A maddening forty-six days on a raft, during which one companion died of exposure and the other fell into the sea and drowned, was experienced by Michael Wajda, electrician of the T.C. McCobb, after an enemy submarine attacked the ves-sel by gunfire and sank her with torpedoes on March 31, 1942. The Esso tanker, voyaging alone and unarmed, was about 400 miles off the coast of French Guiana, South America, when the U-boat fired from astern and gave chase.
When the submarine's superior speed made escape hopeless, the T.C. McCobb was stopped, a white flag hoisted, and the order given to abandon ship. Perhaps the sheet raised as a surrender signal was not seen immediately by the submarine commander. In any event, the shellfire did not cease until the lifeboats were in the water. While the boats were being lowe-red. Electrician Wajda was wounded on the head and ankle and tumbled overboard.
He remembered nothing until he was revived on one of the tanker's life rafts by Second Assistant Engineer Mahlon R. Benton and Third Assistant Engineer Lindgren Bancroft - neither of whom survived the ordeal of the ensuing seven weeks.
The three men were reported missing and considered lost; their raft was not located by the lifeboats nor was it sighted by any passing ship or plane.
Michael's mother gave up all hope that he was alive. She had been wearing mourning for a month when, on May 20, fifty days after the sinking of the T.C. McCobb, her son told his story to the Associated Press in a hospital at Georgetown, British Guiana. On May 21 the dispatch relating the interview was printed in newspapers throughout the United States. In the New York Herald Tribune the story appeared under the heading "Sea Gives Back Sailor Son to Jersey Mother".
Reporting that Wajda was safe ashore, the news article said that "His mother would not have recognized 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."
The Herald Tribune's account of Michael Wajda's epic adventure is continued in subsequent pages of this chapter.
The T.C. McCobb was attacked and sunk while returning from Buenos Aires, Argentina, in ballast, bound for Caripito, Vene-zuela. She was commanded by Captain Robert W. Overbeck and her engine-room was in charge of Chief Engineer George 0. Speth. The vessel was manned by 39 officers and men, of whom 35 reached shore alive. Besides the two crew members who succumbed weeks afterward on Wajda's raft, two other men were missing when a count was made of the survivors in the lifeboats.
Tried to Outrun Sub
As Captain Overbeck stated in his report:
"On March 31, 1942, at approximately 4:15 p.m., in Latitude 7° 10' North, Longitude 45°20' West, a submarine commenced shelling the T.C. McCobb from astern. Our vessel was following the track outlined in the secret sailing instructions issued by the British authorities at Buenos Aires. We immediately sent out an SOS and communicated with the Admiralty station at Demerara and a Brazilian station at Salinas.
"The submarine had fired about 18 shells without hitting the ship when it ceased firing and endeavored to catch up with us. I was expecting bombers or other planes to come out and for that reason had ordered our speed increased to maximum in an effort to keep ahead of the submarine. By 5:45, however, the U-boat had gained on us and was soon shelling again. After a few misses, every shot fired was a direct hit. I realized that the situation was hopeless, stopped the vessel, and gave orders to abandon ship."
Chief Engineer Speth described the initial attack and the action he took.
"About 4:20 p.m.," he reported, "on March 31, 1942, I was in my room talking with Second Assistant Engineer Benton, when I heard a muffled noise like a tarpaulin falling just outside my room. I went out and heard a louder report, which I thought was probably a backfire in the galley stove. I was on my way to investigate when I distinguished a shell, fired from a distance, which landed about a quarter of a mile astern, on the starboard hand. When I realized we were being attacked by an enemy submarine I instructed First Assistant Engineer Charles E. Swedburg to speed the engine and give her all she had. I then called the captain on the phone; he asked me if I had ordered the engine opened and I told him I had.
"Mr. Benton preceded me to the engineroom and Third Assistant Bancroft arrived a short time later. We changed to largesi-ze burner tips and forced the boilers to their utmost. The captain telephoned and asked if I could move her up any more. When I replied that she was opened up as much as possible, he said 'The submarine is gaining on us.'
"Ballast was run out of the tanks, allowing a speed of about 12i/2 knots. At that time we had stopped zigzagging and were steering directly into "the setting sun to confuse the aim of the U-boat, which had fired approximately 18 to 20 shells without hitting us, Then the gunfire ceased until the sun had set on .the horizon. Meanwhile, the submarine was overhauling us. At 5:40 p.m. the U-boat, apparently a mile off our stern, started firing again and got our range. From then on, to my knowledge, every shell hit. I was still in the engineroom, but realized that the T. C. McCobb had been struck at least ten times.
"At 6:15 the captain rang 'Stop' on the engine-room telegraph. I immediately ordered the engine full astern to take the head-way off the vessel. We stopped the fuel oil pumps and extinguished the fires in the furnaces. Everything was secured. Mr. Benton and I screwed down the easing gear to release the pressure on the boilers. Mr. Swedburg and I were the last to leave the after part of the ship to get into our lifeboat."
In the Boats
Turning back to Captain Overbeck's account:
"There was a moderate to fresh northeast breeze and the sea was moderately rough. W^hen the lifeboats were lowered, No. 1 boat was dropped when near the water. I went to No. 2 lifeboat and after seeing that everybody was off the T.C. McCobb I entered the boat. It had been pierced by shrapnel, which I did not know at the time, as darkness was. setting in. It took con-siderable time to plug the holes effectively.
"Mr. William N. Sims, the second mate, got away in No. 3 boat. Mr. Benton, second assistant engineer, according to reports, was wounded by shrapnel or the flying steel fragments of a shell that struck the chief engineer's quarters. When the electri-cian,, Michael Wajda, was sliding down a painter, he was seen to be bleeding around the head and had evidently also been hit. He let go of the painter and was afterward seen on a raft with Mr. Bancroft, third assistant engineer. The chief engineer and several other members of the crew said they saw a man on one of the other rafts, probably either Alpheus Pub-licover, oiler, or Andrew A. Jarman, ordinary seaman,. they being the only two men not accounted for.
"After the submarine saw us abandon the vessel, she ceased firing.
"When my boat was about a ship's length away she began to sink, due to the above mentioned shrapnel holes. Second Mate Sims came alongside and we moved five men to his No. 3 lifeboat and also made the painter fast. However, the painter bro-ke and we drifted apart. No. 1 boat was partly submerged;
three men were hanging on to it for approximately two hours - Bos'n Edmund R. Wagg, Able Seaman Charles B. Petesch, and Chief Cook Augusto J. Senna. Some of the men in No. 2 boat went over and helped bail out No. 1. We began transfer-ring the men from No. 1 to No. 2 lifeboat, but after we had removed most of the men, the sharks appeared so numerous that we ceased transferring, leaving two men in No. 1 boat. Toward morning we rescued these men.
Fired Four Torpedoes
"Meanwhile, the submarine approached the starboard quarter of the T.C. McCobb and, according to the men in Mr. Sims' boat, fired four torpedoes. The vessel was standing straight out of the water before finally going down. At no time did the sub-marine interfere with our lifeboats. The enemy craft appeared to be one of the largest and latest types."
As Second Mate Sims, in charge of No. 3 boat, reported:
"I went alongside the master's boat and took off five men - Third Mate Franklin C. Zahm, Able Seamen James D. Lawton and Wilson S. Davis, Ordinary Seaman Arthur T. Noland, and Firemen-Water-tender Emilio C. Garcia. I then passed a painter over to the chief mate and tried to tow No. 2 lifeboat out of the danger zone, but the sea was so heavy that the painter broke. I made a circle, came alongside again, and cast him a line, which fell short. We drifted apart.
"The submarine was coming down on us, so I hauled out and she went between the two lifeboats. She was a very large U-boat, dark gray, with two guns, forward and aft of the conning tower. Apparently they were 5-inch guns. In addition the sub-marine mounted an anti-aircraft gun aft. She passed within 200 feet of my boat. There was no one on deck.
"About this time she fired the first torpedo, which left the tube at an oblique angle, changed course at right angles to its origi-nal direction, and scored a direct hit in the starboard quarter. In all, the sub fired four torpedoes, every one of which struck the T.C. McCobb.
"After we got clear we started looking for the rafts and No. 2 boat. As it was now dark and the seas rough, we saw none of them. I decided the best thing to do was to put out my sea anchor and lie to until morning. I told everyone to try to sleep, if possible.
"On April 1, at about 4 a.m., as we were lying to, Able Seaman Wilson S. Davis, who was awake, told me he had sighted something in the water. We all looked and in a few minutes realized it was the enemy submarine. She was steering directly toward us, but when about a mile and a half off she changed course and headed southwest. We kept a lookout froip that time on.
"Shortly after dark on March 31, the T. C. McCobb began to settle stern first into the sea. She came upright with her bow sticking out of the water and stayed in that position for about 30 minutes. We saw a number of small fires aboard the tanker. By 9:15 p.m. we could no longer see her. She had finally slid down under the surface.
"We got under way after daybreak and sailed north, maintaining a good lookout for wreckage or survivors, and cruised a-round until about 11 a.m. We saw nothing. I changed course to 250° true and headed for land.
"We were well provisioned, as Able Seaman Michael J. Donoghue had stowed a crate of oranges and another of apples in the boat before we left. We agreed that during the daytime any one who volunteered could steer and stand lookout. At night I arranged the men in two-hour watches of 3, two men steering and one on lookout. Third Mate Zahm and I alternated, six hours on and six off.
"At 10:30 p.m., April 1, the sail carried away. We unstepped the mast and rerigged our sail. We were making progress but had heavy seas running. At 4 a.m. I lay down for awhile to sleep, but the waves became so rough that the helmsman called me. I got up and decided to run before the seas as long as I could, for we were making good time. The men in my boat were very calm and considerate of each other. Their seamanship was excellent."
Log of Lifeboat Voyage
The following are excerpts from the log kept by Second Mate Sims during the open boat voyage:
"April 2. Everything going smoothly, with northeast trades and moderate to rough sea. Everyone is wet all the time and cold. We are rationing water and food. The morale of my men remains on a very high level. Watches maintained.
"April 3. Strong northeast trade winds, moderate to rough northeast sea. Men still in good spirits. We are making an average of about 4 knots. Watches maintained.
"April 4. Today is our fourth day in the boat. We have plenty of food and water, cigarettes and matches. Everything is going smoothly. There are still fresh N.E. winds and a moderate to rough sea. The weather is cloudy and overcast; a few scattered showers. The men are laughing and joking about our misfortune. All are behaving very well. There is no trouble in my boat. We are about 180 miles off the French Guiana coast. Watches maintained.
"April 5. Easter Sunday. Cloudy weather. We steered by compass most of the night, as it was too cloudy to navigate by the stars and the moon. About 9 a.m. the sun came out and the sky cleared. We spread our blankets to dry and also used them as an awning to protect us from the tropical sun. At 1:30 p.m. Luis Umbao, then on lookout, sighted a 3-masted tanker with guns fore and aft, painted dark gray, about three miles off. We broke out our yellow flag and displayed all available distress signals. Apparently she did not see us, as she kept on going, zigzagging on her course. Within an hour and a half the tanker was out of sight. With her departure went our hopes of hot food, a hot bath, clean clothes, and a good bunk.
"For a time my crew was downhearted, but soon their good nature asserted itself and everyone was cheerful. We are still keeping watches and morale is high.
Match as Navigation Aid
"April 6. There were heavy breakers during the night. I believe we are near the coast of French Guiana, as the water has changed to gray blue. I figured we can perhaps make Trinidad. We still have strong N.E. winds and moderate to rough seas. I try to determine my position at noon by sticking a match up in the thwart until all the shadow is gone.
"We had the last of our fruit today, which leaves us our regular lifeboat rations. We dried our blankets and cleaned up our boat. At noon I decided that we must have missed our point of land in French Guiana and I am afraid to try to make Trinidad. We changed the course to S.W. by S. and headed for Paramaribo. Our food is still sufficient for six more days.
"Everyone is beginning to show the strain of cramped quarters and short rations, but we have plenty of cigarettes. Watches as usual. No complaints on morale of men. Machinist John J. Waksmonski is keeping our pump repaired and it is doing an excellent job of keeping our bilges dry.
"Land" Turns into Clouds
"April 7. Moderate seas and moderate N. E. winds. I figure we are about 90 miles off the coast. The water has changed from blue to green; we are probably inside of the 100-fathom curve. At 12 noon, Fireman-Watertender Emilio C. Garcia, on look-out, thought he sighted land, and it did look something like land, but in a short while it became evident that it was only clouds. We opened our second breaker of water. At 5:30 p.m. the lashing on the sail parted; we hauled it down and repaired it. I changed the course to W.S.W., as the boat handles better with the sea on that point. Watches maintained. Morale is still high.
"April 8. Moderate N. E. breeze and smooth to moderate sea. The water has changed to a milky green. I estimate we are making about 2 knots. At 7:40 a.m. Ordinary Seaman Arthur T. Noland spotted a patrol plane traveling northwest. We dis-played all available distress signals, with the exception of firing rockets. The sea is so much more noticeably green that we must be in shoal water,
"At 10:10 a.m., Waksmonski sighted smoke dead ahead and it proved to be a ship, heading for us, and zigzagging. Able Seaman James D. Lawton took a sounding in 7 fathoms of water at 10:14 a.m. We kept watching the approaching vessel. Our yellow flag was flying above the orange colored sail. I decided that the ship possibly might not see us, so I fired five shots with the signal pistol, at spaced intervals. Within an hour it was evident that the vessel intended to pick us up. We squared away our boat and took down our splash curtain. The ship stopped; we lowered our sail and manned the oars. Then we pulled alongside.
Saved by Greek Ship
"They gave us a painter and lowered the ladder. Two men came down to our lifeboat and helped us aboard. As we reached the deck, all of us experienced the strange feeling of being unable to control our legs. Some men staggered and would have fallen had it not been for the helping hands of our rescuers.
"I went up on the bridge to speak to the master, Commander John W. Bugge, RNR. After congratulating me, he said his ves-sel was the SS Santa Monica, a Greek ship flying the Panamanian flag. We had gone alongside at 11:10 a.m., April 8. He told us to make ourselves at home. 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.
"We could not have been treated with more courtesy and kindness than we received from the officers and men of the Santa Monica.
"Commander Bugge was heading for Trinidad, but he put back into Paramaribo, as we were only 18 miles from the lightship when we were picked up. The Santa Monica anchored near the Surinam River lightship and her chief mate, Mr. Theologos Halious, went aboard and telephoned the authorities in Paramaribo to come out and get us.
"After supper we watched the American patrol planes circle over and waited for the quarantine boat, which arrived at 5:45 p.m. She took our lifeboat in tow and we began the two-hour trip up the river.
"Our journey was over! In 7 days and 16 hours we had covered 630 miles, making an average of 3.4 knots. No one was sick or injured and there were no quarrels or fighting among the boat crew. We still had enough water, chocolate, and hardtack for several days, and about half a pound of raisins."
In the Captain's Boat
Lifeboat No. 2, under the command of Captain Overbeck, with 19 men aboard, set sail for the nearest land, French Guiana. As his report stated:
"On Monday, April 6, at sunset, we sighted land and after dark picked up a flashing light two points on the starboard bow and steered for it. This we later found out to be a light on Devil's Island. We arrived off it shortly before 9 p.m. and burned distress flares. A strong wind was setting inshore and strong currents along the, shore; we were unable to hold the boat there. The next morning, April 7, about 7:30 a.m., an American Army plane flew overhead and circled around. We waved a yellow flag and sat back expecting to see help in the near future. However, nothing appeared that day. Toward evening the wind freshen-ed and it looked as if it would be impossible for us to keep the lifeboat off shore all night, so we decided to beach her on the French Guiana coast.
"We stayed there that night and the next day, April 8, until about 5:30 p.m., when the sea was smooth enough for us to launch the boat again. While ashore we dug a well, obtained additional water, and boiled some to dress the hand of Officers' Messman Roy A. Peacock, which had been injured when caught between the boat and the ship's side.
"The following day we sailed along the coast and as I figured we were approaching Paramaribo and •might run past it in the darkness, we rigged an anchor and lay to all night in shoal water, about two miles off shore. Early the next morning, April 10, we started out again and about 8 a.m., while sailing close to land, spied some fishermen ashore and sailed the boat up on the beach. One of the fishermen, a Belgian, made coffee for us and told us we were about 40 miles from Paramaribo. While we were there another plane flew over the boat at an altitude of 700 feet and we again signaled, but he evidently failed to see us. The Belgian fisherman said he would pilot us into Paramaribo for 50 guilders; I accepted his offer because I was afraid we would pass the mouth of the Surinam River during a heavy squall.
"We arrived off the mouth of the river about 2 p.m. but there were no boats of any description around and we tried to sail up the river. The breeze died down, but we were able to row against the strong current.
"At 6 p.m., about two miles from Fort Amsterdam, a Norwegian vessel, the SS Marpesia, came up astern; we signaled and were taken aboard. Captain Petter Malmstein and h^s crew gave us wonderful treat ment and from Fort Amsterdam sent word to Paramaribo, so that when we arrived there we were met by a member of the American Consulate, U. S. Army am-bulances, and the Dutch authorities. Everyone did his utmost to assist us. We were immediately placed in the Lands Hos-pital and remained there from our arrival on April 10 to April 13, when we went to the local hotel, except Peacock, who stayed in the hospital for treatment of his hand."
Subsequently, hard luck ran hand-in-hand with the members of the T. C. McCobb's crew. Eight were being repatriated aboard the SS Alcoa Puritan when she was torpedoed and sunk on May 6, 1942, in the Gulf of Mexico. These men, Augusto J. Senna, Alexander Macknowski, John D. Donaldson, Joseph M. Kerrigan, Wilson S. Davis, James D. Lawton, Charles B. Petesch, and Genaro Vidallon, were rescued by the Coast Guard vessel Bout-well and taken to New Orleans.
Roy A. Peacock, officers' messman, left Paramaribo on the Royal Dutch Line ship SS Crijnssen. She stopped at George-town, at two ports in Venezuela, and at Curacao. About three days out of Curacao, on the way to New Orleans, she was torpedoed at 6:35 p.m., June 10. Peacock escaped uninjured in a lifeboat.
As Mr. Peacock stated:
"I lost all my belongings when this ship was torpedoed. We floated around in a lifeboat all night and the next morning set sail for shore. About 11 a.m. we sighted two vessels. One of them, the Lebore, of the Ore Steamship Company, picked up the survivors in my boat and the other two lifeboats.
"On June 14, 1942, at 3 a.m., the Lebore, bound for Chile, was torpedoed. I was told by the chief mate that we would have made the Cristobal breakwater by 10 p.m. that night. I got in a lifeboat and helped lower it safely away. We sailed all day and made a little island that evening. We did not land because of our lack of information on the shore line.
"The next morning we went to the beach. The natives said we were near a large island called Columbus and told us how to get there. While we were proceeding under these new directions, a Navy plane sighted us and dropped first-aid supplies; we learned later it had made contact with a base on the island for which we were heading. They sent a motor boat out and tow-ed us in.
"The following day two U. S. warships arrived and 26 other men and I went on board the USS Erie. We were landed at Colon, Canal Zone, at 8 the next morning."
Mr, Peacock's next try was successful. Leaving the Canal Zone on June 22 aboard the Chilean Line's MS Coliapo, he arrived safely at New Orleans on June 29, 1942.
Long after the 19 men in Captain Overbeck's lifeboat and the 15 in Second Mate Sims' boat were ashore, three of the five men reported missing were drifting on their raft, day after day.
To continue the New York Herald Tribune's article relating Electrician Wajda's experience:
"A submarine struck one night in the Atlantic with shellfire, followed by torpedoes to finish off its victim. Shell splinters wound-ed Mr. Wajda and he slipped overboard into the ocean.
"When he regained consciousness the ship had sunk and he was on a life raft with Mahlon R. Benton, of North Carolina, the second engineer, and Lindgren Bancroft, third engineer, of New York, who had pulled him from the water.
"With the immediacy of their danger past, the men took stock. They had a large supply of hardtack and water and some concentrated chocolate, enough to last them many days. Mr. Wajda was weak from his wounds and lay in a near-coma for ten days while his companions watched the horizon for the smoke of a rescue ship and listened for the drone of a patrol plane.
"The raft drifted in the temperate waters of the rain belt and the three men never thirsted. They rigged a sail of two large quarantine flags and managed to direct the drift of their raft.
"The refreshing rain that fell each day raised mold on the hardtack, however, and for ten days Mr. Benton wove a net of twine. The men trolled with it and caught fish, which they ate raw.
"The scales and entrails of the fish, which they threw into the sea, attracted sharks, Mr. Wajda said, explaining: 'They didn't bother us, except that they slapped the raft with their tails, and we were afraid it would overturn.
" 'About the 14th day Benton began growing weak. He couldn't swallow fish or water. On the 24th day he died and we put him overboard, mumbling what prayers we could remember.'
"Each day Mr. Wajda had made a knot in the piece of twine, but two days after Mr. Benton's death he abandoned the calendar of their experience, after tying the 26th knot.
" 'Then Bancroft started to go out of his mind,' Wajda said. 'Twice he tried to jump overboard. I grabbed him just in time. But on the 35th day he tried again. I grabbed him and we rolled around until he finally promised he would not try it again. Just then the raft lurched and we went over. I was too weak to try to save him.'
"Mr. Wajda remembered little of the eleven days after Mr. Bancroft was gone. Once he sighted a ship hull-down, but her course did not come near the raft. On the 45th day he saw muddy streaks in the water.
" 'I almost fainted for joy when I realized it meant that land was near,' he said. 'The next day I was picked up.'
"Physicians who examined Mr. Wajda in Georgetown said that his wounds had healed well. His circulation -was poor for lack of exercise, but his general condition was fairly good."
The SS T.C. McCobb was built in 1936 by the Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company at Kearny, N. J. She was a sistership of the R.P. Resor.
A single-screw vessel of 12,855 deadweight tons capacity on international summer draft of 28 feet, 1 1/4 inches, the T.C. McCobb had an overall length of 445 feet, a length between perpendiculars of 435 feet, a moulded breadth of 66 feet, 6 inch-es, and a depth moulded of 34 feet, 6 inches. Her cargo carrying capacity was 105,025 barrels and her assigned pumping rate was 5,000 barrels an hour.
Her Allis Chalmers cross-compound turbine engine, supplied with steam by two water-tube boilers, developed 3,300 shaft horsepower and gave her a classification certified speed of 12.7 knots.
The T.C. McCobb left Aruba on August 21, 1939, under the command of Captain Robert W. Overbeck, with Chief Engineer George 0. Speth in charge of her engine department, and arrived at Ponta Delgada, Azores Islands, on September 3 - the day war broke out in Europe. She delivered 86,178 barrels of Diesel and gas oils.
Her next ports of call were Las Palmas, on October 20, and Galveston, November 7. From September until the end of the year she transported a total of 349,069 barrels of heating and Diesel oils.
The years 1940 and 1941 found her safely carrying 155,983,716 gallons of heating and crude oils. She visited many of the oil terminals in South American and Caribbean areas.
On January 8, 1942, the T.C. McCobb took on 101,720 barrels of crude oil at Puerto La Cruz for delivery to Aruba. When this cargo was discharged, another load of 78,709 barrels of Argentine fuel oil was taken for Buenos Aires. This port was reach-ed on February 23 and another trip was made to Caripito and back with 80,120 barrels of Argentine fuel oil. After leaving Buenos Aires on March 18, she headed for Caripito but never reached that port.
The wartime transportation record of the T. C. McCobb was in summary as follows:
The T.C. McCobb during the war years was under the command of Captains Chester C. Ballard, Frank F. Hultgren, Gustave A. Ekiund, and Robert W. Overbeck.
In charge of the engineroom for the same period were Chief Engineers Roy A. Anderson, Charles E. Swedburg, and George O. Speth.
Captain Robert W. Overbeck joined the Company as a master on February 13, 1920. On October 3, 1942 he resigned and became a lieutenant commander in the United States Coast Guard.
Chief Engineer George 0. Speth entered the Company's employ as a third assistant engineer on November 9, 1925. On No-vember 5, 1936 he was promoted to chief engineer and assigned to the T. C. McCobb. Chief Engineer Speth lost a home when the McCobb was sunk; he had been regularly assigned as her chief engineer for almost five and a half years.
Lost on the "T.C. McCobb"-March 31, 1942
Survivors of the "T.C. McCobb"