Editor’s note: This is the second installment from a 1951 booklet titled “The Seafarers in World War II.” Penned by the late SIU historian John Bunker, the publication recapped SIU members’ service in the war. More than 1,200 SIU members lost their lives to wartime service in the U.S. Merchant Marine. The first installment was published in the May 2020 LOG and is available on the SIU website. This one picks up aboard the SIU-crewed Seatrain Texas, which had just arrived on a site strewn with wreckage off the East Coast (around the Carolinas). The date was June 19, 1942.
The men stopped at one wave-washed collection of flotsam, lifted an inert body aboard and then went to another, where a grimy seaman half lifted himself out of the water, trying to grip the gunwales of the boat.
Strong Hands Help
Strong hands bore him to safety, while those on the Seatrain’s bridge used megaphones to direct the crew to where a third and fourth body could be seen half-alive, half-dead in the winter sea.
In a matter of minutes, the boatmen had done their work, and were back at the vessel’s side to be hoisted aboard with their human cargo.
At first the survivors were too weak to talk, but when they had been warmed with hot coffee and wrapped in blankets, they revealed that their ship had been the City of Atlanta.
They told how the one-time passenger vessel had been torpedoed without warning early that morning – how she had gone down so fast that there had hardly been time to jump over the side … how the burning hulk had rolled over to starboard onto the only lifeboat that cleared the ship, crushing its unfortunate men beneath the sea.
For a while after the sinking, they recounted, some of the crew had floated around on bits of wreckage while they joked and sang in an attempt to keep their spirits up.
Then, one by one, all but five of them had sunk beneath the cold, dark waters. And of the five who were still afloat at daybreak, only three were alive when the Seatrain Texas hove by. The others lay astride their bits of wreckage, but had died sometime during the morning hours.
Living to tell the story of the City of Atlanta, one of the most costly sinkings along the Atlantic Coast, were Oiler Robert Fennell, Jr., Seaman Earl Dowdy, and Second Mate George Tavelle.
Captain Albert Dalzell and Chief Engineer Tom Kenney of the Seatrain Texas heard their story without wanting to believe it could be true.
For the Chief it was a hard story to hear. His father was Chief Engineer of the City of Atlanta.
Both Capt. Dalzell and Chief Kenney had started their seafaring careers on the City of Atlanta many years before, when she was a well-known coastwise passenger liner. Capt. Dalzell’s father had commanded her for many years before Capt. Leemon Urquehart took over.
“U-boat lane” they called Atlantic coastal waters now. Nazi submarines ambled down the seaboard on sinking sprees that cost hundreds of lives, and sent scores of ships to the bottom with a huge loss in precious cargoes.
There was no naval defense worthy of the name, and it was to be five months yet before the first convoy was organized for protection of shipping along the seaboard, in the Gulf and the Caribbean. Merchant ships, in the meantime, sailed unescorted and, in most cases, unarmed – with the U-boats so bold, they shelled their prey even within sight of the Delaware Capes.
As the rate of sinkings increased, no seaman could be sure that his ship would reach its destination. Legion were those that didn’t, but they kept sailing, nonetheless, and none of them idled in port for lack of crews. In some cases, there were even more men willing to “ship out” at SIU Halls than there were ships for them to sail.
At the old New York Hall of the SIU, at number two Stone Street, across from famous Bowling Green, men reported for the hourly “calls” as though there was no war within ten thousand miles. They manned the ships and kept the cargoes moving.
On January 25, torpedoes struck again, sinking the 550-foot Venore off Cape Hatteras with a loss of 18 men. She, too, was a well-known SIU ship.
The end of this vessel is dramatically told in the terse, urgent calls for help sent out by her radio operator.
At 12:47 a.m. he flashed this SOS: “Two crashes so far. Will keep informed. Think swimming soon.”
This call came two minutes later: “Torpedoed twice. Ship still afloat but listing badly. Captain requests assistance immediately.” He then gave the ship’s position a number of times.
The third and last message was heard at 1:22 a.m. “Cannot stay afloat much longer.”
No more reports came through, for soon after the radio man had tapped out this message on his key the Venore sank and Sparks, true to the tradition of his calling, stayed at his post too long to escape.
Several lifeboats were launched by the Venore’s crew and the survivors were picked up 38 hours later. Sinking declined along the Atlantic seaboard after coastal convoys were inaugurated in May of 1942, but the U-boats prowled these waters off and on right up till the end of the war.
In fact, the collier Black Point was torpedoed just a few miles from the big naval base at Newport, Rhode Island, on the fifth of May, 1945, the last American ship to be lost in the war.
Many more SIU vessels were to be numbered among the 154 Allied ships sunk along the coast and in the northwest Atlantic between January and June of 1942.
Among them were the Robin Hood, Alcoa Guide, Oakmar, Marore, Major Wheeler and Pipestone County. The Major Wheeler – of the Bull Line – completely disappeared, never to be heard from again, while the Robin Line Pipestone County, a well-liked freighter among men who sailed SIU ships, was sunk en route from Trinidad to Boston, about 200 miles due west of Bermuda. Two of her boats spent 16 days at sea before being picked up.
Chilore Gets it
U-boats continued their attacks despite the use of convoys, and the SIU-manned Chilore of the Ore Shipping Company was hit while in a heavily protected convoy under escort of surface ships, planes and blimps.
Known as convoy KS 520, this fleet of 19 merchantmen left Lynnhaven Roads in the Chesapeake on July 14, 1942. When it was off Cape Hatteras the next day it ran into a flock of torpedoes.
No one even saw a tin fish until the Chilore got smacked, to be followed a minute or so later by the tanker Mowinckel. The Bluefields, a small Nicaraguan freighter carrying explosives, was blown up while the escort ran around dropping depth charges and the escorting bombers spattered the water with bombs and machine gun fire.
It was the freighter Unicoi, however, which got credit for sinking the doughty sub, along with an Army patrol bomber.
The Chilore and Mowinckel dropped out of the convoy and headed for the nearby shore under their own power, but both of them ran into a minefield and suffered more explosions. The big Chilore capsized and sank while being towed toward Baltimore several days later.
Just as the Atlantic seaboard in 1942 was called “U-boat Lane,” so could the Caribbean and the Gulf have been called “U-Boat Lake” – for the German undersea raiders roamed these waters at will, becoming so bold in their hunt for prey that they sank ships in the very mouth of the Mississippi, in the narrow passage between Key West and Havana, and at the entrance to the Texas oil ports.
The height of bold audacity was reached on the evening of July 2, 1942, when a sub entered the harbor of Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, and sank the SS San Pablo.
During the first two months of war, six American ships were torpedoed and sunk in the Caribbean and the Gulf. Six more were sent to the bottom in April; and in May the Germans had a month-long field day, sinking no less than five ships on the 4th, two on the 6th, and three on the 12th.
The total bag for the month of May in American vessels alone across the Gulf and the Caribbean was 31 ships. By the end of June 1942, a total of 167 Allied freighters and tankers had been sent to the bottom in these warm, southern waters! It was the SIU-manned Robert E. Lee, a former Eastern Steamship Lines passenger ship, that was sunk when almost within the “safety” of the mighty Mississippi – on July 30, with considerable loss of life among both passengers and crew.
A surprisingly large number of these U-boat victims were cargo carriers manned by SIU seamen and it would seem, from a study of the war records, that the Germans had a special liking for Waterman, Bull, and Alcoa ships. An entire fleet of them was lost in 1942. Limited space permits describing only a few of the many dramatic incidents involving SIU ships during this phase of the war. A book would be needed to tell about them all.
For the undersea raiders it was a Roman holiday – simpler than knocking off clay pigeons at a shotgun shoot.
So it was with the Elizabeth and Clare of the Bull Line, as they plodded along the southwest coast of Cuba on the night of May 20, 1942. A bright moon lit up the sea and silhouetted the two ships as they headed south with their holds full of general cargo for the Islands.
On the Clare’s bridge, the Skipper watched a light that had been reported a minute or so before by one of the lookouts. He couldn’t tell whether it might be a small Island freighter or a fishing boat, for it was moving across their bow and lay some distance off.
Lost in the Dark
A rain squall blanketed the moon just as the Skipper was trying to identify the unknown craft, which seemed to be pursuing an erratic course.
Up forward in the hot fo’castle, Fireman Ernest Torres was stretched out in his bunk, clad only in a pair of shorts. It was stickily hot and he was trying to read. He had almost decided to take his mattress on deck and stretch out on number one hatch, rain or no rain.
Just then a bright searchlight blossomed out on the vessel ahead, playing over the Clare from bow to stern with a blinding intensity. Almost immediately a torpedo smashed into the hull at number one hold; just where Fireman Torres was about to stow his mattress for a cool snooze.
“It made one hell of a noise,” says Torres. “The explosion threw me out of my bunk and onto the deck. The old Clare shivered like a shimmy dancer. All the lights went out and I ran like hell to my lifeboat station. I had the book in my hand all the time, but I never even thought of going back for my clothes or my papers. The spray from the explosion gave me a shower bath when I ran down the deck.”
So violent had been the blast that water cascaded down the vents into the fireroom.
There was no panic on the ship and the Captain visited all the crew’s quarters to make sure that no men were trapped in their rooms, after which he gave the order to abandon ship. Both boats lowered away and the men pulled as hard as they could for the shore.
Elizabeth Gets Hit
They hadn’t taken many strokes before the Elizabeth, still following along behind and caught proverbially “between the devil and the deep,” received a torpedo amidships, accompanied by a bright flash that momentarily lit up the vessel and then was gone.
From the boats the crew of the Clare could see little lights blinking on the Elizabeth as her men ran out of the deck house doors and pushed aside blackout baffles on their way to the boats.
Several of the men laughed at the sight, for it seemed amusing in a way to see other guys get it, too. “I bet they don’t save any silk stockings for the girls in Puerto Rico,” someone said.
“It ain’t funny,” said an Oiler. “If they got hit in the engine room there’s some good guys goin’ down.”