Editor’s note: This is the fourth 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. Earlier installments are available on the SIU website and in print beginning with the May 2020 edition of the LOG. This one picks up after a recap of numerous sinkings including that of Waterman’s Afoundria near Haiti, in May 1942. The ship was carrying bombs and beans when it was struck by a torpedo; all hands were saved.
It is, unfortunately, impossible in this account even to mention all of the Union’s contracted ships that went down in these tropic waters, but not to be forgotten are some of the “oldtimers” including the Barbara, sunk with considerable loss of life among passengers and crews; the Alcoa Carrier, Alcoa Partner, Edith, Lebore, Alaskan and Antinous.
To these ships and the men who sailed them across “U-boat Lake,” in most cases without guns or armed escort, it’s “hail and farewell. Yours was a job well done.”
To Malta and Suez
October of 1942 was one of the most critical periods of history.
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps were less than 60 miles from Alexandria, striking for Suez and domination of the Middle East. They had destroyed 200 tanks, two-thirds of all the 8th Army possessed and victory seemed to be almost theirs.
Hard pressed were the desert-hardened fighters of the British Army and its Allies. It looked as though nothing could stop the German panzers from running through Egypt to the Suez Canal. And then the 8th Army stiffened, giving Rommel a stiff right to the chin at Alam El Halfa. Taking a deep breath, they swung hard and hit the Germans with a succession of hard body bows at El Alamein, after which the Afrika Korps turned back and, chased by the “desert rats,” headed pell-mell toward the west across the burning sands.
Aid to Desert Rats
That the 8th Army accomplished this victory in the face of defeat may well have been made possible by the historic voyage of the SS Seatrain Texas and her SIU crew.
This train-carrying freighter had just returned to New York from England in the summer of 1942, when she was rushed to dock and started taking on a load of Sherman tanks which had been diverted from our own armed forces on an emergency order from President Roosevelt.
She was ordered to rush the tanks to the British at Suez without so much as an hour’s delay, for two American ships carrying Shermans for the 8th Army had just recently been sunk – their precious cargoes entirely lost beneath the seas.
With 180 tanks and 165 Army technicians aboard, the Seatrain Texas left New York as soon as loading was complete, with Capt. Albert Dalzell in command. Hazardous as the ocean lanes were at that period of the war, there was no time to wait for convoys.
Proceeding at top speed, the Seatrain Texas zig-zagged through the dangerous Caribbean with guns manned every minute and double lookouts on watch continuously day and night. Then came the precarious dash across the long and lonely South Atlantic, where Nazi raiders were known to be operating.
Stopping at Cape Town only long enough for fuel, the Texas coursed along the east coast of Africa to rendezvous with a British corvette, her only escort of the entire voyage, at “torpedo point” off Madagascar.
From Ship to Battle
Furrowing the warm seas as they speeded north, the two ships passed a convoy which had left the States three weeks before the Texas slipped her hawsers from the Jersey pier, and they arrived at Suez a full seven days ahead of the convoy.
Unloading gear was already rigged as the Seatrain Texas came to anchor. Tank drivers of the 8th Army were there to meet her, and as soon as the broad, heavy Shermans hit the shore they were rumbling off toward the fighting fronts not many miles away.
Said the Seatrain Lines of this exploit, “It was the men of the Seatrain Texas as well as Montgomery who turned the tide in North Africa.” They helped put Rommel to rout and, perhaps without exaggeration, played an important part in changing the course of history.
No better accolade for the ship and her crew could have been given. Theirs had been an historic mission ably fulfilled.
Action-packed voyages in the Mediterranean were not unusual for SIU-manned ships, from the time of the Malta convoys till after Italy had surrendered.
The Liberty ship Daniel Huger of the Mississippi Shipping Company, for instance, was loaded with 6,000 tons of high octane gasoline in barrels when she was caught in an air raid in Bone, Algeria, in 1943 and hit by a bomb which wounded several gunners and started a fire in the ’tween decks.
Although the ship threatened to blow up at any minute, with flames from exploding gasolines roaring 300 feet into the air, the crew stayed by their posts till the order came to abandon ship. Later a fire brigade arrived and crewmen volunteered to help the shoreside fire-fighters put out the flames and save ship and cargo. Several of the crew dared death to enter the hold adjacent to the fire and spray foamite over the red-hot bulkheads.
When the Alcoa-operated William Wirt was attacked by Nazi bombers in the Mediterranean, the War Shipping Administration later said of its crew that “although it was the first experience in action for the majority of merchant seamen stationed with the guns, they served like seasoned veterans.” The same commendation could be made of many another SIU crew.
After the SS Maiden Creek, a C-3 operated by Waterman, was torpedoed near the coast of North Africa in 1944, crewmen returned to the ship when it was seen she wouldn’t sink immediately, and volunteers went below to break out towing hawsers from the after-chain locker.
As they were at work below, a second torpedo struck the vessel in the stern, with six sailors losing their lives and 12 others being injured as this SIU crew attempted to save their vessel and its valuable cargo of war supplies.
SIU men played an important role in another thrill-packed theater of war, when the SS Robin Locksley of the Seas Shipping Company helped to rush food, gasoline and ammunition to beleaguered Malta, that brave bastion of the middle Mediterranean, which proudly bore the title of the “most bombed spot on earth.”
German and Italian airmen had tried futilely to blast this 17-mile long island out of the war with innumerable raids, for Malta had three flying fields and British planes were using them to exact costly tolls from Axis convoys supplying Rommel in North Africa.
But for several small and heavily protected Allied convoys that reinforced the island by running the “bomb blockade,” Malta might have fallen and the conquest of Africa been made immensely more costly in men and material.
It was on November 17, 1942, that the Robin Locksley, the Bantam (Dutch) and the Denbighshire (Br.) left Port Said for Malta.
Importance of the convoy is emphasized by the size of the escort they had: five cruisers and seven large destroyers!
The first heavy attack was by seven Junkers 88s, which were driven off by intense ack-ack fire, but three torpedo planes came in soon after and hit the cruiser Arethusa. In this attack the Robin Locksley was given credit for downing one of the torpedo raiders.
On the 19th, a flight of 27 Nazi troop-carrying planes bound for Africa made the mistake of passing over the convoy, and long range Beaufighters from Malta which were flying cover for the fleet at the time knocked down four of the transports with their human cargoes. Heavy seas and frequent overcast helped the convoy to reach Malta without loss on November 20, delivering a cargo that helped immeasurably to keep the island fortress in the war. The Robin Locksley and her companion ships skirted subs and bombs to arrive safely back in Port Said.
The Russian Run
As long as men from World War II still go to sea, there will be told stirring tales of the Russian run – the long, cold, hazardous voyage to Murmansk and the ports of the White Sea.
Close to 350 American ships made the run to Russian with bombs, guns, tanks, ammunition, gasoline, beans, bandages, dried eggs, sugar, shoes, grain, and even gin for the big brass.
Up to March of 1943, 32 American ships out of 143 setting out for the Barents Sea had been lost. Many of these, and not a few of those lost later, were manned by men of the SIU, for the number of ships crewed by Seafarers on the legendary run to Russia was almost legion.
Greatest danger on this northern voyage came when the convoys approached North Cape, the Arctic tip of Scandinavia, which posed the last great hurdle before they reached their destination on the upper rim of the world.
Some convoys delivered their cargoes without loss, but most of them saw action from planes, subs, and Nazi surface craft. Added to this were the natural hazards of bitter cold, storms, ice and fog.
Nearly every ship setting out for Russia was given a load of explosives to carry: anywhere from several hundred to a thousand tons. It was “sudden death” that could – and more than once did –send ship and crew to kingdom-come in a sudden fearful roar.
Seamen in convoy PQ-18, which included the Schoharie, Virginia Dare, William Moultrie, and other SIU ships, will never forget the end of the freighter Mary Luckenbach.
Wiped Off the Sea
During the heavy air attack, a torpedo bomber either crashed on her deck or dropped its torpedo like a bomb. No one can ever tell exactly what happened, for the vessel was completely obliterated.
When the William Moultrie steamed over the spot (she was in column behind the Luckenbach) crewmen could not spot a single bit of wreckage from the unfortunate vessel – not even a board or shattered piece of life raft.
The Skipper of the nearby freighter St. Olaf entered in his log that the Mary Luckenbach “flew into a million parts like a giant hand grenade.”
Following the famous “Fourth of July” convoy – which was decimated by planes and subs when deserted by its escort – convoy PQ-18 was heavily protected, but still had to fight its way through to the White Sea.
Of 40 merchant ships in this convoy,13 were sunk in bitter attacks that included as many as 40 torpedo bombers at one time, and which lasted even to the moment the fleet arrived in Archangel.
Sailing the “road to Russia” was frequently quite exasperating to crews whose ships either sat at anchor for weary, uneventful weeks, or went wandering around over the ocean as though there was not the least hurry about delivery for their cargoes of war.
Beauregard Takes the ‘Road’
Captain William Patterson and his SIU crew took the Waterman Company’s SS Beauregard out of New York for Halifax on May 1, 1942, joining an eight-knot convoy from there to Hull, England, where the cargo was taken out and the ship re-loaded with tanks and other equipment for which the Russians were said to be in desperate and urgent need.
By September, the Beauregard was in Lock Ewe, Scotland. Then to Glasgow for some repairs. After that to Belfast, where the crew were surprised to meet 12 other ships of the original group with which they had left the States. To Russia now? Not at all, for the dispatch of ships in those days was not so simple as all that.
It was now the middle of October, and during the next eight weeks the tired old Beauregard was sent, in turn, to Kirkwall, The Firth o’ Forth, and Edinburgh, where the outmoded tanks were taken off and replaced with newer models.
Sailing for Russia at long last the ship arrived in Murmansk on Christmas Day, and then on for a month the crew sweated out 130 air raids, shooting down one Nazi bomber with a rocket gun. The Beauregard returned to the States just one month short of a year-long trip.
Other SIU ships like the Schoharie, and the Gateway City, wasted weeks in cruising between Scotland and Iceland, or laying idle at Reykjavik.
The Gateway City rode at her anchor chain for 107 days in Iceland while the crew, who were forbidden to go ashore lest they divulge matters of “military importance” to Axis spies, made skiffs out of dunnage and paddled around to other ships in the harbor, including the Russians. The “Russkies” liked checkers and chess, and the men from the Gateway City answered many challenges from the Russian crewmen (and women).