Life in Salt: Meeting the Nazi Who Almost Torpedoed Me

by Owen James Burke

Happy Veteran’s Day, and thank you to all who have served!

Here’s a story which we ran a few years back from a veteran of the Merchant Marine, Mr. Jim Hughes, who served on the Wallace E. Pratt, a liberty ship which ran fuel up and down the western shores of the Atlantic seaboard from Halifax to Venezuela. 100,000 men set foot aboard merchant vessels during World War II, and 1 in every 24 were lost. The Merchant Marine suffered a higher casualty rate than any other service, and of those who survived service during wartime, very few remain. Of the three ships upon which he served, only one outlived the war. Here’s to you, Mr. Jim Hughes, the only World War II veteran of the Merchant Marine residing in Greenwich, Connecticut.

(Photograph: Aukevisser)

Jim Hughes joined the United States Merchant Marine during World War II, running oil tankers up and down the Atlantic seaboard and through the Caribbean. These were some of, if not the deadliest conditions under which a man could live during wartime. Watching ships going up into blaze after being torpedoed, there wasn’t much to be done to prevent yours from being next. Jim’s tanker would most often seek refuge right along the New Jersey coastline, anchor lights off. This alone was dangerous just due to potential collision with the incidental passer-by, but it was a much safer bet than holding out in the open ocean where an attack could come from all sides.

I’m not quite sure where my father met Jim Hughes, but he has been a friend of my father and the family for a very long time (in my years at least). He owned a Marshall 22 Cat Boat, which was moored across the cove from ours when I was growing up. One night we left the sailboats behind and hopped onto a small skiff to run the race committee. This was the first time I’d seen my father or Jim operate a powerboat, and I asked them if either of them were even licensed. That was when I learned that Jim had run oil tankers during WWII, and was not only permitted to operate this modest 17′ Boston Whaler, but any vessel under 100 tons. He then went on to tell me a few stories. I was always left in awe after hearing him spin a yarn, and the following is certainly no exception.

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What was life like in the Merchant Marine, what did you do?

As a naval seaman at that time, my duty was to be in the crow’s nest for the lookout, and you’d climb up a ladder on the mast and go through a hole on the bottom of the crow’s nest…You had pretty good vision all around except for the mast behind you, and that’s when I saw a sight that’s just hard to imagine, and these ships came from all over the world, and the skippers of some of these ships didn’t speak english, there was a lot of confusion and there was a lot of difficulty. At that time while we were being formed up into three separate convoys, one going to northern Europe, one going to North Africa, and the one that I was in, the ship went down to the Caribbean…We were headed for Aruba–an Esso (ExxonMobil) owned refinery and one of the biggest in the world.

What was a typical day like, both in and out of the water?

There was no normal day. A fairy story begins once upon a time, a sea story begins a little different… this ain’t no shit… I’d like to give you an idea of what a pre-convoy voyage was like during the early months of World War II in January 1942–that was just about a month after Pearl Harbor–I joined an Esso ship called the Wallace E. Pratt, and joined it in the Mississippi River bound for Bayonne, New Jersey.

Dangerous waters

Oh yes, you get the taste of that rather quickly, but there were 3 ships that left the oil ports in the Mississippi River about the same time, the Pratt was the one ahead of us and there was one behind us (it was not a formation, just happened that way) and we traveled across the Gulf of Mexico within sight of each other and no connection whatsoever in any way. We passed Miami at night time and the ship behind us was torpedoed, and I believe there were no survivors.

That year, 1942… was a horrendous year. Ships were being torpedoed. A ship that managed to get across with a full load was considered a total success. If they were destroyed afterward, it had done its mission… so anyway we got through Windward and Mona Passages, everyone was on their toes.

Of the three ships that started out from the Mississippi River, just one got to Bayonne, and at that time, everybody quit on the ship except the chief engineer and the skipper who were long-time employees of Esso and the others were people who were picked up, including myself. So that’s what many ships faced, that type of experience, which was you might say very weird because… now I was out in the open and subject to draft. When you left the company you got so many days ashore depending on how many days at sea.

My experience was in New York Harbor, and I went through this a couple times during the War (waiting), I was assigned to another Esso [(ExxonMobil)] ship, I remember it was April 1st and there was snow on the deck and after I got my clothes off and into the working gear, my job was to sweep the snow off the ship. There was only a small group of us too–we were in the process of gathering crew… By the time it was time to go, there was a tremendous collection of ships up and down the Hudson.

So what was life like on the convoy, giving you an idea how all this was organized…In the daytime we could use signal flags… flying from a halyard, and of course we all had signal flag books and we could interpret, in general, what the instructions were. At night there was no way of communicating because you couldn’t use a flashing light. The ships were all silent.

How far apart were you in the convoy?

Now that’s an interesting question, that changed from time to time. I’m glad you brought it up though, I’ll tell you how it was done… At night time instructions were to to tow a “duck”, that’s what it was called, and it was a galvanized tin arrangement with a wooden support, towed from the stern at a prescribed distance. In the day time when the weather was good, your distance might be 50 yards from one to the other. When night time came, every ship would let the duck out to say 100 yards, and that’s how we would steam at night, and the way that the design was, you would go, even at a very low speed, and it showed up a spurt of water, and you could see it at night… and then in the morning the instruction would be to pull in the ducks and every ship would close in. I think one of the reasons was to disperse the ships as much as possible so it made individual ships hard targets. Of course you’d get torpedoes being fired and then in the whole convoy, all hell breaks loose.

Another way we traveled day and night was with the use of a zig zag box–now this was simple, crude–can you imagine what it’d be like today with GPS? So every ship got a zig zagging plan, and the officer on watch had to make use of it and there would be instructions like, at the beginning of the hour you were to steer a certain course, and then after maybe 15 minutes, you’d steer a different course, and you’d come back to the original course–you would zig zag across the ocean, all of the ships following this clock with this adjustable timing on it, and there was confusion there. In the daytime it was okay, if there was a ship going in the wrong direction, you could blow a whistle and call his attention and they’d get back in line, but at night all bets were off, you followed the zig zag box and hoped that you didn’t collide…

One of the other things that happened in convoy, which was very distressing, and it happened a few times on ships that I was on, was that we were obliged by engine trouble to drop out of the convoy, and they’d go without you and you were just left there in the ocean to try to get repaired, and sometimes these ships were picked off… That was really a sinking experience to watch the convoy go off over the horizon, and of course the engineers were doing all they could to make repairs, and every time in my experience they did.

…And then of course, what was life like when the ship was in port… In Aruba there was a sandbar where all these ships anchored and we’d get off and swim to the sandbar and play softball during the day, when we were off watch. Other things to be done were… we only had radio in port, there’d be cards, chess, and sometimes there would be pretty well organized gambling, and uh, that’s it.

What is your most memorable ocean moment?

We experienced submarine attacks and as I said I’ve seen some ships torpedoed, but normally I would have to say I had a good war, I saw very little enemy action and never was on a ship that was attacked, so I guess I was, as I say, very very lucky… Then after that I changed over and tried something else. This was dry cargo ships, these were carrying various cargos to various parts of the world until the ocean was still, soon after the war it was pretty safe… We would load in Trinidad and take it up to Halifax, which was where the Canadian Navy bunkered…we didn’t know what was going on, and I never learned when the war was over in Europe, the exact date… the ship was running in the dark, no navigation lights, everything was buttoned down and we were as dark as can be.

We went into the Halifax harbor. Then we entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which is huge, almost perfectly round and deep. The pilot said there was enough space in there to accommodate the entire British Navy. Then, as we were going up the river, we noticed that there were a couple fires on the harbor’s side, and the pilot said that during the night a submarine had surfaced and fired on a few facilities, causing a hell of a lot of confusion, and dived and was gone, they didn’t know where it was. So with that on our minds, we went to the dock and discharged cargo… unaware of what was going on underneath us.

Several years later it was Easter Sunday 1957 or 1958. Easter morning I was down at the municipal marina in New Rochelle working on a small boat,… a beautiful morning, and I was going to be there all morning… and a young man came along with his little girl, very nicely dressed, headed for church or something like that, and we started to chat and the man had an obvious German accent.

So I said, “Well, what did you do during the war?”

and he said, “Well I was a submariner.”

“My God,” I said, “I spent so many hours in the cold and rain and snow and boiling heat, watching for you, always watching. Although I never saw a periscope, I did detect some mines that were floating and moved the ship around to avoid them, but anyway I said, “What kind of a ship were you on?”

“I was one of the last submarines to carry out business. We had been instructed to return to Germany and the captain refused. He had some torpedoes left so he cruised around until he got rid of his torpedoes.”

and he said, “We went up into the harbor of Halifax one time, and we surfaced and fired out guns at some targets and went away.”

So I said, “Well, how did you escape?”

he said, “Well what we did was we turned off the engines and floated away with the tide.”

I said, “What kind of job did you have on the submarine?”

He said, “I was at the periscope most of the time.”

I said, “After you’d submerged again, did you notice that there was a small tanker in the harbor?”

He said, “Yes,” he said “there was a small tanker behind us.”

I said, “How did you see us?”

He said, “Well we put the periscope up and took a couple peeps, and of course the tanker passed over the submarine which was floating on the bottom,” so eventually we were ahead of the submarine, so he could see us going away.

So I said, “Why didn’t you fire?”

He said, “Well we had no torpedoes left. We didn’t bother exposing ourselves.”

When I heard this, I said, “Well, you know I was on that ship, and here you were looking at me through the periscope and I was on the bridge looking around to see if I could see anything bad,” and surely there was but it was beneath us, and about eight years later we were having this conversation. What had happened to him? Well the submarine finally surrendered, and the crew were all taken ashore, of course the war was over by this time, and disposed of. I guess he’d gone back to Germany and got married and came back to this country and was working in the navy yard in Philadelphia, he was a machinist. So it was a small world, but that’s a coincidence you can hardly imagine, you know, eight years of time and a lot of sea water in between.

Of course I stayed at sea after the war was over. I really liked what I was doing, I wasn’t married, I had no obligations, I was 24 years of age, 25, and I hung around for an extra year and a half.

Sure. Free, single, and disengaged, what better?

Yeah, nothing better than that.

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Somehow, Jim Hughes survived the war and the Merchant Marine. Today, Jim resides in Greenwich, Connecticut and is still swimming and playing piano every day, and even up until a few years ago, sailing. Occasionally I’ll have dinner with him, or we’ll sail together, and I am always drawn to the fact that he is still full of the engagement, wit and seamanship that is second to none.

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