MV Berganger, sunk by U-578/Rehwinkel 2 June 1942 SE of Block Island, 42 men 1 girl rescued various boats

U-Boats New England: Berganger
Source: Bjørn Milde’s postcard collection.
            The Norwegian cargo ship Berganger was ordered in February 1931 for Westfal-Larsen and Company A/S of Bergen, Norway. She was built by the Netherlands Dock and Ship Building Company, or Nederlandsche Dok & Scheepsbouw Mij V o F in Amsterdam and completed in August 1932. Weighing 6,826 gross tons she could carry 9,824 deadweight tons of dry cargo. The steel ship was 456 feet long, 61 feet wide and 31.3 feet deep, and powered by an 8,200 ihp engine which propelled it at an impressive 15.5 knots. On her final voyage the ship was on charter to NotraShips, the Norwegian Shipping and Trade Mission.
            According to the preeminent source on Norwegian ships in WWII, Dame Siri Holm Lawson at, the Berganger spent most of the war shuttling cargoes between the east coast of South America – Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and the US east coast – Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York and Boston, then late in 1941 the ship switched to the west coast, from Vancouver and California to Chile and west coast of South America. By June 1942 she was back on the east coast run and under the command of Norwegian Captain Alm Normann Nymann.
            Berganger is unusual in that there was a girl on board: a young Argentinian saloon girl named Consuela Gonzales. There was also a Danish saloon boy, and an American and British galley boy each. There were 47 persons total on board who included nationals of the USA, Poland, Britain, Denmark, Sweden, and Argentina. At least two of the Norwegians – Johan Vidnes and Olav Brevik, doubled as gunners as well as able bodied seamen.
            Berganger originally loaded 5,320 tons of dry cargo in Buenos Aires and then sailed to Santos, Brazil, where she topped up on 3,623 tons of cargo which included 48,000 bags of coffee, 1,138 liters of sunflower seed oil, animal hides, 1,000 bales of lintners, which are malt extracts of brewing enzymes.
            The voyage northwards to Boston proceeded uneventfully until the night of Monday 1st June 1942, when the German submarine U-213 under Oberlieutnant Amelung von Varendorff sent five torpedoes streaking towards the ship and its unsuspecting crew. Amazingly none of them struck the target and the ship continued along, its officers, gunners and men and girl unaware of how close they had come to being sunk. The next day, however, they were not to be so fortunate.
            At roughly 2:30 pm the following day, Tuesday June 2 the Berganger was struck by a torpedo, this one fired by U-578 under Ernst-August Rehwinkel. The torpedo penetrated the port side ahead of the engine room and cargo hold number three. Either from impact or in the ensuring confusion four engineers were killed: Assistant Engineer Lennart Larsson of Sweden and Norwegians Einar Nilsen, Electrician Arne Bedringsås and Søren Schjelderup, both mechanics.
            Conditions at the time of attack were fairly mild, with a wind of roughly 15 knots from the northeast, good daylight visibility and no other ships on the horizon. For two weeks the ship had been zig zagging on the British plan #30 and there were five lookouts: two on the bridge, another pair at the gun aft, and a fifth in the crow’s nest equipped with binoculars. Seas were moderate as the Berganger headed northwest 283 degrees True at 15 knots, having reached a point roughly 130 miles southeast of Block Island.
            Immediately on being struck an emergency message was broadcast on the radio and the gun readied. The ship’s port motor lifeboat was smashed, she began to list to port, and swung to port as well. The engines stopped and lights went out, and the vessel began to sink. Efforts by Captain Nymann, after he raced from his cabin to the bridge, to bring his vessel back on course were fruitless. He was informed by surviving engine room staff that the engine room spaces were flooded or flooding.
Just two minutes after the torpedo struck, a submarine surfaced 1.5 miles off the amidships of the port side, proving too tempting a target for gunners Vidnes and Bevik, who, under instructions from the master, managed to fire half a dozen rounds from their 4-inch gun aft, with a shot every five seconds. Though it could not be independently verified, subsequent investigations concluded that “it is believed that the second shot hit the aft jumping wire of the submarine which immediately crash-dived.” Holm Lawson’s account, based on Norwegian sources, states that the first two shots missed and the subsequent four shots were at the sea surface after the sub has submerged.
            Though Captain Nymann threw the confidential codes overboard in a weighted bag, he kept the routing instructions with him when he abandoned ship, which was a somewhat chaotic process. The remaining 43 mariners (there was one uncorroborated report of 3 passengers from Santos to Boston – Swedish mechanic Victor Johansson confirmed as much when he stated on 4 June that there were two passengers on board) abandoned ship roughly fifteen minutes after the attack, starting around 2:45 pm. There were three lifeboats, one of which capsized and was bailed out by two mariners who jumped into the sea and swam to it in order to do so. Three life rafts were also launched.
Eighteen minutes after the first torpedo struck, the second plowed into the Berganger, and the impact overturned a lifeboat which had just been launched and flung the 21 occupants into the water. As a result, the men (and possibly the saloon girl) clambered aboard one life raft, though eight of these were subsequently moved to a boat, leaving 13 on the overcrowded raft. Most of the survivors climbed into the starboard amidships and aft port lifeboats, the latter of which was overturned when a torpedo struck the #2 hold. Four men managed to right this boat and whilst the 17 other hung to the side they set about bailing it.
At that awkward time U-578 under Rehwinkel paid the lifeboat a visit to inquire about the tonnage of the ship, destination, cargo, flag, whether an SOS was sent, and so on. The Norwegians answered correctly except as regarded tonnage and SOS. They observed that Rehwinkel, who first asked in German whether anyone spoke that language, had a “movie type” beard. Berganger’s survivors observed the lack of uniforms, and that all the men seemed to wear caps of some sort.
The Allied sailors also noticed a “Ferdinand the Bull” type insignia on the side of the conning tower and that a crew was repairing a jumping wire, used to hold up the radio antennae (they hoped this indicated a hit on the jumping wire by their shells). Indeed U-578 had the Snorting Bull emblem from U-47 in which Gunther Prien penetrated Scapa Flow Scotland earlier in the war. The conning tower also had a dent which was covered by red “lead” paint. The Germans photographed the desperate survivors. Then at about 3 pm the submarine headed off, still surfaced, to the northwest, towards New York.
It turned out the boat which was overturned by the second torpedo explosion was too damaged and was abandoned after the 21 persons had been rescued. The starboard boat deposited some men into the boat which had been overturned and bailed out by two men, so that it would have enough men to row two hours back to the raft and overturned lifeboat and rescue the men there. Ultimately the Berganger sank, 13 men were distributed among three life rafts and tied to a badly damaged lifeboat, and the two useable lifeboats with 31 sailors in them set sail for land.
            Fortuitously, on Thursday the 4th of June all the men in various vessels were rescued, also by various vessels. The most vulnerable group of 13 men in rafts were picked up by USS Madison in league with USS Plunkett. These US Navy destroyers were in a group of ships named Destroyer Squadron Seven proceeding from Boston to Cape Henlopen, Delaware. At 12:55 pm they discovered wreckage from the Berganger and reduced speed from 22 knots. At 1 pm they saw two rafts and a boat with men on them. At 1:33 pm the Madison retrieved 13 men from the rafts, and the Plunkett discovered an empty and overturned lifeboat.
The condition of the men was said to be good. At 2:45 they discovered the empty life boat of the rescued crew mates, with sails and the red and yellow bunting they had been instructed by Captain Nymann to fly. The first officer said the boat was “undoubtedly” from the Berganger. They were taken to Norfolk, where they were landed at 7 pm on Saturday the 6th.
Second Mate Finn Jenssen’s boat with a total of 17 persons in it was rescued by a fellow Norwegian shop, the motor ship Bañaderos on Thursday the 4th of June and landed in New York harbor the following day, Friday the 5th. Their lifeboat must have been the one discovered left empty by USS Madison the same day.
The fishing vessel Mary J. Landry  in New Bedford. Built in 1928 she is believed still fishing today. Source:
Captain Nymann’s lifeboat made it to within only 14 miles of Block Island, Rhode Island before the US fishing vessel Mary J. Landry rescued them on the evening of the 4th. The Landry was built in 1928 of wood in Plymouth, Massachusetts and was 71.5 feet long, 16.5 feet wide and 7.7 feet deep, of 45 gross tons. Her owner was Stephen F. Lozinak of New Bedford. The fishermen took the 13 survivors with them to New Bedford, Massachusetts the following day, Friday the 5th of June. By Monday the 8th of June all the 44 survivors, passengers and saloon girl were reunited in New York, where naval hearings were held.


            The Bañaderos survived the war and was broken up in La Spezia, Italy, in December 1965. U-578 was lost about two months later, on or about the 7th or 8th of August 1942. It left St. Nazaire France for a patrol in the North Atlantic and was posted missing on the 11th, having presumably not made it across the Bay of Biscay before it was sunk by Allied forces, precise fate unknown.