Photo source: http://www.uboat.net/allies/merchants/ships/1502.html, from Mariners Museum of Newport News, Virginia
The Hog Island-built steam tanker Catahoula was built in 1920 for the US Shipping Board. The yard is formally known as he American International Shipbuilding Company and their output are ships known as “Hog Islanders”. There were 110 dry cargo ships built where the Philadelphia International Airport now sits, to help the American effort in World War I. Three of them – the Carrabulle, Cassimir and Catahoula were sold to the Globe Company and converted into molasses tankers, which require heated coils to keep the cargo from solidifying. In 1923 the Catahoula was sold to the Cuba Distilling Company of New York, NY.
Catahoula’s dimensions were 122.2 meters in length, 16.5 meters wide and 8.5 meters deep. She was capable of 11.5 knots and her gross registered tons were 5,030. The voyage in question was undertaken with Captain Gunvald B. Johannesen as master over a total complement of 45 persons, including a gun crew of seven armed guards from the US Navy.
Catahoula left the DuPont Chambers plant in Deepwater Point, New Jersey in ballast to load cargo in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. On the voyage down she was routed along the east coast of Florida, then west between Key West and Havana, around the western end of Cuba and along the southern coasts of Cuba and the Dominican Republic to Ensenada, Puerto Rico, on the southwest coast facing the Mona Passage. There she loaded the bulk of her cargo of molasses.
From there the tanker sailed to La Romana, Dominican Republic to load more cargo at the entrance to a small and narrow river. This was accomplished by running hoses from the shore to the ship at anchor. The ship shared the river with President Rafael Trujillo’s palatial presidential yacht. Then the Catahoula loaded the last of its cargo at the open roadstead in San Pedro d Macoris, also in the DR.
On the evening of April 4th 1942 she set sail through the Mona Passage and headed north-northwest to skirt the eastern shores of the Bahamas to Cape Hatteras and then her discharge port of Deepwater Point, New Jersey, though her discharge port has also been listed at Wilmington Delaware, near Baltimore where the ship was registered.
The second day of their passage was Easter Sunday, the 5th of April, and the wind grew steadily in strength. Captain Johannesen had all the life boats swung out for easy deployment in the event the ship was torpedoed, however the sea rose to such a height that the waves threatened to swamp or damage the boats. Thus all of the boats except number 2 on the port side were brought inboard and secured. The rafts were lashed to the rigging.
Several of the deck officers were enjoying a post-dinner conversation in the sun on the port side of the poop deck when the ship was shaken by a tremendous crash. A torpedo had struck the port side just aft of the accommodation and bridge house amidships, spraying the vessel and decks with sticky molasses and releasing ammonia gas from the refrigeration plant. The ship’s position was 19.16N and 68.12W or just northwest of the Mona Passage and well southeast of the Turks and Caicos.
The men on the poop, or stern of the ship, were thrown across it. When they tried to go below to fetch life vests, they found the below decks already flooded with four feet of water. The explosion had blown open the decks, destroyed parts of the catwalk, and distorted the bridge house. The galley had been destroyed, and the cook Norris W. Litch, lay dead at his station. The radio officer managed to rig an emergency antenna and transmit four emergency calls, which were not acknowledged, meaning they didn’t know if anyone heard them. The Navy Guard on the bridge meanwhile had spotted periscope of U-154 under Walther Kolle and began firing the .30-calibre machine guns at it, claiming to have blown it away. Number 4 lifeboat on the port side was also destroyed.
Four minutes after the first, a second torpedo struck the Catahoula, this one from the starboard side, forward of the bridge and some ten feet below the waterline. The men succeeded in launching lifeboats numbers 1 and 3 from the starboard side as well as number 2 on the port. Capt. Johannesen watched from the bridge as the crew scrambled to get away. The ship took a severe list to the starboard side and her stern rose up as within a minute of the second torpedo she began to sink.
The combination of the ship falling to starboard and the wave created by her sinking overturned the two lifeboats on the starboard side, drowning the bosun, Julius Lynck, and sucking other crew down with them. Though “he was physically OK, but could not be persuaded to get out from under the capsized and sinking boat, thereby losing his life” (Patriots and Heroes, p.180). Though one raft was destroyed, the crew managed to free another one and 13 men clambered aboard. One of the Able Seamen had choice words for the raft:
“I’ll tell you, these life rafts, they have tanks for food and vitamins and water, Well the mate told us they were to carry 18 persons on her and we had 13 person on ours and these tanks were under water, the ones that had the food and water in them. The only possible way to get them would be for everybody to jump over the side and one man to stay on board and unscrew the tank tops… … they were six inches under water continually.”
Finally the master succeeded in getting 25 men in the number 2 lifeboat and 13 men in the raft, meaning that five men had drowned and two including the cook were killed on board. Fortunately for the crew rescue was rapid – at 10 pm that night a Navy Catalina PBY patrol bomber spotted flares let off by the castaways and circled overhead, indicating that they had been seen.
Shortly after sunrise the US destroyer USS Sturtevant (DD-240), a World War I-vintage four-stack ship, came up to the motley crew and picked them up. The survivors were taken at high speed to San Juan Puerto Rico, where all the men were disembarked on the jetty. The Red Cross made quick work of tending to the seven Naval Armed Guards, ignoring, however the merchant seamen. Captain Johannesen managed to call the Salvation Army who looked after the crew with accommodation, clothes and even cash.
After a stay in hospital and hotels the crew were repatriated to the mainland US aboard the Clyde-Mallory liner Seminole along with 350 passengers, amongst whom were reportedly hundreds of other survivors of U-boat attacks. The Sturtevant was lost some week later while approaching Key West Florida from the northwest. She struck mines laid by the Americans, who had not forewarned the Allies about the exact location and danger of the mines before not only a destroyer but several merchant ship struck them unawares.
Ironically one of the Catahoula’s lifeboats managed to wash ashore five days later, on the 10th of April at Cabo Viejo Frances. The lifeboat itself did not have a visible name but three of the oars in it were marked with Catahoula. Boson Lynck’s body was not in it.