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.
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.
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.