THE ESSO BOLIVAR
On March 10, 1942, our B-18 aircrew received orders to cancel our scheduled patrol flight. Our new assignment was to fly Admiral Jesse Oldendorf from Curacao Island to the Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba. We departed Hato Field, Curacao, at dawn for the four-hour flight. After take off, the Admiral informed us that a German submarine attacked the Esso Bolivar, a Standard Oil tanker, 30 miles south of Guantanamo. The huge tanker was empty at the time, and was en route to Aruba Island to transfer a load of aviation fuel to the States. Despite the loss of the Captain and seven crew members, the remainder of the crew sailed the badly damaged tanker to a safe haven in Guantanamo Bay. The Admiral planned to put Navy inspectors aboard the vessel to determine whether it should be salvaged or repaired.
We parked our plane on the Naval airport within sight of the tanker. It was an incredible sight. It resembled a huge metal slab of Swiss cheese. We could see several dozen shell holes from the waterline to the bridge. In some places you could look completely through the ship from hole to hole. Near the center of the ship, at the waterline, a gaping torpedo hole had almost cut the ship in half. Heavy smoke billowing from the ship's midsection, and shreds of paint on its exterior, clearly showed that fire had come close to destroying the 15,000-ton tanker.
The survey crew examined the ship and made their report that evening. They found more than 100 hits by 88mm shells, and massive damage caused by a single torpedo and the fire that followed. They recommended temporary repairs be made at Guantanamo and permanent repairs be made at a U.S. shipyard. It was the opinion of the inspectors that the submarine crew first tried to sink the tanker with shells. When that proved to be futile, it fired its one remaining torpedo. Shelling began about 0230 hours, March 3, 1942, in bright moonlight, and continued until the torpedo exploded just before dawn. The tanker crew never saw the submarine after the torpedo impact.
In January 1942, when Hitler unleashed his submarines on ships in the Caribbean Sea, the military services in the area were not prepared to successfully oppose the submarine crews. The Naval base at Guantanamo was at a very low state of readiness. In March 1942, it had a couple subchasers, a few minesweepers, one seaplane, one WWI destroyer, and several thousand military personnel. Apparently, the Navy Commander wanted to protect his fleet, because he dispatched only one minesweeper to Bolivar's rescue, and that was long after sunrise. The first airplane to reach the tanker was a private charter flight carrying a couple of news reporters who happened to have flown to Guantanamo from Havana the night before. One wonders why the submarine did not attack the minesweeper. Perhaps it had exhausted its munitions, then departed the area.
This incident clearly underscores the sad state of readiness of the U.S. Forces in the Caribbean Sea, and in the South Atlantic Ocean in 1942. Naval bases were poorly equipped, and their personnel poorly trained for submarine warfare. Until late May 1942, every Allied ship sailed alone while moving supplies through these dangerous waters. For the first six months of World War II, it appeared that the Allied naval effort in the Caribbean Theater followed a pattern of self-destruction.
The Army Air Corps, to which our B-18s were assigned, was just as ill-prepared for submarine patrol duty. We had only 12 outmoded bombers. They were too slow to be effective, and since they were not fitted with radar, we had to rely on a naked eye and binocular method of locating a submarine. Aircrews of the 40th Bomb Group who flew B-18 type aircraft on antisubmarine patrol, did not claim that we were winning the war in the Caribbean Theater. They knew veteran German crews and their submarines controlled the seas.
Eventually, the War Department directed a naval convoy system similar to that used by the British in the North Atlantic, be used in our theater. This system was adopted in June 1942, and had an immediate, positive effect. 40th Bomb Group personnel were the first to benefit from the convoy system when they moved by ship from Puerto Rico to Panama in June 1942. Their convoy was the first to cross the Caribbean Sea in World War II without a loss to German submarines.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *