Editor’s note: This is the third 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 two installments were published in the May and June LOGs, respectively, and are available on the SIU website. This one picks up aboard the SIU-crewed Clare, which had been hit by a torpedo. Crew members had also just seen another SIU-crewed vessel, the Elizabeth, get hit by a torpedo.
That was a sobering thought and they pulled for the shore. It took about 15 minutes for the Clare to sink and they watched her settle, silhouetted against the tropic sky. No men were lost on the Clare.
Not so fortunate were other SIU ships that are now rustling many fathoms under the surface in the lightless deeps of the Caribbean and the Gulf.
Of the hundreds of men lost on SIU ships in World War II a large percentage made supreme sacrifice in these waters that looked so calm and peaceful, yet comprised one of the most hazardous sectors of the war.
It was oil and bauxite, the two prime essentials of modern war, that lured the U-boats to the Caribbean in the first place. The tankers and the bauxite ships were their number-one targets, but they also sank anything else that came along. In the first six months of 1942, the subs shelled or torpedoed anything that steamed their way, without fear or favor.
One of several bauxite-laden ships to get sliced with a tin fish in these waters was the little SS Suwied under command of the Captain Bernard David. She was off the south coast of Cuba bound for Mobile with aluminum ore when, on June 7, a torpedo exploded in her starboard side and she went to the bottom in just 1-½ minutes! Not many ships beat her record for sinking. Water and debris shot up the funnel as the boilers exploded and First Mate John Hume, one of the last to leave the plummeting ore carrier, walked off the deck in water over his shoulders after releasing the forward life rafts.
The sub that torpedoed them surfaced nearby and watched the troubles the men had with their leaky lifeboats, but the Germans did not interfere in any way and the 27 survivors were picked up the next day by a Navy patrol vessel.
It is pertinent to note in this regard that there were only one or two instances in all the sinkings in the Caribbean where submarine crews mistreated torpedoed men from American ships. In many cases they even gave the survivors water, bread and cigarettes, offered medical aid when needed, and gave the officers a course to the nearest land.
A close competitor to the Suwied for the title of “the fastest sinking ship” was the Alcoa Pilgrim, which was torpedoed without warning early in the morning of May 28 while en route from Port of Spain, Trinidad, to Mobile with 9,500 tons of heavy bauxite aboard. She sank by the stern in a little over 90 seconds, with heavy loss of life.
No Time For SOS
This blacked-out, SIU-crewed freighter had three lookouts on watch, and was zig-zagging when the unseen U-boat sent a torpedo into her engine room on the starboard side just below the water line. Needless to say, there was no time to send out an SOS and no time to fire any guns even if the ship had been armed.
The Alcoa Pilgrim plunged so quickly no boats could be launched, but nine survivors got aboard two life rafts which drifted clear and were picked up a week later by the SS Thomas Nelson.
As was usual in sinkings of unarmed ships steaming alone, the sub surfaced, came up to the survivors, and questioned them about the ship and cargo. The U-boat was a big one, and bore the insignia of a ram’s head on her conning tower. After questioning the Pilgrim’s men, she steamed calmly away on the surface looking for more victims.
Truly it can be said that the Caribbean in 1942 was a “U-Boat Lake.”
60 Seconds To Sink
Although U-boats liked best to bag a bauxite ship or a tanker, because these cargoes were so vital to the war effort, they weren’t at all choosey about their targets – and molasses tankers got sunk as well as more “vital” prey during the war in the Caribbean and the Gulf in 1942.
The SS Catahoula of the Cuba Distilling Company, a favorite among SIU men who liked the senorita run, was hit on April 5, to be followed by its sister ship the SS Carrabulle on May 26. There was a full load of molasses in the tanks of the Catahoula, as she stood north from San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, toward Wilmington, Del., in the late afternoon of a warm clear day over a lazy, beautiful sea.
Two men were on lookout, but they couldn’t see the sub waiting for them against the glare of the setting sun. The first torpedo hit on the port side in a terrific blast that blew up the deck plates, loosened the engine room bulkheads and carried away the catwalk.
Being one of the first ships equipped in some fashion to fight back against the sub, the general alarm was sounded; and a complement of Navy gunners manned their machine guns so well that the inquisitive sub had its periscope shot away – or so it seemed from the deck of the tanker.
Not a bit daunted by the prospect of fighting a raider with .30 caliber pellets, the gun crew fired away till they consumed 200 rounds.
But four minutes later after the first torpedo, the sub let them have another, which found its mark forward of the bridge to starboard – showing that the wary U-boat had made a quick circuit around the ship for its second try.
After this hit, the Catahoula lost no time going down, and was under water fore and aft in little more than 60 seconds.
Two of the crew had been killed in the first blast, and five more were crushed when the stack fell athwart the starboard lifeboat.
One lifeboat and one raft on the port side got away safely and, thanks to Sparks having stuck by his post to get off four calls for help, 38 survivors were rescued the next day by the USS Sturtevant.
Heroism of the Radio Operator and the tragic death of the Skipper and 23 men marked the sinking of the Carrabulle, which tried bravely to escape from a U-boat on the night of May 26, while en route from Good Hope, La., to San Juan, Puerto Rico, with a cargo of emulsified liquid asphalt.
The first they knew of a U-boat’s presence was the moan of a siren and a crack of a shot across the bow.
In a moment or two, they saw the raider little more than a ship’s length off the beam, where it opened fire on them with a light gun, throwing shell after shell into the defenseless tanker while the general alarm summoned all hands to the boats and the order was given to abandon ship. They lowered away as the nearby U-boat moved around to the port side and opened fire again, the shells hitting in rapid succession against deck house and bridge.
As the first boat pulled away from the ship’s side, the U-boat commander hailed them from the conning tower.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
They shouted “no” – that another boat was still preparing to cast off. They heard several men laughing on the raider’s deck, even while a second torpedo streaked past them and headed for the lifeboat that was just now shipping its oars beside the sinking Carrabulle.
The men in the boat probably never saw the torpedo till it was all but on top of them, and then there was only time for a startled cry or two.
The steel tube bulleted through the lifeboat, and hit the steel hull of the tanker in an explosion that stifled all cries or shouts for help, blowing boat and men into myriad torn pieces of human bodies and flying steel.
It was one of the few known cases in which German submarines deliberately attacked lifeboat occupants from American ships.
Six SOS Calls
Before the Carrabulle sank, Sparks managed to get out six SOS calls, then ran out of the radio shack onto the flooded deck and jumped overboard just as she went under.
Brave were the men who volunteered to sail their old, unarmed ships through “U-boat Lake” in early 1942.
On the 20th of May, the George Calvert, a Bull Line Liberty, was sunk with a loss of three men while bound for Bandar Shapur with 9,116 tons of war supplies for the Russians.
Another Bull Line ship, the Major Wheeler, disappeared in the Caribbean to become an unsolved mystery of the sea.
And there was the City of Alma of the Waterman Company, en route from Port of Spain, Trinidad, to Baltimore on June 2, when she was hit by just one torpedo from an unseen submarine.
Ripping a 40-foot hole in the hull, the “tinfish” almost sliced the freighter in two, and she sank so speedily that 10 men were saved only because they had jumped clear when she plunged, later climbing aboard a life raft which had broken loose and floated free.
Sparks was caught in his shack, sending out calls for help. The Skipper, Second Mate, Chief Engineer, First, Second and Third Assistant Engineers and 22 other crewmen were lost on the City of Alma.
The Little Millinocket, Bull Line, was warned of the proximity of a marauding sub, but too late to save herself.
It was five minutes past five in the afternoon when Steward Ernest Oxley stopped by the wireless room and read a message which had just come in from San Juan. The radiogram warned that a submarine was in their vicinity.
And correct it was, for Steward Oxley had no more than read the warning of danger when the ship shuddered from a torpedo explosion in the starboard side amidships.
Oxley ran out on deck to see the Skipper, the Chief and the First Mate running toward the life rafts, with the Captain shouting “Let go the rafts. It’s our only chance. Let go the rafts.”
That was the last he saw of the trio, for they went down with the ship.
On watch below, when the torpedo hit, was the 4 to 8: Second Assistant Francis Amberger, Fireman Robert Baylis and Oiler Joe Lewnuk.
Joe escaped – miraculously, it seemed – by climbing up the emergency cable ladder to the engine room skylight before the engine room flooded and the Millinocket settled by the stern.
Seamen could never tell when their ship might get hit during these hectic days, for subs gave no warning.
Captain Homer Lanford was pulling the whistle cord of the SS Del Mundo, to turn a convoy into the old Bahama passage off Cuba, when this Mississippi Shipping Company freighter got a torpedo in the engine room, killing all hands below.
An old “Hog,” the Del Mundo was “commodore” of a 38- ship fleet, and was carrying 30 Polish women war refugees as passengers. A number of other ships were sunk in the same attack, covering the sea with a maze of floating debris.
Captain William B. Sillars, of the Waterman freighter Afoundria, sensed pending disaster to his ship on May 5, 1942, when the vessel was hit by a sub mid-afternoon off the northwest coast of Haiti.
He had come on to the bridge just a few minutes before, saying to Second Mate James Chatfield, “I feel that right now we are at the most dangerous stage of our trip. Keep a very good lookout!” The Afoundria had a load of bombs up forward and a cargo of beans aft. Fortunately, the torpedo hit among the beans. All hands were saved.
By the end of July, submarine sinkings in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico had been drastically cut, but ships continued to go down in these waters right up to the end of the war, and among them were freighters manned by SIU crews.
Lack of space precludes the telling of even a part of the action-packed drama that these ships contributed to the story of the war at sea.