M/S Agra of Sweden sunk off Bermuda, 33 rescued by SS Tercero, landed Bermuda incl 7 US volunteers April 20, 1942

1 – Agra
The Swedish diesel motor ship Agra was built by Götaverken A/B, Göteborg (Gothenburg, Sweden), in 1925 – she was the 389thvessel built by them. In 1933 Götaverken was the busiest shipyard of the world measured in launched gross tons. The ship’s owners at the time of her demise were the Swedish East Asiatic Company (Svenska Ostasiatiska Kompaniet A/B), also of Göteborg. The SEAC, as it was known in English, was founded by members of the Wallenberg and Brostrom families with help from the Swedish Government in 1907 and lasted until 1978.
Agra’s Gross Registered Tonnage (GRT) was 4,659, making her a mid-sized vessel capable of carrying 7,905 deadweight tons of cargo. She was propelled by twin diesel engines of 625 net horsepower which provided 12.5 knots of speed. Her dimensions were 392 feet in length, 52.5 feet wide and 25 foot deep. The funnel of the Swedish East Asiatic Company was yellow, with a blue circle and three crowns inside of it, surrounded on each corner by one of the letters “S O A K” for the company name in dark blue. At the time of her loss the Agra was sailing under British Admiralty routing instructions.
M/S Agra, built 1925. Source: http://www.kommandobryggan.se/asok/agra.htm
Agra left the port of Philadelphia on the 18th of April 1942 bound for Alexandria Egypt via Cape Town and Suez. Her cargo consisted of 6,666 tons worth of nitrate, tanks, beer, airplanes, truck chassis, machinery and benzene and gasoline. Some of the cargo was carried in 20 cases on deck. The only armament was the Captain’s .45 automatic pistol and another hand gun for shooting fish with, as well as 36-year-old Captain Sture Selander’s dog, which was named Garbo.
In addition to the regular crew of 39 men, mostly Swedes, Agra carried seven members of the American Field Service who were going, some of them from the mid-West, to drive ambulances at the North African front. These young men included Carl Adam, aged 20 and James Atkins, 21, both of Madison Wisconsin as well as Jacob Vollrath, 19, of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Adams parents were Reverend and Mrs. Oscar M. Adam of Madison. The other volunteers were Grafton Fay, William Eberhart, Peter Brooks and George Lyon.
Fay and Brooks were from the Boston area – Brooks graduated from Harvard in the class of 1940. His parents were the Gordon Brooks’ of Brookline. Grafton Fay, 28, was from Westwood, Massachusetts and was the group leader. He graduated from Milton Academy and was in the class of 1933 at Lenox School. In March of 1940 he married Mary Armory Eliot of Chestnut Hill.

Young American Field Service volunteers who survived the sinking of the Agra in April, 1942: Front Row—Jacob Vollrath, 19, Sheboygan, Wis.; Carl H. Adam, Madison, Wis., and George C. Lyon, 24, Essex, Conn. Rear Row—William J. Atkins, 21, Madison, Wis.; Peter C. Brooks, 25, Boston; Grafton Fay, group leader, Boston, and William B. Eberhard, 26, New Haven.
In article about his experience after the war (“A Copy Desk Saga”), Carl Adam wrote that he was a copy editor at The Daily Cardinal newspaper in Madison Wisconsin, having graduated from the University of Wisconsin, when an article about the American Field Service crossed his desk. He filled out the application attached to the press announcement and by April 1942 he arrived in New York ready to deploy to Egypt, where he would eventually end up in charge of public relations with his unit of the French army as well as an editor of an overseas service magazine.
The merchant marine officers and crew consisted of 32 were mostly Swedish, but included an Australian Third Engineer, two Norwegians, one Dutchman, a Dane, a Belgian, Latvian, and Irishman. The Chief Mate was Odd Graaf and the Chief Engineer Henry Granberg, both Swedish.
On the evening of Monday, April 20th Agra was proceeding on a course of 235 degrees, and making 11 knots, with a northwesterly wind from astern. The ship was painted wartime gray, had no Swedish or neutral markings on its side, and was not flying a flag. The captain was set to resume a zig-zag course. In the words of Carl Adam, “the sun was shining and the ocean was comparatively quiet, although the winds was blowing.” There were lookouts – two on the bridge and one in the crow’s nest – but none of them were equipped with binoculars.
The ship had motored 400 miles southeast of Cape May at the entrance to the Delaware River and was only 225 nautical miles north-northwest of Bermuda. In the words of Carl Adam, “our ship was unarmed and not convoyed, and although there had been a submarine watch posted earlier in the day, the captain had relaxed his vigilance.” Captain Selander was not above using the young volunteers to stand lookout duty, as Adam continues:
“About 3 p.m. the second day out, Peter Brooks, my watch partner, and I were told to stand down after one hour of a two-hour stint on the bridge, looking for the telltale “feather” of a submarine periscope. We were supposedly far enough east on our sixteen-thousand mile journey, by way of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, to be relatively safe.
Pete and I decided to continue a chess match on the starboard second deck. I was two games behind. We were in full uniform and wearing trench coats from our watch stint. The others, in rolled up shirt sleeves, were playing cards in the dining salon. Two and one-half hours after our watch, at 5:30 p.m., without warning, a torpedo slammed into our port side amidships. It sounded like someone whacking an overturned dishpan with a bass drumstick.
I watched stupefied momentarily as a beautiful, orange-red wall of flame fingered its way a hundred feet up a curtain of blue sky. Then I ran for my lifejacket, reposing in my cabin because we “were out of the sub belt,” and a precaution-packed musette bag of emergency items, then dashed for my lifeboat being launched. I left my typewriter and camera.”
The torpedo is believed to have been fired from 3,000 to 4,000 yards off the port side. It was sent from U-654 under Oberleutnant zur See Ludwig Forster, aged 26, who sank 18,655 tons worth of Allied shipping. Forster was had sunk the American 6,176-ton steam ship Steelmaker earlier on the same day. Then he rendezvoused with U-572 under Kapitänleutnant Hienz Hirsacker, aged 27. Hirsacker had also sunk a ship earlier in the same day – the Empire Dryden, British, of 7,164 tons. For whatever reason, when he saw the smoke of a new steamship – the Agra, it turned out – he graciously vectored his colleague Forster to the new prey.

Ludwig Forster, source: http://www.uboat.net/men/commanders/299.html  
Forster needed nor further invitation and “ran off at high speed to the east” according to his attack diary, or KTB (standing for “Krieg’s Tags Buch” or “war day book”). When he finally spotted Forster wrote “comes in sight out of a rain squall. Coming exactly towards me.” At 4:40 pm local time U-654 dived for attack. At 4:23 pm local Forster fired a double torpedo shot from tubes one and two. According to him, “both torpedoes hit.” He said he aimed for “the bridge and after mast” and “2 torpedoes shot because cargo observed to consist of barrels.”

The torpedo penetrated on the port side of the Agra between #4 hold and the engine room and according to the US Navy intelligence report based on interviewing surviving officers, “the damage appeared to be deep in the ship. Flames were seen coming from #5 hold. The ship listed to port and plunged stern first.” There were an additional 116 pounds of aviation fuel stored on deck which appears to have ignited.

Captain Selander was busy in the last few minutes of his life. He ensured that the radio operator transmitted four “SSS” messages, for “submarine sighted”, however there was no acknowledgement from shore, and the naval officials have no records of having received the transmissions. Selander threw the confidential codes overboard so that they would not be captured by the enemy, but then he rushed below to save his dog Garbo. As the ship only remained afloat for about 3.5 minutes, Adam is convinced that this act of compassion cost the captain his life. A reporter for the Bermuda Gazette & Colonist was told by survivors that Selander “was still on the bridge directing orders to his crew to save themselves” up to the last minutes.
Selander was not the only one to perish in the next few minutes. The Australian Third Engineer George Rogers never made it out of the ship – he was not seen from the time of impact. Crewmates and fellow Swedes, Lars Larson, steward, Hugo Anderson, electrician,  Bertil Gustavson, motorman, and Julian Bogarth, a Belgian able-bodied seaman, all went down with the Agra or were drowned as the benzene and gasoline spread rapidly across the ocean around the ship.
According to the Mansfield New Journal on April, 24, survivors told authorities in Bermuda that “no explosion occurred when the torpedo struck, but burning oil gushed from the freighter in a steady stream, lighting up the surface of the water for some time and burning several of the survivors while they were swimming around waiting to be taken into the lifeboat.” Adam added that “only one of our 22-foot lifeboats, each accommodating 20 persons, could be launched, along with three rafts, one of which was afire. The ship slid under the water stern first in three and one—half minutes in a sea of blazing diesel fuel.”
According to Adam, “flames were shooting out of the hole caused by the torpedo, and the ship was listing badly. I raced to a lifeboat which was launched with considerable difficulty. For a time it was feared that the lifeboat would be sucked into the whirlpool caused by the sinking ship. … There was no panic on board as the freighter listed and began to sink.”
An article in the Lima News of 24 April relates that “one lifeboat and one raft burned up in the water, but 26 men finally got into another lifeboat and eventually they were able to take an additional seven from a raft.” This is corroborated by a Bermudian journalist, who transcribed that “two lifeboats were launched, but one caught fire as flaming oil spurted from the hole in the ship’s side made from the torpedo.”
Adam continued: “After the lifeboat reached the water, its passengers rowed toward the Italian submarine which had risen to the surface.” This was a misunderstanding based on the “fog of war” and the perception that the submarine’s officers spoke with Italian, rather than German accents. In fact the survivors confirmed seeing a white elephant emblem on the submarine, which was the logo employed by Forster and U-654 and no other WWII submarine, German or Italian. This and the German log book, or KTB for War Day Book, confirm that U-654 indeed sank the Agra that day. Forster wrote “Surfaced. Sinking observed. …AGRA, 4,569 tons coming from Philadelphia, cargo benzene in barrels.”

Grafton Fay, leader of the American Field Service team, picks up the narrative thus: “”Most of us jumped into the water. The submarine rose out of the water and moved towards the lifeboat which was pulling away from our rapidly sinking ship. About six officers, all cleanly shaven and immaculately dressed in uniform, came on deck and asked the name of the ship, its destination tonnage and cargo. They were polite but firm, and spoke perfect English.”
“After they had recorded the information members of the crew pointed out the forms of struggling passengers in the water for the lifeboat to pick up. They were a little higher out of the water and could spot us better than the occupants of the lifeboat.” According to other survivors, “The oil kept burning on the surface of the sea for some time, singeing some of the men who had jumped overboard and were swimming around waiting to be picked up. Two of the passengers were in the choppy seas for over an hour before a lifeboat reached them and dragged them to safety, while a member of the freighter’s crew was picked up after the vessel had disappeared beneath the waves.
The one question which Forster’s officers omitted to ask was the nationality of the Agra – though Sweden was neutral, clearly the purpose of her voyage was to delivery war materiel to Africa, in this case for the British military. The Swedes seem to have thought the Germans were “definitely Italian, judging from the commander’s accent and appearance. Although he spoke English, he had a decided Italian accent.” In contrast, Adam and Fay concur that the enemy spoke impeccable English. Adam, who kept a log while in the lifeboat, says that Forster “promised to radio our location, which he did not do, and, after saluting smartly, re-entered the submarine.”
Forster was described wearing an “unusually high peaked cap” resembling an “air force or overseas cap” over a blue or olive-green uniform (it was after all getting dark). The six men on the conning tower were described as clean shaven, though their patrol had begun in Brest France over a month before, on the 19th of May and shaving was unusual on patrol, with limited fresh water.

U-654 as seen from U-564/Suhren – Note the white elephant emblem on the front of the tower and cables running from both fore and aft of the conning tower. Source http://www.u-historia.com/uhistoria/historia/huboots/u600-u699/u0654/u654.htm
The submarine was described as painted a dark green or gray (it was gray) and the paint appeared freshly applied. The men agreed that a cable stretched from the conning tower to the stern of the sub but were divided as to whether another (radio) cable ran to the bow (it did). Most of the men noticed the prominent white elephant’s head on the tower.
After ten minutes U-654 motored off to the west at 12 knots, and was swallowed by the night, leaving the 26 merchant sailors and seven young Americans bobbing in the swells aboard a life boat and a raft. Agra would be Forster’s last successful attack as U-654 was sunk with the loss of all hands on 22 August that year by a B-18 Digby bomber off Panama. Agra had its revenge of sorts – later that night (local time), Forster discovered that “starboard diesel suddenly can not run at over 400 RPM. Later examination shows damaged propeller blade. Probably from pieces of wreckage.” Because his guide showed that Agra was a Swedish vessel, Forster decided he must send a message to U-boat headquarters (B.d.U.) in France, so he did so, emphasizing that the ship had “no markings” showing neutrality.
It was not yet 6PM. Adam described the waves as reaching 15 feet. Fay described their night in the lifeboat as uncomfortable more than dangerous: “We didn’t have much trouble in the lifeboat except for cramped quarters, darkness and spray. The, boat was supplied with food and water sufficient to feed us three weeks,” he wrote after the incident.
The Lima News related that “Their lifeboat was well stocked with provisions and the only discomforts resulted from wet blankets, minor cuts and bruises sustained from flying debris at the time of the torpedoing, and the minor burns from the flaming oil. None was seriously hurt.” Adam kept a log and told a reporter that during the night the men “took turns at the oars during the next 16 ½ hours.”
Adam relates that “the sea was rough, rain fell, and most of the passengers became violently ill.” Those on shore admit to “all but two of the men being seasick. Spray whipped over the sides of the boat…. Water in the bottom of the boat was over their ankles, to add to their discomfort.” Adam later wrote that “I prayed once or twice during the long night in the lifeboats, especially when it appeared that those aboard a raft strapped to the boat appeared in danger of breaking loose, which meant almost sure death for those clinging to it.”
“According to [Adam’s] diary they were picked up at 8:47 am.” Sixteen hours after 5 PM on Monday the 20th would be the morning of Tuesday the 21st of April. Fay writes that “About 5 A. M. while still in total darkness, we decided to fire a flare. By good fortune, a Norwegian freighter spotted the flare and changed its course to investigate, although we couldn’t see her then. Nearly two hours later we made out the dint outline of the Norwegian just as she began heading away from us. We immediately set off several flares and then the ship found us.”
The ship was named the Tercero, which means “third” in Spanish. At 4,415 tons and built in 1925, the Tercero had been managed from Oslo before Norway was occupied by the Germans. “Both Fay and Brooks were emphatic in their praise of the officers of the Norwegian vessel. “They reduced speed and stopped in sub-infested waters for nearly two hours to pick us up,” Fay declared.”

Tercero, Source: www.warsailors.com, c/o Historical Department, MAN B&W Diesel, Copenhagen
Here Fay’s account is aligned with Adam’s, who said at 8:47 am all the men were aboard the Norwegian ship. The official survivors statements record that “6 of crew including master lost on ship – all others including passengers picked up on April 21, 1942 at 0930 by Norwegian SS Tercero 15 miles east position of attack and taken to Bermuda.”
Fay writes that “After getting aboard, we got underway again about 9 A. M. and at 1 P. M. a submarine was sighted. She had apparently been following us. The Norwegian had guns and the gun crews opened up with them. None of the passengers could see anything and while the guns kept blazing away, the vessel changed course and put on extra speed.” It is not known which submarine, if any was sighted by the Norwegians, but it must have been U-654.
Once safely on board the Norwegian ship Captain Simen Holme went out of his way to look after his new charges: “They were all given dry clothing immediately and, as some of the Swedish sailors remarked… plenty of warm food.” Chief Officer Graaf remarked that “the rescue vessel showed excellent seamanship in effecting the rescue, having ploughed through submarine infested waters for hours in order to get the shipwrecked men to safety,” as well as having maneuvered alongside a small lifeboat without crushing it in a heavy seaway.
The Tercero deviated from its intended course to both rescue and deposit the survivors ashore. Tercero left New York for Buenos Aires Argentina on the 19th of April, a day after Agra left Philadelphia. She deviated to Bermuda in order to deposit the survivors on the 22nd of April, and resumed her southward passage to South America on the following day, the 23rd of April (Bermuda discourages night transits of its reef-strewn passages). The Tercero discharged their passengers in St. George’s, on the northeast coast of Bermuda, quite a distance from the capital, Hamilton.
Immediately on arrival “most of the men on landing…. Complained of the bitter cold as they wallowed about in mounting waves…. ….some of them showing slight burns on their hands, nostrils and the sides of their heads where their hair had been singed.”
The men then embarked on “what Adam described as the slowest train he ever travelled upon, appropriately called ‘The Flying Snail’.” Though the actual radio messages are not recorded in the war diaries of either the US or United Kingdom, the British Admiralty logged the loss of the Agra on the 23rd of April thus: “AGRA sunk by S/M [submarine] 20/4… C.Bs. [codebooks] went down with ship which [was] not boarded by enemy.” The information was given by First Officer Graaf and was sent by the Commander in Charge, Bermuda to Admiralty at 5:52PM Greenwich time on the 23rd.

Image showing Bermuda, and distances from St. George’s to Hamilton and from Philadelphia to Bermuda. Source: www.vidiani.com/maps/maps_of_north_america/maps_of_bermuda/ detailed_road_map_of_bermuda.jpg
The men were able to spend from Wednesday 22ndto Tuesday the 28th of April in Bermuda, recuperating. The officers and American passengers were accommodated on their first night at the American House. The merchant marine crew were put up at the Bermuda Sailor’s Home, then being run by Mr. L. N. “Dickie” Tucker. For at least one of the men – a US volunteer – it was not his first visit to the islands, as he had been to Bermuda on his honeymoon with his wife two years earlier. The next morning both British and United States naval officials interviewed them.

Bermuda Sailor’s Home, Source: Mr. Keith Archibald Forbes, http://bermuda-online.org/accomm3.htm

According to the Mansfield, Ohio paper, “Thirty-three survivors of a Swedish freighter rested in Bermuda homes provided for them by the American Red Cross….” The local papers were more specific, writing that by Thursday “Mr. Alonzo Cornell, American Red Cross Director at Bermuda, distributed articles to each survivor. In the afternoon, Mr. Cornell had the passengers outfitted. One of them told the Royal Gazette & Colonist that he lost all his belongings, including his wallet which contained $35.”
Adam made a bee-line to the Western Union offices not so much to contact his parents (he said “at no time during hiss experiences at sea … .did he feel in danger of death”), but to file a story of the sinking with his former employer, the Cardinal newspaper.
Normally spaces on the Pan American Airlines Clipper flying boats were reserved for “essential torpedoed ships engineers and captains.” The seven young American volunteers were included in the roster of officers and they made it back to New York in a matter of hours instead of wartime weeks if they had waited to go by sea.
The Swedish officers, who were interviewed at US Third naval district headquarters in at 30 Church Street, New York City by C. C. Vickery, Lieutenant Commander, US Navy Reserve, and Francis T. Carmody, Agent, District Intelligence Office on April 28th. The crew then reported to the British naval authorities in New York as well as to the Swedish Consulate in New York, who kept careful lists of survivors and missing.
On arrival in New York young Carl Adam contacted his parents in Wisconsin. “I returned home with 67 cents,” he writes, “my field service uniform, coat and knapsack and the clothing issued by the British military.” After a visit back home he and his university mates persevered in their efforts to be assigned to North Africa. Adam departed a second time in June, reached Suez and Alexandria in September and by October was in the thick of the battle of El Alamein. Ultimately over three years he followed armies through North Africa and southern and northern Europe.
In what might serve as the Obituary for the Agra, at 9:45 am on Wednesday, 29th of April – nearly a week after the British published their intelligence, the loss of the ship and details of her survivor’s rescue was printed in the Eastern Sea Frontier’s Enemy Action Diary. On that very day U-654 passed within twenty miles of Bermuda, patrolling on its way back to France – the submarine’s close shave went undetected and unchallenged.  

Agra article/s in Swedish: http://www.tjelvar.se/gotlandstrupper/akter-2/3758.htmand http://www.tjelvar.se/marinen/m9.htmand http://www.faktaomfartyg.se/agra_1925.htm
On SS Tercero, Dame Siri Lawson of Warsailors.com at www.warsailors.com/singleships/tercero.html
On the U-boat attack, Gudmundur Helgason & Rainer Kolbicz, www.uboat.net
“Local Youth Describes Torpedoing of Freighter: Carl Adam, James Atkins Home Again; Ready to Go Back,” Madison, Wisconsin, May 1942 (exact citation lacking, found on www.newspaperarchive.com).
Bermuda Royal Gazette & Colonist, Friday, April 24, 1942: “Survivors of Swedish Ship Landed Here: Picked Up After 16 Hours In Crowded Lifeboat,” c/o Ms. Ellen Jane Hollis Local Studies Librarian, Collection Management Bermuda National Library, Government of Bermuda 

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