SS Willimantic survivor’s story by Leslie Francis Kehoe from son Tony

A day of reckoning
The sinking of  S.S Willimantic by the German U-boat 156 and the subsequent voyage by lifeboat of the survivors.  Author Leslie Francis Kehoe. O.S. aboard the Willimantic.

Our nemesis met us on that voyage when at 25 degrees 55 minutes North and 51 degrees 58 minutes West. I was asleep in my bunk my colleague and best pal was on duty. It was a few hours after I had come off the 12 to 4 watch when I was shaken by him and woke to the surprise crack of what was later to prove to be a large gun. I quickly jumped out of my bunk and half dressed ran out on deck. The bridge and Captains quarters were on fire as was the wireless shack which were behind the Captains quarters. As I ran towards the boatdeck I heard the strident notes of the ship’s siren, five long blasts, abandon ship. I also heard the whistle and crack of a naval gun and the rat-tat of smaller guns. Obviously some enemy vessel was attacking our ship.
The sea was calm and on the port side was a bright tropical moon lighting the scene like a backcloth. In the light I could just make out the shape of a U boat and could see the flash of her main gun, also small fire coming from what were probably Halcyon type guns with tracer fire. More fires seemed to be taking hold and I ran to my boat station to carry out my standing order, to lower boat one. On the deck there were a number of wounded seamen, other crew members and myself then placed them in the boat which we then commenced to lower. A fellow crewman, a Lascar, took the other set of falls and we started to lower. Suddenly one end of the boat dipped as the seaman took off a coil from the bollard, the falls raced faster then mine and the boat swung vertical and tipped all occupants into the water. We then moved to lower boat No. 2 .
We started to lower the boat. In the confusion of fire shells and the drumming of bullets I could still hear the cries of the injured in the boat. Looking out to sea in the direction of the submarine I could clearly see every flash of the main gun and also the line of tracer bullets coming from near the conning tower. I looked aft towards where our naval gun was but could not see any activity at all. I later heard that a shot from the U-boat had put it out of action. As we lowered the boat I heard the submarine fire again and in an instinct put a safe turn on the rope and hearing a whistle dropped to the deck. I then heard a most awful crack and explosion as the shell made a direct hit on the boat. I did not know then that my best pal was in the boat at the time.
With the boats at that side out of action and me free from my boat station duties I looked for a way to get off myself. I saw a shell hit the funnel and then ran across to the other side of the ship. Both boats were down in the water, full of crewmembers with a ropeladder hanging down the side. I ran to the ladder and commenced down it with another crewmember following me. In fact he was almost standing on my shoulders so I started to shout to him and then saw that it was in fact our Captain who followed me down the ladder and into the boat.

With Captain, Chief officer and about 20 other seamen aboard we shipped our oars and quickly as possible pulled away from the side of the ship. The shooting from our attacker ceased. The bridge and boat deck were ablaze. We scanned the water surface and picked up other crewmembers including my pal who had been shelled in the other boat.  We then watched as the U-boat approached the other lifeboat and us. The U-boat came close and we could see how large it was. Darkish grey but covered with barnacles and rust, signs of being at sea for many months. A rope was thrown to us and we stayed alongside our adversary waiting what was to come.

The German Captain on the conning tower spoke in good English and asked if the Ships Captain was in our boat. At first there was no answer and he asked again. Our Captain then stood up and gave his identity. The U boat Captain asked our Skipper why he had not stopped after the first shells and he replied that it was his duty to escape his enemy if possible. The U-boat Captain then gave his apologies but stated that our Captain would become a Prisoner of war and would have to come aboard the U-boat. As our Captain boarded the enemy vessel he wished us God speed and a safe harbour.
Our enemy Captain then asked if we knew our ships position and on finding we were not certain sent a rating below to get the details. This done he passed them to our Chief Officer and said,” Will you please accept this ships position and give my compliments to Sir Winston Churchill.” He then asked if there were any wounded crewmen aboard our ship, which we could not answer. He then stated that before sinking her he would try and make certain by circling the ship first. The U-boats diesels then started up and the vessel moved away. The U-boat circled our stricken vessel twice before raking her with a volley of shots just above the waterline.

Sitting in the lifeboat we could only think of the contents that had been in those holds at about the same position in our journey out. The five hundred-pound bombs, the drums of kerosene. In a similar attack the ship would have exploded and ship and crew would have disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

The U-boat then disappeared and left us and the other boat drifting. We saw an upturned lifeboat floating on the surface.  Out Chief officer suggested that as we did not know how long we would be in our open boat we should gather the extra provisions etc from it. A couple of the crew dived overboard and swimming underneath the capsized boat and gathered extra provisions and tools as well as an extra mast and sail.

 There were a number of bodies floating on the surface and as the dawn light came over the horizon we pulled them to us and removed any rings or other personal effects hoping that we could pass them to our dead crew members families. Then, hoping the bodies might sink, we removed the lifejackets.

 That first day we were in company with the other boat but on the following day we could see no sign at all. They had taken another course but we later heard they had been picked up by another vessel within a week.

 A life on a ocean wave

 To be in a lifeboat for the first time in open waters can be a rather strange experience. In the first instance one feels the ocean is so large, vast and formidable especially in its moods. A ship has power, strength and some security. The small lifeboat filled with men, some injured and in pain others in a sense of shock. The attack was so quick and so successful that many of the crew were dazed especially after 12 months at sea in the vessel, with problems but no great disaster. Lifeboats were used to take you across to another ship for a meal or supplies weren’t they?

First we checked our stocks then concentrated on the windpower. Because we had retrieved an extra mast we were able to double our sail output. Power supplied, our next most important priorities were cover from the ever-burning heat of the sun and the need for water.  Our Chief Officer insisted that the water had to be sparsely rationed.

The issue time was every morning at daylight. This time was the most conversational time of the day, old and young, ill and well, each man would contribute some chit-chat at that special time. Unless one has experienced the torture of lack of water, either at sea or a desert or any other kind of way it is impossible to understand what it is like. Food was not as important; we had ships biscuit and nothing else but the overriding need for water was overwhelming. In a morning a competition was to think of some rare, possibly continental drink that could be added to the one thousand and one drinks we would dream about. During the day whilst in a stupor caused by the heat and lack of liquid we could see a number of rain showers, but none falling in our little part of the ocean.

 In an effort to prevent sunstroke and also to assist the crewmembers with wounds and whom we bathed each day with salt seawater, we erected a small staging to the side of the boat, a bit like a baby seat. A crewmember would sit on this staging and another man would scoop up water from the passing swell and pour it over the other without it passing into the boat. The application of water cleansed the wounds of the injured and everyday they improved. Indeed no wounded man died from his wounds and when landfall was made all were easily embarked from the boat.

A way to the Isle

In the fourteen days we were at sea we did not see any vessels and it was only on the twelfth that we saw our first aircraft which looked like a Catalina. It was far away and obviously had not seen us but at least it gave some hope that we were near land of some sort.

That evening we were as usual bowling along under two masts with full sails when towards dusk a strong breeze set up and at midnight a series of squalls became strong.  There was little light as there was no moon when suddenly a fierce wind struck the boat and like a scythe sweeping from the stern dismasted our masts and sails. We instantly lost all our sail power and began to swing to and fro and we shipped much water. In the morning as the light grew we modified our rig making a jury mast from the smashed pieces that were left. We were travelling slower but at least still going forward and soon our fortunes were to change.

The following morning we spotted three low shapes down on the horizon. Were they ships, islands or rocks? As we got closer we could see it was an island and the relief was tremendous. We lowered the sail and for the second time only we rowed, yes rowed into a wide-open bay and towards the shore.  We steered towards a small jetty jutting out from the shore and as we got closer some of our crew dived into the water and swam to the jetty. 

 A crowd of islanders gathered wondering what our craft was and as we came alongside they helped the wounded from the boat. Some of the crew, like myself, stepped from the boat to the quay, only to fall flat, as we were not used to solid ground.

We all walked as if we were drunk and the islanders had to carry us. We found we had landed at St. Maarten. An unusual isle in that half of it was Dutch the other Vichy France. We really had had good fortune landing were we did as we were treated as heroes. On the other side it might not have been the same.

 The slowly recovering men were taken to a small hospice run by Sisters. The rest of us were allocated to various houses in the village. I was billeted in the house of the Dutch Mayor, a Mr. O’Connor. It was a delightful residence. I can remember when having been brought from the boat I was placed in a most superior luxurious bed and fell asleep. Later when I awoke I could not stop the heaving, tossing and bobbing bed. I rubbed my eyes; I shut my mind and did everything to stop the pitching of the bed. The bed of course was not moving at all, it was my awakened mind still tossing and rotating in a wild restless sea. I tried to climb out of bed fell on the floor and there lay rolling and tumbling like some demented animal.

Eventually it passed over as does all mind over matter and it resolved but the experience was something I did not wish to revisit.

I was fortunate to be hosted by Mr. and Mrs. O’Connor and their family who were very kind to me and soon they were showing me parts of the Island.

The Islandseemed to be mainly producing sugar cane and tropical fruits. An interesting sight in the tiny township was the solitary Policeman dressed in his smart uniform, tunic, jodhpurs and boots. He wore a rifle across his shoulder, a Sam Browne belt with a cutlass in a long sheath. His transport, which appeared not to fit with the cutlass, was a black Raleighstyle bicycle.

A cross island assault

After a while we heard that a steamer would take off the fit crewmembers before being transferred by destroyer to Newport News. Whilst waiting for this to occur we had plenty of time to sit and talk and drink some of the local produce, West Indian Rum. The discussion on one occasion turned to the U-boat that had sunk us, the U 156. How was she so far out towards the Western Atlantic? She must have been receiving fuel from somewhere, possibly a “Milch cow” or an island. The discussion went on that the north part of the island was Vichy French could it have been there had been an involvement.
The crew felt obliged to find out. Soon after the Officials in the Dutch part of the island received a report from their French counterparts in Marigot that there were a number of British sailors causing problems in their town. The sailors were demanding information about any activities concerning oil shipments. The French Authorities were demanding that the English withdraw as a Patrol boat with Gendarmes aboard was making its way from Martinique. Sanity must have won over high “spirits” and the crew returned to their billets.

 A way home

 Although life was easy and relaxing with tropical warmth and no thought of war our crew were still restless and anxious to be on their way. We were awaiting the American destroyer that would carry us to the USA. Firstly because of the courtesies of our hosts we were to leave the island aboard the “Birault”, a Dutch local island ship. So one morning the fit and able boarded this vessel to start our trip home. It was with a mixture of sadness and joy. Joy at going homeward but sadness at leaving some of our crew still in the Hospice and to leave our new friends that had made us so welcome. After a series of farewells and many thanks to our hosts, lines were cast off and away we sailed to the island of St. Thomas. Upon arrival we transferred to an American Navy Destroyer which took us at full speed to Norfolk, Virginia.

Sea travel ended for a while we then made our way by train to New Yorkwhere we were installed in various hotels in the City. Whilst this was a prime step we still had many miles to travel before we were home with our families. Once in New Yorkwe were taken to a large departmental store and kitted out in a complete rig of civilian clothes, all of which I believe was paid for by the British Consul, as we never received a bill.

At this point our rate of travel slowed down, as there was no quick way to return to England. Shipping space was scarce with no berths available to shipwrecked sailors, high and dry on the beach.

I had received sad news from my family concerning my brother Tom missing in a bomber over Germany and wanted to get home to my Mother and sister. I resolved to find a way to travel quicker. One way was to take a “pier head jump”. In other words to register to be ready to take the next available crew space for any ship going across the Atlantic. I had to spend almost every hour at the shipping office and by being a nuisance it worked.
One night at ten o’clock I received a call to join a Norwegian sailing at midnight from 42nd Pier. Upon reaching the pier I had to board a small boat which took me away into the middle of the channel where I climbed a rope ladder to board. As I climbed I looked aloft and saw why the ship was loading in the channel. She was displaying three red lights aloft telling all and sundry she was loading explosives.

We soon set sail and joined a convoy of about fifty ships as we moved out of the Hudson Riverand into deep water. I was on my way back to England but I did not realise it was going to be a trip much spent in silence. The crew were all Norwegian and although they had some English I had no Norwegian. I spent my time all the trip mixing and using paint and other non-conversational duties until we arrived off the British Coastand I realised with surprise that we were entering the Mersey heading for Liverpool.

We were soon berthed in one of the Liverpool South Docks. As all of the crew were Norwegian on a Norwegian ship no shore leave was allowed but for me who had been away from home for over a year I thought differently. The gangplank was there and so, while leave was not granted, with a quick run down the gangplank leave was taken.

After a year and a half with a journey home that started in a small ship from a small island it ended in a tramcar along Lime Streettowards Fazackerly, Liverpool.

Later after a spell of shore leave our older and more experienced sailor was recalled to arms once more and on the 21stNovember 1942 sailed to war zones once more aboard the R.M.S. Samaria, carrying troops to stem the rapid advance of General Rommel’s desert pincer movement.