US SS Comol Rico sunk by U-154 under Walther Kölle NE of Puerto Rico on 4 April 1942

Photo courtesy, from the SSHSA collection (Steamship Historical Society of America) at the University of Baltimore Library

           The Comol Rico was a molasses tanker of 5,034 tons owned and operated by the Commercial Molasses Corporation. She was built in 1919 and weighed 5,034 gross tons. Her draft was 25 feet fully loaded and she was capable of carrying 9,000 tons of liquid cargo in bulk. On her final voyage she had loaded a cargo of 7,609 tons of molasses in Humacao, Puerto Rico and sailed for Boston Massachusetts. At the time of the attack the weather was clear but the seas were choppy. There were 42 men on board under the command of Captain Peter Hansen Lang.

            Included in the crew were six navy gunners whose job it was to man a four-inch anti-aircraft gun, two 50-calibre machine guns and two of 30 caliber. Chief Engineer Croft later stated that he observed evidence of sabotage to the hydraulic line leading to the aft anti-aircraft gun. He said that “a hole had been made with a blow torch in such a position and way that in his opinion it precluded accident.” 

             On the 4th of April 1942 the Comol Rico had reached a point at 20.46N by 66.46W, roughly 300 miles north of Puerto Rico and east of the Bahamas. She was on a course of 324 degrees, or north-northwest and steaming straight at nine knots. There were four lookouts, one in the crow’s nest, two gunners at their stations aft and the Second Mate on the bridge. They had been sighted by U-154 under Walther Kölle.

             At six minutes after 3:00 pm local time the Second Mate sighted a torpedo 300 feet running 6 to 8 feet under the water and rapidly approaching the starboard quarter from 10 to 12 degrees aft of the beam. He described it as eight to ten feet long and with a pointed end. Immediately the wheel was ordered hard to port and the alarm rung and the engine was put on standby. Unfortunately it was too late for the engine room crew – the torpedo tore into the machinery space and killed three of the men working there.

             The impact of the explosion threw parts of the engine up onto the deck, destroyed the whole side of the ship aft of amidships, and caused the ship to list to sink by the stern and list to port. The master threw the confidential papers overboard in a weighted bag. He ordered the radio operator to send a distress signal, however the operator was on just his third trip to sea, was young, “immature” and was terrified. He said the radio shack was full of live steam, though there was no damage evident, and that both the main and emergency transmitters were dead. The aerial antennas were still in place.
Within three minutes the men managed to abandon ship in one of the ship’s two lifeboats, the other having been destroyed by the torpedo on the starboard side.

          Thirteen men used one of the ship’s four liferafts, and the other 26 remained in the port boat. Their prompt evacuation was just as well, since the second torpedo plowed into the Comol Rico on the port side four minutes later, at 13 minutes after 3 pm. The second missile was the coup-de-grace and broke the ships back. Since the impact was amidships on the port side, the damage to the vessel was complete, and the vessel’s spine broke – it plummeted under the waves within 15 seconds of the second impact.

           Once Comol Rico sank the submarine surfaced, passing within 500 feet of the 39 men in the lifeboat and on the raft. One of the men was injured. The men observed that the submarine had a net cutter and two guns, with no marks on the conning tower.

          Roughly three hours after the sinking, at 6:30 pm the passenger ship Seminole approached the scene to within three miles of the sinking. Fearing that the Allied ship would also be sunk by the lurking submarine, the men in the lifeboat set off a flare in order to warn her away. The Seminole accordingly turned away and steamed to the southwest. The submarine meanwhile returned at 7 pm and it waited in the vicinity of the sinking, perhaps waiting for the passenger ship to return. When this did not take place, at sunset it too left the scene and headed southwest, in the direction of the Seminole.

           At 2:45 pm on April 6th, two days later, the men on the raft and in the boat sighted an airplane very high in the sky – the plane apparently did not see them. Later a US Navy patrol plane did sight the men and made contact with them. No doubt this plane vectored the US Navy destroyer Sturtevant towards the men, as they were rescued by that ship within 48 hours. Overall the men endured five days in their boat and on the raft.

          The Seminole, which repatriated a number of survivors of U-boat attacks back to the US, reported the incident on its arrival in San Juan Puerto Rico a few days later.  At 2:00 pm on the 9th of April – five days after the attack – the US destroyer USS Sturtevant rescued the survivors and took them to San Juan, where they arrived at 10:10 pm on the same day. The short sailing time between rescue and port indicates that the survivors had made some headway in the direction of Puerto Rico.  The Sturtevant would be sunk by US-laid mines north of Key West within a few months.