Editor’s note: This is the ninth 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 segments are available on the SIU website and in print beginning with the May 2020 edition of the LOG. (We are tentatively planning to post a PDF of the entire booklet on the SIU website once all of the text has been published here. There are probably two installments remaining after this month.) This one picks up right after hundreds of soldiers and mariners aboard the Liberty ship SS Marcus Daly died because of a kamikaze attack.
Many a merchant ship was subjected to prolonged battle action during the fighting in the Philippines. The SS Alcoa Pioneer, for instance, experienced 103 alerts and 50 direct attacks during her 23-day sojourn in Leyte Gulf.
At 7 a.m. in the morning of November 19, 1944, three Japanese suicide planes broke out of protective cloud cover and dived onto the Alcoa Pioneer, whose guns were instantly in action, joining those of nearby ships to hurl a gauntlet of fire that would have discouraged ordinary airmen.
But these kamikaze pilots were eager to die for their fatherland, and enter that land of infinite bliss, promised to them in exchange for blowing an American ship to bits.
Two of them swerved off to dive on the nearby freighters General Fleischer and Cape Romano but the third kept at the Alcoa Pioneer through a hail of fire, crashing onto the bridge deck in an explosion that destroyed all the navigating equipment, demolished the stack, ripped up the decks and started fires all over the ship.
Blanket of Fire
Even as the plane smashed into the ship, every man was at his post, the Navy armed guard at the 20 millimeters and the merchant seamen standing shoulder to shoulder with them as ammunition tenders and replacements.
Captain Andrew Gavin and the other officers were on the bridge as the kamikaze hit, pinning First Mate Daniel Noonan and armed guard Lieutenant Howard Jersild under wreckage.
Pieces of the burning plane and showering shrapnel from the guns started a fire in a gasoline-laden forward hold, but Bosun Clark Smith and AB John Peterson put out the flames, and turned the fire hose on the burning midships section till the flames there were also extinguished.
All guns were kept manned, despite 20 casualties among armed guard and merchant crew. Navy gunners stayed at the forward 20 millimeters though they were badly burned and the gun tubs were punctured with shrapnel holes.
Sharing the battle honors was Captain Gavin’s little dog “Skipper.” Although hit with shrapnel, Skipper stayed on the bridge beside his master, licking the captain’s face as he lay unconscious in the wreckage.
The ship’s crew kept discharging cargo as though the vessel were safely at dock back in Frisco, working 18 hours at a stretch and turning to at the guns during the recurrent air raids.
Home for More Cargo
After discharging was finished, the merchant crew made temporary repairs to the midships house and the Alcoa Pioneer returned home under her own power, ready to fill up with another load for the fighting fronts!
SIU ships were among the huge fleet that landed Marines and supplies on the volcanic, bloody isle of Iwo Jima.
And they were in the midst of the fighting at Okinawa where, on Easter Day in 1945, began the last great invasion of the war, a battle that lasted for 82 days and ended only after 90,000 Japanese were killed in a maniacal defense of the “last stop before Japan.”
In the 1,400-ship armada that launched this invasion was every type of craft built during World War II, a vast array of freighters, tankers, combat transports, invasion barges and warships.
A measure of the fury with which Japanese airmen sought to throw back the Americans at Okinawa is the staggering total of planes shot down during the fighting there – no less than 4,000 of them!
Kamikaze pilots made no differentiation between merchant ships or men o’war, the one being as good a key to eternal paradise as the other as far as these suicidal people were concerned. Many were the fighting freighters at Okinawa that battled nobly, but still were not spared from the onslaught of the “divine wind.”
One of these was the SS Logan Victory, which arrived at Okinawa with a load of “hot stuff” for Buckner’s battling doughboys.
Only a few slingloads of cargo had come out of her holds before there was an air raid alert, followed by the appearance of three kamikazes swooping over the nearby hills.
Gunfire from the nearby Hobbs Victory blew one of the attackers to bits, sending its pilot riding the divine wind to the warriors’ Valhalla.
The second suicide plane headed for an LST, while the third bore straight at the Logan Victory. Every gun that could bear was instantly pouring a hurricane of lead and steel, but it had no effect. Less than a minute later he crashed into the boat deck, exploding and searing the ship in sheets of flame.
Fire soon roared out of the Logan Victory as though it were being fanned by a giant bellows in the hold. The midships house was a solid mass of flame as the crew abandoned ship.
The Logan Victory blew up at 11 p.m. that night, followed by a veritable rain of steel fragments from the sky around her.
She was in commission only two months to the very day that she ended her career before the kamikaze onslaught by the embattled shores of Okinawa. She was another SIU-SUP ship that, in taking supplies to the beachheads, fought at the very front lines of World War II.
Before concluding this story of SIU ships in the war it would be greatly amiss to overlook the great job done by the many freighters, mostly Liberties, that carried supplies to the Russians by way of the Persian Gulf.
Riding often well below their Plimsoll marks and carrying huge deck loads, they freighted everything from locomotives and bombers to flour, shoes and black powder.
For the most part these ships sailed alone – without convoy on the long road to Iraq and Iran. To minimize losses from subs and raiders, some were dispatched across the South Atlantic to Vape Town, and some down the west coast of South America ’round Cape Horn; while still others crossed the South Pacific by way of the Tasman Sea, stopping in Australia briefly for bunkers before continuing through Japanese-held waters of the Indies.
Some of the “Persian Gulf ships” were sunk. The SS La Salle, an old Waterman ship, disappeared sometime after passing through the Panama Canal bound for Cape Horn, probably the victim of a German raider. Not a word of her fate has ever been reported.
Mighty Delivery Job
Reaching the Persian Gulf, these freighters unloaded their cargoes at small ports, whose facilities were created by American engineers at American expense.
Unloading was done mostly by Army longshoreman and, during the summer months, in temperatures so hot the work could only be done at night. Not a few merchant seamen succumbed from the heat of the Gulf.
On the voyage home, which was also undertaken without convoy for the most part, the ships faced additional peril from raiders and subs. A few, like the Jean Nicolet, were sent to the bottom by shells and torpedoes.
These ships on the Persian Gulf run contributed vitally to one of the biggest transport jobs the world has ever seen. They sailed their hazardous route to supply the Russian front, carrying a stupendous amount of war cargoes, the full extent of which has never been told.
Way of the Japanese
Voyaging in the Indian Ocean and adjacent waters was especially hazardous during the war, for Japanese subs roamed these seas and, while a German raider would torpedo a ship without warning, the Japanese added a touch of unnecessary cruelty to the sinking of merchant vessels. They exercised their own queer brand of fun on torpedoed ships and crews – fun that was inhuman and bestial.
SIU crewmen of the SS Bienville, an unarmed Waterman freighter outward bound from Calcutta for Columbo, experienced this uncalled-for cruelty when their ship was caught by a Japanese task force in the Bay of Bengal on April 6, 1942.
Without even a rifle with which to defend themselves, the Bienville’s men could do nothing when two Japanese planes came over and planted a brace of bombs squarely on the foredeck, setting the ship afire. The planes were followed by a cruiser, three destroyers and an aircraft carrier.
While the crew huddled helplessly behind whatever slim shelter they could find, the cruiser and a destroyer used the Bienville for target practice, throwing shell after shell into the gun-less ship until she finally sank beneath the placid waters of the Bay.
One shell hit a lifeboat that was being lowered away, killing all the occupants, and, with the ship in flames fore and aft, one after another of the crew were killed or wounded by flying shrapnel. Salvo after salvo smashed into the freighter without mercy, slashing the deck plates, smashing the booms, cutting the hull to ribbons and sending rivets and bits of steel bulleting through the air in a deadly hail.
Only half of the Bienville’s crew was still alive when the freighter went down, and they were sucked under the water by the suction of the cargo-laden hulk.
While the Japanese sailors laughed at the crewmen struggling in the water, the task force steamed off on the quest for other prey.
One lifeboat had floated free and the men climbed into it, while several of the survivors who were terribly wounded begged their mates to throw them over the side.
Of the Bienville’s crew of 43, only 19 lived to tell the story of this one-sided battle after the lifeboat reached the shore of India some 20 miles away.
About a year after this incident, the SS Henry Knox, a Matson Liberty, was pushing along toward the Persian Gulf about 850 miles southwest of India. Gunners were at general quarters and the ship had been blacked out for the night when a torpedo hit, exploding in a hold full of smokeless powder, turning the ship instantly into a solid sheet of flame from bow to stern.
Cadet Maurice W. Price later described how many of the crew were trapped in the quarters and the passageways, with the bodies of merchant seamen and gunners laying here and there across the fire-swept deckplates.
He told how two Japanese subs cruised among the wreckage while the Liberty exploded, taking the oars, masts, sails and other gear from the lifeboats, throwing rations into the sea and leaving the survivors, so they thought, to perish slowly from thirst and starvation.
But in their hurry to get away from the burning ship, which served as a huge beacon as she flamed and exploded in the darkness of the night, the two Japanese U-boats overlooked another lifeboat which had floated free from the hulk.
The boat enabled survivors to arrive safely after a voyage of many days, on some islands south of the Indian coast, where they were later picked up and taken to Columbo.
Bad as were these sinkings, they seemed mild in comparison with the fate of the SS Jean Nicolet, a Liberty operated by the Oliver Olson Co. The personnel of this ship suffered diabolical treatment at the hands of a Japanese submarine crew which would have seemed more appropriate to the darkest days of the middle ages.
Saw Long Service
A lazy swell was rolling across the Indian Ocean on the evening of July 2, 1944, as the Jean Nicolet steamed her way from the Persian Gulf toward the coast of Africa, with more than 100 crewmen and passengers aboard – the latter including Army personnel and civilians returning to the States after long service in the Persian Gulf.
At exactly seven minutes after seven, two torpedoes hit the ship in number-three hold just forward of the bridge. It should have been enough to blast the freighter apart but these Liberties were staunch vessels and, while she reeled under impact, the engines kept going. In fact, the black gang stayed at their posts for five minutes after the blast, receiving no orders to abandon ship.
When the engine was finally secured and the propeller stopped, all hands abandoned ship without a casualty, the boats and rafts laying some distance off from the deserted hulk. They could see flashes of gunfire from the unseen raider as it shelled the Jean Nicolet.