SS CITY OF BIRMINGHAM, Attack & Survivor’s Narrative
by Eric T. Wiberg, www.uboatsbermuda.com, March, 2014
The US-flagged passenger transport ship City of Birmingham was built by the Newport New Shipbuilding & Drydock Company of Virginia in 1923. Her owners were the Ocean Steamship Company, known as the Savannah Line of New York, and her final charterers were the Alcoa Steamship Company. The vessel was comparatively large at 5,861 gross registered tons, it was capable of carrying cargo as well as over 400 people, including over 100 crew. She was 382 feet long overall, 52.2 feet wide and 26.9 feet deep. A three-cycle triple-expansion steam engine developed 398 net horsepower and drove the ship at 13.5 knots.
SS City of Birmingham with distinctive funnel logo. Passenger accommodation and cargo derricks clearly visible.
Source: http://www.uboat.net/allies/merchants/ships/1878.html, Steamship Historical Society, www.sshsa.org
The City of Birmingham was registered to Savannah Georgia. One of its jobs was to keep Bermuda supplied with goods and passengers. In 1942 with a massive military base construction program under way, there was a need for labor on the island. Ships like City of Birmingham helped meet the needs for people and materiel.
Bermudian historian Jonathan Land Evans pointed out that “…the freighter SS City of Birmingham (noted by the island’s early wartime chronicler as ‘our last regular visitor’) [was] carrying a large cargo destined for the island. Bermuda had not received a significant shipment of food and other essential supplies for five weeks at the time…” – the time being June, 1942.
Amongst the young Americans traveling on the City of Birmingham to Bermuda that summer were two men from Titusville, Florida: Stanley Matuszewski, aged 42 and Maynard Hipwell. Hipwell worked for a boiler making firm named Struthers Wells and Matuszewski was taking up a year-long assignment at the Naval Operating Base (NOB) being built by the Americans on the island. According to the “Titusville Harald” of May 29, 1943 there were “262 other civilian employees of the base contract, bound for the job in Bermuda. The vessel, a medium sized ship, also carried tons of food for Bermuda.”
The Master of the City of Birmingham on her final voyage had, like the ship he commanded, a long and varied career. During World War I Captain Lewis Preston Borum commanded the SS City of Memphis between Cardiff Wales and New York when she was torpedoed and sunk by UC-66 southwest of Ireland on the 17th of May, 1917. Born on the 4thof July 1883, he was destined to spend his 49th birthday in 1942 on Bermuda. Though born in Matthews, Virginia, his home base was Savannah, where he served in the US Naval Reserve. He was a thin, erect-standing man of medium height. He had also worked for the Alcoa Steamship Company, to whom the City of Birmingham was on charter in June 1942.
The City of Birmingham had earlier rescued survivors of the ship Empire Dryden, which had also been sunk in the area, by U-572 under Hirsaker on 20 April 1942 some 240 nautical miles north west of Bermuda. One of Empire Dryden’s lifeboats with 22 crew and three DEMS gunners on board sailed for 450 nautical miles before being spotted and rescued by the City of Birmingham, which landed them in Bermuda on the 8th of May.
On or about Monday the 29thof June 1942 the City of Birmingham left Norfolk, Virginia bound for Bermuda. On board she carried 2,400 tons of general cargo as well as 381 persons: 263 passengers, 103 crew and five armed guards whose job it was to man a 4-inch and two 30-calibre machine guns. There were at least four women on board: a stewardess and three female passengers. The stewardess was Mary Cullum Kimbro, 53, of Nasshville, Tennessee. The passengers included Miss H. Cline, Miss Evelyn Parker, and Miss E. Johnson – they were all civil service employees going to work in Bermuda.
A World War I-vintage destroyer, the USS Stansbury (DD 180) was assigned to escort her all of the way. By late June some seventy Allied ships, mostly merchant but including two naval (USS Gannett and USS Atik) had been sunk in the waters around Bermuda – not including those coastwise in the US. Stansbury was built at the Union Iron Works in San Francisco and launched on May 16, 1919.
By the time of her commissioning in January 1920 her raison-de-aitre, World War I, was over By May 27 1922 she was de-commissioned and laid up for the next 18 years. Stansbury was re-commissioned on August 29, 1940. The ship had four smoke stacks which spewed exhaust. She was 314.5’ long, 31’8” wide and 9’10” deep. Crewed (like the City of Birmingham) by 103 persons, the destroyer could achieve an impressive 35 knots. The Stansbury’s commander at the time was Lieutenant Commander Joseph Benedict Maher, who took over from LCDR Robert N. McFarlane earlier that year.
USS Stansbury, DD 180Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Stansbury_(DD-180)
Late that June (July 1stGerman time) Kapitänleutnant (later Korvettenkapitän) Hans-Heinz Linder was returning to France from landing saboteurs in New York when U-202 came across the small convoy. He was bringing his sub in a straight line north of Bermuda en route back to base in Brest, which the sub reached on the 25th of July, 1942, having set off on the 27th of May.
U-202 surfaced with crew working on deck, probably during training.
All three vessels – a US destroyer, its lone charge and the German U-boat were to meet on the night of 30 June / 1 July at a point halfway between Bermuda and Norfolk: 300 nautical miles southeast of Chesapeake Bay and 325 miles west-northwest of Bermuda (roughly 250 miles east of Cape Hatteras.
Kapitänleutnant Hans-Heinz Linder of U-202
That evening there was a flurry of signals being exchanged by the Stansbury with the recalcitrant City of Birmingham. The merchant ship simply was not comprehending or carrying out the destroyer’s orders to zig zag. Though the navy-issued voyage orders were clear that zig zagging would be maintained at night, the slower ship was having trouble understanding the coded messages being sent by the navy ship. As a result an order to change from 133 degrees to 99 degrees was not understood and effectuated until between minutes and hours afterwards. The naval ship tried “mersig” or merchant signals (blinking lights), and when that failed maneuvered so signal by flag, or semaphore.
In any event, there was a breakdown in communication which led to considerable frustration on the Stansbury and befuddlement on the City of Birmingham. In the flurry of affidavits and accusations which followed, it was argued that the convoy should have been at least eight miles away at the time and out of the scopes of the prowling submarine – all hypothetical of course, as the German sub was highly maneuverable, had not been detected, and could make over 20 knots speed on the surface.
The City of Birmingham had five lookouts on duty; four on the bridge (preoccupied no doubt with signals), and one in a crows nest high above. Her speed was 10.5 knots on a course of 99 degrees, north of east. Though there was a light swell from the direction they were heading, the weather was clear and visibility good.
Though survivors place the attack at during or after dinner time, the US Navy intelligence report states that it occurred at 11:30 at night and the Stansbury men said it was 6:50 pm. In any event, U-202 managed to fire three torpedoes at the City of Birmingham and get two of them around the escort, which was ahead of the passenger ship on the port side. One of the torpedoes was seen to pass ahead of the merchant ship, but two of them struck: the first about 30 feet back from the bow “in No. 1 hatch close to the surface; the second under the bridge and at a greater depth.”
According to the witnesses on the Stansbury roughly 1 mile away, the merchant ship “listed an estimated 20 degrees to port, slightly down by the head and commenced to sink rapidly.” She also managed to get out an SOS message in plain language which was picked up ty Radio Norfolk.
The Stansbury dashed to the side of the stricken ship and ensured that the majority of the survivors, who were scrambling down the side of the passenger ship on nets, could find life rafts or life boats to board and stay afloat while the navy ship went on the offensive. Forty minutes later, at 7:30 pm local time the Stansbury began dropping depth charges on a sound contact which was presumed to be the location of U-202. Meanwhile back on the merchant ship over 300 individual dramas were unfolding.
Evelyn Parker was one of the women passengers on board the City of Birmingham. In 2000 she was living at the Royal Palms Senior Residence and spoke with journalist David Ballingrud about her experience. He wrote: “Parker and two of the three other women aboard had just begun dinner with the ship’s officers when Capt. Lewis P. Borum was called away [from the table] to respond to an urgent message from the Stansbury.
Moments later, Parker heard a muffled bang and felt a shock run through the ship. The first of two torpedoes struck the ship about 100 feet from the bow. Moments later the second torpedo struck just beneath the bridge, slightly nearer the stern. “We were heading for the lifeboats when the second one hit,” Parker recalled. “It knocked the pocketbook out of my hand, and I remember asking one of the seaman if I should go back for it. He said, “Suit yourself, but I wouldn’t.’ So I didn’t. My clothes were going to the bottom of the sea anyway.”
Parker said she climbed down a rope net thrown over the side of the vessel, then jumped into the water from about 20 feet above the surface. She then swam to an overloaded, almost swamped raft, where she waited for rescue with about 40 other people. The two quick explosions broke the bow section away from the rest of the ship, and the City of Birmingham went down in about five frantic minutes. The Stansbury took aboard some survivors and lingered at the scene until the remainder were in life rafts. Then it disappeared into the darkness, in pursuit of the U-202. “We sat in water up to our waists for four hours,” Parker said. “We sang songs and pretended it was a party. There was no time to be frightened.””
Stanley Matuszewski told another reporter that he was reading after having had supper. The second sitting (Parker and Borum’s) was still in session. After a violent explosion Stanley “found himself in the passageway. He started to reach for a lifebelt, and then came another explosion.” When he came two from the second concussion there was water at his feet and the ship was listing. Then “the ship came back on an even keel and Stanley slipped into the water, still holding the lifebelt which he had not had time to put on….. The entire port side had been torn away, Stanley later heard.”
Matuszewski related that from his perspective “The passengers and crew managed to launch three of the twelve lifeboats, but [he] did not enjoy the comfort of a seat in one. Later in the evening he got in a small rubber lifecraft, but this was overturned in the darkness by a gasoline-powered lifeboat. …As the night grew darker, the warship began to pick up small groups and Stanley was hauled aboard [USS Stansbury] about midnight. … The destroyer, with about 370 extra person on board, was jammed, to say the least. …Stanley said the torpedoing happened so fast that there was no time for fire on the ship, and there was very little panic.” In fact according to an amalgam of survivor’s statements, the crew and passenger’s “conduct was exemplary, abandoning ship in orderly fashion in 5 lifeboats, five rafts, and seven floats.”
At 7:56 pm the Stansbury regained contact on an underwater object, having lost it. At 7:38 the ship had made a contact on which it had dropped seven charges in 7:40. Just before 8 pm they dropped two more charges. According to the Stansbury the City of Birmingham stayed afloat for 44 minutes, from 6:50 pm local time until 7:34 pm, however most survivors say the ship plunged below the waves within five minutes, or by 7 pm.
At 8:21 the Stansbury abandoned its chase of U-202 and dropped a liferaft close to the overcrowded lifeboats. This must have been one of the rubber boats which Stanley Matuszewski climbed aboard. By 8:32 pm, given that darkness was fast approaching, the Stansbury performed a very daring rescue in the face of the obvious danger from being torpedoed: it lowered the ship’s motor whale boat and the small ‘gig’ boat. For two hours Lieutenant J. C. Morgan directed the rescue of 373 survivors, pulling them one by one up the steep, lurching sides of the destroyer. One of them was in such bad shape from roughly four hours in the tossing seas that he died aboard the naval ship.
During the operation the gig’s rudder was damaged by the debris littering the waters. The wind continued to build throughout the operation, and with it the swell. The gig’s motor also failed, leaving Lieutenant A. F. Alexander in the whale boat to rescue over 100 people and bring them to the ship. Captain Borum, on being rescued, went back out in the whale boat to pull in more survivors. Despite all these efforts eight people perished in the waters including the stewardess Mary Kimbro, Oiler William E. Cannon, Butcher William H. Greene, Cook Marion W. Hurd, Fire Watcher Charles Jones, Pantryman Theodore N. Morgan and Cook James Stanley as well as two passengers.
By 10:45 pm the retrieval of survivors was considered complete. It took a quarter hour for the destroyer to hook and hoist the whale boat, on the basis of which it was decided to abandon the damaged gig to the elements. For the next 55 minutes the Stansbury performed widening circles looking for any remaining survivors. Finding none but making a sound contact, it dropped seven more depth charges at 11:40 pm. Following this the destroyer went back to the area of the sinking for a final time before departing at 1:45 am local time for Bermuda, making 27 knots.
At 6:59 pm that evening USS Stansbury and its 475 living souls (103 navy sailors, 372 survivors, one cadaver) arrived at Port Royal Bay anchorage in Southampton, Bermuda. They were met by Rear Admiral Jules James, Commandant of the Naval Operating Base, Bermuda. A naval doctor also came on board to do what they could for those who had been traumatized. Within an hour and forty minutes, by 8:40 pm all of the City of Birmingham people had been disembarked.
NOB Bermuda Commandant Jules James, USN – he came aboard the Stansbury on arrival.
In the NOB diary Commandant James notes “Went aboard the STANSBURY on her arrival with the CITY OF BIRMINGHAM survivors. A check indicates that only about 12 of those who were on board were lost. The first report from the STANSBURY said 40.” In fact nine souls were lost.
Lieutenant Commander Maher, in his official report filed 11 July 1942 had glowing words to say about the conduct not only of the men under his command, but the men and women aboard the City of Birmingham. This was reciprocated. Ensign E. D. Henderson ends his summation of survivor’s statement dated July 15 1942 by observing “The survivors emphasized the value of embarkation nets in getting safely away from the ship, and were warm in their praise of the manner in which rescue was effected by the escorting destroyer, USS “STANSBURY.”
Maher’s report is detailed in its praise, some of which would bear repeating, as it also describes events: “The discipline and composure of the crew and passengers of the S.S. City of Birmingham were excellent. People that were rescued early in the operation turned with a will and assisted the STANSBURY’s crew in taking others on board and in caring for the injured. Captain Borum and Chief Officer Hart, the latter an ex-Navy Quartermaster, were extremely helpful in distributing survivors about the ship and in maintaining passageways on the crowded deck.”
Maher continues: “Mr. Tom Davis, a surviving passenger, who had an excellent knowledge of first aid work, assisted Lieut. (jg) H.J. Truax (MC) U.S.N.R., throughout the night. Mr. Davis’s effort and the cheerful manner in which he applied himself was particularly noteworthy.”
Maher goes on the single out the three women passengers who were rescued, naming them. He explains that they “…were rescued quite early in the evening. They immediately took station in the Wardroom and were of great assistance to the Doctor in attending badly injured personnel. Miss Johnson was rescued with a large group from a life raft. As this raft was towed alongside I noted that it was one of the most orderly. The passengers on this raft boarded ship very quietly. This young lady seemed to be in charge and had the situation well under control.” Unfortunately not all of Maher’s praise was reciprocated, as a later report on the “BIRMINGHAM Incident – comments on sinking of” ends with the observation that “convoy discipline was poor.”
The caption on this rare archival original photograph reads: “Survivors of the torpedoed ‘City of Birmingham’ East Coast Port – These are some of the 58 survivors of the torpedoed ‘City of Birmingham’. They arrived at an East Coast Port today. Standing in the centers is Captain Lewis P. Burum, commander of the lost vessel. 7/25/42 (LG). It was serialized by Acme News Pictures, Inc. of 461 Eighth Ave, New York City. From the flag and the uniform of the immigration officer on the left, it is clear that this photograph was taken in Bermuda, not the mainland US.
Source: Eric Wiberg’s collection
The surviving crew and passengers were well looked after in Bermuda. On the very day after their arrival in Bermuda – Thursday June 2nd – a special meeting of the US military base personnel was held at St. David’s Island. The purpose was to praise the base workers of all branches of the military as well as recognize te survivors of the City of Birmingham and present them with $1,500 – a considerable sum at the time – which was raised from individual donations by base personnel.
“The Royal Gazette and Colonist Daily” of Monday July 6th reported that “The United States Army Band from Castle Harbour played several selections during the evening…. [and] was warmly welcomed by an audience of approximately 900 persons. Several of the survivors arose during the latter part of the programmed and recounted some of their experiences. A collection was taken among the baseworkers during the day, a sum of approximately $1,500 being raised for the sole benefit of the survivors.”
It appears that U-202 escaped Stansbury’s many bombardments largely unscathed. On the return voyage to Europe the sub refueled from U-460 and then prowled behind Convoy OS 34 near the Azores, vectoring other boats in on the attack. Linder and U-202’s most notorious act of this patrol was the landing of four saboteurs at Amagansett, Long Island, which Linder and his crew successfully effectuated on the 13th of June. This was no small task considering the submarine touched bottom on a sand bank and its engine maneuvers were so loud that they were heard from shore, imperiling the ultra-secret mission. Much has been written about his landing and another off Punta Vedra beach near Jacksonville by U-584 as part of Operation Pastorius.
Much has been written about this operation which is not relevant here. Suffice to say that one of the leaders, George Dasch, betrayed all of his colleagues although they initially managed to slip past the Americans and infiltrate the country as far west as Chicago. They were all rounded up and executed with the exception of two of them, who survived the war and were deported back to Germany following in 1948.
Linder was born in 1913 and turned 29 during this patrol. Part of the Crew of 1933, he served on U-18 and U-96 under Lehmann-Willenbrock. In March 1941 he took command of U-202, on which he served for six patrols and 236 patrol days up to September 1942. His total tally was seven ships sunk, for 33,693 tons in aggregate, including the City of Birmingham. In late fall 1942 he moved ashore to naval staff duties, and he died on the 10th of September 1944 at age 31.
Ballingrud, David, “More than a Footnote”, an article about Evelyn Parker, in the St. Petersburg Times online, July 3, 2000,
Blair, Clay, Hitler’s U-Boat War, Volume I: The Hunters, 1939 – 1942
Busch, R. and H.-J. Röll, German U-boat Commanders of World War II, 1988
Etherington, Andrew, http://homepage.ntlworld.com/andrew.etherington/1942/07/01.htm
www.fold3.com British Admiralty records as well as Eastern Sea Frontier Enemy Action Diary and the USS Stansbury logs from the Naval Operating Base (NOB) Bermuda
Helgason, Gudmundur & Kolbicz, Rainer www.uboat.net, 2014
Hocking C., Dictionary of Disasters at Sea during the Age of Steam
Hogel, Georg, “U-Boat Emblems of World War II, 1939 – 1945,” Schiffer Military History, Atglen, PA, 199, page 68
Kurowski, Franz, Knights Cross Holders of the U-boat Service
Land Evans, Jonathan, A Colony at War: Bermuda in the Global Fight Against Fascism, 1939-1945,” self-published, 2013, page 384 as well as references on pages 101, 362 and 377.
Mason, Jerry, for KTB of U-202 translated, perspective of the German attackers generally: http://www.uboatarchive.net,
NewspaperArchives.com for news articles about the ship
Navy (US) Together We Served http://navy.togetherweserved.com/usn/servlet/tws.webapp.WebApp?cmd=ShadowBoxProfile&type=Person&ID=572696– for a photo of VAdm. Jules James, Commandant NOB Bermuda
Shortridge, Bud, http://home.comcast.net/~cshortridge/site/?/page/LIBERTY__%26amp%3B_MERCHANT_SHIP_CREWS_LOST_/– summary of the casualty and link to a list of the dead crew & passenger
“Survivors Statements” from NARA, in Washington DC, as found by Michael Constandy, www.westmorelandresearch.org. Formal citation: Survivor’s Statements (1941-1942) Series : Papers of Vice Admiral Homer N. Wallin, compiled 1941 – 1974. Record Group 38: Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1875 – 2006 Entry P-13. National Archives at College Park – Textual Reference (Military) 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740
“Titusville Harald” of May 29, 1943, “Sunset Heights Resident Who Escaped from Torpedoed ship Back in Bosom of His Family,” found on www.newspaperarchive.com
Uboat.net the pre-eminent source of information on U-boats, www.uboat.net
Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Empire_Dryden, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Stansbury_(DD-180)
Wrecksite.eu: Specifications and an image of City of Birmingham
Wynn, Kenneth, U-boat Operations of the Second World War, Volume 1 and Volume 2, 1997