A letter written by an unknown hand recounts a terrifying U-boat attack.
Little is known about the writer of the following letter. There was no signature, and the original copy ended up in the hands of someone with no connection to the man’s family. But the author was most likely aboard SS Penmar, which was torpedoed by a U-boat the night of September 22, 1942, after leaving Halifax. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Ingham rescued 61 members of the crew of 63 four days later. September 29, 1942.
Don’t think I’ll have an opportunity to mail this to you and even if I did it would probably take months and be strictly censored, but I do want to let you know what’s happened and what I’ve been thinking about the last little bit. Know you’ve probably done a lot of worrying because you haven’t heard from me in a long time. Well Mother—your son’s a survivor. Yes, now I know how it feels to lay in a life boat and on a raft for long long days and nights. The story actually starts about a week and a day after we left Halifax. It was Sunday. The day was warm for an ordinary North Atlantic Day in Mid-Winter.
Things went quiet for a while then there was a big storm. Waves three times the height of the ship rose and fell, luckily not too many breaking on us. The convoy Commander decided to head the Convoy into the storm to try and ride out of it. Our ship was never built for such weather and was in no condition at the time to do it. Our deck cargo was becoming loose from the rolling of the ship. We kept on with the storm but next day it had not abated, and we tried to turn but snapped our steering cable. Late that afternoon it was repaired. The next day we turned again and in the late afternoon we turned again and managed to ride the storm a little better.
All the thinking I tried to do during that storm. Sea sickness is just mental—I thought. From Sunday until Wednesday I couldn’t hold anything. Kept trying to say that the rainbow that I could see in the spray meant for us as God promised Noah, that the storm would soon be over. By Sunday night the merchant crew and the gun crew quarters were awash back aft. So they all packed into the captains’ room, the mates and everyone else, including our two by four shack, which I kept thinking would be washed off the deck.
Living conditions up until that time were bearable but these new conditions made them miserable. I feel quite confident that if I’m every assigned to another ship quite like the [censored] I’ll resign and join the Navy or the Coast Guard. The money and officers’ uniform are attractive and shiney but they aren’t worth it. Our alley ways were three to four inches deep in water, the mess boys were sick and frightened and refused to work. I had sprained my ankle a day or two before all this happened and between my incessant wretching and the pain, was really feeling low.
Monday night the little kid in the gun crew who had gotten put in jail in Halifax for disturbing the peace, was washed overboard. The ship even lacked line enough to throw to him. The boys that were on deck with him all hoped that he was knocked unconscious but the cold water probably brought him to. They say his hand was stretched up in the air for help but nothing could be done for him. The storm was too rough for us to risk the boat to save him. Losing him had a strange effect on the crew.
Wednesday the eventful day, September twenty-third—in the afternoon a sub fired two shells at us. The first fell short and the second ran under us as we rode a wave. We fired our 4’’ gun, aft (not much ammunition was left for it because of water getting into the storeroom) and thought we came real close to the sub. By now we were not in sight of a ship. Then at 9:53 when I was on watch we were hit. I had just rushed up to the ice machine to get some cold water and continued on up when hearing the alarm. We had lost our port lifeboat, and two rafts in the storm, leaving just the starboard life boat and two rafts.
Because I had a rubber suit on I was supposed to get on a life raft and the gun crew were to get into the lifeboat. I got in as far as the lifeboat but couldn’t see the rafts and jumped into the boat. No one was practised enough and all too excited to do a good job. Someone cut the falls allowing the boat to drop into the water. It’s strange, the boat that leaked when we left New York was the one that was not taken by the storm.
There was much confusion, the boat overloaded, and the plug had been put in, and the skipper was giving a fast stroke. We finally got away from the ship, which took seventeen minutes to go down. We found the other two life rafts. There were only two missing, one able bodied seaman and a mess boy. The A.B. Seaman was crushed between a raft and the hull of the ship, the mess boy was pulled aft and into the propeller blades.
As we watched her go down some laughed, some cried. One little wiper on a raft was in such bad shape he had no control over himself and just shook violently. The last minute before she sank the fog whistle blew first a couple of times faintly and then at last real lustily.
Writing this is like living it all over again. Before we abandoned ship Sparks had sent three SOS’s, the last one was acknowledged. The next day when no help came we thought it may have been the sub that acknowledged the message, but now looking back it couldn’t have been.
When I went over I thought I had just about everything I wanted real badly but now think of small things I could have taken. All I had under my rubber suit was a set of work clothes, pair of woolen socks, two sweat shirts, two sweaters (one of which Mrs. Van Buren knitted). In the water proof pocket I had my pen and pencil, papers and wallet. Forgot my flashlight and had no gloves.
Those next sixty hours I hope never to have to go through again. The next morning the men on the rafts were taken into the boat and we in the life boat went on the rafts. We stayed on the rafts all day and night, then the next day even though the water was rough we managed to transfer again. On the raft we were comfortable but water washed over us and there was no way to break the wind. There was enough food but we wanted to ration it, not knowing how long we’d be out. I couldn’t figure which was more uncomfortable being on the raft cold and damp or in the life boat cramped and uncomfortable but a little warmer. Bailing had to be kept up continually and some of the men really turned out to be heels and others heroes. I was still vomiting. We’d been given a little piece of chocolate, a couple of malted milk tablets and a little water each day. One of the damned mess boys got my half of a package of graham crackers and ate them. I didn’t care much though because I only tossed it up as soon as it went down. Finally I came to the point where I didn’t have anything to toss.
Thoughts going through my mind those hours sure were something to note. Mostly my thoughts sought God. I thought lots of you saying you were being brave over the phone, of you going to readings, of Aunt Florence, her faith, the Lord’s Prayer, and the twenty-third Psalm. I’d wonder if I’d ever walk through Goldsmiths again and pass the counter where they sold Malted Milk Tablets. Thought of you reading the article in the Digest about those men on a raft for so many days, but then they weren’t in the North Atlantic at a pretty cold season of the year. Things seemed pretty desperate the next day when no help came from Sparks SOS. The gulls in the sky looked like planes, then at night in the raft the lifeboat looked like a distant tanker.
I kept trying to keep faith in God and remember that whatever was, was His will. It really helped me a lot. Saturday Morning we sighted a ship. The skipper shot flares, attracted their attention and they came for us. It was the Coast Guard boat U.S.S. [censored] on which I’m writing this account. The crew and all have treated us swell. We were in the lifeboats and on rafts 60 hours and when we boarded the [censored] it was as tho we were in a dream, warm clothes, warm shower, and good soup and coffee.
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.