Delfina, Photo source: http://www.uboat.net/allies/merchants/ships/1747.html, SSHSA Collection, University of Baltimore Library
The Delfina was a 3,480-ton steam ship built in 1918 by the Hanlon Drydock and Shipbuilding Company of Oakland, California. He was 97.7 meters long by 14 meters wide and 7.4 meters deep, making her smaller than a number of other steamers sunk in the area at during the war. Three boilers provided steam to a triple expansion engine driving one propeller at 387 n.h.p., allowing the ship to achieve 11 knots.
At the time of her final voyage, Delfina was owned and operated by A. H. Bull and Company Incorporated (Bull Insular Lines) of New York, NY. Her original owners were the US Shipping Board of Washington DC between 1919 and 1942. The Captain on her final voyage was Jake Jacobs, and he oversaw a crew of 30 men. The round trip voyage began in Baltimore, Maryland on the 2nd of May. From the beginning the ships complement had trouble with turnover of the officers and crew. By all accounts the master was not respected, and nor were his instructions carried out by a majority of the men.
On the outbound voyage Delfina pulled into Hampton Roads to wait for a Second Assistant Engineer to join. After an eventful voyage to San Juan during which the ship was shelled off Cape Romain South Carolina on the 5th of May when the captain left the chart room door ajar, allowing lights to be seen away from the ship. Delfina missed her intended convoy to Key West and proceeded alone. Despite warnings by the Navy against crossing the Mona Passage at night, the ship did so on the 19th of May.
By the 20th of May the ship had berthed in San Juan and experienced what can only be described as a mass desertion or a mutiny. According to reports tabulated afterwards, “the captain had a great turn-over among the members of the his crew, owing to the fact that few people could get along with him. Practically the entire deck department left the ship at San Juan. The ship was delayed two days… Two Naval Intelligence Officers came aboard June 3 and 4, inquiring about the general conduct of the crew and officers of the ship, and giving advice.”
The Delfina sailed on the 4th of June and headed north to Charleston, South Carolina with a load of raw sugar. That night close to midnight the Third Mate approached the Chief Mate and informed him that there was a smell of diesel oil off the side of the ship and that he felt it was exhaust from a submarine nearby. The Chief Mate asked why the Third Mate had not reported this observation to the master and the Third Mate “said it would only result in being cursed at.”
At roughly 10:30 pm ship’s time on the 5th of June when they were roughly 100 miles north of San Juan “there was a jarring of the ship, it was not very heavy and sounded like a small shell. The weather was cloudy, the seas moderate from the east at about 10 knots, and visibility was poor. There had been three men on watch on the bridge and one on the forecastle head.
At 40 minutes past midnight on the 5th of June Carl Emmermann, skipper of U-172 sent a torpedo into the port side of the Delfina between the number three cargo hold and the boiler rooms. One of the boilers exploded, killing Second Assistant Engineer Foster Smith and Oiler Lynwood Marshall and splaying steam throughout the engine spaces.
The radio aerials seemed on inspection by the Chief Mate to have remained operable, and it was claimed by Captain Jacobs that an SOS was sent and received by San Juan. It appears confusion reigned and no clear instructions for abandoning ship were given. The ship had been steaming at 9.5 knots on course of 333 degrees true but lost headway, falling to three knots. Ten minutes after the torpedo hit the submarine surfaced roughly half a mile to port, but did not shell the ship and as far as is known did not question the survivors. The ship went down by the head and twenty minutes after the attack, at 1:00 am local time, sank.
According to the Chief Mate Edwin C. Bennett the captain was one of the first men on board the life boat and he left the confidential Navy codes on board the ship. Evidently he did not issue orders until he told the men in the lifeboat, which was only half full, to row and pull away from the ship, where men were still stranded. Despite protestations the Captain said that the ship might be shelled and that they had to get clear.
The Radio Operator, First Mate, Third Mate George Ould and others were left on board. Ould had to break out of his damaged cabin, which took a doubtless frightening five minutes. On making the deck he found the boat had pushed off. Along with the others he jumped into the sea and swam towards the rafts which had been released by the cook. Some of the engineering staff noted that “as far as could be determined the ship was not shelled, no explosions were heard, although possibly flares were fired by those left on board.” Others felt that the two men who refused to jump from the ship were signaling with flashlights for the lifeboat to come back and get them.
The First Assistant Engineer Manuel Garcia and Able Seaman Louis J. Trymers drowned. The others got away in the two rafts – the dispositions were said to be five on the first raft, four on the second, one each on the third and fourth and one clinging to wreckage. At 8:30 the following morning a US airplane arrived and circled over the place where the ship had been, possibly even landing on the water.
That evening at roughly 5:00 pm an American naval vessel, the YP 67 managed to reach the survivors and rescued twelve of them from their consolidated roosts on two rafts at position 20.24N and 67.20W. They were taken back to San Juan. The lifeboat with 15 other survivors was not seen by YP 67, which was under the command of Lieutenant Junior Grade Thomas H. P. Whitney. Captain Jacobs was presumed to have been lost with the ship at that time.
The newly recruited deck crew, composed mostly of Puerto Ricans from a specific neighborhood of Port D’Corra on board the Master’s lifeboat refused to obey the captain, saying that after the ship sank they were free to act as they pleased. As a result the loyal officers had to do most of the work of sailing and rowing the boat to the coast of Monte Cristo, Dominican Republic, which they reached after five days, on the 11th of June.
The unfortunate postscript to the incident was corroboration by the American Naval Attache in Cuidad Trujillo, Dominican Republic, who wrote on the 18th of June that “The survivors…. Compare unfavorably in conduct, discipline, and spirit with other American seamen who have been here under similar unfortunate circumstances. There seems to have been an unusual lack of discipline and a general air of inefficiency on board this vessel. … The captain had neither the respect nor the confidence of either the crew or his officers…”
It appears from dispatches that the recalcitrant crew from Puerto Rico remained there, and that the American officers and crew from the mainland were repatriated there aboard the passenger cargo ship Seminole, like so many other of their colleagues during the attacks by U-boats in the region.