Daily Event for December 19, 2008

Built by American International Shipbuilding at Hog Island, Pennsylvania in 1919 the Prusa was a Type A
cargo ship of 5,113 tons. She was built for the U. S. Shipping Board, but after the war was sold to Lykes
Brothers of New Orleans, Louisiana. The "Hog Islanders" as they were known were emergency built ships just as the Liberty and Victory ships of the Second World War. Prusa missed the first war, but was still around for the second.

Prusa had arrived in Honolulu from Manila, Philippines on Dec. 10, 1941 three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. She sailed for Baltimore via the Panama Canal at noon on Dec. 16, but on December 19, 1941 she fell in with the Japanese submarine I-172. The I-172 was one of the submarines that sortied for the Pearl Harbor attack and she was still patrolling the waters off Hawaii. At 0530 (LZT) a torpedo struck the ship near the #5 hold. The explosion damaged the steering engine, blew out doors, caused a leak in the engine room and caused the loss of electrical power. The master, George. H. Boy, soon ordered the ship abandoned and nine minutes after the torpedo struck, the Prusa sank.

According to the survivors I-172 (of course the identity of the submarine was not known to them) surfaced five minutes after the attack, but submerged shortly thereafter. Apparently Lt. Commander Ichiro Togami did not attempt to make contact with the men in the boats.

They were only about 250 to 300 miles south of Honolulu, but the crew of the Prusa would have a difficult time following the sinking, Oiler Sammy Bartholomew, a Ft. Worth, Texas resident related this story after his rescue;

"We were all asleep in the crew's quarters, except the deck watch. The torpedo struck aft, demolishing our
quarters and nine [actually eight] of the crew were killed instantly. The torpedo blew a terrific hole in the old ship and wrecked the passageways. The men who hadn't been killed by the explosion were dazed, and it was hard work finding our way and crawling through the wreckage to the deck. The ship sank in nine minutes, and we had to work fast. We got two lifeboats over, and got away just before she went down."

In the radio room the Radio Officer Lawrence "Lou" Gianella refused to leave his post according to 4th Mate Bernard A. Barker. In a letter to Gianella's wife Barker wrote:

"I tried to get him to come with me when I jumped into the water, but he considered his duty even above his
life and went down at his post as a brave man should and I respect his memory more than any other man I
ever sailed with."

The boat with Sammy Bartholomew remained adrift until Dec. 27 when USCG Tiger WSC-152 picked them up
and landed them at Honolulu the following day.

Bartholomew's account continues;

"We were out nine days and 10 hours. Two hours after the old ship went down we heard planes overhead.
We didn't recognize them, and don't know whether they saw us. They may have been Japanese. We drifted
in the same general vicinity for three days, hoping the planes were our own, and would, come back, but
nothing happened. Then we raised sail and proceeded by "donkey navigation" towards Honolulu. We made
500 miles before we were picked up. On Christmas day navy planes came over and dropped us some
presents — food and a beaker of water."

Bartholomew stated that two boats got away, his with thirteen men and the captain's boat with twelve men.
The boats were separated and at the time of his rescue he was not aware of what had happened to the other
boat. The other survivors in his boat were:

1st Mate Levi J. Plesner, 1st Assistant Engineer Henry Hunter, 3rd Assistant Engineer August Huber and crewmen Pedro Perez, Joseph Cannon, James D. Clark, Alfred Dyer, Adneris Martinez, John Campbell, Jerry Hammell, Enrique Estrada and George Thompson.

After some time had passed it was naturally assumed that capt. Boy's boat had been lost with all hands. His
family in Houston, Texas was not so sure. His sons George and Bill gave an interview to a Houston reporter
and said the following;

"He has been sailing since he was 14. While this may be a new experience for him, we're sure he'll be ready
to go again when he sets foot on land."

In most cases one would believe this was just a desperate attempt to keep hope alive in the minds of a
grieving family, but maybe this time it was not, for on Jan. 28, 1942 a message from Capt. Boy was received;

"Our boat landed Nonouti Island in Gilbert Islands group on Jan. 19. Ship torpedoed Dec. 19. Signed G. H. Boy"

Eleven of the twelve men were still alive after a 2,500 mile journey, they were in sorry shape, but alive. It is
still not clear to me why capt. Boy did not head for Hawaii, an entry from his personal log on Dec. 22 just states:

"Weather slightly moderating, men tired out from steady rowing and bailing. At daybreak sighted flare from #2 boat about 1-2 miles away. At noon set sail and run before wind, heading for Marshall Islands."

The weather had been bad since the sinking and the lifeboat had been damaged and leaking, rations were sparse, but available. The next day, Dec. 23 the tiller broke and the rudder was nearly carried away, the voyage was not off to a good start. On the 24th the mast base was carried away and a makeshift repair was made by Captain Boy and Baker, the 4th mate. Then on the 27th Boy decided to change course and make for the Gilbert Islands, however without the aid of charts Boy would have to make the journey by memory, quite a remarkable achievement if it could be done. Later that same day he injured his leg, this would prove to be a serious problem.

Winds, rain, cold and hot, all that the ocean could throw at them did not stop them. Twelve men in an open boat making a voyage across the vast expanse of the Pacific, not unlike the record making voyage made by Lieutenant William Bligh (Capt. Bligh of HMS Bounty) and his men in 1789 or that of the whaleship Essex in 1820.

On Jan. 19, 1942 about 0700 land was sighted by Alfred Smith, through great difficulty the weary men brought the boat in toward shore, but it capsized in the breakers. Eleven men were still alive when they sighted Nonouti Island in the Gilbert Islands, Second Mate Edward Banvard died only three days before they made land. Those who survived were:

Capt. George H. Boy, 4th Mate Bernard A. Baker, 3rd Mate James Darlin, Chief Steward George Bercy, Floyd McWilliams, Chief Engineer Earl H. Knee, Thomas Bartlett, J. P. Higgins, Frank H. Stewart, Eric J. Williams and Alfred A. Smith.

The locals took care of the men and contacted authorities, but proper transportation could not be provided. On Feb. 1 they left Nikunau for Beru in a whaleboat. They arrived the following day. It took until Mar. 2nd for the authorities to organize a rescue boat, and on that day the MS Degei stood out from Beru and received the survivors. The passage to Suva, Fiji took until Mar. 18 and Captain Boy was taken directly to hospital due to his injured leg. He received treatment and the crew were cared for with the help of Mr. Abbott, the U.S. Consul in Fiji.

On Mar. 30 the survivors boarded SS Lassen and left Fiji on Apr. 2nd bound for home. First stop was Pago Pago where they arrived on Apr. 3rd, they remained there until Apr. 8th. After leaving Pago Pago the next stop was San Francisco. I imagine to their great relief they passed under the Golden Gate bridge on Apr. 21, 1942 at 0745, finally home in the U.S.A.

George Boy, finally arrived home in Houston, Texas at 0715 on Apr. 24th, but was on the way to New Orleans on the 26th. After a meeting at the Lykes Brothers offices he was sent to hospital on the because of his leg. He was admitted for treatment on Apr. 30 and remained there until May 18th. His injury caused him to limp for the rest of his life. Captain George Boy died in Texas on May 17, 1976.

Levi Plesner was made a master and went to sea again, but only a few months after his ordeal on the Prusa
he was again in a lifeboat. He was in command of the Liberty ship John Hancock when the U-553 sent her to
the bottom. However Plesner was ready and because of his actions not one of the forty-nine men on board
was lost. They were picked up three hours later and landed at Santiago, Cuba.

I-172 and Lt. Cdr. Togami sank only one other ship, the tanker Neches on Jan. 23., 1942. Neither Togami or
I-172 survived the war. The submarine was lost sometime in November of 1942 and Togami went down with
I-3 in December of the same year. He was posthumously promoted to Rear Admiral.
© 2008 Michael W. Pocock

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

Banvard, Edward G.
2nd Mate
Died Jan. 16, 1942
Criswell, Henry F.
Able Seaman
Figueroa, Regino J.
Able Seaman
Native of Puerto Rico
Gianella, Lawrence
Radio Officer
Laird, Daryl V.
Martinez, Dolores
Native of U. S. Virgin Islands
Martinez, Saturnino
Able Seaman
Native of Puerto Rico
Walker, Harry
Ordinary Seaman
Australian national
Zechevich, Milan
Distinguished Service Medal (Posthumously)
Additional information for this page was provided by Lee Wilkins and Larry Knee.
June 29, 2016

My great great Uncle was chief engineer Earl Healey Knee. He never married and had only one niece, Lois Hobbs, who was my grandmother. Uncle Earl wrote his own memoir of the sinking of the S S Prusa. It was a fascinating account of his experience. I remember meeting him when I was little. His copyright of his experience was 1958 -1959. I still have the original.

Jim Ogren

2007 Daily Event