Daily Event for January 16, 2011

The Liberty ship Sumner I. Kimball was a relatively new ship in 1944, she had been delivered to the Mystic Steamship Company on Oct. 21, 1943 and used on a couple of convoys to Halifax. She made her first trans-Atlantic crossing in convoy HX-267, a convoy of almost 60 ships and over 20 escorts, because of the size of the escort and Ultra decrypts the convoy arrived at Liverpool without a single loss.

She was returning in ON-219, a convoy of about the same make-up as HX-267 in ships and escorts. For a reason unknown to me Kimball straggled from the convoy in mid-ocean and was found by U-960 on January 16, 1944. The submarine fired a number of torpedoes at the ship scoring several hits, but the stubborn ship failed to sink. She was sailing in ballast so there was no cargo of ammunition or any other explosive compounds to cause her to explode, but even after several hits she should have gone down quickly.

After some time the ship broke in half, a common problem with Liberty ships, but again she did not sink, both halves stayed afloat until at least the next day. The U-boat commander, Oberleutnant zur See Günther Heinrich, reported the attack, but was ordered to return to the wreck and sink it, on Jan. 17 he was able to find the forward half and he dispatched it with a torpedo, the stern was found by HMS Forester H-74, and it too finally sunk, but what of the survivors?

There were seventy sailors on the ship and her master, Harry Atkins, was able to get a distress signal off, however this was the last ever heard of the crew. Heinrich made no reports of seeing survivors, neither did Forester and no lifeboats or rafts were ever found. The loss of the entire crew was one of those ironic twists of fate as the ship was named in honor of Sumner I. Kimball, the "father" of the lifesaving service in the United States.
© 2011 Michael W. Pocock
MaritimeQuest.com


Feb. 7, 2015: The story continues..

In January of 1991, forty-seven years after the sinking an article appeared in the Boston Globe entitled "U-boat's logbook surfaces to tell of US ship's death." The article written by Globe staff reporter William P. Coughlin told the dramatic story of the last voyage of the Kimball. In typical reporter fashion Coughlin felt it necessary to paint the German as a cold blooded killer, unconcerned as to the fate of the sailors on the ship he had sunk.

I would like to point out that not every German was a rabid Nazi, many were just Germans, fighting on the German side because they were born German. Not every American or British sailor or soldier hated the enemy, many of them were fighting for the Allies because they were born American or British. Since I did not know Heinrich I can not speak to his character, but I would mention he was a young man in his mid twenties, and must have been educated in Nazi controlled schools in the Nazi controlled state. He would have been subjected to the same propaganda that every other young man his age was exposed to. It was his duty, just as it was the duty of every American or British serviceman, to destroy the enemy, and the ship in front of him was the enemy.

Nevertheless when we read about a ship torpedoed in a vicious storm we can only assume that the enemy commander must have known he was sending the crew to almost certain death. We see this as inhumane and crewel, but that is because the men dying were our men. I can say that we don't have the same feeling when we learn about a German ship sunk under the same conditions, we just say, well that is war. We don't think of the Allied commander as a monster, he was just doing his duty to destroy the enemy. I say this only to provide some perspective. To the German commander the Sumner I. Kimball was an enemy ship and it was his duty to sink it.

I would also point out that every man on the Kimball knew the danger, but it was their duty to get the supplies of war through, supplies that would be used to fight the Germans. They did not waver, they got into a poorly armed ship and made the voyage anyway. To be sure if they had had the opportunity to ram and sink the U-boat they would have, and when they arrived at port they would have been considered heroes.

As I said, I did not know Heinrich so his inner thoughts at the time I can not be aware of. However almost fifty years later he was still alive and was given a copy of the aforementioned article. He took exception to the line in the article;

"It was the end. Heinrich closed to circle the shattered wreck, then made the grim, three-worded notation; No survivors found. Three words for 64 men, their only epitaph, written by their executioner, at 0319 Newfoundland time at 52 degrees, 33 minutes North; 33 degrees, 45 minutes South on Jan. 17, 1944."

Coughlin failed in his article to mention the very next sentence in Heinrich's KTB (War Diary), "Proceed slowly off to the east, in order to possibly find lifeboats." Of course Coughlin described Heinrich as the "executioner" of the sailors to make the impact of the article more poignant to the reader, that is what newspaper men do. But why not mention that Heinrich, at least in the KTB, recorded that he attempted to find survivors? Who can say, but that may also have been to give the reader the impression that the German, as all Germans, was a killer with no regard for the lives of other seamen.

In November of 1992 Günther Heinrich sent a letter to Mr. Coughlin at the Globe, below is a transcription of the letter which was provided to me by Tom von Berg, whose Grandfather, William, was lost in the Sumner I. Kimball.

Nov. 10, 1992

The Boston Globe
Editor Globe Staff
Mr. William P. Coughlin

Respective: The Boston Globe, Thursday January 17, 1991
"U-boat's logbook surfaces to tell of US ship's death"

Dear Mr. Coughlin,

When the world's only multi-national submarine history group "Sharkhunters" held its sixth annual convention in Hamburg, Germany your article had been hand(ed) over to me. Later I read and translated it. I am the former commanding officer (Kommandant) of U-960, at that time nearly twenty-four years (old) now nearly seventy-three years old. I remember those tragic days in the North Atlantic very well and like to express myself to that occurrence.

The wireless operator of the "Sumner I. Kimball" gave that wireless message three times: SSS SSS SSS, WDLU torpedoed 52.35N-35.00W not SOS (save our souls), I think SSS means submarine. (Coughlin in his story says only one distress signal, an SOS was sent, but this could very well mean only one session and not just one small signal. He was probably also not aware of the code used by merchant ships during the war, SSS= being attacked by submarine.)

In those days 1944 the North Atlantic had been controlled by the Allies completely. After this wireless message onthe 600 meter wave I counted with (expected to see) hostile men-of-war and airplanes.

SS Sumner I. Kimball was not helpless. That ship has been armed on the foreship a cannon calibre 8-10 cm, beside foremast and on the command bridge and on the stern at least four to six small cannons calibre 2-4 cm. Easily accounted for the twenty-four armed guard aboard.

The zigzagging armoured ship without escort and after four torpedo hits kept on swimming (sailing) and tried to ram the U-boat it seemed to me a haunted ship, perhaps a submarine trap (Q-ship)? It was unintelligible that no man-of-war ran to Kimball's assistance after its wireless message. After the reloading of the torpedo tubes U-960 surfaced at 03.19 a.m. German time 17.January. I had written in the U-boots war diary (Kriegstagebuch = KTB), it is similar a logbook: "Steamer breaks into two parts amidships, the stern and ships forepart are drifting apart quickly. Ships forepart aft sinks slowly. The sinking stern passed in a distance of 50 m and noticed two platforms with small guns. No survivors found. I drive in east direction maybe to find lifeboats." (This statement is confirmed in the copy of the KTB of U-960 which I have and is not just a recollection of Heinrich in 1991.) But I found neither shipwrecked men nor lifeboats.

The Supreme U-Boot Command had been informed of the torpedoed ship by wireless message. Thereupon I received the wireless order to look again for survivors and run immediately to the ships sinking position. It was presumed that U-960 and sunk the German blockade breaking ship "Rio Grande".

The 18th January at 04.00 p.m. o'clock German time the forepart of the Kimball is detected still afloat. The storm has decreased, I go with U-960 very close to the ship's bow and can realise evidently the ship is abandoned, the davits of the boats had been turned overboard.

The ropes for the men to get into the lifeboats and rope-ladder are hanging down, aboard nothing moves. The ship will be identified as an EC2 steamer. The midshiphouse lies in the waterline, the bow is high out of the water, she is grey-green painted like a man-of-war. I noticed three hatches on the ship's forepart, the bridge is plated, above the bridge is a platform to give signals and a radar. I saw the cannons as described above. All this had been reported wirelessly to the German Supreme U-Boot Command.

At 05.43 o'clock p.m. German time the still swimming (floating) forepart of Kimball had been torpedoed from 500 m distance. The storm had passed only long waves moved the ocean. I photographed the drifting ship's forepart and the explosion of the last fired torpedo. After all I noticed the ship's crew and the gunners went into the boats and drove away. Hitherto I supposed all men aboard the Kimball had been rescued.

There were the rinsed davits and the fact that on 18th January at 01.05 o'clock a.m. German time U-960 had been detected by an Allied airplane and forced to dive. When I now realised all men of the Kimball were not rescued and died I am very sadden. My U-Boot U-960 had been sunk in the Mediterranean by gun-fire of two U.S. destroyers at the 19th May 1944. Only 19 men of the 51 men could been rescued with me.

I now mourn not only my thirty one comrades but also the forty-seven men and twenty-four gunners of the steadfast Kimball.

Signed Günther Heinrich

In a separate letter to Capt. Arthur R. Moore, the maritime historian and author who first wrote about the sinking and found the original KTB in the national archives, Heinrich wrote the following:

"The article by Mr. William P. Coughlin expresses in my opinion that I am a cold "Scharfrichter" executioner who does not care about helpless mariners. That's wrong. As an C.O. of an U-Boot it was my duty and not a fun or pleasure to sink enemy ships particularly armoured ships. But it is self evident for me to give helpless men the best possible help...
I appreciate if those relatives who lost their loved ones and read the Globe article learn that Günther Heinrich was not a grim executioner."

It is difficult to determine if the nearly fifty years since the war had mellowed Herr Heinrich or if this was his attitude at the time of the war. Kimball was the last of three ships sunk by him, the other two being Soviet vessels, so we have very little record to make a proper judgment about his actions during the war. To be sure the Germans were on the wrong side of the war, but perhaps the statements by Heinrich himself will provide some closure to the families of the brave men lost in Sumner I. Kimball so long ago.

Photo taken by Günther Heinrich of the forepart of Sumner I. Kimball.




Roll of Honor
In memory of those who lost their lives in
SS Sumner I. Kimball
"As long as we embrace them in our memory, their spirit will always be with us"

Name
Rate
Notes
Ambler, William H.
Messman
Merchant Marine
Arsenal, Charles A.
Able Seaman
Merchant Marine
Atkins, Harry
Master
Merchant Marine
Barnes, Sherman L.
Ordinary Seaman
Merchant Marine
Barry, Leslie N.
Junior Engineer
Merchant Marine
Bell, Holman S.
3rd Mate
Merchant Marine
 
Berg, Willem E. von
1st Engineer
Merchant Marine
Bourque, Roland A.
Ordinary Seaman
Merchant Marine
Brock, Nicholas P.
Deck Maintenance
Merchant Marine
Brown, Sam W.
Seaman 1st Class
U.S. Navy
Budnick, Peter
Gunner's Mate 3rd Class
U.S. Navy
Bunnell, Theodore J.
Fireman/Watertender
Merchant Marine
Cashman, Jr., Robert J.
Seaman 1st Class
U.S. Navy
Cavanaugh, Marcus C.
Messman
Merchant Marine
Champion, Robert L.
Seaman 1st Class
U.S. Navy Reserve
Dagenais, Alfred
Wiper
Merchant Marine
Decker, Roger I.
Wiper
Merchant Marine
Delker, Roger I.
Wiper
Merchant Marine
DeLorenzo, Frank S.
Able Seaman
Merchant Marine
Demboski, Michael J.
Radioman 3rd Class
U.S. Navy
Durbin, Joseph
Seaman 1st Class
U.S. Navy
Edgerly, Arnold G.
Seaman 1st Class
U.S. Navy
Eichinger, Joseph
Seaman 1st Class
U.S. Navy
Farber, Francis J.
Seaman 1st Class
U.S. Navy
Foley, George A.
Able Seaman
Merchant Marine
Fowler, Roscoe J.
Seaman 2nd Class
U.S. Navy
Hawthorn, Robert M.
Fireman/Watertender
Merchant Marine
Helms, A. G.
Seaman 1st Class
U.S. Navy
Herlihy, William J.
Cook
Merchant Marine
Hertweck, Harold E.
Coxswain
U.S. Navy
Hiltz, Harold G.
Fireman/Watertender
Merchant Marine
Howe, Walter F.
Oiler
Merchant Marine
Hubbard, Leonard W.
Signalman 1st Class
U.S. Navy
Irvin, Edmund J.
2nd Mate
Merchant Marine
Jevning, Harold N.
Signalman 3rd Class
U.S. Navy
Johnson, Jr., Durward B.
Seaman 1st Class
U.S. Navy
Kennis, Jr., Joseph W.
Ordinary Seaman
Merchant Marine
Kirk, Vincent A.
Radio Officer
Merchant Marine
Legay, Kenneth I.
Seaman 1st Class
U.S. Navy
Lovett, George B.
Seaman 1st Class
U.S. Navy
Lucia, Nicholas J.
Seaman 1st Class
U.S. Navy
Lynch, John J.
Cook
Merchant Marine
Marks, John C.
Chief Cook
Merchant Marine
Marshall, Wilson H.
Seaman 1st Class
U.S. Navy
McDonald, Charles R.
Seaman 1st Class
U.S. Navy
Meacham, Lee N.
Purser
Merchant Marine
Metcalf, Buford R.
Gunner's Mate 3rd Class
U.S. Navy
Milkvy, Milton
Utility
Merchant Marine
Minninger, Lloyd S.
Able Seaman
Merchant Marine
Misevicz, Joseph A.
Seaman 1st Class
U.S. Navy
Mitchell, Gerald J.
Utility
Merchant Marine
Moran, Porter F.
Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class
U.S. Navy
Mulvey, Dana R.
Oiler
Merchant Marine
Murphy, Edward P.
Seaman 1st Class
U.S. Navy
Murphy, George M.
3rd Engineer
Merchant Marine
Nagle, Finbarr A.
Seaman 1st Class
U.S. Navy
Nealings, James R.
Seaman 1st Class
U.S. Navy
Paskowski, Antoni
Messman
Merchant Marine
Patrinzi, Vincenzo
Bosun
Merchant Marine
Rakos, Jr., Stephen G.
Coxswain
U.S. Navy
Remick, Lincoln D.
Able Seaman
Merchant Marine
Sheehan, Bernard M.
Chief Engineer
Merchant Marine
Shunstrom, Richard S.
Seaman 2nd Class
U.S. Navy
Sprague, Donald E.
3rd Engineer
Merchant Marine
Taylor, Clement A.
Lt. (j.g.)
U.S. Navy
Tershowski, Walter L.
Seaman 1st Class
U.S. Navy
Valentine, Morris F.
Oiler
Merchant Marine
Wahlberg, Oscar C.
Utility
Merchant Marine
Weeks, John W.
Ordinary Seaman
Merchant Marine
Weetman, Joseph P.
Deck Engineer
Merchant Marine


To submit a photo, biographical information or correction please email the webmaster.
1.
Oct. 31, 2011

I work with a group of high school students in the Myrtle Beach home school community teaching English. In the process of helping my students with their VFW Voice of Democracy essays (Topic this year: Is There Pride in Serving in Our Military?), I wrote my own piece alongside them.

My grandma passed away 13 years ago but I remember like yesterday many of our conversations. Her husband, my grandfather, died aboard one of the merchant marine vessels. I was trying to piece the story together tonight when I asked my dad if he had any info. He only knew the name of the ship, SS Sumner I. Kimball. I have not been able to find any info. about my grandfather until tonight when I searched his ship name and found your website. I saw my grandfather's name and some info. on the ship in the January 16, 2011 Daily Event. I am so blessed to have info. It has been a very silent mystery in our family. I wanted to take a moment to express my sincere gratitude.

Sincerely,
Jennifer Cormack



2.
Feb. 16, 2012

My uncle, Robert L. Champion of Lincoln, Alabama, was on the Sumner I. Kimball.  I never knew Robert as I was not born until 1946, but my dad talked of him often. Since there was no body found, my grandparents always believed that Robert was alive somewhere and would eventually come home. My dad passed away in 2000.

Barbara Champion


3.
Sept. 24, 2012

You are doing a wonderful job gathering data and sharing information about Merchant Mariners in World War II.  Your account of the sinking of the Liberty Ship, Sumner I. Kimball, cleared a couple of misconceptions about that event.

My Grandfather, Willem Ernst von Berg, was lost while serving as First Engineer on the Kimball and his story adds to the honor of that ship's company.  Born in 1880, my grandfather held a “Masters” license to command ocean-going vessels of any size, yet he volunteered to serve America's war effort as a lower ranking First Engineer at age 64.  Our family had long thought he was lost carrying munitions to Mermansk, but your records indicate the Kimball was returning empty from Liverpool.

While our family is of German descent, Grandfather “Bill” was an American Patriot, as demonstrated by his service on the Kimball.  He was born in England, but became an American citizen. Another interesting note is that the U-Boat Commander, Gunther Heinrich, survived the war and retained the complete log of this sinking, including photographs.  When he visited Massachusetts from his home in Florida, a story about this event , including the log, was published in the Boston Globe.  Grandfather “Bill's” daughter, my Aunt Vera von Berg, met Heinrich in Boston in the mid-1960s, at which time they discussed the sinking .  I have photocopies of the news story, if you are interested and do not have them.

I read the other day that a man named Don Horton is working to gain military-style recognition and potentially, benefits for those who served as Merchant Mariners in World War II. Again, many thanks for your work.

Thomas E. von Berg
Knoxville, Tennessee




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