The 7,191-ton American Liberty Ship Thomas McKean was built by the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation Limited (Bethlehem Steel) in 1942. The US Maritime Commission, also known as the War Shipping Administration (WSA) of Washington DC commissioned her. The ship was owned by the Calmar Steam Ship Company of New York and chartered by the Isthmian Steam Ship Company (Isthmian Lines). The ship’s dimensions were 134.6 meters long, 17.3 meters wide, with a 4-inch gun mounted on the stern and a 102-milimeter gun mounted on deck. Her triple-expansion engine of 339 n.h.p. propelled the ship at 11 knots.
Thomas McKean was on her maiden voyage from Philadelphia and New York to Trinidad and Basra in Iraq, or Bandar Shapur, in Iran with military cargo when sunk. The cargo consisted of 9,000 tons of lend-lease supplied destined ultimately for Russia via a company called Amtorg. The cargo included tanks, food, and trucks and trucks along with eleven Douglas Medium Bombers (aircraft) stowed on deck. There was also ammunition in the number one hold and aviation fuel in the number two cargo hold. The cargo was valued at $12 million at the time.
The Master was Mellin Edwin Respass and he was in charge of 62 total people, according to the original Crew List. These included 42 officers and crew, 16 armed guards, and four US Army technicians – Felix Glied Jr., Charles Sanderson, William S. Reindl, and Bruno D. Payan. Although some of the men were born in Italy, Canada, Scotland, and the British West Indies, all but one – a Norwegian named Karl A. Danielsen, Able-Bodied Seaman, aged 41 – were naturalized or native-born Americans.
Thomas McKean sailed from New York on the 23rd of June in a coastal convoy along the US east coast as far as Cape Henry, Virginia. Then she headed into the broad Atlantic on her own. On Saturday 27th June they heard an SOS 60 miles astern of 24.00N by 60.00W which must have been the Potlatch (sunk by U-153/Reichmann at 19.20N by 53.18W on that day). The next day, on Sunday 28th of she heard an SOS 70 mile to the east, most likely the Sam Houston, sunk by U-203 under Rolf Mutzelburg at 19.21N by 62.22N though it might have been the Sea Thrush sunk by U-505/Loewe sunk at 22.38N by 60.59W on that date.
The same afternoon, the 28th, they hear another SOS, this one from the Steel Engineer, an Isthmian Lines ship, reporting a sub sighting 300 miles east of Trinidad (apparently this was a false alarm as the ship survived the war). The men on Thomas McKean could be forgiven for thinking that they would be struck next. And they were. On the morning of Monday June 29th she was in position 22.00N and 60.00W or about 200 miles northeast of Anegada and the Sombrero Passage, in 12,000 feet of water heading southeast at 10 knots. There were six lookouts posted as the sun was beginning to rise; two forward, two on the bridge and two aft near the gun.
At 7:23 am and in broad daylight a torpedo ruptured the number five hold aft, damaging the Thomas McKean extensively. According to several sources the stern with the propeller were simply blown off the ship. There was time for a few minutes of SOS transmission, but the torpedo was never seen and the sub not seen until the ship had been abandoned. Three of the Naval Armed Guard, Len Bragg, Tony Everett, and Joe Alier, were killed outright. One man, Wiper Russell C. Funk had been asleep on deck under the aft gun platform. He was so badly injured that he died shortly after being carried into the lifeboat and was buried at sea.
The damage and the potential for knock-on damage to the volatile cargo was such that within ten minutes the remaining survivors had abandoned ship in four lifeboats. Each was led by the Master Captain Respess, the First Mate Andrew Anderson, Second Mate Roland Foster, and Third Mate William Musi, who is described as being less experienced and confident than the others. The numbers in each boat were 12 in the 2nd Mate’s boat, the Captain and 1st Mate’s boats had 29 men between them, and the Third Mate’s boat had 14 men. This made a total of 55 survivors.
Fifteen minutes after the men had abandoned, at 7:48 am U-505 under Axel-Olaf Loewe surfaced roughly one and a quarter miles away. Immediately on surfacing the sub began shelling the ship with 72 rounds of shells, with ten to fifteen seconds in between shots. Aside from the first four shots which fell short, the others were accurate and soon the ship was ablaze. Men on the submarine documented as the Thomas McKean sank bow first at 8:53 am, one and a half hours after the attack had begun.
Loewe brought his sub among the men in the boats and approached the boat manned by the Second Mate and Bosun W. L. McGough. He asked if they had used the radio. Since the men honestly didn’t know, they said as much (Loewe must have known that an SOS was sent). A man in shorts with an “abundant” red beard, then asked whether they had ammunition stowed in the number one cargo hold, which they did. When he saw the injured Wiper Russell Funk he offered the men a First Aid kit (“2”X3”X4” and wrapped in wax or glazed paper”)and according to some sources even boarded the boat to administer it. When asked what direction to sail the men were told “with the wind”. In German he told his own crew “Das field kur funden” or “they will be found.” Then, two and a half hours after the attack or 9:50 am, the sub left bound westward on the surface.
For naval authorities, learning the final disposition of the four boats from the Thomas McKean was like peeling the layers of an onion, as the men were landed in the US Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Saint Kitts, Antigua, and the Dominican Republic. The largest group of survivors managed to stay together in the boats under the Captain and First Mate. They landed at Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands at 1:45 am on the 4thof July. The notes say that they were “picked up and landed” by a vessel, but it is not said which vessels picked them up. According to a letter from the Navy to the Mr. H. W. Warley, President of Calmar Steamship Corporation dated 6thJuly, “The First Mate’s life boat was picked up at 14:45, July 3rdin position 63 degrees 32 minutes west – 12 degrees 40 minutes north. These survivors, numbering 30, were landed at St. Thomas on July 4th.”
The boat under command of the Second Mate, Roland L. Foster, Jr. with assistance from the Bosun, W. L. McGough, 27, was sighted by a US Navy PBY amphibious aircraft on the 2nd of July at 09:05 am. A second PBY joined shortly there-after. The first PBY dropped three packages of food rations (no water and no note with directions), and then flew off. The sharks ate one of the packages of food. The men were so confident of being rescued that they drank the balance of their rations. The second PBY remained circling over them for five and a half hours, however it was deemed too rough to land and the plane flew off towards land to the southwards.
Discouraged that help did not arrive after the airplanes had left, the men continued their voyage south, forced to extract whatever rain water they could collect in blankets, sails and the like. Five days later the boat managed to reach Anguilla, the northeastern-most of the Caribbean islands, bordering the Anegada Passage. They left the lifeboat overnight on the beach in Anguilla and it was reportedly “pillaged” however it is not stated by whom.
The local Magistrate, doctor, and “man of the island” managed to arrange for transportation to nearby Saint Kitts on the local schooner Betsy R. On Saint Kitts a helpful man named Mr. Delisle sent a message to the ship’s owners, the Calmar Company in New York advising that the lifeboat crew were safe. At Saint Kitts the men encountered survivors of the steam ship Anglo-Canadian, which had been sunk by U-153 under Wilfried Reichmann on the 25th of June 1942. They included Captain David John Williams, 38 crew, and ten Royal Navy Gunners. The different crews immediately set about exchanging lively sea stories and varying accounts of their experiences with U-boat commanders and their crew.
They were on Saint Kitts for several days before another schooner, this one named Manita, was secured to bring them east to Antigua, British West Indies. They arrived in Antigua (presumably the capital, Saint John), and were tended to by the American Consul, a man named MR. Schuler, who obtained notes of credit on their behalf to buy clothes etcetera. Gradually they learned the fates of their erstwhile shipmates.
According to the interviewing officer, Chief Engineer Thomas McCarthy of Staten Island had been torpedoed by German U-boats twice in World War I and in the Second World War Captain Respess, A. B. Dennis T. McGrath of Brooklyn, and McCarthy had all already been sunk once by a U-boat. Sadly, for Captain Respass he would be sunk along with colored Messboy James Sealy from the Virgin Island, on the Onondaga while being repatriated to the US. While Sealy survived, it was too much for the Captain passenger, who drowned.
The final boat to arrive was that under the Third Mate, William Musi, on the 8thof July. Musi told rescuers that after for days an airplane circled their boat, dropped food and told them to sail west. After nine days at sea the boat landed unassisted at Micheson, on the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic. There were four naval gunners amongst a total of fourteen landed. At first the locals in the small community gave them food, clothes and the local jail to stay in, which was empty at the time.
After two days a Dominican Coast Guard boat brought them to Cabana de la Mar (Sabena de la Mar?) from where a Dominican Army buss took them on July 10th to the capital. The life boat was left in the custody of the Coast Guard. They were looked after by the head of the American Legation in Cuidad Trujillo (now Santo Domingo), a man named Warren. Apparently the women in the American community, some of whom were nurses and knew First Aid, tended to the injured among the men. One of the injured gunners was expedited to a hospital in the capital on a private car. The State Department ultimately arranged for the men to be flown back to the US.
Messboy Thomas Sealy, aged 31, must have had quite a voyage. He was born in the Virgin Islands and is next of kin was given as his mother, Alice Sawyer (spelt Sewer on the manifest), at Fredrickstad VI. He was described as “colored” and 5’6”. No doubt he would have tried to visit his mother after arriving on the Captain’s lifeboat on the 4th of July in nearby Saint Thomas. Of all the places for the boat to land it must have seemed very fortuitous to him that his boat landed in his home islands. Since it was nearly three weeks before he was later sunk on the Onondoga (23 July), it is feasible that he managed to visit his mother.