Photo by Holly Mindrup
Ageless, endless, Partner of war,
Dangling life and death – cold metal core,
Number and letters etched and aloof,
Until someone reads them for person proof!
Ashtabula Star Beacon March 16, 2001
Merchant Marine series sails again in bound collection of columns
By CARL E. FEATHER Lifestyle Editor
ASHTABULA — Harbor newspaper columnist and shopkeeper Joe Cook is offering some background reading for the new Merchant Marines Memorial planned for Point Park. Cook recently pulled together into a bound publication his 40-column series on the U.S Merchant Marine and U.S. Navy Armed Guard of World War II.
The manuscripts were published in the Star Beacon from May 9, 1997, through Feb. 6, 1998. The 212-page, photocopied collection sells for $25 at Crystal View Gifts on Bridge Street. Cook said a portion of the proceeds will be used to purchase copies for the county’s libraries. “My whole purpose in doing this is to honor these guys,” Cook said. “I believe a lot of veterans in all branches of the service don’t realize what these men went through to get the goods to us around the world.”
Cook served in the Army during World War II and fought in the European Theater. Like his comrades, he did not give much thought as to how the food, clothing, ammunition and fuel got across the ocean to the front. The Merchant Marine was a civilian volunteer organization charged with the task of transporting materiel. During the war, 868 Merchant Marine ships were lost to enemy action. More than 6,875 seamen were killed and thousands more were wounded, burned or disabled. More than six hundred of them were taken as prisoners of war.
Cook said some GIs did not hold the Merchant Marine in high esteem because they were civilians and received a higher rate of pay than an enlisted man. The pay difference became a moot point when a Nazi torpedo made contact with a Merchant Marine ship laden with fuel or ammunition. “When you read through this, you’ll see a heck of a lot of guys went through hell to accomplish what had to be accomplished,” Cook said.
His series covered a variety of stories, including profiles of ships that were lost and seamen who were honored for their distinguished service. He tells the story of the hastily built Liberty ships, which were thrown together in huge numbers by largely inexperienced workers. He includes numerous survival stories by Merchant Marines whose ships were destroyed, as well as accounts of the abuse suffered by prisoners of wars.
About halfway through writing his series, Cook, along with Don Palm and Wally Wason, found the Northeast Ohio chapter of the American Merchant Marines Veterans. The group, which encompasses Lake, Ashtabula and Erie counties, organized with forty-three charter members. Another product of the series was an effort to raise at least $5,000 for a local memorial to members of the U.S. Maritime Service, U.S. Merchant Marine and U.S. Navy Armed Guard.
The memorial, a 44-square foot black granite monument, will be placed at the end of Walnut Boulevard at Point Park. A dedication for the new memorial is planned for 3 p.m. April 29.
Cook said the men who served in these civilian groups did not receive veteran status from the government until 1988. He hopes that his columns and the monument will bring that recognition to a grassroots level. “I just felt something had to be done to honor these guys,” he said. “That was my whole emphasis.”
Harbor Man Gives An Account of the SS Robert Bacon Sinking
SS. John W. Brown on the Great Lakes in 2000. John W. Brown is one of only two surviving World War II Liberty Ships. The SS Jeremiah O’Brien is the other.
Wallace E. Wason of Ashtabula, was in the Merchant Marine and held the position of Third Engineer on board the SS Robert Bacon at the time it was torpedoed by a German submarine on July 13, 1943 about 50 miles off the coast of Mozambique. Her complement was 44 merchant crew and 27 Navy Armed Guard. Of that number, 3 three crew members and 2 of the Navy Armed Guard were lost.
SS Robert Bacon Sinking Remembered
By Wallace E. Wason
When the first torpedo struck on the starboard side, I was off watch and in my cabin on the boat deck level. My emergency station was command of lifeboat #2 on the starboard main deck level. I rushed to the station only to find the lifeboat and launching gear completely smashed from the torpedo that had exploded almost directly under the lifeboat location.
I returned to the boat deck and advised the bridge of the condition of the forward lifeboats. While discussing the condition of the ship, the Captain, Clyde Henderson asked the Chief Engineer, William C. Rudiger, to make one last appraisal of the ability to get under way. The Chief Engineer ordered me to go back to the engine room for an inspection.
We were down to the second landing and found broken fuel lines and smashed pumps from the torpedoing. While we were there, the Captain ordered blowing the “Abandon Ship” signal, so we rushed back up the ladder to the boat deck. When we reached the boat deck, the Chief Engineer went to the port side, and I went to the starboard.
The boats had been launched and the deck was abandoned. Running to the main deck aft where #3 boat bobbed alongside, I jumped and landed in a tangle of men already in the lifeboat.
We managed to get some oars out and propelled the lifeboat clear of the ship. As we safely cleared, a second torpedo hit the engine room amidships area and the boiler blew up.
We worked further from the ship until a third torpedo sent her under with the stern section the last to go under.
The Robert Bacon was a brand-new EC-2 or “Liberty” ship built in New Orleans at a shipyard created in 1942. Contrary to reports, the emergency built “Liberties” were a vast improvement over prewar ships and were absolutely essential to the war effort. We had delivered a full cargo to the British 8th Army in Egypt and were on our way home when we were hit.
After the ship went under, we rigged a sea anchor to keep the lifeboat headed into the considerable swells that were running. We wanted to wait for daylight to locate other boats or rafts from the ship.
While we waited, the submarine surfaced and brought the bow of the sub against the bow or our lifeboat. As I was in the boat of the lifeboat, I found myself standing to fend off the boat of the sub as we surged on our sea anchor.
Looking Down the Barrel of Sub Machine Gun
Looking up over the shear of the sub’s hull, I found myself looking at a German sailor in shorts and pointing a sub machine gun in my direction With no place to turn, I assumed that I was not going to make it back to Ashtabula Harbor.
The gun toting sailor turned out to be a precautionary measure as a German officer, speaking excellent English, asked questions of our Captain, who did not identify himself and gave evasive answers. The German officer finally said, “Land is 50 miles away – head west, and Hope you make it all right. The sub left running on the surface, and we were relieved.
We waited for daylight only to find an empty ocean with no sign of other survivors. Our lifeboat was equipped with a mast and sail, so we rigged our gear and were able to make headway into a fairly heavy swell and were able to find our way to the Portuguese East African port of Lumbo. We were helped into the port by a launch that towed us into the harbor after we got into the lea of the land.
Wally Wason held the rank of Lt Commander when he retired from the Merchant Marine. He said they were in the lifeboat about 24 hours. Henry Sisco and his fellow survivors were on their raft for 15 days before reaching land.
Message From Beira Dated July 16, 1943
N. 27 the SS Robert Bacon, 4,360 tons net American sunk 12.35 GI time July 14. Its report latitude 15D20M south longitude 41D13M east Lumbo. British Vice Counsel has reported 40 survivors at this port presumably for the names of the 14 survivors at Beira now please refer to my telegram No. 28. Signed, Vandearend
From Beira to CNO Dated 19 July 1943
14 survivors SS Robert Bacon landed Beira other survivors believed at Mozambique . Following Navy Gun Crew: Royse, Wallace, Manning, Webster. Merchant Crew: Guidry, Johnson, Crawford, Moore, Dukes, Campbell, Delenghics, Hogan, Leahy, Hudgins.
Message From Aluslo Durban 3 Aug. 1943
Additional 40 survivors SS Robert Bacon arrived Durban August 1 Navy Gun Crew: Cantrell, Richard Wanen, Thrasher, Thornton, Wade, Wardenburg, Williamson, Carl Wagner, West, Ainsworth, Dameron, Henderson, Wells, Winder, Merchant, Henderson, Tate, Hessemer, Callaway, Sandes, Johnsen, Dillman, Watson, Robinson, Church, Hastings, Lopez, Reese, Romani, Celprit, Adrian Collins, Joose, Giavotella, William Collins, Joyce. Amcon Beira reports 7 survivors landed there July 29. Navy: Harris, White Horse, Timm, Ebymond, Wallace, Shantz, Merchant, O’Connell, Colton, Missing: Navy: Ensign Hamilton, Henry Sisco.
Survivors of Bacon Give Statements
- The Robert Bacon was torpedoed without warning, first at 2335 GMT 13 July 1943, position 1525S- 41: 13E Second at 2355 GNT, and third at 0030 GMT 14 July 1943. Ship sailed from Mombasa 11 July 1943, enroute to Cape Town, independently, in ballast, draft forward 9 feet, aft 20 feet. Ship sank at approximately 0040 GMT 14 July 1943, same position, plunging by the stern.
- Ship was on course 180 degrees. True speed 10 knots, not zigzagging Had been zigzagging all day until nightfall, blacked out, radio silent. 10 lookouts forward fling bridge, lower bridge, forward gun, 1 on each machine gun, 1 on each flying bridge, 2 at after gun. Weather clear, heavy swells and combers on sea, wind S, force 4, partial moonlight, visibility good ( 7 miles). No other ships in sight.
- At 2335 GMT 13 July 1943, torpedo struck shop on port side forward. This was second torpedo fired at ship – the first about a minute earlier missing ship by a few feet. Ship took about 10-degree list to starboard but did not appear to be sinking. Crew’s quarters filled with cordite fumes, flash from explosion unusually high. Deck plates buckled, booms jammed, radio aerial destroyed. All auxiliary and steam lines parted, fuel pumps blown off foundation. No fire; flooding slow; ship completely out of commission. At approximately 2355 GMT after ship had been abandoned, second torpedo struck ship amidships, starboard side. At 0030 GMT 14 July 1943, third torpedo struck ship on starboard side aft. Impossible to send distress signal because of damage to radio. Two shots fired as counter offensive – no hits. Ship seen to sink at approximately 0040 GMT plunging by bow. Confidential codes dropped over side by Captain in weighted perforated box.
- Abandon ship signal given by Captain and crew left at 0050 GMT in #3, #4, and #6 lifeboats and life rafts. Nos 1 and 2 lifeboats found to be filled with water and fuel oil, and #5 lifeboat lost when forward fall carried away. Captain left in #3 boat, the last to be launched. For men picked up from water by this boat. Captain’s boat remained at scene of sinking until 0430 GMT, then set course for Mozambique. Towed into Mozambique by tug-arriving 1130 GMT. Other survivors picked up by English Prince and by British tanker and landed at Beira. Further survivors landed at Durban. Ship’s complement 71 including 33 merchant crew and 27Armed Guard, 66 survivors- 1 merchant crew member died after landing, 2 missing, 2-Armed Guard members missing.
- Sub surfaced at 0200 GMT, came alongside #4 lifeboat and asked for Captain. Commander of sub was told that Captain must be in another lifeboat as he was not in that one. Sub Commander then asked name of vessel, tonnage and nationality. He then told survivors that they were about 50 miles from land and wished them luck. Captain stated that from speech of crew, sub appeared to be German. Sub was described as large – approximately 300 to 350 feet long and an estimated 1,600 tons. It was new, painted light gray with no numbers. Two guns visible fore and aft. Several survivors stated that there was also an anti-aircraft gun in egg-shaped conning tower. No tack, no masts, heavy cables running from conning tower to bow and stern, clipper bow; motor sounded like heavy duty diesel; estimated speed 20 knots on the surface. Sub circled scene of sinking for about 30 minutes and was last seen submerging and steaming in southwest direction.
- Armed Guard survivors stated that blackout curtains on ship were in poor repair. Also stated that merchant crew officers were in the habit of smoking on the bridge during watch. B.A. Conard, Ensign, W-V (S) USNR
The Merchant Marine
By Edgar A. Guest
We seldom get to know their name,
In spite of all they do,
They’re merely mentioned in the press,
“As members of the crew.”
Yet, they’re the men whose courage,
Arms and clothes, equips and feeds,
They boys in every battle scene
Who do the glorious deeds.
We speak of them as Merchant Men,
Yet when once they set out,
No matter where their course may run,
Death follows them about.
They’re stalked by death from port to port,
When once the anchor is weighed,
From Master down to cabin boy,
They’re Sailors unafraid.
They know the lurking submarines,
They’ve seen them break the wave,
And still with little means to fight,
The cruel odds they brave.
Sometimes they are struck in the dead of night,
And into rafts they fall-
And drift about and pray to God
To save them all.
We think of them as Merchant Men,
But when the war is won,
They too must share the pride,
For duty nobly done.
Stowaway Pup on SS Bacon Became a Heroine
A chow-spitz mixture dog. Suzy or a close relative?
A Dog Named Suzy
In his account of the sinking of the SS Robert Bacon, Henry Sisco described what happened as the seamen were preparing to abandon the Bacon. “During that time, amid all the confusion and with no one in command, we were scurrying about on the ship looking for a way off the ship when one of the fellows thrust our ship’s mascot, a dog named Suzy (named after the Suez Canal where she came aboard our ship from another ship we were tied up to for a short time) into my arms and asked if I would take care of her.
Of course at that time I didn’t need anything like a dog to weigh me down. Well, we managed to launch #4 raft and we all slid down a rope to the raft. The dog was tossed down to the raft from the main deck by one of the last fellows aboard the stricken ship.
Henry and his wife, Naomi, followed up on Suzy’s fate. They traced a newspaper article about Suzy which ran in The Canton (Ohio) Repository on November 28, 1943. They learned from another of the Armed Guard survivors, Bill Timm, that the newspaper article about Suzy appeared in the Canton paper. Naomi and Henry learned that they might be able to obtain a copy of the article from the Stark County District Library, They contacted Bill Techantz, who promptly went to the library and, within 15 minutes, he had the copy of the article which he sent to Naomi and Henry.
This account appeared with a photo of Suzy and Bill’s niece Kay Ann Techantz in the Canton Repository:
14 Days Adrift at Sea No Ordeal for Suzy
Seaman Suzy Doodle is rested now and rarin’ to go to sea again. Refusing to comment about her 14 days on a raft in the Indian Ocean, Suzy admitted this week that she was becoming more and more lonesome for her pals in the Navy gun crew, that she longed for the smell of salt water, and detested Canton’s grimy smog which was turning her lustrous black fur to an even darker hue.
Suzy’s fond of her Canton friends of course, but she’s growing a little restive under civilian routine now that her master, William T. Tachantz, seaman first class, has returned to New York to await assignment with another Navy Armed Guard unit
Now a guest in the home of Seaman Techantz’ brother, B.W. Techantz, the dog which her master thinks is a cross between a chow and a spitz, was only a few weeks old when she was given to Bill in Louisiana last spring five months after Bill had joined the Navy.
She had to be a stowaway at first and when the captain of the merchant ship found out about her, he ordered the dog put ashore. Later, however, the relented and when the ship sailed the puppy was along. She was just named Pooch until they neared their destination and then the gun crew agreed it would be a good idea to name her for the Suez Canal. The Doodle, of course, indicates she’s a member of a prominent Yankee family.
Suzy met her first misfortune soon afterward. Ashore one day with a couple of her companions, she was stepped on suffered a fractured leg, and in response to the pleading of Bill and his friends, was admitted for treatment to the U.S. Army Hospital. The leg mended in time for her to sail for home with the ship.
Suzy has official papers bearing her own paw print to prove the authenticity of her next adventure. The document, issued at the office of the American consulate in Beira, Portuguese South Africa, asserts Suzy Doodle has been on a raft for 14 days after having lost her ship due to enemy action…”
It happened in July 1943, when they were just three days out on their return trip. Members of the gun crew reported that Suzy took no part in the battle other than to do some lusty barking at the enemy submarine which sent three torpedoes into the merchant ship.
When the orders to abandon ship came, she was wrapped in a blanket, dropped over the side and handed into a life raft occupied by her master and six other seamen.
So began their two weeks afloat. For a time two rafts bearing 13 men in all were tried together. But finally men on the one grew discouraged with their progress and cast off.
At first Suzy tried to supplement her daily ration of five ounces of water by sticking her head over the side and lapping up a bit of ocean. It didn’t take many slaps on her intelligent black face, though, to teach her that good sailors let salt water alone.
Her ration of hardtack was in the same amount as that doled out to the men. Toward the last, some of the men found the hardtack less and less desirable and fed more and more to the dog. They finally were rescued by a British tanker and landed in South Africa.
Though it all, Seaman Suzy was a perfect model of behavior, and when she finally arrived back at the Armed Guard Center in Brooklyn, she was accorded a heroine’s reception.
Arrangements have been made for Seaman Techantz’ sister, Mrs. H.A. Anderson, to take Suzy east to rejoin her master as soon as he resumes his Navy Armed Guard duty.
(From Honoring the U.S. Merchant Marine and the U.S Navy Armed Guard of World War II
A Collection of the 40 Manuscripts about the Merchant Marine and U.S Navy Armed Guard during World War II published in Joe Cook’s Weekly column in the Ashtabula Star Beacon from May 9, 1997 through February 6, 1998.
Autographed front cover: Best wishes to Wally Wason, co-founder of the Northeast Ohio chapter of the American Merchant Marine Veterans. Joe Cook, September 14, 2000
The Ashtabula Maritime and Surface Transportation Museum Research has this book and several others about the Merchant Marine and World War II in its Research Library).