Editor’s note: This is the tenth 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 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 one or two installments remaining after this month.) This one picks up right after the Liberty ship Jean Nicolet was struck by two torpedoes in the Indian Ocean in July 1944. All hands abandoned ship.
After 15 minutes of shelling the sub decided it wasn’t getting anywhere towards sending this stout Liberty to the bottom, so it maneuvered among the lifeboats, ordering the men aboard the deck of the U-boat, one boatload at a time, all except a tiny doughnut raft with the armed guard lieutenant, several gunners and a soldier.
The first boatload of 25 were forced to kneel on the deck and have their hands tied behind them. William Musser, a Messboy, was shot and thrown overboard for no reason at all.
More of the survivors were then ordered onto the sub, and those who didn’t move fast enough were clubbed on the head with rifle butts. Others were beaten with lengths of pipe, or pricked and cut with bayonets.
This cruelty was kept up for nearly three hours, while the Japanese systematically took off the shoes of their captives and beat them with bayonets across the ankles and feet.
Finally, the Japanese lined up on the deck of the U-boat and the captives, their hands still tied behind them, were forced to run the gauntlet.
Third Assistant Charles Pyle was the first to start through, hesitating from the dreaded ordeal just long enough to be hit over the head with the butt of a gun. Blows rained down on him till he was clubbed into unconsciousness and tumbled over the side into the sea.
The water revived him and after a while he managed to free his hands enough that he could keep himself afloat. Perhaps an hour later – or it might have been more – Able Seaman Stuart Vanderhurst, who had jumped clear of the U-boat before the final torture, found Mr. Pyle and cut his bonds after painstaking labor with his lifebelt knife. Together, they clung to a piece of wreckage.
Sometime later, they heard the drone of a plane, a big Catalina that had responded to the Nicolet’s SOS. But as soon as the plane approached, the U-boat hastily submerged, then the air was filled with shouts and cries of the tortured, beaten men who were left on her deck.
Some of them floundered in the water for a while, then sank. Seven others were saved by a Navy gunner who had secreted a knife in his trousers and cut their bonds in time.
The Catalina returned some hours later to drop life preservers and food, then directed the SS Huxac of the Indian Navy to the spot. The survivors were picked up at 11 a.m., July 4.
Of the more than 100 men on the Nicolet when she was torpedoed, only 23 survived, of which 10 were Navy gunners and three were Army passengers. Such was the way of the Japanese!
Man-made volcanoes! Tankers crammed with oil and gasoline were certainly that, and the men who rode them did so knowing full well that a torpedo, a stick of bombs from a Stuka, or a collision in convoy might set off that cargo of “lightning” in a holocaust that would take not only the ship but many – perhaps all – of her crew as well.
Despite the hazard, there was no scarcity of men in the SIU-SUP to ride the “volcano fleets” on their dangerous missions ’round the world. This country furnished nearly 80 percent of all the oil and gasoline that powered the bombers, the tanks and the jeeps of World War II. It was the tankermen – the merchant sailors of the oil ships and their armed guard comrades at the guns –who delivered this “lifeblood of the battle fray.”
Covered the Globe
To Salerno and Murmansk they went; across the Pacific to Freemantle with fuel for our submarines; and through the buzzbomb barrage to fill the tanks at Antwerp. On all the oceans of the world plied the vital petroleum carriers; from the English Channel to the Bering Sea; from the Gulf of Maine to the Straits of Magellan off “old cape stiff.”
From December 7, 1941, till V-J Day, 1945, nearly 65,000,000 tons of oil and gasoline were carried to Allied and friendly nations, to the beachheads and the fighting fronts!
A special tribute is due to those men who manned the tankers on the “Abadan run,” freighting oil from the huge refineries in the Persian Gulf to Australia and, later, to MacArthur’s forces in the South Pacific.
The War Shipping Administration assigned between 60 to 70 of the T-2, war-built tankers to a shuttle service between Abadan and the Pacific, and for the men who manned them it was an arduous run indeed.
Many of the ships stayed on the service for more than a year, with the crews remaining aboard for the duration of the vessels’ assignment. It took no more than 48 hours to load in Abadan and seldom did they get ashore at the other end of the line which, likely as not, was merely a Navy fueling station at some islet of atoll in the South Pacific.
As the war years went by and the ships became more adequately armed, the submarine attacking a tanker frequently got much more then he was looking for. Tankermen paid back, in some measure, for the fearful losses suffered by their comrades of 1942.
The battle put up by the Yamhill of Los Angeles Tankers (SUP) is one such instance.
During a voyage to the South Pacific in 1944, a lookout on the early morning watch was amazed to spy a torpedo streaking toward them on the port side. As soon as he yelled the alarm, the man at the wheel swung the helm hard over and the “tin fish” missed the stern by less than six feet. The alarm was still ringing as 80 merchant seamen and Navy gunners ran to battle stations. While the guns were being manned, a second torpedo sped at the Yamhill, only to miss when the vessel was again maneuvered out of the way by a deft turn of the helm. Three more torpedoes were fired by the unseen sub and they all missed.
Determined that such a fat prize should not get away after this lavish waste of costly torpedoes, the submarine broke the surface close by on the starboard side, its crew pouring out of the conning tower to man the big gun on the forward deck.
Even as the Yamhill turned sharply about to present her stern to the raider, two shells missed by a short distance, splashing into the sea. The tanker’s gunners then answered the fire, and saw their shells skip over the raider’s deck so close that the Japanese must have shivered from the breeze. Their next shot was just short of the target.
They had bracketed her now and another shot would do it! But the Japanese didn’t give them time. Knowing the attacked was now the attacker, they deserted their gun and hurried below decks as fast as they could scramble.
Before the Yamhill’s gun crew could get in another shot, water was foaming around the U-boat’s nose as it made a hurried plunge toward the bottom.
Less than an hour later, however, the sub was up again several miles away and the Japanese fired some 60 shells, and a long-range gun duel developed in which the tankermen scored another near miss. For miles the two vessels kept company, the Japanese changing course every time that Captain Phillip Shinn turned the Yamhill on a different heading. The Japanese were determined to sink their oil-laden prey.
Aid From The Skies
Just when darkness was approaching, and the sub would have the necessary cover for a close-up torpedo attack, there was the drone of an approaching plane, responding to the Yamhill’s SOS. This time the Japanese submerged and stayed down for good and, with a PBY for escort, the Yamhill delivered her cargo of oil safely to Navy bases in the Far East.
A dangerous assignment it was, riding the tankers that carried high octane aviation gasoline, for along with dynamite, this was the tenderest cargo on the seas. Torpedoes that hit such vessels could – and often did – destroy them with an amazing completeness.
High octane gasoline caused the end of the SS Jacksonville, a Deconhil tanker. She was torpedoed when almost at the end of a trans-Atlantic voyage on August 30, 1944, blowing up with but two survivors out of the entire crew of merchant seamen and Navy gunners.
Fireman Frank Hodges was sitting in the crew’s messroom at 4 p.m. on the fatal day, as the Jacksonville approached the coast of Ireland in convoy. He was just about to go down into the engineroom on watch when there was a terrific explosion that shook the vessel from bow to stern.
Running out on the deck, Hodges saw that the Jacksonville had become almost completely enveloped in flames within a matter of seconds. He ran toward a lifeboat, but a wall of fire leaped up in front of him as though by magic, dazing him with it searing heat.
Realizing that the boats would never be launched, he ran to the rail and jumped over the stern into cold water that sucked away his breath but quickly revived him.
Flames already covered the water all around the blazing tanker but, by swimming underwater intermittently, and splashing away the flames from in front of his face when he came up for air, he was able to clear the ship without getting seriously burned.
Finally finding a clear spot, he kept to windward and watched the flames roaring high above the masts of the Jacksonville in a terrifying spectacle that seemed too destructive to be real.
After a while, he saw some of his shipmates floating in the sea, but they were too badly burned to be recognizable.
One man was alive and Hodges tried to hold him up, but his strength was not equal to the task. Perhaps it was just as well, for the man was badly burned. There were many lifejackets floating around – the crew had no time to put them on before they jumped.
Other ships in the convoy estimated that the Jacksonville was enveloped by flames no more than 15 seconds after the torpedo hit – a solid mass of fire from stern to counter.
Hodges was picked up about 1 ½ hours later by an escorting destroyer, along with Navy gunner Marcellus Wags.
Captain Edgar Winter and 48 merchant crewmen and all but one of the Navy gun crew perished in the blast.
The story of SIU ships in World War II includes many incidents of long voyages in small boats after seamen left their sinking ships.
There was the 1,200-mile trip of the Star of Scotland’s men after their big schooner was shelled by a sub in the South Atlantic, and the long, cold voyage in the boats after the Liberty ship Jonathan Sturges was torpedoed in the North Atlantic, a voyage that ended in the capture of the survivors by a German submarine and their internment for the duration of the war.
Some of these lifeboat voyages were strenuous ordeals in which only a few of the men were eventually rescued. In other cases, like that of one lifeboat from the SS Maiden Creek, the survivors were never found.
More fortunate was the SIU crew of the SS James W. Denver, a brand-new Liberty which was bound for North Africa on April 11, 1943.
Captain Everett Staley reckoned their position as 400 miles west of the Canary Islands, as the Denver hurried along at 11 ½ knots trying to rejoin the convoy, which it had lost sometime previously during a prolonged and heavy fog. All lookouts were scanning the horizon for wisps of smoke that might indicate the “missing” fleet.
They never even saw the track of the torpedo that hit them. It smashed into number-two hold and all hands abandoned ship soon after. No casualties occurred, for the boats were well handled, and they stood some distance off from the big Liberty as she settled slowly beneath the waves.