Beginning in early February 1942, several German submarines operated near the Venezuelan oil field ports and the oil refineries on the Dutch Islands of Aruba and Curacao. Allied shipping suffered dreadfully while attempting to deliver petroleum to Great Britain and the United States.
At the time, I was a member of the 40th Bomb Group that flew old B-18 type aircraft on antisubmarine patrol from Borinquen Field, Puerto Rico. In mid-February, we transferred four planes to Curacao Island to help protect Allied tankers sailing in that area. We did not fare well. B-18 aircraft were slow and not equipped with radar. Worst of all, we had no experience in antisubmarine warfare to use against the German U-boat fleet. In less than three months, we witnessed dozens of tanker losses, yet we did not confirm the sinking of even one submarine. Daring U-boat Captains surfaced their boats at night close to shore, and shelled our airfields and the oil refineries. Thus, the German navy was scoring victories day and night, at sea, and on the land.
In May 1942, our 40th Bomb Group received orders to turn its planes over to a sister group at Borinquen Field, and to prepare for transfer to an unannounced destination. On June 4, 1942, we boarded a converted cruise ship named Algonquin anchored in the San Juan Harbor, Puerto Rico. Our escort ships, consisting of two Canadian corvettes and two ancient U.S. destroyers, were clustered near the Algonquin. We hoped the escort vessels had experienced crews.
Three freighters were standing by to join the convoy. Only minutes after the last man was aboard the Algonquin, the convoy, now consisting of eight vessels, sailed out of San Juan Harbor. Having keen memories of our recent encounters with U-boats, my Navigator and I put on our life vests and went topside to find our assigned lifeboat. Soon after clearing the San Juan channel, the convoy steered due east. We speculated that our destination was Africa, or maybe India. After we had cleared the northeast corner of Puerto Rico, the convoy headed southeast and passed south of St. Croix. This course could mean trouble since it led to Trinidad through dangerous waters.
After three anxious days and sleepless nights, the convoy dropped their anchors in the huge harbor at Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. Although we were surrounded by our escort vessels, we slept very little that night. We kept thinking of the sensational raid by a U-boat that sunk several British tankers in this harbor in the previous month. Our mental state was, at best, anxious, since we knew that the Algonquin would be a prime target the submarines would not ignore once we departed Trinidad.
Before dawn on June 8, 1942, our convoy's engines throbbed into life. Led by our four escorts, and trailed by three freighters, the Algonquin headed north into the Caribbean Sea. As before, my Navigator and I watched from the spot we thought would be the safest -- our lifeboat station. Within minutes of clearing Dragon's Mouth (harbor entrance), the convoy turned to a course of due west. Our morale dropped even lower. Our transport was steering for Aruba, Curacao, or Panama, through waters swarming with the same German submarines we tried to sink while flying B-18s on antisubmarine patrol. I thought, "Wouldn't it be ironic if we were sunk by --." I stopped thinking right there. Since it was almost 600 miles to Curacao, and another 900 to Panama, we expected the Algonquin to be attacked by a submarine before we arrived at our destination -- possibly the first night of sailing. We were wrong. It was sooner.
Our convoy had one natural ally that adversely affected the accuracy of a submarine's torpedoes. Strong trade winds were churning the water's surface into huge foam-flecked waves causing a submarine to be unstable at periscope depth. The same rough water tossed our tanker enough to make many of our comrades seasick. The waves also hindered the escort crews, since it was virtually impossible for them to see a periscope in such weather. It was difficult for us to spot the tiny corvettes as they struggled through the giant waves at the head of our convoy.
Both destroyers zigzagged ahead of us, constantly crossing back and forth across our course. The dense smoke from the Algonquin's funnels and the high engine noise meant our ship was running at full speed. Timing the drift of the foam under the ship's rail, we guessed our speed to be 15 to 18 knots. At that speed we could outrun any sub, and would be in danger only if we came upon a surfaced U-boat in our path.
Around noon of the first day at sea, the wind increased and the sea became rougher. Soon, a line of sick airmen formed along the ship's rails. It was not a pretty sight. Our Flight Surgeon, while checking his patients, stopped by the lifeboat to talk to my Navigator and me. We were not sick, but strain showed on our faces, so he tried to comfort us by talking about hunting small game in the States. I talked about shooting quail in Alabama, and my Navigator described a pheasant hunt in the mid-west.
During our conversation, we were standing on a thick sheet of boiler plate that covered the deck. While I was describing how a hunter was often startled by a covey of quail as it exploded from cover, we were startled by a deafening blast from a nearby deck gun that caused our feet to tingle on the vibrating metal plate. We looked in the direction the gun pointed to see a partially surfaced U-boat a few hundred yards behind us. The submarine, painted a gray-brown, mottled camouflage, was trailing in line with the Algonquin, so we must have sailed over it before it surfaced.
A geyser of water sprayed up far beyond the submarine. The gun crew quickly loaded and fired another round. Another geyser erupted beyond the target. Evidently, the submarine was so close that the gun's barrel could not be depressed far enough to score a hit. As a third round was being loaded, a destroyer knifed its way behind our ship while belching dense, black smoke and pouring 40 millimeter rounds at the crash diving submarine. We watched as the destroyer passed over the spot where the enemy disappeared and dropped four depth charges. Towering domes of water surged aloft. We spent a few anxious moments wondering if torpedoes were headed our way. If we abandoned ship, could we survive in a small lifeboat in such an angry sea? Fortunately, we were spared the opportunity to find the answer.
The destroyer turned around and circled looking for debris or an oil slick while we continued to sail away from the area. An ESSO tanker, the Franklin Lane, was sunk with its crew of five less than 100 miles ahead of us at almost the same time the U-boat surfaced in the middle of our convoy.
We arrived safely in Panama without another alarming incident. During the nine days at sea, my Navigator and I spent most of the time on deck, very close to our assigned lifeboat. Our convoy was the first one to cross the Caribbean Sea without losing a ship since U-boat attacks began six months earlier. The rusty Algonquin sailed a charmed life during the few worrisome days we camped on her deck. No one was more grateful than my Navigator and I as we watched the submarine net close behind the convoy in the harbor at Colon, Panama. We had sailed upon an angry sea across 2,000 miles of an extremely dangerous U-boat hunting ground, to drop anchor in a safe harbor.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *