U-Boats New England: Cherokee
SS Cherokee, showing the side where two torpedoes from U-87 struck her in June, 1941. Courtesy of the Rich Turnwald collection, Source: uboat.net/allies/merchants/ships/1818.html
The loss of the steamship Cherokee in convoy off Cape Cod is remarkable as the casualty with the most deaths of any loss in New England waters in World War II, at 86 persons. The next closest death toll by a merchant ship in these waters was the Zurichmoor at 45 fatalities. The two factors in this sad result were the number of persons on board (169) and the speed with which the ship sank following a torpedo attack on its convoy – roughly six minutes.
SS Cherokee was a US-flagged passenger ship of 5,986 gross tons on its first voyage for the US Navy, from Iceland to New York via Halifax. She was 402 feet long, 55 feet wide, and 18.7 feet deep. Capable of 15 knots, the ship could steam 4,000 miles without refueling based on the output of a pair of steam engines providing 981 net horsepower to a single propeller. Whilst in commercial service for the Clyde Mallory Lines (Agwilines, Inc.) of New York, she was fitted to accommodate 300 passengers, however after being chartered to the US Navy her capacity was 1,373 troops. According to historian Thomas R. Blandford in 1977, at the time of her loss “her interior was still pretty much as she was in normal operation and that she had not yet been converted for troops.”
Cherokee was completed in June 1925 by Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company of Newport News, Virginia. Her sister ships at Agwilines were the Seminole, Mohawk, Algonquin, Iroquois, and Shawnee. The Mallory Line extended from the prominent ship-owning clan the Mallories of Mystic, Connecticut. Subsidiaries included the New York and Texas Steamship Company of New York. The line served New York, Charleston, Jacksonville, Miami and Galveston.
For her final voyage the Cherokee had taken troops to Iceland, where the US Navy and US Air Force maintained bases, carrying troops. A brief history of her movements in the spring of 1942, her only voyage for the US Navy, would be instructive. She left New York for Providence on April 29th, arrived the following day, loaded cargo and passengers and sailed 4 May for Boston via the Cape Cod Canal. Escorted by USS Barnagat she arrived in Halifax on 6 May. The next day she sailed in a convoy of 56 vessels. With the Norlago she peeled off for Iceland, arriving Reykjavik on 20 May. After discharging there and in Hvalfjordur she sailed on the 29th escorted by USS Williamsburg. She joined a small convoy going east then a larger one of 43 ships going west to Halifax escorted in party by USS Pleiades and USS Salinas. It was slow going in fog, with an average of 3.5 knots made good. They arrived in Halifax June 10th.
The Cherokee’s master at the time of her casualty was Captain Twiggs E. Brown and her pilot at the con was Captain Arthur E. Buck, who subsequently perished. There was a mix of merchant mariner crew (nine officers and 103 crew for 112 of various nationalities), 41 US Army enlisted soldiers including an Army Air Force pilot, four Russian naval officers, and 11 naval armed guard including ensigns as well as the pilot, Capt. Buck on board for 169 total.
Cherokee was loaded with 350 tons of sand ballast and sailed to Halifax, with a draft forward of 15 feet and aft of 18 feet. The ship was also entrusted to 61 miscellaneous bags of mail. At 11:30 am on Sunday the 14th of June, 1942 she sailed from that port to New York in convoy XB-25, which assembled off Sambro Light Ship and got underway at noon. However, six hours later, at 6 pm (or possibly early the following day), her orders were changed and she was instructed to proceed to Boston, which was roughly half the distance away. There was considerable angst at Cherokee, which was capable of more than 15 knots speed, being instructed to join a convoy where she had to go half as fast.
The commodore of the convoy sat on the SS Port Nicholson, which was subsequently blown up off the Cherokee’s port bow. Other vessels included the SS Pan York and the SS Norlago and two other vessels for a total of six. There were three corvettes and a destroyer escorting, among them HMCS Nanaimo (K 101) under T. J. Bellas, RCNR, US Coast Guard Cutter Escanaba (WPG 77), HMS Halifax and HMS Montgomery. Cherokee’s position was second ship in from the port corner of the convoy.
There were 14 ships in the convoy. Their arrangement on departure, from front row to back, left to right, was as follows: front row, HMS Halifax, SS Millcrest, SS Cherokee, SS Port Nicholson, SS Pan York, SS Empire Franklin, and escort HMS Veteran. Second row: destroyer HMS Montgomery, SS Cathcart, SS Norlago, SS Empire Dabchick, HMCS Nanaimo. Third and final row: USCGC Escanaba and escort Charlottetown. At the time of attack Cherokee was behind and to starboard of Port Nicholson. The order at time of attack was row one, Halifax and Veteran, row two, Cathcart, Port Nicholson and Pan York, row three, Montgomery, Millcrest, Norlago, Cherokee and Nanaimo, and row four, Escanaba.
U-87 under Joachim Berger was waiting for ships to round Cape Cod or turn inbound for Boston, and this assemblage of ships sailed right into his crosshairs. Though the rough weather might make an attack more difficult, it also served to obfuscate the periscope and torpedo tracks, and make escape less difficult.
The bow lookout was able to pick out Highland Lighthouse at 10:15 pm that night. Confusingly, the convoy’s ETA at Cape Cod Canal was 8 am the following day (it was reported they were bound for Boston, no longer New York via the canal). At 10:18 pm local time on Monday the 15th of June the convoy was laboring in heavy weather roughly 25 miles northeast of Cape Cod heading south when Berger in U-87 fired a pair of torpedoes which hit and blew up the Port Nicholson. Although the casualty, which happened just ahead and to the port side of Cherokee, was clearly visible to all in the convoy, the Norlago apparently fired off a series of distress flares which illuminated the area around it, including of course the other ships in convoy. In the dry language of the US Navy’s post-mortem report, the flares “rendered other vessels in convoy better targets.”
Whether making use of the increased visibility or not, Berger fired a second spread of two torpedoes three minutes later, both of which struck the Cherokee. Meanwhile Captains Brown and Buck were not idle: when the saw the Port Nicholson blow up only 3,000 feet away they brought Cherokee up to full speed and turned hard to starboard. Although armed with a four-inch gun aft as well as two .50-caliber Browning machine guns and other guns of .30 caliber on each side of the bridge, there was no time nor opportunity to find a target and take offensive action. Immediately the armed guard reported to the bridge via radiophone that they were at their stations and ready for action.
Cherokee was heading almost due west (261 degrees True) at eight knots when struck. Being in convoy she was having difficulty maintaining just half her usual speed as well as keeping maneuverability. They were not zig zagging, and both the portholes and the radio were blacked out. Altogether the ship had seven men on lookout duty: on the bow solo, and in pairs on the after deck, the flying bridge, and after bridge. There was a fresh gale unleashing itself from the northwest and though the seas were rough and it was partly cloudy, visibility was described as good. The other vessels in the convoy were “dimly visible.”
Despite the Allied ship’s efforts at escape, Berger’s third torpedo hit Cherokee port-side forward, beneath the bridge. The impact lifted the ship out of the water, destroyed the chart house, and caused an immediate list to port. At about 10:25 pm, or 1.5 minutes later, the second and final torpedo hit the port fo’csle head. By roughly 10:30 pm, or between five and seven minutes following the first strike, the Cherokee, which has assumed an extreme list of 60 – the third mate said 75 – degrees to port by the time, succumbed to the damage and sank beneath the waves.
Although the crew managed to cut seven emergency life rafts loose, because of the severe list to port none of the boats could be launched. Also because of the wild angle of the deck the guns could not be brought to bear. The ensign in charge of the gun crew, George B. Norro, USNR, had his men work on freeing rafts, and reported that they “behaved calmly and expertly and without confusion.” Norro got his men onto the rafts, looked for Captain Brown in the bridge, while the ship was almost on its beam ends, and then abandoned ship. Cherokee was still moving forward, slowly. At 10:48 pm Cherokee was seen to sink by the bow. Given the severe weather as well as the speed of loss, as well as the sheer number of 169 souls scrambling to survive in the cold rough waters, evacuation of the Cherokee was chaotic, as was rescue. Some of the men simply “ran down deck and jumped into water.., some climbed on rafts, others drowned.”
The nearby US-flagged convoy ship SS Norlago carried either 42 or 44 survivors to Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod on Tuesday the 16th of June. The same day USCGC Esconada, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Carl U. Peterson assisted by Navigaor Lt. (jg) R. H. Prause took 22 other survivors to Boston and HMS Halifax and HMS Montgomery took 16 together. Altogether three officers, 62 merchant marine crew, an armed guard and 20 of the passengers perished in the cold rough seas that night, for a total of 86 people. At least two bodies were recovered, as there were that many “known dead.”
One little-mentioned detail listed as a possible factor in the high mortality rates is the fact that “one of the destroyers screening the rescue dropped some depth charges.” Human organs do not stand up well to having depth charges dropped near them whilst treading water, and survivability in such circumstances is low, as many a German submariner discovered after they made it to the surface from stricken U-boats whilst still under attack.
The navy report, drenched in morbidity, records that “four [sailors] seen to drop into water from life raft; two severely injured; many suffering from shock and other minor injuries. Effect of torpedo, explosions [depth charges], falling debris, oil in water, and drowning.” None of the survivors were taken prisoner by Berger on U-87, which was busy making its getaway. One of the survivors, Simon Bermudas, and able-bodied seaman from Brooklyn, is listed as “alien.” Another of the dead was from Cuba. Captain Twiggs Brown survived the casualty.
In reviewing the casualty it was learned that USCGC Escanaba at 4:30 pm that afternoon had “made a series of sound contacts,” and “dropped numerous depth charges,” on the route subsequently taken by the convoy. Presumably this was a submarine lying in wait and the feeling, in retrospect, was that the convoy should have altered its course to avoid the contact.