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CHAPTER 3 • • • FIRE DOWN BELOW
At twenty-eight, Lieutenant Reinhard Hardegen, a German U-boat captain, was a loose cannon. He carried unchecked ambition and relentless intensity along with his war wounds–a short leg and bleeding stomach– from the aviation crash that had ended his previous career as a naval pilot. He had concealed the injuries in order to qualify for command of U-123, and had begun an impatient rampage of sinkings with the neutral Portuguese freighter Ganda.The 4,300-ton ship didn’t go down after two torpedo hits, so Hardegen surfaced U-123 and sank her with its four-inch gun. When the attack became an international incident, Admiral Karl Dönitz, commander of Germany’s U-boat fleet, claimed it was a British sub that had sunk Ganda.
Dönitz chose U-123 to be among the first five U-boats with orders to attack the eastern seaboard of the United States. He had begun planning the attack four days after Pearl Harbor, on instructions from Hitler to destroy merchant ships from New York to Cape Hatteras. Five 1,050-ton Type 9B U-boats, with a range of 12,000 nautical miles cruising at 10 knots on the surface, left their pens at the port of Lorient in France on separate dates around Christmas 1941. Dönitz called the operation “Drumbeat,” for the effect he expected it to have.
The Submarine Tracking Room at the Operational Intelligence Centre of the British Admiralty in London, Royal Navy headquarters, had located the U-boats crossing the surface of the ocean, and their positions were passed on to the U.S. Navy and charted on the wall in the headquarters of the Eastern Sea Frontier in New York City. But a vicious winter hurricane hit the Atlantic with winds of 100 mph, tossing the subs like surfboards off the lips of big waves, and enabling them to lose the Americans tracking them.
The Eastern Sea Frontier, commanded by Admiral Adolphus “Dolly” Andrews, didn’t have much of a fleet. It consisted of Coast Guard cutters with wooden hulls, turn-of-the-century gunboats, and converted yachts with a machine gun and maybe a few depth charges on deck. The boats were often broken down in port. The day before the first U-boat left France, Admiral Andrews complained in a memo to Admiral Ernest King, commander in chief of the U.S. Navy: “It is submitted that should enemy submarines operate off this coast, this command has no forces available to take adequate action against them, either offensive or defensive.”
Early on the morning of January 12, 1942, off the coast of Nova Scotia, U-123 sank the 9,100-ton British freighter Cyclops. Ninety-eight men died, almost all of them freezing in lifeboats. Operation Drumbeat was supposed to be a sneak attack off New York, coordinated with the other U-boats, and by attacking the Cyclops, Hardegen had disobeyed Dönitz’s orders and blew the element of surprise, not that it mattered, because the Eastern Sea Frontier was so unprepared.
The New York Times ran a two-paragraph story, picked up from a boast by Radio Berlin, but the story didn’t attract much attention. The U.S. Navy issued a lying press release claiming to have “liquidated” U-boats off the coast, adding that national security prevented the disclosure of more information. “This is a phase of the game of war secrecy into which every American should enter enthusiastically,” said the navy’s statement, printed by the Times. The release added that the media and civilians could make the same “great, patriotic contribution” by not mentioning what they might see with their own eyes.
The next day, U-123 traveled south from Nova Scotia, steaming at 18 knots in broad daylight. It submerged a couple of times when aircraft flew over, but the ESF’s Fleet Air Arm was no more of a threat to U-boats than its bathtub navy. U-123 had traveled more than 3,300 nautical miles from France, only 55 of them submerged, without being challenged. The big U-boat passed south of Nantucket late in the afternoon, and that night was beckoned down the coast by Montauk Point Lighthouse.
Kapitan Hardegen was excited by the glow from the lights on shore, exposing his targets. “Don’t they know there’s a war on?” he asked his chief mate. The U.S. Navy had urged cities and towns along the coast to black themselves out, but merchants declined because business would suffer.
After midnight, Hardegen spotted the Norness, a 9,600-ton Norwegian tanker, and split her apart with three torpedoes. He continued to New York and submerged at sunrise in the harbor. U-123 spent the day on the bottom, ninety feet down in the mud. The New York Times was still on the street with a headline now shouting “tanker torpedoed 60 miles off long island,” when Hardegen surfaced after dark, awed by the dome of white light rising almost religiously into the black sky above Manhattan. He knew the moment was profound. “We were the first to be here, and for the first time in this war a German soldier looked out upon the coast of the U.S.A.,” he said.
Later that night, during an icy nor’easter, he torpedoed the 6,800-ton British tanker Coimbra, whose 80,000 barrels of oil exploded in a giant fireball, killing thirty-six. Witnesses saw flames from the beach at Southampton. Admiral Andrews told the press that the navy knew nothing about it, which was almost the truth. His feeble fleet was grasping at the wisps and ghosts of ocean spray in its lame attempt to find U-123.
Fred Larsen’s Irish grandfather, the woodcarver Christopher Melia, and William Russell Grace, who founded Grace Line after emigrating from Ireland, were about the same age and had the same eye for beauty. Had they lived long enough to see the Santa Elisa, Melia might have carved a model of her, and Grace would have been proud of her. A flurry of shipbuilding was triggered by the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, passed in order to increase the size of the U.S. merchant fleet. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt prepared for the growing possibility of war, the pace increased. The Santa Elisa was one of 173 freighters built between 1940 and 1945, to Maritime Commission designs for the class called C2. She was 459 feet from bow to stern, 63 feet at beam, and 40 feet between main deck and keel bottom, with a loaded draft of 26 feet and freeboard of 14. Her five holds gave her a gross weight of 8,380 tons, with the ability to stow 8,620 tons of cargo. Because she was specially built for Grace Line, she had some custom touches shared by only her sister ship, the Santa Rita. Her bridge was enclosed, keeping the helmsman out of the weather and providing protection against shrapnel from bombs. Powered by a double reduction General Electric turbine making 6,000 horsepower and driving a single screw, she could run all day and night at 17 knots.
Larsen was junior third officer on the Santa Elisa, in charge of the lifeboats and lifesaving equipment, but the chief officer also assigned him to supervise the fire equipment. He did much more than the manual described for a third mate, because he could. At 27, he had done it all. He’d been a teenage prodigy in the engine room of his first ship, the Attila, working with diesel, steam, and hydraulic systems. He could navigate and operate radios. He'd been a quartermaster, purser, bosun, and cargo mate; he was certified in firefighting and lifeboats, and liked guns. He'd even been a stevedore on the San Pedro wharf in California. He could speak English, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, and Spanish, and was beginning to study German, although he despised it.
He acted with a natural sense of authority based on experience, and carried himself with conspicuous self-discipline. When he stepped into territory that was not a third mate’s, other officers could usually see that his involvement was driven by efficiency, not ego, and they generally welcomed it, but his rigidity could be difficult. “He was a square-head all the way,” said Peter Forcanser, the junior engineer who maintained the deck machinery. “A real sonofabitch. He was only the third mate, but he acted like he owned the ship.”
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Santa Elisa had returned to Brooklyn, where she was armed by the War Shipping Administration, primarily with two .30- caliber Browning machine guns on the afterdeck. Armor plating was added to the bridge, 36 inches high, on each wing just outside the wheelhouse door. A steel visor projecting downward at 45 degrees was welded to the top of the wheelhouse, and a crow's nest with a telephone to the bridge was built between the two king posts at the forward end of the number one hatch. Steel gun tubs had been welded to the bow and four corners of the bridge, intended for 20- millimeter Oerlikon rapid-fire cannons, but the tubs were empty, because the guns weren’t available so early in the war.
On the afternoon of Saturday, January 17, 1942, Kapitan Hardegen and his U-boat were lurking off the New Jersey coast, as the Santa Elisa steamed south from Gravesend Bay in Brooklyn after loading ammunition for her new guns. She was headed for Cristobal, at the mouth of the Panama Canal, where an attack by the enemy was feared, and then to Arica, Antofagasta, Valparaiso, and San Antonio, Chile. There were 552 cases of matches in wooden crates stowed on the starboard side of the upper 'tween deck level of her number one hold, the most forward of five. In the lower 'tween deck of that same hold there were 1900 drums of highly explosive carbide crystals. Such drums had been used during the Spanish Civil War like rolling depth charges; republican forces sent them barreling down steep hillsides onto rebel encampments. Word of the U-boat sinkings had moved over the merchant fleet's radios. Small craft hugged the coast, but the freighters still ran offshore. At about 7:15 that evening, the Santa Elisa was steaming at 16 knots in choppy seas and big swells, running without lights, approximately ten miles off Atlantic City. The chief mate, Tommy Thomson, was decoding a message with the master in his cabin next to the bridge, as Kapitan Hardegen peered into the periscope of U-123, searching the icy blackness and hoping to light it up with flames. "I heard a loud crash and the vessel listed to starboard," reported Thomson. "I immediately ran out of the captain's room by way of the after door, and up the fore and aft alleyway into the wheelhouse, followed by the captain. I ran to the telegraph in the wheelhouse and put the engine full astern.
"Just as I put the engine telegraph full astern, there was a heavy explosion forward, followed by flame. Then almost immediately followed by a second explosion and more flame. About this time the master arrived on the bridge and remarked that it was a torpedo." "There was a rocketing explosion on the Santa Elisa that blew half-ton hatch covers twenty feet into the air," reported The Grace Log, a Grace Line magazine. "The rush of all hands to meet the emergency was immediate. Along tilted passageways, ladders now inclined at an illogical angle, as the crew fought its way to the outer decks. A gutting fire tore through her forward cargo holds. Her steel hull was ragged and rent, and searing flames threatened to buckle her bulkheads."
Thomson also reported that just after the loud crash, he had seen green and red lights drifting eerily past the port bridge wing. He saw the lights again, about 400 yards away, as third mate Larsen followed the captain's orders and lowered a lifeboat to stand by what appeared to be another ship. It was the last time anyone saw the lights. An old banana boat, the 3,400-ton freighter SS San Jose–a pioneer “reefer,” with refrigerated holds–had been chugging north from Guatemala in the same waters. The New York Times reported that the San Jose had rammed the Santa Elisa and then sunk. The Grace Log said that the Santa Elisa had rammed the San Jose “with such fury as to send her abruptly to the bottom.” Kapitan Hardegen claimed that U-123 had sunk a ship that could only have been either the San Jose or Santa Elisa. All thirty-nine crewmen of the San Jose made it to lifeboats and were rescued by ships in the area that had received an SOS sent by Thomson on the Santa Elisa.
There were many dark mysteries during the war. Unexplained explosions: a mine, a torpedo, a collision; in the dead of night they were all the same to the men. Sometimes they never knew. Sometimes a torpedo aimed for one ship hit another. And through a periscope at night, one freighter can look like any other. Whatever hit the Santa Elisa blew a twenty-foot hole in her hull at the waterline, and set off the 1900 drums of carbide. Hardegen said he had fired at a heavily loaded freighter with a stern torpedo from 600 meters. “After 57 seconds there is a mighty detonation and a huge, pitch-black explosion column,” he wrote in his diary and shooting report. “The hit was under the bridge. With its high speed, the steamer ran itself under water. When the smoke lifted, only the mast tops were still visible and shortly afterwards they disappeared, too.”
As U-123 raced from the scene of its shot, the Santa Elisa began listing to port and her mast tops dropped behind the large swells, as black smoke belched from the fire. Water rushed into the forward hold, and the ship's bow dipped so steeply that her rudder rose out of the water. Flames spouted thirty feet out of the holes made by the blown-off hatch covers, painting vertical orange stripes over the black horizon. The fire's glow could be seen from the Atlantic City boardwalk, as the Santa Elisa burned. When lives were at stake, Fred Larsen was usually the first to arrive and last to leave. He and his friend Thomson led the firefight in hold number one.
"I gave orders for all hands to come forward and fight the fire," said Thomson. "I shouted up to the captain and suggested that he back the ship up into the wind to keep the fire and smoke forward of No. 1 hatch so we could get at the flame with the hose. Hoses were being brought into position from the amidship superstructure and the after deck. In all, 8 streams of water were playing on the fire within ten minutes. The deck on the starboard side was red hot to a distance of approximately 7 to 8 feet aft of No. 1 after hatch. The port side was also hot, but it was not red hot."
Thomson and Larsen each donned an OBA–oxygen breathing apparatus– which consisted of a rubber mask and an oxygen tank strapped to their backs, and they scrambled toward the hold, the rubber soles of their shoes melting on the burning paint as they struggled with the bucking brass nozzles of 21⁄2-inch hoses. A hatch in the mast house led down to the hold, but they couldn't get near it. "Throughout this time, there were several small explosions in the hatch," said Thomson. The fire burned through the cold black night until 5:40 a.m., with the SS Wellhart and SS Charles O'Connor arriving and training more hoses on the Santa Elisa's foredeck. Twice, the captain went full ahead on the engines in order to flood the hold with seawater. At daybreak the foredeck was awash, and 37 of the ship's crew of 54 men were placed on the Wellhart and Charles O'Connor by U.S. Coast Guard boats. Just before noon on Sunday, the tugboats Relief, Resolute and Wabla began towing the Santa Elisa back to Bay Ridge Flats in Brooklyn, where she was run aground on the sandy bottom, to be unloaded and towed off later. She would smolder for three more days. Kapitan Hardegen headed south to Hatteras, again steaming in daylight, within sight of the shore. He broke silence to send a gloating message to Donitz when he passed the naval base at Norfolk. That night he sank three more ships, killing forty-four of forty-seven on the City of Atlanta, and shot up a fourth. On the way back to France he got two more ships in the Atlantic, for a total of nine. Hitler draped the Iron Cross around Hardegen’s neck.
As the attacks against merchant ships along the coast continued, the U.S. Navy got away with covering it up. Merchant mariners were ordered not to talk about it. Keeping a journal aboard ship was a violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act, punishable by ten years in prison.
When President Roosevelt finally installed the convoy system with destroyer escorts in the summer of 1942, the U-boats were forced to find victims elsewhere. But 609 ships had been sunk in the Eastern, Gulf, and Caribbean Sea Frontiers, and hundreds of merchant mariners had lost their lives. Eleven U-boats were sunk.
The Santa Elisa was repaired at the Brooklyn Navy Yard that spring. Her Grace Line colors, black hull and green funnel with a white band, were covered by a drab coat of “gull gray” warpaint. Four new Oerlikon cannons, effective against dive-bombers and fast torpedo boats, were installed on the corners of the bridge in the empty gun tubs. A three-inch antiaircraft gun was mounted in the tub on the bow, and a four-inch low-angle gun was bolted to the afterdeck. The four-inch had been used against tanks in World War I, and could blow a very big hole in a thin-skinned U-boat.
Fred Larsen was promoted to senior third officer. With his previous ex- perience as a cargo officer, he was asked by chief mate Thomson to help supervise the loading of cargo for the Santa Elisa’s next voyage. On May 5, at the Brooklyn Army Depot, stevedores began loading her holds with ammunition and war stores, including bombs, mines, and about 5,000 drums of kerosene and diesel fuel in hold number one. Tanks and heavy trucks were shackled to her foredecks. Fourteen new U.S. Navy Armed Guard joined the ship’s crew, and forty soldiers–searchlight specialists, headed for duty in Britain, Egypt, and Malta–came aboard as passengers. It took one week to load all the equipment, fuel and ammo. On May 12, 1942, Larsen cast off the lines that held the stern of his ship to the pier. The Santa Elisa was going to war.