The American 2,310-ton steam ship Onondagawas built by Detroit Shipbuilding Company of Wynadotte, Michigan in 1920. She was initially owned by the Independent Steam Ship Company of Cleveland, Ohio until 1924, when she was sold to the Ford Motor Company, also of Detroit. Onondoga’s dimensions were 76.5 meters by 13.3. meters and 6.8 meters. The triple expansion engine of 265 n.h.p. propelled the ship at nine knots.
The steam ship Oneida (sunk by U-166/Kuhlmann on the 13th of July 1942 north of the Dominican Republic) was also owned by both the Independent Steam Ship Company and the Ford Motor Company on the same dates, and sunk just ten days before Onondaga. By the fact that their tonnage is within one ton of each other, it is safe to say they were sister ships. Interestingly Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company which owned both ships, had been an apprentice machinist at Detroit Dry Dock between 1879 and 1882.
On her final voyage the Onondaga was sailing from Nuevitas Cuba to Havana. Before Nuevitas she had picked up Captain Mellin Respess of the ship Thomas McKean, who had landed in Saint Thomas Virgin Islands on the 4th of July, as well as his Messboy, James Sealy, aged 31 of Fredrickstad, Virgin Islands. They signed aboard as one Passenger (Respess) and a Workaway (Sealy). Her cargo was a full load of magnesium (or chrome) ore loaded for the US Maritime commission of Washington. The Onondaga’s master was Captain George Dewey Hodges, who led a crew of 32 men total. Twenty-nine were officers and men, one was the passenger and two were workaways, meaning they weren’t full time crew but would work their passage in exchange for room and board.
On the afternoon of 23 July 1942 the Onondaga was following the 100-fathom (600 foot) curve heading generally northwest, with a gentle wind from the northeast at seven or so knots. The weather was fair and visibility good. Her position was 22.40N b 78.44W, or just off the north coast of Cuba. There were to look outs – an Able-Bodied Seaman on the monkey island and the Chief Mate on the bridge. There were a number of small fishing boats in the vicinity at 4:30 pm when the Onondoga steamed into the crosshairs of the periscope of Hans-Ludwig Witt in U-129.
The ship was making 8.3 knots in daylight when there was an explosion amid-ships on the port side at 4:31 pm. The ship sank within one minute of being struck. Some crew claim that a second torpedo also slammed into the ship on the starboard side, however this is improbable as only one submarine claimed to have sunk a ship in these coordinates at this time. The second explosion might have been a boiler exploding.
Third Mate Russell F. Demnis is the only senior officer to have survived. He was in his cabin at the time and when he reached the deck it was already awash, so he dove straight into the water. Because of the suction of the sinking ship Demnis was held under water but fought his way to the surface, where he found the ship had sunk. Ensign H. L. Nadeau, USNR found Demnis to be “very nervous and uncertain of practically all the particulars stated herein.”
It appears that 19 or 18 persons were killed or drowned in the sinking of the ship (James Sealy was counted twice – as “Captain Respess’ negro messboy, name unknown,” killed, and as James Sealy, Workaway, survived). The remaining 14 men managed to swim away from the sinking ship. . Both of the life boats were lost as there was no time to launch them. Two of the life rafts floated free (one drifted away before they could reach it and another went down with the ship).
Eight of them made it to a nearby island 12 hours later (before dawn the next day) and six were picked up by a local fishing boat after 16 hours (10 am). The next morning, the 24th of July, the Cuban fishing vessel Laventina took them to Punta San Juan in Cuba. The nineteen lost were listed at six officers, one radioman, and twelve unlicensed crew. They included Captain Hodges, First Mate Perry F. Creighton, Second Mate Genius T. Hudgins, and Radio Operator James Dillon. Chief Engineer Adrian E. Daniels as well as the Second and Third engineers, Leroy Lucas and Olaf Bengtson.
The American Vice Consul at Nuevitas failed to understand why the Onondaga was not routed out of port with a convoy. He noted that a convoy sailed past Nuevitas “only a few hours after the sinking … with both surface and air protection.” A cable from Naval Intelligence also notes that “practically everyone in Nuevitas knew the destination of the vessel and the time of departure.” There is no evidence, however that this information was passed to German liaisons.