S.S. ROBIN HOOD, Attack & Survivor’s Narrative
By Eric T. Wiberg, Esq. www.uboatsbermuda.blogspot.com, November, 2014
SS Robin Hood, sunk by U-575 under Günther Heydemann on 16 April 1942.
Photo source: http://www.uboat.net/allies/merchants/ships/1543.html, courtesy of Captain Arthur R. Moore
The US-flagged steam ship Robin Hood was built by the Skinner and Eddy Corporation of Seattle Washington in December 1919 as yard number 73. She was commissioned and built for the US Shipping Board (USSB). She was 6,887 gross registered tons (GRT), 425 feet long, 55 feet wide and 33.5 feet deep. The ship was propelled by a steam turbine General Electric engine which developed 637 net horsepower and propelled the steel hull at 10.5 knots.
In the spring of 1942 the Robin Hood was owned by Seas Shipping Company, Incorporated of Corlandet Street, New York. The firm was also known as the Robin Line. At the outset of World War II the firm had 11 ships, all but one of them beginning with the name “Robin”. They were in a service from New York to Baltimore, Cape Town and Mombasa, East Africa.
According to the Oakland Tribune of April 28th, 1925, the ship was then operated by the Argonaut Line and was making great speed between Baltimore and Oakland with mostly steel and iron products. Argonaut Line was a division of the American South African Line of 26 Beaver Street, New York. Their main route was to the Pacific.
In March of 1927 the Robin Hood was back in Oakland, according to the Tribuneof March 21, 1927. Her captain as named McKenzie and she carried a general cargo from Baltimore to Parr Terminal. By 1927 the ship was owned by the Robin Line (Seas Shipping Co.). The ship was bound as far north as British Columbia, then back to the US east coast via the Panama Canal. The ship’s call was newsworthy enough that in both instance they were accompanied by photos.
During the Second World War but before the US was directly involved, the Robin Hood was reported sighting “a suspicious vessel under Swedish colours” on the 12th of November, 1942 in the South Atlantic. This turned out to be the SS Tisnaren laden with Allied airplanes but the British took note of the report and dispatched HMS Devonshire to investigate.
In March of 1942 the Robin Hood loaded a cargo of 8,725 light tons. This included 4,500 tons of chrome ore, 800 tons of asbestos, and general cargo including sisal, skins, wood, gold and copper concentrates, liquor, cocoa, and wolfram ore. Her draft forward was 27’ and aft 28’.
Robin Hood loaded in East Africa and proceeded to Boston via Cape Town and Trinidad for bunkers. The voyage went uneventfully except that on the 9th of April it sent a radio message about another suspicious vessel in the North Atlantic, possibly compromising her own position in doing so. The ship was unarmed, so there were no gunners aboard, and there were only two lifeboats. It is not known whether there were rafts aboard, but since there is no mention of them it can be assumed there were not any.
On her final voyage the ship’s master was Captain John A. O’Pray. There were 37 men under him. All of them were US citizens except for Able Bodied Seaman Frederick C. Pedersen of Denmark and Second Cook Pedro A. Peralta of the Philippines. There were also 2 passengers on board, named Hall M. Newhall and George Davis, so the total number of persons on board was 40.
The ship left Trinidad on Tuesday the 7th of April with orders to pass east of Grenada and Barbados, then “NW to 32-01 N, 66-45 W; N. to 39-01 N, 66-45 W” On the night of Wednesday April 15th 1942 the ship was approaching its destination, as it was 210 nautical miles southeast of Nantucket and 395 nautical miles northwest of Bermuda.
Her course at the time was 343 degrees true north northwest, and Captain O’Pray was adhering to the British zig zag patterns 11 and 34. Speed was 10.7 knots through the water. It was a dark and cloudless night with winds were southwest in the 14-20 knot range, a choppy sea and lots of phosphorus in the ship’s wake. There were two look-outs, one on each wing of the bridge, with Third Officer Richard T. Chapin manning the starboard bridge wing.
Kapitänleutnant Günther Heydemann, skipper of U-575 which sank Robin Hood.
Photo source; http://www.uboat.net/men/heydemann.htm
Unbeknownst to them, Robin Hood was being stalked by U-575 under Günther Heydemann. At 9:42 pm local time Captain O’Pray was in the chart room on the bridge when Second Officers Curtis W. Denton called him to say that a torpedo fired from astern had just passed along the starboard side close by. O’Pray ordered a hard turn to port, but then another torpedo struck the side at the number three hatch. This caused the boiler room to explode and filled the air with cordite and steam.
Some of the crew believed that a third torpedo struck 50 feet behind the first, however others believed that the concussion was actually the ship tearing apart as a result of the first blow. The trauma to the ship’s hull was so extreme that it “lifted the deck and folded it over,” as well as blowing out hatches one and two forward and knocking down the foremast.
In either event, within a minute of the first torpedo strike, sea water covered the well deck and the ship rapidly began to sink. Also debris from the explosions forward sent metal shards raining down on deck, giving the impression that the ship was being fired on by shells. According to several sailors the forward mast in particular shattered and rained debris down on deck: “…there was a great deal of gear raining down on deck from the shattered mast, but they did not observe any shell hits.”
Interviewers commented on the “nervous condition of the master was compared with the composed bearing of the crew members, especially that of an ex-British naval rating of 4 years’ experience, 1914-1918,” and that “It is believed that the vessel was sunk as the result of a single torpedo explosion, causing the vessel to break amidships and that there was no shelling by the submarine.”
Captain O’Pray had Radio Operator Benjamin Pinz send the rather vague message “SOS POSITION UNKNOWN,” however since the aerials were down it is doubtful whether this message was received ashore (it wasn’t). In any event, Captain O’Pray did not enjoy a strong working relationship with Pinz, who along with Messman Adolph P. Moses “had been trouble makers on the voyage prior to the attack, grumbling at and criticizing the orders received from their officers.” O’Pray did manage to send the confidential codes overboard in a weighted canvas bag.
O’Pray claims that he saw “no more than a vague outline of the submarine” off the starboard side he also reported two submarines signaling each other, though this report was discounted by interviewers. It would appear that O’Pray was convinced his ship was attacked by two submarines, but that no one else on board was so convinced. In any event, a submarine shone a searchlight on the ship, possibly to learn the ship’s name. The Second Mate (Denton) felt it was a carbide lamp. Subsequent interviewers noted that “In the darkness and excitement the description of the submarine is lacking in details.”
Because the starboard lifeboat was smashed, 26 men out of a complement of 40 (24 sailors including the two passengers) managed to get away in the port lifeboat. The boat got away at 9:45 pm and two minutes later, at 9:47 pm, the Robin Hood broke in half just forward of the number three cargo hold and broke in two and sank. According to O’Pray he was “blown off bridge and hauled into lifeboat.” This might account for, or have contributed to, his nerves.
Up until that point she had been settling on an even keel. Once broken in two the bow raised then sank, and the stern briefly floated with the poop raised in the air before it too sank. The submarine motored off at 9:50 pm, without Heydemann having interacted with the survivors.
On board the boat the mutinous behavior of some elements of the crew (Pinz and Moses) continued to harangue the already-stressed O’Pray: “Considerable difficulty was experienced in handling the boat the first night due to a smashed rudder and the failure of Messman Adolfph Moses and Radio Operator Benjamin Pinz to obey orders and remain quiet in the boat.” Fortunately with the rising of a warm sun the situation improved: “….a steering oar and sail were rigged and these crew members brought under control.”
It would be over a week before help arrived. During that time Captain O’Pray managed to keep morale high and rationed his supplies well. As for the fate of the 14 sailors and officers left behind, little is known of their fate. Unless they managed to get away in a damaged lifeboat or life raft, they would have been either killed in the explosion or drowned when the ship sank. Apparently distracted by the broken rudder and the heavy seas, the 26 men in the other lifeboat did not linger to determine their fate.
Among the dead the most senior was Third Officer Richard T. Chapin, followed by Bosun John Mulligan. There was an able-bodied seaman (Isias Enduzy), two ordinary seamen (Freitag and Ramirez), 1st, 2nd and 4th assistant engineers (Seaman, Allen, and Lindley), and Oiler (Caronias), two firemen (Glemby and Nickersen), a wiper named Hoffman, Chief Cook Wright and Messman Sherrad. The three engineers were almost certainly killed in the engine room when the boiler room exploded.
After seven days, 12 hours and 45 minutes the US Navy destroyer USS Greer came upon the men in the lifeboat. The transformation of morale in the boat was considerable as the Greer’s commander reported that “It was notable at the time the survivors were recovered that the condition of the boat was very good and that disciplined of the crew was excellent. It was considered that the Master, Captain John A. O’Pray is deserving of special credit for the manner in which he conducted this crowded lifeboat. He stated that about five dais rations and three days water supply was on hand when rescued.”
USS Greer, DD 145, was under command of Lieutenant Commander L. H. Frost. In the fall of 1941 she fired on a German ship three months before the US officially entered World War II in what became known as the “Greer incident.” About seven weeks earlier the destroyer had rescued 13 men from the merchant ship Equipoise on 1st March 1942. The ship had been sunk by U-160 off Cape Henry on 27 February. The Greer was built by William Cramp and Sons Ship and Engine Building in Philadelphia and launched 1 August 1918 as part of the Wickes-class. She was decommissioned (laid up) between 1922 and 1930 and between 1937 and 1939.
USS Greer DD 145 which rescued 26 survivors from the Robin Hood in April 1942.
Photo source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Greer_%28DD-145%29
According to the Greer’s War Diary of Thursday April 23rd, at 10:06 am local time she “Sighted flare ahead and small boat with sail up. Proceeded to investigate.” At 10:20 she “Approached boat and picked up twenty-six (26) survivors from torpedoed ship S.S. ROBIN HOOD….”. At 10:30 “Shelled lifeboat and destroyed it.” At noon they received ordered from the Commandant in Bermuda, Admiral James, to make for that island.
The position where the Greer rescued the Robin Hood survivors was roughly 50 miles west southwest of where the ship had been sunk. It was roughly 300 nautical miles north northwest of Bermuda. At 3:40 pm the Greer informed Bermuda that their eta was the following day and that two of the merchant sailors would require medical attention.
At 1:12 pm on Friday April 24ththe Greer sighted the island of Bermuda. Just after noon it had been sighted by two US Navy planes and exchanged the password signals At 3:16 the ship entered the mine-swept channel to Bermuda and at 3:52 she moored alongside USS Altair. By 4:30 pm all 26 survivors of the Robin Hood had been transferred “to United States Authorities in Hamilton, Bermuda.”
The Oakland Tribune reported that the Robin Hood men (the ship’s name had to be censored) were “safe in port today after spending eight days in a lifeboat,” based on an Associated Press wire story that went out from Hamilton on the 25th of April. The New York Times scooped the story on the 24th of April (publishing it in their April 25th edition).
Saying that the group was the third landed on the island in as many days (the others were from the Agra (33 men), and Derryheen (8 men) landed 22 April), the Times noted that “Three were hospitalized and two were placed in the infirmary in the Sailors’ Home…. The mend did not suffer a water shortage, but were without food for several days before they were picked up, their biscuits having been damaged by sea water….”
The article continues: “Some of the men were described as “in very bad shape.” Most of them are suffering from swollen feet. It is understood that the men who were lost died in the lifeboat.” This last statement contradicts the notion that 26 men entered the lifeboat at the time of the attack and 26 exited it – all alive – in Bermuda, and that at least three men died in the explosion in the engine room.
The one newspaper with best access to survivors was the Bermuda Gazettte and Colonist Daily, which reported that “The latest band of men to weather the ordeal of a torpedoing have undergoing extreme hardship and are in worse shape than the other crews brought to the islands on Wednesday. They were eight days at sea in a lifeboat, and when picked up were in a weak condition. Upon their arrival here, three of the men were sent to the King Edward VII memorial Hospital and tow were placed in the infirmary at the Bermuda Sailor’s Home. It was only recently that the infirmary wing was made ready. It has been a godsend.”
The article continues: “Most of the men’s water and biscuits were lost overboard during their struggle in the lifeboat against heavy seas. They suffered no dire shortage of water but were without food for several days. …Most of the men needed immediate rest and sustenance. However some of them were dancing at the Naval Recreation Rooms last night, none the worse for their ordeal.”
Bermuda Gazettte and Colonist Daily, Hamilton, Bermuda, April 25, 1942, “3rdTorepedoed Crew in Two Days Landed Here: 26 Saved from U.S. Ships But 14 Are Known to Have Died, Survivors Adrift in Boat for 8 Days; Some Injured.”
Fold3.com – for the war diaries and deck logs and Eastern Sea Frontier and NOB Bermuda
Jordan, Roger, The World’s Merchants Fleets 1939, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1999
Mason, Jerry, www.uboatarchive.net
Mozolak, John, “New York Ships to Foreign Ports, 1939 – 1945,” http://janda.org/ships/
New York Times, April 25, 1942, “26 Survivors Reach Bermuda,” Special Cable to the New York Times.
Newspaperarchive.com for the articles from the Associated Press (Zanesville and Frederick above and below).
Oakland Tribune of April 28th, 1925, “Freighter From Atlantic Making Good Time Here, Robin Hood of Argonaut Line, Due Here in Few Days, Left April 7.” “Ships and Shipping” section.
Oakland Tribune of March 21th, 1927, “Big Freighter Returns After Long Absence, Steamer Robin Hood Calls at Parr Terminal With Cargo From East” “Ships and Shipping” section
Oakland Tribune of April 25, 1942, “Navy Lands Score of Ship Survivors” Hamilton, Bermuda, AP
Uboat.net for much of the information, including photos of U-boat Commander and its victim, http://www.uboat.net/men
Wrecksite.eu for specifications and history, http://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?31999
Wynn, Kenneth, U-boat Operations of the Second World War, Volume 1 and Volume 2, 1997