SS ALICE F PALMER: Launched: 3-12-1943, sunk 121 days later: 7-10-1943.
There were 25 members of the U.S. Naval Armed Guard (gun crew) onboard, including Cedro Serna, signalman 3rd class from Weed, California. He joined the ship on March 25, 1943 in San Pedro, California.
This is the story of the 22 men in Lifeboat #2 as recorded by:
Charles T. Howland – deck cadet
License has been taken by Raymond Karlsvik to explain technical aspects and include data taken from U.S. Naval Communications. These additions are shown in italics and are not part of the original manuscript.
George Pedersen was captain, Kilton L. Davis-chief mate, Bill Lyons-2nd mate and
Jenkins - 3rd mate, Charles Howland – deck cadet, Bill Cahill - chief engineer, Dick Aujong – 1st Ass’t. Engineer, Bob Conley – engine cadet.
The ship loaded in San Pedro, California and sailed on April 6, 1943 for Sydney Australia, arriving April 30; sailing May 3 for Bombay India, arriving May 31; sailing June7 for Colombo Ceylon, arriving June 11; sailing June 11 for Calcutta India, arriving June 17; sailing June 23 for Colombo Ceylon, arriving June 28th. This is the last date shown on the vessel movement card. From there we headed in water ballast to Durban South Africa to pick up a cargo of some kind, but never made it.
Going across the Indian Ocean to Africa, as we got about half way, we received warnings of Japanese subs in the general vicinity. Actually the Allies were getting ready to invade Sicily in the Mediterranean, a lot of ships and supplies came around through the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal rather than through Gibraltar.
On July 10, 1943 at 3:15 (1515 Hrs.) in the afternoon we had a torpedo hit in #5 hold. The living quarters for the Naval Armed Guard were immediately aft of, and adjacent to hold #5. It broke the back of the ship at that point which put the barrel of the only fair size gun we had in the water along with the three Navy Armed Guard guys that were on watch in the gun tub. The propeller shaft was severed and also the steam lines to the steering engine, which was in the stern. The second mate (Bill Lyons) lowered his lifeboat which was #3, the only motor boat, and went back and picked up the three Navy guys who had gone overboard, then came back to get the rest of his crew.
Boat # and person in charge> Boat #1-Bosn / Boat #2-Chief Mate, Kilton Davis / Boat #3-2nd Mate, Bill Lyons / Boat #4-3rd Mate, Jenkins
I stood the 4x8 watch with the chief mate so was just about to be called for watch. Fortunately I was dressed and when the blast went off looked out the porthole of our cabin and saw the smoke and debris flying. The concussion blew the hatch covers off #5 hatch. The night cook and baker was asleep on a cot next to the after house and under the rear bridge. It blew him up to the steel overhead and on the way blew all his clothes off and then back to the deck. He was pretty disoriented for some time but nothing broke and not really hurt. I went up to the bridge and while I was assigned to the captain’s boat the chief mate told me to go get his boat in the water. I grabbed a leather coat and life jacket and with three of the sailors we put the chief mates boat in the water. All the boats had rope lines to the ship. The ship wasn’t stopped, although it was slowing down so we had to get a rudder in place in the lifeboat so we could come alongside the ship. There were nets released for each boat so the guys could climb down to the boats as they came alongside. There are 2 boats on each side, #1 & #3 on the starboard or right side looking forward from aft, and #2 & #4 on the port side. Whoever ran the boat, in each case but mine, would come in and get part of his load then pull away as the seas came and went so as to smash the boat into the ship.
Right after the torpedo the chief steward, who was in the captain’s boat (#1), was totally out of it. Screaming we’re all going to die and all this. He actually got into his boat before the canvas cover was even opened up and then with maybe half of his boatload he pulled the pin on the gravity davit and the boat went over the side and into the water. Before the boatswain (Bosn) could get the rudder in they added a few more men but the boat swung away from the ship on the sea painter (a sea painter is a long rope led well forward on a vessel, outside of everything. It is to be secured inboard, to the second seat which extends from side to side in the lifeboat, with a toggle or in such manner that it may be cast off easily) and the cook pulled the pin so they were away and no way to get back to pick up the rest of their crew. The third mate was away because he had his whole crew and was on the wrong side of the ship to help.
The captain and gunnery officer and chief engineer all got in the second mates boat (#3), along with two or three of the armed guard guys that should have been in the other boat.
I think the chief mate was the last one off and we wound up with both radio operators, the bosn’s mate and two of the cooks (#2 boat). One of them with no clothes but I had tossed my dirty clothes bag in the boat and so had a couple of other guys so we got him dressed all right. We wound up with 22 men in the 24 Ft. boat which was some crowded, and so was Bill Lyons boat.
About this time the German submarine U-177 ( commanded by Korvettenkapitan Robert Gysae) surfaced about 30 or 40 yards away and we were told to come alongside, which was impossible. We still had to get all the men situated so the boat was on an even keel before trying to get the oars out. At this point the boat with the captain came between the sub and us. The captain stood up with his cap on, obviously the only one with enough rank to have “scrambled eggs” on the visor. One of the subs officers asked him something or told him something in part German, part English that nobody could understand. The sub skipper pushed him aside and in accented but good English questioned our captain. Using the terms and expressions he did he was obviously an old merchant skipper.
He asked where we were from and our captain said Long Beach, obviously a distortion because here was an empty liberty ship several thousand miles away from home that had unloaded someplace. Then he asked where we going and the “old Man” told him Durban (So. Africa), which we were and considering where we were that made sense. Then he asked the name of the ship and the “old Man” said the Edwin B Ogden, which had gone ashore on the east coast of India about two weeks before. Then he asked if we had sent a distress message and the radio operator (in our boat) told the “old man” no as the explosion had caused the antennas to short out. This was repeated to the subs skipper who said he would send one for us, which he did 2 days later in the official British American Merchant Ship (BAMS) code correct for the day of the year. Then lastly he asked the “old man” if everybody was off the ship and he said yes they were.
With that the sub went over where the ship had finally stopped a couple hundred yards away and shelled it with his deck gun. The first shot landed on the edge of #4 hatch and set the oil drums that were on deck afire and that is what you see in the picture. The next shell hit at the water line near the engine room and the third hit in the engine room. With that the ship started down by the stern and bow started to rise up. You could hear the bulkheads give way as that happened and it took maybe ten minutes for the ship to rise straight up. The whole fore part of the ship was straight up. Just as it really started down we could see the edge of the “admiralty hat” - the ring and the stack (the funnel on a liberty ship has a very distinctive ring at the top) for about a minute or two and then down she went. The sub, at this point submerged and was gone, we never saw it again.
Our position was 26-30 S (of the equator) & 44-10 E of longitude 0 (which was also the dateline and lined up with Greenwich England where time starts). Just before dark Bill Lyons’ boat (#3 lifeboat) went by under sail and he said, “lets try to keep together”; to which we agreed, but that was the last we saw of them, and the rest of the boats all scattered too. Which way we never really knew.
On July 13th a British Catalina picked 20 crewmen, including the master and gunnery officer, of #3 boat, in charge of the 2nd mate, about 60 miles southeast of Madagascar.
The Catalina could not get airborne because of the weight, taxied all 60 miles to Madagascar, broke up in the surf but no one was lost.
On July 26th, lifeboat #2, in charge of the chief mate with 11 of the merchant crew and 11 Armed Guard Navy Sailors made landfall at Bazaruto Island, Mozambique.
On July 29th, lifeboat #1, in charge of the Bosn, with 15 men landed near Lourenco Marques.
On July 30th, lifeboat #4, in charge of the 3rd mate, with 22 men landed on the north shore of Madagascar.
All we knew was where we were, about 100 miles south of Madagascar and several hundred miles east of Africa. Kilton had brought a navigation chart of the Indian Ocean along with his sextant and navigation book. There were two different books of tables and data. We used what was called HO 208 (Hydrographic Office), the other was HO 211 but we never thought it was accurate enough so we were all set that way. (It was also necessary to have a Nautical Almanac that showed the celestial position of the sun, moon, planets and stars for an entire year).
He had me take all the sights on the sextant. Noon was very easy because you just waited until the sun hit its peak at noon and that gave you your latitude. Early morning and in the evening we took 3 or 4 star sights, they gave you a line of position which put you someplace on the chart along that line. By guessing at your speed you ran the noon sight until it crossed the line of position and that was your position on the ocean. Longitude is all based on Greenwich time. Kilton had his wristwatch and we knew how to reckon that with Greenwich. The thing is a wristwatch is not as accurate as a ship’s chronometer and will vary from time to time. One minute in time is 15 miles of longitude and if you are not sure which way your watch went (plus or minus from Greenwich time) you could be off quite a ways. As it turned out when we reached land 16 days later we were only off maybe 40 or 50 miles, which is pretty good.
Actually we thought we were farther out than that. The other thing is that a sight with a sextant is the angle between the star or sun and the horizon. Me standing in the bottom of the lifeboat did create a height of eye and sometimes a wave would come along and wipe it out altogether, so there was another kind of guess work. Aboard ship every day at a certain time we got what was called a “time tick” which was the time down to the second, broadcast from Greenwich England. With this we checked our chronometers (there were three usually) to see how they checked with the real Greenwich time. The chronometers were set in a sealed, insulated box with a glass top and were accurate enough that if they were off at all it was small and was the same amount (rate of gain or loss) every day. We wound them by hand at the same time, I don’t remember how often, maybe once a week.
(Chronometers were customarily wound each day at 8: 00 AM, the beginning of the 8x12 watch. It took 7& ¼ turns of the key to wind a chronometer every 24 hours. This would help in keeping the rate of gain or loss constant).
The seas were fairly normal with a 4 to 8 foot swell and almost no wind so we spent the night and then the next morning took stock. We had two waterproof metal tanks full of water. One metal tank with emergency food supplies, which consisted of 2 kinds of malted milk pills, Horlicks, which were good, and Beach Nut, which wouldn’t dissolve in anything and made you thirsty. There were cans of pemmican which had some coconut in it and was good. These were about the size of our small cat food cans and then there were some kind of small crackers, which were good. Then four large steel tanks that were filled with air in case we got full of water in the boat it would give some buoyancy until we got bailed out. We set the mast and hoisted the two sails, mainsail and jib. At first we thought we should stay not too far away in case somebody came looking for us. This lasted a couple of days and Kilton decided we should head for Madagascar. This didn’t work and we made very little progress because the current around Madagascar all flowed south and we were trying to go north. About the fourth or fifth day a storm came up and it was a dandy. The first day we made it alright, but on the second day it was too strong, about a force 10 gale which is about 50 miles an hour and waves that were 15 to 20 feet high (The Beaufort Wind Scale describes force 10 wind as a whole gale with high. waves and long overhanging crests and large foam patches. Miles per hour statute: 55-63, Miles per hour nautical: 48-55.)
Before dark we put out a sea anchor, (a sea anchor is a cone-shaped canvas bag used as a drag to keep the boat’s head to the wind and sea and to prevent rapid drifting. When held by the drag line, with trip line slack, it is wide open and drags through the water with considerable resistance) took the mainsail down and tightened the jib so we would stay straight into the seas. We covered most of the boat with the canvas cover, which was folded up and seemed to be making out OK. Along in the middle of the night I had my head on the rope to the sea anchor and it suddenly went slack which meant it broke. Then all hell broke loose, we had to get the rudder in and Kilton and Dale were right there, but trying to get the rudder pintles into the little holes (gudgeons, two brackets with holes on the stern of the lifeboat where the rudder is mounted) with the waves was a real problem. They finally got it done and we were able to more or less control direction.
If we had ever broached to it would have been all over. The boat would have capsized and that would have been that. I was watching them try to get the rudder mounted of course, but all of a sudden the moon came out, the wind slacked off, and it seemed as if we were in an area where the waves all came together and formed a sort of calm spot (eye of the storm). Practically all the guys were praying to themselves and I will always believe God was watching over us and gave us a little time to get organized. This lasted maybe 10 minutes, which was enough.
The next day the storm subsided but we still had seas from 2 directions to contend with. Dale and I took 6 hours on and 6 off on the rudder the whole time. I had grown up sailing at Balboa and Catalina so knew what to do. Dale had a little experience and I helped him so as it turned out we got along fine. When the storm calmed down some we found ourselves up between the coast of Africa and Madagascar and Kilton thought we had better try for Africa, which we did, fortunately, and about 8 or 9 days later we made it.
During the whole time we rationed the food out for 25 days and the water for 30 and if we were out more than that some of us wouldn’t be there anyway. When we landed in 16 days one of the cooks had real bad immersion feet, which was caused, by salt water and exposure, he was a big tall guy too. Dick Aujong, the first Ass’t. Engineer who was half white and half Hawaiian almost starved to death, another three or four days and he would not have made it. During the last three or four days another guy and I each gave him an extra shot of our water which helped. During the whole time we each had 6 measures of water in the morning and 8 at night, so we all were pretty dehydrated; also 6 malted milk pills and one fourth of a can of pemmican once a day along with a couple of crackers.
Everybody was dehydrated and it was a good thing we got ashore when we did. The day after we landed and after a big meal the first night, and breakfast, fully clothed with a heavy leather navy coat on I weighed 102.
Dale and I stood the rudder watches as I said and we apportioned lookout duty among the various guys with two on watch at a time, one on each side. Just after the storm was over one afternoon one of the Armed Guard guys extended his arm and said “look at that big black bird out yonder, he ain’t even flapping his wings”. It was a British Catalina flying low and not too far away. We fired two or three flares but we were in the afternoon sun line on the water and it was too late, the plane never did see them. During this trip we sometimes had a lantern on at night and flying fish would fly into the boat toward the lantern. We caught them and one of the cooks would clean and cut them up and we ate it raw. It wasn’t too bad and everything tasted good. Also we had fishing gear onboard but no luck because no bait.
Then one afternoon one of the guys found a flying fish head and put it on for bait. A little later he caught a fish, a dolphin about three feet long and I don’t have a clue what he weighed. Anyway they hauled him in and flopped him down to the bottom of the boat. One of the guys was asleep on the floorboard and the big fish flopped right down on him. As you can imagine there was quite a tussle for a few minutes until somebody cut his throat. Then the cooks cleaned the fish and filleted it. I was on the rudder and the rule had always been the guy on the rudder got first food. So they handed me a piece of fish about the size of your open hand and about ½ inch thick. It was still quivering. I took a bite but it was awful, so tough you could hardly chew it, no taste really. I ate the thing because I knew some of the guys were in bad shape and needed something. But that was it. Part of the guys didn’t do more than take a bite. The cooks had it all cut up and we even tried to dry it out in the sun. Finally after about 3 days we dumped it and that was that.
After about 10 days or so quite a few guys were getting pretty down in the dumps. “We are not going to make it”. If it hadn’t been that Kilton and I showed them the chart each day and how much progress we had made (some days 8 or 10 miles, other days 30 or 40 miles) I don’t know what might have happened. But we managed to keep everybody under some control and not too much talk about giving up. The night of the 15th day, about 10 or 11 o’clock one of the lookouts (Shorty?) said quietly to me, “there is a light loom”. To run the rudder you had to lie down under the handle so you could watch the sails and also keep track of direction by the seas and stars. I sat up and sure enough it was a lighthouse. I don’t remember the alphabet letter; but each lighthouse had a letter assigned to it so a ship would know what it was and where it was on the chart. We didn’t say anything until we got close enough, probably 10 miles, to see more than just the loom of the light over the horizon. We were on course pretty much toward it so we kept going and by daylight there was the land. Actually an island called Bazaruto, (21 degrees-32.0 minutes south. and 35 degrees-29.0 minutes east) just off the coast of Portuguese East Africa, now Mozambique.
When we got to about 1 or 1&1/2 miles offshore there were three whales going up the coast, two together and one off by himself. The two were ahead of us but the last one went underneath the boat, you could see him just a couple of feet under us. When they were cruising along like that, about half asleep, they would go just down for about a quarter mile, and then surface, blow out air and go back down. They were at the same speed all the way but when they went down their tails flipped up out of the water. That could have tipped us over real easy. Anyway, it turned out all right and I don’t know if the one that went under us even knew there was a boat around.
As we approached shore you could not tell how big the surf was on the beach from the seaward side and sometimes waves get bigger as they get close to shore because they are touching land on the bottom. We had all the guys put on life preservers just in case and used an oar off the stern (sweep or steering oar) instead of the rudder to give more force if needed, to keep the boat straight. Again, they had me on the oar. Kilton could have done it but he had been hit with a piece of hatch board when the torpedo hit and while it didn’t break anything he did hurt so that is why he didn’t stand any rudder watches, just “Moe” and me. The guys wanted me on the oar coming in. As luck would have it we hit the beach about 4 feet or so out because we had a big load and not much freeboard. The guys piled out and “Shorty” went up the beach with a rope so the boat wouldn’t get away. I was the last out and by that time they had pulled it up so the bow was on the beach. I got off the bow and like all the rest fell down and had to crawl away. We were all too weak to walk at first. And so ended an open-boat voyage of 16 days and 571.4 nautical miles on a course made good of 301.4 degrees true.
About that time 10 or 12 natives came down on the beach with bows and arrows and spears. One little kid with a knife about half as big as he was. One of the guys said lets go back to sea, which wasn’t possible even if it had been practical. Kilton spoke a little Spanish and so did I, so between us we told them the ship (barque) had been sunk. They got what stuff out of the boat we could use like extra clothes a few guys had and three of us with some of the natives went up to the lighthouse. We would walk a little ways, crawl a little ways and rest. It took us over an hour to get up there; it was probably one quarter of a mile. The lighthouse had a big patio around it with walls about 8 or 10 feet high. We rested before we got to it so we could walk in. As we got to the gate it opened and a big black motioned us in. We weren’t sure what was going to happen but had no choice.
When we got in we really were surprised by the wonderful reception we got from the three or four people that ran the lighthouse. They rounded up all the able people they could find and went down and carried all the rest of the guys up there and what gear we had. While they were gone they had a wireless set and Kilton wrote down the name of the ship, how many guys and what nationality. It was real low key and all it would go would be to Vilancula, the closest town on the beach. From there it was drums to where ever so it took until the next day to get an answer back as the drums were better at night than in the day time. Anyway they rounded up a whole bunch of chickens and put on a real feast, which really was too much. Quite a few of the guys got sick from eating too much. Kilton gave them the boat of course, which they were real pleased with.
Later, at a US Navy hearing they gave us the devil for giving away Gov’t. Property to which we both answered what were we going to do with it.
The next morning they sent a motor launch over from the mainland and took us to Vilancula. Four of the guys went to the infirmary. The cook that had his clothes blown off had pieces of rock ballast from his knees to his shoulder and all between on his back. Because of the salt water none had festered very bad and we had taken out what we could. He was on the table about one hour getting it all out, but in a couple of days was fine. The cook with immersion foot was treated and was OK as long as he didn’t try to walk much for a few days. Dick Aujong was just mostly dehydrated and while he was weak he was only actually down two or three days. Several more guys were treated for dehydration and then all was OK.
They didn’t have a wireless so each evening we would go out to the edge of the village and the drummers would send a message. You could hear about two repeater drums off in the distance when there was no wind and so forth. Then about two hours later the answers would come back. Our Navy in Lourenco Marques was where the messages ended up. They told us they would send a bus up for us to go part way. Anyway after about a week and no bus Kilton decided we better get with it so we took off afoot.
The first day we came to a native village with a big brush wall around it and at night they set up a big brush gate to keep the wild animals out. This was in the so-called Veldt or grass country and there were elephants, lions, gazelle and also common African animals around. We made it to two villages and then the “bus” started. It was a 1929 ford flat bed truck, about a ton, maybe. The next morning we took off. The guys made Kilton and I ride in front of this cabover with the driver. The way he drove we thought we made it in the lifeboat and now we are going to get it. I think he was showing off for the American drivers but it was a little scary because the roads were like the worst ever out on the Devils Garden
We stopped at a ranch at noon as the Portuguese People there had set all this up. They put on a big feed and really gave us the royal welcome. They had their daughter, about 10 or 12 years old, play the piano for us during lunch and it was real nice.
Then we went on to a town on the coast called Inhambane. We had to cross a river about the size of the Sacramento at Red Bluff. They had boats there for us but there was a herd of elephants crossing upstream and they had to make sure they were out of the way before we could start. They had a couple of small motorboats keeping them at the crossing channel but you never know what they might do. African elephants don’t get tame like Indian elephants and this happened quite frequently at this spot on the river. Anyway when we got across they took us to a Catholic Church that had a big dormitory and we stayed the night. Again the people were real good to us.
The next afternoon we got on a small coastwise passenger ship and went down the coast to Lourenco Marques . There a US Navy Lt. who was the naval attaché for the American Embassy met us. He put us up in a hotel and we were given very explicit instructions about what we could do and where we could go. Portugal was neutral in WW2 and people from the warring countries could only stay there for 48 hours or they would be interned. He got us into civilian clothes the next morning and we were there about 4 or 5 days. One day I remember walking down a street and here comes a brand new 1943 Buick Sedan with a High German Officer in the back. He must have been in the German embassy there. I’ll bet you couldn’t buy a new Buick like that in the U.S. and that was where they were made. Anyway, we got on a train one morning and went to Johannesburg, which was in South Africa and then down to Durban, South Africa. In Durban we were re-united with the #1 lifeboat crew that had pulled the pin. There were three hotels full of refugees from ships that had been sunk. We were the 51st in that area in three months. The Navy picked up our Armed Guard Guys and except for Moe, one time, that was the last I ever saw of them.
Cedro reported to the U.S. Naval facility in Durban, South Africa on September 20, 1943; his detached duty completed, went on leave.
Returning from leave on November 20, 1943 Cedro had three more Armed Guard assignments before reporting to Landing Craft School on May 5, 1944. He spent the remainder of the war serving with 7th Amphibious Force in the Southwest Pacific.
Ship sailed from San Pedro on April 6, 1943
Torpedoed on July 10, 1943 in Indian Ocean, crew took to lifeboats
Lifeboat came ashore on Bazaruto Island, Portuguese East Africa on July 26, 1943.
Motor launch to Vilancula July 28th
Left Vilancula August 4th, started walking
Walk to native village and spend night
Walk to second native village
Transported by truck to Inhambane
Transported by small coastal passenger ship to Lourenco Marques
Take train to Johannesburg
Take train to Durban, South Africa-arriving September 20, 1943
Occupants of lifeboat #2:
Merchantmen: Davis-chief mate / Howland-deck cadet / Aujong-1st Asst. engineer /
Kerwin / Scott / Miller / Fallon / Haller / Tenssey / Robertson / Beckett
Navy: Dale / Serna / Rasty / Walden / Williams / Bowman / Ellis / Hartman / Croke / Lisey / Ballack.
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