Daily Event for January 23, 2015

One of the boats involved in Operation Paukenschlag (Drumbeat), the first German U-boat offensive against the United States, was Korvettenkapitän Richard Zapp's U-66. He had departed Lorient, France on Christmas Day of 1941 to deliver an unwelcome present to the Americans. Over the course of his patrol, which lasted until Feb. 10, 1942 he sank five ships totaling 36,114 tons (however Zapp reported to U-boat headquarters the sinkings amounted to 50,000 tons). By the time he left the boat for a shore command in May of 1942 he had sent over 100,000 tons to the bottom and received the Ritterkreuz. Two of the ships he sank during that patrol were sunk on January 23, 1942 just fifteen or so miles off the coast of North Carolina.

The first ship hit was the British tanker Empire Gem. She had been built the year before at Harland & Wolff in Govan, Scotland and was 8,139 gross tons. She was sailing from Port Arthur, Texas with over 10,000 tons of gasoline and another 1,000 tons of machinery bound for the U.K. At about 1930 hours Zapp fired two torpedoes into the ship without being detected beforehand by the crew. There was a massive explosion, which was seen by the crew of the American freighter Venore a mile or two away. One or both torpedoes struck the ship on the starboard side in after tank. The ship continued to sail on at full speed until she broke in half. The stern sank, but the bows remained afloat and was put to anchor by the survivors before they left the ship. Only two of the fifty-one man crew survived, the master, Francis R. Broad and the 2nd Radio Officer Thomas Orwell. They were rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard vessel. A U.S. intercept station picked up an S.O.S. from the ship, but apparently no action was taken to assist.

The second ship attacked by Zapp was the aforementioned American freighter Venore. She was twenty-one years old having been built in 1921 at Bethlehem Steel at Sparrow's Point, Maryland. She was originally a tanker named G. Harrison Smith, in 1926 she was sold to Standard Oil and renamed Charles G. Black. A conversion from tanker to bulk carrier was made in 1940 and her new owners, Ore Steamship Company of New York, renamed her Venore. The 8,016 tons ship was in the service of Bethlehem Steel Corp. and made regular voyages between Baltimore and Cruz Grande, Chile and was returning from Chile with 22,700 tons of iron ore when U-66 hit her.

The master, Fritz Duurloo, had been made aware of enemy submarines in his path when he went through the Panama Canal and again around noon on the 23rd so he was sailing a zigzag course showing only dimmed sidelights to keep the ship from being in collision. At around noon the Empire Gem could be seen some miles astern and she closed throughout the day, getting as close as one or two miles by evening.

The rather quiet evening was shattered when the Empire Gem exploded, according to one of the survivors a fireball rose to five hundred feet. The bright light of the explosion betrayed the submarine, which could be seen, according to survivors, moving away from the Empire Gem and toward Venore. The master immediately made for shore and ordered full speed, but U-66 was faster and managed to close the gap quickly.

The radio operator began to send out a distress call which was picked up at 1950 by a Federal Communication Station in Concordville, Pennsylvania. Other stations were notified and at 2035 the District Communications Officer in Norfolk, Virginia responded with the message "Assistance en route and very near", the message was acknowledged by the radio operator on Venore. (It is interesting to note that the Admiralty and the Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine were both soon aware of the sinkings having intercepted the radio radio traffic.)

The explosion of the Empire Gem had caused a near panic amongst the crewmen in Venore. Even before they were attacked, men were preparing to abandon the ship, without receiving any such instructions from the master. The first torpedo must have been a dud, because when it hit it was described as "a slight concussion" which was felt in the stern. Shortly after this a man, described as "a Lithuanian or a foreigner of some kind" jumped off the stern of the ship, he was not seen again.

Men began to lower lifeboats even though the ship was still making 10 knots, so when they hit the water they were torn to pieces killing most of those in them. Only one out of three boats that were launched managed to survive the ordeal, but only two men had managed to get aboard. A few minutes later another torpedo hit the ship on the port side, the explosion tore the side of the ship open and this time the master ordered the ship abandoned.

He tossed a liferaft over the side and the last remaining lifeboat was launched. The radio operator continued to send distress signals for an estimated 45 minutes, and when he was told to prepare to leave the ship by the 3rd Mate it was noticed he had only one arm. Both men tried to slide down the lines, but the radio operator apparently went under, the mate tumbled into the lifeboat headfirst. The master was also missing so the men in the boat made an attempt to move toward the ship, but this proved to be impossible. Zapp ploughed one more torpedo into the ship and then left the area making no attempt to approach the survivors.

The twenty-one survivors rowed through the night and the following morning raised a sail because the wind was blowing. One aircraft was sighted, but apparently did not see them. Around 1000 on the 24th they sighted the lifeboat that had been launched earlier, the two men were still inside, but the boat was awash. Attempts to reach them were unsuccessful and the two boats were soon parted by the sea. The two men in the lifeboat luckily made land a day and a half later.

The survivors had to endure a second night in the lifeboat, but on the 25th the British tanker Tennessee hove into sight and picked them up. One other survivor was plucked from the ocean on the same day by the U.S. tanker Australia, having clung to some floating wreckage. (By the end of 1942 both ships would join Venore on the bottom of the sea courtesy of other U-boats.) Forty-nine men on Empire Gem and seventeen on Venore had perished and U-66 made for France. Zapp survived the war, but U-66 did not. She was sunk by U.S. ships in May of 1944.
© 2015 Michael W. Pocock
MaritimeQuest.com



Roll of Honour
In memory of those who lost their lives in
Empire Gem
"As long as we embrace them in our memory, their spirit will always be with us"

Name
Rate
Notes
Baker, Raymond C.
Gunner
Royal Artillery
(DEMS Gunner)

Beadle, Norman
Gunner
Royal Artillery
(DEMS Gunner)

Bell, Daniel W.
Engineer Officer
Bell, Lancelot T.
Able Seaman
Royal Navy
(DEMS Gunner)

Bidewell, Robert F.
Chief Steward
Bowes, William M. G.
2nd Officer
Browne, Arthur H.
Able Seaman
Royal Navy
(DEMS Gunner)

Budge, James A.
Able Seaman
Campbell, Dugald
Sailor
Care, Thomas B.
Cook
Cattell, Robert B.
Steward
Clark, Robert
Chief Engineer Officer
Cooper, Miles De B.
Apprentice
Australian
Ewing, Joseph
3rd Engineer Officer
Fallon, Harry
4th Engineer Officer
Ferguson, George
Greaser
Finlay, Alexander
5th Engineer Officer
Australian
Gane, Cyril
Cabin Boy
Age 17
George, Sampson
Carpenter
Going, Horace
Cook
Greenhill, Douglas V.
Sailor
Griffiths, Douglas R.
Able Seaman
Hamblin, Reginald N.
Greaser
Harris, Georgian
Greaser
Heed, Walter
Ordinary Seaman
Hobbs, Roy
Greaser
Howard, Charles
Storekeeper
Innes, Alexander
Boy
Jollie, James R.
Greaser
MacAulay, Kenneth
Sailor
McGraw, Ernest H.
1st Radio Officer
McInnes, Donald J.
Able Seaman
McKenzie, Joseph F.
Engineer Officer
Morris, William A.
Apprentice
Age 16
Mullins, Edward C.
Able Seaman
Royal Navy
(DEMS Gunner)

Nichols, Cedric S.
3rd Radio Officer
O'Connell, John
Able Seaman
Rothwell, Jack
Able Seaman
Rutherford, Omar S.
3rd Officer
Sebury, John H.
Sailor
Stevenson, John D.
Fireman & Greaser
Talboys, Albert
Cabin Boy
Age 17
Tonge, Percy
Donkeyman
Wallace, Richard
Ordinary Seaman
Wardingham, Thomas E.
Boatswain
Weddle, Ralph
Steward
Wheeler, William A.
Sailor
White, Thomas J.
2nd Officer
Widger, George F.
Chief Officer


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

Name
Rate
Notes
Aikens, Courtland V.
Messman
Batulis, Stanley J.
Boatswain
Brand, Cornelius J.
Oiler
Netherlands national
Brown, Frank S.
Messman
Chisholm, Elmo
Messman
Davis, William L.
Wiper
Duurloo, Fritz
Master
Figueras, Claudio
Deck Engineer
Gardiner, Lorenzo A. H.
Steward
Johnson, William
Able Seaman
Mahoney, John E.
Ordinary Seaman
Minzey, Vernon W.
Radio Operator
Nevette, St. Julian E.
Messman
Newton, Charles H.
3rd Assistant Engineer
Roby, George C.
Wiper
Toom, Alexander
Oiler
Estonian national
Williams, Edward C.
Wiper


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