafts.
The Henry Bacon was slowly sinking. Water was pouring into her holds. The black gang had left the engine room and all was deserted down below. Bit by bit the cold water rose higher around her rust-streaked side plates.
One of the men assigned to a place in the Third Mate’s boat was Chief Engineer Donald Haviland, who climbed over the side into the bobbing craft only to decline his chance for rescue in favor of a young crewman. The Chief had already taken a seat in the boat when, looking up at the men still left on the Bacon’s deck, he saw among the forlorn group a youthful crewman staring down at those who were about to push away from the settling hulk.
Deserting his own place in the boat, Mr. Haviland yelled to the lad to hurry down the net and take his chance for safety.
So Long, Brothers
“Hey, you,” he called. “You’re a young fellow. It won’t matter so much if I don’t get back.”
As the Henry Bacon went down, the survivors in the lifeboats saw Chief Engineer Haviland leaning against the bulwarks with Bosun Holcomb Lemmon, as casually as though the ship was leaving the dock for another routine voyage. Captain Carini waved to them from the bridge and, as he did so, the Henry Bacon slid swiftly and quietly under the sea.
A big wave rolled over the spot and soon only some floating boards and crates marked where this gallant fighting freighter of the SIU had written such a glorious chapter into the annals of the American merchant service.