Three American steamers carrying war supplies to the Middle East were all sunk in two days in roughly the same position – northeast of Puerto Rico and Anegada. Two of them – the Sea Thrush and the Thomas McKean – were sunk by the same submarine, U-505 under Axel-Olaf Loewe, whilst the Sam Houston was sunk by U-203 under Rolf Mutzelburg. The fact that all three were sunk so quickly on the 28th and 29th of June 1942 led to increased suspicion of fifth column activity amongst their crews, with the Master of the Sam Houston swearing that the U-Boat commander who subsequently interviewed him knew his name even though he had only been rotated in as relief skipper hours before departure.
Though the attacks on the Sea Thrush and Sam Houston occurred to the west of or close to the line between Bermuda and Anegada, the Thomas McKean was sunk one day’s steaming east of that line. Her loss merits inclusion not only because it is so similar to those of her brethren vessels, but also because her master, Captain Mellin Edwin Respess was lost in the region while being repatriated on the Onondaga on 23 July just North of Cuba.
The single-screw steam ship Sea Thrush was built by the Merchant Shipbuilding Corporation of Harriman, Pennsylvania and launched in 1920 as the Delanson for the United States Shipping Board. She was renamed Exilona in 1929 when sold to American Export Lines, Inc. (Uboat.net). In 1937 she became the Sea Thrush when the Shepard Steamship Company of Boston Massachusetts took over ownership of the ship. At the time of her loss she was under charter to the United States Maritime Commission but still operated by Shepard Steamship. Her dimensions were 400 feet in length by 54 feet of beam and 30 feet moulded depth, and tonnage was 5,447 (Wrecksite.eu). Her Captain was Arthur C. Hunt (Moore), who commanded 40 other officers and crew, 11 Naval Armed Guard, and 14 US Army officers and technicians. The total complement on board including officers and crew, gunners and army staff was thus sixty six.
The Sea Thrush loaded planes, army truck and other army supplies in Philadelphia and signed most of her crew there before proceeding to New York on the 10thof June, 1942. According to Chief Officer Colin Branford, who was interviewed extensively by US Navy Boatswain John McLarnon at the Drake Hotel in Philadelphia in August, (NARA2, Report 4th August 1942), Sea Thrush loaded additional ammunition and aircraft in New York, and replaced at least three crew members (James Watts and Thursan Tomplin signing off).
On the 19thof June Sea Thrush left New York in convoy down the coast to Norfolk, Virginia. On the 22nd of June the ship peeled away from the convoy and proceeded on a course east-southeast for Trinidad to refuel. From there she was to carry her cargo of 6,800 tons of war material to Bandar Shapur, Iran, via Cape Town, South Africa.
The cargo was destined ultimately for Russia and/or the Middle East, where the Allies were struggling against Rommel’s Afrika Corps. The original routing instructions were issued in New York, however they were modified after the ship’s arrival at Cape Henry, meaning that a submarine going off routing intelligence garnered in New York would fail to meet the ship based on that information, which was subsequently superseded.
The afternoon of Sunday the 28th of June found the Sea Thrush steaming 125 degrees (southeast) true at 11 knots. Her bridge and decks literally bristled with lookouts. According to Chief Engineer Branford, there were “at least six lookouts stationed at various locations on the vessel, two being located in the machine gun turrets above the bridge, two on the after gun platform, and two others… most of the lookouts were equipped with binoculars, while a large telescope was employed from the flying bridge.
The day was clear, the sun shining, visibility good, a gentle breeze was blowing [from the northeast], and there was a long rolling swell to the sea.” (NARA2, Branford, p.2). It would be moments before U-505 under Axel-Olaf Loewe would strike the ship, still unseen by the lookouts, though it was broad daylight. He attacked from beneath the surface two times, both effectively, in position 22.38N by 60.59W, or roughly 425 miles northeast of San Juan (“Survivor Statements”, Uboat.net).
At three minutes after 1 pm local time the Chief was thrown from his chair, on the forward port side of the superstructure amidships. A torpedo had struck the ship ahead of him, aft of the collision bulkhead at the number one hold, three feet below the waterline to his left and let out a “dull muffled thud.” Branford ran for his post in the engine room despite hearing the general alarm. As a shortcut he ran through the ship’s kitchen, or galley. “In passing through the galley he noticed that the force of the explosion had been such as to cause most of the utensils handing on the walls to be thrown to the deck.” Branford was only in the engine room long enough to order the engines reversed for at least a minute to take forward momentum off the vessel. He then ordered the engine staff on deck and followed suit, emerging on the port side aft of the mid-ship house.
When Branford noticed that the gun crew were manning their stations at the 4-inch gun forward, he informed Captain Hunt of this. At that time Captain Hunt told him to tell the gun crew to abandon ship with the rest of the men, which the Engineer did. The inference of these statements is that, had the gun crew been allowed to remain at their station they might have managed to fire at the submarine as it surfaced and inspected the wreckage from half a mile away less than an hour later. This is conjectural, however, as it is unlikely the submarine would have approached so closely had the guns been manned.
Fourteen minutes after the first attack, all 66 men had abandoned ship in four lifeboats and were thus clear of the ship by 130 pm. Sea Thrush maintained her poise in as much as she didn’t lean to either side, however her bow kept submerging until the ship was at a 35 degree angle. Water covered her decks as far as the number two hatch, near where the first torpedo struck. One can imagine the men idling nearby on the still sea, watching their erstwhile home and workplace slowly – even peacefully – subsumed by the sea, leaving them with an inch or less of wood between them and the same fate.
From the lifeboats which were a quarter mile off the starboard quarter, the men watched as a second torpedo was fired from the submerged U-505, this one striking the number two hold and igniting the ammunition stored there. The resultant explosion broke the ship in half, causing the stern section to rise perpendicular to the water before sinking roughly forty seconds after the explosion. Not one to die easily, “approximately two feet of the stern of the Sea Thrush were still above water”, and Loewe surfaced and brought the U-505 to within a third of a mile in order, most likely, to read the name of the ship and the destination of the cargo as marked on the boxes floating around the site. This is given credence from the fact that he did not bother to interview any of the survivors floating safely nearby, though it would have been easy to do so.
Because it is unusual for survivors to have a daytime visual of their attackers void of any shelling or machine gunning, Branford’s account of the submarine bears retelling here. Describing the submarine he relates that
“Its paint appeared to be of a blue-green color and seemed to be quite new, as it glistened in the sunlight. …four men emerge[d] from a hatch apparently located on the top of the conning tower. All four of the men were dressed in white uniforms and had white caps. The made no attempt to man any of the guns on the submarine, but remained on top of the conning tower as the submarine cruised at a speed estimated at five knots in and about the wreckage of the Sea Thrush and then proceeded off in a general eastward direction at the same speed. …there appeared to be a railing around the forward part of the conning tower, constructed of iron pipe, which revealed the four men standing on deck all the way to their shoes, instead of solid coaming extending half way round the top of the fair water.”
The submarine did not send men to board the ship, and the confidential codes were thrown overboard in a weighted box. The radio operator managed to send off both an SSS and an SOS message before abandoning in the boat with the Master and Chief Engineer, but neither was acknowledged from shore.
In another intelligence report, a Lieutenant (J.G.) E. F. Wilmerding notes that Third Assistant Engineer Rene Albion Foss took twenty-seven photographs of the sinking of the Sea Thrush and its aftermath. However because the submarine was so far away from his boat, “the shot was taken at too great a distance to show any of the details of the submarine, the silhouette being almost indistinguishable.” The photos were later given back to Foss, “with admonition that he refrain from turning them over to the press or any third party.” (Survivors Statements). Wilmerding, having interviewed the first, second, and third officers as well as the Second Assistant Engineer in San Juan, concluded that “When last seen the submarine headed off in a northeasterly directions towards the S/S Thomas McKean which had been making the same voyage with the Sea Thrush.” (Id.)
Once the submarine had left the area roughly an hour and a half after the initial attack, the master mustered all the boats together and assigned each of the mates in charge of a boat to sail to the southwest, towards the Virgin Islands. One of the life rafts drifted away and the two others were damaged beyond use by the explosion. The boats managed to stay together for two days, until the morning of 30th June. Three of them were picked up on that afternoon at 4:30 pm by the Flower Class Corvette USS Surprise (PG-63) off the US Virgin Island at position 21.36N by 62.55W, or roughly 10 miles east of St. Thomas.
All fifty of the men in those boats were landed in San Juan. Though aircraft and boats were sent to find them, the other 16 officers and men in the remaining lifeboat were not rescued until 6 am on the 3rd of July, when they were spotted by patrol craft eight miles off Saint Thomas and rescued by an unnamed coastal craft. (The Surprise was built by John Crown & Sons of Sunderland, UK for the French Navy in 1939, kept by the Royal Navy as the Helitrope, and transferred in March 1942 to the US Navy under the command of Lieutenant R. C. D. Hunt – the same commander’s name as that of the Sea Thrush. She participated in the rescue of other survivors from the Appalachee, Lindenhall, and Thomas Sennickson as well as the Sea Thrush (Uboat.net).
The remaining survivors were taken to Charlotte Amalie and put up in a hotel there. According to Branford, aside from one of the mess-man suffering from a crushed finger when boarding the lifeboat, and cases of sunburn, the men held up well to the 5-day ordeal in boats. He relates that “there were plenty of provisions in the life boats and although the water …had a slightly sulphuric taste, it was stated to have been palatable” (Survivors Statements). Branford made a point of mentioning that he shared a room with a man claiming to be the captain of the Sam Houston, which was torpedoed by U-203 on the same day and in the same vicinity as the Sea Thrush.
Branford’s roommate was rather agitated and must not have been great company, since he kept repeating the story of how he had been brought below on the submarine and apparently addressed by its commander, Mutzelburg, as “Captain Taylor” even though he had only joined the ship immediately prior to sailing from New York. “Captain Taylor could only think that the Axis contacts had apprised German submarine commanders of the name of the vessel and of his name prior to the attack.”
This unsubstantiated fear was echoed in statements by other survivors, for example, a section of Lt. Wilmerding’s report reads “Second Officer Phelps [of Massachusetts] made a statement that the two vessels mentioned [Sea Thrush and Thomas McKean] were loaded at Pier 29, Brooklyn, and that the stevedoring company in charge of loading the war materials was the Jarka Stevedoring Co., which the undersigned [meaning Wilmerding] recalls has been under investigation at 3rd [Naval District]. It was further stated by the Second Officer that in the pigeon holes of the receiving room on their pier large signs reading “Thomas McKean, Basra” and “Sea Thrush, Basra” were posted in such a way as to be readily visible to anyone who cared to look” (Survivors Statements).
Chief Engineer Branford’s return to a hotel room in Philadelphia over a month after sailing from there was circuitous. After three days in Charlotte Amalie he was taken to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, west of Puerto Rico. Then an Army Transport took him back east to San Juan, where presumably he was re-united with some of the 50 survivors landed there by the Surprise. After five days in San Juan Branford went to Miami and then to New York, where the Shepard Line paid him his wages.
After two days in New York he entrained for Philadelphia, were in early August he was seeking another berth on a War Shipping Administration ship. He stated with obvious rancor that in his weeks of travels in three different naval districts (tenth, seventh, and third) he was never interviewed by naval or coast guard intelligence. Thought Boatswain McLarnon appears to have sought out Branford, it is also possible that the latter initiated the interview. In either event, this author is grateful, as it has led to a much fuller record not only of the Sea Thrush casualty, but the Thomas McKean and Sam Houston so closely on its heels.