Those in Peril

By Grover, David | Sea Classics, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Those in Peril


Grover, David, Sea Classics


History often has a peculiar way of recalling the deeds of the victor and the vanquished

In the fall of 1942, on a lonely stretch of the South Atlantic Ocean between the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, two powerful traditions collided in a deadly encounter. One was the 200-year-old heritage of Yankee seafaring; the other was a much younger tradition of German militarism. The former was represented by an American cargo ship en route home via a circuitous route through dangerous waters; the latter was in the sinister form of a German U-boat, intent on the short-range goal of sinking enemy ships and the long-range goal of bringing about a new world order shaped by Hitler and his Nazi ideology.

This isolated clash between two ships, like hundreds of others similar to it throughout the war, would epitomize the duel between the maritime strengths and cultures of the two nations, as well as the larger conflicts of the war. In knowing something about the people, ships, and actions of that clash we can get a better feel for the broader significance of WWII at sea.

The players in this strange drama were an American freighter, the East Indian, and an IX D2-class German submarine, the U-181. The backgrounds of the two ships and the people aboard them could not have been more different. The American ship was not even native-born; she had been built in a Japanese shipyard for the US Shipping Board under a construction program launched during the First World War. She was crewed by a group of Americans of all ages and walks of life, with perhaps the largest single group from Mathews County, Virginia, an area famed for the number of Merchant Mariners it has produced. She was commanded by a captain of French extraction, Ovide L. Ste. Marie, whose officers were generally older men of considerable experience at sea. Ste. Marie himself was making his first trip in command of the vessel.

The German submarine, by contrast, was crewed by a group of youthful Nordic sailors, led by a 29-year-old captain, Wolfgang Luth. Unlike most of his fellow skippers, Luth was an ardent Nazi, even though he shared many of the humane values that most of those other captains respected. As a veteran of four submarine commands, Luth had already earned a Knight's Cross, the decoration awarded to the best of the submarine commanders, and would eventually go on to be one of the top two German submarine officers of WWII.

Ironically, the ultimate losers in this struggle, the men of the German U-boat force, have received all the recognition and the glory and had all the books written about them, while the winners, the faceless Allied merchant seamen of those perilous days of 1942, remain virtually unremembered and unappreciated. That situation needs to be corrected, and this article will try to help bring about that change. It will not be easy, however, in view of a plethora of information available about the "bad guys" and very little about the "good guys."

Between the interesting mix of values and backgrounds that characterized the two sides, an intense but lopsided struggle was shaping up. The East Indian, owned by the Ford Motor Company, was a motorship of 8100 gross-tons and a length of 462-ft, larger than the Liberty ships which were beginning to be seen in increasing numbers in that distant part of the world. She was six months out of New York, and preparing to leave Cape Town on 2 November 1942, en route to Punta Arenas in the Straits of Magellen, her final stop before heading for her home port. Aboard was cargo in the form of 3600-tons of manganese, 500-tons of tea, and 5600-tons of general cargo. She also had twelve passengers, seven of whom were construction workers for Foley Brothers who had been working at Abadan at the head of the Persian Gulf, and an armed guard detachment of 15 US Navy men, headed by a Naval Academy graduate, Ens. H. A. Axtell.

The U-181 was fairly new in South Atlantic waters, and she was yet to make her first kill. …

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