EASTERN SEA FRONTIER
WAR DIARY
APRIL 1942
 
     
 
CHAPTER V
 
 
 
 
S. S. VICTORIA
 
     
 
        She was a brand new 7,000 ton, Diesel driven, 14-knot tanker built at Albany, New York. While she was still on the ways she had been named the CARNATIC, but when her owners, the Cia Argentina Navegacion Mihanovich Limitada, took possession of her they called her VICTORIA.
 
     
          The ship was taken down to Argentina early this year. Her maiden voyage began on March 14th when she left Buenos Aires for New York with a cargo of linseed. Of the crew of 38, 29 were Argentineans, on board six were Spaniards and three were Portuguese. None spoke English. Also on board was the guarantee engineer of the Fairbanks Morse Company who had installed the Diesel engines. He was an Englishman who had spent sixteen years in America.  
 
 
          Bad luck followed the VICTORIA up the coast. Off Punta del Este the motors went dead; at Rio de Janiero she put in for repairs to her Diesels; at Recife she was delayed by propeller trouble. Ten degrees north of the line her radio operator picked up a distress signal only sixty miles off the course the VICTORIA was following and only a day's run away. THe guarantee engineer and the Chief Officer pleaded with the Master to go to the sinking vessel's assistance, but the Master, on the theory that rescue at sea was a violation of neutral rights and duties, refused to alter his course. For three days the distress signals were heard by the  
     
 
- 1 -
 
     
     

 

     
     
 
radio operator before they weakened and died away.
 
     
 
        No further incident disturbed the northern progress of the VICTORIA until the afternoon of April 17th when she was about 300 miles east of Hatteras. On that day she was 34 days out of Buenos Aires. Her course was 311°; her speed 8 1/2 knots. A strong northwest wind was blowing across a rough sea, but the weather was clear and the visibility good. At 1845 the Master went to the bridge to prepare a message informing New York agents that the ship would dock on April 20th. The message was never sent. While the Master was composing it a heavy blow was delivered on the port side of the ship between No. 1 and No. 2 holds. There was the sound of metal clashing against metal; as the VICTORIA shuddered from stem to stern a huge geyser of water shot high above the ship.
 
 
 
          The Master rang the general alarm, told the radio operator to send out an SOS, ordered the ship's identification flags flown, and departed for his cabin to secure his papers. While he was away from the bridge the distress signal was acknowledged by "the Washington Station." Upon his return he found the crew standing by on the port side "awaiting developments." None were immediately forthcoming. For an hour the VICTORIA, her engines stopped, lay dead in the water. The blue and white flag of her country floated aloft and the little signal flags danced in the strong wind. As dusk gathered around her the name of her country and the great flag painted on her sides were flooded with brilliant light. For an hour she drifted thus in a wide arc while the crew stood by.  
     
          At 1950 another blow was struck on the port side, again there  
     
 
- 2 -
 
     
     

 

     
     
 
was the sound of metal crunching against metal. The men on deck saw a dull yellowish flame run through the water before it was quenched by a geyser that rose towering over the vessel. This was enough.
 
     
 
        The Master gave the order to abandon ship. As the port lifeboat slid down toward the water the falls jammed, tilting the boat sharply. Three men spilled out before the falls were cleared and the boat lowered successfully. They were pulled back to safety by their comrades. In this No. 1 lifeboat there were the Chief Officer, the guarantee engineer and nineteen men. The No. 2 lifeboat got off on the starboard side with the Master and the rest of the crew. It was not long before the wind drove the two boats apart, separating them in the darkness. The VICTORIA was abandoned by her crew at position Latitude 36-41N, Longitude 68-48W. The time was 2004 April 17th.
 
     
          At this same hour the USS OWL was making passage from New York to Bermuda. The OWL is one of our oldest minesweepers, a veteran of the last war during which she saw service along the North Sea mine barrage. She was, on the night of April 17th, about 300 miles off Hatteras proceeding on course 135° (T) at ten knots with the oil barge YOG-38 in tow. Just after midnight she heard from the Naval Operating Base at Bermuda that VICTORIA was in distress and that the crew was taking to the boats. From the position given by Bermuda it was estimated that the injured vessel was only forty miles on a bearing of 248° from OWL.  
 

 

 
 
        The Commanding Officer of the minesweeper changed course to 068°. At 0218 lights were sighted dead ahead. The crew was sent to General Quarters and a special detail stood by at the pelican hook to
 
 
 
 
- 3 -
 
     
     

 

     
     
 
trip the tow in event of enemy action. When first sighted, the light that burned on the horizon was about ten miles off. Men on the OWL, as it closed the range, thought they could see a U-boat silhouetted against the sky. But by 0322 the minesweeper was close enough to identify the ship that floated in the pool of light as the VICTORIA. What had appeared to be a U-boat were merely shadows cast by the strong light that illuminated the flag painted on the ship's side. Until dawn broke in the east the OWL circled the helpless vessel, listening for submarines.
 
     
 
        In the light of day it was possible to determine the extent of damage suffered by the VICTORIA. She lay on an even keel with two large holes in her port side-one at the break of the forecastle, the other between the bridge structure and the after deck house. From the look of her in the water little damage had been done beneath the waterline. Apparently the torpedoes had been set for a shallow run. After a brief period of investigation the Commanding Officer of the OWL decided that the ship was salvageable. He so informed the Naval Operating Base at Bermuda.
 
     
          Before beginning the work the crew had breakfast. Then, after tripping the tow line of YOG-38 the OWL, at 0758, was put on the lee (undamaged) side of the VICTORIA. For ten minutes the minesweeper was held against the tanker by her engines. Heavy seas swept her high above the VICTORIA or dropped he far below the rail. But the two vessels lay easily alongside each other and the boarding party of seven got across without mishap. There was no need even for the fenders that had been  
     
 
- 4 -
 
     
     

 

     
     
 
rigged. When the transfer was completed the OWL swung clear and went to pick up her tow.
 
     
 
        The Executive OFficer, who led the boarding party, made a rapid inspection of the VICTORIA. He found the rudder and engine telegraph in order, both generators running, the bilges dry, and both Diesels ready to start. Three of the portside tanks had been ruptured and the deck plates above the tanks had buckled up. In all other respects the ship was ready to get underway. This news was signaled to the OWL which in turn relayed the report to Bermuda.
 
     
          Twenty minutes later the main engines were started. Several bells were given to which the ship responded immediately. When the backing bell was rung, however, the indicator on the bridge showed "ahead." The engines were thrown out of gear before another backing bell was given, but again the indicator showed "ahead". Down below someone attempted to get the engines into reverse by throwing the engine lever from "ahead" to "backing". No pause was made at the "stop" sign. This blew out the circuit breaker on the 240 volt generator.  
     
          There were two generators on the VICTORIA. The smaller (120 volts) furnished auxiliary power for the lights; the larger (240 volts) supplied the power for the cooling and lubricating systems of the main engines. Both generators were started by compressed air stored in a series of air banks in the engine room. When the circuit breaker was blown out, the 240 volt generator stopped and the cooling and lubricating systems on the Diesel motors failed. The main engines were therefore turned off.  
     
 
- 5 -
 
     
     

 

     
     
 
        Word was sent to the OWL that an electrician was needed to close the circuit breaker. It was decided on board the minesweeper that the man should be passed to the VICTORIA by boat. This was a dangerous business in the heavy sea. The boat had to be lowered from a boom--a single point of suspension; neither guys nor frapping lines to steady the boat could be passed. About the middle of the morning a Chief Electrician's Mate was safely transferred to the VICTORIA. In a short time he had closed the circuit breaker and the ship was once again ready to get underway.
 
     
 
        When, however, an attempt was made to start the 240 volt generator it was discovered that there was not enough air in the bank to turn over the starting motor. The hose connection to the bank was switched from the larger to the smaller generator but there was not even enough air to start the 120 volt generator. Search was made for the blueprints of the vessel which were found on the bridge. Study of them revealed that an emergency air compressor was stored in the stack. Connection was made between this compressor and the air bank. This compressor was run by a gasoline motor and examination of the gasoline tank revealed that it was only half full. Since the capacity of the compressor was small and the size of the air bank large it was apparent that half a tank of gasoline was not enough to build up the pressure required to turn over the 240 volt generator. But there was a chance that the compressor could be made to run on gasoline diluted with Diesel oil. This, however, required the services of a man who knew internal combustion engines.
 
     
 
- 6 -
 
     
     

 

     
     
 
The man best equipped with such knowledge was still on the OWL.
 
     
 
        It was by this time the middle of the afternoon of the 18th. When the VICTORIA asked for the experienced engineer it was so rough that the lowering of a small boat was out of the question. In the wind and weather coming alongside the VICTORIA was a far more hazardous task than it had been in the early morning. The tanker was drifting at three knots. The Commanding Officer of the OWL decided to approach the tanker bow on from windward--trusting that the drift of the ship would keep her clear of the OWL. Handicapped by the tow the minesweeper slipped down past the VICTORIA, but the pitching of both ships was so great that the man was prevented from jumping across. As the two vessels began to separate, the man tried to jump into the water in the hope of swimming to the Jacob's Ladder dangling over the side of the tanker. He was restrained forcibly by an officer. When this attempt had failed the Commanding Officer of the OWL decided to wait until next morning before taking any further steps. He accordingly sent a message to Bermuda and Commander Eastern Sea Frontier informing them that he hoped to have the VICTORIA underway by the morning of the 19th, and requesting assistance. In reply Commander Eastern Sea Frontier stated that the USS SAGAMORE would be sent.
 
     
          Over on the VICTORIA the boarding party finally got the gasoline motor on the emergency compressor started. All afternoon and evening the air pressure in the banks gradually built up, but about midnight the motor refused to run longer on its diet of gasoline and Diesel oil. It stopped with only 90 pounds of air in the tanks. Recourse was  
     
 
- 7 -
 
     
     

 

     
     
 
had once more to the blueprints. It was found that the ship also possessed an emergency generator that might be used, but all attempts to find the generator failed. There was nothing left to do but wait until morning.
 
     
 
        As the dawn of April 19th broke in the sky about 0543 the lookout on the OWL saw three vivid flares bearing 311° (T) about ten miles off. The crew was called to General Quarters, the tow was tripped and the OWL ran down the bearing to the flares. At 0608 a merchant vessel was sighted which, the Commanding Officer of the OWL feared, had been lured by the lights into the trap of a submarine. In time the vessel was identified as the EMPIRE DRYDEN who informed the OWL that the flares had been set off by a lifeboat. This lifeboat, lying close by, contained the Chief OFficer, the guarantee engineer and nineteen members of the crew of the VICTORIA. The OWL picked them up, gave them warm clothing, medical treatment and breakfast before starting back once again to the VICTORIA and the oil barge YOG 38.
 
     
          The survivors had spent an anxious 36 hours before the OWL rescued them. All night of the 17th, after their comrades had disappeared into the darkness they had remained near the VICTORIA. When dawn came on the 18th the ship was still in sight, nor did it disappear until 0600. It is strange that the men in the lifeboat did not see the OWL and her tow which were slowly circling the ship from 0400 on. About 0730 of the 18th a plane was sighted, the first of several that flew  
     
 
- 8 -
 
     
     

 

     
     
 
overhead throughout the day. Each time one appeared the men in the lifeboat sent up a rocket, but on each occasion they failed to attract the attention of the plane. Night fell as the little boat tossed about on the rough waters, and throughout the hours of darkness no sign of help was heard or seen. But at 0600 of the next day, April 19th, a large merchant vessel was sighted. A rocket was fired and flares lit. The ship was seen to alter course and make for the little boat. She hove to near the survivors who brought their lifeboat alongside. The guarantee engineer, who alone could speak English, went aboard. He found his rescuers were British, but could not learn the name of the ship. While he was in conversation with the ship's officers another vessel, the American minesweeper was sighted. The guarantee engineer returned to the lifeboat which then rowed to the OWL.
 
     
 
        The condition of the VICTORIA was explained by the Commanding Officer of the minesweeper to the guarantee engineer as the survivors were being taken back to their ship. The Englishman assured his rescuer that he could start the engines himself. So, when the OWL reached the VICTORIA, the survivors were returned to their vessel and the boarding party was returned to the OWL. But examination of the engines showed that until enough air had been built up in the air bank to start the generators, the main engines could not be started by the guarantee engineer or anyone else. It was decided to bring the OWL alongside and use her compressor for the purpose. This was not easy. The sea was still very rough, and during the night the VICTORIA had shifted position until her undamaged side now was also her weather side. The lee side, where the
 
     
 
- 9 -
 
     
     

 

     
     
 
torpedoes had struck, presented a jagged five foot edge of steel that stuck out into the sea like a knife. The Commanding Officer of the OWL decided to approach from the weather side, hoping that the water would act as a cushion between him and the VICTORIA. Accordingly he tripped his tow and came alongside. The two ships plunged about in the rough seas; water, hurled high in the air, splashed down on the decks and the men who lined the rail, but the ships themselves stayed clear. Lines were passed and air from the OWL's compressor was pumped into the air banks. At 1102 the banks were filled and the motors started. Instructions were sent to the guarantee engineer to proceed at seven knots on course 310° (T) for New York. At 1138 the two ships and the tow got underway. At 1745 a United States destroyer was sighted on the horizon.
 
     
 
        This destroyer was the NICHOLSON. On the day the VICTORIA was torpedoed, April 17th, the NICHOLSON was at New York preparing to leave next day in company with the SWANSON. The two destroyers were to perform patrol and search duty in the area bounded by Latitudes 34-45W and 35-45N and by Longitudes 70-30 and 72-30W. At 2100 April 17th Cominch informed Commander Eastern Sea Frontier that the VICTORIA was in distress and three hours later CESF ordered the two destroyers to depart at daylight, April 18th, for the scene of the attack on the VICTORIA.
 
     
          Saturday the 18th the two ships left New York. At 110 the NICHOLSON turned back to port with an appendicitis case. Having transferred the patient off Ambrose, she set out to rejoin the SWANSON. On Sunday, April 19th, at 0500 the two ships met and proceeded in company to look for survivors of the damaged tanker. Five hours later the  
     
 
- 10 -
 
     
     

 

     
     
 
NICHOLSON sighted the No. 2 lifeboat with the Master of the VICTORIA and seventeen of the crew.
 
     
 
        This lifeboat had spent an uneventful day and a half since the VICTORIA had been abandoned. The Master had tried to head for the coast but headwinds had prevented him. He therefore set a course parallel to the shore, roughly northeast. On the 18th two planes were sighted by the survivors, but all attempts to catch the attention of the pilots failed. Another night passed before the NICHOLSON picked up the men at 1000 Sunday, four hours after the OWL had rescued the survivors of the first lifeboat some seventy miles away.
 
     
          The NICHOLSON sank the lifeboat with four shots before continuing her search for the rest of the crew. At 1300 she received word that two more lifeboats had been sighted 150 miles to the southwest. She altered course in this direction. Two hours later word was received that the remaining crew members had already been rescued, and that the VICTORIA was proceeding for NEw York in company with the OWL. About 1800 the NICHOLSON sighted the tanker and her escort and transferred the Master and crew members back to their ship. The destroyer was then ordered by Commander Eastern Sea Frontier to rejoin the SWANSON in the patrol area originally assigned. Next day, April 20th, at 1023 the SAGAMORE, under orders from Commander Eastern Sea Frontier, met the VICTORIA and relieved the OWL of her duty. The crippled ship and her escort returned to New York while the OWL with her tow proceeded to Bermuda.  
     
          The ill luck that had followed the VICTORIA up the coast from  
     
 
- 11 -
 
     
     

 

     
     
 
Buenos Aires continued to pursue her. Her name, long after her arrival in port, aroused the interest of law firms in America and disturbed the peace of three foreign offices in two hemispheres. As the Commanding Officer of the OWL looked out across the water at the VICTORIA shining like a beacon in the darkness of the night he "recalled the differences of opinion regarding the present world crisis that exists between Argentina and the United States and also the endeavors of both Germany and Italy to cement good relations with Argentina. I, therefore, felt that if a United States Man-of-War should be able to bring into port an Argentinean merchant vessel which had twice been torpedoed by an Axis submarine and which had been abandoned by her officers and crew that Argentina might see more clearly in this incident the depravations of the Axis on the one hand and the neighborliness of the United States on the other. I, therefore, felt that I should spare no effort to save the crew, salvage the ship, and sink the submarine. In this endeavor I was partially successful."
 
     
 
        Though the efforts of the Commanding Officer met with considerable success, his hope that his actions might serve to alter the course of diplomacy pursued by Argentina proved vain. Three weeks after the incident the president of the Cia. Argentina Navegacion Mihanovich Limitada expressed, through our Ambassador, his "deepest appreciation of the chivalrous attitude adopted by the American government in connection with the misadventure experienced by our motor vessel VICTORIA". This appreciation was given substantial foundation by the gift of $20,000
 
     
 
- 12 -
 
     
     

 

     
     
 
to our Navy Relief Society. But the government of Argentina proved somewhat elusive in its behavior.
 
     
 
        The Foreign Minister revealed a desire for positive proof that the ship had been attacked by a German submarine before he made representations to the Third Reich. It was set forth in Buenos Aires that the Argentine Flag could easily be mistaken for the flag of Honduras, and it was believed that the tanker might well have run into two mines. For those who found it hard to understand how flags of different shape and design could be confused, or who found it difficult to accept the existence of a minefield 300 miles off Hatteras, there was the explanation of the Master of the VICTORIA who had said, with commendable reserve, that "It was a rare accident."
 
     
          These explanations, which served for six weeks to stay the hand of the Argentinean diplomats, were swept aside by the two-hundred page report of the Argentinean Minister of Marine. Following this report, which stated that the ship had been torpedoed by an Axis U-boat, a "strong protest" was lodged against both Germany and Italy. Ten days later, on June 17th, the German government expressed its "lively regret" at the torpedoing which had occurred "by error", and expressed its willingness to make indemnification. The whole matter was still unsettled when, on June 22nd, the Argentinean steamer RIO TERCERO was sunk by a German submarine. The two ships' names became immediately joined in an issue that excited much public attention. Crowds gathered in the streets of Buenos Aires and the German Embassy was stoned. Complications were  
     
 
- 13 -
 
     
     

 

     
     
 
added when the President was forced at this delicate moment to resign for quite genuine reasons of ill health.
 
     
 
        The new administration preserved the balance of its predecessor by thanking the United States for assistance in rescuing the crews of the two vessels and sending off to Berlin a firm protest. Germany in reply acknowledged her responsibility, offered to pay reparations, and gave assurances that no further attacks on Argentine vessels would be made. She refused, however, to accede to Argentina's request that the Third Reich salute the flag of Argentina in a public ceremony. The German Charge´ D' Affairs explained that this was "an obsolete diplomatic practice and alien to the mentality of the new Germany." No offense was, however, intended. And none was taken. The incident was closed with the agreement that Germany would not, at least for the moment, pay an indemnity for the two ships that had been torpedoed.
 
     
          This solution was agreeable enough to a government anxious to preserve what it called "prudent neutrality." For the owners of the VICTORIA, however, a more substantial indication of German's good will was required. They accordingly, on July 8th, filed a claim against Germany for $800,000 damages.  
     
          The financial possibilities of the situation had not been neglected by another group of interested Argentineans. On May 28th the law firm of Burlingham, Veder, Clark and Hupper informed the Commandant of the Third Naval District that various members of the crew of the VICTORIA had brought suit against the owners for salvage. This claim was lodged "on the theory that they voluntarily returned to the vessel which had been  
     
 
- 14 -
 
     
     

 

     
     
 
abandoned and was derelict, and by their own efforts had brought the vessel and her cargo safely back to New York." The firm in question was representing the claim on the grounds that the vessel was not derelict, having been gotten underway by a boarding party from a naval vessel.
 
     
 
        It is possible that the suit thus begun in May 1942 may be ultimately won less on its merits than by a process of attrition. For one year the case has been kept out of court because of the impossibility of collecting all the principals in court at one time. The crew of the VICTORIA is scattered, the men on the OWL and the NICHOLSON have been assigned, in many cases, to new duty. The search for witnesses has led from New York to Norfolk to Key West, to Buenos Aires to North Africa and back. One witness is of particular importance. The legal crux of the case seems to be whether the crew of the VICTORIA returned voluntarily, if not enthusiastically, to the ship they abandoned. The Commanding Officer of the OWL can answer that question. It is possible that he ordered the crew back to their ship, and it is also possible that they asked him to return them. Some light may be thrown on this question by the repot of an enlisted man on the OWL in which he said, before the suit for salvage had been thought of, that the crew returned "reluctantly." But only the Commanding Officer of the OWL can say definitely what steps were taken to return the Argentineans, and he is out of the country for an indefinite period. The court has granted a stay of trial until his return.
 
     
          From the beginning the VICTORIA was an apple of discord  
     
 
- 15 -
 
     
     

 

     
     
 
among the men who knew her. Her misadventures gave rise only to disputes about their causes and effects. She passes out of the Frontier on the same note of disagreement on which she entered it. On July 24th 1942 the War Shipping Administration announced that they requisitioned "the bare-boat use of the vessel for military purposes only. This action was taken under Public Law 101, the ship requisition act. The administration has not taken title to the boat," nor was it decided what flag the ship would fly. That same day in Buenos Aires the Argentine Foreign Minister stated that the action of the United States was a "logical use" of the repurchase clause in the original contract. Prudently neutral to the last he added that a representative of Argentina would probably participate in the flag changing ceremony. The final word belonged with the War Shipping Administration. "No ship," said a spokesman, "flying a Latin-American flag is in quite the same category as the VICTORIA."
 
     
 
 
     
     
     
 
- 16 -
 
     
     

 


 

Click the icons to view the associated records

Return to the War Diary Eastern Sea Frontier April 1942 page
Return to the Eastern Sea Frontier page