M/T San Arcadio sunk by U-107/Gelhaus NE of Bermuda, 9 survivors of 50 picked up by plane at sea, landed Bermuda

M/T SAN ARCADIO, Attack & Survivor’s Narrative

By Eric T. Wiberg, Esq. www.uboatsbermuda.blogspot.com, November, 2014

The British motor tanker San Arcadio sunk by U-107 under Gelhaus northeast of Bermuda on 31 January 1942.

The British tanker San Arcadio was built by Harland and Wolff, Limited of Govan, Glasgow in April 1935. Yard number 938, she was 7,419 gross registered tons, could carry 11,275 tons of petroleum, was 465 feet long, 60 feet wide and 19 feet deep. An eight-cylinder diesel engine turned one propeller with 3,500 b.h.p to achieve a speed of 12 knots. The ship was armed with a four-inch gun, a 12-pound gun, two Hotchkiss machine guns, two Lewis machine guns and a single strip Lewis. San Arcadio was also equipped with degaussing equipment as a defense against mines or torpedoes.

The ship was owned by the Eagle Oil and Shipping Company Limited of Finsbury Circus, London. There were 20 tankers in the fleet, all beginning with the prefix “San.” The Texas newspaper Port Arthur News had her sailing from the Gulf of Mexico to the UK on the 9th of January, 1939. The San Antonio Light of December 10th1939 reported that she arrived in Convoy HFX 14 at Corpus Christi Texas. It noted that Captain Flynn would “never know until 24 hours after they sail from the port here where the convoy will be located.”

The ship participated in 39 convoys during World War II, many of them between Liverpool and Halifax. In December 1941 she left Liverpool in Convoy ON 42 bound westwards. The convoy was dispersed and she proceeded independently for Houston Texas to load oil for the UK via Halifax.
There were 50 men aboard the San Arcadio on her final voyage, of whom five were Royal Navy or Army gunners. The master was Captain Walter Frederick Flynn, aged 41. He was supported by Chief Officer William Thomas Douglas, 34, and Second Officer Clement Jerwood, 24. The Third Officer was Joseph Ross Stephen and the First Radio Officer was George Wilfrid Watson. Mess Room Boy William Whyte was only 15 years of age, and Cadets Victor Byron Pitt and Roye William Patrick were each 18. The Sixth Engineer Officer was William Boyd Docherty, aged 19.

After arriving in Houston in January, 1942 the San Arcadio loaded 9,900 tons of petroleum product: 6,600 tons of gas oil and 3,300 tons of lubricating oil. On Thursday the 22ndof January the ship sailed for Halifax where it intended to join a convoy back to the UK. On the following Wednesday, 28th January, the ship was struck by suck severe weather that it broke off zig zagging. The ship and men weathered the storm for three days and finally on Saturday the 31stof January they were able to resume zig zagging at 10:00 am local time.

Twenty minutes after resuming the defensive maneuver the ship was struck by a torpedo fired by the German Navy commander Oberleutnant zur See Harald Gelhaus, 26 years of age, in command of the submarine U-107. At about 10:45 (according to German records) and 10:20 according to the British account), the torpedo struck aft near the number one tank, about 300 feet from the bow and on the starboard side. The ship was then about 340 nautical miles northeast of Bermuda and 330 nautical miles southeast of Nantucket. There was a heavy ocean swell at the time with a wind from the north-northwest at about 20 knots. The ship had been steering northeast and making about ten knots.

Kapitänleutnant Harald Gelhaus, the German U-boat commander who sank the San Arcadio.
Prior to the attack the merchant sailors had been warned that there were enemy submarines in the area, but all of the danger zones were at least 300 miles from their position. Nor did they see the submarine before they were attacked. The explosion was so muted that Third Officer Stephens and others at first thought they had been hit by another strong wave and lurched. First Radio Officer Watson was thrown from his chair on impact. Stephens, who was on the starboard bridge wing, saw a flame burst from the impact site which lasted 5-10 seconds, but no column of water.

Lubricating oil was splattered all over the ship and into the ocean. The flying bridge was shoved to one side and some of the starboard deck was bulged upwards. The engines stopped following the explosion. Five seconds after the first torpedo, while flames still shot up from the first impact, a second torpedo penetrated the San Arcadio near the pump room, also on the starboard side. This one hit just ahead of the bridge, between tanks number five and six. According to Stephens, it seemed as though the ship’s back had been broken. He believed that the number 5 tank impacted was empty of cargo.

The second torpedo brought down the two derricks were blown off the foremast and to the port side. Lookouts did not see a track from either missile. Adding to the confusion the loud steam-operated whistle jammed on and could not be shut off. Captain Flynn ordered the Radio Officer to transmit the ship’s position for 15 minutes on the emergency set, as the ship’s radials had been brought down by the explosions. Stephens carried the position to him. Then the word was passed around to abandon ship, though Stephen didn’t hear the order directly from the captain.

One of the davits on the after deck lifeboat number three jammed – the forward davit was bent, so that the boat was suspended by the bow, with its stern submerged. Three men had been thrown into the ocean when this happened, however two of them grabbed the pilot ladder and climbed back on board. The third man clung to the boat’s stern. Because launching the forward raft would crush the men in the water, some officers and men released the after raft. When it drifted away with no one on it, Third Officer Stephens jumped on board, a distance of about four vertical feet.

Meanwhile the men managed to clear away two of the port side lifeboats and one of the starboard boats. Although there was a heavy swell, the oil leaking from the ship smoothed the sea surface. The last ones off the ship were the Captain and Radio Operator. One of the Able Bodied Seamen ran forward to the ship’s forecastle after being swamped in the after lifeboat and clambering up the pilot ladder. Captain Flynn and Radio Operator Watson were looking for him, then dove into the sea. They swam to a raft. The A.B. decided to swim to them, but he removed his life jacket. Though he jumped in and almost made it to the raft, his strength gave out and he drowned.

His companion A.B. climbed back into the damaged number 3 boat and drifted away, to be rescued by the Second Mate, Jerwood. The Second Radio Officer, Francis Joseph McAree, 20, and Stephens were on a raft from which they were plucked by a boat with only six men in it. They pulled clear of the ship. Captain Flynn was in bad shape when rescued, however all 49 of the men barring the A.B. who drowned, were now in boats a safe distance from the San Arcadio. It was about an hour after the initial attack.

An hour later, at 12:20 according to the British (12:51 per German records) Gelhaus brought U-107 to the surface. The Allied sailors could not see much of the submarine because of the distance and the rough sea and it was low in the water. U-107’s men pumped 24 shells towards the ship from the deck gun, however none registered hits. When this failed to sink her Gelhaus lined up a coup de grâce torpedo which finally broke the vessel’s back. The sub’s men continued shelling the ship until the magazine exploded and she broke in two pieces and caught fire. The bow floated vertically and the stern floated away. By midnight the flames had disappeared and at sunrise there was no trace of her.

During the night the three lifeboats managed to stay together by stringing a line, or painter, between them, and running sea anchors off their bows and sterns. There were 20 men each in two boats and a total of nine, including two gunners, in Third Officer Stephens boat. Fortunately Stephens could rely on the skill of a Scottish Highlander who had grown up on boats: Seaman John Campbell. When their sea anchor parted, Campbell fashioned a new one from a grapnel anchor and canvas, to form a mushroom-like shape. Stephens wrote “…we found it more effective than our original sea anchor. …His boat knowledge proved invaluable. It was his general knowledge and good seamanship which was in a great measure responsible for the boat weathering the first few days of bad weather. Before doing anything I always asked his advice.”

Indeed it appears likely that the other boats, with more than twice as many men and without the kind of expertise that Campbell brought to Stephens’ boat, probably foundered during the bad weather of the second night. At 2:00 pm on the second day Second Officer Jerwood’s boat broke free from the others in the rising weather. At 4:00 pm Stephens’ sea anchor broke and Campbell replaced it. Not only were the large ocean swells threatening to swamp the boats, but there was a tropical deluge of rain as well. It took two men to man the helm in such weather, and only Stephens, Campbell and a storekeeper named Golightly were able to carry out the task.

Food and water were rationed, and four men were kept under the cover forward, though the lifeboat was down by the head, meaning water was collecting there. Two men were kept amidships working the primitive rotary bilge pump, whose hose was only long enough to reach the nearby side of the boat. The other three men stayed by the helm. The men were thirsty and so they supplemented the 30-gallons with which the boat was equipped with fresh rain water. The breakers were kept forward and aft to protect them from infusion with salt water.

In the first five days they were only able to sail about 30 hours, towards the southwest. The calculated they must be 300 miles from land, however they had no tools to estimate longitude. The men persisted with their routines, rations, and vigilance for nearly a week. Then at 4:00 pm on Wednesday the 11th of February salvation came from the sky. As Stephens said, “…it was a calm day with a light swell and no wind, and we were drifting as much as sailing.” They were 240 nautical miles south southeast of where the San Arcadio sank and 160 nautical miles northeast of Bermuda.

A Martin PBM Mariner of the type which rescued 9 mariners from the San Arcadio in February 1942 and took them to Bermuda.

Photo source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_PBM_Mariner

Unbeknownst to the survivors, their rescuers assumed they were a U-boat and actually dived in for an attack. The airplane’s identifying number was 74-P-7 and it flew for the 74thSquadron, based in Bermuda. The pilot was US Navy Lieutenant Joseph Abraham Jaap. In October 2014 Lt. Jaap’s son wrote that Jaap “thought he had spotted a German submarine and began a run. When he got over the target he realized it was a life raft. At that time there was a significant sea state and he was afraid if he landed they would all be lost but he had no choice.” Stephens relates that “The flying boat alighted on the water close to the boat and we pulled over to him. [We] got on board…”

Jaap’s son continues: “After they got the sailors aboard he had difficulty getting airborne. The waves kept knocking the plane down. Finally, after a few “Our Fathers” he took off. After the war Life Magazine commission some war artists to paint pictures of WWII events. For some reason his rescue was picked and the painting “Rescue Off Bermuda” was in Life Magazine and now is at the museum in Pensacola” Florida.
Stephens carries on the narrative of the rescue: “[We] were taken to Bermuda. In the ‘plane we were given only a little water to drink, as the crew of the aircraft had received wireless instructions from Bermuda that they were not to give us food of any kind.” He describes landing at 6:00 pm local time. All nine men were taken to King Edward VII Memorial Hospital and treated for swollen feet “and general weakness.” He said that the men “…had salt water sores on their bodies and limbs.”

Apparently Golightly, a pillar of support to Stephens, had recently undergone surgery for the Piles, and during the voyage “his strength finally gave out,” however he remained upbeat and never complained, and was a role model for the other sailors and gunners. Stephens said that four men were discharged from hospital and that “the other” four were held back for varying periods.

This brings up a contradiction in Stephens’ account: he is consistently emphatic that eight men total were in the boat (starting with he and one other man being rescued by a boat with only six men in it). But all other accounts – by the US Navy, by the press, and a list of 41 dead (leaving 9 survivors, not eight) – refer to nine men being rescued by Lt. Jaap. The contradiction remains unresolved, except that of all witnesses, Stephens ought to have known how many were in his boat. The only explanation is that Stephens was referring to the eight other men in the boat, or in the hospital, besides himself.

The caption for this photograph, which is in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in College Park Maryland, reads: “VP-74 PBM Mariner piloted by Lt Joseph A. Jaap delivering survivors of the S.S. San Arcadio to Bermuda on Valentines Day [it was actually February 11], 1942. Jaap was awarded the DFC [Distinguished Flying Cross] for the open-sea landing that rescued nine sailors of the British tanker.” It continues, from the War Diaries in Record Group 38: “74-P-7, Lieutenant J. A. JAAP commanding found nine survivors in position 34-28N and 62-50W. The plane landed at sea, took the personnel aboard and returned them to Bermuda. As a result of this action Lieutenant Joseph Abraham Jaap, USN, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.”
The British Admiralty War Diary for Foreign Stations of 11 February states that “U.S. Naval plane picked up 9 survivors from S.S. SAN ARCADIO. ….Senior survivor is 3rd Officer J.R. Stephens who states that he believes they are only survivors.” A CP Cable story of 14th February was headlined “Plane Rescues U-Boat Victims,” and leads with “Nine survivors , rescued from their lifeboat by a United States plane which made a daring landing in the Atlantic 160 miles off Bermuda, said yesterday an enemy U-boat fired two torpedoes into their British tanker off the American coast… Jan. 31.”

The wire story continues: “…the men said 40 of their ship-mates escaped from the tanker in tto other boats. One other member of the ship’s crew was drowned while leaving the ship.” The article goes on to say that all survivors were British. The local Bermudian papers do not appear to have covered the arrival of these men, perhaps because the group was small, perhaps because they were landed by the military and not a civilian ship, or simply because they were one of the first batches of survivors to land and censorship applied. The San Arcadio survivors were only the second batch, after those of the Empire Wildebeeste landed just over two weeks before, to be landed in the colony from ships sunk nearby.


Fold3.com – for the war diaries and deck logs and Eastern Sea Frontier and NOB Bermuda
Holm Lawson, Dame Sir, www.warsailors.com

Jordan, Roger, The World’s Merchants Fleets 1939, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1999

Lethbridge Alberta Herald, February 13, 1942, “Rescue Sailors from Torpedoed British Ship.”
Mason, Jerry, www.uboatarchive.net
Mozolak, John, “New York Ships to Foreign Ports, 1939 – 1945,” http://janda.org/ships/
Newspaperarchive.com for the articles from the Associated Press

Uboat.net for much of the information, including photos of U-boat Commander and its victim, http://www.uboat.net/men
White, Tracy, blog of NARA photos, comment by Lt. Jaap’s son, http://researcheratlarge.blogspot.com/2013/09/random-photo-pbm-mariner-rescue-1942.html
Winnipeg Free press, Saturday, February 14, 1942, “Plane Rescued U-Boat Victims,” from www.newspaperarchive.com
Wrecksite.eu for specifications and history

Wynn, Kenneth, U-boat Operations of the Second World War, Volume 1 and Volume 2, 1997