SS Sam Houston sunk by U-203/Mützelburg 28 June 1942 of Bahamas, Antigua

Sam Houston
            The American Liberty Ship Sam Houston, on its maiden voyage, was sunk by a U-boat along with the Thomas McKean and the Sea Thrush in the same general are and at the same rough time. The masters of the Sea Trush and Sam Houston were destined to share lodgings – and notes – together in Saint Thomas after their ordeals.
            The Sam Houston was built in 1942 by the Houston Shipbuilding Corporation for the US Maritime Commission’s War Shipping Administration in Washington.  Like many Liberty Ships she was 128.9 meters long by 17.4 meters wide and 10.7 meters deep. She weighed 7176 tons gross. Her attacker was the youthful Rolf Mützelburg on U-203.
On her final voyage the Sam Houston left Houston then called at Mobile, Alabama to complete loading 10,000 tons of military equipment destined for the Allied armies in Bombay, India. There were four military trucks stowed on deck. She was to call at Cape Town for bunkers, as the ship’s range was 8,000 nautical miles at 11 knots. Her owners were the Waterman Steamship Company of Mobile – also known as the Waterman Lines.
            The Sam Houston’s master was Captain Robert Perry and he had responsibility for 47 persons including himself. There were eight ship’s officers and 29 merchant marine crew. There were nine armed guards to man the four-inch and two 20-milimter guns. Amongst them was Louis R. Padula, Gunner’s Mate Third Class, who penned an evocative account of their rescue following the sinking. “Tex” Hickman served as a Messman and “Ham” Hall as a fireman. “Fonzie” Meadows was the cook.
            At 9:45 am local time on the 28th of June 1942 the Sam Houston was only 160 miles northeast of the Anegada Passage, equidistant between Antigua and the British Virgin Islands, in position 19.21N and 62.22W, with 18,000 feet of water beneath her keel. The ship was steaming southeast at 11 knots with lookouts in the crow’s nest, gun platform and on the bridge when a torpedo from U-203 struck the ship between the engine room and the #4 cargo hold. Fortunately the ammunition did not detonate, however the blow was fatal to three men working below, namely Third Assistant Engineer Cullen Huggins, Fireman Hamm Maxwell Hall, and Oiler W. Dunning of Thamasville, Alabama. They were never seen alive again.
            The cargo caught fire and the #4 cargo hold filled with water, as did the engine room, causing the ship to list to starboard. However the ship managed to come back on balance. Louis Padula ran from the sick bay to the gun platform but smoke made visibility impossible and there was no submarine in sight to fire at. The master then ordered abandon ship. In the next fifteen minutes Captain Perry managed to oversee the launching of three lifeboats, which was more than adequate for the 44 survivors, including at least seven who had been badly burned. Padula noticed that many of the men who had been on watch were either burned or shaken up “with the strength out of them.” He said that of the fourteen in his life boat only three were alert to performing tasks.
            As the boats were getting away the submarine surfaced only 30 yards from Padula’s boat and a young sailor pointed a machine gun at the survivors and waved as the sub motored towards the burning ship. When Mützelburg saw the Second Cook, David Knight, blown into the water between the submarine and the ship, he allowed a life boat to row up and retrieve him before opening fire on the Sam Houston. At that point U-203’s crew sent 43 shells (the lifeboat crew counted only 31, but the German account is more credible) towards the burning hulk, ultimately igniting the ammunition, which exploded and quickly sent the ship to the depths.
            The Sam Houston sank stern first at 11:02 am local time. Then U-203 the approached the boat and Padula’s boat tied up alongside. First the Chief Engineer, M. V. Walter and then the Captain were brought on board for questioning by Mützelburg. The sub commander asked the men in the boats if any men had any broken bones and whether they required his physician to attend. The Chief Engineer was brought from Padula’s boat over to the Captain’s boat, where he was given a packet of German cigarettes labeled “Haus Neuerburg, Hamburg” and released. The third boat had already begun to sail away and was out of sight before its partners set off after the interrogation.
            Soon all three boats were making for the islands to the southwest. A few hours into the voyage one of the burned men died. His crewmates wrapped his body in a blanket and tied the corpse up in it. The following day Padula observed how severe his colleagues had been burned – he wrote that “eyes and ears burned practically out and off”. After the first body began to smell and the crew complained they wrapped an anchor around the blanket and buried the man at sea. A few hours later a second man perished and they had to bury him at sea as well, as land did not seem anywhere near at hand.
            The following day, June 30th, there were eight men capable of assisting to manage the life boat. Many men had been preoccupied with recovering from wounds or rubbing oil in the wounds of the burned. As their strength ebbed it took two men to lift the 15-gallon water jug instead of one. Soon a third man died. On Wednesday July 1st the sunrise showed green mountains on the horizon, “with everyone trying to talk at the same time.” They were still some forty miles off. That afternoon a patrol plane flew over and they lit off some flares, attracting its attention.
            As the approached within a few hundred yards of shore against the current the First Mate ordered two men to wrap lines around their waists and tow the boat through the surf. Padula and another Gunner’s Mate named L. Noonan volunteered. Once the safely landed on the beach they helped guide the boat ashore, which in their weakened state took two hours. The rolled the boat over so that the injured men would be able to take shelter underneath. Then the plane returned and circled over.
            What happened next is not verified by third parties but is so eventful that it bears repeating in the language of the eye-witness, Louis Padula, who was on the crew roster as a Gunner 2nd Class:
            “The lieutenant landed his plane which was a sea plane and we put the two men in. The sergeant who was with the lieutenant stayed with us for there wasn’t enough room for him in the plane and it would be too much weight. The lieutenant also dropped his depth charges to lighten the load. Finally he taxied his plane out and started to take off. And just as he got off the water a large wave seem to reach up and touched his plane, just enough to make him crash. I didn’t see him hit the water. We all took off and ran that way. But when we got to the spot, the pilot had both men out and on the beach. We just saw the plane sinking beneath the waves. Another plane finally came out piloted by a major. In the meantime one the two fellows passed away. The crash, I guess, finished him. We just put the last one in the plane and the major took off. About 10 or 12 hours passed” (
            Ensign Harrison Stevens, in charge of the gun crew, delivered a similar account to the journalist W. E. Daniel of the Owensboro Messenger at Beaver Dam, Kentucky later that year. He said “for four days the boats were tossed about, finally coming near a small rock island up whose precipitous sides the men clambered with the aid of a ladder thrust down by one of the few inhabitants. An American patrol plane on routine duty came near and dropped down to inquire about signals of distress. Then away to summon help which came with a ship that conveyed the stranded navy men to the states and hospitals for treatment.” The author noticed a “slightly perceptible nervousness” in Stevens and his colleagues (
              What is verified is that the Accentor-class minesweeper USS Courier, built in 1941 at the Warren Fish Company of Pensacola, Florida, picked up all the survivors from the two other life boats and then was vectored to the beach to pick up the remnants of Padula’s survivors from the only boat which actually reached land. The Courier took all of the 39 survivors and the bodies of Chief Cook Frank Meadows and Messman “Tex” Hickman to Saint Thomas, where they arrived on Thursday, the 2nd of July. They were met by the Red Cross and Oiler Wilbur Stearns was rushed to hospital where he died of his injuries.

            Padula and his crew mates had the next eight days off duty and he freely admitted to using the time to “just get drunk”. On the 11th of June they were woken up in the early hours to board a USN submarine chaser. This took them to nearby San Juan, Puerto Rico. From there the 38 survivors – barring any withheld in hospital in Saint Thomas – were placed aboard a US Navy transport (possibly the SS Seminole). They arrived in Norfolk, Virginia on the 14th of July 1942.