The Close-in War Off North Hutchinson Island (By Charles Dana Gibson)
The opening months of World War II were a disaster for the United States. In the Pacific, Japan's December 1941 successful attack against Pearl Harbor and the loss in April 1942 of the Philippines. In the Atlantic, starting in February 1942 the Germans would launch a campaign against America's capability for fueling not only our war production but also our military's mobility. This was a submarine offensive carried out against our merchant shipping as well as that of our Allies. The first part of the onslaught was concentrated from the Straits of Florida northward to New England. During the early months, our east coast would be witness to the loss of over one hundred ships with their attackers escaping virtually unscathed. What anti-submarine resource was available was heavily committed toward protection of the North Atlantic convoy routes.
During the short timeframe of four months, within the area between Hobe Sound and the offing of Vero Beach alone, six ships were torpedoed, four of them lost and two badly damaged. All of the six flew the American flag, and when attacked, all were in eye sight of the beach. One of the victims was the Socony Vacuum oil tanker SS Java Arrow. She was on a southerly course and in ballast, being en route to take on cargo at the refinery at Curacao in the Netherlands West Indies. The date was May 6, 1942; the time an hour before midnight, local time. [See Note 1]
Waiting at periscope depth at a position eight miles due east of Vero Beach was the German submarine U-333. With Java Arrow brought into the cross hairs of his periscope, Kapitan Lieutenant Peter E. Cremer launched two torpedoes. The first struck the tanker amidships and the second hit aft, completely destroying Java Arrow's engine spaces and killing two engineers. The demobilized ship soon lost headway, a factor which allowed her #1 and #2 lifeboats to be launched without mishap. Once clear, the tanker's master, Sigvard Hennechin, being of the opinion that the submarine had departed the area, ordered those in the lifeboats to lay on their oars. From all appearances it seemed that Java Arrow, although well down in the water was not going to sink. [See Notes 2 and 3] Calling to his Second officer who was commanding #2 Lifeboat to come alongside, Hennechin transferred over some wounded men to the care of the Second Officer, instructing him to start for the shore. Hennechin then ordered his own #1 Lifeboat rowed to the stricken tanker where with four volunteers he reboarded the ship and moved to the bow. They released a brake on the anchor windless, dropping the starboard anchor. Hennechin and the men with him then re-boarded their lifeboat and headed west toward the beach.
Upon reaching shore the Second Officer saw that the wounded were taken to hospital. When Hennechin's #1 boat arrived, the captain and fourteen of the crew were transport by automobile to the Fort Pierce Coast Guard Station. [See Note 4] From there Hennechin called his company's office at New York asking that arrangements be made for tugs to rendezvous at the position where Java Arrow had been anchored. Hennechin was informed by his company that two tugs would be dispatched out of Port Everglades. Hennechin next requested that the Coast Guard take him and some of his men back out to the ship. Once underway aboard a Coast Guard picket boat, all wondered whether the tanker would still be afloat when they got there or whether since her abandonment she had been given a coup de grace by another U-boat, or, worse yet, whether she might again be attacked once they were back onboard. Nerves must have been on edge for all including one unnamed resident of Fort Pierce who had been talked into accompanying the salvage group. He was a welder who, by use of an acetylene cutting torch, was to cut the anchor chain. The Survivors' Report made no mention of the name of the welder so he remains an unsung hero of the Java Arrow story. [See Note 5] To the relief of all, the tanker was found to be still afloat and at the same level as when they had left her. Once on board, Hennechin, his men, and of course the welder, awaited the arrival of the tugs. Once they appeared, a tow hawser was passed up to the ship and the welder burned through the anchor chain. A slow hazardous tow then began toward Port Everglades. Arriving there safely, Java Arrow was eventually repaired and put back into service with a new name, Kerry Patch. [See Note 6]
Java Arrow's survivors had been lucky that night in May in that their ship had not met the same fate as another tanker, SS W. D Anderson which had been torpedoed east of where the FPL nuclear power plant is now located. That had been during the previous February. When hit, W. D. Anderson had been loaded down with cargo which, ignited by the torpedo, burst into flame. With the exception of one man, her crew of 36 officers and men died with their ship.
The "happy time" as the German submariners described those first four months along the Eastern Sea frontier began losing its destructive momentum once the U.S. Navy inaugurated convoy scheduling and adequate naval escorts became available. With those improvements the "Happy Time" ended. Germany's Submarine Command would soon direct its U-boats to the Caribbean. Again, the primary targets would be the U.S. and Allied tanker fleets. The enemy's submarine offensive in the Western Hemisphere was directed against targets of opportunity, meaning all shipping; however the priority from the German's viewpoint was the tanker fleet. As the Germans were clearly aware such ships were a prevalent target to be encountered both along the east coast as well as in the Caribbean. The losses suffered by the tankers and their significance to the winning of World War II is best put into focus by the words of the then Commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral J. P. Farley.
"It is to the valiant men of the merchant marine who manned the tankships in the face of tremendous odds, especially in the early months of the submarine warfare, that the thanks of the nation and of our Armed Forces and those of our Allies are due, for keeping the petroleum products flowing to strategic points where they could most effectively and promptly be used to crush the enemy. Men of the tanker fleet, the nation salutes you."
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Note 1: Being "in ballast" describes a ship's condition when it is empty of cargo but carrying introduced weight to keep the ship low enough in the water so as to provide adequate stability. In the case of a tanker, this would have been water taken into its empty liquid cargo tanks. Upon nearing a port where the ship would again take on product, the "ballast" water would be pumped out into the sea leaving the tanks empty.
Note 2: In his patrol report Cremer falsely claimed that he had observed the Java Arrow "going to the bottom" which was an obvious falsehood aimed at enhancing his patrol's success. Later that same day Cremer would sink the Dutch freighter Amazone and the American tanker Halsey, both sinkings being a few miles south of where Java Arrow had been hit.
Note 3: A tankship is constructed of numerous cargo tanks divided from each other by liquid tight bulkheads. The engine space located aft on such ships was normally separated from the more forward cargo spaces (the tankage) by two liquid tight bulkheads between which was a vacant space called a cofferdam. Considering that Java Arrow was in ballast - her tanks only partly flooded with sea water -- she would have had enough reserve buoyance to keep her afloat despite having had her engine space and probably a number of mid-ship cargo tanks penetrated by the torpedo blasts.
Note 4: It is not known as to where Captain Hennechin's #1 Lifeboat arrived on the beach nor is it known where and when he again made contact with his Second Officer. There is a fair chance, since Hennechin's boarding of the tanker to release the anchor would not have taken too much time, that #1 and #2 Lifeboats arrived on the beach at approximately the same time and place.
Note 5: Java Arrow was steam powered. The ship's anchor windless was powered by steam from the engine's boilers which had been destroyed in the attack of the night before.
Note 6: It is not known from the archival records as to whether Captain Hennechin or any members of his crew remained on Java Arrow during its tow to Port Everglades. Considering what they had gone through already, it would have been doubtful that they would have been asked to remain on the ship since their presence aboard would not have been necessary.