Daily Event for April 5, 2015

In 1942 the Cuba Distilling Company of New York had only three ships in their fleet, all Hog Islanders, and by the end of the year all three would be lost. The first one lost, SS Cassimir, was sunk in a collision on Feb. 26, 1942, seven of her crew were lost. The third one lost was SS Carrabulle, lost May 26, 1942 to U-106, twenty-two of her crew went down with her. The second ship lost in 1942 was SS Catahoula.

Catahoula was built in 1920 as a standard freighter, but was converted into a tanker in the early 1920's. She was bought from the U.S. government in 1921 by the American Fuel Oil Transportation Company and in 1923 was bought by Cuba Distilling. She was now fitted out to transport molasses.

In April of 1942 she sailed from New Jersey to Puerto Rico to begin loading a fresh cargo of the sticky syrup bound for the United States. After loading what was available in Puerto Rico she moved to San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic (some sources say La Romana) and topped off her tanks. She sailed on the evening of Apr. 4th and passed through the Mona Passage into the open Atlantic.

At 1725 (ship time) she was sailing at 11 knots on a straight course with two lookouts on watch. Neither of them saw the torpedo fired from U-154. It hit on the port side causing serious damage, including flooding the engine room. It also sent up a wave of molasses which covered much of the deck of the ship. One of the lifeboats and one of the rafts were also destroyed. The Master, Gunvald Johannessen, had the wheel put hard to starboard and gave orders to lower the boats and abandon ship. The radio officer sent several distress signals, but he did not receive a reply to any of them. They were however picked up by both San Juan and Cabo Rojo radio direction finder stations which placed her at 17.45N-67.15W. It is unclear if anyone responded to the signals or if the ship's radio receiver was damaged and just did not pick up the replies.

The Armed Guard manned the machine guns and fired on the periscope, claiming to have destroyed it. But the commanding officer of U-154, Kapitänleutnant Walther Kölle, made no mention of his periscope being damaged in the boat's war diary.

Kölle could see clearly the sinking ship, but was unable to read the name. He also could see that she was not sinking fast enough so ten minutes after the first torpedo struck the ship, he fired a second. This torpedo hit the ship about 10' forward of the bridge, and since she was steering hard starboard, she quickly rolled over and a minute later she sank. Kölle noted that he saw two lifeboats and two rafts in the water, but he did not see that when the ship rolled over it swamped two of the boats capsizing them and drowning five men.

Kölle remained in the area for forty-five minutes, but did not surface or take any action against the survivors. He was aware that aircraft and surface patrols were frequent and did not want to endanger his boat. He would survive the war, but U-154 was lost on July 3, 1944 to U.S. destroyers.

The thirty-eight survivors were gathered in one lifeboat and one raft as the others had been destroyed. They were about 40 to 60 miles north of the Dominican Republic (depending on which position was correct). Since their distress call had been received a search was started immediately. USS Sturtevant DD-240 was at the southern end of the Mona Passage when she was ordered to proceed toward the last known position of the ship, 19.38N-68.29W.

Around 2000 a U.S. aircraft sighted the survivors and directed Sturtevant to their position, they were all picked up at 0645 on Apr. 6th. The men were landed at San Juan, Puerto Rico at 1450 that day. Seven of their shipmates had perished, two in the expolsion of the first torpedo and five when the lifeboat capsized. One of the lifeboats came ashore several days later at Cabo Viejo Frances and an oar was picked up by USS Barry DD-248 on May 11th, but the bodies of the lost men apparently were never recovered.

USS Sturtevant would be lost only 20 days later on Apr. 26th. She ran into a U.S. minefield off Florida and sank.
© 2015 Michael W. Pocock

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

Brownrigg, Garrett M.
1st Assistant Engineer
Christensen, Emil
Able Seaman
Litch, Norris W.
2nd Cook
Lynck, Julius
Nielsen, Alfred K.
Rey, Antonia
Cuban national
Tralie, Joseph
Able Seaman

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