The Western Head was laid down as the Lake Fessenden but completed under the name Bartholomew for the United States Shipping Board in November 1919. Here builders were the American Shipbuilding Company (Amship) of Cleveland Ohio, one of the pre-eminent ship builders in the Great Lakes up to World War Two. In 1925 the Bartholomew was sold to Eastern Steam Ship Lines of Portsmouth, New Hampshire and renamed Cumberland. In 1939 she was again sold to Canadian interests and renamed Western Head. Her gross tonnage was 2,599 and her dimensions were 76.5 meters long, 13.3 meters wide and 8 meters deep.
At the time of her sinking she was registered to the Maritime Navigation Company Limited of Nassau, New Providence, Bahamas. Western Head was registered to Nassau as her homeport, making her the only known victim of U-boats or Italian submarines which was actually registered to the Bahamas, at the time a British colony. As the Second Mate, the only surviving officer, explained it years later, “Maritime Navigation Company was registered in Nassau [because] you don’t have to pay income tax. You can live in Canada, you can be Canadian, but if you got your ship registered in these countries you don’t have to pay income tax. …the salary was better than the Canadian National [Steamships] and a few of the companies paid…” (Running the Gauntlet, pp. 97-101).
The crew of 30 men, mostly Canadians, was led by Captain Joe Faulkner of Falmouth, Nova Scotia. Captain Joseph Everett Faulkner was 67 years of age and had been brought out of retirement due to the necessity of war. Also amongst the crew were two black men, one of them named Charles Espinoso the other Guaroa Carrazco, who had stowed away in Santo Domingo some months before. Jailed in Montreal, the ship’s managers ultimately decided to hire them as mess boys rather than incur the cost of repatriation.
Western Head’s final round trip voyage began in mid-April 1942 when she sailed from Montreal Canada fully laden for supplies consigned to an un-named “army base in Central America”. This was possibly Coco Solo in Panama, since the other ports on her itinerary were in British Guiana and Brazil, leaving insufficient time for the ship to have called at those ports. After discharging the ship sailed in ballast for Port Antonio, Jamaica, arriving on the 19th of May. She loaded a part cargo of sacks of raw sugar and sailed for Kingston, Jamaica, arriving at 09:00 am local time on the 24th. Loading the balance of 3,710 tons of raw sugar continued until two days later, on the 26thof May.
Following loading operations the ship shifted within Kingston and took on bunkers. On the 27th of May she completed taking on fuel and sailed for Montreal. The outward bound pilot was returned to the pilot boat at 5 pm. The ship’s course was through the Windward Passage and southern Bahamas, most likely utilizing the Crooked Island Passage, then north-northeast to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and Montreal, situated upstream.
On the evening of the second day of her voyage the loom of Cuba could be made out as the tropical dusk quickly fell and a slight moon emerged. Canadian Second Mate Donald Mosher asked Galley Boy Cuaroa “John” Carrazco, who had been a barber before stowing away on the ship, for a haircut. At 6:30 pm, after John’s shift ended, he gave Mosher a haircut on a chair on deck. Then Mosher took a shower and retired to his cabin.
By 7:17 pm on the evening of the 28th, the Western Head had reached a point roughly 20 miles southwest of Cape Maysi, Cuba. The course was 36 degrees true, or just east of north. The weather was fine, the seas were smooth, there was a breeze from the northeast and visibility was good. U-107 under Harald Gelhaus was waiting for prey, and he sent two torpedoes slamming into the side of the smallish freighter, which was loaded almost to the gunwales.
The first torpedo struck the stokehold beneath the officer’s mess and sent the chinaware splintering across the room, making a racket which woke up Mosher, who was resting in his cabin in just a pair of shorts with the portholes open. Mosher dashed out of his cabin, intentionally leaving his cork life jacket, on the justifiable fear that it could snap his neck if he jumped feet-first from great heights into the water. Since the ship had taken on an extreme list to port he crawled along the railing on the starboard side. The young Radio Operator, Gordon Denniston, aged 22, stuck his head out of the radio shack and asked Mosher to rig up an emergency aerial. Mosher admonished him to grab a life jacket and jump ship. He called out:
“Never mind the emergency aerial. We’re half sunk now.” Well, we were half sunk before the torpedo hit us, we had a full load of raw sugar. Seventy-five percent of the ship was under water anyway when we left Jamaica, so it didn’t take much to sink her” (Ibid. p.99). A second torpedo then slammed into the number four cargo hold, sealing the ship’s fate. Within one and half minutes of the first torpedo strike she plummeted to the ocean bottom. Just before she went Mosher leapt clear on the starboard side and swam as far as he could to avoid suction.
Mosher managed to grab hold of the wooden grating from the top of the bridge. Then he found one of the rafts which had broken free. Mosher wrote that “the water was coverd with oil and there were quite a few hatch covers floating around.” In the ensuing minutes shell-shocked men started popping up out of the water around him – five in all. He said that one of the colored Galley Boys pulled him aboard the raft, where they were ultimately joined by Alvin Newcombe, Lorne and Claude Henwood (possibly brothers), Thomas Leo Canning and Guaroa “John” Carrazco. It was 7:40 pm.
The current pushed the raft away from the wreckage – they never saw or spoke to Gelhaus or his crew. At 9:00 am the next morning an American patrol airplane flew over them and signaled with morse, but the survivors had no way to signal back. An hour later the plane returned and circled around them, looking for wreckage or other survivors, or possibly for the offending submarine in a wide radius of 30 miles. By 3:00 pm a US Navy net layer (possibly the Mulberry) arrived from Guantanamo Naval Operating Base and picked them up, taking them back to the base that evening at 7:00 pm.
Two men were hospitalized in Guantanamo, one with a fractured windpipe, the other with a cut foot. The survivors were given clothes and remained in the base for roughly a week, from 29 May to the 8th of June. On that day Mosher and four of the others entrained for Havana, which they reached the following day. They stayed in Havana for five days until the 14th of June, which is when Mosher took a plane to Miami. The others planned to follow within a few days. Mosher and Claude Henwood took a plane together from Miami to New York, arriving there at 7:00 am on the 15thof June 1942.
In New York Mosner provided affidavits on the demise of the Western Head and verified the crew lists for the owner’s agents, who had the unenviable task of informing the family members of 24 Canadian officers and crew that their loved ones had been sunk in a Bahamas-flagged ship off Cuba by a German submarine and would not return.