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This Day in History: SS Fort Lee torpedoed

On this day in 1944, American tanker SS Fort Lee is torpedoed by Germans. Our military took risks during World War II, and we often hear their stories. We hear much less about the Merchant Marines.

What a pity. Many of their stories are becoming lost.

World War II recruiting poster for the Merchant Marines.

“[W]e should have written about all these stories 60 years ago when everybody was still alive,” U.S. Merchant Marine Veteran Captain Arthur R. Moore wrote. He was then working to keep the story of SS Fort Lee alive.

Fort Lee’s final mission came as she traveled across the Indian Ocean—an ocean that has been called the “forgotten battlefield” of World War II. The trip could be dangerous. Nevertheless, Fort Lee traveled without an escort. She had 49 Merchant Mariners aboard and 26 U.S. Navy Reserve Armed Guard assigned to guard her cargo of fuel.

Late on November 1, the crew of German submarine U-181 spotted her. The Germans decided to race ahead of Fort Lee, enabling U-181 to lie in wait for a direct frontal attack. That attack came late the next day, at exactly 8:00 p.m. U-181’s torpedo ripped through Fort Lee, hitting near the boilers.

“All of a sudden there was this terrific explosion that jarred the ship violently,” Able Seaman John Duffy remembered, “throwing the stern out of the water and causing my head to make contact with the overhead above.”

The explosion silenced the engines. Hot steam filled corridors, stifling men and making it difficult to get out. The power aboard ship was gone.

“I tried to exit the mess room,” survivor Jim Wilson said, “but was stopped from using the door by the heat created by the steam from the engines. So I had no other choice but to exit through a porthole.” Throughout the ship, men wondered what had happened. Some began to move towards lifeboats.

Oddly, the Navy officer in charge of the Armed Guards offered no direction.

“All the while the Navy gunnery officer was conspicuous by his absence,” Duffy later said. “He came aft once for about half a minute then disappeared . . . without once telling his boys what to do. Neither did he command or advise what action to take regarding the submarine.”

In the meantime, the Germans had launched a second torpedo. Six men were killed as the torpedo struck near Lifeboat #3, which they’d been trying to climb into. Others were blown out of Lifeboat #5—or even off Fort Lee’s deck—and into the water.

“I don’t recall exactly what happened,” Navy gunner Orville Adams described, “but there was an explosion and I suddenly found myself in the ocean about 100 feet from the ship. When I regained my senses, I realized that I was not wearing my life jacket anymore—it had been blown off by the explosion.”

Fortunately, four other lifeboats were safely launched before Fort Lee sank. Those aboard began pulling survivors out of the oil-covered water.

Just then, the submarine surfaced. The captain didn’t know if the ship was American or British—but our boys didn’t know if the submarine was German or Japanese! They were worried.

Stories were later told that the Germans asked questions that got no answers, then left behind food, blankets, and provisions for the Americans. “It is a load of baloney,” survivor Brad Pruitt said. “I have read and been informed of this and it is a lie. . . . The officer spoke to us in clear English, and asked questions about us and our ship. He was very polite as I recall, but they did not give us a thing.”

The Germans left, and the survivors were stranded in the darkness. The lifeboats stayed together at first, but as the days passed, they began to drift apart.

What happened next? The story continues on November 9.

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