Editor’s note: This is the fifth 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 with Bunker describing some of the travails of SIU-crewed ships in 1942, including the Waterman vessel SS Beauregard, which spent nearly an entire year on consecutive overseas voyages before returning to the United States.
On those ships in the 1942 convoys which had gun crews, the Navy personnel was seldom more than 10 or 12 men at the most, and their armament was usually of popgun caliber.
The SIU-manned Alcoa Banner sailed to Russia in convoy PQ-16, being defended by a prodigious battery of five .30-caliber machine guns and a Navy gun crew of two men!
This convoy had plenty of use for guns, too, for it was attacked 25 times en route from Iceland. Among the ships it lost was the SIU-crewed Alamar, sunk about the same time as the SS Syros, which blew up when a torpedo nosed into its load of TNT.
Massmar Hits Mine
En route back from Russia, the Massmar (SIU) struck a mine, along with the John Randolph and the Heffron. Men of this convoy will always be grateful for the heroic work of the French corvette Roselys, which rescued 180 men from sinking ships.
There were many other SIU ships on the run to Russia – ships like the Alcoa Rambler, Alcoa Cadet, Topa Topa, and the old Bayou Chico – which saw action aplenty, but it is not possible here to do honor to them all, though they all richly deserve to be equally well remembered. Whatever the ship, their crews shared alike the hazards of this Arctic run and, while 1942 was the peak year for losses in ships and men, there were casualties right up into 1945, with some of the heaviest attacks being launched by the Germans in this last year of the war.
The return trip from Russia was hardly less arduous than the run north; for a sunk ship, as far as the Nazis were concerned, meant one less bottom for supplying the Russians, and they let no opportunities go by to bag ships homeward bound from the White Sea.
Such was the fate of the SS Puerto Rican (SIU-SUP), which had delivered her freight and was headed back for Iceland early in 1943, with 3,500 tons of ore under hatches.
She lost the convoy in a violent storm on March 6, and by the night of March 9 the gales had not abated. The Puerto Rican was proceeding alone against bitter cold wind and freezing spray when, at 10 p.m., she was hit.
Loaded deep with ore, the ship sank so fast that there was no chance to launch the boats. Perhaps they couldn’t have launched anyway, for the davits were coated with ice.
There wasn’t much chance of a man surviving in such weather, but those who were afloat after the ship went down clung to pieces of wreckage. Several of them climbed aboard a life-raft; others clung to the icy keel of an upturned lifeboat which had been torn form the davits.
It was an epic of pure, raw courage by men who would not give up.
By morning, Bob Howard and George Reilly, ABs, several gunners, AB Robert Kale, an Englishman, Joe Disange and Fireman August Wallenhaupt were still fighting the huge seas and the cold – fighting to live, though there seemed no chance of their ever being found.
But courage alone, even for men brave as these, was not enough. One by one they were swept away by the battering seas, till, after two days, only two of them were left.
One was dead, frozen with a death grip on the pitching life-raft. The other, Fireman Wallenhaupt, clung to life with a superhuman tenacity.
And a miracle (for surely in that wild, tumbling ocean swept by snow squalls and curtained by spray, a miracle it was) rewarded this courageous seaman for his fight.
The British destroyer St. Elistin, making a final sweep of the area in its search for the lost Puerto Rican, sighted the raft and its brave occupant. He alone survived his ship – one of many that never came back from the Russian run.
“A hero,” said the poet Rupert Hughes, “is a man plus.”
There were many heroes among men of the SIU during World War II – men who accomplished feats of self-sacrifice; who did acts of courage beyond the ordinary call of duty.
There were men such as ABs Tom Crawford and Joseph Squires of the freighter Maiden Creek.
They stayed behind on the Maiden Creek to tend the falls and get the lifeboats away when this Waterman ship foundered off Block Island in December of 1942, losing their lives for the safety of their shipmates.
And there were men like Seafarer Per Lykke, whose able boat-handling that night, through huge waves and gale winds, won from the Navy a commendation for “extraordinary courage and seamanship.” Those who survived owed their lives to Lykke.
And not to be forgotten are the seven sailors who manned a lifeboat from the SS John Howard Payne (SUP), risking their lives in dangerous seas to rescue men from an Army bomber forced down in the Pacific.
Count as heroes, too, those merchant crew – T. Meredith (SUP) [who] rescued exhausted survivors from the sinking transport Cape San Juan, (and) men who jumped overboard from the SS Edwin.
Or the crewmen who manned a gun on the SS Joseph Pulitzer for four days and nights at Gela, Sicily, when the regular Navy gunners were all wounded by a bomb.
Yes, they were heroes, these and many more. But if anywhere in the annals of World War II there was “a man plus” it was silent Gustave Alm, carpenter of the SIU-manned steamship Angelina of the Bull Line.
Huge seas that were 35 feet high and ran 300 feet from crest to crest had separated the ship from a west-bound convoy from England on the 17th of October, 1942.
Just before midnight, when the 8 to 12 Oiler had called the watch, and the Third Assistant was making the last notation in the engineroom log, a torpedo hit the Angelina amidships, blowing up the starboard boiler, flooding the engine spaces, and putting out all the lights as the dynamos sputter to a stop.
The Angelina was soon abandoned, and 43 of the crew crowded into one lifeboat, which threatened momentarily to be smashed against the sinking hulk as they tried to get away.
Captain W. S. Goodman and the gunnery officer climbed over the side onto a raft, for the lifeboat was already too full and could not hold them all.
Somehow the boat pushed off from the ship without being crushed or capsized, but hardly had the men taken a dozen good pulls at the oars, before the boat broached and a huge comber rolled down onto them with the suddenness of a fast express. They saw the mountain of water momentarily just before it hit.
“Lookout,” someone yelled, “here’s where we swim.”
Rolling hard over, the boat teetered for a moment and then capsized.
When the churning comber had swept on, fewer than half of the original 45 still groped for a hold on the upturned craft.
For a while they talked a little to each other, calling out names of their shipmates to find out who had been lost.
But conversation was brief, for the sea was drubbing them unmercifully.
Several men left the boat and swam back to the half-submerged Angelina, hoping to climb aboard and await rescue, but a second torpedo hit the freighter just as they neared its side, sinking the ship and drawing the swimmers down with her as she sank.
Back on the upturned lifeboat some of the cold, numbed survivors despaired of rescue but it was Gustave Alm, the carpenter, who urged them to hang on.
“Don’t give up,” he kept saying. “Don’t give up. There’s always a chance. Hang on. Hang on a while longer.”
During the grueling hours of the night, a destroyer passed within a stone’s throw but no one on the warship saw them or heard their desperate cries.
It was then that one of the gunners gave up and drifted away from the boat, but Gus Alm struck out against the pounding seas and hauled the boy back.
The rescue ship Bury and a corvette had responded to the Angelina’s SOS and had picked up the men on the raft before midnight; but it was not until dawn that they spotted the lifeboat, by now with only a handful of survivors still clinging to the grab rails on the bottom.
While the corvette dumped oil to windward of the boat, Captain L. E. Brown of the Bury maneuvered his little vessel within a line’s throw of the capsized craft.
Captain Brown counted five men on the wallowing lifeboat, but what amazed him was the superhuman exhibit of dogged stamina and courage by one of those sea-beaten five: Gustave Alm, the carpenter.
One man would be washed off and then another, but each time this man Alm, by feats of great courage and strength managed to haul them back aboard the lifeboat’s bottom.
While the rescue ship pitched and rolled, Captain Brown managed to get alongside the capsized boat. It was a precarious moment – a time for faultless thinking, for a miscue at the wheel or a roll of the Bury at the wrong moment and the survivors in the water would be crushed by the plunging vessel.
But Captain Brown knew his ship, and on the lifeboat, Gus Alm summoned up what seemed to be superhuman determination and courage.
When they threw him a line from the Bury, he stretched out an arm to get it. Twice the line was thrown and twice it missed, but on the third try Alm grabbed the vital strands of hemp and made them fast around one of the hold rods.
Minutes counted now. It was obvious that Alm, strong as he was, could not take care of his battered shipmates much longer.
As the big carpenter held one exhausted man on the grab rails, another one was swept off. He would have been lost had not the Bury, with Captain Brown at the helm, darted up so close to the struggling seaman that one of the vessel’s crew reached over the side, grabbed his lifejacket, and dragged him aboard on the crest of a sea.
His half-conscious companions being too weak even to know what was transpiring, Alm caught [all the] lines that were thrown to him, securing each one in turn around the chest of a shipmate and freeing the man from his hold on the boat when the Bury was ready to pull him in.
It would have been exhausting work even for a man who had not already spent the entire night in the water, much less for this seaman who had consumed so much of his strength so that others of the crew could live till rescue arrived.
When a line was finally thrown to Alm himself, he was almost too exhausted to secure it around his own waist. It seemed like hours before he could summon up sufficient strength to secure the knot and wave for them to haul him aboard.
All this time Captain Brown kept his ship within a few feet of the castaways, but Alm was too weak now to help himself and when the Bury edged closer to try and swing him aboard, he was hit several times by the side of the ship.
Once, he went down, choking with water, but the sea could not claim such a man as this and they fished him finally onto the deck, bruised, bleeding and covered with oil – exhausted to the point of semi-consciousness, but still very much alive. After they gave him a shot of brandy he passed out “like a light.”
Gustave Alm was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal of the merchant marine. Wrote the Bury’s Captain Brown to the United States Maritime Commission: “I feel honored to have played a part in the rescue of a man with such spirit. He is a true American.”
To MacArthur on Bataan
It was at Brisbane, Australia, in January of 1942 that several Army officers came board the SS Coast Farmer and informed Captain John A. Mattson that his ship was to be loaded immediately with a “very important” cargo of war supplies, and that he and his crew were to hurry them north with the utmost speed.