- Contributed by
- Norman Date
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 01 November 2003
I joined the tanker Empire Mica as an able seaman at Avonmouth on the 19th May, 1942 when she was preparing for her second voyage. What a difference to the tramps we had sailed in, she even had air-conditioning in the cabins and we all said that barring accidents, we would stay with her. The crew were mainly from the Bristol and Falmouth Pools and I recollect that the Bristol lads were, Dougie Chard, the carpenter who was also an old shipmate and great chum of mine, Tommy Damsell, fireman, from Totterdown, Dougie Elvidge, an ordinary seaman from Shirehampton, Arthur Hudd, pantry boy, Henry Oxenham, who was well known by Bristol seamen and whose nickname was “Pudding”, Tony Smith, assistant steward , from Nailsea and the second mate, P Sydney who hailed from Knowle: these are the shipmates that I remember, so apologies to any that are omitted. We had an uneventful passage in convoy across the North Atlantic , passing through the Cape Cod Canal and finally reaching Key West where the ships dispersed. Before this the convoy had sailed in line ahead down the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn on a Sunday morning and it seemed that the whole population were lining the river bank and cheering us through. After leaving Key West we had orders to sail in daylight and hide up in some convenient anchorage for the night. This way we reached Baytown, Texas, where we loaded about 12,000 tons of clean oil, the same sailing rules applied on the return trip to Key West. This plan was working well until we reached Port St Joe , Florida, where the pilot advised us that there was insufficient deep water to enter so Captain Benson decided to carry on with the voyage.
It was a beautiful clear night with a full moon when at 1am on the 29th June 1942, I went to the wheel-house to relieve Harry Hale from Falmouth, who was my watch-mate and it was half a minute later that there was a terrific explosion as we were torpedoed and the ship immediately caught fire, Harry Hale must have been walking along the catwalk and looking forward to his break when the torpedo struck and he was killed. The whole of the after part of the ship was ablaze and the fire was beginning to creep towards the port side of the midship housing when, under the direction of the second mate, Mr P Sydney we were able to alert some of the engineers who escaped from their cabins, for a few minutes chaos reigned and then we attempted to release the starboard bridge life-boat, but the straps holding the boat to the boom were jammed and Mr McGilraith tried to cut them free only to have the boat lurch and throw the first mate into the sea, where he drowned.
The boat was lowered but now the forward falls jammed, so using all my strength I managed to pull the hook which held the falls clean out of the thwart, allowing the boat to be lowered on an even keel, although to this day I do not know where I got the strength from. We picked up survivors from the bridge boat deck and then pulled the boat forwards by the painter and took on board the three radio officers and two deckhands who were injured. For the gallantry and leadership he displayed in rescuing the engineers from their cabins and organising the launching of the life-boat, Mr Sydney, the second mate was awarded the M.B.E. In all this chaos we later found that the chartroom table had been smashed and had broken Captain Bensons nose. The boat was rowed towards the stern of the ship, but although we could see our shipmates struggling the fire was so intense that we were unable to rescue them although one man “Lofty” Norton had climbed to the highest point on the stern and from there had dived over the flames to be taken aboard the boat.
The time was now approximately 3am and we decided to pull for the shore and at daybreak a motor yacht owned and steered by a Mr Heisler found us and towed us into the small port of Appalachicola where the inhabitants could not have been kinder to us, kitting us out and taking us into their homes Sadly thirty-three of our shipmates were lost and of the fourteen survivors, seven had broken limbs, six were walking wounded and the only one who did not get a scratch was me.
After spending a glorious week in Appalachicola we were packed into police cars and taken to Jacksonville and from there by train to New York where the south side of the city was bursting at the seams with allied seamen from ships which had been sunk, many of whom were waiting to crew ships then being built in the United States. Whilst in New York I met a Mr Burnett of Bristol who had been torpedoed in the ship SS Ardenvohr, I also have fond memories of the dances organised by Mrs Hill of the Bristol City Line Company, whose husband was a Ministry of War Transport representative.
Its worth pointing out that in common with all British merchant seamen whose ships were lost my discharge book was stamped “At Sea” and my wages ceased from that time, so all of us did odd jobs for pocket money. After a few weeks I joined the ship President Franqui and reached Swansea safely continuing home to Totterdown, Bristol on survivors leave. Would you believe it that this ship was sunk on her very next voyage as I found out when I met her master in Antwerp during the final days of the war.
Dougies ship Empire Mica was sunk during the 1942 U-boat campaign described by the U-boat commanders as the “Second Happy Time”. This campaign, which was code named by the Germans “Paukenschlag”, (Operation Drumroll) was waged off the eastern seaboard of the United States and also later included the Caribbean and was aimed mainly at allied tankers. The Americans were extremely short of suitable escorts and took time to re-learn the lessons that convoy operation was the best method of protecting allied merchant ships.
On the 6th May 1942 the Gulf of Mexico was declared a danger zone where no ship should sail unescorted but regrettably only two destroyers, a few smaller craft and a score of aircraft were available to provide cover and although the number of U-boats operating in the Gulf never rose above six, forty-one allied ships were sunk, over half of them being tankers.
From: Norman Date / Hon Secretary/ Merchant Navy Association Bristol UK
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