SS Afoundria sunk by U-108, rare photo of women and children survivors landed in Guantanamo Cuba May 1942

Women and children survivors being landed from the USN net tender Mulberry, Guantanamo.

Photo source: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Washington DC – file of photographs labeled simply “survivors”, pulled 2010.

          The Afoundria was a Hog Islander – a steam ship built for the United States Shipping Board during or after World War I at the American International Shipbuilding Corporation at Hog Island, Philadelphia, on the site of the international airport. Her original owner, under the name Haddix, was the US Shipping Board, however the same year she was built – 1919 – she was sold to the Waterman Steamship Company of Mobile, Alabama, to which port she was registered when lost.

             Afoundria’s dimensions were 118.87 meters length overall by 16.52 meters wide and 8.47 meters deep. She was built of steel and her steam engine turned a single propeller to provide 11.5 knots. Her tonnage was 5,010 gross tons. On the voyage in question Captain William Arthur Sillars was leading a team of eight officers, one Radio Operator, and 29 unlicensed crew plus eight passengers who were likely technicians for utilizing the military materials on board. Altogether there were 46 souls on board. The ship was unarmed and carried four life rafts and four life rafts. Her route took the ship from New Orleans around Key West, north of Cuba down the Old Bahama Channel, then north of Haiti and the Dominican Republic to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Photo source: Mariner’s Museum Newport News, Virginia, US and

              On her final voyage Afoundria was carrying 7,700 tons of a full general cargo categorized as war materials. This consisted of explosives, aerial demolition bombs (for use by airplanes against submarines), dynamite (presumably for construction such as building air strips), frozen foodstuffs, machinery for building roads, and lumber. Most likely this material was destined to be used to fortify San Juan and surrounding strategic points on Puerto Rico as part of the Allied counter-offensive against submarines after the continuing slaughter of Operation Neuland that spring.

             On the afternoon of the 5th of May Afoundria had just crossed the Windward Passage to starboard in daylight and was approaching the northwest coast of Haiti at Cape Mole-Saint Nicholas. The weather was clear, the moon already partly risen, with a slight wind from the east (ahead) and a moderately choppy sea. There were three lookouts: on the forecastle head, aft, and on the bridge, where Captain Sillars stood watch with the Second Officer. The ship was zigzagging 30 degrees off course every ten minutes. The lookout on the bridge shouted out as he saw a torpedo wake streaming right for the ships’ side aft of the bridge and roughly amidships.

               There was no time to change course. Afoundria was making 11 knots on an easterly course only fifteen miles from shore when at 4:23 pm local time a torpedo fired by Klaus Scholtz on the German submarine U-108 tore into the ship’s starboard side. A strong acrid smell of cordite filled the area of impact. Much more seriously the aft holds – numbers four and five – immediately flooded. Immediately the vessel began to lose headway, and would not respond to the wheel. An SOS was sent on 500 kiloherz, with a reply given from the naval Air Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba across the Windward Passage.

              Captain Sillars ordered abandon ship and three of the four lifeboats were launched and manned (one of the lifeboats was destroyed by the concussion). The men ironically found that all of the provisions got in the way of getting the oars deployed. Their sentiment that bread and other life-saving equipment be “condensed” i.e. the rations cut, would not have been shared by those who spent 17 days in boats, instead of 17 hours. The engineering team pointed out that the ratchet gear for dogging the water-tight doors was cumbersome and took minutes to close – they recommended a more efficient spinning wheel to seal off portions of the shaft alley and allay flooding.

              Though three of the rafts were deployed from the ship, they were not needed. The crew and passengers responded well to commands and abandoned ship “in an orderly manner”. All 46 made it into the boats without injury, including the engine room staff, though the bunker tanks had been breached and caught fire. Fortunately for everyone on board, the highly combustible cargo of explosives never ignited.

              The Afoundria was seen to sink after 50 minutes, at 5:13 pm. No communication between the submarine commander and its victim took place, probably due to the proximity of Allied aircraft and the nearby naval base at Guantanamo. The men in the boats made slow progress towards land – in fact 17 hours after the sinking they were only 10 miles from land, or five miles closer to shore than when their ordeal began. The suggests that either they were awaiting rescue or that there was a strong counter current, or even that they opted to remain in the general vicinity of the wreck, whose position was reported and acknowledged by radio.

              At 8:30 am local time the next morning, the 6th of May 1942 the USS Mulberry, dispatched from Guantanamo for that purpose, came upon them. All of the crew and passengers of Afoundria were landed on the Mulberry that evening at 5:30, just over 24 hours after Scholtz had attacked.
Their arrival, many of them in undershirts and work clothes, was documented by naval photographers, the results on file in the National Archives in Washington DC.
             The Mulberry appears a tug-like work boat. In fact she was a net-tender which had been launched the year before on the 26th of March 1941. Following twenty years in the US Navy she joined the Ecuadorian Navy as the Orion, and was scrapped 20 years later, in 1980.