SS Vineland sunk by U-154/Kölle 20 April 1942 off Bahamas, Turks & Caicos

The next patrol to the region was led by Walther Kölle, whose submarine, the U-154 was to return to the area four times in the course of the war – a record only tied by U-129. Unlike Achilles’’ and Mohr’s, Kölle’s patrol was squarely in the patrol area. His voyage in, commencing the 3rd of April 1942 looks like a standard “slash” sign – / – heading from north of Anegada into the Mona Passage, during which he sank two Allied ships, the Puerto Rican tanker Comol Rico and the US-flagged Catahoula on the 4th and 5th respectively.
On the 6th of April Kölle entered the Mona Passage and left the region for nine days, returning through the narrow passage east of Puerto Rico (between there and the Virgin Islands) for a cruise north of the Turks & Caicos Islands and east of Acklins and Crooked Island.
Kölle’s patrol back to Lorient through the eastern Bahamas looks like the number “5” tilted to the left – he proceeded to a point roughly 300 miles north of the Mona Passage, doubled back to off the Silver and Mouchior Banks, steamed along westwards to the north of the Turks & Caicos, and on the 20th sank the Canadian dry bulk ship Vineland. This ship was the only Canadian sunk in the region during the conflict.
The crew of the Vineland have the distinction, along with those of Fauna and Vivian P. Smith, of having been rescued and repatriated by the islanders of the Turks and Caicos. The Vineland was launched in 1919 by the American International Shipbuilding Company of Hog Island, Pennsylvania. Originally she was built as the steam ship Sapinero, named after a rural enclave in Colorado which was subsequently inundated by the Blue Mesa Reservoir in 1963. She was commissioned for the United States Shipping Board. Under their ownership she performed at least one “immigrant” voyage and earned a place in the archives of Ellis Island. On August 28, 1922 she arrived in New York from Methil, Scotland, with 36 immigrants, including a George E. Dupont, aged 36. This is somewhat extraordinary inasmuch as the ship’s primary purpose was cargo carrying, and thus accomodations must have been very basic, even for a summer voyage.
In 1925 the Sapinero was sold to the Gulf West Mediterranean Line (the Tampa Interocean Steamship Company), headquartered in the National Bank Building in New Orleans. This was a division of the pre-eminent Lykes Brothers Steamship Company Incorporated of New Orleans, which traded worldwide. Eight years later 1933 she was formally transferred to Lykes Brothers Steamship Company. 
Sapinero’s next and final owners were Canadian. In 1928 an understudy of Lord Beaverbrook (Max Aitken, who went on to own Gun Point, an estate facing Spanish Wells in North Eleuthera) named Izaak Walton Killam purchased 150 square miles of timber on the Mersey River in Nova Scotia and founded the Mersey Paper Company. At a place called Liverpool he built a large mill and loading port for the export of rolls of newspaper print. In 1930 the firm started the Mersey Shipping Company Limited to move the product to market. This was renamed the Markland Shipping Company Limited in 1937. The company’s ship the Markland served the Washington Post in the District of Columbia as well as the New York Times and papers as far afield as New Zealand and Australia. After the outbreak of World War II Mersey Paper Company officials realized that the Markland, which was British flagged, could be requisitioned for the war effort at any time, leaving them without a ship. Indeed in June of 1940 she was.
As a contingency the firm purchased the Sapinero in March of 1940 and renamed her the Vineland (they later went on the purchase the Sonia and Zenda, which became the Liverpool Packet and Liverpool Loyalist respectively). A master from Nova Scotia, Captain Ralph A. Williams, was placed in charge of a total complement of 37 men, including three Royal Canadian Naval Reserve gunners to man a 2-inch gun on an aft platform. His brother Charlie commanded another of the company’s ships. The Vineland was envisioned to carry finished newsprint to Australia and New Zealand, with interim voyages carrying pulpwood and coal from Cape Breton to Liverpool. In order to avoid having the Vinelandrequisitioned like the Markland, they registered the new ship under shell companies like the Scotia Shipping Company, and flagged it to Panama, though her home port was still listed as Liverpool. It is believed she was registered under the Markland Shipping Company of Liverpool as well (Liverpool is southwest of Halifax and went into such decline that in 1996 it dis-incorporated as a town).
Flagging to Panama was only partially successful, as the Canadian Shipping Board’s Department of Transport called the ship to service carrying bauxite from the Virgin Islands to Portland, Maine. By early 1942 efforts were well underway to re-flag her to Canada (then a dependency on Great Britain) under the Markland or Vineland Shipping Company. The Canadian National Archives have correspondence between the Markland Shipping Company, Limited and Furness, Withy and Company Limited as evidence of the effort have the ship registered to Ottowa, Canada.
The Vineland was a steam-propelled cargo ship which could carry 7,800 tons of cargo. Her gross registered tonnage (what she would weigh on a scale) was originally 5,106 tons but by 1942 this had reached 5,587. The ship’s length overall was 401 feet, her beam was 54.2 feet wide, and the draft was 24.5 feet deep. Her registered speed was 12 knots, however by 1942 she was 23 years old and here quadruple-expansion, single-screw engine was not likely to achieve that. On the 10th of April 1942 the Vineland left Portland, Maine with no cargo and in ballast, bound for Saint Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Her instructions were to load bauxite there. This was to be her second voyage with bauxite. The ship hugged the American coast on the voyage down, not setting off for the open ocean until after it had passed Hatteras. On the way through the torpedo junction the crew observed “around Diamond Shoals off the Carolinas, you could see where the submarines had chased ships right up onto the shoals, and they were sinking. They were afire, there were a lot of bodies around. We seen bodies pretty near every day.”
At 2:03 pm local time on the 20th of April 1942, while in a position roughly 90 miles north of Mayaguana and North Caicos islands (25.05N by 72.20W), U-154 under Walther Kolle fired two G7a-type torpedoes at the ship. None of the lookouts spotted the sub, periscope or torpedoes at first, since the U-boat attacked from the direction of the strong mid-day sun. The weather was described as fine, with only a gentle swell. The first one struck aft and a second missile porpoised to the surface and missed astern. Ralph Kelly was serving as a mess boy and was leaning over the rail at the time, and saw the torpedo hit. “it hit between the gun crew and myself, right back by number four hatch. I was about fifty feet from where it hit. … While we were gettin’ ready to put the lifeboats over the side, we seen the second torpedo go by us.”
The damage from the first torpedo was significant enough that the aerials were brought down and there was no time for the radio operator to rig an emergency aerial and call for help. Nor could the gun be brought to bear. Kelly was in a lifeboat with the Chief Cook. Because the oil from the galley stove spilled into the lifeboat, soaking everyone in it, a number of the crew leapt into the water. One of them was Oiler J. Lawrence Hanson, was one of them. “This other young fella jumped out. What happened to him, they think either the gang plank or the funnel from the ship hit him.” Kelly and the cook then went around collecting men in the lifeboat. Two boats got away from the ship with everyone except the young Hanson, who was drowned (one report says that his body was retrieved and carried back to Halifax but their subsequent voyages make this implausible).
After all of the crew had scrambled off the ship, Kolle fired a coup-de-grace which hit amidships and broke the stern section completely at 2:20 pm. But the Hog Islander stubbornly refused to sink. After U-154’s crew sent five rounds of deck artillery into her waterline at the bow. The ship’s crew reported a dozen shots fired. The Vineland sank quickly, roughly 20 minutes after the initial attack.
Kelley wryly notes that the sinking occurred on Hitler’s birthday, but he described the aggressors as “reasonably good, didn’t bother us. He [Kolle] just went in and out of the lifeboats like that, takin’ pictures of us.” Captain Williams was so wary of being taken captive by the Germans that he threw his braided Captain’s cap away, lest he be recognized as the Master. Kelly continued: “the Germans gave us cigarettes, asked the captain where he was goin’ to and what he was going to carry, if we needed medical aid, and told us the nearest course to land. One course was ninety miles and the other was a thousand, so you could take your pick…”.  U-154 left the men heading east on the surface.
            Left on the open ocean with no ship and no sub, the men started to row and sail southwards, toward the Turks and Caicos Islands, though the Bahamian islands of Mayaguana and Acklins Island were roughly equidistant and further downwind. On the evening of about the third day the survivors sighted what they assumed was an Allied passenger ship on its way to rescue them. However, whether the ship sighted the survivors or not, it turned away and steamed over the horizon. As a result, the Vineland survivors were convinced that it was a German supply ship and that they had been spared captivity (though of course no evidence supports this theory). For the remaining three or so days of their five-day voyage the winds were light and the men made little progress, though the islands were tantalizingly close. Kelly described those days as “just driftin’ around” and said it might have been a week.
On about April 26th the two lifeboats, which had managed to stay together, were discovered by local fishermen from an unidentified village in the Turks and Caicos. The boats were towed to a beach. The men had suffered from the exposure to the sun and concomitant sunburn, as well as dehydration, but were otherwise fit. None of them required hospitalization. “Fishermen picked us up, native people in the Turks Island. That night we got ashore, they scrubbed us and scrubbed us, trying to get the oil out. …For some reason or other they wouldn’t let us stay there. This fishin’ boat took us from there to Grand Turk and that’s where we stayed for a couple of weeks. They gave us clothes that they didn’t think they’d need at that time. They sold us all their cigarettes they could possibly spare because they were on rations too, you might as well say, ‘cause a ship only come around about every six or eight weeks.”
During their stay in Grand Turk, by the 28th of April Captain Williams managed to get word through to the Naval Officer in Charge, Trinidad. Through that channel the British Admiralty in Jamaica learned that Vineland had been lost and 36 men were in the Turks and Caicos. The British Admiralty in Jamaica promptly informed Ottawa and Washington, as well as the Canadian Shipping Board’s Commander Heenan. By April 29th efforts to re-register the ship were promptly scrapped.
After thirteen days on Grand Turk, or about the tenth of May, a Dutch liner (inter island passenger ship) took them to Curacao. Despite nearly being torpedoed a second time, they made it to that major oil refining center and were given “shaving equipment, suits socks, underwear, you name it. And they even gave us money to spend” wrote Kelly. It seem as though the Dutch and British in Curacao were more lavish than Nassau with their survivors, though in Nassau the Rozelda hotel and others were made available to convalescing sailors.
The harrowing repatriation of Vineland’s men was not over. After less than a week in Curacao they boarded a German-built, Dutch-run ship laden with ammunition, bond back to Halifax. Fortunately for all involved, it was an uneventful voyage of fourteen days during which “everybody was scared stiff” wrote Kelly. They didn’t arrive back until early June, over six weeks after their torpedoing.
That autumn Ralph Kelly joined the Royal Canadian Navy. By his tally he avenged Kolle’s attack on the Vineland by attacking three submarines during the balance of the war. After the war, although merchant seamen had higher casualty rates than their brethren in the armed forces, Canadian Merchant Mariners were denied veteran status and benefits for decades. A highly politicized move which is still debated today. In November, 2011 the Bowater Mersey paper company only narrowly avoided insolvency.
On the 21st Kölle was just east of Crooked and Acklins Islands when he turned northeast and made a bee-line back to France, passing just south of Bermuda and exiting the area on 24th of April.  On this patrol U-154 sank five ships (including the Delvalle and Empire Amethyst in the Caribbean) worth 28,715 tons – an impressive bag and in some ways close to his last. Aged 34 at the time (he would live to 1992 and the age of 84), Kölle’s career total included only two other ships (Tillie Lykes and Lalita) bringing his total to seven ships for 31,352. It is safe to say he “made his career” in a single patrol through the Bahamas. He achieved Fregattenkapitänin March 1945 (right before the fall of the Reich) and was not decorated. His three patrols for 164 days were all on U-154. This patrol began in Lorient on the 11th of March 1942 and ended there on the 9th of May.

Kölle had earlier survived the scuttling of the Graf Spee off Uruguay and rose to senior naval officer of the Flushing base before joining U-boats in November 1940. His patrols to the region lasted 60 and 80 days respectively – the following patrol being to Mexico and the Caribbean. He surrendered command of U-154 to Heinrich Shuch after his third patrol and moved ashore to staff positions.