The twin-propeller high-speed passenger and cargo ship San Jacinto was built in 1903 by the Delaware River Iron Shipbuilding & Engine Works of Chester Pennsylvania. Her original owners were the Mallory Steamship Company, a jewel in the crown of the clan known as the “Mallorys of Mystic” who are still active in the shipping industry today. In 1933 San Jacinto was sold to another division of the same firm, the Clyde-Mallory Lines, also known as Agwilines Incorporated, of New York, NY.
In 1935 and until the end of her career she was operated by the New York and Porto Rico Steamship Company of New York, but still owned by Agwilines. Immediately before the voyage in question the United State Maritime Commission chartered the ship to repatriate Americans of Puerto Rican descent to their island, as well as to bring a mixed cargo of 3,200 tons of general cargo, most of it consigned to the government. There was also a large quantity of mail of all classes.
San Jacinto was a large and fast ship. Weighing in at 6,069 gross registered tons, her double steam engines could produce 564 n.h.p. and push the ship forward at 15 knots. Overall her length was 380 feet, with a beam of 53 feet and a depth of 22 feet 9 inches aft. In total there were 183 people on board, consisting of a crew of 71 unlicensed men and nine officers, led by Captain Robert W. Hart. There were also 104 passengers, amongst them 32 women and children.
After leaving her port of registry, New York, NY at 5 pm local time on the 17thof April 1942 the San Jacinto proceeded southwards utilizing inland waterways wherever possible. After following US Navy instructions through the Delaware and Chesapeake bays the ship cleared Cape Henry on the 20th at nine minutes after seven in the morning. Heading into the open ocean the ship headed due east for several days before turning due south.
At the time that U-201 under Adalbert Schnee detected the ship and spent twelve hours pursuing her, the San Jacinto was 325 miles southeast of Cape Hateras, south of Bermuda and north of Puerto Rico. This placed her northeast of Elbow Cay Light, Abaco, in the Bahamas. Her position was 31.10N by 70.45W. The ship steered 180 degrees south and was making 13.5 knots through a slight swell. The wind was from the west and mild, there was a moon but it was obscured by clouds.
Two men stood on lookout, one on the forecastle head by the “eyes” or fairleads for the ship, and another on the bridge. This was the officer of the watch, who suddenly observed an unlighted vessel only 300 or so yards off the port quarter of the ship, gaining on them rapidly. No sooner had he told Captain Hart at 9:30 pm, than a torpedo slammed into the mid-ship portion of the port side. Unfortunately for the passenger the torpedo was a “runner” meaning it skipped on the surface, and penetrated the ship above the waterline. The main impact was felt 24 feet above the waterline and the recreation and living quarters on that side were demolished, killing possibly as many as nine passengers. There were five men on duty in the engine spaces below at the time, of whom one was killed.
Given the damage and the number of persons on board, particularly those unfamiliar with the procedure, the abandonment of the ship proceeded smoothly. Though one of the boats was smashed, six others were successfully launched, as were several rafts. Schnee meanwhile held off on following up his attack until the passengers were given time to abandon. The ship had come to a shuddering halt and her power system had failed, so it was clear San Jacinto was not likely to escape, and in any event the submarine had a speed advantage of nearly ten knots surfaced.
After fifteen minutes and by 9:45 pm the boats had managed to clear the stricken ship. They wisely assembled a short distance away, tied all the rafts and boats together, and decided not to utilize the emergency radio transmitter until the submarine had left. Captain Hart remained at the bridge of his ship orchestrating the evacuation of his vessel to the last. The crew who stayed with him up until the last lifeboat pushed off unanimously reported that once the boats were clear they heard a pistol shot from the area of the bridge, and they assumed (and reported) that Captain Hart had, in the long tradition of the sea for Masters whose passengers died, took his own life and went down with his ship.
Unaware of the drama, and passing to within 100 yards of a life boat without questioning its occupants, Schnee moved in for the kill. His first torpedo having not detonated properly he resorted to incendiary shells in order to set the ship on fire. With over 300 miles to the nearest land he was able to take his time, circling the ship in a counter clockwise direction and firing over 75 shells into her. This ultimately set the San Jacinto ablaze and she was seen by the passengers and crew to sink four hours and fifteen minutes after the attack, at 1:45 am on the 22nd of April.
Those who survived included 95 passengers (of whom nine were lost) and 74 officers and crew (of whom five were lost). At 7:30 the next morning one of the ship’s three radio operators stoked up the emergency transmitter and sent out an SOS with the details of the ships’ sinking and position. Fortunately for all concerned the US Navy destroyer USS Rowan (DD 405) was in the vicinity and able to retrieve them the same day. Altogether the survivors, who by now had consolidated into just the 6 life boats and let 7 of the rafts drift away, were rescued that afternoon and taken to Norfolk, Virginia two days later, landing on the 24th of April, 1942.
The rescue was not without its drama, as the Rowan determined that two torpedoes had been fired at the destroyer during its rescue work, and the navy ship fired back at a conning tower. It counter-attacked with a barrage of 31 depth charges, as a result of which oil was reported and damage to a submarine was presumed. However this account is not substantiated by the war diary of U-201.
Likewise, reports that two or even three subs took turns strafing the San Jacinto and signaling to each other have never been verified. The exaggerations can be written off to the fog of war and the difficult task of synthezing accounts by nearly 200 people (169 rescued, most of them civilians) who were shaken from their sleep and from any semblance of a normal routine.