Late in the afternoon of June 5, 1942, a Coast Guard lookout spotted a wooden motorboat puttering up Nauset Inlet with 20 windburned, exhausted men aboard. He’d expected them — U-boat victims. They had radioed for help to navigate to Cape Cod from the spot where their freighter sank 200 miles off Nantucket.
The lookout notified the Nauset Coast Guard Station, which sent three trucks carrying blankets, medical supplies and a surfboat to the survivors. By dinnertime they reached the station, where they had hot coffee and sandwiches. Four local doctors examined them. One survivor suffered from exposure after three days in an open boat and one had a broken eardrum, hit by a boom in the torpedo explosion. The other U-boat victims were fine. They took showers and slept, unbothered by curious civilians or prying reporters. The Coast Guard posted guards around the station, and the Red Cross volunteers kept their mouths shut.
The 20 men belonged to the hundreds of traumatized U-boat victims rescued along the New England coast during World War II. The U.S. government did its best to keep their existence secret. It had to because it didn’t want the public to know about the Battle of the Atlantic off the U.S. East Coast. Over and over, the government and the military lied about the casualties inflicted by German U-boats sometimes just a few miles offshore.
Eight days earlier in New York City, the men in the lifeboat had boarded the Mattawin, a British freighter carrying 8.6 tons of military trucks, airplanes, guns and ammunition. The vessel had instructions to deliver the materiel to Alexandria, Egypt, for the Allied invasion of Africa.
Delayed a day by engine trouble, the Mattawin left Long Island Sound on May 31 with 71 souls aboard. Twelve passengers belonged to the American Field Service, a volunteer ambulance corps. Three gunners from the British military guarded the freighter with machine guns and a four-inch anti-aircraft gun.
At night the Mattawin passengers and crew slept in their clothes because of the German U-boats prowling the Atlantic. In the first five months of 1942, U-boats sank nearly 500 ships, three a day. They had left the sea littered with lifeboats, debris, loose cargo and oil slicks.
The Mattawin passed Nantucket Shoal Lightship at 6 a.m. on June 1, then headed east-southeast toward Capetown. When night fell, eight men aboard the ship stood watch, the three gunners at the ready, according to Capt. Charles Sweeny. They couldn’t see much, though, because clouds obscured the full moon.
AFS volunteer Nicholas Madeira stood watch in the gun turret. “I’m pretty sure I saw the wake of the torpedo just before it hit,” he later wrote, according to historian Eric Wiberg in his book, U-boats in New England.
At 1:19 a.m., a torpedo exploded in the Mattawin’s hull, sending up a huge column of water from one of the hatches, Sweeny recalled.
Sweeny realized the Mattawin would sink fast. He ordered an SOS signal sent, the engines shut off and the lifeboats launched. The radioman then threw secret codes overboard. AFS volunteer Harry Blackwell pointed out a submarine 200 yards off the starboard side of the ship. “No time to look at the sub much,” wrote another volunteer, Marshall Phelps.
Phelps, Blackwell, the other AFS volunteers and most of the crew quickly filed into four lifeboats without confusion. Three lifeboats pushed off. Minutes later, another torpedo struck. Captain Sweeny, still on board the sinking vessel, yelled to the others, “Every man for himself.” The last lifeboat remained in the davits, and Sweeny and four others hopped in. The Mattewin sank almost immediately, a mere 11 minutes after the first torpedo struck. Everyone had gotten off safely.
Typically, the U-boat, U-553, waited for the crew and passengers to get into the lifeboats before firing the second torpedo. The Germans wanted to sink ships, not kill civilians. It wasn’t unusual for a U-boat to surface next to survivors in a lifeboat just after it had torpedoed their ship. The Germans would ask for the ship’s name, tonnage and destination. They’d then offer their victims water, cigarettes, bread and directions to the nearest land.
To win the war, Germany knew it had to delay the buildup of America’s war machine and interrupt supply lines to the Allies in Europe and Africa. Germany sent its fleet of U-boats — 159 at peak strength — to sink merchants ships and oil tankers. The goal was to starve the Allies of industrial as well as military supplies.
U-Boat Victims on Lifeboats
The four Mattawin lifeboats had pemmican, cigarettes, chocolate, salted peanuts, 36 gallons of water and red sails. In the first boat, Sweeny had a sextant and chronometer. The fourth had a motor and a radio. For four hours they stuck together, rowing toward Cape Cod in the dark. Sweeny figured they’d reach Cape Cod in seven days.
At dawn they raised their sails. AFS volunteer Edward Fenton, Amherst Class of ’37, wrote he’d never forget how beautiful it was — “the great red sail unfurling, and the sun upon it, and the men in their yellow suits against it. We sailed on all day, the other three boats following. We had an extremely good time in our boat, laughing, telling jokes; and the British engineers taught us a number of songs to which we have words.” Fenton would survive the war and write children’s books.
The four boats kept together until 2 p.m., when the third boat disappeared from sight. Sweeny told the motor launch to go ahead and find a rescue ship.
That night it rained, making for uncomfortable slumber. As June 3 dawned, the third lifeboat remained out of sight.
Early that morning the launch spotted a Norwegian freighter, the Torvanger, which paused to let it come aside. Capt. Leif Danielsen offered to take them aboard. When the men learned she was bound for Capetown, they said they’d prefer to try for Cape Cod. Danielsen gave them some fuel. He then looked for the other lifeboats and steered toward them. They both declined to come aboard and continued sailing.
Fenton, in the second lifeboat, recalled they had gone half an hour when they noticed the Torvanger was steaming toward them.
The Torvanger Turns Back
What happened aboard the Torvanger was this:
Rescues at sea, which sometimes took a long time, exposed the rescuer to U-boat attacks. The Torvanger had risked U-boat attacks at least seven times in the past 48 hours. When she stopped for the Mattawin victims, she had already rescued two sets of U-boat victims. Some of them had been torpedoed on two consecutive vessels in the space of a week.
After she left the last Mattawin lifeboat, the Torvanger’s crew confronted Captain Danielsen. They were fed up risking torpedo strikes. After all, three lifeboats full of shipwreck survivors told them they’d rather spend a week eating salted peanuts in an open boat than board a 7,000-ton freighter sailing unescorted across the Atlantic.
They demanded an armed escort before heading to Africa.
The Torvanger turned around and found two of the Mattawin lifeboats again. Captain Danielsen told the survivors he’d decided to head back, and they agreed to come on board . But fog had drifted in and they couldn’t spot the other two Mattawin boats.
On board the Torvanger, Fenton recalled coffee and cheese in the salon, and a general reunion. “For the first time since the torpedoing, I found myself trembling,” he wrote. “The coffee slopped all over from my shaking hand.” That night Fenton bunked with the crew, along with another AFS volunteer, Richard Edwards, nephew of future U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.
The next day, June 4, the Torvanger encountered a convoy bound for Halifax, which welcomed the vessel to join them. By that evening they landed in Canada.
Just as the U.S. Coast Guard did on Cape Cod, the Canadians kept the U-boat survivors under wraps. After they landed in Halifax, Fenton wrote, “We were rushed in a bus to the Allied Seaman’s Institute, where tables had been roped off, with signs on them that read “Reserved – For Survivors Only.”
When the Mattawin’s launch landed in Eastham, the Coast Guard refused access to curious civilians, friends and newspaper reporters. The U-boat victims were whisked to an undisclosed location and interviewed by the U.S. Navy.
On June 8, the third lifeboat was picked up by the Coast Guard cutter General Greene and taken to Nantucket. The island that month had taken in nearly 100 U-boat victims from four separate sinkings. Again, the Red Cross and the Coast Guard kept them sequestered. The survivors were taken to the Bennett Theater, where they slept on cots. Townspeople who brought clothes and bedding couldn’t get past the door. The General Greene then took the survivors to Newport for questioning by the Navy.
Throughout New England, 649 survivors of Uboats landed in a dozen ports, according to Wiberg. Some got counted twice, like the Mattawin survivors who landed at Nantucket and then Newport.
Nearly 300 landed in Boston and 160 in Newport. Nantucket hosted 133, Provincetown 62, and New Bedford 36. Portland, Maine, saw 50 U-boat victims. Other ports included New London, Conn., Falmouth, Mass., Eastham, Mass., Point Judith, R.I., Gloucester, Mass., Southwest Harbor, Maine, Rockland, Maine, and Brighton, Mass.
The Navy had a harder time keeping a lid on the news that U-boats had attacked fishing vessels. The Germans targeted fishermen because the Navy used them as observers. They had radio transmitters and “confidential fishermen observer kits.” They even got carrier pigeons to carry messages to shore.
On the same day the Torvanger picked up two U-boat victims from the Mattawin, U-432 shelled two Gloucester fishing vessels. The Ben and Josephine and the Aeolus were fishing southeast of Thacher Island. The Germans let the captains and crew escape in dories before delivering the coup de grace.
The survivors rowed for 14 hours, finally landing on Mount Desert Rock. They were interviewed at the Coast Guard station, then taken to the high school gym in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Local residents brought cots and bedding, baskets of food, fish chowder, hot coffee and dessert. The survivors then took a bus home, and their story appeared in the Gloucester Daily Times.
“When the full news became known, enthusiasm for the offshore fisheries declined sharply,” wrote Charles Dana Gibson, a relative of the Ben and Josephine’s captain, Guiseppe Ciaramitaro.
Just before dawn on June 13, 1944, U-107 fired two torpedoes and missed the 148-ton fishing vessel Lark, sailing off Cape Sable. The U-boat then fired a warning shot, and 25 of the 27 men aboard jumped into lifeboats. The U-107 then strafed the rigging, the pilot house and the hulls, damaging the boat and destroying two sails. When dawn broke, U-107 slipped away. The captain, who’d stayed with the vessel, started the engine, picked up the men and made it back to his home port of Boston. There it tied up at a public pier on the morning of June 15.
The Navy decided to use the U-boat attacks as a publicity stunt, inviting the press to cover the story. The Navy pointed out it was the first time in two years anyone had seen enemy U-boats on the northeast fishing banks. That was a lie.
Few today know that more than 5,000 people died in the Battle of the Atlantic — more than twice as many as at Pearl Harbor. The government did its best to cover it up. The Navy blamed torpedo attacks on boiler explosions or simply issued cryptic statements that a boat sank. During the early part of the battle, the Navy falsely claimed it had sunk far more U-boats than it actually did.
The news media also agreed to government censorship, which helped to hide the military’s incompetence in protecting shipping and the lives of merchant seamen.
Not until the spring of 1943 did the United States build enough oceangoing military strength to destroy U-boats faster than the Germans could build them.
Thanks to Eric Wiberg, author of U-Boats in New England, and uboat.net, on both of which this story relied heavily.
Images: First Encounter Beach By ToddC4176 at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16093177. Mount Desert light-station, looking N. Maine, 1894. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2005688368/. Lifeboat, survivors rescued and General Greene, The Coast Guard at War: Assistance XIV, prepared in Public Relations Division Historical Section, Oct. 30, 1944.