SS Olga sunk by U-126 under Ernst Bauer in Old Baham Channell 21 March 1942

Olga, Photo source: from the Historical Collection of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University.

The steam ship Olga was under the command of Captain William Dewey Graham with a crew of 32 other officers and men when attacked by U-126 under Ernst Bauer in the early morning hours of 12th March 1942, shortly after Bauer dispatched the Texan nearby. Olga was launched as the Craigrownie in 1919 by the Great Lakes Engineering works in Ashtabula, Ohio. She was commissioned for the US Shipping Board. In 1922 C. H. Sprague and Son, of Boston purchased her and renamed the ship Penobscot, after the bay in Maine.

 In 1933 the Olga was sold again, this time for Atwacoal Transportation Company of Fall River, Massachusetts, and she was named Ida Hay Atwater. At the time of her demise, and since 1938, she was owned by the Carter Coal Transportation Company of Boston, Massachusetts and flagged to Wilmington. Since 1938 she was known simply as Olga. Weighing in at 2,496 tons she was 77.11 meters long, 13.26 meters wide and 7.62 meters deep. Her triple-expansion steam engine propelled her at an average of 9.5 knots, however on the morning of the 12th March she was making 10.5 knots on an easterly heading.

Olga’s final voyage began in Port Everglades, Florida, which she departed during the week beginning Sunday the 8th of March 1942. She steamed in ballast down the Straits of Florida, keeping Bimini and Andros off to port, and entered the Old Bahama Channel. Olga was not armed, and nor was she escorted. She was not zig zagging, despite the recent attacks on the Barbara, Cardonia, Esso Bolivar, Hanseat, and Texan in the same area. Her loading port was Baracoa, Cuba, which she was never to reach.

 At fourteen minutes after midnight on the morning of the 12th of March Olga was roughly 20 miles north of Nuevitas Light, Cuba, in the Old Bahama Channel. Her position was 21.32N by 76.24W. Bauer sent a torpedo from the seaward into the port side of the ship. One of the lookouts on the ship saw the torpedo coming and raised the alarm, but it was too late to take evasive action. The force of the explosive projectile severely damaged the wheelhouse and radio shack and effectively destroyed the number four cargo hold, its hatch and bulkheads.

 At the time of the attack there were three men on lookout duty and five men in the engine room – all of them managed to get off the doomed ship. Within 11 minutes all 33 men on board abandoned ships in one lifeboat and two life rafts. Twenty-six minutes after the attack the Olga rolled onto her starboard side and sank into the moderate waves of the Channel.

 One of the only two lifeboats carried was destroyed by the torpedo, and the other was so filled with debris from the wreckage on the ship that its crew were focused on clearing the debris at the time they might have cradled their oars and rowed to the assistance of their colleagues. As a result the current carried the lifeboat clear of the rafts, and those in the rafts waited a further three hours to be rescued.

 Bauer retrieved the First Officer, Arthur Wilder, from the water and questioned him in strong English. Other members of the Olga crew reported hearing German, Italian and French spoken on board the submarine, which seems an exotic potpourri of tongues for an all-German crew to use on a group of English-speaking American survivors.

After being questioned Wilder swam back over to a raft on which three other sailors were perched. To add insult to injury, when the submarine moved away it sent up a considerable wake which not only swamped one of the rafts, but it toppled the men from it into the water. The Second Cook, Charles Xavier died in the rafts from shock and exposure; whether his corpse was brought ashore or buried at sea is not indicated in the available records.

 The thirty-two survivors were picked up by a US naval vessel and taken to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where they were interviewed. The five men were in the lifeboat for ten hours, or until about 10:30 am, and the balance of twenty-seven were on the two rafts for thirteen hours, or until roughly 1:30 pm.