By Murray K. Lee | SDCHM Curator of Chinese American History
In 1942 at the beginning of WW-II, German U-Boats were operating off the U.S. Atlantic Coast and many merchant ships were torpedoed and sunk. Winston Churchill told President Roosevelt that they were relying on the U.S. to supply them with food and arms to fight Nazi Germany. The Liberty ships were the “truck horses” of the war supply with 75% of the vessels. Kaiser shipyards on the West Coast built Liberty ships in world record time. In 1942 the S.S. Robert E. Peary was built in 7 days, 14 hours, and 23 minutes.
In 1946, I sailed on one of these Liberty ships, the Thomas Sumter as an Able Seaman We were to go from Baltimore, MD to Cienfuegos, Cuba to pick up a load of raw sugar to deliver to France and Belgium. Loading the sugar was done the old fashioned way, by manual labor. The laborers carried these huge burlap bags of sugar on their backs and placed them one at a time down in the hold. This was a slow and tedious process and it took considerable time to load the ship.
We then headed for the Atlantic following along the Gulf Stream north for most of our way to Europe. When we got into the North Atlantic approximately mid-ocean, the ship suddenly lost power. We drifted in the ocean for a day or so trying to restart the engines, all the while sending out radio messages of our status. When the radio finally went dead we were really like a derelict ship. The feeling was most eerie, dark, deadly silent, pitch black with nothing but the waves occasionally lapping against the sides. The radio messages must have reached some ships because one day a troop ship came by and signaled us their offer to help, but our captain had orders to refuse. They were owned by another company and he was waiting for a ship from the same company. The rules of salvage are such that a rescue ship can claim salvage rights and can end up with a percentage of your value or cargo. At least that is what I heard. As the ship sailed away I saw the troops staring out at us like we were goners.
Finally, a company ship appeared and we had the task on deck of rigging a bridal and a towline. This was not an easy task. We were able to get a line to the other ship, but as it started to tow us the line began to straighten out and it broke and dropped straight down. I guess the 9000 tons of sugar in our holds made us too heavy a load. It was a difficult task in getting all that line back onto the ship. We were extremely exhausted and tired. What was our next move? Fortunately, someone in the engine room decided to get us going by burning our cargo. It seems that sugar is combustible. We were soon up and running. We had lost a total of four full days drifting in the direction of Iceland.
Our first port where we unloaded some of our cargo was Boulogne, France, across the English Channel opposite Dover. I and several of my friends went ashore and observed the German gun emplacements. The ground was covered with many spent shells along with a few that were still live. The signs of a ferocious battle were everywhere.
Next we headed for Antwerp, Belgium, which took us into the Netherlands. To get to Antwerp you have to go into Westerschelde, an estuary in the Zeeland part of the Netherlands. What a sight this was! Along the entire route were the ghostly remains of cargo ships with just their upper decks and masts sticking out above the water. Were they victims of German dive-bombs or mines? All the way in we could see the minesweepers going back and forth. No one wanted to be stationed as lookout on the bow, but I had to take my turn as bow lookout. Everything that you saw floating in the water suddenly looked like a mine. I guess the sweepers did their job, because we made it through uneventfully, but we weren’t into the harbor yet. Belgium is at the end of the estuary, where a narrow river or canal leads into the harbor of Antwerp. We had to anchor there until we were given permission to enter. Suddenly a storm came up and the wind hit us broadside and blew us onto the bank. You could walk up to the bow and look down to see the sandy shore. We waited until high tide and with the help of a couple of tugboats the ship was pulled to deeper water. After we docked in Antwerp, a diver was sent down to examine our hull to see if there was any damage. Luckily none was found.
Our trip back to the U.S. was uneventful, but for the Thomas Sumter our old Liberty it was the end of the line. Our ship had done its duty and was destined for the ship’s graveyard on the James River in Virginia, never to sail again.