NOTE: Potlatch is the subject of a book-length treatments and possibly film, by this author. See photos of local Bahamians who rescued the survivors at:
The 6,065-ton American steam ship Potlatch was built as the Narcissus for the United States Maritime Commission in 1920. Her builders were the Moore Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company of Oakland, California for what was also known as the War Shipping Administration of Washington DC. The WSA controlled the ship for 20 years until it was sold to the Weyerhauser Steam Ship Company of Tacoma, Washington state in 1940. According to Ordinary Seaman Henry Jensen who worked in the pantry and filed a detailed report on the casualty in the magazine “Liberty” of June 12 and 19th, 1943 (“Torpedoed” with Earl Schenck, illustrated by Bob Greenhalgh), “she was a big ship of 12,000 tons [deadweight, or cargo carrying capacity], rusty and battered – a coastwise steamer from Portland, Oregon, now on the Atlantic run”.
Her dimensions were 122.7 meters long, 16.2 meters wide, and 9.8 meters deep and she was made of steel. She had two steam turbine engines which turned two propellers which together pushed the ship at 11 knots. The Potlatch was armed with a single four-inch gun, two .30-caliber machine guns and four 20-millimeter machine guns.
The Master of the Potlatch on her final voyage was John Joseph Lapoint who oversaw a total of 55 men: 16 Naval Armed Guard under Lieutenant Dorcey Lybrand including Gunner Estil Dempsey Ruggles, a 17-year-old recruit on his first voyage. Amongst the 39 merchant marine crew were two Cadet-Midshipmen from the United States Merchant Marine Academy, Michael James Carbotti and Nathan J. Kaplan.
On her final voyage the Potlatch loaded “military cargo, trucks, tanks and tinplate” in New York under charter to American Export Lines, Incorporated on 25 Broadway in New York, NY. Her ultimate charterers – the party that directed the loading of the ship – was the War Shipping Administration, run by the US Government. Mr. Ralph S. Boyd was the shore-side person responsible for the ship from the Weyerhauser office in Newark, New Jersey. The loading operations were slow and carried out in secrecy. As Jensen wrote, “we were fully loaded [below decks] but we didn’t sail. First we stayed tied up for days. Then we began to make strange short trips to docks and darkened warehouses of an additional deck cargo.” This corroborated by a list of every ship sailing from New York Harbor during World War II. The list notes that the Potlatch was “delayed proceeding” from at least the 4th to the 10th of June, 1942 (Mozolak, John; “New York Ships to Foreign Ports, 9.1939 – 8.1945”).
The Potlatch finally left New York on or about the 17th of June 1942, bound for Suez via a stop in Trinidad and then a bunkering call in Cape Town. The standard routing for ships sailing independently was to head southeast from New York and pass north of Bermuda before turning almost due south for Trinidad and points in the South Atlantic. Potlatch would have rounded Bermuda on about the 22nd of June. Gunner Ruggles says that the ship originally left in New York in a convoy for Casablanca, but that the dirty oil which slowed the ship down and left a thick plume of smoke forced the ship out of convoy and to sail independently for Suez, on the other side of Africa and months away. This could not be verified. Unfortunately the ship developed engine trouble, said to be on account of an excess water content in the bunker fuel. This ruled out the prospect of her zig-zagging and led to frequent stops to overhaul the machinery. More ominously it meant that the exhaust from the engines was thick and black and thus visible to submarines for miles, particularly in daylight.
Indeed during daylight on the 27th of June the ship was sighted by lookouts on U-153 under Korvettenkapitän Wilfried Reichmann, aged 36. (Reichmann would be promoted to Fregattenkapitän four days later on the back of his success, and be killed by a depth-bomb barrage of Panama two weeks later). Potlatch had stopped several times earlier in the day. It must have been an anxious time for the lookouts, knowing that they were so vulnerable, waiting for the onset of dusk so that the ship could hide in the darkness. In position 19.20 north by 53.18 west the ship was some 1,700 miles from New York, 550 miles east of the nearest land in Antigua, and over 1,100 miles from Great Inagua in the Bahamas. Though the weather was clear, the breeze of 15 to 18 knots was coming out of the southeast, in the direction the ship was headed (178 degrees true, or near due south) at seven knots.
There were six lookouts on duty – one was in the crow’s next, one was on the bridge, another on the flying bridge and three aft by the four-inch gun. Gunner Estil Dempsey Ruggles was in the shower. Henry Jensen had just moved his cot from the number four hatch to the number two further forward. Oiler Adam H. Morris chose to remain on number four hatch and bid his crewmate “Adios”. It was to be his final word. Jensen was just cat-napping along side a Puerto Rican mess boy named Teddy – he had pantry duty in less than ten minutes.
The colored Chief Steward Enrique McKenzie and the 65-year-old Second Steward David Parson were helping Chief Cook John Beckels prepare dinner for fifty-five hungry mouths. Beckels was born in the Virgin Islands in 1885 and was 56 years of age. He called 815 North Freemont Avenue in Baltimore Maryland home. His meal that night was to be breaded veal cutlets served with candied sweet potatoes as well as mashed potatoes, carrots, peas, and spinach. The side salad was composed of lettuce with tomatoes, cold beets, red radishes, and French dressing, with either white or corn bread. Desert was to be Queen Anne cherries washed down with coffee or tea. Canadian Fireman John Joseph Burke and Wiper Hugh W. Kilpatrick were in the Mess-room, getting ready to go on watch. Ordinary Seaman Stanley Fisher was in the accommodation section.
At 3:52 pm local time a torpedo from U-153 slammed into the port stern of the Potlatch,
between ten and twelve feet below the waterline. It penetrated the number four cargo hold. “There was a whoosh and the whole ship seemed to move a hundred feet or more,” wrote Jensen: “There was a vibrating roar, and the Potlatch shivered the way a dog used to do in the rain.” Basilios Palaelogas, the Third Assistant Engineer, was badly injured. The damage was fatal to the ship, resulting in an “extremely violent” explosion which led some of the men to think they had been torpedoed twice, because of a secondary explosion. The deck cargo of tanks and trucks was blown into the air and then the sea. The ship was immediately flooded, the deck plates buckled, steam heating coils burst, and the steering gear was thrown out of commission.
Ruggles ran from a shower, grabbed a pair of shorts, and made for his lifeboat station. In his words, “the cold water hit the boilers [and] blew the bottom out of her… the ship went down in two minutes flat”. Cadet Michael James Carbotti, aged 21, was asleep below, threw on his khaki shirt and pants, and also raced for the deck as the ship started to list to port. Jensen discovered one of the cadets who had his life preserver on, but was turning round and round, in shock. When Jensen told him to jump for it he replied “I can’t swim” and Jensen pushed him into the water. John Burke and Hugh Kilpatrick were presumably trapped in the mess room by the violent explosion in close proximity. They were never seen alive again.
Up on the bridge Captain Lapoint asked the Radio Operator, a young man named Dalby, to send an SOS but didn’t follow up on the order. Instead of grabbing the sextant and charts he went below to get the ship’s papers and a promissory note for US $20,000. A Able Bodied Seaman named Kimes was steering the ship at the time of impact. Recovering from the ship’s jolt, he immediately asked the captain “Shall I take a crack at ‘em, sir” to which Lapoint replied “Go ahead and try.” Running to the starboard .20-milimeter machine gun up forward he found Gunner Ruggles already there. Ruggles tore the canvas cover off while Kimes took the ammunition from the magazine box and loaded the gun. Ruggles pointed the loaded weapon aft but there was nothing to fire at and the stern of the ship was already going under. Rather than just leap overboard, Kimes somewhat manically removed the magazine from the gun, put it in the box, battened the box down and ensured that everything was ship shape. Then he dove for it and Ruggles followed.
A water tender named Kennedy was standing by the boilers in the engine room when the torpedo hit. He said the explosion of the torpedo in the cargo hatch adjacent “blasted the guts out of the place”. Kennedy managed to turn the steam valves off. Realizing the he could not swim he then methodically donned a life preserver. When he made it to the main deck he found one of the 16 Navy gunners in shock, just standing there, looking about, with no life preserver. Kennedy gave the young man his life jacket and shoved the man off the ship. Then he ran aft to his quarters to find another one for himself. He was trapped in the accommodation by a wall of water, as the ship tilted 45 degrees astern. Fortunately the crew had cut an escape ladder from the accommodation area to the aft gun for the gunners to use. Kennedy reached this ladder but “a torrent was pouring down on him from above. He fought his way up, rung by rung.”
By the time Kennedy made the poop deck on the stern it was awash in seawater. Again, he meticulously took off his shoes and adjusted his life jacket before jumping into the sea. He was so late getting off the ship – perhaps one of the last along with Captain Lapoint, that the suction drew him in towards to the propellers. Somehow Kennedy managed to claw his way upward (he couldn’t actually swim) and aided by his life preserver popped to the surface and pushed his way away from the ship. He joined 13 others on the life raft shared by Jensen, Second Mate Sorensen, John Martin “Stinky” Miller, aged 32, the gunner named Jonah, a Danish Able-Bodied Seaman named Fritz Matson, Kimes, and other A.B.s.
Down in the galley Chief Cook Beckels kept his cool. The torpedo struck just as the veal cutlets were turning brown. “What a sight,” he explained, “All the pots and pans went flying into the air. Packages of cereal and seasoning burst open. I thought it was the end. The water line was cut. Water kept coming in. It was up to our knees.” David Parson was not so sanguine about events. Aged 65, he could not get his life preserver on. As the water rushed around the galley he stood rooted to the spot. Beckels yelled at him to get going, but it didn’t effect the stunned Parson. Finally Beckels physically lifted Parson and carried him to the side of the ship, saving his life. Speaking as a cook with the stomach foremost as an analogy, Beckels said “You’d think the ship had a belly-ache the way it tottered.”
Telling himself “You gotta keep cool,” Henry Jensen ran aft towards his station at the port lifeboat aft, just forward of where the torpedo struck. There was debris flying around – a piece cut him above both knees, and another lodged in his forearm. Chief Mate Larsen was hit by shrapnel and badly cut over his eye nearby on the boat deck. Suddenly a second explosion from the number four hold – possibly the boilers or cargo exploding – sent the heavy cargo hatch flying by “seventy feet in the air, a geyser of oil and water supporting it.” Then “there was a grinding noise below, and steam, oil, and debris of all kinds were churning upward through the engine-room skylight. The ship was lurching and setting rapidly.”
As the ship sank by the stern the cargo lashed all over the deck – which the ship had mysteriously loaded on top of the cargo already loaded in New York, began breaking free and sliding with deadly effect down the decks of the ship towards the water. Trucks and tanks began “bucking around like wild elephants. Stanley, an ordinary seaman, ran out of the alleyway and before I could warn him a truck charged down the deck and slammed him flat against the galley bulkhead. One of his hands, that he had thrown up to protect himself, was sheared off by the impact. It flew past my face” wrote Jensen, “I looked away.”
Jensen saw the aft four-inch gun was already under water and ran forward to release the port lifeboat. He and others released the gripes and then Jensen and a Gunner named Jonah leapt into the boat to release the oars and push it off. The injured Third Engineer Paleragas was put in with them. Then a very heavy man jumped in and nearly crushed the pint-sized Jonah. As they were lowering the boat from above, the forward line jammed with a kink in it. As a result, the stern end of the boat kept going down and soon the boat was hanging vertically from the front. Jonah and Jensen held onto fall lines draped over the side of the ship to allow men to clamber over the side. In Jensen’s words,
“The boat hit the water. A wave immediately swamped it and it was sucked into the torpedo hole under our feet. Jonah hauled himself up, but I was lower down and in the water up to my knees, hanging on by my left hand. I saw a small bare foot floating by me; I grabbed it, but the suction tore it out of my grasp and it disappeared into the ship. Later I found out that it was Paleragas, our injured assistant engineer, who had been put into the boat. I seemed as if the whole ocean was pouring into the Potlatch. My shoes and socks were sucked right off my feet.”
Jensen managed to pull himself up hand over hand to the lower main deck, which was below the boat deck he had left. He ran forward and crossed the alleyways on top of the crates, rather than between them, remembering the death of Seaman Stanley. On the starboard side the lifeboat had already pushed off. As he relates: “Then I saw the colored chief steward in his clean white jacket, standing by the mast. I yelled “Come on, McKenzie!” But he didn’t answer me. His eyes were rolled up on his head, his knees sagged, and his moth was hanging open. His hands were dangling helplessly. He was out with shock and had no life preserver on. But there was nothing I could do for him. The main deck was six inches under water and going down under me, while great explosions of air burst from the sides of the ship.”
Jumping into the water with a life preserver on, Jensen came across the cadet “threshing like a ferryboat”. This may have been Nathan J. Kaplan, who was “plunged into the water, where he fought wildly to keep from being crushed against the ship.” Together they swam away from the suction of the ship. He heard a crash behind them and when he looked back “…there was the Potlatch with her bow shooting up into the air, trucks and boxes tumbling off her like toys. The whistle gave a last pathetic toot and she slid under. It was exactly three minutes from the time we were hit, according to the deck cadet’s wrist watch.”
Captain Lapoint’s ordeal was just beginning. In his own, succinct words, describing himself in third person for a report, he wrote: “Master jumped from starboard side, from top of gangway, caught in suction from starboard across to port, fouling in smoke stack stays, considerable lumber from cases, catwalk, hatch covers, etc. Also in suction at smokestack. Master managed to get free from stay [a wire] but unable to get clear of suction and debris and again fouled jumbo sty and wireless aerial at fore top mast going down again, finally getting free, life jacket bringing master to surface.”
His injuries included a pounding sensation against his right ribs, what he thought was a puncture of a lung by a rib, as he was bleeding from the mouth, and extensive dark blue and yellow contusions on his instep, calf, thigh, hip, knee and ribs. His right leg was feeling numb, he felt he had broken a rib and noted that ‘entire right side, right chest and right side of back has severe pain.” He also experienced pain breathing and moving forward. As a precaution he nominated Chief Mate Larsen to be his replacement in case he was incapacitated, and gave him the position and course accordingly. Since the Navy censored the report we do not know which island or island groups the Captain was steering for.
There was no time to send an SSSS or SOS, though the Radio Operator initially said he had done so and received a reply on VPRY. Captain Lapoint dismissed this claim as he saw the Radio Operator abandoning ship shortly after the torpedo stuck. There was no time to fire the gun because they lacked a target and the stern gun was soon awash in seawater by the time the submarine surfaced nearby. The confidential codes were thrown over by the Master and officers, however they did not sink right away. A prescient crew member found them floating in a box and submerged the codes until they saturated and sank, thus preventing U-153 prowling nearby from getting them.
Captain Lapoint was entangled in rigging and sucked down twice by the sinking ship, but managed to break free and make it to the surface, where he took command of the starboard life boat. Fortunately three of the rafts were cut or broke free. The starboard life boat would not launch at first, as “the line had gotten kinked and was preventing it from being lowered.” As Dempsey says, it “was about as big around as my forearm. I grabbed an axed and cut it with one blow, then we scrambled on board and pushed away before the suction could get us.” In less than five minutes the Potlatch had sunk stern first.
Altogether 49 men managed to get away from the doomed ship in between three and four minutes. However “the shock had dulled the senses of most of the crew. They forgot to cut the seapainter holding the lifeboat to the ship. ..in another few minutes the crowded lifeboat could have spilled its precious cargo into the sea.” Chief Cook Beckles was still on board the ship and realized what was happening. He frantically looked around for an axe and found one – perhaps the same axe which Ruggles had used minutes before to free the falls. Beckels managed to cut the painter and free the boat (he was later awarded the Mariner’s Medal for his actions).
There men swam towards the rafts and boarded them, or were pulled aboard the lifeboat. While they did so Reichmann brought his submarine in among the wreckage. Seeing two of the huge crates (containing trucks, according to Lapoint) still floating, they fired into them with deck guns (“rifle fire”) and sank them. Ruggles and Jensen says that as many as 30 German sailors lined the decks and conning tower, though this would have been nearly two-thirds of the complement. There was so much oil on the water that when he climbed aboard a raft Ruggles said that he was, in his words, “blacker than any nigger,” and that the caramel stain of the heavy fuel oil for bunkers was stained by the sun into his skin and that it stayed that way for two months. They must have made quite a sight to the clean German sailors.
The men were pre-occupied with saving themselves, and most of the crew believed that Lapoint had indeed drowned with the ship, so when Reichmann pulled the sub along the life raft and used a boat hook to pull the raft along the submarine’s starboard side. An officer asked for the Master, but when he was told by Jensen and others that the Captain had gone down with the ship, he pursed his lips in impatience. Next to him stood a German officer with an open book taking notes. The commander, Reichmann, asked in fairly good English for the cargo and destination as well as the name of the ship. Since some of the life rings still said Narcissus, the crew gave the U-boat skipper this erroneous information as the ship’s name (even though some of the crates were marked Potlatch), and the Germans accepted it. Next the submariners asked if there was anything that the survivors needed. When told that they needed water and cigarettes, the Germans shared two packets of German cigarettes, but Dempsey described these as “not fit to smoke” and Jensen called them “ersatz” or fake. An Italian-sounding submariners told the men that they were 400 miles due east of Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands, which turned out to be an underestimate of about 250 miles.
The submarine crew were described as well tanned. The American sailors observed a 30 X 14-inch crest on the submarine’s conning tower which they described as “a golden serpent or dragon on a blue background, with crossed broad axes on the lower part.” Jensen described their questioner – whether it was actually Reichmann who was in 36, or another officer – as “not more than twenty-three. He wore an open shirt, shorts and boots, and brown hair showed under his gold-encrusted cap. He certainly had bearing and good looks.” When told the name of the ship was Narcissus the questioner confirmed with the man holding the notebook, who said “Ja,” “…checked the name off in his book and flipped up his mustaches. I could have bashed his face in” wrote the 18-year-old Jensen.
Reichmann then asked the Second Officer of the Potlatch, Frederick Sorensen, about the ship’s armament, but the merchant and navy crew did not want to volunteer this valuable and potentially damaging information to their enemies. On their refusal to answer “the sub commander became angry, threatened those on the raft – and the information was given.” Jensen said that “the sub commander gave a signal, and the two submachine guns were turned and pointed at my chest. Someone behind me shouted “Four twenty-millimeters and one four-inch gun!”. That broke the tension. The machine guns were pointed skyward. “For what company are you sailing?? The commander asked quietly. “The United States Government.” “Government, government? What company I asked you?” … “The Shipping Board, as in the last war.” ….in a different tone he asked “Is there anything I can do for you? Is anyone hurt?” to which Jensen’s reply was “Not that I know of.”
“Good luck, gentlemen,” the commander said as he saluted us. We returned the salute. As they moved away they began using their deck guns to sink trucks – and Lord how they missed!”
“Good luck, gentlemen,” the commander said as he saluted us. We returned the salute. As they moved away they began using their deck guns to sink trucks – and Lord how they missed!”
According to Lapoint, “…the raft was shoved clear of the sub. The sub cruised among the wreckage, picking up several of the tires attached to the wheels which were floating around, taking some on board.” According to the crew the sub remained in the vicinity of the Potlatch sinking until nightfall, lurking amongst the wreckage and picking up more tires and materiel, perhaps emboldened by the knowledge that no SSSS had been sent. However Lapoint relates that “It was still on the surface, heading due east when I left with the rafts in tow.”
The 49 men in the single lifeboat and four rafts were faced with a challenge: how to subsist and navigate at least 600 miles in a boat without a motor that had to tow three crowded bits of deadweight, with limited supplies. Their mother vessel was 25 and a half feet long and could accommodate about 25 men comfortably. By Ruggles’ account it was made of metal. Their equipment consisted of an anchor drogue (a circle of canvas shaped like a bucket attached to lines which served as a sea anchor). There was no navigational equipment except a compass which was off by several degrees, so the stars and sun would have to be relied upon. The boat had a sail, a jib, and a piece of canvas eight feet by four feet. It also had a barrel of water containing 18 gallons, and stores of crackers, chocolate, and pemmican. Ruggles described Pemmican as “dried meat pounded into a paste with melted fat” and the size of the tins as “an inch and a half thick and the size of a silver dollar.” On the first day the men were given their largest meal of the voyage: half of a bar of chocolate, a single cracker, and a two-ounce ration of water. Ruggles told an interviewer (G. Sam Piatt) the specifics of their rations:
“Rationing their supplies on a plan of surviving 30 days, each man each day got for breakfast a half-can of pemmican, a cracker and two ounces of water. For lunch it was a small square of chocolate, a cracker, and three ounces of water. Supper consisted of the other half of the can of pemmican, two ounces of water, and another cracker.”
The disposition of the men at the outset was: 7 men each on two of the rafts, and 8 each on the others for a total of 30 on the rafts. The balance of 19, including three senior officers and the injured men were in the lifeboat. The first night began, in the words of Jensen, with “the submarine, still surfaced, moving into the last of a beautiful sunset and a bright moon was rising.” At about 8:00 pm, having searched for their six missing crew-mates for four hours, the lifeboat hoisted its red sails, secured the four rafts in a convoy behind it, and headed to the southwest. To help the rafts see the lifeboat Captain Lapoint rigged a lantern on the tip of an oar. “We were in an easy running sea,” wrote Jensen, “the oil lamp on the oar brought out the color of the red sail, and cast a big shadow on it of the head of the steersman sitting in the stern sheets.”
On the second day of their ordeal – 29th June – Jensen woke with a jolt. He had fallen asleep with his head on his arm humming about “red sky at night and sailor’s delight” and had unknowingly rolled off the last raft in the cavalcade. Because his companions were still asleep and there was no other raft to grab onto, he had to swim with all his heart to catch up with them on the open sea. It took him nearly half an hour to make it back to the raft. Each raft had its own supplies on board and so the Second Mate hauled himself up along the 35 feet of line separating each raft to the Captain in the lifeboat to ask how to divide the rations. Captain Lapoint replied simply “Do as you feel”, so Jensen was placed in charge of dividing up and distributing the food on his raft.
That evening they were forced to abandon the first raft, the one closest to the lifeboat, because it was damaged as the stuffing was waterlogged. As it drifted past the last lifeboat Jensen swam over to it and two broken paddles and a canvas sea anchor. This called for a redistribution of men among the remaining three rafts and the life boat. The number of men on Jensen’s raft rose to ten with the addition of navy gunners Smitty and Tex and an Able-Bodied Seaman named Joe. With them came news from the lifeboat: “our mouths dropped when we heard that the captain had neither sextant nor chart. …we looked at each other in dismay. “Don’t worry, we’ll get in” Fritz reiterated for the hundredth time.” That night “The men in the lifeboat and on the forward rafts were calling cheerfully back and forth to each other. Our little water caravan rode on through the night.” Ruggles meanwhile says he shared a raft with another gunner named Louie Howard Lovins from Mantena, Illinois and that a grandson of the famous senator Fulbright, named Claude Fulbright, was in the crew, though this could not be verified.
The next day was Monday the 29thof June – the third day in the raft for the Potlatchmen and the day that the freighters Ruth, Tysa, and Thomas McKean were all sunk in the area. The men in Jensen’s raft – the numbers were swelling – set about rigging an awning to protect themselves from the sun. Jensen got into the routine of taking dips in the water to hydrate himself, the others preferred to remain on board, where they noted that steam came up through the slats in the deck of the raft. Hunger was becoming evident on the men. Jensen observed that “the men’s faces took on a set look and there were fewer jokes and we talked less.” The captain observed that the injured were showing signs of “slight improvement”. Meals were served at 8:00 am and 5:00 pm. Captain Lapoint decided to cut free a second raft, but the wind from the east-southeast at over ten knots meant that they would have to wait till the following day.
On the fourth day the wind freshened from the east and the seas became rough with large swells. The number three raft’s tanks were leaking and it was floating deep, so Lapoint determined to abandon it. The transfer took place at 11:00 am. There were now 30 men in the lifeboat, ten men in the raft attached to it, and nine men in the second raft. Captain Lapoint notes he “found the men on No. 2 raft not obeying my orders as to rationing.” This contradicts Jensen’s account that Lapoint was indifferent to how those on the rafts divided up their rations. Both cadets Carbotti and Kaplan remained on the rafts until the 8th day of the voyage. On Jensen’s raft Stinky Miller made a determined effort to catch fish which had begun congregating under the raft. He made a spear out of a pear-handled knife and after hours of waiting he speared a five-inch African Pompano fish. Second Officer Sorensen surgically divided the fish among the men.
That afternoon, after the transfer or more men from the second abandoned raft the Danish A. B. Fritz Matson constructed a net out of the 18-inch ring from the sea anchor and some frayed line. Volunteers were sought to leave the lifeboat and give the men in the rafts a chance to ride in the boat. Jensen, who had left the crowded boat at the outset in favor of a raft, made the same call a second time. “One look at the drawn and desperate faces of the men in the lifeboat made me stay where I was. We didn’t look as bad as that on the raft,” he wrote.
On the fifth day (July 1st), Fritz was able to use his new net to catch two fish from under the raft before the fish “got wise and hid under the raft.” The wind came around to the northeast and moderated a bit but swells from the southeast increased. Waves were coming over the sides of the lifeboat, indicating that there was not much freeboard between the tops of the sides (the gunwales) and the surface of the water. The men had to bail continuously, which was exhausting work for under nourished bodies to perform. Fortunately there were some rain squalls, which provided the opportunity for the men to collect precious fresh water. The following day, their sixth under way, the wind increased to about 20 knots. Again the men were employed all day bailing and pumping to keep the boat from flooding.
Friday July 3rd was the men’s 7th day in the rafts and boats. Captain Lapoint noted that the swelling of Delatorres’ leg had gone own and that Harriston’s eye was healing. Even the Master’s injuries seemed to be getting better. He suffered from a new affliction of sunburn. The following day a Fireman named John Celian began showing signs of coming mentally unhinged. Lapoint thought it was sunstroke. Celian managed to break free from his crew mates and jump into the sea, however the immersion in comparatively cold water seems to have sobered him up somewhat and he came back on board. It was the night of their eighth day in the boat and rafts.
At 3:00 am the following morning the towline connecting all three rafts to the boat severed. Lapoint ordered the sails dropped and the oars shipped so the boat could go back an retrieve the men in the rafts. Jensen noted that “the boat came back and took us in tow again, but some fierce words passed between the boat and the rafts. We all wondered if some one in the boat had cut us adrift to increase their speed.” The length of rope between the boat and rafts was shortened from about 35 feet to ten, which put more strain on all of the craft. The strain wasn’t just in the lines but on the men, as Jensen observed: “A hundred times a night some one raised himself up to see if the little glow of light from the lamp on the lifeboat was still showing or reached out to touch the bridle that led from the raft to the tow…”. With the two rafts in tow and a choppy sea and large easterly swells coming over the transom from astern the boat had to be bailed and pumped continuously.
Ruggles says “Quite a way into the journey, the rafts, after being stripped of what few emergency rations they held, were eventually abandoned…. The lifeboat was designed to carry only about half as many as the 49 men on board… “You couldn’t stretch out. You had to sleep sitting up,” Ruggles said. “But we could make better time without towing the rafts.” He also says that after the raft was nearly lost “we decided to put everybody in the boat.”
On the fifth of July – the boat’s tenth day – occurred a significant incident. Jensen saw a speck on the horizon. He roused the others and the men sent flares to attract the attention of a lifeboat from the Dutch ship Tysa, sunk by the German submarine U-505 under Axel-Olaf Loewe in position 25.30N by 57.49W. A boat under command of Chief Officer Johan Pieter Cornelius Roggeveen had separated from Captain Leender’s boat the day before and described the following in his detailed log when they were only 100 or so miles from Antigua.
“At dawn red flares were seen at starboard bow, altered course and closed at 5:30 a.m. with a lifeboat with 2 rafts attached of the American steamer “POTLACH” which was sailing with 49 men in a WSW direction. Shouted to them the distance from land, that I should make a landfall on the following day and that I would report them as soon as possible, continued our voyage. Position 19.50N / 61.52W.” The wind at the time was east about 18 knots with an easterly swell and clouds. Again the men press onwards. They were only 107 miles from Anguilla, where they made land fall on the Dog Islands, as predicted, the on the 7th of July. From this we know that the Potlatch survivors still had at least two rafts by the ninth day of their voyage.
Jensen described the encounter thus: “As it came over those on board it waved a Dutch flag and then drew alongside of as to ask the name of our ship and how many survivors we had. They said they had been torpedoed… Then, before we knew it they had filled their sails and were bearing away.” Perhaps the Dutchmen were afraid that the Americans would try to clamber on board their lifeboat – whatever their motivation it was an oddly short encounter on the high seas between two lifeboats and some 70 men who had much in common but evidently not much to say to each other.
The Potlatch men didn’t learn the name of the ship the Tysa men came from or when they were sunk or how many were in their boat or if they had extra water and food (they did). Lapoint records that Roggeveen “informed us that the nearest land is 100 miles SW X W”. He felt that the distance from land given by the Tysa officer “must be in error” but he does not explain why he thought so. He described the boat as “a large sixty-person boat… making at least five knots.” The factor mitigating in favor or Captain Lapoint not following the Tysa lifeboat is that they still towed the rafts. It would have been difficult and perhaps impossible for the cluster of slow rafts and a boat to have made precise navigational targets, gone into the wind, and otherwise performed the kind of navigational feats that a free-sailing lifeboat with a minimum of crew could achieve. The fact was that each individual life-boat was its own microcosm and performed its best within the constraints provided it during a few minutes of abandoning ships. For the Potlatch survivors the constraints were considerable: they were overloaded by double, under-nourished, and slow. They were, in effect, drifting with the wind and current.
Roggeveen communicated his sighting of the Potlatch survivors to Allies in Dutch Saint Martin. The US Navy stationed in Saint Thomas sent aircraft over to Saint Martin to verify reports of American survivors adrift in a boat and rafts. Then they initiated an air search to no result, though airplanes were sighted often by the men in rafts and boat – they were too far overhead to communicate with or be seen. Meanwhile on the 29th of July the US military erroneously and reported Potlatch survivors landed in Saint Kitts. A report from J. C. Outler, Chief, Ship Movement and Communication section, reads: “an unknown number of survivors [of the Potlatch] were landed at some West Indian point and were later transferred to St. Kitts. From that port they were placed aboard the SS LIBERTAD which landed them at San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Navy Department advises that these survivors are being placed aboard two Navy vessels which will depart from San Juan for Norfolk.” The Navy must have been mixing the Potlatch survivors up with those from the steamers Anglo-Canadian and Thomas McKean, whose survivors landed in Saint Kitts starting on the 9th of July and were transported from Antigua. The local schooners Manita and Betsy R. were used to transport the men to Antigua, and it is entirely possible that the Libertad took them to Puerto Rico, leading to the confusion. Clearly some survivors were taken from the Saint Kitts area to Puerto Rico or the letter would not have been sent to Mr. Boyd of Weyerhauser Steamship Company in Newark.
The Libertad, like many ships at the time, had her own exciting story. Built as the Itialian ship Recca, she was seized by the Cuban government in 1941 when that country sided with the Allies, and renamed Libertad. She was sunk on 4th of December 1943 by Richard von Harpe on U-129 and was rescued by US Navy vessel Natchez and US Coast Guard craft. For many years, because von Harpe erroneously reported the grid in which the attack occurred, it was believed that the Libertad was sunk close to San Salvador Bahamas, but post-war examination of the records confirm that she was sunk just southeast of Cape Hatteras from convoy KN 280 which was proceeding from Key West to Norfolk and thus did not come near the eastern Bahamas or San Salvador.
This proves that the Tysa crew saw and reported the Potlatch before the ultimate fate of the ship and its crew were known to the outside world. Only someone who came across the lifeboat and rafts by fate would have known what Roggeveen did at that time. Cadet-Midshipman Carbotti was not so charitable, telling a biographer that “the fast well-equipped boat with its strange crew never reported them and was never heard of again.”
The following day, Tuesday the 7th of July was their 11th day and was overcast. Fortunately some rain squalls enabled the men to collect some water off the sails, though it was colored red from the dye which the fabric was colored with. Captain Lapoint observed that the supplies of crackers and chocolate were running low. At 1:00 am the following morning heavy seas were shipping over the lifeboat necessitating more laborious pumping and lowering morale. After a “spirit breaking night” the wind and seas abated at dawn on their 12th day.
Ruggles relates the state of the men and an important, fatal incident that day. “Men were going “hunger mad.” He told how one of them, Stinky Miller, ate bandages and chewed on Band-Aids from the medicine kit. He drank some iodine and downed a bottle of spirits of ammonia. Jensen describes how Miller had been drinking sea water and “was never the same afterwards. … with tears streaming down his face he gulped a lot of salt water before we could stop him.” Salt water can cause fatal damage to the kidneys and liver, debilitating those who drink too much of it, dehydrating them and inducing insanity.
As they cleaned and divided some fish caught by Fritz’s dip net, a four-foot shark, attracted by the blood, came close enough that Second Mate Sorensen grabbed it by the fin and dragged it into the boat. “Stinky Miller was holding it by its head while someone else gutted it…” The men were excitedly yelling “we got him, we got him! Here’s meat!” But “it bit Stinky on the arm and the wounded shark was lost overboard, quickly to be devoured by bigger sharks swimming near the boat.” What would have been the largest supply of fresh meat of the voyage – the liver and kidneys of sharks alone would have infused the men with needed nutrients – was lost after literally being in the men’s grasp. And worse, one of their own had been mortally wounded.
The 9th of July was the men’s 13th day at sea and nothing was sighted. The wind remained steady and light – 8 to 10 knots – from the east-northeast. On the following day, their 14th, the men suggested to Captain Lapoint that they leave ten volunteers on a raft so that the lifeboat could go ahead and get help, sending rescuers back to the raft. Lapoint wrote that “I believe that several days might pass before we get help, [I] overruled idea but intent to abandon one more raft when sea moderates. Caught 3 gallons of water.” In his assessment the facts bear out that it took a long time for them to rescue themselves and the men who so boldly volunteered to be left behind would almost certainly have starved on a raft without propulsion.
On their 15th day, Saturday the 11th of July Lieutenant Lybrand and nine other men moved from the raft to the lifeboat. This left 40 men in the lifeboat and nine on the raft. The men consumed the final portions of Pemican. Miller’s armed was found to be healing well, but he insisted on drinking salt water, essentially killing himself. The following day was a Sunday, their 16th. No water was caught and the wind died down to just a few knots from the northeast. The men were down to a half tablet of chocolate and two ounces of water issued twice daily. The 17th day was extremely hot and a number of the men had severe cases of sunburn. Lapoint had them anoint themselves in massaging oil and vegetable oil. On the whole voyage some forty fish were caught and some were caught on this day. Some of the men supplemented their half ounce of malted milk tablets ration with raw fish. Nothing was sighted on the horizon.
On Tuesday the 14th of July – their 18th day – Dalby the radio operator tried to kill himself by leaping over the side. Fortunately the men in the raft managed to retrieve him. Rain squalls enabled the men to capture an impressive 11 gallons of water. On the 19th day the captain said he believed that they were “close to ———— Islands”. The only islands these could be given the elapsed time was the Bahama Islands, though he could conceivably have been referring to the Virgin Islands. Since the US Navy censored his report we don’t know exactly which islands he was going for.
The decision was made to move all the men off the last raft. However Dalby the radio operator was despondent. As Jensen explained it, “as we started to board the lifeboat Sparks got hysterical. For a long time now he’d been nursing the idea that our being adrift for so long was his fault – because he hadn’t got an SOS out. He refused to leave the raft, and said he use the ax on any one who tried to move him. He wanted to be cut adrift and left alone. The captain had to detail some men to bring him aboard by force.” Captain Lapoint more laconically noted “he was… relieved of hatchet.”
Meanwhile Captain Lapoint had begun eating the berries from large clumps of seaweed which drifted past them, and some of the men began to follow his example to stave off hunger. By the 20th day nothing had changed and Captain Lapoint noted “Men getting restless, morale low.” On the 21st day more men began eating seaweed, but Stinky Miller kept insisting on drinking sea water. Miller became “raving with fever” and men were assigned to prevent him with force from drinking more salt water. A heavy rain storm enabled them to collect five gallons of precious fresh water.
By the following day, the 18th of July and their 22nd day Miller was in a coma with his pulse very low. The gunner Ruggles was reported to be suffering from Appendicitis, however since he makes no mention of it in his recollection, it may have been kidney or liver trouble. Lapoint was taking no chances and applied cool water to his midriff. For the first time on the voyage they heard the sounds of airplane engines high overhead.
At 5:00 am on the 22nd day, Stinky Miller died. At 6:30 am Lapoint held a “simple prayer service and Miller committed to the sea.” Jensen wrote that “As the sun came up, we lowered him gently overside. …we sat for five minutes in silence. He told us we should not look back.” Less than two hours later, at 8:05 am they heard an aircraft flying from the west to the east, as though from Florida or the Bahamas towards San Juan Puerto Rico or South America. Jensen observed that “I believe… that we were just north of Haiti at the time. The pilots of the planes probably thought we were fishing boats, despite our red distress sails.” Another plane on the opposite trajectory was sighted at 1:35 pm and a third at 3:10 pm was sighted “high overhead.” Though the men let of flares they were not seen and it was frustrating to them. Though their sail was “emergency red” the figured that even if they were sighted the pilots might mistake them for ordinary fishermen.
The aircraft sent out from Saint Thomas to find the Potlatch survivors after the pilots flew to Saint Martin to interview the Tysa and other survivors never did find the lifeboat. This is not surprising if they estimated her speed or course to be vastly different. Interestingly, however, Ruggles observed that “some planes passed overhead, but paid no attention to a flare they put up.” So he did record other flares sent up. The date these planes were sighted – 12 days after the Tysa lifeboat incident – indicates that these were not likely the planes specifically tasked with finding them, but were rather either on routine patrol or commercial or military aircraft flying high above “search and rescue” altitude, which was not uncommon. By that stage in the lifeboat’s voyage it would have been north of San Juan Puerto Rico which was an important air base for the Allies, particularly the Americans.
On Monday the 20th of July – their 24th day at sea, another aircraft was sighted at 7:25 am. So many were sighted by 9:30 am that Lapoint observed “all planes seem to be heading from and to a bearing WNW from us.” That would be the direction of Nassau or Miami on a relative bearing from the boat. At 11:00 am perhaps as a boost for morale they lowered the sail on the lifeboat to enable the men to have a bathe over the side. At 4:37 a plane passed so close that they thought it signaled with a lamp. The men bathed again, it being Lapoint’s effort to hydrate them by soaking moisture through their pores. There was no rainfall, no water collection, and no water issued in the morning. However two ounces were issued in the evening.
Jensen described the conditions on the 24th and 25th days as “becalmed on a glassy sea. The sun beat down mercilessly. Most of the men sat with their heads bent down or stared out hopelessly for hours at the dancing horizon.” They were fixated on water. “Some of the men sat holding sea water in their cupped hands for hours – just staring at it.” Those that could not resist “lost control of their minds soon afterwards, and it was months after our rescue before they could remember much of what happened to us.” As a diversion one of the navy gunners used a fingernail clipper to “shave” his companions. A single shave took six hours, clipping one hair at a time. As Jensen cheerily remarked, “there was no fee and no tip.”
Captain Lapoint was busy on the 25th day – at 1:00 am a plane passed from west to east and they sent up two rockets and burnt a single flare. At 7:00 am another plane passed oddly heading southwest from the open ocean, perhaps going from Bermuda to Guantanamo, Cuba. There were only light winds from the east and the boat was making no headway. At 9:00 am the men bathed, the captain estimating that each 15-minute swim provided the men with two ounces of water. At noon they took another dip – all 48 men. “Those who are too weak to help themselves over gunwale are lifted over and assisted back aboard.” At 3:00 pm the ritual was repeated, and Lapoint estimated that temperatures were between 90 to 100 degrees. At 7:00 pm there was no signs of squalls or wind. They were just drifting, not moving forward.
It must have been highly frustrating and the regimen which Captain Lapoint imposed was the only structure on otherwise empty days. The Cadets Kaplan and Corbatti say that they were encouraged to engage the men in sing-alongs and conversation to keep morale high, or at least from flagging. There were 48 men of many backgrounds – from Europe, the Americas, the West Indies, brown and white, from age 17 to at least age 65, all stuck together on a metal boat less than 26 feet long, locked in a struggle for survival which was both social, as in endured by the group at the same time, and also concurrently individual and thus very personal.
That night a number of arguments broke out amongst the men. Captain Lapoint wrote laconically “Necessary to take more drastic measures. Quite a few are showing signs of weakening. Parson, 2nd Cook, has been failing for several days…”
On the 26th day (about July 22st), when they had had no water for several days. Jensen said that from is early morning vigil he spotted “…thousands of birds. Birds – land! They went together and somehow I had the sense of the nearness of an island.” The routine continued though, with a 9:00 am swim. However perhaps because the water was shallower they were now followed by several sharks and the noon swim had to be postponed. At noon Jensen bet his shipmates that they would sight land by 8:00 pm that night. He received wagers for beer, ice cream sodas, and meals. At 3:00 pm the sharks were following the boat more aggressively. At 4:00 pm enough of a breeze for the boat to start moving forward.
Jensen observed that “low clouds hung over one part of the horizon, ahead and a little to port and they looked as though they had been stopped they by some land. (Readers who have moved around the Bahamas by boat will recognize this phenomenon). “Just before the light began to fail that evening,” wrote Jensen, “I begged the skipper to take his glasses and search the horizon. To humor me, he finally did.” Ruggles wrote that then “He said, in a quiet voice, “Now men, I don’t want you to get excited, but there is something out there.” We gathered around him, staring ahead. Then his voice rang out, ‘Land!’ We went crazy, crowding forward, laughing, jabbering, pointing.” Jensen added that “Red, the Oiler, keeled over and fell to the bottom of the lifeboat in a dead faint. He was revived with some spirits of ammonia. The third mate, Allen Holmes Jackson of New York, was “completely unnerved” by the thought of the proximity to land. He was in great intestinal pain and was offered the last ounces of water, but could not ingest them and spit them out. “A moan passed over the whole lifeboat at this waste. The mate cried openly, and I don’t mind saying that many of the rest of us were crying as we stood gripping the gunwale of the lifeboat to stare ahead at land.”
It was dark by the time the lifeboat grounded its metal bottom on a sandy beach.” Captain Lapoint logged that land was sighted at 5:40 pm and that at 8:40 pm they “Landed on shore, touched on scattered rocks and reef, few dents in way of bilges, boat not leaking. Made landing on Eastern side of island”. The had covered a distance of 1,130 miles in 25 days, four hours and forty minutes, for an average speed of 1.8 knots in the prevailing wind, waves and current – quite respectable considering the number of men, their level of fatigue, and crucially the drag of the several rafts behind them, at least initially.
When asked 60 years later about his first impressions of landing in the Bahamas, Ruggles said that he only remembers falling flat on his face in the sand. In fact Jensen was at first confused that all the men fell to their knees in the surf, thinking that they were prostrating themselves in thanks. Then then “when I jumped overside I fell on my face and some one else was laughing at me.” Lapoint observed tat “Men on getting ashore unable to stand or walk. All had dizzy spells which passed in about half hour but none able to walk without staggering.”
Immediately those who could started looking for fresh water to drink – what Jensen called a “mad search”. But over six hours later, at 3:00 am all had returned to a fire that had been lit using an emergency flare, since all the matches had been used, lost or gotten wet. All of the men had their first sleep on shore in over five weeks, since the ship had left New York, and for man of the men that had not taken shore leave it was longer than that. Captain Lapoint and Chief Officer Hansen climbed a nearby ridge in bright moonlight and looked for lights or any sign of habitation or a port. They found nothing. Jensen described the results of the men’s first forays as discouraging.
At sunrise the following day Jensen and others saw wild donkeys which inhabit Inagua Island moving in the brush. Ruggles said when he awoke at daylight he saw half a dozen wild jackasses moving about in the undergrowth. “Others got out and we tried to catch one. We were going to cook it and eat it. No one had the strength needed to catch one.” Excitement rippled through the bedraggled encampment – if there are jackasses, there must be water. Some of the men dreamed of catching one of the beasts and having “jackass steak” but were unable to in their weakened condition. Instead some of the men decided to follow the animals to their watering hole. They collected empty bottles in the driftwood on the shore and set off inland. At 7:00 am Lapoint saw that with the neap tide caused by the full moon most of the rocks on the reef for a mile and a half out to the north and south were “well out of the water”, and he worried about navigating the boat off the island, especially with such weak men.
Others remained at the camp and began collecting whelks and conchs to make a stew out of – but found their hunger overwhelmed their better intentions, and not much of the catch actually made it into the pot. Ruggles remained by the boat while some of the gunners went inland looking for water. Ruggles says that as many as 90% of the men, or over 40 of them, were so exhausted that they could hardly move. Two attempts were made to obtain water near their encampment – the first simply dug to the salt water line. On the second attempt, from the base of the ridge, the men dug an impressive 12 feet down, with several cave-ins before turning up salty water as well.
By 3:00 pm none of the men who had returned sighted any water or foot prints or sign of people. The did however sight goats and a dog. At 9:00 pm one of their wells proved to be salty.
At 4:30 am the next day, Friday the 24th of July – the 18thday of their ordeal – the men were back at it, digging for water again. At sunrise the fittest men were detailed to fan out and search for water and the Master and Hansen set off far to the North again to survey a save channel out of the reef. Recognizing that there wasn’t enough food for his men on the island, Captain Lapoint decided that they must push off within 36 hours. He and Hansen reconnoitered north along the coast. It seems that Lapoint is not where he thought he was, as he records seeing Little Inagua island – “a small island is seen due north, believe that the island we are now on is ———- and the island due north must be ————– This seems incredible, as distance is too great.” We will never know where Lapoint thought he was – one of the Virgin Islands, Angtigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, Turks & Caicos Islands? He clearly did not think he was on Great Inagua in the Bahamas. Because of censorship we will never know for sure where he thought he was. But that didn’t alter the fact that it was his responsibility to navigate the men out of there as a cohesive unit. He and the mate set up ranges and markers on the shore to enable them to navigate their way back to sea through a narrow gap in the reef.
It took some six hours, until about noon, for the donkeys to divulge the location of their drinking hole, which was situated in some lava-like limestone rock. Jensen wrote that the men “smelled sulphur, and looking around saw a small wet hole in the rock about 200 yards away, which turned out to be a putrid green sulphur spring. Even so, it was water. We fell on it like maniacs, and then lay there most of the afternoon, crawling up to the hole from time to time for another drink. The water went right in and out of us.” One of the men indulged so much that he drank thirty-two quarts of the precious liquid. The men were hungry too and Jensen ate some acrid-tasting leaves, which didn’t either allay his hunger or make him very sick.
Back in the camp Oiler Kennedy had begun digging a new hole and made it to eight feet by 4:00 pm, when two members of the gun crew came back to camp with bottled filled with fresh water. Lapoint organized all fit men to head for the spring, which was one and a half miles west of camp, post haste. They slung the smallest keg, of 10 gallons, on an oar between their shoulders. This they were told to bring back to camp for those too sick to move. Work on Kennedy’s well was stopped in anticipation of fresh supplies. Four hours later, at 8:00 pm, roughly half of the fit men came back to camp with the keg of water – the others remained at the spring to satiate their thirst.
Captain Lapoint doled out two cups of water to each of the injured and sick. They then made a large fire for the night. Already the cooks were becoming adept at roasting conch on the fire and soon they would be adding water to make a stew – presumably they found a pot-like vessel in the debris on the shore, though there were also instruments for bailing on the boat and this must have included a bucket or buckets capable of resisting fire. The Captain resolved that if no signs of humans were found by noon the following day he and the men would push off to the next island, which they had seen from the ridge.
Saturday the 25thof July was the 29th day of their ordeal and would be their last on Great Inagua. One shudders to think of the outcome of their voyage had they had a wooden boat – they might have had to walk to Matthew Town on the southwest coast of Great Inagua after the boat became unusable. The lighthouse there was built in 1870 and is situated atop a 121-foot tower. However ironically the men were on the northeast coast of the island, nearly 40 miles away, and thus could not see the light, which has a maximum range of 37 miles on its focal side.
Keeping a sea-going watch schedule, Captain Lapoint sent men with two empty kegs of water back to the spring with orders for all of the men there to assemble where he and Hansen had constructed the range two days before. It was the same distance – one and a half miles – from the spring to the navigational range as it was to the camp, so Lapoint was sparing the men from carrying the water an extra mile or so up the coast. At 6:00 am the weak and sick – including Delatorre and Parson – were placed in the lifeboat. The rest of the men from camp walked the boat along the shore northward in knee-deep water. Water was given freely to the men with no rations.
By 4:00 pm all of the 48 men had assembled at the ranges with the extra rations of water. Ten of the men were given life preservers and told to hold onto a line strung from the back of the boat. Captain Lapoint calculated that ten men would weigh three quarters of a ton, or 1,500 pounds (this would have been accurate at the outset of the voyage, however men like Ruggles had lost more than 75 pounds, and instead of weighing an average of 150 pounds the men probably weighed closer to 100 each or 1,000 pounds, or half a ton). There was a gentle wind from the east-southeast, which nevertheless would have pushed the boat back towards the reef, as they were heading due east away from the island. By 5:30 pm Captain Lapoint was confident enough of clearing the reefs that he had the remaining ten men climb aboard. “But we had no sooner worked our way over that reef than we found others just beyond it,” wrote Jensen. Lapoint observed that there were “submerged rocks between – can get around.”
It was the beginning of a long night for all of the men aboard who were still conscious. As Lapoint noted, “wind changed to E forced to continue rowing, unable to hoist sail, will drift back on reef. Making little headway. Men tire easily and only about half able to row…. Forced to row all night. …Several times during night drifted on edge of rocks. Just outside of reef, and hit hard twice. Boat not leaking yet but has taken severe punishment, having a steel keel is what saved us.” As usual Jensen’s language is even more florid. He wrote: “All night we pushed with all we had left to heave the boat into deep water – our feet torn by poisonous coral rock. Where we got the courage for this last great effort I don’t know, but by daybreaks were were in bluew water and sailing again.”
At sunrise they were able to see Little Inagua in the distance to the northwest and they raised sail and headed for it. With a wind from the east it should have been a beam reach on starboard tack – a comfortable point of sail. They landed at 10:30 am without the drama and close calls of their night-time landing on Great Inagua. However they did strike a few submerged rocks as they approached a bay on the south side.
The distance between the two points was about 30 miles depending on where they landed on each island. Since it took them roughly 17 hours, several of which were spent hung up on the reef, they averaged about two nautical miles an hour, or knots. It is also possible that the men landed on the north eastern corner of Great Inagua, where the 80-foot ridge afforded them a view of Little Inagua, across a channel only six miles wide at its narrowest. If that was the case their voyage may have only been 10 to 15 miles and the might have made five knots once underway.
It was Sunday, the 26th of July and the 30th day of the crew’s ordeal. Little Inagua is a small, square-shaped island nine miles wide and nine miles long at its thickest. There appear to be some brackish ponds or water holes, as seen from space, however the men from the Potlatch did not know that, and they did not find any water there. Jensen and his mates stumbled upon an itinerant fishing shanty. “In the afternoon,” he wrote, “some of us found the pole frameworks of two thatched houses. A rotten and weather-beaten dugout canoe was pulled up on the beach near by. We whooped in triumph. This time, we though, there was sure to be a spring or some water at hand.” Again they were disillusioned.
Famished, Jensen ate the fibrous flesh of a cactus plant and then experienced such abdominal pain that he thought he would die. However the pain soon passed, though is cravings were not satiated. Though they beat around the brush on foot looking for a watering hole, they soon realized that “we must get off this island before our strength was completely gone.” Having not eaten any substantial meal in weeks the men were slowly starving as they expended ever-increasing reserves of energy on rowing, foraging, walking, sailing. The second cook was literally dying in his companion’s arms back on the boat.
There was better news back at the boat. Unbeknownst to Jensen, who was off on a scouting party, Captain Lapoint and the men in the boat had found “plenty of fresh water bubbling up close to sea and running into the sea.” They also became accomplished at finding and catching the slow-moving mollusk known simply as conch, with its tough but tasty muscular white meat. They must have gathered well over 100 conch, because Lapoint says their afternoon repast consisted of conch “which was gathered and boiled up; each man having half a cup of broth and several conchs and welks.” No doubt Chief Cook John Beckels and the stewards were kept busy by the task of preparing so large a meal in such rudimentary conditions.
Finding that they could not penetrate the thick brush, Captain Lapoint decided to sail round to the lee, or western side of the island the following morning at slack high water. He had already worked out the diurnal tides and their rough tables. The following day was Monday, 27th of July 1942. It was their 31stday of the boat voyage. First thing in the morning they filled all the water kegs with fresh water. Then the cooks served a shellfish broth – four ounces per person or roughly a gallon and a half of broth. At 11:00 am the 48 men piled back into the boat and bumped their way back to the open sea over reefs and rocks. Two hours later, at 1:15 pm they rounded the southern tip of Little Inagua, then sailed roughly west for five miles until setting a course to the north-northwest.
The could not sail due north since the lifeboat simply could not point that high into the wind. Had they been able to go wherever they pleased they could have made for Little Caicos Island, only 25 miles to the north, or Mayaguana, 50 miles to the north-northwest. Instead they opted to go where the wind most easily pushed them – to the northwest, where Acklins Island lay some 75 miles away, protected midway by a ring of unlit and treacherous atol reefs called Hogsty Reef.
The wind was roughly 15 knots and there were large swells coming into the Mayaguana Passage from the open Atlantic to the northeast. Because of the waves water seeped underneath the weather cloth (rigged to prevent just such an occurrence) as well as over the gunwale on the starboard, or windward side. All of that night men had to bail continuously. Parson’s condition deteriorated badly. The Third Mate suffered from an acute intestinal trouble which he told the skipper he had had before. Chief Mate Hansen’s feet and lower legs were swollen, and some of the naval gunners were experiencing the same condition, perhaps a result of the sudden influx of fluids into bodies grown unaccustomed to it.
The wind picked up that night, rising to over 20 knots with rough seas from the northeast. At 2:30 am on the morning of Tuesday the 28th of July, the 32ndday of the saga, they had to bear off, easing sail to make the trip more comfortable and running more along with the wind than against it. As a result instead of pointing north-northwest they headed west-northwest. Still the wet men bailed around the clock. Just after sunrise, at 6:00 am they heard another airplane overhead. Then half an hour later they sighted the first ship they had seen since watching their own vessel plunging to the depths five weeks before. The ship must have been transiting the Crooked Island Passage to the south, probably using Castle Island Light at the bottom of Acklins as a bearing.
As Jensen said, “…we had no more flares to send up. Besides, we had had enough of phantom ships, and planes. Most of us had reached our absolute limit of endurance. We lay like so many stacked up corpses.” At 10:00 am they saw what looked like a plane from the US Navy, flying from the southeast to the northwest (towards Nassau?), however they could not tell if the boat had been seen. Even if it had it might have been mistaken for the many local trading schooners in the region.
The ship Nicarao saw so many schooners in the time frame that it was torpedoed east of Eleuthera that the crew though the schooners were complicit with the submariners, and the schooner Arena had rescued the crew of O. A. Knudsen earlier in the war. In fact in ten days the 130-ton Barbadian schooner Vivien P. Smith would be sunk just north of the Turks & Caicos Islands by U-600 under Bernard Zurmuhlen. The Abgara had been sunk off the same islands on the 6th of May and the Fauna on the 18th of May, only nine weeks previously. All of the surviving crew had endured albeit shorter voyages to shore and been tended to by the Turks & Caicos Islanders.
At 7:00 pm on Tuesday the 28th of July the men sighted two small islands which form the dangerous and tiny cays in the Hogsty atoll lagoon. It would have been suicidal of them to have attempted to land on the cays – little more than sandy outcrops – at night without charts or local knowledge. Wisely they resisted the temptation and sailed on. They were roughly halfway across the Mayaguana Passage and finally on their way to a large – and inhabited – island; Acklins. At 30 minutes after midnight on Wednesday the 29th of July, the 33rdday of their voyage, David Parson died in the lifeboat of what was described as exposure and exhaustion – more likely the latter. He was 65 years of age. Certainly the men were as exposed to the elements – scorching hot in the daytime and cold at night – as people could be, albeit in tropical climes. Aside from photos of the emaciated survivors following their ordeal, Ruggles’ body weight speaks to their privations: he weighed 160 pounds when he boarded the boat on the 27th of July and only 90 pounds when he reached a scale for the first time in Nassau some 35 days later.
Just an hour and a half later, at 3:00 am the welcoming beacon of Castle Island Light, on the southern tip of Acklins Island in the southern Bahamas, hove into sight. Castle Island Light was constructed in 1868. With an elevation of 131 feet it has an impressive range of 40 miles. The distance from Hogsty Cay to Castle Island is 38 miles, so it makes sense that as they passed Hogsty the men would pick up Castle Island Light. In 1934 – only six years before the Potlatch crew relied upon it – the light-keepers installed a First Order Fresnel lens. There are two keeper’s cottages on the island which have been abandoned for many years. Though there might have been a family living there at the time, Captain Lapoint wisely decided to hove-to a safe distance from the reefs until he could be certain he and the men would be taken care of ashore.
At 6:00 am, in sunlight, the boat approached the lighthouse more closely, but found bad shoals encircling it. Looking for somewhere sheltered to bury Parson, they rounded Castle Island to the west, to be in the lee of the island. Once there, they spotted a small community – actually “dwelling houses” five miles ahead. The only settlement anywhere near the area is Salinas Point, a tiny community tenaciously clawing to the southeastern coast of Acklins Island and disconnected from the other settlements except by the most rudimentary of paths and of course the sea. Salinas is on the windward side of Acklins, with a protecting reef but a welcoming little bay. The leeward side of Acklins is a huge swathe of shallows several hundred square miles wide called simply the Bight of Acklins, stretching all the way to Crooked Island to the northwest. The Bight is anchored on the northwest by Fortune, or Long Cay and the once prosperous trading depot of Albert Town, its cathedral and post office long since abandoned by all but a few hangers-on.
Captain Lapoint didn’t know any of this – in fact he had to be told by locals what the name of the light was. In the words of Jensen, “By the light of early morning we came into a aby, sighted a few houses in a coconut grove, and headed in for them. We were too weak and numb to show any excitement. The first signs of life we saw ashore were two pigs and a goat. Then six Negro women and some children came running down to the beach. They backed up, muttering and gasping, when they caught sight of us. They must have thought we were ghosts risen from a watery grave. Our captain stepped out of the lifeboat and spoke to them softly and they replied in good English. When they realized what had happened to us they twittered like birds and ran off in all directions for food and water.”
The voyage had taken some 40 hours to cover roughly 80 miles, meaning they had averaged two knots. It was 33 days since they was their German enemies, and roughly 23 days – over three weeks – since they had seen the mysterious Dutchmen sailing off towards rescue off Saint Martin. They were roughly three weeks overdue in Trinidad but there is no record of an alarm having been caused by her status as overdue. (Because of the Tysa report and confusion with other survivors, on the 29th of July the owners of the ship were told that their crew were on their way from Saint Kitts to San Juan Puerto Rico and from thence to New York aboard US navy ships….).
In Lapoint’s more restrained prose he relates that at 09:15 am they “landed and arranged with one colored family to cook up oat-meal and meal mush for entire crew. This being only food suitable, available in quantities, to care for 47 men. Paid $15.00 to Lady. Sent for Official at ———— to arrange for burial of 2ndCook.” Only forty-five minutes later the Constable and town officials arrived in a sailboat in order to lead the survivors to another settlement. According to the American Consul General in Nassau, John W. Dyem, this was the local sailboat named Go On. Dyem adds that “Local people were very kind to them, fed and accommodated them for 2 days.”
Meanwhile Jensen and others availed themselves of the local hospitality, writing “We lay down on the beach and the women quickly brought us a tin of water and some cooked corn-meal grits, which we ate from our hands. Our first attempts at swallowing were pretty painful. …The captain had a conference with the women and fond that we were in a poor little village where the people had neither the food nor the shelters to care for us. There was a larger settlement, they told us, about two miles down the coast.”
The men were ordered back into the lifeboat and were towed by the schooner up the coast. According to Lapoint the trip took four hours. Assuming the sailing vessel made an impressive five knots of speed (the wind was still fresh), this means they travelled no more than 20 miles up the coast. Jensen meanwhile was overcome and “burning up with fever” and collapsed in the lifeboat. His reference to two miles cannot be correct, primarily because there is no settlement two miles from Salinas. American Consul General Dyem, who was not there, but who can be relied upon to know more about Bahamian geography than Lapoint, says that the men “sailed to Hard Hill, Acklins Island, where a settlement.”
Hard Hill is in the middle to east of the northern end of Acklins and does not have a port of its own. But Captain Lapoint specifically says that the distance from where they were next taken to Fortune Island was 50 miles. On that basis, since it would only take about 20 miles to get from the Bight side of Acklins to Fortune Island, but almost exactly 50 miles to get from Hard Hill, south to Castle Island, around the island and then north again to Fortune Island, we can safely assume that the men were indeed taken to Hard Hill. There is a cemetery at Anderson Settlement on the coast, a short distance from Hard Hill. Crucially, there are no other settlements between Salinas and Andersons and Hard Hill on the east, or windward coast of Acklins.
Jensen writes that “After I don’t know how long I was lifted out of the boat and carried ashore. Then the constable gave us our last piece of bad news: we would have to walk two miles inland to the other village. The thermometer must have registered about 116 degrees, and all we could see ahead of us was burning hot white sand. But we set off grimly. Some of the men walked, but after a few dizzy spells most of us got down on our hands and knees and crawled. After what seemed like hours of agony we dragged ourselves up a path into a schoolhouse and dropped exhausted on a cool cement floor.” Lapoint concurred, noting that “Several men had to be carried from beach to school house account of badly swollen feet, ankles, and legs. Also Deck Engineer [Delatorre] with broken leg. These men carried by natives.” This is one of the only references to male locals on the island, the other being the Constable.
They had to abandon the battered but loyal lifeboat where the landed on the beach as it was badly dented and leaking from landing over so many reefs and rocks in recent days. Lapoint, ever industrious on behalf of his men, arranged for the locals to prepare a meal of chicken and rice soup with vegetables. At 5:00 pm the meal of chicken rice soup was served as well as ground corn meal – the diet of many out island communities is high in starch – and bread. Ruggles said that “the women were black and they killed the chickens and cooked them for us.” There was no fresh fruit available. Jensen says that the local women washed the bedraggled men and spoon fed them food, since most were not strong enough to hold a utensil. When he tried smoking a cigarette “it fell right out. Finally, by leaning way back, I managed a few draws. I’d never tasted anything so good in my life!”
After dinner Captain Lapoint walked to a nearby settlement, said by Jensen to be five miles away (Snug Corner, on the Bight, is only 3 miles to the south from Hard Hill, and Goodwil Settlement only a mile beyond that). The captain managed to send a message to Fortune Island and it seems from there to Nassau by sending a small sail boat. It is likely that this message was relayed down the island to Spring Point, on the Bight side, and then across the Bight by a shallow-draft sailing boat accustomed to the voyage. Deeper draft vessels like the Go On would have to take the blue water passage which was much longer to get from Hard Hill to Fortune Island, which is what they did, according to the Consul General. There is no record of motorized transport on land or sea, and Lapoint notes that there was “no other communications from here.”
Captain John Lapoint closes his diary by noting how the men are being taken care of. He writes that he “Managed to buy 62 packages of American cigarettes. At the one and only small store in settlement, purchased entire stock of canned goods, consisting of 19 cans of Peaches, 4 cans tomatoes, 1 lb. Can of butter, 24 cans canned corned beef. Some condensed and evaporated milk.” Meanwhile Jensen and fellow crewmen were looking forward to their first sound sleep in weeks, but could not quite manage it. Their minds were plagued with obsessions about food and water. Fortunately for them, “The women had been up most of the night preparing our breakfast: tea, canned tomatoes, corn meal and corn bread. It was heavenly.”
With “normal people” to compare to, Jensen was struck with just how emaciated the survivors looked. “We looked like leather-covered skeletons. Sparks [Radio Operator Dalby, who had tried to kill himself] weighed only seventy-four pounds. His stomach was so collapsed that even when he stood up we could see the outline of his backbone. I had fallen from 176 to eighty-seven pounds.” He goes on to recount how the men spent the day lounging in the cool shade of the school house, “drinking coconut water, eating a little corn meal, smoking and resting and chartering like a cage of monkeys. All we had been holding back for thirty-two days came out now.” This may have been literal as well as figurative, as the bowels on most of the men had frozen up after their nutrition had run out, and by the second and third weeks there were, according to Ruggles, fewer and then calls on nature. The process of re-acclimatizing their digestive systems to regular meals must have been painful and lasted several weeks, as we shall see.
There was one crucial errand that Lapoint had to accomplish before he could sign off. His diary of events concludes: “Parson buried. Casket and funeral services furnished at ————- island.” Since it simply wouldn’t make sense for them to take a two-day-old corpse in 100-degree weather with no refrigeration available on another 50-mile voyage to Fortune Island, it can fairly be assumed that Second Cook David Parson is buried at the base of the hill east of Hard Hill, at the Hardhill Cemetery located in the Anderson Settlement, on the northeast coast of Acklins Island, by people – local islanders – that he was never able to meet.
Whether Parson was a West Indian like Chief Cook John Beckels or African-American like Chief Steward McKenzie is a matter of conjecture. Whatever his ethnicity he was buried by the kindly and attentive people of Acklins (interestingly a yacht, the Tai Mo Shan had been wrecked in Acklins only a few years before and the locals were reluctant to use their shovels to salvage the yacht, for fear of not being able to bury their dead – For a footnote see: Five Royal Navy officers, including Philip Francis under Lieutenant R. E. D. (Red) Ryder left Hong Kong in 1933 for England, keeping meteorological data for the Admiralty. When they washed ashore on Crooked Island, Bahamas with no tiller, they were stranded for sixteen days, in part because impoverished islanders would not lend their own shovel – saying it was needed to bury their dead.
Ultimately the 24-ton, 54-foot ketch Tai Mo Shan was towed off by the 222-foot, Sparkman & Stevens-designed and German built Vagabondia, owned by the Mellons, and the crew made it to Nassau in their yacht on March 6, 1934. Ryder went on to command the destroyer HMS Campeldownin the famous raid on Nazaire, during which the destroyer was disguised as a German gun boat and wedged into the locks of the harbor with a time fused detonator that killed many German officers inspecting it. He won the Victoria’s Cross. They yacht was recently restored in Turkish boatyard.)
The men left Hard Hill on the native schooner Go Onin the morning of Friday the 31st of July southbound for Fortune Island. Since the distance to Fortune Island (Long Cay) is about 60 miles, schooner probably averaged five knots in good breeze, so a voyage of 12 hours or so could be expected. They arrived Fortune Island in the afternoon of Friday 31thof July. Then transfered to the Bird Island Light at Pittsdown Landing, which is also known as Landrail Point. This is on the northwest coast of Crooked Island. They must have left Fortune Island pm 31st of July. The distance to Bird Rock lighthouse is only 15 miles, so at five knots the voyage would only have taken three hours. According to some accounts the sailboat was proceeding north in the dark when a bright light burst upon them and a signal flashed reading “you are rescued!”.
Following this fortuitous rendezvous the men and their rescuers aboard the fast motor yacht Vergermere skippered by Marion Carstairs left Bird Island Rock late on the night of Friday 31st of July or early on Saturday the 1st of August. Ruggles said that the men took shelter below decks on the floor of the cabin. Because they were so exhausted little was said. He said the boat was powered by diesel engines and that the weather was “calm enough, with no waves”. This would have enabled the boat to plane and achieve very high speeds. He had photos of Carstairs and the yacht, but they have been lost over time, though World Wide images has a photo of a number of the men on arrival with the Duchess, Carstairs, and three Bahamian nurses, one of them Greek.
They are confirmed (in consular and news reports) having arrived Nassau 5:30 pm Saturday the 1st of August aboard the Vergermere. The total distance is 225 miles and if picked up on Friday the 31sth, the time to cover it was roughly 20 hours, the average speed was 12 knots. It is more likely that the passengers were not picked up until the morning of the 1stof August and covered the distance in a faster time – for example if they were met at 5:30 am then their speed would have been a more impressive 19 knots.
We don’t know the weather conditions or the extent to which Ms. Carstairs had to conserve fuel amidst wartime rationing. It is not believed that the heiress of a Standard Oil fortune and winner of innumerable power boat races would have skimped on fuel. Consul General John W. Dye notes that “Miss Marion Carstairs gave the use of her Vessel Vergermere and all fuel and other supplies gratis.”
Forty-one years at the time of this rescue, Marion Carstairs had already rescued a number of people, local and expatriate, from Bahamian islands. In December of 1937, for example, she saved the crew of the yacht Polaris, stranded with nine persons on board off Whale Cay, Berry Islands. The local newspapers hold several accounts of Miss Carstairs rushing Bahamians to the hospital in Nassau or saving foreigners from the rocks. Since she is one of the more colorful characters in the island’s history her story bears summarizing here.
Betty “Joe” Carstairs (born Marion Barbara Carstairs) was a wealthy British power boat racer known for her speed and her eccentric lifestyle. She was born in 1900 in Mayfair, London, England. Her mother was the American heiress Frances (Fannie) Evelyn Bostwick, whose family had done extremely well with Standard Oil – her father was an original trustee of the company. Her father Captain Albert Carstairs, a Scotsman who served with the Royal Irish Rifles.
Carstairs’ mother, a socialite with a serious drinking and later a drug problem, married Captain Francis Francis. From her second marriage came two offspring whose descendants still inhabit the Bahamas – Evelyn (Sally) Francis and Francis Francis Jr. She married a third time. Their first daughter Marion moved to Paris at the age of 17 and learned to “live like a man” including having her first lesbian encounter (Carolyn Hughes, “No Ordinary Joe”, New York Times, May 17, 1998).
Carstair’s sense of duty towards the British and American sides in both wars was as strong as her sense of adventure. During the First World War, like Hemingway she drove ambulances for the International Red Cross in France. While working with the Women’s Legion Mechanical Transport Section in Dublin Ireland she seduced Oscar Wilde’s niece Dolly Wilde. When most people were trying to put the war behind them, Carstairs went back for one of the more traumatic aspects of the war: burying the dead for Royal Army Service Corps in France.
In 1918 Carstairs entered into a “sham” marriage with French Count Jacques de Pret in order to take control of her inheritance from her erratic mother, who insisted she marry and settle down. As soon as her mother passed the marriage was annulled on the grounds of non-consummation. Carstairs also exhibited organizational and entrepreneurial flair that would come out in the Bahamas as well. Two years after the war she organized women drivers to found the ‘X Garage’, in which only women chauffeured clients around London and the surrounding area.
On a personal level, Carstairs was openly a lesbian and often dressed herself and her doll as a man. She tattooed her arms, and was like male race drivers addicted to speed and machines – particularly speed boats. By winning the 1926 Duke of York’s trophy she became the world’s fastest woman on water, later winning the Lucina Cup and the Royal Motor Yacht Club international race. Through proxies – by supporting their campaigns with lavish funds and in one case giving the engines out of her own boat, Carstairs reached the highest heights of boat racing. Record-setter Sir Malcolm Campbell and his boat Bluebird as well as John Cobb on Railton Special were beneficiaries of Carstairs in the period 1925 to 1930.
Alas as Sir Harry Oakes had demonstrated, no amount of patriotism and loyalty can obviate an onerous tax burden. Carstairs found that she could not keep her inheritance safe from the tax man in the U.K. and resolved to exile herself. She chose the Bahamas and in 1934 she purchased Whale Cay in the Berry Islands (between Bimini and Nassau), for $40,000. She later expanded these properties by also buying the additional islands of Bird Cay, Devil’s Cay, half of Hoffman’s Cay, Cat Cay in the Barry Islands, and a tract of land on Andros Island to the south. Carstairs took pleasure in hosting a number of socialites and snow birds including Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead and of course the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. She kept photographs of all 120 of her sexual conquests in a wonderfully sculpted library on Whale Cay.
Carstairs not only constructed a Great House for herself and her guests, but also a school, lighthouse, cannery and church for the benefit of the Bahamians who moved to the island to work for her. Driving around on a motorbike with her beloved stuffed doll Lord Todd Wadley, she ruled the island in the vein of a benevolent despot, arguing for reforms in the treatment of natives to the Duke of Windsor and the Bay Street Boys – to little effect. “I was a leader,” confided Carstairs – “I could do anything” (Hughes).
Carstairs tried to contribute to the war effort for the Second World War. The Nassau Tribune of January 21, 1943 reports that “Miss Marion Carstairs arrived in Nassau today and is a guest in the Prince George Hotel. She has just returned from the U.S. where she had her yacht “Sonia” converted for war work.” When the British Navy issued a request for boats to use as minesweepers, she immediately offered her finest schooner. “This ship,” Carstairs wrote in a press release, “one of the most beautiful private schooners in the world, has been placed by Miss Carstairs unreservedly at the service of His Majesty’s Navy.” His Majesty’s Navy turned the ship down as unsuitable. Carstairs offered her schooner to the American Navy and again it was refused. When she asked a well-connected British Admiral how she could personally contribute to the war effort, say as an officer in the Navy or skipper of a torpedo boat (a position for which she was uniquely qualified), the answer she received was “wrong sex, wrong war.”
Eventually Carstairs relocated to Miami, Florida in the 1950s. After selling the island in 1975, she lived in Florida until her death in Naples in 1993. Her doll Lord Todd Wadley was cremated with her (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marion_Carstairs, Kate Summerscale, The Queen of Whale Cay, 1997, Hughes). Whale Cay remains in the Francis family to this day, and service remains important to them – Kimberly Aranha (nee Francis) heads the Bahamas Humane Society.
As a footnote, The Nassau “Tribune” on Jan. 21 and Feb. 15 1943 reported on the conversion of the Vergermere II from the Sonia and spoke of Capt. Durward Knowles, the famous Olympic gold-medal-winning sailor, gaining command of Vergermere II. However in a conversation with the author Capt. Knowles stated that he never served aboard her and that a Captain Collins, since deceased, was her master. It seems from photographs and all accounts that Carstairs herself skippered the Vergermere – the original motorboat which had been built on Whale Cay – to save the Potlatch survivors. She probably received word of their distress by radio from Nassau and set out directly from Whale Cay to Crooked Island, though it is possible that she topped up on fuel and received more precise instructions in Nassau, which is basically along the way between the two ports.
Ruggles says that the men slept on the deck of the Vergermere, under the stars. He “got to looking at her,” he said, which debunks the myth that none of the men knew the captain was a woman until after the trip was over (some things sailors will always notice). The Nassau Tribune, the evening paper, got the scoop on the Potlatch survivors’ arrival that same day. A front page article headlined “Forty-seven survivors arrive here” Reads: “Forty-seven survivors from a torpedoed ship landed in Nassau at 5:30 this afternoon, having been brought from Acklins Island in a local boat after landing there on Thursday morning. The Duchess of Windsor, President of the Red Cross, and other members of the Red Cxross were on the dock to meet the survivors who were taken to the Rozelda and Lucerne Hotels, where they are being taken care of and outfitted by the Red Cross. Eight of the men are in the hospital.”
We don’t know which of the survivors were hospitalized, but they may have included Captain Lapoint who was still badly bruised and no doubt exhausted after leading the men for a month. Another candidate was Third Mate Jackson who passed out on sighting land. Several gunners are reported to have drunk sea water and not to have completely recovered their wits for several months afterwards. Again, Ruggles said that 90% of the men suffered from severe exhaustion, and even sturdy young Jensen had passed out in Acklins on their arrival. Also they would still have been badly stained from the oil.
Interestingly an article immediately adjacent to this relates the recent visit of Labour Advisor F. A. Norman and the American investors from Maine, the W. Ericksons, having just returned from a flight to Inagua. They had been flown there several days before and returned on the very day the Potlatch survivors touched down. This would have meant that the plane taking the party – which included Mr. Hubert McKinney, would have landed and taken off as the men were starving on the eastern edge of the island or struggling across the Mayaguana Passage – probably it was the aircraft they saw at the same time they saw a ship on Wednesday the 29th of July, as they passed Hogsty Reef. Inagua was the site of the first major commercial harvest of salt and it went on to be operated by the Morton’s Salt Company.
The men of the Potlatch appear to have largely flown under the radar of the local newspapers, probably because they were so weak, according to Ruggles they only had pajamas (the Duke of Windsor is said to have personally given Cadet Kaplan a pair of pajamas – the slight men were about the same size). Another reason may be that they behaved well. According to the American Consul General (he had been promoted from Vice-Consul in May of that year) John W. Dye, the captain led by quiet but firm example. He wrote that “Throughout this experience the Master of the Potlatch, Captain John J. Lapoint has conducted himself in a really remarkable and efficient manner. His control of thirst and hunger mad men was kind but firm and was the means of saving many lives. Of all rescued crews of torpedoed vessels these men conducted themselves the best in Nassau due to the Captain’s quiet appeal and good example.”
Ruggles mentions that the men made it to the movies, and no doubt some of them patronized the I.O.D.E. (Imperial Order of the Daughters of Empire) canteen, which was open for Allied servicemen working on the air base, for the US and British navies, etc. The Potlatch were the only shipwreck survivors on the island and the last of the war – Kollskegg survivors had left the island by end April, over three months before. Ruggles says that the people the men mingled with in Nassau were white. Presumably the apartments made available to the officers and men in Nassau were shared by American or British expatriates or Bahamians, as the Farringtons had opened their home to Alan Heald, a British survivor of the Athelqueen..
Ruggles, in an interview, said that they didn’t all stay in the same hotel. He said that though they didn’t have clothes to go out and about in, they were too weak to do so anyway. “It was better than a boat,” he said. On the 11th of August Dye continued, saying that the men “were at once well cared for in hotels, apartments, and the Bahamas General Hospital. The local Red Cross, headed by the Duchess of Windsor, provided them all with cigarettes and needed clothing and shoes. No compensation has been suggested for these articles by the Red Cross and it is believed none will be.” On the 2nd of August he noted that “Master saved log, other papers, and letter of credit. All survivors well cared for here.” “The Captain having a letter of credit for $20,000 at hand paid all other expenses of the crew such as subsistence and wages.” This certainly shows the value of Captain Lapoint going below to get the ship’s cash, letter of credit, etc. Nothing encourages charity like having hard cash. And unlike ships like the Cygnet, where the agents had to be appointed and funds requested from different continents, in the Potlatch’s case it does not appear they appointed (expensive) agents, but rather coordinated directly with the US Consul General, US Navy and US Army Transport command to have their needs efficiently met. The fact that Lieutenant Dorcey Lybrand and his crew of 15 Naval Armed Guard were among the survivors would have helped galvanize the US military to their aid. The Potlatch is also the only recorded United States-flagged ship to have had survivors landed in Nassau. The fact that they evaded coverage from the local papers, whereas survivors from other ships were in the papers almost daily, probably speaks to their efficiency. Though a search has not been exhaustive, there is not a record of the customary “thank you letter” to those who helped the survivors to the people of Nassau from Captain Lapoint.
Compared with the other survivors, however, it must be noted that none of the men from the other ships had near so trying an ordeal except perhaps those of the Kollskegg, who were in the life boats for only 21 hours and on the rescue ship for another five days, from 7 to 11 April 1942. The O. A. Knudsen men landed and were fed within 24 hours, as was the case with the Cygnet and Athelqueen, and the Daytonian men were only waterborne for three days or so. The more challenging survival voyages on boats occurred in the Turks & Caicos – the Vivien P. Smith, Fauna, and Vineland crew had open boat voyages lasting up to a week or more (particularly the Fauna), but none of these voyages compare in sheer length and degree of starvation with those of the Potlatch. Considering how many men were in shock before they even entered the lifeboat, it is not surprising that were not remember in Nassau like the “three Musketeers” from the Daytonian who painted the town red, gaily celebrating their survival.
Dye further notes that “The U.S. Naval Liaison Office in Nassau questioned the master and crew of the vessel and reported fully to the Navy Department.” The first detailed reports we receive directly from the master to the navy are dated the 9th of August, several days after their arrival in Miami on the 9th. They were subsequently interviewed by Ensign E. D. Henderson, USNR, in Miami on the 14th of August, most likely after they had more fully recovered. Some of the officers and men told Henderson that there were tanks in the cargo.
Dye further notes that “The U.S. Naval Liaison Office in Nassau questioned the master and crew of the vessel and reported fully to the Navy Department.” The first detailed reports we receive directly from the master to the navy are dated the 9th of August, several days after their arrival in Miami on the 9th. They were subsequently interviewed by Ensign E. D. Henderson, USNR, in Miami on the 14th of August, most likely after they had more fully recovered. Some of the officers and men told Henderson that there were tanks in the cargo.
On Tuesday the third of August the New York Times reported “4 more ships lost in U-Boat raids”: “The loss of four more ships was announced by the Navy yesterday, while word from Nassau, the Bahamas …indicated that two others in all likelihood had been additional victims of the Nazi submarine drive…. From Nassau, the Duke of Windsor’s capital, came word that forty-seven survivors of a torpedoed freighter had reached Acklins Island after a twenty-nine-day vigil in a lifeboat and rafts. The group was the sixth to reach Nassau since the submarine war came to this hemisphere. The Duchess of Windsor, as chief of the Bahamas Red Cross, met them when they were transferred to Nassau” (The other ships were O. A. Knudsen, Cygnet, Daytonian, Athelqueen, and Kollskegg).
From Nassau two US Army transport planes flew them to Miami and a military hospital on Wednesday the fifth of August, 1942. Ruggles was very concerned to learn about his girlfriend, Rachel Maddox, who had been killed in a car wreck.
Jensen’s jocular nature followed him to Miami. He and the other Merchant Mariners were housed in the Marine Hospital there. Despite the luxurious surroundings he complained that “Those doctors couldn’t seem to understand that we were hungry.” When the men were allowed out of the hospital to take a walk they carried their freedom a bit further. According to Jensen they went on a culinary orgy, devouring twenty meals in twenty-four hours and gaining fifteen pounds in the interim. As he put it, “I scared the doctors”. He was surprised at some of the idolatry the men received, as they were being touted as war heroes in light of their long survival. Jensen appeared in newsreels and on radio. In Washington DC Admiral Land provided the Mariner’s Medal to he and fellow crew.
Captain Lapoint was awarded the US Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal for especially meritorious service under unusual stress and hazards. Looking back on these events with the cold neutrality of history, and comparing it with similar voyages by survivors of hundreds of other ships, it is clear that Captain Lapoint made several key errors or omissions.
1) He did not ensure that “Sparks” the Radio Operator actually sent an SOS or SSSS giving the position. This meant that the several US Navy airplane searches which flew out of St. Thomas at the time looking for the survivors of Potlatch and other ships after the Tysa sighting, did not have details on the loss of the ship, and other Allied ships did not divert to search for them (at this stage in the war this was an almost forlorn hope anyway).
2) Though the Abled Bodied Seaman Kimes relates that at the moment of impact “the Old Man was standing there with his sextant in his hand”, and with easy access to charts, Captain Lapoint did not place either the sextant or the charts in the lifeboat for future use. When we compare the performance of the Tysa lifeboat with that of the slow plodding Potlatch boat (5 knots to about two), and compare morale on both boats, it is clear that having charts, knowing where you are and how soon you will get to your destination is a huge morale boost. To paraphrase an old broadway saying, “nothing breeds success like success.” But Lapoint went below – leaving the bridge for crucial minutes – in order to collect money and ship’s financial papers such as crew receipts from the slop chest and wage tallies. As Jensen put it, “All he had saved were the papers showing what money we had drawn in advance and the list of the clothing we had requisitioned, but no sextant or charts.” From this it would appear that the Master was more concerned with appeasing the owner’s accountants than the men whose lives depended on him to know where they were and how to get to land.
When the Radio Operator had told him “I got the message off, sir, but I couldn’t gie our position. You never told me.” The skipper replied “That’s all right… I know where we are.” Amazingly the financial papers survived his double immersion by the ship, his near-tragic suction through the entire ship, and his being snagged by ship’s wires not once but twice. They would prove handy later in Nassau. Looking back, even if he had jumped overboard with the sextant and charts, it is clear they would not have survived his ordeal in the water, even if he did. But the fact remains that Lapoint did not succeed in getting navigation instruments and star sight tables (nautical almanacs) into the lifeboat and did not delegate anyone like First Mate Larsen to do so. This was a glaring omission which meant that the survivors spent an extra three weeks or so in rafts (by July 5th they were already at the Longitude of Anguilla and only 100 miles away) which indirectly caused the deaths of “Stinky” Miller and David Parson, since both were alive at the time the boat passed the Windward Islands.
3) Reichmann the U-Boat commander offered medical assistance, according to Jensen. And men in the lifeboat needed this assistance – Delatorre with his broken or sprained leg, Captain Lapoint with a thrown back and perhaps broken rib, and Harriston the Carpenter with a severe gash over his left eye. Jensen relates that as the submarine “…bore down on us …the captain went on unconcernedly looking for survivors,” leaving he Bosun and crew, not senior officers, to interact with the submarine commander. The crew were uncertain what to say and were threatened at gunpoint. They were also uncertain what to ask for. In the larger picture of survival, cigarettes probably weren’t the priority to request in the situation – an officer such as the master might or ought to have known better.
Second Mate Sorensen “mumbled something about water” which the submariners did not hear or respond to. If Captain Lapoint had approached the U-boat and interacted with Reichmann he might have been more strident about getting more food and water and medical supplies. The Germans did after all give what was requested – cigarettes – and it was not uncommon for them to provide supplies to others in need, especially so far away from land. In fact two days later when the same U-boat sank the American freighter Ruth in the same vicinity it helped rescue four sailors from the water and put them into a lifeboat. They survived. By ignoring the submarine Captain Lapoint was ignoring the only “mother ship” in a position to help them that the crew was to see for nearly a month, enemy or no.
4) The Master did not ensure that the secret codes and signals were successfully sunk until the submarine was in the immediate vicinity. In the words of Jensen, as the submarine was “threading her way through a mass of debris, …the lifeboat drew alongside a gray box, and he called to a sailor, Sink that box – it has important papers in it. Don’t let them get it! The sailor lifted the lid and the box filled slowly and sank.”
Captain Lapoint thus came very close to compromising the secret codes which could have led to the deaths of hundreds of other Allied sailors had they fallen into enemy hands (the only other case where Germans got hold of these codes in this region was that of U-158 and the Everalda, and the submarine was sunk by Allied aircraft the following day).
5) Perhaps the most glaring failure of Captain Lapoint on the lifeboat voyage was his refusal to sail to land when it was stated by a reliable source to be less than one hundred miles away, as opposed to the Bahamas, which proved to be roughly 600 miles away. Both Jensen and Lapoint seem to dismiss the Dutch sailors for having only been in their boats for a day or two, when the fact was their ship the Tysa was sunk only two days after the Potlatch’s. Captain Lapoint’s men were clearly in distress at the time, were running low on water and food, were over-crowded, and had injured men on board. Yet all of the interaction seems to have been led by the Dutch, who altered course, approached the Potlatch men, lowered sail and asked them questions.
The Potlatch survivors never learned the name of the ship the Tysa men were lost from, when they were sunk, or how they learned the distance from shore. They could have asked for water, food, charts, directions, or any number of useful questions. They could even have asked the Dutchman to take some of the men from their overloaded boat into the larger or faster one, but none of this was done.
In the words of Captain Lapoint, “Sighted red sails to the east heading for our boat. …spoke life boat a Holland flagged displayed by one man astern. Captain or Officer spoke to me in English. Asked name of our ship, informed us that the nearest land is 100 miles SW X W Magnetic, this distance must be in error. He promised to report me on is arrival, noted that none had beard or over one or two days growth of bear. Their boat was large, a sixty person boat at least rigged with jibs and flying jobs, a gaff mainsail and top sail, making at least five knots. SW course continued.”
Jensen and presumably some of the crew were flabbergasted, waiting for their Master to take the initiative on the value of this new crucial information which seemed to have fallen on them like manna from heaven. Jensen writes that “We waited for the captain to turn southward to follow them, but he stayed on the same westerly course. It’s easy enough now to take a map and see that we were sailing parallel [his italics] to Antigua, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and some of the Bahamas, but the captain didn’t know it then. The two-inch compass in the lifeboat – it showed ninety degrees of deviation – and instead of sailing westward we were constantly being sucked northward into the Gulf Steam.”
Captain Lapoint’s statement “SW course continued” speaks volumes when a boat has just come by to inform him that land is southwest and headed off essentially to the south, and Lapoint did not follow them. Instead he relied on a compass which had some 90 degree variation, meaning that when they thought they were heading southwest they were in effect being carried northwest, between the deviation of the compass and the clockwise rotation of wind and currents.
What is troubling about this is that the captain knew the compass was glaringly off. He observed at the outset of the voyage in the boats that “Although we have no chart or instruments to check our progress and only a 2” compass which right now is showing 8 points or 90 degrees deviation, he [First Mate Larsen] will get there if not rescued before.” But just the following day Lapoint notes in the log that “…drinking water getting low.” If ever a lifeboat of men was in a position to ask for help from another vessel it was the-overloaded Potlatch boat, but for the second time in the voyage (the first being with the submarine), Captain Lapoint missed an opportunity to garner outside assistance, or when it was offered ignored it.
Lapoint seems to be placing more faith in their being rescued than in their navigating their way to the nearest land, seemingly trusting the fates. It is true that if the boats had headed southwest for long enough they would have hit the Windward Island of Antigua, Anguilla (like the Tysa), Saint Martin (like the Anglo-Canadian survivors, also sunk by U-153 within days of the Potlatch), or the other islands like Guadeloupe. But, as we now know they missed these island as well as all of the Greater Antilles and landed far to the northwest. Of course if it were not for these series of errors and wrong assumptions, the Potlatch men never would have landed in the Bahamas….
Certainly Captain Lapoint deserves immense credit for saving the majority of his men from a slow and painful death by starvation at sea. But a critical question is, did he do enough to prevent the men from being in that situation from the outset, and was such an arduous and long lifeboat voyage – both in terms of distance and time – absolutely necessary given his knowledge of the limitation of their equipment and the offer of a life-line only ten days into the voyage? It is only too easy to look back and second-guess. Once the fog of war has cleared it is only too easy to study the records and come up with creative alternative solutions and question the underpinnings of the award. It can be assumed that none of the readers or the writer was in the dire situation recounted.
Sam Piatt interviewed Ruggles and learned that “In the newspapers, a Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” feature told how the survivors of a torpedoed U.S. merchant marine ship had “survived 32 days in a lifeboat before landing on an uninhabited Caribbean island and being led to water by wild jackasses.” Ruggles, receiving a new set of dog tags to replace the ones that went down with the ship, was given a 30-day leave, after which he was assigned to another ship out of New York. He would serve on a number of ships, in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, before being discharged two days before Christmas 1945. The medals he was awarded include World War II Victory Medal, Navy Occupation Service Medal, African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal and the American Campaign Medal.”
Ruggles told the author that he ended up spending 18 to 20 months in Atlanta. He boarded a gas tanker from Houston to New York. Then he joined a troopship to New Guinea as a gunner. After that he joined an Aircraft Carrier in New York. They transited the Panama Canal and joined a group called the “Helldrivers”. He said that his accommodation was up forward and that to reach the guns aft they had to run through the engine room and up through a hatch. He says he never saw any of the other Potlatch survivors again, though he tried to keep in contact. When he finally arrived home “things were not very good” and he “just moved on” becoming a trucker. Now he says he is in a wheelchair but has never collected any disability from the navy. When asked about whether there was any talk of mutiny amongst the men in the rafts and boat, he said “no – none. All we talked about was eating steaks. We were all-American.”
Looking back Ruggles reflected that “The Navy was a good experience, but I wouldn’t give you a nickel to try it again”. He went on to drive trucks – over a million miles, and settled in Garrison Kentucky, where author found him at home. Ruggles said he hasn’t eaten fish since the Potlatch experience. A lady once asked him why he didn’t cook the fish they caught, to which he replied: “if you can figure out how to cook fish in an open lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, I’d like to try it.”
Cadet-Midshimpan Nathan J. Kaplan changed his name to Stark and moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where he rose to Vice President of Hallmark Greeting Cards. He and his wife bore a daughter and three sons. One of his sons, David Stark, lives in Japan and is active in keeping the memory of his father and the Potlatch experience alive. Nathan Stark died on November 12, 2002 in Washington D.C.. He was 82 years of age.
Kaplan’s colleague Cadet-Midshipman Michael James Carbotti returned to sea following the Potlatch experience. First he completed his studies at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, Long Island New York. He then joined the US Navy, became an Ensign and in 1946 was sailing aboard the destroyer USS Eberle, according to his sister Ann Carbotti of New York.
Ruggles said that after being processed in Miami the officers, crew and gunnery men of the Potlatch “split off in all directions”. Though statistics are not available, it is highly likely that as the US was only nine months into the war, they all continued to serve in various capacities in the US merchant marine (like Captain Lapoint) or the Navy (like Ruggles and Carbotti). Ruggles said he was “extremely grateful” to Captain Lapoint for navigating them to land, and is convinced to this day that Lapoint did, indeed have a sextant the whole time.