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This Day in History: SS Fort Lee's survivors

On this day in 1944, survivors of SS Fort Lee are rescued. The American tanker had been torpedoed by a German submarine a full week earlier. Too many Merchant Marines suffered similar fates during those years, yet what would we have done without them?

Their efforts were critical to winning World War II.

SS Fort Lee was carrying a cargo of fuel across the Indian Ocean on November 2, 1944, when she was targeted by a German submarine. Sixty-six of 75 Americans survived the attack and made it to Lifeboats #1, #2, #4, and #6. (See November 2 post.)

Our boys were stranded in the dark, with only the stars for company. They’d been unable to send an emergency message before their tanker lost power, then went down. Some of the men had burns or shrapnel wounds. One had a broken leg. Their provisions were limited. Sharks began circling.

At first, the boats were lashed together, but they kept crashing into each other when large waves hit. The Captain decided to untether the boats. Perhaps separating would increase their chances of survival. The first boat to find land could send help.

Thus, the boats drifted apart.

Lifeboat #2 had the Captain aboard—and a radio. “Sparks,” as the Radio Operator was affectionately known, managed to send several short messages before the battery died. The stranded lifeboat was soon contending with a storm, rough seas, and waves that reached up to 30 feet! “It was some of the worst weather I have ever been in and endured in any vessel big, little or small. It was bad,” Brad Pruitt later recounted. “We did not know if we would survive it.”

The men in this lifeboat were the first to be rescued, on November 7. “It was the most beautiful sight to see that English cargo ship come into sight,” Lyle Atkinson said of that moment.

Lifeboat #6 wasn’t quite as lucky. That craft floated for a full week, with the men carefully doling out their meager provisions. “Morning ration is usually 1 to 2 ounces chocolate,” Chief Engineer Paul Stauffer recorded, “and 2 ounces of water. Evening rations were quarter can of pemican and one ‘C’ ration biscuit and 2oz of water.”

Despite the tight rationing, the men were close to running out of food when they were finally sighted by an American tanker on the morning of November 9.

Lifeboat #1 would stay in the water longer. As the days wore on, rations ran low and spirits drooped. “It was hot as hell during the day and cold as hell at night,” James Chaffin described. “About the time you finally managed to get some sleep or get comfortable, a wave would suddenly come over swamping us. And then you’d be bailing out water for the rest of the night.”

SS Mary Ball sighted the lifeboat from afar on November 16, but her crew at first thought it was a submarine periscope. They fired 12 rounds before realizing their mistake. Fortunately, no one was injured.

The strangest—and saddest—story belongs to Lifeboat #4. The boat was last seen just before sunset on November 4 when the boats began to drift apart. The 16 men aboard the lifeboat were never seen again.

Their fate has long been a mystery. For decades, they were presumed lost at sea, but paperwork has recently been uncovered suggesting a different outcome. The lifeboat may have been adrift for more than two months before finally landing in Indonesia with only three men alive. One died quickly. The other two may have been taken prisoner by the Japanese. One way or another, these men did not survive their captivity.

We’ll never know the full story of Lifeboat #4, but perhaps we can remember that those men did have a story to tell?

Another of the all-but-forgotten sacrifices made by the Greatest Generation.

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