Sagua la Grande, Cuba, taken in recent years: the US Consul complained that in 1942 infrastructure was lacking. There is a monument to dead US sailors from the SS Milinocket erected there.
The 3,274-ton American steam ship Millinocket was built by Maryland Steel Company (future site of a Bethlehem Steel yard) in Sparrow’s Point Maryland in 1910. Her owners were A. H. Bull and Company Incorporated of New York, and the ship was on charter to the US Maritime Commission. The ship was named for a town in northern Maine near Baxter State Park where the Appalachian Trail terminates. Her dimensions were 96.7 meters long by 13.5 meters wide and 7.3 meters deep. A 1500 i.h.p. engine drover her at 10.5 knots. She was armed by a single 6-pound gun (meaning the shells weighed six pounds) and two .30-calibre machine guns.
On her final voyage Captain Lewis Wesley Callis was in command of 29 merchant officers and crew and six Naval Armed Guard, for a total on board of 35. The merchant crew included a Russian, three Filipinos and two British, the rest being American. The ship loaded 4,300 tons of bauxite ore in Georgetown British Guiana (present day Guyana) and sailed for Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands. From there she set sail up the Old Bahama Channel for the US Gulf and Mobile, Alabama.
Late in the evening of the 17th of June 1942 Millinocket had a fateful rendezvous with U-129 under Hans-Ludwig Witt. At six minutes after 5 pm there were two lookouts stationed on the monkey island and on the 6-pound gun turret aft. The weather was calm with a smooth sea, a light wind fromt eh northeast at 7 or so knots, and good visibility. The ship was heading up the Old Bahama Channel between the southern edge of the Bahamas’ Cay Sal Bank and Isabela de Sagua, Cuba. Her course was 235 degrees true northwest and speed 9.1 knots.
Men were sleeping on the hatches and resting with their bottoms on the rails when suddenly a torpedo struck the ship between the fourth and fifth cargo holds. Men were literally blown off the ship by the explosion. Though only one life boat was launched, fortunately all four rafts were cut free, however two of them were rendered useless by explosion damage. The speed of the ship reduced to two knots in less than three minutes, by which time the living had managed to abandon ship. Though at first Millinocket maintained an even keel, at nine minutes after 5 pm – three minutes after the attack – she slid beneath the waves stern-first, carried quickly by the dense cargo of ores in her hold.
The Chief Gunner, US Naval Reserve Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Joseph Deserve was killed at his post. His colleague USNR Seaman 2nd Class Hose McCall Fleming is believed to have drowned. The Chief Engineer was presumably killed at his post in the engine room, and Captain Callis died as well. The ranks of the other men killed were Fireman/Oiler, Oiler, Oiler, Able Seaman, Chief Mate, and Third Mate.
Witt in U-129 approached the life boat and questioned the Second Engineer in good English. His men surveyed the horizon with binoculars, kept the survivors under cover of machine guns, and those not on duty took photographs. When asked for it Witt provided a First Aid kit for the men in the boats. Then the submarine submerged and motored off to the west. The survivors reported reading the words “Westward Ho” in various iterations on the side of the conning tower.
The men in the boat and on two rafts drifted with the current, alternately rowing, until they were able to use their flares and catch the attention of Cuban fishing boats, which came to their aid at 1 am on the morning of the 18th of June. By 6 am, some 13 hours after the initial attack, the men were landed at Isabela de Sagua, presumably a smallish fishing community. Since the survivors say they were in the boats for 13 hours it is likely they were not loaded into the fishing boats, but rather simply towed to shore. A Cuban motor boat then carried the survivors further down the coast to Sagua la Grande, which they reached at 7:30 am. There eight of the survivors were treated at hospital, one of them with serious leg injuries.
Just before midnight on the 18th the crew of 16 (minus 11 killed and 8 retained in hospital) left Sagua la Grande for Havana. The American Consular Agent in Havana described Sagua la Grande as lacking “all equipment to give assistant at future torpedoing.” He says there were insufficient boats for rescue work, however three boats were procured on an emergency basis in the case of Millinocket, and the survivors time between being thrown overboard and hospital is comparatively very short.
There is a plaque displayed just outside the town office which honors the crew of the Millinocket and lists the names of the nearly one dozen killed aboard her that fateful night in June, 1942 far away, between the Bahamas and Cuba. It was dedicated by Francis E. Elliott of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 4154.