Whistles over the Water

 

By

 

George Leonard Hirsch

 

In Memoriam

For Paul S. Hirsch and His Shipmates on the S.S. Hurley

 

 

1

 

The S.S. Patrick J. Hurley took on her complete cargo and crew at Aruba on August 10, 1942, the day my father put aboard with 17 other men of the U.S. Naval Armed Guard    and 44 seamen of the United States Merchant Marine.      

 

She set sail on August 12th. Three days later on August 15th Unterseeboot (U-512), IXC U-boat of the Kriegsmarine, left the Port of Kiel on the southeast coast of the Jutland Peninsula connecting the Baltic Sea and the North Sea, headed for a deadly rendezvous in the southwest Atlantic.

 

The island of Aruba, once part of the Netherlands Antilles, Dutch West Indies, is 69 square miles of flat, riverless terrain. It is northeast of Curaçao, just a few miles northwest of the Paraguaná Peninsula of Venezuela, which puts it in the midst of one of the richest oil fields on earth. Sheltered from the fierce ocean currents that batter the east coast, the Hurley was berthed at the port of Oranjested on the west. There she was loaded with 75,000 barrels of high octane aviation gasoline and 60,000 barrels of #2 diesel oil bound for Avonmouth, England to help stave off the Nazi onslaught.

 

The Hurley was a converted tanker, part of the U.S. Merchant Marine lifeline that provided the troops and supplies without which World War II would have been lost. She was chartered to the War Shipping Administration because there were so few seaworthy ships of the 1,340 Merchant Marine fleet that could be refitted for service in the Atlantic sector.   

 

After six months of outfitting between April and August, the Hurley was deemed ready for her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. The routine “Instructions for Scuttling Merchant Ships” had been issued in March to veteran Captain Carl Stromberg, and the armament installations had been completed and tested in April.

 

These consisted of steel gun foundations, two magazines (one forward, one aft), and splinter protection for the bridge and for the two 50 caliber machine guns mounted fore and aft. There was one 4” 50 caliber gun mounted astern and one 3” 50 caliber at the bow. Each of the larger weapons had a supply of 2,000 rounds and required two men to operate it. Officers of the Bridge were issued two 50 caliber browning automatics.

 

Other precautions included painting the ship a deep grey, darkening facilities on board, and a fire control communication system. There were 4 life boats (10 men per boat), 4 life rafts (18 men per raft), but only 17 life jackets and 23 steel helmets.  

 

 In those early, desperate days of the War, fascism triumphed on every side. German U-boats were in complete command of the seas sinking 33 Allied ships a week, 1,716 ships a year. They ranged with impunity along the Atlantic coast, destroying 70% of Allied shipping in 1942. In Germany it was called “The American Shooting Season”.

 

Merchant Marine casualties were steady and huge; over 9,000 merchant mariners, ordinary men with extraordinary courage from all walks of life, lost their lives, proportionally more than every branch of the service.

 

By June 1942 in the American defense zone, losses were so high and the amount of material and fuel destroyed so great that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill cabled President Roosevelt: “I am most deeply concerned at the immense sinkings of tankers west of the fortieth meridian.”

 

It was into this maelstrom of death at sea feared by every sailor that the S.S. Hurley sailed in her fateful encounter.

 

2

 

My father’s ship embarked on a mild, tropical day with a slight head-wind under a Caribbean blue sky. Hurricanes that generally form between August and November were late that year. The Hurley cruised along the azure coast of the Lesser Antilles, navigated through the idyllic Windward Islands past Granada, Trinidad, Tobago, and turned out into the Atlantic on a prescribed course 68º true at 15 knots making their way through the fabled, notorious Saragossa Sea and over the Mid-Atlantic ridge in the depths below.

 

There was no convoy of ships to bolster morale or secure survivors for the Hurley in the event of disaster. Therefore Captain Stromberg tacked leeward and windward on course, preferring the relative safety of the evasive maneuver to a more direct, faster route that could not in any event outrace a U-boat that glided at 17.5 knots on the surface and propelled 7.5-8 knots under water.

 

On the night of September 12, 1942, the Hurley was running properly blacked out at her top speed of 16 knots in a sea that was generally calm but choppy with alternating light southerly swells. Captain Stromberg chose to point into the wind coming southeast at Force 3 rather than continuing to zigzag, perhaps because the night was so completely dark; perhaps because it was almost impossible even to distinguish the diminishing skyline on the horizon; perhaps because it was a night of watching, listening, and waiting.

 

Men in the bunkers played cards indifferently, not caring about the hand that would be dealt them but knowing very well what hand might be dealt them and that the ante in that game was highest of all; others fretted for their cigarettes while the smoking lamp was out; still others wrote letters home quickly.    

 

Eight lookouts took their stations with binoculars: one aft at the gun, one forward at the gun, two on the upper bridge, two on the after house, two on the flying bridge, the highest 50 feet above the waves. All radio reception and transmission had been shut down, and conversation among the men ordered curtailed or muted.

 

They were now 950 miles northeast of Barbados at 22.59°N and 46.15º west of Churchill’s 40th Meridian. The ship was a silent ark sailing alone on an empty sea. Except for one other.

 

 

 

 

 

3

 

 

Paul S. Hirsch, Seaman 2nd Class, was on watch on the bridge at the 50 caliber machine gun, starboard side, scanning the blackness back and forth, eyes and ears strained for something that lurked out there, shouldn’t be out there this far south, but was.

 

At 2030 hours he saw it--a very faint light 3 to 4 points off the starboard bow! Blackout was gone. He flicked the intercom switch for the lookout at the bow.

 

          “Renfro! Light just off starboard! I guess 100 yards parallel course. The damn thing’s surfaced! You see it?”

 

          “Yes!”

 

They both hit the alarm simultaneously, and at that moment the sub opened fire with two heavy caliber 6” deck guns and armor piercing shells, simultaneously raking the deck with machine gun fire and green tracer shells from a rapid fire 37 mm. gun. Huge shells one after the other slammed into the ship and smashed the cabin amidships. Snapping the radio antenna like a stick, they ruptured the starboard wing’s bunker, exploded the combustion control board, blew the starboard life boats to bits, exploded the engine room at the water line enflaming other tanks that had been shelled, and demolished the forward 3” 50 gun. The splinter shields were just that, splinters!

 

Captain Stromberg immediately called for all available speed and swung hard to port but the U-boat followed his every desperate maneuver and closed in for the kill. Everything was on fire! Burning oil and gasoline from the burst tanks encircled the ship in a wall of flame. The sub circled closer. Machine gun fire and rapid-fire tracers raked the decks fore and aft, mercilessly cutting down men who were on the catwalk running to their stations. Heavy dense smoke made visibility almost impossible.

 

 My father’s gun station at the 3” 50 bow gun was a twisted pile of wreckage. He ran back to the bridge to reach the port side when he found the Executive Officer lying on the deck, his mid-section ripped open and bleeding. He immediately tried to put on a pressure bandage, but realized it was futile.

 

          “Hey, Paul,” the Exec gasped, “it’s no use. I’m gone. Get out of here. Save yourself!” His eyes closed, and his head fell to the side, out of pain at last.  

 

Stunned and sick but determined to get to any gun station, my father got up trying not to slip on the bloody deck, and made it to the hatchway toward the port bow gun where Lt. Patrick J. Walsh was attempting to return fire. My father turned the corner, saw Walsh hit by shrapnel in the throat and almost reached him when an armor piercing shell blasted out the starboard bulkhead obliterating the bridge, the Captain, the crew’s quarters and blew him overboard into the burning water.

 

     “I felt the force of the explosion against my body. The next thing I knew I was spinning and tumbling head over heels in the water. It seemed I was a thousand fathoms down, but my life jacket slowly raised me to the surface where I saw a scene from hell. The heat was intense and the sounds were unreal. Flames danced on the waves slick wit burning oil, the ship was cracking to pieces, men were screaming.

 

I groped through the waves gagging on seawater and trying to keep the flames away when I heard ‘Over here! This way!’ I swam toward the voice, but when they pulled me on to the raft, a stinging, searing pain flashed through my head. ‘You’ve been hit!’ I put my hand to the left side where the blood was pouring profusely from a shrapnel wound and it felt like the peeling of a thick grapefruit; but I was lucky; if that had hit me anywhere else on my body, it would have killed me.”  

 

4

 

While his mates cleansed the wound with sulfur powder and bandaged him, the ghastly light from the burning ship  illumined their determined search for other survivors.

 

          “Hey, over there! Look!”

 

Three men clinging to a capsized lifeboat managed to come along side with another not far behind. The men righted the overturned craft and climbed into both; 23 in one boat, 22 in the other, and each one with room for only ten men. The two boats were drifting from the blazing hulk when they heard the explosions.  

 

“Quiet men! Down!”

 

The sub continued circling from starboard to port like a prowling beast. There was shell fire and more explosions from the ship. They could hear voices from the conning tower and crouched low, not talking, barely breathing, not moving a muscle. They had heard stories of survivors being machine gunned in the water, and also stories to the contrary, but those were rare. Finally the putt-putt-putt of the sub’s engines died off. Drifting away they saw their ship sink stern first. Exhausted lost, hurt and grieved, they slept the sleep of the dead.

 

Dawn came with the flotsam and jetsam of a wreck that was once a ship, a home away from home. The stench of oil and gunpowder was still in their nostrils. The roiled waves lifted them to the top of swells and plunged them down twenty foot walls of water; it was impossible to make headway by using the crowns and troughs of a sound vessel.

 

My father’s wound ached terribly. ‘I can’t stop this whistling in my head!’

 

          ‘That’s not just in your head, Paul,’ the Third Mate said. He was the Navigation Officer, the ranking seaman among them, therefore the Officer of the Day (OD), and they paid attention. ‘Listen men!’

 

Since their lifejackets had been equipped with a

Distress signal flasher and a whistle, even amidst the rough slaps of the white caps they could hear the high- pitched sound of another man alive!

 

Toiling with their burned and bruised hands through the choppy sea, they finally spotted him at the bottom of a swell going under. Somehow they reached him and pulled him aboard. He was as water-logged as his jacket.

 

          ‘Thanks, guys!’ he hawked and wretched and spit out the sea, barely catching his breath. I was in the water all night…sure I was done for…if you hadn’t found me, I was gonna give up and sink.’

 

     The look in our eyes prompted his answer. ‘I didn’t see…anybody else…I don’t think…nobody left but us.’

 

          ‘All right, men,’ the OD said somber but matter-of-fact. ‘Let’s continue searching for survivors, and then we must decide how to best help ourselves. We must move quickly before nightfall.’  

 

     Their efforts, however, were in vain. The sea is a harsh mistress and does not readily yield up her victims.

 

“At first we thought it would be a good idea to tie the boats together, but it wasn’t long before we realized that it was a bad idea because of the turbulent sea we were in. If we didn’t cut that line, one or both of the lifeboats would capsize. We couldn’t risk it.         

 

Reluctantly the line was cut, and we waived each other   farewell with good wishes. They were out of sight within 15 minutes in the swift current, and were fortunate to have been picked up 7 days later by the S.S. Etna, a Swedish freighter out of New York. We were left to the mercy of the elements and the immense and open sea of the deep ocean.”

 

 

5

 

The situation in the remaining boat was precarious for the other 23 men. They had to ration their provisions (26 ounces of water per day, pemmican, hardtack, and malted milk tablets), they had to care for their personal hygiene and the boat’s, and they had two wounded men, my father and the Chief Engineer.

 

 My father was able to cleanse his wound with seawater, but the CE was in bad shape. A machine gun bullet had severed an artery in his right ankle.

 

 “Although our Signalman and Corpsman, Tillinghast, applied pressure bandages, these only exacerbated his terrible agony. When he struggled against it and kicked off the wraps, the blood shot out like water from a burst garden hose.

 

This he did several times and caused him to lose a great deal of blood. Each time Tillie opened the wound to apply a new bandage the bilges were filled wit blood.    Since hygiene was critical, we immediately flooded the bilges with sea water and pumped out the bloody water using a hand pump.

 

The moment the blood hit the sea we were surrounded by sharks. These guys came in all sizes and shapes from 6’ to 12’ or 16’; and what looked like huge killers of 18 feet, and they seemed almost as wide.

  

Several times the biggest creatures would nudge the boat, causing us to fear they might swim underneath and upend it. We had nothing to drive them away, and even if we had used a gun a wounded shark in the water would send them into a feeding frenzy that would surely capsize us”.

 

‘Okay,’ the OD gave the order. ‘No one moves

without saying so first, got it? One false step and we’ll all land in the drink with these man-eaters.’

 

Whenever a man became muscle cramped and needed to move, everyone had to move, one after the other; 46 legs crossed over and under each other in a space designed for 10.

 

The OD also called to their attention that if the enemy found them, they would become prisoners of war.

 

‘If the enemy finds us, we’ll become prisoners of

war. You may refuse to be taken prisoner,’ he said with a straight face, ‘and stay in the lifeboat; but then, you won’t have any choice in the matter.’

 

6

 

     By the third day the waters became calm enough to hoist a sail. There were two in the boat; yellow meant quarantine, red was ‘The Pink Lady’—‘survivors in need of rescue’. There was a steady wind blowing, and the OD seta course due west with the hope of reaching the free islands of the Lesser Antilles.

 

     They made good progress at first doing as much as 10-12 knots on a white-capped sea, but on the 12th day they awoke to a morning without a breeze and without a sound from the ocean around them. They had reached the dreaded Horse Latitudes where subsiding dry air and high pressure literally evaporate the winds.

 

          ‘We’re in the doldrums,’ the OD said grimly.

 

The sails hung slack. The ocean was a sheet of glass without a ripple on the surface except the slow interminable slicing of the sharks’ fins; no sound, no movement, no sight of plane or boat. The days dragged on as hopeless as the sameness of sea, and the rations decreased with each bite and every sip. The sun burned hotter and scorched them without relief. Water was rationed only at night to avoid dehydration.

 

“The Chief Engineer lay very still, not even rubbing his left foot against his bandaged right ankle. We fashioned a makeshift canopy from the sail that shaded him from the sun, but the unrelenting rays penetrated right through.”

 

‘Why is it so dark? Why is it so dark?’ he

moaned.

 

Thinking that he might be going blind, they persuaded him to keep a bandage around his eyes, and took turns applying a wet cloth over his eyes. He didn’t protest at all. They saw that he had no hope; he was past it, he was just going to die, and it was then that they began to pray, for him and for themselves because now they had no way of guiding their boat. They had reached the end of the world where the ancient mariners believed that one falls off into endless space.

 

The one thing they couldn’t afford to lose was hope. They had kept their civility, their self-respect, their courage; they had shared their rations, and their hope. What doubts they had, what despair they felt; no one spoke.

 

“I don’t think we stopped praying since we were hit.

One man declared he was an atheist, would not join us in prayer. There was a mutual respect among us regarding this, too. He went to the other end of the boat and rejoined us after we finished praying.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

7

 

That was all they had left until they were awakened by gunfire on the 21st day! Some thought that they were dreaming, but the ship coming toward them was the British freighter H.M.S. Loch Dee.

 

     “She was a rusty old tub,” my father said, “but the most beautiful ship we ever saw! Captain White, who by our great good fortune was also an M.D., told us that our Chief Engineer would not have lasted another day.

 

     When we asked about the gunfire he replied in a bristling Scottish brogue:

 

          ‘We didna hold with any sharks comin’ round ye in the rescue at all!’”

 

     The last survivors of the S.S. Hurley were taken to hospital in South Carolina, where they recovered and received Purple Heart medals for their bravery and fortitude.

 

     Those men who did not survive in their courage and stout hearts are still remembered.

 

“There were 23 of us in the boat,” remembers George Goldman of Jersey City. “We looked for survivors, but the sea was too rough. You could hear whistles that were attached to their lifejackets, long, high plaintive notes. We lost our Captain, Our Executive Officer 13 crew members and four Navy gunners. I can still hear those whistles blowing over the water.”