Many Ships Sank in the Blink of An Eye: Review of Heroes in Dungarees: the Story of the American Merchant Marine in World War Two (Part 2 of 2)

Heroes in Dungarees: the Story of the American Merchant Marine in World War Two by John Bunker (3 Stars)

Ore carriers sank in the blink of an eye:

Captain Manolis of the SS Caribsea was keeping watch on the pitch black night of 11 March 1942. His ship was proceeding to New York with a cargo of manganese. (I confess I have never known what in the hell manganese is. I looked it up on Wikipedia: “As a free element, manganese is a metal with important industrial metal alloy uses, particularly in stainless steels.”) The second mate came over and stood beside him and pointed out, “what looks like a faint white light.”

“A light? What do you see…where is it?” Bang. It was the wake of a German torpedo. (German U-Boats carried two types of torpedoes in the first years of the war: the G7a or G7a/T1 which was powered by superheated steam and left the trail of bubbles. Hence, most U-Boat kommandants only fired them at night.) Three blasts on the ship’s whistle meant “abandon ship.” Yet the whistle was never sounded. The ship went under in less than a minute according to Captain Manolis who survived along with a handful of the crew who had been on deck. They were rescued eight hours later.

A bauxite carrier, the SS Suwied, was torpedoed on 7 June 1942. The ship went down so fast that Captain David, master of the vessel, reported, “I just walked off the bridge into the water.” There was no time to launch the lifeboats – a common problem – so the men ended up on rafts. Both on merchant ships and warships, a number of rafts were usually mounted on angled platforms along the deck and could be released by pulling a lever.

In this case, the U-Boat surfaced and the Germans simply observed the men climbing onto the rafts. The Germans did not interfere which they normally didn’t. Still, the men would not have known that. War propaganda from the Allies constantly said German U-Boats machined gun Allied merchant crews who were in the water after abandoning ship. So it must have been terrifying for the surviving crewmen to see the U-Boat surface.

However, there is only one documented instance in World War Two of a German U-Boat machine gunning men who were in the water after abandoning ship. (Although there are serious allegations about another incident involving U-247.) That incident occurred on 13 March 1944. U-852 sank the Greek merchant ship SS Peleus. Six sailors from the Greek ship ended up in the water, clinging to rafts and debris. Heinz-Wilhelm Eck, Kommandant of U-852, August Hoffmann, First Watch officer and Walter Weisspfennig, who was, strangely, the U-Boat’s medical officer, opened fire with machine guns on the sailors in the water and and murdered four. Two survived to tell the tale. After the war, the three German officers previously named were tried, convicted, and shot by firing squad on 30 November 1945. Several other members of the crew of U-852 were sentenced to long prison terms.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website:

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