The steam ship Gunny was built by Joseph T. Eltringham and Company Limited of Willington Quay-on-Tyne (Wallsend), England and launched in June of 1920. Her tonnage was 2,362 gross and her dimensions 290.4 feet long by 44 feet wide and 20.8 feet deep. She was capable of 9.5 knots. (sjohistorie.no/portal/skip/g/Gunny).According to the authoritative website on Norwegian merchant ships during the war, webmistress Siri Lawson, determined that Gunny was owned at the time by A/S Nesjar (Eilert Lund) of Bergen Norway at the time of her loss, but was built for A/S Eliassens Rederi of Bergen, who owned her until 1934. (warsailors.com/ singleships/gunny).
There were only 26 men total under the command of Captain Otto Henrichsen when she sailed fro Tokoradi, West Africa on the 31st of January 1942, independently arriving at Trinidad on the 17th of February (Hague, Kindell, Lawson). The war had been brought home to the small crew while they lay peacefully at anchor in Trinidad. During their stay U-161 under the daring Albrecht Achilles penetrated the defensive screen over the Mouth or “Boca” of the Dragon and torpedoed the Mokihana and British Consul at anchor, setting off a furious but ineffectual counterattack (Lawson, Kelshall).
Gunny began her final voyage on the 24th of February destined for New York with a cargo of 3,100 tons of dense manganese ore in the holds and 367 tons of mahogany logs on top.
On the 7th day of their passage northwards – the 2nd of March – their course was 321 degrees true and they were making 9 knots with a Force Four (35-40 knot) wind behind them and a heavy sea with good visibility described as “clear and fair”. At noon their position was 26.56N by 66.22W. At 2:10 pm they had steamed an additional 17 miles and had two lookouts on the bridge, without bothering to zigzag so far out to sea and with so few ships having been sunk in this region that early in the war. Suddenly a torpedo from U-126 under Ernst Bauer, who was beginning an exceptionally productive patrol, slammed into the starboard side near the Number Four hold, on the quarter, or rump of the ship. Both the boiler and cargo of manganese order immediately exploded.
The damage to Gunny was a fatal as it was lightning fast – the ship was said to have sunk in 30 seconds, entombing fourteen of the men, or more than half the crew. Thirteen others managed to be blown clear of the ship by the explosion or fortuitously were ejected free of the dying carcass of the sinking ship and floated to the surface. There the thirteen survivors, including a badly injured engineer, made it to two rafts and gathered together. Researcher Siri Lawson has added details about the survivors, taken from records of the maritime hearings with the Master, Third Engineer Olav Brattaule, and Ordinary Seaman Henry Moe, who had left the helm only 10 minutes when the torpedo hit, finding him on the after deck near the explosion (warsailors.com). She writes:
“3rd Mate Sigurd Nedberg was on watch on the bridge at the time and went down with the ship. 3rd Engineer Olav Brattaule, who was on duty in the engine room, immediately ran up on deck, at which time he noticed that the entire after deck was under water (the engines were stopped from the deck control). He was pulled under when the ship sank, but survived. Able Seaman Håkon Hansen was at the helm, the captain was asleep in his office, and by the time he reached the boat deck the ship was already half under water. He ran back to his cabin to fetch the ship’s papers and when he came out again she sank and he was pulled under. Some men had manned the starboard and port lifeboats, but as Gunny sank they too were pulled under.
When the captain surfaced he managed to grab a hold of a broken hatch, then he and 12 others were able to climb onto 2 rafts. They had no food, nor water, and were cold, wet and miserable in the ensuing stormy weather. The injured Chief Engineer Birger Jørgensen died on the 4th day and was buried in the sea; he had a badly injured leg and was in great pain the whole time. The assumption was that gangrene had set in.” (warsailors.com/singleships/gunny)
Captain Henrichsen managed to keep the other twelve survivors together and alive long enough. Exactly one week later, at dawn of the 9th of March, the Swedish motor ship Temnaren came upon the two rafts and stopped to rescue their occupants. She was on a voyage from Gothenburg, Sweden to the commercial port of Progresso, Mexico, on the Yucatan Peninsula in the Caribbean Sea. The Temnaren was built in 1939 by Linholmens’ of Sweden and was a fast ship capable of 14 knots sailing for the Swedish TransAtlantic Lines (Rederi AB TransAtlantic, kommandobryggan.se/Bryggan/tran). She was 3,136 gross tons and 116.1 meters long by 15.5 meters wide and 10.4 deep. Sold first to English and then to Hong Kong interests in the 1960s she ended her days as the Tong Hai sailing for the Talish Company of Somalia, then in 1979 as the Lylian of Honduras.
On landing in Progreso, Mexico on the 13th of March, the crew of the Gunny were well taken care of by Senor Felix Lejeune, the Norwegian Vice Consul of that port. Not being able to find the med hotel accommodation in Progreso, he took them to nearby Merida. According to Lawson four of the men were hospitalized, and others were treated by a doctor who visited their hotel in Merida. Their hiatus from commercial shipping would be short lived – by the 23rd of March, 10 days after their arrival, they would have returned to Progreso, where transportation to the US was awaiting them in the form of the shuttle tanker Bertha Brovig, a fellow Norwegian ship of 2,415 gross tons and dimensions of 316′ x 47.5′ x 19′. (The Bertha Brovig was ultimately sold to TMM, or Transportacion Maritima Mexicana of Vera Cruz and re-named Merida in 1961. She was sold for scrap 7 years later – Warsailors.com). The trip from Progreso to New Orleans took between the 24th and 28th of March. It was reported in the Eastern Sea Fronteir Diary and survivor statements that only 11 survivors landed from the Gunny, suggesting that one man remained in Mexico, presumably hospitalized. From New Orleans the remaining survivors made their way to New York, where on the 8th of April Captain Henrichsen and two of his crew were interviewed in a maritime hearing as mentioned.
It is interesting to note that the men in the lifeboats were not idle during or after the attack, and their witness statements have made it though the decades, recording what they saw. Lawson writes that though they did not actually see a torpedo or a submarined, “none of them doubted that it had been a torpedo that had caused the sudden explosions” and indeed the log books of U-126 corroborate this. More enigmatic, however, is the following radio log entry from the ESF diary, which is included in the Survivors Statements dossier for the Gunny in the US National Archives (NARA2):
“Master GUNNY interviewed at Merida. States on 7th March while adrift on raft in approximate position lat. 26-03 S. [sic – meant N.], Long. 67.57W., heard violent explosion and swa [sic – meant “saw”] water hurled into the air about 10 mild away. Is positive it was torpedoed ship. ALUSNA MEXICO CITY C 182335”. The author has combed events of 6th and 7th March and cannot conclusively connect this sighting and its position with an event that corresponds with the location. The Finzi attacked an unkown tanker with torpedos that day but far to the east. The OA Knudsen was in a duel for her life with U-128 but again that was far to the West, off Abaco. U-126 reported sighting a US military convoy a bit to the west of this position at that time according to the ESF diary, however there is no report of any activity or interaction between the two forces.
Ships were sunk on that day, just not in that position. One possibility is that the very large blue whales which migrate southwards to mate and breed North of the Greater Antilles during winter were swimming not far from the survivors in the raft, and one or more of them breached, creating a large splash and loud sound. Though it must have been much closer than 10 miles, such an event might have seemed like a larger explosion further off. It is just a possibility but based on research to date which comprehensively tries to account not only for all ships struck by U-Boats in the great area mentioned, but to details many of the ships and naval vessels simply transiting the area, there is no known attack that this author can connect to Captain Henrichsen’s reported sighting.