Pillory was the last ship sunk in the region by Axis submarines. The 1,516-ton Panamanian tanker Pillory (also named in some sources as the “Pan American Pillory”) was built by Nakskov’s Skivaerft A/S in Nakskov, Denmark in 1933. Her original owners were J. Lauritzen of Esbjerg, Denmark (Vesterhavet Dampskibsselskabet), who named her the Jonna until 1941. On the 11th of June the ship was interned by the US government and delivered to the War Shipping Administration (US Maritime Commission). Under Public Law 101 this was legal.
The WSA operated the ship under bareboat, or demise charter from 5 August 1941 onwards. According to uboat.net the Marine Operating Company took over management and ownership of the vessel, renamed it Pillory and flagged it to Panama. Then from August 1942 to February 1944 the Stockard Steam Ship Company operated her, and finally the Danish Ship Operating Company took her over under a GAA agreement (uboat.net).
Pillory’s dimensions were 82.8 meters long, 12.1 meters wide and 4.8 meters deep. Here compound engine was tubine and 192 n.h.p. which propelled the ship at 12 knots. On her final voyage her Master was Captain Laurid N. Sorensen, a Dane, who administered ten naval gunner and 37 officers and men for a total of 47 souls. The merchant marine crew came from the US, Denmark, France, Mexico, Finland, Greece, Honduras, China, Dominican Republic, Portugal, Estonia, Spain, Holland, and Cuba.
The ship was in ballast and being convoyed from San Juan to Guayanilla, Puerto Rico where she planned to load sugar. She left San Juan on the 5th of June 1944 escorted by the US Coast Guard patrol boat # 83310. There were 190 tons of fresh water ballast stowed aft and 200 tons of salt water in the after peack tank and in three bottom tanks.
By 4:00 pm that afternoon they were west of San Juan and five miles north of Cape Boriquen, in 500 fathoms of water, off the northwest tip of the island of Puerto Rico. Five miles ahead of them a tanker, the US-flagged Glenpool, was steaming towards them. Also within sight was the San Juan convoy #274, composed of three merchant ships, a US Armed Transport, and two escorts. This convoy was steaming the same direction as the Pillory – west – and was also five miles ahead.
The Pillory had not made much westward progress when U-539 under Hans-Jurgen Lauterbach-Emden boldly attacked in broad daylight and with numerous Allied vessels in sight. She was on course 220 degrees true, or south-southwest and making 11 knots. There was an Armed Guard on the wing bridge along with a Navy Signalman, and another Armed Guard off the stern. The Second Mate was on the starboard wing bridge with the Armed Guard and Chief Engineer watching a block of wood between the ship and its escort.
The seas were calm, a gentle breeze of 3-5 knots was coming in from the northeast. Visibility was unbroken to twelve miles out in bright daylight. Her orders were to follow the coast and Cape Borinquen was only five miles away. At 6:10 pm a massive explosion hit the number two cargo hold on the starboard side. The front of the superstructure including the bridge was blown away, and the men who had been standing there were thrown into the sea. There was not enough time to send a mayday, fire at an unseen submarine, or launch a lifeboat. The number two hold quickly filled with salt water and Pillory began to list to starboard. She began to plunge by the bow.
Then, as the engineroom and the funnel hit the water there was another explosion, presumably as a second torpedo slammed into the starboard side amidships. The ship broke into two pieces, the engine machinery was blasted out of the skylight, and debris rained down upon the survivors floating in the water. Those that survived the debris had their bodies concussed by the pressure of the underwater explosion pressing against their internal organs. One man, Gunner’s Mate Third Class John Thomas Watson surrendered his life jacket for a fellow gunner and shuttled from injured to injured man. He subsequently died of internal injuries once hospitalized ashore.
More than half – 25 out of 47 – of the men died in the casualty. Captain Sorensen, twenty one crew members and four armed guards died, one of them after being plucked out of the water and hospitalized. The men who survived did so by leaping or being thrown over the side of the ship. There was no time to launch the life boats, but two life rafts were released. Twenty one were picked up by the convoy escort, USCG 83310, and two others by the US Coast Cuard ship Crawford which was returning from other duties and diverted five miles to assist in the rescue. They were taken to Mayaguez where they were landed later that night.
The attack on the Pillory so late in the war, in a convoy, and so close to shore caused considerable questions to be raised and tacked by the Navy and Merchant Marine establishment Had the ship been mined? No it was too deep for mines to be moored and unlikely two floating mines hit just one ship back-to-back. Had a bomb been placed in the bunkers? No the deck above bunkers was not buckled. Had explosives been left in empty tanks and spaces? No they had been searched and washed prior to loading sugar. As for why had a submarine hit a small freighter and not a nearby tanker or a large convoy nearby, no logical explanation was forthcoming.
As a footnote, the Survivor’s Statement and report was drawn up by and signed Barbara Conard, Lieutenant Junior Grade W-V (S). This was the only report filed by a woman of the nearly 150 covered in this analysis. She would have been known by the acronym “waves” for women’s auxiliary volunteer service.