The steam ship Texan was built in October 1902 by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation of Camden New Jersey, across the river from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was taken over by the US Navy in 1918 and converted to a troop carrier for the Naval Overseas Transportation Service. In that capacity, named the USS Texan (#1354) she repatriated a number of servicemen from Europe back to the US. In August of 1919 she was returned by the US Shipping Board to the owners, American-Hawaiian Steamship Company of New York.
Weighing 8,615 gross tons, the Texan was 143.6 meters long, and 17.4 meters wide. At the time of her attack the Texan was being operated by the Moore-McCormack Line for the US Maritime Commission, however when asked directly whether the ship was in government service the master, Robert Hugh Murphy replied no. She carried confidential documents for the US Naval Attache in Rio de Janiero Brazil as well as sacks of mail for Buenos Aires Argentina.
Texan’s itinerary between her loading port of New York and ultimate discharge port of Buenos Aires was a complicated one. Her instructions were to steam along the US eastern seaboard but only during daylight hours. She left New York on the 6thof March. She was also only to cross the Windward and Mona Passages in daylight, which she would have done had she not been caught by U-126 under Ernst Bauer roughly 47 miles northeast of Nuevitas, Cuba on the night of the 11thof March, 1942.
Texan’s route took her to Fowey Rocks, south of Miami, then through the Santarem Channel between Cay Sal Bahamas and the Bahama Banks to port, and from there into and along the length of the Old Bahama Channel north of Cuba. From there she was to have steamed north of the Virgin Islands, 100 miles east of the Windward Islands and Barbados, to double back to Port of Spain via Galeta Point, Trinidad, to load up on bunkers. From there her discharge ports were Santos and Rio de Janiero, Brazil, Montevideo Uruguay, and Buenos Aires. Her cargo as 10,915 tons of general bulk cargo, including “tin plate, railroad iron, and other non-bouyant articles.” It is not surprising, then, that the ship sank as quickly as she did.
On the night of the 11th and 12th of March the ship was steaming just north of east at 11.8 knots, unarmed and not zig-zagging. Captain Murphy states emphatically that he turned off his cabin light at 8:15 that evening to go up to the bridge, though the crew whispered to the interviewing officers that the captain was in the habit of keeping his light lit, thus potentially illuminating the ship to enemy subs. The weather was overcast and cloudy, with a slight wind from the east-northeast and a slight sea into which the Texan plowed directly.
There were two lookouts on watch, one at the forecastle head at the very front of the ship and the other at the bridge. No one was looking aft when the submarine attacked, which it did from the port quarter at 8:36 pm. A single torpedo slammed into the forward part of the number seven cargo hold, aft of midships and below the water line. Captain Murphy immediately ordered a sharp turn to port and the vessel turned 98 degrees. However it was soon evident that the stern was settling in the water and that the ship was sinking, so Murphy ordered abandonment of the ship. Maydays were sent and acknowledged by Hialeah, Key West and Lake Worth Florida in that order.
Five minutes after the torpedo attack U-126 under Bauer moved across the stern of the ship from port to starboard and surfaced. Detecting the Maydays on their own radio sets, the submarine set about to destroy the radio shack, which was located on the bridge. As a result four shells were fired at the forward section of the ship, and Captain Murphy was flung from the bridge into the water.
There were forty-seven men serving on the Texan, all of them except Elfridge (Norwegian), Romero (Filipino) and Wychel (Dutch) were American citizens. It appears that all of them made it into lifeboats or off the ship, however a series of mishaps to all four lifeboats resulted in the loss of nine lives to drowning. Three of the boats became waterborne but were held against the side of the ship because of the suction of the mother vessel as it sank. Number 2 lifeboat was thus held fast alongside from the ship when the davits which were protruding from the ship overturned the boat. In the case of the only boat to fully clear the ship – number three – only the forward fall (or line) was let go, and the boat swung around and went broadside to the ship and was capsized.
The Texan succumbed to her damage and sank roughly sixteen minutes after the initial attack, at 8:51 pm local time. This left at least 38 survivors in the water, where ten men managed to cling to the grab rails fitted to the bottom of the life boat which were fitted for just such a contingency, and to enable the men to right the boat, which they did at daybreak. The other 28 men had to content themselves with grabbing anything that floated – boards, debris, wreckage, logs, anything that floated and could sustain them. Fortunately along with the lifeboat the daylight revealed two life rafts which had floated free from the ship on her long plunge to the bottom, and the men waited on the rafts while the lifeboat was righted and bailed empty.
The captain observed a series of three lights in a row, the lowest very near the waterline of the submarine, and a series of blue flashes which he took to be the firing of a single gun from the submarine. Other than that no contact was made between attacker and victim. When the lifeboat was overturned it was found that aside from the sails all other equipment, food and water was in place and in useable condition (though a crewman named Lincoln had the audacity to complain about the quality of the food stored, and received a reprimand from Captain Murphy in his report).
At 11:00 am the men sighted two planes at high altitudes and great distances away which they did not communicate with. At noon all the men were aboard the number 3 lifeboat and they began to row and sail towards land, roughly 40 miles away, all the time driving west-southwest. On the afternoon of Wednesday the 12thof March they spotted what they took to be a US Navy or Coast Guard plane which circled their boat, waved, and then flew off, not to be seen again. The official report for Naval Intelligence in Washington, dated 8 April 1942 and signed by Lieutenant H. A. Burch, USNR, end with the following statement:
“The survivors expressed dismay over the fact that it took from 10:30 pm 11 March 1942 to 16:30 12 March 1942 to be sighted when the position of the sinking was generally known and moreover that the plane did not land or make any effort to determine whether any crew members were injured and in need of medical attention.” (OP-16-B-5, NARA2). We know from other intelligence reports emanating from Guantanamo that the US Navy had only one aircraft at its disposal and that the sinkings of Allied ships almost all by U-126 under Bauer totaled seven between the 7th and 12th of March – the Allies were stretched to breaking point and in an entirely defensive position. The men in the Texan as they learned first-hand, were left to their own means to reach the nearby shore.
Fortunately for them at roughly 11:30 that night the men saw the lights of a local Cuban fishing vessel. Using an emergency flare they were able to capture the attention of the fishermen, who came alongside and took most of the men aboard their small boat, which was named the Yo Yo. Leaving some men in the lifeboat the fishermen then took the smaller boat under tow and headed for land. The small convoy arrived at 10:30 the following morning in Nuevitas, where the American Consul “met, clothed, housed, and fed” the survivors.
After being questioned by the Consul the men were taken to Havana and ultimately flown to Miami on Pan American Airways. There Captain Murphy was interviewed on the 21stof March and First Officer Buell on the 18th. The war was far from over – he had his next command, the Coloradan shot from under him off South Africa by U-159 (Witte) in October of the same year but survived.