F/V Aeolus and F/V Ben and Josephine sunk by U-432 under Heinz-Otto Schultze, June 3, 1942 Gulf of Maine

U-Boats New England: Aeolus

Ben and Josephine at her launch at Morse in Thomaston Maine in March 1941. 

            The fishing vessel Aeolus was 41 gross registered tons, a
dragger with a schooner rig and auxiliary motor. Her captain and owner was John
O. Johnson, an unlimited tonnage master. The vessel was built in 1922 in
Friendship, Maine and was based in the well-known fishing port of Gloucester,
Massachusetts.  
            The otter dragger schooner Ben and Josephine was built in
1941 at the Morse Boatbuilding Company in Thomaston, Maine. Launched on March
15th, her owners, or at least theirs agents and the godmother at
launch, were Captain Benjamin Curcuru and his family and the captain was
Captain Giuseppe (aka Joseph and Joe) Ciaramitaro of Gloucester Massachusetts.
The wooden vessel was 102 tons, 92 feet long, had a 20-foot beam across, and a
9.5 foot draft. She was capable of carrying 130,000 pounds of fish, and was
specifically designed for redfish. The schooner had cabins for ten persons and
her deck was raised towards the stern.
            Ben and Josephine was equipped with a 220 horsepower
Atlas Diesel engine capable of 335 rotations per minute, as well as a smaller
7.5 horsepower diesel driving a pump and a four kilo-watt generator. Her
cordage was made by a firm named Plymouth, her nets by Grimbsy, and fish hoist
by New England.
            The Aeolus and her crew headed out of Gloucester Harbor
on Cape Ann Massachusetts at 7 pm on Tuesday the 2nd of June, 1942.
They set off in company of another fishing vessel, the Ben and Josephine owned
by Ben Curcuru, and their destination was the Seal Island fishing grounds off
Nova Scotia near the mouth of the Gulf of Maine. The two-vessel convoy
traveled at about nine knots until they were roughly 150 nautical east south
east of Thatcher’s Island Light, which is just east of Gloucester.
            At 3 pm the following day, Wednesday the 3rd
of June, the Ben and Josephine was ahead of the Aeolus by about four of five
miles. The lead vessel had 1,500 pounds of redfish, the Aeolus had no fish yet.
Although there was a slight haze on the horizon the atmosphere was clear, there
was no wind, and the sea was calm. Both sub observed an unmarked submarine on
the surface on a parallel course about two miles to starboard, or to the east,
of the Ben and Josephine. Visibility was six miles and at first the men on both
vessels saw no reason for concern, as they presumed the submarine was friendly,
or from the US navy.
The
fishermen on both boats studied the sub with binoculars, “finding nothing to
indicate the craft was an enemy,” so they held their course and speed for the
next hour. The submarine maintained its speed and bearing as swell for an hour.
Then at roughly 4 pm when the boats were all about ten miles further east, the
submarine altered course abruptly to the west, or port, towards the Ben and
Josephine. It was clear the submarine planned to cut off the leading fishermen,
as it increased speed on approach.
The
submarine, a German U-boat named U-432 under Heinz-Otto Schultze, came to
within just 200 yards or 600 feet of the Ben and Josephine before it again
straightened its course to be parallel to its intended victim. Then the
submariners fired a burst of machine gun fire aft of the stern of the
fisherman. The Ben and Josephine’s engineer was on deck at the time and both
heard and saw the machine gun fire and called for the captain, Ben Curcuru, who
was sleeping below.
Rousted
to a shocking attack, Captain Giuseppe (Joe) Ciarmitaro raced in the direction
of the pilot house along the deck in order to use the radio and alert the
authorities. The commander of the German sub anticipated his intention, as they
“fired a determined burst of machine gun or light cannon with tracer bullets
through the pilot house.” Ciarmitaro decided that discretion would be the
better part of valor and ordered the fishing dories overboard and the mother
vessel abandoned.
While
the eight fishermen in a pair of dories rowed away from the doomed Ben and
Josephine, the sub’s sailors fired into the larger vessel from the forward gun,
the projectiles of which were roughly three inches in diameter. As the American
scrambled to get out of the line of fire a pair of shells were fired near them,
and once they were clear somewhere between 38 and 48 were pumped into the
wooden hull. By this time the submarine was circling the fishing vessel. Even at
very close range a number of the shots missed, however enough of them found
their mark that after 30 minutes and at about 4:30 pm the Ben and Josephine
sank by the head into the cold waters of the North Atlantic.
Meanwhile
the Aeolus under Captain Johnson witnessed the attack its brethren from the
same home port, and by 4:25 pm had altered course to the north-northeast
towards Canada. The sub fired a warning shell over the
 fishing vessel. Upon recognizing the warning shot Captain Johnson ordered the
engine stopped and dories launched into the water. At that point the sub
started paralleling the Aeolus’ course to starboard about 250 yards distant,
also going north-northeast.
While
the six men from the Aeolus were getting away in two dories the sub fired two
shots from its deck gun, one of the shells hitting the fishing schooner’s
starboard bow. As the Aeolus men pulled astern the submarine went around her
bow and from the port side of the fisherman fired numerous times, making
roughly eight hits on the American’s hull.
Captain
Johnson became panicked at the thought of navigating his dories without a
compass and daringly rowed back to the starboard side, crawled aboard, yanked a
compass out of the binnacle and threw it into a dory, following it moments
later. The German gunners strafed the pilothouse where he had been only seconds
later.
By
then the Aeolus was sinking, and the sub moved ahead of her and shot off two
more rounds. One of these hit the hull but the second flew over both the
schooner and the dories filled with survivors behind it. Engineer Gallagher
related that he “hurt my hip when I fell into the dory from the rail of the
boat and I had to do my turn at the oars.”
At
around 5 pm, having devoted roughly half an hour each to the sinking of both
vessels, the submarine headed westwards at about 15 knots, deeper into the Gulf
of Maine without having spoken audibly amongst themselves. The American sailors
observed three Germans on the conning tower and three manning the gun. The
estimated the Axis sailors fired between 14 and 17 rounds of which roughly half
or eight were hits.
The
fishermen did not have any valuable or classified information on board, though
there were efforts by US naval intelligence to place radio transmitters aboard
fishing vessels who were deemed privy to enemy sub movements and a valuable
resource. So there were fissures between the unspoken truce between submariners
and fishermen. The sub described at 250-300 feet overall, no net cutters, with
a dark and dull grey hull, a large conning tower with a machine gun platform
and antenna.
After
the submarine had left the four dories gathered together; those of the Aeolus
mingling with those of the Ben and Josephine. They initially set off for nearby
Seal Island, Canada, however headwinds caused them to reappraise this decision.
Thereafter they changed course for Mount Desert Rock Light, Maine. They rowed
and sailed for the next 36 hours, from roughly 5 pm Wednesday the 3rd
of June to 5 am on Friday the 5th of June. The Ben and Josephine men
were said to lack a compass and have arrived at 4:30 am.
The
Aeolus men did have a compass and arrived about half an hour later on the same
windswept rock. All 14 men found shelter at the US Coast Guard station on Mount
Desert Island. During their voyage the survivors reported, heard gunfire twice:
late on Wednesday the 3rd of June and then at 2 am on Friday the 5th
of June. Specifically the Aeolus men heard seven shots fired at 6 pm, an hour
after the sub left them on the 3rd of June. When they arrived “all
men suffered somewhat from exposure but none were lost or injured.”
            The men were interviewed by US Naval Reserve Lieutenant
Junior Grade, Philip J. Deering, Jr. as well as by a submariner aboard an
American submarine in Canso Bay Maine named Lt. (jg) W. M. Wilcox, USNR, who
helped other interviewers like Deering, particularly with illustrating the
events. The survivors are convinced they saw men in the conning tower taking
moving pictures of film footage of them. Naval interviewers complained that
many of the crew “spoke broken English, being of Italian and Portuguese stock,
and their estimates of what they saw varied widely.”
The
Americans also described “considerable underwater exhaust smoke which they
described as very yellow and very disagreeable in odor.” Another observation
seems odd, given that the fishermen were only 200 yards from an enemy action engaged
in a wartime attack in enemy waters: “they could not recall hearing any words
spoken by any person aboard the submarine.”
Captain
Ciarmitaro told his relatives, one of whom Charles Dana Gibson wrote in 2012
about the morale in the Gloucester fishing community: “When the full news
became known,” Gibson relates, “enthusiasm for the offshore fisheries declined
sharply. It would be some weeks before the men of Gloucester again extended
their voyages east of Cape Porpoise, Maine.”
In
February 2010 Douglas M. Norwood submitted a letter to the Sou’west Harbor
newsletter, describing how he was a young Freshman at Pemetic High School in
Southwest Harbor, near Bar Habor Maine. His father rushed home early from work
chattering on the phone about making beds ready for 14 freezing fishermen. Together
with members of the American Red Cross and the Coast Guard they set up cots in
the high school gymnasium. Norwood related how the men rowed through a twelve-hour
rain storm.
Once
the fishermen had landed the Coast Guard took them to the Southwest Harbor
Coast Guard Station. The survivors spent a night in the gym being offered “baskets
of food” and “fish chowder and biscuits, hot coffee and dessert.” Norwood’s
father, who was the Chairman of the local American Red Cross, arranged for a
bus to transport them home to Gloucester.
            Apparently Captain Johnson had an unlimited master’s
ticket with the US Coast Guard. Full of enthusiasm for revenge, he enrolled in
the US Navy where he spent the balance of the war as a navigational instructor
at Great Lakes Naval Training Station. After the war one of the vessels under
his command was the Little Joe, going for yellow tail tuna out of New Bedford.
            Everett Gallagher, the engineer of the Aeolus at the
time, resents the filming of the sinking and believed as recently as 2010 that his
“boat was sunk just to get the pictures,” recalling that “One fellow pointed it
and the other cranked it,” referring to the camera.

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