“Caribbean Sinkings,” by Leon Schneider, LIFE magazine, August 24, 1942

Source: Getty Images, used with permission.

CARIBBEAN SINKINGS

The writer of this article is a 20-year-old member of the National Maritime Union from Brooklyn, N.Y. He had never been to sea before last October. Then, because he had three friends in Pearl Harbor whom he wanted to visit, he got a job as a wiper in the engine room of a Standard Oil tanker outbound for Honolulu. From the very first hour he loved the sea and the sense of adventure it brought. When his first trip was over, he signed on for a second and a third. He joined the union because “it could do something tangible for me.” He arrived in the U.S. on Dec. 7 but immediately shipped out again on an Army transport. He returned to the U.S. and took a month’s vacation. Then he went to the union hiring hall in New York.

by LEON SCHNEIDER

I hung around the hall for a week before a fireman’s job on a freighter came up. I threw my card in and got it, without much competition. The Blank One was old and slow but I was impatient to get off the beach.

We cleared the harbor, our decks loaded with tanks and a half-a-dozen medium bombers. The rumor was that we were headed for Trinidad. We made out pretty well for twelve days. All the ships scattered and we were soon zigzagging through the Caribbean.

It was 7:15 at night, less than a day off shore, when the torpedo hit. I had just come out of the shower and, wearing only a towel, was talking to some shipmates in the messroom. The terrific explosion rocked every plank on the ship. A second later, there was another explosion as the second torpedo hit. All the lights went out and the doors to the messroom slammed shut.

I dashed for the door, the towel dropping away leaving me stark naked. The door was locked and we could hear water pounding along the alley outside. Already the messroom was knee-deep in water. The air smelled of ammonia, smoke and cordite from exploding t orpedoes. Luckily, I got out another door and ran on deck where they were lowering away the No. 1 and 3 lifeboats on the starboard side. The boats to port had been smashed. Still naked, I rushed below to get my life preserver and a pair of pants.

By now the ship was listing badly and slowly sinking. I swung out over hte side, climbed down a rope and into a lifeboat. Less than 30 seconds later the Blank One split in half and sank, nearly swamping our lifeboat.

The skipper, a fine old man who was due to be retired after this trip, could have saved himself but instead went down with his ship. The last we saw of him, just as we pulled away, he was standing on the deck with a life jacket over his shoulders. He said, “Is everything all right, boys?” We said, “Yes, come on, jump.” But he did not answer. Instead he turned slowly and walked away. A second later the ship split in two and we never saw him again.

That night in the lifeboat was cold. I don’t remember much else. Most men, having swallowed too much fuel oil and ammonia, were sick at their stomachs. I remember thinking that we were sure to be picked up and that now I would be a member of the Torpedo Club.

In the morning we saw the other lifeboat and one raft which had managed to stay afloat. We tied all three together and waited. Toward noon, we saw antoher lifeboat with a single dirty sail approaching us. Soon we saw that it was a boat from another one of our freighters, the Blank Two, which had likewise been torpedoed in the night.

About 2 o’clock a dirty gray freighter, the Blank Three, which we recognized as another ship of our original convoy, hove over the horizon. When she came alongside, we gratefully clambered aboard. Just about this time a Navy patrol ship came into view and stood by. Nobody will ever know how glad I was to see the Navy. About 4 we got underway once more with the Navy ship on our starboard quarter. At 6 our escort had to leave.

It was a bright tropical night with a moon and bright silver stars. I wouldn’t go below. Instead I tried to sleep on deck right next to a hatch and a life raft. I was ready for anything.

At 10 I waked suddenly, with somebody saying, “A ship has been torpedoed off our stern.” Over the horizon we could see flames, glowing brightly for a few minutes.

We did not have long to wait. “Wham. . . . Wham” went two torpedoes crashing into the Blank Three. A wave of water swept over the deck, nearly washing me over the side. After waiting two minutes for the ship to lose her way, I lowered the life raft near me. It was the only raft, in addition to two boats, which our ship was to get into the water. Among the three they had to accommodate 110 men. I jumped overboard and soon was hauled into one of these crowded boats.

Not everybody had left the Blank Three. The Navy gun crew stayed aboard and opened fire on the submarine as soon as it showed itself, gray and sleek and big, in the moonlit darkness. For three and a half hours the uneven battle went on, until at last the Blank Three caught on fire and sank.

Next morning at dawn a Navy ship came into view, picked us up and took us into port.

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