Daily Event for May 4, 2014

The tanker Otokia was built in England on the River Humber in 1925 by Livingstone & Cooper Ltd. for the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand Ltd. After several owners she found her way to Panama in 1937 and was renamed Panam. Owned by Cia Maritima Istmenia Ltd. until 1942 when she was taken over by the Panamanian government, later in the year she was seized by the United States. She remained under U.S. control until she had the bad luck of falling in with a German U-boat.

She departed from Norfolk, Virginia in convoy NK-538 on May 1, 1943 bound for Lake Charles, Louisiana. Panam was sailing in ballast, but developed engine trouble at 0100 (EWT) on May 4 and fell out of the convoy. She later developed steering gear trouble which made maneuvering difficult. Sailing alone on a clear morning she was sighted at 0550 (EWT) (1150 German time) by a surfaced U-boat, U-129. Kapitänleutnant Hans-Ludwig Witt, the commanding officer, submerged and moved into a firing position.

At 0812 (EWT) (1412 German time) about 52 miles southeast of Morehead City, North Carolina, KpLt. Witt fired one torpedo at the ship, but the torpedo ran under the ship, he did not realize that she was in ballast. At 0818 (EWT) (1418 German time) he fired a second torpedo, this time he observed a hit toward the stern. In fact she had been hit in the engine room on the port side. Two men were killed instantly and the engines were put out of commission. The compartment flooded and the radio had been put out of order, there had been no chance to send a distress signal. The Armed Guard, while at their guns, were unable to take the boat under fire as she was submerged. Panam began to settle by the stern.

Witt now realized the ship had been in ballast (probably due to the fact that she did not erupt into flames after the torpedo hit), and at 0828 (EWT) (1428 German time) he fired a torpedo from tube IV, another hit. The torpedo struck on the port side and destroyed the pump room. There was now no possibility of saving the ship and her master, Jorgen Knudsen, ordered her abandoned. Three boats were launched and the forty-nine survivors all got off the ship, albeit some had to jump for it. Several men had been injured, but all would survive. They watched from the lifeboats as their ship slid under the waves, stern first at 0855.

The survivors were fortunate in that a U.S. Navy aircraft was in the area and apparently saw the smoke from the ship. According to Witt it was a Lockheed Hudson, which he sighted at half past the hour. He took his boat deep before the aircraft could make an attack and therefore made no contact with the survivors and never learned the name of his victim. Forty-five minutes later when he raised his periscope he could see no sign of the ship and correctly assumed it had sunk. The following day he signaled to BdU that he had sunk a tanker of 5,000 tons, but in fact she was 7,277 tons. Panam was the last ship sunk by Witt, and this put him over 100,000 tons of shipping destroyed. Both Witt and U-129 survived the war.

The survivors were rescued five hours later by USS SC-664 and landed at the Morehead City Section Base. None had seen the submarine or even the torpedo wakes, even though no less than seven lookouts had been stationed on the ship at the time of her loss. Several of the men had been torpedoed before and stated that there was no doubt to them that they had been hit by torpedoes, even though they had not seen the submarine.
© 2014 Michael W. Pocock

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

Blomgren, Knut
3rd Engineer
Norwegian national
Magill, William H.

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