The 2,078-ton Dutch steam freighter Triton was built in 1928 by the AG Neptun Schiffswerft und Maschinenfabrik (Neptun Werft) of Rostock, Germany, which is in the Baltic Sea. Her owners at the time of her demise were the Royal Dutch Steam Ship Company (Koninklijke Nederlandsche Stoomboot Maatschappij, or KNSM) of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The charterers were the Netherlands Line and her agents were Norton Lilly. The ship’s dimensions were 90.73 meters length by 13.61 meters wide and 5.41 meters deep. Here triple expansion steam engines developed 1,100 i.h.p. and propelled her at 10.5 knots.
For her final voyage the Triton loaded 3,100 tons of bauxite ore (a component of the aluminum smeltering process which was critical for the construction of airplanes and other Allied war materials) as well as a deck cargo of 60 tons of timber which would not doubt be a welcome addition to any crew floating in the water without rafts or boats. She loaded in Demerara, British Guyana and then proceeded to Trinidad, probably for both bunker fuel and routing instructions. She left Port of Spain with instructions to stay 60 miles northeast of Bermuda before turning for her discharge port of New York to the northwest.
The Master, Captain Barteld van Dijk, was responsible for a total of 34 other officers and crew as well as one American passenger, a Mr. S. Jensen. Aside from five Britons, one Spaniard, and a Venezuelan and Portuguese crew, all of the merchant seamen were Dutch. The ship was armed with a 3-inch gun mounted aft. At 8:50 pm local time on the night of the first of June 1942 the ship was at position 26.00N and 59.34W steaming a course true north at just below ten knots.
C. C. Vickrey, a Lieutenant Commander in the US Naval Reserve waxed poetic when he noted that “the stars were out at the time of the first attack, the night was clear, visibility about one mile with glasses. There was a one or two point southerly wind and a slight swell. The moon came out at about 21:30 increasing the visibility at the time of the second attack.” U-558 under Gunther Krech, scoring his final successful attack of this patrol, had expended all of his torpedoes.
Before opening up fully with shellfire from 2,000 yards off the starboard beam, Krech had the courtesy to fire of a white flare off the Triton’s starboard beam, alerting them that an attack was imminent. Otherwise the men on lookout duty – a gunner on the aft deck, an officer on one wing of the enclosed bridge and another on the opposite wing, from which because of a design flaw they could not see aft, were not alerted of the sub’s presence.
At first Captain van Dijk turned the ship’s stern to the sub and tried to run it out – they even managed to fire off a single 3-inch shell at the U-boat. However after 15 to 20 shells rained down on the ship and killed four men (Gunner Warden Van Leen British sailor Max Elmond, trimmer Nickolas Van Eyck, and Portugues AB Jeronimo Da Silva) and injured others including the Chief Mate J. P. Lendorf ad a crewman named Joost DeGraaf. The shells were incendiary and the ship caught fire badly. The Master decided to abandon ship. When Radio Operator T. Westervaarder tried to send an SOS the Germans managed to jam the signal. The Second Engineer P. Wakker stopped the engines and Captain van Dijk ordered abandon ship.
Thirty two men made it away from the Triton in two lifeboats and at least one raft. Krech motored U-558 up to the survivors in the boats, with ten men crowding into the conning tower taking photos of the sinking ship (photos of Triton down by the head exist today, suggesting that there was still daylight at the time of the attack, or that the ship remained afloat until daylight). The skippers of the submarine and the freighter entered into considerable banter in a mix of German and English. Van Dijk wanted help for his injured men and directions to Bermuda. Krech refused to give medical aid but gave the distance and course to the West Indies, which he said would provide a better sailing angle and “warmer nights”.
Krech asked whether the Triton had returned his fire and van Dijk, not knowing that a shell had been fired in defense said no, to which Krech replied “Yes, you did.” Survivors then provided tonnage and name of the ship, as well as loading port, but not the discharge port. They asked the submariners to wire their position to the shore, which Krech refused to do. Twenty minutes after the first attack Krech approached the abandoned Triton to within 300 to 500 yards and sent 20 or so more incendiary shells tearing into the motionless hull. The ship listed to port then plunged to the bottom by the stern. The submarine then turned to the west and motored off on the surface in that direction at between 18 and 20 knots. It was last seen at 10:15 pm, an hour and 25 minutes after the attack began.
Captain van Dijk’s request for medical aid was prophetic – in the days ahead one of the men died on a life raft and another on the life boat, bringing the total dead to six. Fortunately for the remaining 30 men, the American merchant ship Mormac Port came upon them at position 20.14N by 62.24W, considerably west of the sinking, and rescued them at noon on the 5thof June. They had been in the boats and raft for five days. The men were taken to New York, where they arrived on the 9th of June. The injured (Messrs. Van Den Broek, Westervaarder, Den Heyer, Bockhout, all Dutch, Montanus and Freites, both British, and Zavala, the Venezuelan) were lodged at the Marine Hospital on Staten Island. This was arranged by the Quarantine officers of the Port of New York.