Yank Sailors ON FOREIGN FLAG SHIPS
Serving in the Naval Armed Guard was hazardous enough but, when Amencan sailors and seamen were assigned to foreign-flag Allied vessels, a whole new host of dangers and intrigues were encountered
Histories of World War Two at sea have often overlooked the fate of those American seaman who, for various reasons, served aboard the merchant ships of foreign nations. Although the total number of these men may never be known, it is possible to identify at least three groups of mariners who sailed aboard these ships. Two of these groups did so because they were ordered to; the men in the third group sometimes had a choice and sometimes did not.
The most recognizable of these three groups was made up of those young Americans who were assigned to foreign-flag ships as members of the Armed Guard detachment furnished by the US Navy. A surprising number of American sailors were utilized this way, sometimes with tragic results.
The second group, also young, were the Merchant Marine cadets placed aboard Allied ships by the US Merchant Marine Cadet Corps for a minimum of six months of sea duty as part of their training toward becoming licensed officers. Normally, two such cadets, one deck and one engine, were on each ship which had such an operating arrangement. There were probably only a relatively few such placements on foreign ships during the first year of the war when this practice was in use. However, the US Merchant Marine Academy, successor to the Merchant Marine Cadet Corps, has indicated that it is virtually impossible to readily retrieve any useful information concerning cadets serving on foreign ships, because the early files of the Maritime Commission are stored in various warehouses some distance from Washington, DC.
The third group was made up of those Americans, often older men who were veteran seafarers, who chose to sail aboard ships of other flags. Why seamen would want to do this is not immediately apparent because American ships generally paid better and had better living conditions than the ships of almost every other nation. This third scenario occurred largely under two sets of circumstances: 1) when American corporations such as Standard oil of New Jersey (known as Esso in those days) operated ships under flags of convenience, largely Panamanian, but paid wages comparable to those of American ships, and 2) when some temporary problem existed, such as a seaman being stranded in an out-of-the-way port from which the only way to get home was to sign on whatever ship came along, regardless of her nationality. Seamen also sometimes opted to sail foreign if they lacked proper Coast Guard certificates to sail under the American flag, or if they were significantly under-age, a circumstance that was less of a barrier to sailing on a foreign-flag merchant ship than on an American ship.
A reasonably good paper trail exists for the first group of American mariners because of the Navy’s personnel records, but even those records were incomplete at times. The second group, the Merchant Marine cadets, in spite of the small numbers involved, presented special problems in tracking because they sometimes were the only Americans aboard a ship, making it easy for them to slip through the cracks of any reporting and tracking system in the United States. The third group of seamen depended on their multinational corporate employers to keep track of their location and well-being. These firms, of course, often had no better access to information about the events of the war than did the general public, so they had little knowledge of what went on aboard their own ships. Furthermore, their record-keeping often left much to be desired, particularly among the companies operating freighters.
One of the best efforts to establish the existence of all these merchant seamen and Armed Guard sailors on foreign-flag ships is that of Capt. Arthur Moore, who wrote the definitive book on American merchant ship losses. In later editions of that book, A Careless Word… A Needless Sinking, Capt. Moore made a special effort to tally the American personnel losses from foreign flag ships, something that the official records of the US Coast Guard and War Shipping Administration had not provided.
Captain Moore has been able to identify a number of American merchant seamen and Navy Armed Guard crewmen who were lost on ships of other nations, but he acknowledges that he has not located all such cases. In fact, he has made the chilling observation that there were losses of unknown foreign-flags ships which had Armed Guard crews aboard – groups of American sailors of whose presence we were not even aware. This is a disturbing loose end to WWII which must concern the Navy and certainly the families of sailors who were reported missing.
Data supplied by the Armed Guard Veterans of WWII provide a clue to how widespread the practice of placing US Navy men sailors on foreign ships had been. The Navy armed a total of 6236 ships during the war, only 4870 of which were American-flag vessels. Another 244 were US-owned but under foreignflag, such as the tankers owned by American firms but registered in Panama. The remainder, 1122 ships, presumably were foreign owned and flagged. Put another way, 21.9-percent of the ships which had US Navy Armed Guard crews were under a foreign flag. These figures reinforce what Capt. Moore has said, that we may never know what happened to some of those crews and men.
Today, on the website of the Naval Historical Society the service takes credit for arming the 6236 ships mentioned above, including the 1112 foreign-owned and flagged ships. Then, in the next sentence the Navy says that Armed Guards “were placed aboard a few Allied ships which were foreign flag and owned, but only in exceptional circumstances.” If 1122 ships equates to “a few,” we can only hope that the Navy’s gunfire computations were more accurate than its ship statistics.
The Navy also calculated the number of armed ships lost. The total was 710, of which 569 were under the American flag, leaving 141 under foreign flag. These numbers, compared to the totals cited above, suggest that service on a foreign vessel was slightly more dangerous than service on an American ship.
Another helpful source of information on Americans serving on foreign-flag ships is the website www.usmm.org which contains the names of such individuals and the ships on which they sailed. However, data on both crewmen and ships is often limited in scope because of the incomplete and uneven record keeping of these ships on such basic documents as crew lists and shipping articles.
How did all of this happen? Why were Americans serving in such numbers on foreign ships? There seems to be no rational explanation that suggests why the foreign ships were assigned American crewmen. The Navy has never offered a clear justification for the practice of placing small Armed Guard crews aboard the ships of Allied nations which were otherwise manned by the regular merchant crews of those countries.
The Merchant Marine cadet program also placed cadets aboard foreign ships without an announced rationale for doing so. In both cases, there were a number of American ships sailing at that time without Armed Guard detachments, and/or without cadets assigned to them. Yet, the government apparently went out of its way to provide such personnel to foreign vessels. Perhaps it was an inducement to companies abroad to let the United States use their vessels in the war effort.
These placements occurred most often on ships flying so-called flags of convenience, particularly those of Panama and Honduras, but the ships of Nazi-overrun European nations were also furnished such American assistance. The casualty lists for Armed Guard sailors identify ships of at least nine nations that hosted US Navy sailors who were killed or wounded: England, Canada, Norway, Netherlands, Panama, Honduras, Cuba, China, and Latvia.
Captain Moore indicates that data is generally not available for casualties on American-controlled foreign ships which were sunk while no Americans were in the merchant crew. However, he lists four such ships with no American merchant crewmen: the El Capitan, which had a ÉÏ-man US Navy Armed Guard crew, none of whom became casualties; the Mambi, which lost four out of five of her Navy Armed Guard crew; the Pompoon, which lost one of four Armed Guard crewmen; and the Sir Huron which had a 10-man Armed Guard detachment, none of whom was lost.
Although these foreign-flag ships did operate with no Americans in the merchant crew, it was more common for Americans to be one of several or sometimes many nations represented in the crew. For example, the Tambour had twelve nations represented in her crew, while the Chenango’s casualties alone included 13 Americans and 24 foreign seamen representing twelve nations, plus one survivor from still another country!
Examining specific situations makes the irony of the circumstances faced by Americans on foreign ships easier to understand. Consider the freighter Firethorn which had been the Danish ship Norden but had been shifted to the Panamanian flag, and was under the control of the War Shipping Administration and assigned to US Lines as operator. When this ship was torpedoed off South Africa in 1942, she lost ten crewmen, two of whom were Americans: the deck cadet and engine cadet, who were the only Americans in her merchant crew. She also lost two of her Armed Guard detachment from the US Navy.
Later, the survivors of the Firethorn were en route home from Cape Town as passengers on the former Dutch liner Zaandam, which had a similar operating arrangement with the War Shipping Administration. Aboard this ship were survivors of four other sinkings in addition to those from the Firethorn. The Zaandam was then torpedoed and sank, with most of the repatriated ship crews which were aboard losing additional men including the Firethorn which lost ten more from her merchant crew. The Zaandam herself, with a Dutch crew and flying a Dutch flag, lost a considerable number of her own men, as well as members of the five crews. Included in her own casualties were six men from her US Navy Armed Guard crew.
One of her Armed Guard crewmen, Basil Izzi, went on to considerable fame when he survived 83 days in a liferaft following the sinking of the Zaandam. Ironically, during the last ten days of this ordeal, one of the other occupants of the raft had died, the Armed Guard officer from the ship.
Multiple torpedoings in rapid succession were all-too-common. In the Caribbean, in 1942, crewmen from the torpedoed Panamanian vessel Sylvan Arrow, a tanker which, under the same name, had served in the US Navy in WWI, were repatriated in a Dutch freighter named Crynssen. En route to the United States, this vessel was also torpedoed. One of her lifeboats reached the Mexican coast, and the other one was picked up by the ore carrier Lebore. This ship, in turn, was torpedoed, and five men from the Sylvan Arrow went through their third abandon-ship experience in four days! Ultimately, they were picked up by a US Navy destroyer and taken to the Canal Zone for repatriation, this time by air.
A disproportionate number of Panamanian ships in WWII were tankers, belonging to affiliates of such companies as Esso, Socony, and Gulf. These ships criss-crossing the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico were particularly vulnerable in 1942. Another Panamanian vessel whose crew and Armed Guard detachment went through double jeopardy was the Stanvac Palembanq of the Standard Vacuum oil Company. She was torpedoed off Tobago, and lost two crewmen in that original sinking, along with three men from the Armed Guard crew. Lifeboats managed to reach Tobago where the survivors were eventually repatriated toward New Orleans on a venerable East Coast nightboat, the Robert E. Lee. Even though she had an escort vessel, this ship, was torpedoed almost within sight of the Mississippi passes, and one more of the Palembanq’s crew was lost, as well as 25 crewmen and passengers from the Lee.
Still another case of double jeopardy developed when the Hog Islander CoW Harbor was torpedoed in the Caribbean with an original loss of life of five crewmen and two men of the Armed Guard. Two lifeboats were picked up quickly, and took 19 survivors, including two Merchant Marine cadets and two other American crewmen, to Port of Spain, Trinidad. The third lifeboat was picked up by the American SS Kabuku which resumed her journey; a day later, she was torpedoed, losing an additional Armed Guard sailor from the CoW Harbor, after which her survivors were delivered by another ship to Trinidad.
Another strange case of double jeopardy on a voluntary basis occurred on the SS Ballot, an ax-Italian freighter bound for Murmansk in 1942. A storm had dispersed the ships of the convoy, but six of them found each other and re-grouped into a small new convoy with an armed whaler as protection. That group of ships was bombed by German aircraft, with Ballot suffering damage. Half of her crew elected to stay aboard and keep the ship afloat, but the others opted for abandoning ship. These latter men were picked up by the whaler which placed them aboard another ship, the British Induna which had a British Armed Guard aboard. That ship was subsequently torpedoed, and eleven of the 16 men who had defected from the Ballot were lost in the sinking of the Induna or died in her lifeboats, including several Americans.
Still another double jeopardy occurred with a somewhat less deadly impact on American seafarers, at least from the second sinking. The SS Tela, a United Fruit Company banana boat under the Honduran flag, was torpedoed in the Gulf of Mexico in 1942, with the loss of eleven crewmen, including two Americans, one of whom was the engine cadet. The survivors in two boats were picked up by the British motorship Port Montreal which was then torpedoed two days later. All the Tela survivors got away in two lifeboats which were picked up a week later by a Colombian schooner, but two foreign crewmen died in the boats.
Another classic example of Americans serving aboard a foreignflag vessel was the case of the Stanvac Calcutta. This ship, owned by the Socony-Vacuum oil Co., was registered in Panama, and had a pick-up crew that had a number of Americans in it but was not recruited by the WSA or through an American union hiring hall. She also had an Armed Guard detachment of nine men, furnished by the US Navy. In May of 1942, in the South Atlantic, in an episode that was to earn her the “Gallant Ship” designation of the US government, she had resisted an attempt by the German raider Stier to get her to surrender, and ended up exchanging gunfire with that ship. After 148 shells had been fired at her, the Stanvac Calcutta eventually sank with a loss of 14 crewmen. The men who escaped to the boats were captured by the Germans, and virtually all of them, including the American Armed Guard sailors, were put aboard a German tanker which transferred them to another German ship for transport to Japan where they spent the rest of the war in a POW camp.
Other Panamanian-flag ships had somewhat less spectacular but equally deadly demises in the South Atlantic that same year, presenting survival challenges for the Armed Guard sailors aboard. Two of these ships lost Armed Guardsmen. The Scapa Flow, the former Finnish ship Anja, was torpedoed with the loss of 26 crewmen, 14 of whom were Americans, along with seven of her Armed Guard crew. The Plaudit, the former Italian-flag Guidonia, was torpedoed and shelled by U-181, only five days after that submarine had sunk the American-flagged East Indian with a loss of 55 lives. All seven Americans in the of the crew of the Plaudit survived, but a number of other crewmen perished, along with one sailor from the 11-man Armed Guard unit.
Another particularly ironic incident affecting American mariners in a variety of ways occurred in September 1942 aboard the Panamanian vessel Stone Street, a former Italian vessel which had been seized by the United States. Under the Panamanian flag and operated by Waterman Steamship Company for the War Shipping Administration, this ship was torpedoed and sunk 800-mi east of Newfoundland while returning from a voyage to England. Casualties included six Americans in her crew, two Americans in her Armed Guard detachment, and her engineer cadet, Norbert Amborski. Her American master, Harald Anderson, was taken prisoner, and spent the balance of the war in a German POW camp.
When the tanker Penelope was torpedoed, the Navy coxswain in charge of the 10-man Armed Guard detachment was able to identify the submarine type for the ship’s captain. The U-boat captain spoke to the men in the boats; when told by the ship’s captain that the ship carried a crew of 50, the German officer corrected him, saying, “No, you have 39 and ten US Navy gunners.” He was right; the incident provided a sobering realization of how thorough the German’s intelligence information had been.
The interdependence of the merchant crew and the Navy Armed Guard crew was illustrated well in the case of the Esso Bolivar which was torpedoed off Cuba early in 1942. An able seaman named Tex Richardson rescued several of the gun crewmen out of the shark-infested water, an act for which he received the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal. That award was received by three other members of the merchant crew. The chief mate, Hawkins Fudske, was honored posthumously for taking over for the dead captain and getting the survivors successfully into the boats at the cost of his own life, and the chief engineer was recognized for getting out of his hospital bed to return to the ship to play a major role in stabilizing and salvaging the floating hulk of the tanker. The other recipient of the award was Arthur Lauman, a fireman, who had squared away the badly-damaged fire room before abandoning ship, thus facilitating the subsequent salvage effort.
Because the crews of foreign-flag ships had multi-national crews, even those operated by the War Shipping Administration through American steamship companies, it is difficult to determine how many Americans served on them, and how many of those Americans were killed in action aboard them. For the Armed Guard crews, however, that determination is easier to make. Several ships lost virtually their entire detachment of such Navy men; the Panamanian tanker J.H. Senior lost 25 such sailors, while another tanker, the C.J. Barkdull, lost 20, and the freighter El Logo lost 14. Altogether, there were almost two dozen foreign-flag merchant ships on which men of the US Navy perished.
The Merchant Marine cadets were somewhat harder to count. Five were lost on a total of eight Panamanian ships which were known to have casualties among American crewmen and also had cadets aboard during their final days. Working from this known number of cadet deaths by ship, it is possible to extrapolate backwards to estimate total number assigned to foreign ships. If 3-percent of all merchant seamen were lost during the entire 3.5-year war, most of whom can be assumed to have been lost during the first two years, that would suggest that over 150 American cadets served aboard foreign-flag merchant ships during that time period.
No attempt is being made here to infer that placing Americans aboard foreign ships greatly increased the personal risk to such men. Indeed, American ships in war zones were about as likely to be sunk as were foreign-flag ships. What is intended is a protest that it was unfair that such small detachments of Americans, two in the case of the cadets and as small a group as two in the case of the Navy men, were placed aboard ships of foreign nations for extended periods without any contact with other Americans or with any American chain-of-command.
Administratively, that arrangement must have been fraught with difficulty for the Armed Guard commander, in handling the alwaysawkward relationship with the ship’s master. Generally, with such a crew numbering more than ten, a junior Naval officer was in charge but, with smaller groups, a very junior petty officer, often a coxswain (which was the name used then for a third-class bossun’s mate) or a third-class gunner’s mate, was the senior Navy enlisted man in charge.
There was also a problem in the long-standing concept that American fighting men were to be commanded only by Americans, and how this concept could fit into these arrangements. Obviously, a handful of American sailors aboard a foreign ship, even though they might have had a petty officer in their midst, were being commanded de facto by the captain of that ship, whatever his nationality.
The staffing arrangements for the Armed Guard were as strange as they were varied. Aboard the tanker C. O. Stillman, the coxswain in charge of the Armed Guard had seven apprentice seamen to assist him. On the freighter Tambour, a seaman 1C headed up a 3-man Navy detachment, while on another freighter, the TeIa, a coxswain was in charge of two nonrated men. Aboard the tanker Arriaga, a seaman 1C outranked a seaman 2C in the 2-man Navy crew. Although the courage of these men cannot be questioned, their ability to contribute much expertise to the defense of the ship can be.
One of the Armed Guard sailors, in abandoning the Arriaga, was briefly taken aboard the German submarine responsible for sinking her, and was treated by a doctor for a back injury sustained in the sinking as well as for vision problems resulting from being in the oil-covered water. This humane treatment characterized most of the contact that American seaman and Navy sailors aboard foreign-flag ships had with German U-boats, particularly early in the war.
The problem facing the leaders of such Armed Guard detachments, regardless of rank or rate, was exemplified aboard the Zaandam when valuable time was lost in abandoning the ship as the Norwegian captain and the American Armed Guard officer argued, the former insisting that the ship had experienced a boiler explosion while the latter was equally insistent that the ship had been torpedoed. A second torpedo settled the argument, and the captain was subsequently lost in the sinking.
Looking back on this strange group of incidents, it is important to remember those Navy sailors and American merchant seamen who were called upon to defend America’s Allies without benefit of the reassuring presence of the stars and stripes flying over them. They also were called upon to serve on vessels that were frequently old rustbuckets – the Mambi, on which four out of five of the Armed Guard crewmen were lost, was reported to be 59-years-old – and they were often coal burners, with safety standards much lower than those of American ships.”
Rust wasn’t the only problem in these older ships. The El Coston, was only 20-years-old, but had the reputation of being a loser. She had been built as the two-stack coastal passenger liner Bienville for Southern Pacific Steamship, and had been in service only a few weeks in 1925 when she burned while bound for the sea from New Orleans. Towed to New York in the ignominious posture of stern first, she was rebuilt and given her new name, emerging from the shipyard as a freighter but retaining the two stacks, a reminder of her troubled past. Under the Panamanian flag, in 1944, she collided with a tanker in convoy. In the resultant fire and subsequent sinking, she lost nine crewmen and eight Armed Guard members, but the three Americans in her merchant crew survived.
The problem of the crews of mixed nationalities represented more than cultural differences. Crewmen from several of these ships reported that the babble of voices from a dozen languages thoroughly impeded working together effectively in launching boats and escaping from the sinking ship.
To conclude, we can probably all agree that wars can do strange things to the orderly way in which we expect events to play out. However, the decision made by planners in Washington to place a number of seamen on foreign-flag vessels during WWII seems to have ignored the obvious reality that such a practice could cut off these men from essential ties to the country they were helping to defend. That isolation, in turn, increased the risk that they could become lost, if not at sea at least in the personnel records that tracked who was serving where. The net result of the problems outlined above is the situation that exists today in which we do not know exactly how many foreign ships had American seamen, cadets, or Armed Guardsmen aboard in WWII, and how many Americans died on those ships. What is worse, no one in government seems to care.
Copyright Challenge Publications Inc. May 2006
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