13 DAYS ADRIFT
I think I was born a fatalist, for it seems to me that whatever happens was written when we came into this world, and, as we go along, bit by bit is washed from each slate. Were it not so I would not be here today.
Many times since the spring of 1942 have I recalled the strange atmosphere that prevailed among us all as we were about to set out on that fatal voyage, one that was to take us to the other side of the world. A definite premonition existed among us. As I live it over, I am almost convinced it had some vital significance. First of all most of the old crew left, some of the boys taking advantage of offered schools in order to promote themselves to officer ratings, Others were tired after the trip we had had along the Gold Coast of West Africa, and still others were seeking war work that would take them away from the sea.
Among these were four engineers including Chief Atkinson who had been with that ship, the M, S. East Indian, ever since the fall of 1925. During World War I he had been torpedoed twice. On one occasion the German submarine towed their lifeboat to a landing on the shore of Brazil. He felt that doing shipyard work was just as important as going to sea and much less dangerous. Nearly all of the men in my department failed to sign on. However, not until Captain Hodges came back to remain only one night, having decided he was not sailing with us, did I feel rotten. Not fear but anger upset me. I had sailed eleven years with Captain Hodges.
How he loved life! Possessing the happy faculty of making and keeping friends,--friends the world over--, he had much fun while he lived. Perhaps you remember the fate that befell him. Off the coast of Cuba, on July 23, 1942, his ship, torpedoed, sank in one minute. Days later his rings were found in the stomach of a captured shark. Yet, to me, George Hodges, the sea-going diplomat and my friend, is not dead. just away.
The next to decide against our voyage was Captain John Burke, an able young man whom I had known from almost his first sailor days and in whom I have the greatest confidence. I would travel the ocean to any place in the world under his command, feeling sure of a safe return. It was his craftiness, aided by the American and British Intelligence, that enabled us to evade the lurking German subs off the West African Gold and Ivory Coast. With no guns we remained there throughout the previous winter, having dropped anchor at Bathhurst, Gambia, which is forty miles from Dakar, on Pearl Harbor Day. In April 1942, our cargo having been successfully discharged, we crossed unescorted to Philadelphia with a cargo of rubber. Now another voyage was about to begin but; Captain Burke was not sailing.
Then it was Sparks, our wireless man, who decided to leave. I told him that if I felt as he did, I'd stay ashore too. Nevertheless, as we signed on for the trip, Sparks was back with us. Today he sleeps in a majestic setting at the foot of Table Mountain in Capetown, South Africa.
For this new voyage we carried seven beautiful guns which necessitated a navy crew of twelve stalwart young men who were commanded by our Ensign Mr. Axtell. He, a splendid native of Maryland and an able graduate of Annapolis had just completed a round trip to Murmansk, Russia.
Thus, during the first days of May 1942, we put out from New York. In the time that elapsed between that date and our departure from Key West we had several war difficulties that would have discouraged the average sailor. We took them all on the chin as part of the game. At the head of the Caribbean we received an S. O. S. call from a passenger ship fifteen miles away that was being chased by a German submarine. As we were due to leave the convoy and travel in another direction, our ship hauled tail and went on alone. The following morning we sighted a life raft. In circling it we discovered that the occupants had already been taken off; therefore we proceeded on our course. We made Trinidad some days later for fuel and supplies, then continued on for three weeks until we reached South Africa.
From there our route was more dangerous; worse than any we had covered, for going up by Madagascar to the Persian Gulf meant traversing Jap-infested waters. Several times we saw a blue flare which meant nothing less than a sub. The entrance of the Persian Gulf we found to be extremely hot. Still it was cool compared with the upper end where we contacted the desert. Existence there was like living in a breeze from a hot furnace -- one that never lessened during the fifty-five days of our stay in Persia. At times, for a four or five day stretch, we were visited by dust storms. Then in order to sleep it was necessary to cover the face with a cloth to prevent mouth and nostrils from being choked with dust. Aside from those dust disturbances there is a clear sky night and day. The stars seem so near that one feels he can reach up and touch them. For months there is no rain fall.
I decided to tour Iran. I rode for hours through the numerous tunnels that run into miles before arriving at the plateau of Sultan Abed, or, by its new name, Arak. There I found the water cooler and could sleep a little better at night. However, the sand fleas are extremely friendly, and how they do love to be your bedfellow! Iran is a part of the old Bible world. The prophet Daniel's black onyx tomb is located at the foot of the mountain range . looking towards the Persian Gulf. Seeing the Arabs riding on the little donkeys reminds one of Bible pictures. The bazaar or market place is most interesting as so much of the goods is still hand-made and oriental to no end. I many times think of the ancient city of Qum, noted for its exquisite pottery and the famous Mosque, Just at the entrance of this Mosque is the tomb of the to-this-day much loved Shah Abbus. In the inner court of this Mosque, where only Mohammedans are permitted to enter, lies the body of Fatima's granddaughter.
In Qum, after riding over the dusty Persian desert, I rejoiced to find and thoroughly enjoyed a lovely hotel called the American Tourist. I walked into spacious rooms covered with beautiful oriental rugs. More pleasing were the wonderful shower baths and the best of Persian food served in a Persian garden. While out on the desert I visited the pools where the rugs are washed and saw them being made. Once a person watches a little girl who sits there twelve hours each day weaving the oriental rug with its intricate pattern, he won't wonder nor hesitate at the price.
The adobe houses along the Persian desert are so grotesque looking that you are amazed at the beauty when you enter them. Precious rugs adorn the walls and floors and sometimes you find rare furniture. An Arab woman walks five feet behind her husband. Many have abolished the veils, while many cling to the old customs.
In the rivers and in the Persian Gulf, as well as along the Coast of India, I noticed numerous yellow-ringed snakes which the natives say are highly poisonous. They seem to be a species of the water moccasin.
Our work in Persia completed, we moved on toward India. Arriving at Colombo, Ceylon, we were amazed to behold the harbor dotted with sunken ships, the result of the Easter air raid. I dined with a Hindu who remarked, that when he looked up and saw; the seventy-five Japanese planes, he thought they marked the end of his city. I noticed that when night came there, it was really night, for the only visible light was from the rickshaw boys that transport passengers to and from places.
Later we arrived in Calcutta, India, a city covering a large area and inhabited by many people. The climate is hot and humid We docked on the Ganges River, that highly sacred water where the Hindus are washed before cremation and into which their ashes are thrown. I planned to see Taj Mahal, but travel was a bit too difficult. This was due to martial law that had been imposed after Gandi's arrest a few weeks earlier.
As the ship was hot and noisy, I stayed several nights at the Grand Hotel. For some reason foreign stevedores are far more noisy than Americans. At the hotel I ordered my breakfast for seven. Of course I knew that a Hindu lay outside my door all night to watch over me. Yet when I awoke and saw half a dozen barefooted servants clad in white turbans and white robes standing around me, each holding some part of my breakfast, I hardly knew what to say.
After leaving Calcutta, we sailed down the coast to another Indian port where we completed the loading of our ten thousand tons and then proceeded toward South Africa. On this lap of the voyage engine trouble caused a great many stops because most all our engineers were new. Luckily no sub saw us standing still. In three weeks we were again in Capetown where we halted nearly ten days refueling, repairing, and stocking up with food, 74 men at sea consume quantities of the latter. Our boys did not object to the delay, for they had a good time after having been penned up for so long without diversion. When one travels without lights and radio for months, living naturally seems entirely good.
At noon on November the second, we set sail. Although many were prepared for what was to come, that is, having their valuables which included money and identification papers in their jackets, I was not. Being lost at sea was the furthest thing from my thoughts. It was a beautiful day; our hopes were high. We were on the last lap of the journey. According to plans we would reach American shores in six or more weeks. Christmas and New Year at home mean a great deal to a sailor roaming the globe. Upon leaving the port of Capetown, Captain St. Marie gave orders for all to sleep in clothes. I presume many obeyed, for a number lived a life of hell from fear, but I undressed and had the last normal sleep I have had since we left port November second.
The following morning the Captain visited me, and we had a chat about our journey. In the course of our conversation I asked if he felt safe. He was quite confident all was well. He said, "Mac, there is nothing out here: they have all gone.
If that had only been true! At the very time he made that statement, the submarine was already with us. It had picked us up at nine o'clock that morning. About four that afternoon I went aft to visit the gun crew who insisted I come up into the turret. Jokingly I remarked that my visit was likely to cause our ship to be torpedoed. Little did I think how near the reality was. In less than an hour the torpedo struck!
Yes, our magnificent ten-thousand-ton ship, East Indian, was torpedoed at five P. M. on November 3, 1942. She was truly magnificent in every detail, but in two minutes she disappeared beneath the blue of the South Atlantic.
Sitting in my stateroom, I was waiting for dinner when I heard that searing crash, Instantly I knew it was a torpedo, although I had never heard one before. A glance out the port revealed that the ship was rapidly settling. I remember saying, perhaps aloud, "Oh my God,"as I grabbed my life belt which was in the rack over the door. Out in the hallway I found darkness and smoke and men filing up the stairs. My chef charged on some one ahead of him and knocked him down. The confusion and delay cost the chef his life. He went down with the ship.
I reached the boat deck perfectly calm, not knowing what was ahead of me. To George. one of the boys of my department, I said, "I think I'll run back and get my money." "Mac, look aft," he answered.
I looked, saw the deck was already submerged, and hurried into my lifeboat, number two. Alas, its lines were not freed before the pull of the rapidly sinking ship made it too late. Crowded with men, it submerged. Instantly I was caught by the right shoulder as in some great vice with such tremendous weight bearing down on my right side I could not move. I was caught between the davit and the buoyant lifeboat as they were clamped together by the downward pull of the heavy ship. Under water, I fought furiously to free myself. I was thinking, "This is the end; all will be over soon, when suddenly I was floating. The great weight had lifted -- I was free! "Better kick and get to the surface, I thought," although naturally I was coming up all the time from the very instant of becoming free.
I shall always remember the white foam I beheld upon reaching the surface after having gone down forty to sixty feet, My first glance around revealed that the ship had blown her farewell, had gone down dragging my life boat and its occupants with her. The ship standing on end and my struggle to free myself from the vice had evidently caused me to be thrown from the life boat. I was the only one to come to the surface, The others, perhaps, had a death grip on something which they never turned loose, No doubt before they recovered from the initial shock of being pulled under, the swiftness of the descent had carried them past the 150 feet depth where the pressure crushes out consciousness It was less than two minutes from the time the torpedo struck until I rose to the surface. A short time in the span of a man's life but long enough to destroy a beautiful ship and take the lives of twenty-three men.
Just that morning, Captain St. Marie and Hammond, our first officer, had been discussing how long the ship would remain afloat if she were torpedoed. The captain felt confident that it would take five or six minutes, to sink her, but Hammond was of the opinion that she would go in two or three minutes. Unfortunately, he was right. I hooked my left arm through a life ring floating near my left hand. My right arm did not obey any impulse sent: it. Although a part of me, it did not seem to be, as it floated strangely out in front of me. It was then I first realized I was seriously injured. Under the pressure of the salt water there had been no pain. Looking about me, I observed number four life boat and four rafts were afloat. Everywhere was swirling debris. I called to the boys on one of the rafts to come get me, for I was rapidly growing weak. George came and pulled me to a raft; he, Gillan, our second engineer, and Bernard lifted me on.
At that moment the submarine began to surface. It would be difficult to imagine the awful feeling its appearance produced. Five German officers came to the deck of the conning tower. Our men were calm and well behaved, saying nothing to cause offense, although they felt a great deal sitting there amid the wreckage and in the presence of several bodies floating about. The German commander asked, "Are you Limies?" meaning English. Our third mate Pat Keenan replied, "No, sir, we are Americans." "Why are you helping the Limies and the Black Russians! We have nothing against you." Without an answer he continued, "Remember, we were not tipped off. I got a beam on you at nine this morning. Had we fired then, we would have saved you 100 miles As it is you are now 300 miles from Capetown, and there is nothing for you to do but to row. I'm sorry, for you had a beautiful ship. However, this is war."
Then he asked for our captain, chief engineer and chief officer. Keenan told him they had gone down with the ship. During a severe questioning in which our president was not pleasantly spoken of, the Germans wanted to know many other things. Among them were, where we were headed, why we were so far south and if we had sent an SOS. We had not been able to, as our equipment was destroyed. The commander then offered us food, water and cigarettes, also first aid, none of which we accepted. Later with deep regret, we learned how tragic was our mistake, in refusing to accept help. At last the commander wished us God Speed and, with the other officers, gave us the Nazi salute. As they sailed away into the dusk, the commander clasped both his hands in farewell.
I shall forever be grateful that the submarine commander we encountered seemed to have some gentlemanly instincts left. Aside from sinking the ship, he made no attempt to harm us. Yet there was fear among us that if any of the rafts approached the sub, some of the men would be taken prisoners. That was the reason behind the decision to accept no assistance.
Our chief officer, Mr. Clayton Hammond, had all this time been clinging to wreckage. With the disappearance of the submarine he was taken into the lifeboat and immediately assumed command. He told the boys in the four rafts to stay together and keep their heads. The lifeboat would head for Capetown which it should reach in four or five days. From there help would be speeded to them.
I can still see Archie McHugh, our purser and a great sport, as he sat on the raft calmly fixing the canvass around for a windbreaker. Young Jack Riggons from Carolina stood on the raft, his hands in his pockets calmly surveying, as much as to say, "What next!"
Because I was the only one injured, the boys volunteered to put me in the lifeboat so that I might get medical aid as early as possible. From the debris they caught two boards, put two blankets on them and my life jacket for a pillow and thus transferred me to the lifeboat. On that improvised bed I lay for the next thirteen days, suffering from a back broken in the second vertebra of the lumbar region, a fractured left ankle, three ribs on the right side, the right wrist, right, humerus, a dislocated and shattered right shoulder--with not even an aspirin to dull the pain. The medical kit, my responsibility, was lost when my right arm became helpless.
After calling the roll, Mr. Hammond announced that twenty-three had gone down with the ship including those killed and drowned, 34 were in the rafts, and 17 were in lifeboat number four--a total of 74. Death had spared 51 of the crew, but was still in wait to clutch many of those then alive. Had it not been for the quick thinking of our third officer Keenan and Gapers, the bos'n, in cutting number four lifeboat loose, no one would have been heard from again. As I look back to the moment when the lifeboat pulled away, I remember that not any of the boys left on the four rafts acted panicky.
Reactions of men are strange. Finn, of upper Michigan, caught the shrouds and hung on as she went down. O'Brien stood on deck, laughing and disappeared in the smoke. Mr. Doyle, our chief engineer could not comprehend what had happened. He stood wringing his hands; this confusion cost his life.
I was appalled when Captain St. Marie was among the missing as he was an excellent swimmer. During our stay in Persia we had a tank made from a tarpaulin where he had been teaching me. When we were returning from India, he said to me one day, "Mac, I don't think I should have made this trip, but I asked for it, and here I am." It took such courage to take the ship out that it seems fate was cruel indeed to sacrifice his life.
Shall I ever forget those days in the lifeboat! The many long hours of pain and misery intensified by the dreadful fear, as day after day dragged by, of never reaching shore, were naturally weakening. The reaction of the boys varied from time to time. Occasionally they got on each others nerves, so much so that they would stand up and fight until Mr. Hammond called a halt and gave all to understand that he was in command. His heart and mind were centered on securing help for our comrades left on the four rafts. For any who failed to accept his command he had a forty-five which he said he would not hesitate to use. Whether or not he had the forty-five I do not know, I· saw the holster under his coat but never the gun. Nevertheless, the threat worked, gun or no gun.
In spite of the fact that no one heard another praying aloud, on shore all confessed that they had prayed silently. That is, all except (Sparks), the radio man. At first he seemed calm although worried because he had been unable to get off an S. O. S. None of us knew how the fearful regret was freezing him inside, so completely that on the second day his mind gave way. He gradually grew worse until he sank into a coma that for days necessitated his being tied to prevent his falling overboard.
Since I was in such great pain and so terribly swollen, I cannot recall much of the first twenty-four hours in the life boat. Yet one definite memory is of hearing the boys say that night. "Mac won't last long." At that time failure to live was the one thing I was not counting on doing. With all my broken and crushed bones I had only one compound fracture, that of the right shoulder. Evidently I lost little blood, due perhaps to the thorough soaking in the salt water. In that semi-tropical climate it was fortunate and almost strange that no spot of infection developed.
During the second day the rain poured. Having escaped previous experience in a lifeboat, we were too ignorant of our needs to catch any rain water. I had to lie exposed to the drenching but at least had the salt water rinsed off me Our negligence brought suffering, for we never had another rain like that one. It was the second night that Spark's mind snapped. He became obsessed with the idea that we were prisoners on a prison ship. When the mate and I were talking, I asked him his opinion, "Sparks does act queerly," he admitted. "So much so," I added, "that unless he changes soon, it's curtains for him." Later I secured the distressed fellow's attention and tried to convince him we were not aboard a prison ship. No explanation or argument sank in enough to relieve his mental suffering. Shortly afterward the boys gently tied him to keep him from walking overboard, Gradually he drifted into a coma and was still unconscious when hauled on board the rescue ship.
At times the weather, and consequently the sea, was lovely and calm. One day the boys swam around the life boat, an extremely dangerous thing to do since sharks are ever lurking in those waters. However, we did not actually see a single one, although the British rescue ship said one was following us when we were picked up. Once in a while the porpoises were with us. Sailors are fond of their company as they consider these dolphins a good omen. One particular night, I remember, was brilliant moonlight and calm. As usual, whenever the weather was quiet enough to permit, the boys steadily rowed, relieving each other off and on every two hours. Without warning on this night, we were surrounded by huge whales. Somehow I was not afraid. Rather, I had a feeling that with the boys ceaselessly dipping the oars, the monsters would not close in. The great danger, I realized, was that one or another of them might come up underneath the lift boat and upset it. Whenever one surfaced and made its mournful sound, a chill ran up and down my spine, Hour after hour of their presence brought a tension among us, for they remained our convoy the greater part of that night.
It was on such occasions that Flip, a sailor from Brooklyn helped greatly. Although a real guy, he was tough and the boys knew it. When the morale was low and the boys didn't care, Flip succeeded in getting them to their feet and in making them stand watch. One day Flip said to me, "Mac, if I ever reach shore, I swear I will never do another wrong thing." Today, I wonder if Flip was long on shore before old tunes began to sound familiar. Yet I have heard he is sailing again.
Although amazingly beautiful and blue, the ocean can be terribly cruel. Its throngs of highly colored minute shell or crab fish are brilliantly lovely and fascinating, but disappointingly of no food value. Many days we were caught in severe wind storms which carried us around the Cape of Good Hope and on into the Indian Ocean. The strong current here added to our difficulties. One day, when extreme thirst was almost destroying us, we watched an approaching rain squall with high hopes. Alas, as in the Rickenbacker experience, the squall circled us. Our hopes sank and discouragement possessed us. Then suddenly the rain turned and started toward us. We had the sails spread to catch all the water we could. What a sight it must have been--we were waiting, waiting with our mouths open like young birds. Again we were disappointed. We received so little, for the squall was too weak, so nearly exhausted. I caught a few drops from the life jacket that hung over my head. One has to live through that sort of bitter experience really to understand. that courage it required for the boys to keep up the rowing, to keep on hoping! I remember Fraser, an oiler, said over and over, "Mac, when I reach land, I intend to buy a little cottage by a babbling brook, so that I can have all the water I want." He, a young chap from Massachusetts, suffered more than any other one among us from want of water. I doubt if it were possible for him to have survived more than another two days beyond the day of rescue.
Night and day -- in storm and calm---our yellow distress flag hung from the mast. Weakened by hunger and thirst and the continuous rowing, the men began to show exhaustion, Often I saw the sailor Andy standing on the lookout sound asleep. Chips, our carpenter, was older than most of the men in the lifeboat, and although of a rugged constitution, he grew weary in body and in mind. Also he felt the loss of the ship more keenly perhaps than any other, because it had been his home for fifteen years. Another sailor, old Bill, was the cause of some amusement. He had even his sewing kit fastened to his life jacket. His previous experience of being torpedoed when sailing on a Russian trip had taught him something the rest of us did not know. However, as he had been picked up immediately by a ship in the convoy, he knew no more about existence in a lifeboat than any other among us.
Our food consisted of milk tablets, chocolate bars, pemmican, graham crackers and our daily ration of only 5 ounces of water. As our meager supply diminished, hunger as well as thirst was gnawing deeper and deeper. Can you picture an ounce of water at noon, Nothing I have ever seen seems more sacred than the serving of that liquid. How you watched every man moisten his lips with it--water everywhere but none to drink! One relief came to our lack of food when a sack of hard squash from the ship floated to our boat. Every morsel of that squash was eaten even the smallest seed. In the same manner, there came a pint bottle of aromatic spirits of ammonia, which proved to be a Godsend as a life saver to me. During our last afternoon in the boat, Flip tried to catch; with his hands, one of our day and night attendants, an albatross. It was resting on the water about two feet ahead of us. Probably the failure was lucky for Flip, as the albatross was so strong and he so weak that he would have been pulled overboard. Anyway, an albatross is said to be of no food value, but I wonder if we would not have tried to eat it had the bird been captured. When men are as hungry as we were, they do not turn up their noses at anything that looks like food. Yet, after our period of hunger torture, we were on shore only a few days when some of the boys moved to another hotel because the food was not to their liking.
One night, when those in our boat seemed too weary and despondent to talk, I lay watching Tex as he sat silent and wrapped in a blanket. After awhile, I asked him what he was thinking of. "I've been a'prayin, and I knows de Lord am goin' to answer my prayer. We're goin' to land on a rock," he told us, "Well, Tex, as long as we are going to land on it, let's hope there will be a little earth on your rock," I replied. He stuck to his idea, firm in his belief that his prayers would be answered. Strange as it may seem, Tex was the one who first saw the rescue ship.
The last afternoon we were in the lifeboat, I remember that nerves seemed on edge more than usual; the boys were swearing violently. Some stood and started a fight but decided to settle their disputes later on shore. Suddenly a sea came over our boat, swamping us. The mate, commanding, succeeded in getting his crew to bail out the boat, and order was restored. Later, I became conscious that there had been no more swearing. It had entirely ceased after the sea had cuffed us with a new blow.
Our last night in the boat was a horrible nightmare to me. The seas were extremely high; every wave came at us as though it were going to break on us. The shining moon made the scene almost ghastly. The boys were all huddled together under the sail to keep warm while I was out in the front alone. Finally, by enduring great pain, I managed to crawl over to the others where, although for the rest of the night water was dripping over me, I was content to be near them. After seemingly endless hours, the morning broke gray and cold on a storm tossed sea. As always, with the coming of day, we eagerly scanned the horizon. Another hope dashed. There was nothing in sight.
All at once, Tex who was rowing, looked forward, and exclaimed, "My God, there's a ship." Excitement must have stirred in every man, but it was surprising to me how outwardly calm the men were, considering we had spent thirteen dreary days in the lifeboat and that most of us had despaired of being rescued, Hammond was patiently putting water into Sparks mouth with an eye dropper, Following the shock of Tex's cry, it seemed as though in that moment Hammond acquired the strength of Samson, The question in every mind, "Is that ship, friend or foe?" went unheeded. We took chances and rowed for her. Fortunately it was the ship of an ally, the British Durando coming from Bombay, India. What a welcome sight she was!
As we neared our rescuers it seemed that the heavy seas were not willing to give us up and permit a safe transfer. Helpless, I watched in terror, fearing the boys would be drowned or have their legs smashed against the side of the ship, At last I saw them one by one make their way up the ladder and over the top safe on board. I was most fearful for Fraser, as, after the rescue was under way, I had seen him crazed by his pangs of thirst drink the water that was left in the keg. It was almost a miracle he did not become violently ill. Sparks and I were the big problem for the Durando's crew. Mr. Little, her first mate and a marvelous sailor, almost lost his legs trying to get me tied in the bos'n chair, as the ship was rolling so. The line cut across my injured back, but pain did not mean a thing then, for I was happy to be rescued. Sparks, still unconscious, had to be taken up in a basket. Then our boat, the gallant little sailor, was cut adrift.
There were no words to describe the kindness of the officers and crew of that British ship. Anything they had was ours to command. Truly thoughtful were those standing ready with pitchers of water to give us as we arrived on board.. How our boys consumed the cigarettes showered upon them! In fact the crew wholeheartedly shared food and clothing. Even the coolies were ever ready to lend a helping hand. Since all our clothes were rotted from being constantly wet with salt water, all I had in the world was my ring and belt. The English lads equipped us with a kind of monkey suit or coverall. When asked for what I most wanted, I answered, "The thing I craved day after day, as I lay in the lifeboat, fresh or canned fruit."
The face of the inquirer fell as he said I was surely asking for the impossible. I told him not to worry. I had been well fed and was as comfortable as circumstances permitted. Imagine my surprise when some time later the first mate, Mr. Little, brought me a can of apricots: Those fellows had searched the ship and unearthed a lone can of apricots. They tasted just as I thought they would. How sincerely grateful to those seamen I shall ever be. And as Christ said of Mary who gave her box of precious ointment, I say of that deed who-ever hears or reads my adventure shall know the story of the Durando's kindness and generosity.
The rough sea continued all night., but we reached Capetown the following afternoon, 14· days after the torpedo struck our ship. During the 13-day sojourn in the life boat the boys had rowed most of the time while we covered 472 miles from 312 miles out in the South Atlantic around the Cape of Good Hope on into the Indian Ocean for 160 miles. Storms had interrupted the rowing and blown us off our coarse, causing us to by-pass the Cape.
At the time of our rescue, we were far off the lanes of travel, headed for the waters between Africa and Madagascar that were seething with Japanese submarine bases. The Durando was off course herself. It would in all probability have been months before another ship would pass near that spot. Surely it was in the plan for us that the Durando appeared when she did, for we had less than nine days supply of food and water left. The officers of the Durando later told us we had been saved by our beards. When we failed to understand, they explained that they had sighted our boat before it was possible for us to see them. Had we appeared clean-shaven, they would of necessity have had to swing away from us for fear the submarine was still lurking nearby. Truly, our 13 day-growth of beard proved a preserver of our lives.
When we landed in South Africa, we were again shown great thoughtfulness and every courtesy. We were docked immediately and at once transferred to the Monastery Nursing Home, situated halfway up the mountain at Sea Point in a Garden-of-Eden setting. Here during the night, Sparks passed on.
After learning of his death, I recalled the day we, on the beloved East Indian, had left Capetown, dreaming of Christmas at home. As Sparks and I looked back at the city spread at the base of the mountain, he said, "It is beautiful. I like it here and I want to come back some day to stay awhile." Two weeks later, he returned to die there and now he's sleeping in that majestic setting at the base of Table Mountain.
Here I must pay tribute to the chief officer of our East Indian, Clayton Hammond, who became the commander of the lifeboat. He rose to every occasion as an officer should, being stern but sincere. His top purpose was to reach land in order to summon aid for his and our comrades left behind on the rafts. Planes were sent out at once expecting to find them, and they continued their search for three days with no avail. Gently he cared for Sparks, deeply desirous of getting him to shore alive. This he accomplished, but fate was against him as Sparks, although he had rallied enough on the Durando to recognize the boys and to take a little nourishment, never knew we landed.
Many of the officers and crew of the British rescue ship, in addition to sending floral offerings, attended Sparks' funeral. They certainly were true friends in our time of need. Therefore we were greatly distressed when rumors came back to us that the Durando never reached its destination.
Other news reports--those concerning fifth columnists informers--brought us satisfaction. During the two weeks that we suffered in the lifeboat, a stevedore on the docks at Capetown had given up his job and retired to his small farm near the coast. There he was arrested and the truth revealed. For a long time he had used his job to learn the sailing dates of ships and had passed on his information to the Axis by means of a short wave radio concealed on his farm. It was he, (in spite of the submarine commander's statement to the contrary) who had tipped off the Germans concerning our own ship.
During the days I lay in the nursing home gaining strength for the operation that was to come, I was deeply impressed by the unselfish devotion of the Sisters. No task was too great as they unstintingly toiled among men. Creed made no difference to them. The Sister Superior was a grand Irish woman with full toleration toward all who needed her. Sister Ruth was Dutch. If she knew you were really sick, nothing was too great a sacrifice for her to perform. One night I saw her holding an unconscious sailor in her arms. Every few minutes she bathed his head in such a manner I knew she felt proud that she could cool his fevered brow. I felt that one should kneel and kiss the hem of her garment. Never can I forget the sweet face of Sister Patricia nor the calm clear voice of Sister Marie. I can still hear her singing, "I'11 walk beside you till the end."
The major operation on my shoulder was performed a week after my arrival. It was then I was again near death, so near that for a few minutes breathing stopped. My memory of the first days afterward is principally of extreme weakness. I think it was the fourth day I took it upon myself to get out of bed. The fourteen days at sea plus a week in the hospital had permitted the fractured ankle to knit fairly well. As it was still stiff and painful, I thought exercise might help. On the fifth day Dr. Bell caught me in the act. Boy, did he give me "Hell." I asked him how he felt and we had to laugh. I was never able to sleep more than two hours at a stretch, even under dope. Often I walked in the garden under the companionable stars pouring out my heart in gratitude to the Almighty for our deliverance.
Throughout my stay at the Nursing Home, the people of Capetown went all out in their kindness. Different townspeople just knowing I had been torpedoed sent a great variety of nice things. The Soper family, especially, will always live in my heart. Mr. and Mrs. Soper and their two boys, Ronnie and Teddy, all truly wonderful sports visited me every day I was there. Many others came. I observed that the women of South Africa, of Dutch and English origin, are surely among the worlds most beautiful blondes. People of the United States must not be surprised if numbers of our boys bring some of these lovely girls home as brides.
As my physical strength began to return, the desire to go home became an insistent longing. I knew the submarine warfare was not lessening, yet I wanted to be back in the land I love, the land of the dear old Stars and Stripes. Above all I wanted to be at home. After it was confirmed by the Navy that our ship had been torpedoed and that we had arrived in Africa, my family was notified by the Ford Motor Company. That was on Thanksgiving Eve. The next day my cable reached them, saying I was safe. Mrs. MacLean immediately answered, but her cable was a week getting through to me.
This contact with home heightened my desire, so that when I learned a troop ship was about to sail for America, I determined to be on it. The doctors were amazed at the idea and refused to release me. Of course they were right, Dr. Smith warned me that if I were aboard a ship that was torpedoed I would die of shock. On the way over I suddenly remembered that statement. But nothing they could say changed my mind. I was still determined to go. Hammond was persuaded to work on the case for me. He finally removed all obstacles by signing off all the doctors responsibilities.
At last the way was clear. Farewells had been said, and I was on my way to board the troop ship, that would carry me to America. I recall that as the boys pulled me on the raft after the Indian went down, I was certain I would never want to see ocean water again. Consequently, I can't forget how, as we rounded a curve from the nursing home, my heart throbbed as I beheld the ocean blue again. On board I experienced a sense of quiet contentment, and though extremely weak, I was fighting to come back.
All was well until one night, off the West Coast of Africa, the alarm sounded. I was on the main deck where the boys moving about me seemed excited. I asked Mickey, one of our sailors what was up. He answered that a submarine was visible off a short distance. "No, Mickey," I said, fearful yet hoping I was right, "no sub would be so foolhardy as to lay herself open to the powerful guns of our ship." Mickey didn't trust my opinion. Quickly he gave me his life jacket saying, "I can swim, you cannot"--truly a wonderful sport. Upon further investigation the supposed submarine turned out to be a submerged lifeboat. However, we fired a shot and disappeared into the night, with increasing speed. The shock and great fear shook my confidence in myself. I was forced to sit down on a box from shear weakness realizing how the ordeal had made a coward of me.
With no other undue excitement we landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 16 days after leaving Capetown, South Africa. Once more we were safe from that deadly monster that lies in waiting beneath the surface. Halifax was dreary and cold on that last day of the old year. Mr. Emery S. Land of the Maritime Commission met us here -- he was thoughtfulness and kindness itself. If sailors do not get a square deal, never blame him. That night we bade farewell to our stalwart ship which had brought us safely across and to her noble commander. He was a true old-time gentleman of the sea who never left the pilot house from one port to the other. It isn't likely praises will ever be sung for men of his kind. Scarcely a handful realize the great sacrifice these princely men are making, the constant strain they are under and the sincerity with which they perform their duties. God love each one of them always.
Was it heaven to get on that troop train starting for home! I was given a compartment, warm and cozy, in the middle of the train. Along with this comfort came marvelous attention by both Army and Navy doctors. This included a sedative for much needed sleep. Mr. Hammond shared the compartment with me. A memorable New Year's morning, we entered our good U. S. A. The boys on the troop train treated us generously with food. I wish you could realize how good it tasted. Boy, was that coffee strong! As an Irishman would say, "it warmed the cockles of my heart."
I can easily understand the gratitude of Barney Ross, when, as he landed on our West Coast, he knelt and kissed the American soil, I had the pleasure of meeting him in Philadelphia. As we shook hands there was a bond of under- standing between us. Both of us know what it means to expect never to stand on your native shore again. Actions such as his must be recognized as coming from the depth of a man's soul.
After our arrival in Boston at 2 A. M., the boys had to make a report on the sinking, They kindly permitted me to remain in my berth, Around three A. M. an' Army captain and a private brought me scrambled eggs, coffee and doughnuts sent by the Red Cross. Maybe that didn't ring deep! On January 2nd, 1943, we arrived in New York, where Mr. Proom and his secretary of the W. S. A. did everything possible for me.
Here I was transferred to Harkness Pavilion Medical Center. A place you want to go back to, if only to say "Hello".
Dr. Harrison McLaughlin and Dr, Boylston, two splendid orthopedic men, who work untiringly to relieve man's ills took charge of me. Mr. Dierolf, a Ford representative, and a real friend, was ever within reach to do anything possible for my comfort or pleasure. The hospital and its staff deserve great credit for helping to pull me through, particularly my two special nurses, Miss O'Donnell and Miss Powell.
Although Mr. Soper cabled my family when I was leaving for home, he could not reveal in what way I was traveling. Therefore it was a surprise to them to receive my wire from Hartford, Conn., and later my phone call from New York. My wife soon joined me. There was a blood transfusion following the operation on the shoulder and a cast was applied, which 1 nursed for three months; I was allowed to return home to Florida for that period. May the eleventh came to be the most longed for day. On that date the cast would be removed and I expected to be free to curl up like a kitten and go to sleep. What an awakening was mine when the cast was finally removed! Muscles unused grow weak.
On June the twenty second, I left home for New York where I took osteopathic treatments for a while before going to Detroit for a checkup by the Ford Motor Company. Words cannot express my gratitude for their thoughtfulness and efficiency at all times. Although partially handicapped I am now back in their service, happy to be able to So out again and take what comes on the chin. When this conflict is over let us hope we have helped to build a better world for our children
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