SS Empire Wildebeeste sunk by U-106/Rasch off Bermuda, rescued by USS Lang/Seay, taken to Bermuda

S.S. EMPIRE WILDEBEESTE Attack & Survivor Narrative

By Eric T. Wiberg, Esq., July 2014

SS West Ekonk (later SS Empire Wildbeeste) during sea trials July 1918 off Seattle – note the “dazzle” color scheme to throw off enemy submarines during World War I.

Photo source:, US Naval Historical Center Photograph #NH65041-A, and

The British steam ship Empire Wildebeeste was owned by the Ministry of War Transport (MoWT) and operated by George Nisbet & Company Limited of the UK. She was built as the West Ekonk in 73 work days and launched on 22 June 1918. The ship was 5,631 gross tons, 8,554 deadweight or cargo-carrying capacity tons. Length overall was 409.5 feet, beam 54.2 feet, and her Curtis geared steam turbine engine turned a single propeller, giving the ship 11.5 knots when built, and 9.5 knots by WWII.

Her builders were Skinner & Eddy of Seattle Washington, and she was yard # 25. At the time she was listed as the 9th-fastest-constructed ship in the world. Her cost was $1,776,468. Between 1918 and 1919 she crossed the Atlantic three times for the US Naval Overseas Transportation Service.

The West Ekonk in the slips at her builders was the cover photo of Pacific Marine Review, August 1918.

Photo source:

From mid-June of 1919 the West Ekonk was allocated to the US Shipping Board (USSB) and performed a number of voyages for them and Atlantic Transport Line between New York and Baltimore, her base, before being laid up in Norfolk, Virginia. In 1924 the ship sailed out of Los Angeles California before being sold in 1933 to the Lykes Brothers Steamship Company. The Ministry of War Transport of the UK purchased her in 1940, taking delivery in Savannah, Georgia in October.

In the two years or so under British control the Empire Wildebeeste as she was now known (from the Afrikaans for “wild beast,” the ship was named for the ox-like African antelope prized by hunters), experienced numerous breakdowns. In Halifax on 9th December 1940 her boiler condensers were repaired for a day, then in January 1941 in Liverpool, and her compass broke while in convoy between both ports. The ship was officially renamed in February 1941 in the UK. After surviving a trans-Atlantic convoy in which five ships were sunk nearby, in mid-May more repairs were initiated in Newcastle, UK – those took two weeks. On the 29th of June she experienced steering gear damage which took a week to repair in Baltimore.

Then in November repairs in the Bristol Channel, UK took another two weeks, from 11 to 22 August. After leaving St. John’s Newfoundland for Hull on 11 October the ship had to put back for repairs on the 18th. Finally on the 28th of October in Sydney she underwent more engine repairs, completed them the following day, but had to put back to Sydney on the 5th to the 10th of November. Then in Hull UK she went in for repairs from the 11th to 24thof December, 1941. By that time the ship had completed three trans-Atlantic convoys.

The Empire Wildebeeste began its final voyage from Liverpool in position 13 in Convoy ON 53 on 1st January 1942 and from Loch Ewe and around the north end of Scotland on the 5th of January. She was bound for Baltimore but straggled behind the convoy before it was dispersed on the 19th of January, and made its way independently. The problem was that the convoy ran into severe weather east of Iceland on the 10thof January. The weather reached hurricane force. Despite this the ship managed to stay in contact with the convoy commodore until the 17th of January, but the fierce conditions lasted for ten days, by which time all the vessels were scattered. During this time the ship labored into northwest winds making only six knots.

The ship’s complement were led by Captain Hugh Cameron Stewart, who was described by a journalist as “A short stocky Scotsman with a constitution of iron and a jaw symbolic of Britain’s famous bulldog….” Captain Stewart appears to have survived, by his own admission, two notable sinkings in the North Atlantic earlier in the war. The first was the sinking of the British ship Cheyenne on the 15th of September, 1939, less than two weeks after the outbreak of war. The tanker was sunk by U-53 under Ernst-Günter Heinicke. Fortunately HMS Mackay (D 70) was on hand to drive off the submarine, and the Norwegian ship Ida Bakke picked up 37 survivors out of 43 and landed them at Baltimore, near Cork, Ireland.

In the second incident Capt. Stewart was sailing as First Officer of the British ship Blairmore which was rescued survivors of the HMS Penzance (L 28) which was sunk by U-37 under Victoer Oehrn on the 24th of August 1940. The following day the Blairmore itself was also sunk by the same submarine. Thirty-six of the complement of 41 along with seven survivors of the HMS Penzance were rescued by the Swedish ship Eknaren and taken to neutral waters and Baltimore, Maryland, US. Captain Stewart was no stranger to enemy action and survival at sea.

Captain Stewart was responsible for four Naval gunners, six Army gunners, and 33 officers and men in the British merchant marine. There were a total of 43 men on board, most of whom were British. Fifty-seven-year-old cook Joaquin Cardoso was Portuguese and had served in that country’s navy for over two decades. Robert Owen Skelton, an Ordinary Seaman, was only 17, and Charles Wilson, the Galley Boy, only 16. Other teens included Ted Templeman, Fireman, and Richard Hamill, known simply as a sailor, aged 18. These last five were to perish, as was Carmelo Fenech of Malta, a 50-year-old Greaser.

Empire Wildebeeste was sailing in ballast, which consisted of 2,500 tons of slag, 800 tons of oil, 500 tons of salt water, some 300 tons of fresh water. The vessel was armed with a 4-inch gun, 1 Bofors gun, 2 twin Marlin machine guns, 2 single Marlins, 4 parachute rockets, kites and snowflake rockets.

By the morning of Saturday the 24th of January, 1942 the ship was in position 39° 30’N, 59° 54’W, which is roughly equidistant (480 nautical miles) from Bermuda and Cape Cod Massachusetts, to the northeast of Bermuda, and 330 nautical miles south-southeast of Halifax.

Twenty-seven-year-old Kapitänleutnant Hermann Rasch and his men in the German submarine U-106 had left Europe (Lorient, France) two days before the Empire Wildebeeste, on the 3rd of January. Three weeks into their patrol they had not encountered or sunk any vessels, and the 50 or so men were doubt keen to start doing so. With the slow-moving steamer they had found their prey. Rasch spotted the Empire Wildebeeste at 1:26 am German time on the 24th, which was roughly 7:00 pm on Friday the 23rd of January local time. He then went into pursuit that would last 5 hours, until 6:39 am on the 24th, which was about 1:30 am local time.

Rasch had just been ordered to proceed to the coast of the US between New York and Cape Hatteras. To use the words of Captain Stewart, “….we received a message from the Admiralty giving us new positions to pass through. I steered for the first position but found I was a little bit South, so I altered course to made for the next given position which was directly on the track for Cape Henry. I was very close to this position when at 0100 A.T.S. on 24th January ….we were struck by a torpedoed in the starboard side of the bow in the chain locker about 30 feet from the bow.” Orders from very different masters in two European capitals led two enemy vessels right into each other between Bermuda and the mainland.

Captain Stewart continues: “I was in the chart room at the time, and a tremendous column of water was thrown up flooding the chart room. The 2nd officer was on watch at the time and stated that he saw a flash, but did not notice any smoke or smell of cordite.” The ship had been zig zagging, however once the moon set Captain Stewart felt confident enough to set a straight course of 258 degrees at 30 minutes after midnight European time. After all, the very first wave of U-boats was just arriving of the American coast and most skippers didn’t know about them. The ship’s speed was 11.5 knots. Indeed Rasch in U-106 observed that his intended victim was maintaining “course west.” He hadn’t completed his attack yet.

The force of the explosion, though it was in the bow, threw out the gear clutch on the main engine, stopping them immediately. Slowly the Empire Wildebeeste settled down by the bow. Captain Stewart noted that the number one hold up forward flooded on top of its 300 tons of ballast, suggesting that the bulkhead had burst. The radio operator immediately transmitted a message, which was picked up on shore. Initially a Canadian station picked up the message and asked the operator to switch to 800 meter wavelength so that shore stations could direction-find off the signal. This was done from New Jersey. The Enemy Action Diary for the Eastern Sea Frontier reads:

“At 0104 Direction Finder Station Cape Henlopen intercepted following message which they immediately relayed to District Headquarters 4ND [Fourth Naval District], Inshore Patrol, Cape May, and Coast Guard, “SS WILDEBEESTE torpedoed…. At 0458 GMT.” Rasch, in the submarine nearby, also heard the same message, thus enabling him to identify his victim.

Though Captain Stewart and his officers remained calmly on the bridge, a form of group hysteria gripped some of the younger and less experienced seamen. Stewart writes that “Some of the crew rushed to the forward port boat and let go one of the falls and the boat was left hanging by one fall.” He ordered another group to remain calm but abandon ship, “….but some of the men were rather excited. Nine men got into the forward starboard boat which drifted away quickly and was soon out of sight.” Meanwhile the other starboard boat, further aft, was successfully launched with 17 men.

While more men were preparing to board this boat, another torpedo struck the ship, this time on the opposite, or port side, in the way of the number four deep tank (fourth hatch back from the bow). The struck at about 1:30 am local time, or about 20 minutes after the initial attack. The torpedo managed to penetrate into the tank before exploding, and when it did it ruptured the bulkhead in front of the engine room, flooding the machinery space and ending any hope that the ship could propel itself out of its predicament. It also injured the Wireless, or Radio Officer, who remained at his station and suffered bruises and a cut to his lip.

The Second Officer was working on lowering the port-side lifeboat when he witnessed the torpedo streaking towards the ship, its wake probably illuminated by Gulf Stream phospheresense. All of the men who were already in the port lifeboat were thrown out of it, however 15 of them managed to clamber back into it. The captain and three other officers then joined these men and cast off. Since there were only 15 men in the starboard after boat, the skipper transferred two men to it, so that there were 17 in each boat, plus 9 in the boat which had already drifted off, meaning that all 43 men including the engine room crew, had managed to escape the stricken ship.

At about 1:45 am, or 20 minutes after the second torpedo, a third and final explosion ripped into the Empire Wildebeeste, sealing its doom. Though some sources say this may have been boilers exploding, Captain Stewart is clear on the point that “a third torpedo struck the ship in the engine room. We all saw a flash as the torpedo struck and heard a very load explosion. The ship settled and quickly sank at 0205 A.T.S.”

Now came the open-water survival component for the Allied sailors. For Rasch and his men it was off to further hunting – within two days she had sunk the Traveller and within a week from that the Rochester, Amerikaland, and Opawa. Captain Stewart prided himself on keeping the lifeboats prepared for exactly this contingency. He connected the two lifeboats with a heaving line. The Chief Officer took command of the other boat.

The Associated Press reported that “As they drifted through the bitterly cold [January] night a portable radio brought along by one of the men was turned on and ironically the first thing they heard was a New York station broadcasting a furrier’s announcement: “Now is the time to buy your winter coats.” The likelihood of a crewman bringing a functioning radio which was able to receive a signal from New York, nearly 1,000 miles away, will be for the reader to judge. Captain Stewart makes no mention of the contraption.

Once daylight broke – about 4 hours after the ship sank – they sighted the other lifeboat. The skipper recognized Harold Fenton, a 20 year-old Navy DEMS gunner and an army gunner named William F. Lanfear. With despair in his retelling, Captain Stewart observed that “we soon lost sight of them as they had their sail up and tacked away from us, and they have not been seen or heard of since.” He postulated that Joaquin Cardoso, the Portuguese Cook, “must have taken charge of the sailing.” Stewart crows about how well stocked the lifeboats were: fitted with dodgers and a protection hood, red bunting sewn into the sails, they had ample flares (which he disparaged)  as well as water tanks under the seats, pemmican, chocolate, and malted milk tablets.

Fortunately for the men of the Empire Wildebeeste at 11:20 am on their first morning in the boats a Royal Canadian Air Force Catalina aircraft found them. As Stewart observed, it “flew over us and circled around us all day until about 16:30 [4:30 pm] when he dropped a life jacket with two containers of flares and a note attached. The note said that a Corvette would pick us up the following morning around 0900.” According to a Bermuda journalist after the fact, “the pilot swooped down so low that a message dropped practically alongside the lifeboats, asking the men if they required blankets and food.” Despite Captain Stewart’s belief that a single plane held station above him for most of the day, “A few hours after the plane left, a number of other planes soon were circling overhead…..”

With spirits no doubt buoyed by the news, the men must have passed a reasonably comfortable night. The conditions were described as “light” winds and “slight swell.” However by 9:30 am the following morning there was still no sign of the corvette. Stewart lit one of the flares from the Catalina and was very pleased with the result, as they popped out smoke and balls of fire alternately, “like a Roman candle.” By 10:30 am still no ship, so more flares were lit. At 11:30 am “as there was still no sigh of help coming to us,” wrote Stewart, “I lighted and hoisted a smoke flair to the masthead. Afterwards I tied a yellow weather protection suit to the masthead.”

Then – success! What every shipwrecked sailor dreams of: “at 12:45 I fired another smoke flare and about 1330 [1:30 pm – exactly 36 hours after the attack], we sighted a ship, which proved to be U.S.S. LANG. The LANG had not seen our smoke flares but was attracted by the yellow suit which was flying from the mast. This was not the Corvette which the Catalina had said was coming to our assistance. This Destroyer ….had been patrolling some 500 miles away and had picked up our W/T signals. He had rushed to our position in order to hunt the submarine and had been in the area about 12 hours before he sighted our boats.”

The USS Lang (DD 399) was built by the Federal Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company in 1937-1938, and commissioned into the US navy as a Benham-class destroyer on 30 March, 1939. The ship’s dimensions were: 2,250 tons displacement, 340.9 feet long, 35.6 feet wide and 12.1 feet draft. The ship could reach 38.5 knots and cruise for 6,500 miles. Her first commander was Felix L. Johnson. In 1939 she escorted President Roosevelt to Canada and in 1941 was assigned work in the Caribbean and off Bermuda. On board as assistant to Executive Officer was Pemberton Southard, age 23, who kept a detailed record of the ship’s report on the subsequent rescue.


USS Lang at the time of her delivery to the US Navy, circa July 1939

Photo source: US Navy photograph 63109, from

The Lang’s commander at the time was Lieutenant Erskine Austin Seay. On February 1st he filed a detailed and lengthy report to his commanding officers in New York accounting for his and the Lang’s activities relative to the Empire Wildebeeste between the 24th and 28th of January. On the 21st of January, while en route from Halifax to Bermuda the Lang was relieved of escort duties by HMS Duke of York and made for Bermuda.

At 6:25 Greenwich Time, or about 1:25 am on the 24ththe Lang intercepted a relay of the Empire Wildebeeste’s SSS signal, indicating, in the fog of war, that two vessels were in distress and giving two positions. Seay correctly adjudged the proper latitude and longitude, and reasoning that the Lang “could reach the second torpedoed vessel in less time than a shipo based at Bermuda would be able to,” and so he set a course for the ship, 410 miles away and bearing just north of west from Lang’s position, which was east-northeast of the casualty. Speed was brought to 24 knots.

Five hours later shore stations confirmed that Seay’s hunch was correct about the position of the casualty. Three hours later a refueling tanker named the USS Sapelo informed the Land that the tanker could give the destroyer 40,000 gallons of fuel oil. The Lang’s ETA on site would be just before midnight. At 2:47 pm Greenwich time, or soon after daybreak, Lang received a report from aircraft that two lifeboats were spotted, roughly 24 nautical miles north of the sinking. The destroyer began a criss-cross search in the nighttime, with visibility only 2 miles, which not surprisingly turned up nothing. The Sapelo also began a search pattern.

At dawn the Sapelo and Lang rendezvoused and determined the set and drift of the current (1.5 knots to the northeast or 68 degrees true) with wind of about 15 knots from the northwest. On that basis the Lang set out to the east and north of the ship’s reported position, the search of the actual position during the night having turned up “no debris, oil slicks, or any indication” of a wreck. “On the turn of the fourth leg search at 13:10 GCT on course 270 degrees True a makeshift signal consisting of a pair of trousers hung on an oar was sighted by a lookout at a distance of about four miles. Upon further approach two small boats could be seen lashed together, which proved to be the survivors of the SS EMPRIE WILDEBEESTE…. 47 miles from position reported…..”

USS Lang Lieutenant Erskine Austine Seay as a US Navy Midshipman, photo courtesy of Bill Gonyo.

Seay continues: “At 13:25 GCT the survivors were taken aboard and both boats scuttled. One man was brought aboard in a stretcher, suffering from diabetes, Some twenty minutes later a life raft was sighted without occupants.” He goes on to recount how difficult it is to see a lifeboat in a running sea as “the boats were visible approximately 10 seconds per minute at a range of 600 yards.” Aside from the diabetic the Lang men treated the Radio Operator for multiple contusions and another man for “chancroid of penis,” – presumably a “social disease.”

The 24 men were well looked after aboard the large navy ship, with the four senior officers eating and sleeping in the wardroom, the other five officers in the Chief Petty Officer’s quarters, and the regular crew bunking in the forward crew quarters and eating with the US Navy crew. Seay notes that “…it is believed they were quite comfortable considering that they had lost practically every-thing they possessed aboard the torpedoed ship. Clothing and toiletry articles were distributed to the survivors. The crew of the LANG was very generous in providing the survivors with their own clothing.”

Captain Stewart informed Lieutenant Seay about how the nine men in the missing boat “had left the ship previous to orders to disembark, without an officer and that the missing boat had a dip lug sail rig with a red bunting.” Because the Lang was low on fuel it succeeded after several tries to connect to the Sapelo, which provided the destroyer with 26,310 gallons of fuel oil – all that was left. The Sapelo also transferred medical supplies for the injured or sick men.

Though noting that planes were searching for the 9-man boat on the 24th and 25th of January, Lang’s people never saw the aircraft. On the 26th Lang was ordered to search until dusk and then return to Bermuda, which it did. No sign of the nine-man boat was ever found. As Seay noted, “the search was unsuccessful,” though of course he had found the majority of the crew.

At 01:00 Greenwich time on the 26th the search was broken off and the destroyer headed back to Bermuda. After anchoring in Hamilton harbor the British merchant sailors and gunners were held on board the Lang while intelligence officers from the British Admiralty as well as the US Naval Operating Base (N.O.B.) Bermuda interrogated them. The British arranged to receive their compatriots, and an ambulance was made available for the diabetic case. By about 3:00 pm local time a British motor launch brought the 33 remaining men ashore, their saga afloat ended for the time being.

The Bermuda journalist notes that “All survivors were treated royally aboard the American warship. The captain added that the treatment extended to himself and his men by the personnel of the United States destroyer was exceptional. He added ‘They couldn’t do enough for us and, believe me, we are all very grateful to them.”

“Soon after their arrival here, officers and crew members were fitted out with complete outfits of clothing. It was also understood that the captain cabled his company for money to pay the men while they were being sheltered in these Islands. All the officers had a word of praise for Mr. L. N. Tucker, M.B.E., Superintendent of the Bermuda Sailor’s Home, for the interest he had taken in their welfare.”

On shore the crew were separated. The “naval men,” meaning the gunners were sent to Malabar – presumably a navy facility on the southwest of the island. The Army gunners went up to St. George’s Island to the east, and the 26 merchant sailors from the fourth service were put up at the American House and the Bermuda Sailor’s Home, run by Mr. Leonard Nigel (Dickie) Tucker, MBE.

Mr. L. N. “Dickie” Tucker, founder of the Bermuda Sailor’s Home and the home itself.

Photo source:

Captain Warren Brown of Bermuda wrote the following in May of 2014: “I was 13 at the time. Survivors were looked after by The Bermuda Sailor`s Home. Their address is now 22 Richmond Road, Hamilton. ….Many survivors were put up at Westmeath guest house. I met many of them as the building belonged to Stanley Conyers and his son was one of my best friends. As a consequence I was often over there.

Also the Ladies’ Hospitality Organization Bermuda. Although not mentioned, my mother and father and a Mrs. Bridges carried out most of the work in looking after the sailors. I spent many an evening there helping my parents. We also always had at least two sailors staying at our house. They usually did not say a great deal about their role as everything was always hush, hush.”

Captain Stewart expressed his hope – or at least his optimism – that the nine men in the other boat would survive, despite their failed search in the Lang. He told the journalist that the boat “was still adrift in the Atlantic,” but that “he feels they will be all right and probably will be landed at some Eastern port along the United States coast. The article goes on to say that survivors of the Empire Wildebeeste crew, still concerned about the fate of their nine shipmates, attended the funerals of four engineering crew from another British merchant ship who had been burned essentially to death by a boiler explosion.

The ship had put into Bermuda’s Number 7 Wharf on the 30th of January (shortly after the arrival of the Wildebeeste survivors) with two bodies and six badly burned men, of whom two died in King Edward VII Memorial Hospital on the island. The funeral, held at St. Paul’s Church in Paget was officiated by the Venerable Archdeacon Marriott and other dignitaries. The men were laid to rest in the sailor’s plot at the churchyard. The victim’s ages were 21, 32, 34, and 48.

Captain Stewart of the Empire Wildebeeste writes that “We were 800 miles from Cape Henry when we were picked up, but were landed at Bermuda on Wednesday morning, 28th January, as the Destroyer was ordered there after her search. After we were picked up the U.S.S. LANG searched throughout the day for the third boat, but nothing was seen of it. We were very well treated on board the LANG and everything possible was done for us. It was one of the newest ships and the whole crew were very efficient and keen.”



Ardmore Ardmorite (Pennsylvania, USA), Feb. 1, 1942: “34 Survivors Reach Bermuda – Landed at Hamilton by U.S. Destroyer After Ship is Sunk.” (AP wire story dated Jan 31, 1942) – for the bit about the portable radio and a New York furrier’s announcement.

British Naval Casualties of WWII, for info on Lanfear and Fenton:

Helgason, Gudmundur, www.uboat.netfor lists of 7 of the 9 men killed in action & other details

Kinghorn, Jonathan, “The Atlantic Transport Line,”– for details of West Ekonk’s history

Maltese Merchant Seamen, for Carlos Fenech details, which are not on,

Mason, Jerry,– for providing the KTB or war diary for U-106’s patrol

NavSource US Navy site: for photos and bios of Seay and USS Lang:

Royal Gazette and Colonist Daily, Hamilton, Bermuda:

·         Saturday January 31st 1942, for an article entitled “34 Survivors of Ship Torpedoing Land Here – Brought in by U.S. Warship After 35 Hours in Boats – R.C.A.F. Plane Offered to Drop Food & Blankets.”

·         Another article, dated February 2nd, 1942 in the same paper (page 2) is entitled “4 Engineers Buries at Mass Funeral Saturday – Died from Burns Following Explosion Aboard Vessel.”

·         September 10, 2011, “Making an Oceanic Home for Sailors,” photo credit.

Southard, Pemberton: Pemberton Southard Papers, Collection 551, East Carolina Manuscript Collection, J. Y. Joyner Library, East Carolina University, Greenville, N.C., “World War II Action Reports,” Serial 18, “Report of the Rescue of Survivors of S.S. Empire Wildebeeste – Report Covers in Detail the Rescue of Survivors of Subject Ship in Lat. 39.55 N., Long. 59.02 W.” Dated 1 February 1942 and addressed to the Commanding Officer, New York, NY

Survivor Statements from NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) 2 in DC c/o Mike Constandy of

Wikipedia for West Ekonk info: