Lifeboats play a big part in the drama and tragedy of merchant mariners in World War II. When the unarmed Esso tanker
T.C. McCobb went down on March 31, 1942, four hundred miles off Brazil's north coast, it set in motion a whole series of
lifeboat tales of luck, death, and everything between.
Just after nightfall, a lookout spotted a dark shape approaching. It was the submarine, heading between boats No. 2 and No. 3. They watched as the sub put four torpedoes into the T.C. McCobb.
"She came upright with her bow sticking out of the water," Sims said later, "and stayed in that position for about 30 minutes.
We saw a number of small fires aboard the tanker. By 9:15 p.m. [she] had finally slid down under the surface."
Good Luck for Lifeboat No. 3
At daybreak -- April Fools' Day -- the boats had drifted apart, and Sims set a course for the nearest land, French Guiana.
They sailed for six days, maintaining discipline and spirit, volunteer crews standing two-hour watches, two men steering and one standing lookout. Second Mate Sims alternated six-hour watches with Third Mate Franklin Zahm.
The sixth day, April 5, was Easter Sunday. Morale was still high in the boat, but it took a dip when an armed tanker came into view a scant three miles away. But despite the lifeboat's yellow distress flag she zig-zagged on and disappeared.
On April 8, changing sea color signaled the approach of land. A patrol plane flew by without seeing them. Then Able Seaman John J. Waksimonski spotted smoke: a ship, headed directly for them.
Hardly able to walk after a week in the boat, the men were helped aboard SS Santa Monica, a Greek ship flying the Panama-nian flag, with a British master, Commander John W. Bugge, RNR. "He told us to make ourselves at home," Sims said later.
"The steward brought rum, and we all had a good stiff shot, drinking a toast of thanksgiving to our benefactors. Then came
hot coffee and fresh cigarettes. Dinner followed.
"The men of the Santa Monica gave up their places so we could eat first. Our first meal in eight days! Beautiful and well pre-pared, it did for us what a good rain does for parched grass."
Three Men on a Raft
The two lifeboats accounted for 34 of the McCobb's crew; five crew were missing and presumed dead.
While Michael Wajda, the ship's electrician, was lowering a lifeboat, a burst of shrapnel caught him on the head and ankle,
knocking him unconscious and hurling him overboard. He came to on a life raft, where he was being revived by Second As-sistant Engineer Mahlon R. Benton and Third Assistant Lindgren Bancroft. For ten days Wajda drifted in and out of a coma.
The two engineers took stock: the raft was well-supplied with water, hardtack, and nourishing concentrated chocolate. It
would last them many days. Benton and Bancroft fashioned a sail from two quarantine flags and managed to control the
direction of their drift to some degree, southwest toward the Guiana coast.
As Wajda began to recover consciousness, the two men fed and nursed him along, and soon he recovered completely.
The raft was drifting in a tropical rain belt and air and water temperatures were congenial. It rained every day; they caught
fresh water and were not restricted to their emergency supply. But the constant rain raised mold on their hardtack, which
soon became inedible.
Benton wove a net from fishing twine, and trolled it behind the drifting raft. They caught fish, and ate them raw. But the heads, scales, and entrails they threw over the side attracted sharks. When their tails slapped against the raft, the men fea-red it might overturn.
On the fourteenth day it was apparent that Benton was becoming ill. He grew steadily weaker, and soon could swallow
neither fish nor water. On the twenty-fourth day, Mahlon Benton died. Bancroft and Wajda "put him overboard," Michael re-called later, "mumbling what prayers we could remember."
Soon after Benton's death, Wajda noticed that Bancroft was acting strangely. He said later, "Twice he tried to jump over-board. I grabbed him just in time. But on the 35th day he tried again. I grabbed him and we rolled around until he finally pro-mised he would not try it again. Just then the raft lurched and he went over. I was too weak to try to save him."
Wajda remembered little after the death of Bancroft. He recalled seeing a ship in the distance. On the 45th day he saw mud-dy streaks in the water.
"I almost fainted for joy when I realized it meant land was near," he told an Associated Press reporter after his rescue.
"The next day I was picked up."
Fifty days after the T.C. McCobb slid down to the bottom Wajda was landed at Georgetown, British Guiana, and taken to the hospital. Physicians who examined him there said his wounds had healed well and that his general condition was fairly good, although his circulation was poor due to lack of exercise.
"Sea Gives Back Sailor Son to Jersey Mother," was the headline in the New York Herald-Tribune on May 21. And that is how Michael Wajda's mother, in nearby New Jersey, learned that the son she had given up for dead had been returned to life. She abandoned the mourning garments she had worn for a month and joyously awaited the return of her son -- whom the news article said she would not recognize in "the red-bearded, sun-blackened young man, gaunt from hunger, who was picked up from a life raft that drifted toward the shore of British Guiana after forty-six days at sea."
When the submarine commander saw the McCobb being abandoned, he drew near to finish her off. He passed between
the lifeboats without a word, then fired four torpedoes almost simultaneously. Second Mate Sims realized he was watching the new "smart torpedoes" in action.
The four left the bow tubes nearly simultaneously, ran straight on a course that would have completely missed the tanker,
then made a 90-degree turn and smashed into the McCobb's starboard quarter.
This behavior made it clear that this sub had already been equipped with Germany's deadly new torpedoes that would run
a pre-programmed course, and were also fitted with an acoustic homing device.
This submarine's entire technique differed from what had come to be expected of a U-boat: a prolonged stern chase with
gunfire on the surface, overtaking and halting the prey, sinking it from the surface with four torpedoes fired nearly simulta-neously; and no effort to interview the master.
The deviation is easily explained: this was an Italian sub, the Pietro Calvi, one of two working in the North Atlantic.
The Calvi's armament was formidable: a quartet of torpedo tubes both fore and aft, machine guns, and two 125-mm (4.7 in.)
deck guns. She carried only 16 torpedoes; thus three more sinkings like that of the McCobb would send her back to her new base in Bordeaux, France, for more torpedoes.
The Pietro Calvi was sunk July 14, 1942 by the British HMS Lulworth.