Coloradan


 Introduction


The ship that would become the Coloradan was built in 1920 on contract for the United States Shipping Board (USSB) per a standard design by Osaka Iron Works, Sakurajima, Japan and launched as Eastern Admiral. She was the sister ship of the Washingtonian.

Quite amazingly, Ancestry.com appears to have her first crew list, when she was delivered from Yokohama, Japan, to Tacoma, Washington on March 29th, 1920 with a full Japanese crew (52 men) under the command of Master Kiyoshi Okubo. The Master and 30 of his crew returned to Japan on the Africa Maru on April 15th, 1920, and the other 22 men left the vessel in Seattle.


The only other crew lists I was also able to locate at this time are for the Eastern Admiral arriving in New York March and December of 1921 when she was managed by Barber Steamship Lines, Inc. The former, a voyage from Rotterdam, Holland under Master Joseph A. Gaidsick, and the latter, from Hamburg, Germany under Master J.W. Nicholson. Interestingly, Gaidsick’s younger brother Fred would later command the Coloradan and you can see a picture of him in the sighting photo included in ‘The Attack’ section below.


In 1926 she was purchased by Williams & Company and renamed Willboro. In the summer of 1934 Willboro grounded on Race Rock Light at the entrance to Long Island Sound. In 1990, 56 years later, her Second Mate at the time of the grounding, Larz D. Neilson, the founder of the Wilmington Town Crier newspaper recounted what happened:


There was a coastal pilot on board, who had embarked at Philadelphia. The writer, a second-mate, was on watch. The accident occurred at 7:36 a.m.


Race Rock Lighthouse had a tyfon (whistle) for a fog signal. The Willboro was being steered by the sound of that tyfon. The idea, of course, was to pass southerly of the rock, which was about a half a mile away.

Until a few seconds before the grounding, the sound of that tyfon had been “broad on the starboard bow”, in other words, free and clear of danger. Then the lighthouse appeared, suddenly, dead ahead. It was impossible to stop the ship, or to steer off.

The Willboro, because of the discharge of cargo in Philadelphia, was drawing only seven feet forward, and 27 feet aft. That refers to the depth of the water which the ship occupied. When the ship hit the rock, it just slid up. The bow was only about 30 feet from the lighthouse when the ship stopped.

About quarter of eight, the lighthouse keeper came out to walk around and take his morning constitutional. His fists were tucked down, inside his belt. Suddenly, he stopped and rubbed his eyes with both fists. The writer has never seen a person who was more surprised.


An airplane with a photographer was flown from New York. The next morning, there were pictures on the front page of the Daily News.

Longshoremen were sent out from New London and about 1000 tons of lumber were discharged, so that the Willboro could float free. The ship then went in to New London and off-loaded the cargo for that port.

It then went to Bridgeport, and off-loaded more lumber, and then to Albany, where the last cargo was discharged.

The Willboro had damaged her fuel oil tanks in the grounding and she steamed through Long Island Sound, New York Harbor and up the Hudson River, leaving a trail behind her, to a floating dry dock in Brooklyn where repairs were made.


American-Hawaiian acquired her in 1937 and renamed her Coloradan. Based on the photos and dates supplied by the Neilson family, it appears Fred C. Gaidsick was her earliest American-Hawaiian captain and Coloradan may have been his first command. He had served as Mexican’s Chief Mate in 1929.


Neilson stayed with the vessel for a time as Second Mate, and one of the obsolete Willboro signs from the vessel’s deckhouse would find its way to his father’s garage. It would make a grand reappearance much later, which I will detail later on in this story.


Neilson would befriend a new Able-Bodied seaman, a Mainer who joined named Woodrow Wilson, and the two would remain friends for a long time. Wilson would eventually rise to the position of Chief Mate of Coloradan by the time she was lost. Luckily for Larz, he left the Coloradan before her loss. Luckily for us, Neilson’s affinity for writing and photography would document much of Coloradan’s history as well as that of American-Hawaiian Lines during his long and distinguished career.

All these pieces would eventually come together thanks to Captain Larz’s son, writer Larz F. Neilson, and the telling of the Coloradan’s story and the stories of the remarkable men who served on her has now finally come to light.


Coloradan would spend most of her American-Hawaiian career on the inter-coastal routes like the rest of the fleet, ferrying supplies between the East and West coasts.

The war in Europe changed all this. At the beginning of 1940 Gaidsick left Coloradan to command Georgian, and new Master George Grundy took over. Coloradan sailed for the Persian Gulf, stopped in Aden February 22nd, Port Said, Egypt February 27th, and arrived back in New York on March 25th.

The next voyage was to the Pacific, consigned to Isthmian Steamship Co., leaving New York sometime after June 13th, stopping in Honolulu, Hawaii at the beginning of October, and returning to Boston Massachusetts on November12th. 1940. Charles Bamforth briefly took over from Grundy when they got back to New York on November17th, and was planning to sail for Baltimore on November 20th.


Then it was off across the Atlantic under Grundy again at the end of December to Africa consigned to American South African Line. They made stops in Lourenco Marques Portuguese East Africa (present day Mozambique) January 15th, Durban South Africa February 1st, Port Elizabeth South Africa February 3rd, Capetown South Africa February 6th, Port-of-Spain Trinidad February 28th, and finally arrived back in New York on March 8th, 1941.


Coloradan left New York sometime after July 13th for Africa and possibly the Persian Gulf based on the length of the voyage. There aren’t as many details on the ports for this voyage, only that they left Capetown South Africa around the middle of October, stopped at Port-of-Spain Trinidad on the way back, and arrived in Boston on November 20th, 1941.


In December they headed back again. Stops included Durban South Africa February 27th, Port Elizabeth South Africa March 3rd, Capetown South Africa March 6th, and they finally arrived back in New York on April 12th, 1942.


It was a quick turn-around after this trip and Coloradan left again less than a month later around the middle of May for what would be her final voyage. Robert H. Murphy had taken over at this point. Grundy left for the Floridian (Arkansan’s sister) and served as her Master for most of the remainder of the war. Gaidsick and Grundy would both survive the war.

 The Attack


Coloradan was en route from Bandar Shahpur, Iran to Port of Spain Trinidad BWI via Durban South Africa (arrived October 5th) and under the command of Master Robert Hugh Murphy. Murphy was already a bit of legend among his junior officers and crew, having survived the sinking of the Texan the preceding March. Bandar Shahpur (presently Bandar Imam Khomeini since the ‘79 revolution) was the southern terminus of a rail line were Soviet personnel would load vital war supplies on freight trains that would run North through the Caucuses to the Motherland.

Coloradan was carrying 2500 tons of manganese ore, 29 tons of general cargo and a ton of gold on her return trip.


The ship was armed with one 4in, one 3in, four 20mm and two .30cal guns, and was traveling unescorted. She was also modified by this stage to include large rafts on either side of her two masts and she was painted an overall gray.

Even though the ports of Durban and Capetown were important refueling and supply points for ships traveling back and forth between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, the area was largely untouched up to this point in the war.


Unfortunately for Coloradan (and many other ships) she arrived just in time for the first major German offensive in the area, scheduled to start on October 10th. This “wolfpack” offensive, officially known as Group "Eisbär" (Polar Bear) consisted of U-68 (Merten), U-159 (Witte), U-172 (Emmermann), U-504 (Poske) & the supply U-boat (aka: milk cow) U-459 (Wilamowitz-Möllendorf) in support with extra fuel, torpedoes, etc…


U-159 commanded by Helmut Witte started things off with the torpedoing of the British motor merchant Boringia at 9:55pm local time the evening of October 7th about 120 miles west-southwest of Capetown. Boringia had quite a run of bad luck. She had just sailed from Capetown that day after completion of two months of repairs caused by her collision with another vessel (which sank). Witte had actually let her go earlier in the day because he spotted her before the scheduled start of the coordinated attack, but the schedule was changed soon afterwards and he was able to re-acquire and sink her. Most, if not all her crew survived the initial hit, but 25 were killed when a second torpedo hit near two of the lifeboats that were standing close by. The following morning at 7:07am U-159 hit the British steam merchant Clan Mactavish, which had picked up the survivors of the Boringia that previous evening. 7 more of Boringia’s survivors were lost during that attack, along with 54 from Clan Mactavish.


At dawn the following morning the surfaced U-159 spotted Coloradan’s mast tops on the horizon, and they set an intercept course. By 8:14am U-159 was in position ahead of Coloradan and they dived for their final approach in a submerged attack.


Witte ascended to the conning tower and observed the Coloradan through the attack periscope. He locked in Coloradan’s speed at 10 knots, course 260°, and estimated distance 1,400 meters (1,531 yards or 0.87 miles). At 9:54am local time on October 9th, 1942 Witte gave the command to fire a single G7e torpedo from
tube I at the middle of Coloradan.



The Coloradan was steaming a zigzag course at 9.5 knots about 200 miles southwest of Capetown. It was a bright, sunny, beautiful spring morning in the Southern Hemisphere and several of Coloradan’s junior officers were out taking their navigational sightings. Third Mate James McCollom was on the starboard bridge wing. Chief Mate Wilson was sharpening his knife in the Chief Engineer’s office.



One minute and 42 seconds after firing, the torpedo ripped into the port side of the vessel between the #5 and #6 hatches, destroying the bulkhead between the holds, blowing out the double bottom and damaging the shaft alley.


According to Chief Mate Wilson's report (filed on 10/24/42, two weeks after the sinking)
I heard a heavy report sounding like that of our four-inch gun, which was located on the poop deck. I immediately got up from the settee and in two steps was able to see that most of the after deck was well awash and that No. 5 booms were broken. I heard the general alarm go for about two seconds, then lights and alarms stopped, then I shouted for all hands to report to their boats as I proceeded forward and got my life preserver from my room, proceeding immediately to the boat deck where I found that the engine had been shut off by the control.” The watch below secured the main engines as the ship quickly settled and sinks by the stern within eight minutes.

Due to the speed with which the Coloradan sank and the fact that the U-boat was not seen during this period, no defensive fire was returned by the Armed Guard crew. Coloradan’s antenna and/or radio equipment is damaged in the attack as well so no distress signal was sent either.


The torpedo hit 30 meters aft of where Witte was aiming, which meant the port life boat remained intact. This would be crucial for the remainder of the crew’s survival in the coming hours and days. The surviving 9 officers, 30 men and 15 armed guards quickly launched the two lifeboats and all four rafts, but two rafts drifted away before they could be used.



Six crew members were lost in the after house of the ship:


Blake, James Joseph - Able Seaman, Age 40 from Lee, MA
Butler, William Morris - Ordinary Seaman, Age 42 from New York, NY
Hamilton, Fred - Able Seaman, Age 41 from New York, NY
Keller, Edward Robert - Fireman/Wiper, Age 23 from Oakland, CA
Lynch, Francis "Frank" Wesley - Fireman/Wiper, Age 45 from East Hartford, CT
Walters, James Charles – Oiler, Age 26 from San Francisco, CA


Chief Mate Wilson described the abandon ship as follows: “Number 1 boat had been lowered on the forward end but it seemed the after end had not been touched, so I got the assistance of an A.B. and slacked the boat properly into the water, where good cooperation on the Third Mate’s part [James McCollom] got the boat away in a seamanlike manner. Knowing the boat was a safe distance away, I proceeded forward to trip the forward starboard raft, but was hailed by Captain Murphy, who directed us to get to my boat and, if possible, to take the briefcase of papers which he then handed me. As I turned aft, I saw the 2nd Cook on an escape net apparently afraid of going into the water. I told him the preserver would hold him and pushed him into the water; then I went. At that time the water was up to the after end of the boat deck. I had a little difficulty getting clear of the boat fells and man ropes, and the vessel still had headway, but soon I was clear only to find myself among sticks and diesel oil which I got into my mouth several times, making me sick. I saw the Radio Operator and told him not to struggle as he would soon be picked up. I caught ahold of a short piece of lumber and awaited the boat, but I could see the submarine surfaced and my boat being motioned toward it.


The Third Mate, James McCollom remembers that the water was so clear that he could see U-159’s distinctive conning tower emblem before the U-boat even surfaced about 100 feet away from their lifeboat. The red circular emblem caused him to think it was a Japanese submarine initially. They had feared a Japanese attack while in the Indian Ocean. U-159 maneuvered to within 50 to 75 feet to begin their questioning and it was clear at that point it was a German U-Boat, although Witte spoke excellent English. McCollom was surprised by the condition of the U-159, which looked freshly painted. He answered questions concerning the ship and cargo and Witte gave him the course and distance to land and wished them “a pleasant voyage and good liberty”.


Wilson went on to describe what happened after that: “After I had been in the water about eight minutes, I was taken aboard No. 2 boat along with the brief case of ship’s papers. When the submarine had disappeared, the two boats came together and I went to my own boat, although sick from the fuel. At that time, it was determined that six members of the crew were lost.

"As I assumed charge of No. 2 boat, I directed the 3rd officer [McCollom] to go to two of the life rafts and get the water and food from them. Incidentally, all four rafts were floating and as far as I know only one was tripped by the pelican hook. I believe only the one tripped would have floated unless the changes I made under the direction of Captain Murphy were made, whereby each bridle over the top of the rafts were removed and replaced by a sharp hook at each top corner to merely steady the rafts in heavy weather and would tear out when the bottom end started to float.


The 2nd Officer and I compared compass headings and commenced to get underway by sail. The wind was about
[unintelligible] and we headed about [unintelligible] for a while and then in the evening the wind became strong with large seas and rain. About dark I gave the order to take down the sail and put out the sea anchor. I could see the other boat with his jib up but I didn’t think it was the safe thing to do.

At about 1:00 a.m. October 10th was the last I saw of the other boat bearing ENE of me. At about 5:30 the same morning I set my jib and proceeded in an ENE direction but seemed to be making very little headway during the day.

That day, the Master and 22 men in No. 2 boat were picked up by the British destroyer HMS Active (H 14) (LtCdr M.W. Tomkinson, RN), which searched unsuccessfully for the No.1 boat and then landed the survivors in Capetown on October 14th at 5:00pm local time.


Wilson’s account continues: “Monday we sailed all day but at night a heavy SW storm came up which I attempted to run before with the jib but gave up when boat seemed unmanageable, rigging the sea anchor again. The boat seemed to ride nicely and although we carried away the sea anchor there was no danger of swamping. I rigged an empty water breaker as a sea anchor and layed to it all the next day and again sailed on a NNE heading Monday morning only to have the breeze fall light that evening. Tuesday I began to recall that on two previous trips on the Coloradan I had experienced bad weather similar to that which we had been encountering Sunday and Monday during our passage between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth and whatever happened I didn’t want to be south of Cape Agulhas and go east into the Indian Ocean, so I changed course to North. It was that morning that I found someone had moved the compass under the lift hook and the compass heading was about 180 degrees out.

At about 11:00 a.m. Tuesday a seaplane approached from the SW and passed about 2 miles away apparently not seeing the boat, disappeared to the NNE. We did very little sailing during Tuesday but Wednesday morning at light we sailed ENE as I figured I was far enough north. At about 10:00 a.m. Wednesday morning a similar seaplane passed about three miles away and evidently didn’t see the parachute flares I sent up, but about 15 minutes later an Army bomber came directly to us, then circled us three times and low, going into the sun, the last time flashing a message which both the 2nd officer and myself were unable to read, then the plane speeded his engine and proceeded in a NNE direction, which gave me to believe I should go more to the northerly. At that time I felt we would be picked up either that day or Thursday, but nothing became of that.


Thursday we sailed NNE and Friday did very little sailing, but Saturday a terrific SW storm came up early in the day with mountainous seas which would cause a large steamer to heave. At about 3:30 p.m. I ordered the sail taken in and rigged the empty water breaker again as a sea anchor. Before I had completed rigging the sea anchor and preparing to secure for the night, I saw a steamer about four miles to the west, heading about north. I sent up four flares, one of which was a miss, but no apparent recognition was made until he was about to disappear when we noticed a great flash. It was either a very powerful light or he was shooting at us. Under the sea conditions at that time, it would have been impossible for him to pick us up.

Sunday the storm was passed and it became very warm with a light E’ly air. During the
day we saw flies, butterflies, kelp and dry wood, which gave us reason to believe were near land. In the evening, a moderate W’ly breeze came up and the best sailing conditions so far caused me to carry all sail possible and sail east, which put us in sight of the bold beach of W. Africa at daybreak Monday. As it was impossible to land in that vicinity, I followed south along the shore.

At about 8:00 a.m., I hailed a native fishing vessel of fairly good size and he generously gave us bread, water and hot coffee. After finding that it was 28 miles south to a safe landing place, I asked if he would tow us to that place. Willingly he gave us his line and towed us to Thorn Bay. Then at 11:30 a.m. we were taken from the life boat and landed on the beach by one of the dinghies. I mustered the 17 merchant seamen and eight gun crew, told them not to talk of our experiences to the native people who were down to the beach with food and clothing.


There were several men of the South African Army there to meet us, also the Major who was inspecting that division who took me in his car to the headquarters at Lambert’s Bay. Army trucks were dispatched for the men and although I asked if the crew couldn’t be taken care of for one night at Lambert’s Bay, they said the best they could do would be to give them a hot meal there and a chance to shave and take a bath. I proceeded on with the Major to Cape Town, a matter of about 200 miles, arriving at the city at about 2:00 a.m. The crew arrived at about 8:00 a.m. I reported myself and crew by phone to the American Consul from Lambert’s Bay.


There was no suffering in the lifeboat except from exposure. Ample food and water was rationed. In closing I wish to state that I believe no other lifeboat could possibly have stood up to such sea conditions as the one we had.


You can zoom in, pan, and click on the icons for more information on the places described in the story in the interactive map below:

Coloradan



 Repatriation


Repatriation proved difficult as well due to the number of ships that had recently been lost to the German offensive, and thus the number of survivors needing passage back home.


15 of the survivors were aboard the Dutch motor passenger ship Zaandam, which was sunk by U-174 (Thilo) on November 2nd about 300 miles north of Cape Sao Roque, Brazil. In all 134 died and 165 survived. Six of the casualties were from the Coloradan, including:


Alicea, Puro – Messman, Age unknown from Puerto De Tierra, PR
Barnes, Charles William – Wiper, Age unknown from Denver, CO
Gorlitz, Erhard - Chief Engineer, Age 53 from Baltimore, MD
Mangum, Calvin Howard - Able Seaman, Age unknown from Portland, OR
Payne, Robert Emmett - Radio Operator, Age 39 from Elkridge, MD
Simpson, Frank Albert – Purser, Age unknown from Seattle, WA


Coloradan Chief Engineer Erhard Paul Gorlitz was a German-American who had immigrated to the United States in 1923 aboard the liner President Roosevelt via Bremen, Germany. He was from Petersdorf, Schlesien, or the Silesian region of Germany at the time. Petersdorf would become Piechowice, Poland after the war.


His heavy accent appears to have been a constant source of amusement to the young American junior deck officers like Larz Neilson and Woodrow Wilson. They alternately referred to him as “The Baron” or “Count Von Nutses and Boltses” in correspondence. They respected him as an engineer, however, and so did American-Hawaiian.

Gorlitz quickly worked his way up various assistant engineer ranks until eventually becoming Coloradan’s Chief Engineer in the summer of 1940. Gorlitz left behind a wife, Mildred.

Of the 9 Coloradan survivors from the Zaandam, 4 were picked up five days later by the American tanker SS Gulfstate and landed at Trinidad on November 13th. They were eventually repatriated to New Orleans aboard the SS Yarmouth on November 29th, 1942.

These men were;


Ehret, Elmer C. – 3rd Asst. Engineer, Age 32 from Seattle, WA (Born in Philadelphia, PA)
Grace, Charles – Cook, Age 62 from New York, NY (Born in Cottonwood, CA)
Moore, Henry – Position unknown, Age 73 from New York, NY (Born in Pensacola, FL)
Power, John – 4th Mate, Age 27 from New Rochelle, NY (Born in Ridgefield Park, NJ)

The remaining 5 were among the 58 Zaandam survivors who reached Barreirinhas, Brazil in a lifeboat on November 11th.


American-Hawaiian’s own Hawaiian (Bernard’s old ship) left Capetown October 31st with 3 survivors aboard;


Bandelier, Fred J. – 4th Asst. Engineer
Oksanen, Karl – Radio Operator
Wilson, Woodrow – Chief Mate

They arrived in New York December 10th after a stop in Trinidad.

The Robin Doncaster arrived in Philadelphia on December 12th with 48 passengers/survivors, only one of which I was able to identify as a Coloradan survivor, 3rd Mate James McCollom.


Of the remaining 28 survivors, some may have also been on the Robin Doncaster, or on other vessels yet to be identified.


 U-159 and Helmut Witte


According to Uboat.net, Helmut Witte began his naval career in April 1934. Later he served on the light cruiser Köln, on the destroyer Z-22, and on several torpedo boats.
He would receive the Spanish Cross on June 6th, 1939 for his part in Germany’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War. By January 12th, 1940 he would receive his Iron Cross, second class.

In July 1940, while Coloradan was on her way to the Pacific, Witte transferred to the U-boat force. After the usual training he became First Watch Officer (IWO, or Executive Officer is US Navy parlance) on the newly commissioned U-107 under Kapitänleutnant Günter Hessler. Before he left the boat in July 1941, he had taken part in the most successful patrol of the war, sinking 86,699 tons in 1941, mostly off the Sierra Leone coast of West Africa. He would receive his Iron Cross, first class for this patrol.

He commissioned U-159 in October 1941 and sailed from Kiel, Germany on April 22nd for what appears to have been an uneventful 12 day maiden voyage North around the U.K. to their new operating base in Lorient, occupied France. There they joined the 10th U-Boat Flottilla as a front boat.



Witte and U-159 left Lorient less than two weeks later on May 14th on their second patrol. They reach the Caribbean by early June and operated off the waters of Panama, sinking 11 ships for a total of 50,505 tons and damaging another at 265 tons in the process. Despite their success, they nearly didn’t make it back. In the early hours of morning the day they were to return, July 13th they were attacked by a Leigh-Light equipped British Wellington (RAF Squadron 172) in the Bay of Biscay. The three bombs fell close on the port side and caused severe damage, leaving the U-159 unable to dive. Witte managed to reach Lorient after about 12 hours. Note that this is the same squadron/method that would take out Arkansan’s U-126 less than a year later.


Witte left Lorient August 24th, 1942 and was on his third and longest patrol with U-159 (135 days) when he sank the Coloradan and 10 other ships totaling 63,730 tons. He was 27 years old at the time. The morning after he sank the Coloradan the U-159 attempted another submerged attack on an unknown freighter estimated at 6,000 tons. He fired two G7e torpedoes from the stern tubes V and VI but missed. They surfaced about an hour later to try and catch up to the freighter and get into a firing position again. About 2 ½ hours later as they closed in on their prey they had to crash dive for an approaching aircraft. They were attacked by a Ventura aircraft of the South African Air Force (SAAF) with three depth charges, causing only slight damages. By the time they surfaced three hours later the freighter they were pursuing was long gone. At dawn the following morning they spotted two allied destroyers at 110° approaching them at high speed. Once gain Witte was forced to dive and evade. It would be another day or two before Witte would continue his successful streak. He would be awarded his Knights Cross while on this patrol, on October 22, 1942. They arrived safely back at base on January 5th, 1943.


His fourth and final patrol with U-159 began on March 4th, 1943, and it nearly proved disastrous. By March 19th U-boat Command (BdU) had started to vector a number of U-boats sailing independently, including U-159, and from disbanded groups to the area surrounding the Canary Islands for the full moon period. By the 25th of March the Germans had radio intelligence that Convoy RS 3 would be passing through this area. The U-boat’s would form a Wolfpack named Gruppe Seeräuber (Pirate). This was comprised of U-67 (Müller-Stöckheim), U-105 (Nissen), U-123 (von Schroeter), U-159 (Witte), U-167 (Sturm), U-172 (Emmermann), U-513 (Rüggeberg), U-515 (Henke), and U-524 (von Steinaecker). U-524 was lost en route. Some sources state the Italian submarine Giuseppe Finzi (Rossetto) was in the area as well, but nothing in BdU’s war diary indicates it was part of this Wolfpack. They attacked RS 3 Southeast of the Canary Islands which was comprised of 5 slow tugs, a valuable cable-layer ship and three merchants. The convoy was escorted by two corvettes and two armed trawlers. In the morning the corvettes left to reinforce the escort of a northbound convoy. U-159 seized the advantage and succeeded in sinking one of three allied merchants, the 5,319 ton British Motor Merchant Silverbeech.


Silverbeech had been carrying 5,053 tons of general cargo, including ammunition and high explosives. Witte had fired four torpedoes at her before diving and the primary and secondary explosions must have been massive. They badly shook up one of their comrades, U-172 (Emmermann), which was also in pursuit and 2,000 meters (1.24 miles) away when Silverbeech blew. Only eight of Silverbeech’s 67 crew survived. During the 3 day attack however, four of the U-boats, including U-159, were seriously damaged in an allied counterstrike by radar equipped aircraft. She was hit by aerial depth charges and was so badly damaged Witte had to withdraw to make repairs. U-172, who sank the Belgian motor merchant Moanda, and U-67 were also hit and had to abort. U-167, who had taken out the British steam merchant Lagosian, was so damaged she eventually had to be scuttled on April 6th.


U-159 was then directed to operate off Dakar, but was badly out of trim and had other damage preventing her from operating near the coast, Witte was then sent to operate around the Cape Verde Islands on the 31st. By April 8th the U-159, still to crippled to operate effectively, was tasked with rendezvousing with U-455 (Scheibe), U-154 (Kusch), and U-518 (Wissmann) to pick up the U-167’s escaped crew and return home, which Witte did by April 25th. U-105 was lost on her return voyage, so out of nine U-Boats that participated in Gruppe Seeräuber, two were lost, one scuttled, and three were damaged to the point of cutting their patrols short. U-67 would be lost on its next patrol, as would U-159 and U-513. Interesting note: it was on U-154’s return from this same patrol in July that they witnessed the loss of Arkansan’s U-126.


As you can see, Witte was lucky enough to leave for a shore staff position in June of 1943, just when things were getting bad for the U-boats, and served from then until the end of the war in several staff positions.


Witte was a top 20 Commander. He sank 23 ships for a total of 119,554 GRT, and damaged 1 for a total of 265 GRT, over the course of only 4 patrols (total of 261 days at sea) from October 4th, 1941 through June 6th, 1943.


There were many examples of him questioning survivors, providing course to land, medical supplies, food, water, cigarettes and even helping to search for missing men in one case.

When the war ended he spent two months in British captivity, then worked for a time as a farm hand and factory worker during the difficult years immediately after the war. Later he built up a successful civil career and in the 1960’s became personnel manager of a large German corporation.


Witte passed away in 2005 at the age of 90. His son, Dr. Lothar Witte, would later write a book of his father’s memoirs named “Ursprünglich wollt ich nur die Welt seh'n” (Translation: “Primarily, I wanted to see the world”), ISBN 9783000206450. Unfortunately, the book is only available in German at this time and there are no known plans to offer it in English.


I inquired on the uboat.net forum in the spring of 2011 about U-159’s interesting emblem, one of the more complex ones I’ve seen. The answer was from Georg Högel’s Book "U-Boat Emblems of World War II 1939-1945", from a copy of a letter, the original written to a young Frenchman: lt is correct that our emblem on U-159 was meant to represent the constellation of Aries. I was born under this sign on April 6, and in my life I have always had good luck, and in peace as in war fate has always been good to me. All seamen are a little superstitious—what was more natural for me than to paint this emblem on the tower to bring luck!? We did not wear it on our caps for lack of technical capacity, instead I wore the edelweiss there, which was given to me by General Dietl in Narvik. In addition, we brought an old superstition back to life: we wore small emblems made by ourselves, showing three sharks (caught in the South Atlantic), on our caps—an old custom of the early grain ships from Australia to Britain, that had to be at sea over 100 days straight without coming into a harbor."


U-159 was sunk with the loss of all hands (53) in the Caribbean South of Haiti in position 15.57N, 68.30W, by depth charges from an American Mariner aircraft (VP-32, P-1) on July 28th, 1943. She was just 47 days out on her first patrol under the command of Witte’s replacement, 30 year old Heinz Beckmann.


Click on the following links for more information on Witte and U-159.


 Robert H. Murphy


Robert Hugh Murphy was an Irish-American born in Barnstable, Massachusetts in 1902. He was a graduate of the Massachusetts Nautical School, a member of the September class of 1924. He was recruited upon graduation by American-Hawaiian Line, however it is not clear what vessel he first served on. According to the school’s annual report, by 1927 he was serving as Second Mate on the Missourian.


During the 1930 Census of Merchant Seamen he was in port in the Bronx, New York serving aboard the Willzipo as Chief Mate before she was renamed Washingtonian.

He later commanded the Texan, for which I found a crew list showing they departed San Francisco shortly after New Year’s 1942, transited the Panama Canal January 22nd, 1942 and arrived in New York on January 31st, 1942. Graham Griffiths, who would later command the Liberty Ship William L. Marcy when she was attacked in 1944 served as Murphy’s Third Mate.

Texan was torpedoed and shelled out from under him on their next voyage on March 12th, 1942 by U-126 (Bauer). See here for more information.


Murphy soon went right back to sea, this time commanding Coloradan, which as you know from this page did not end very well either. His Third Mate, James McCollom was pretty impressed with Murphy. In his view Murphy was a very capable Captain, tough as nails, and not afraid to discipline any unruly crewmembers even with his fists if he had to.


A few months after Coloradan, Murphy was back at it again, this time commanding the new Liberty Ship John Steele from the middle of 1943 into 1945, mainly transporting supplies between New York and the Mediterranean. Below is a list of voyages from 1943 on that I was able to locate:


Arrival Date Vessel Position Port of Departure Port of Arrival
08/09/43 John Steele Master Bizerte, Tunisia New York, NY
10/15/43 John Steele Master Casa Blanca, Morocco New York, NY
03/18/44 John Steele Master Crotone, Italy New York, NY
09/08/44 John Steele Master Belfast, Ireland New York, NY
12/06/44 John Steele Master New York, NY San Francisco, CA
03/05/45 John Steele Master Tinian, Mariana Is. San Francisco, CA
10/02/45 Baylor Victory Master Batangas, PI San Francisco, CA
11/27/45 Baylor Victory Master Cristobal, Canal Zone New York, NY
02/09/46 Baylor Victory Master Colon, Canal Zone New York, NY
05/04/47 Hattiesburg Victory Master Gydnia, Poland New York, NY
08/30/47 Hattiesburg Victory Master Bremerhaven, Germany New York, NY
03/13/50 Arkansan (II) Master Inchon, Korea Coos Bay, OR
09/25/50 Arkansan (II) Master Japan via Guam San Francisco, CA
08/14/52 American Master Balboa, Canal Zone San Francisco, CA
09/06/52 American Master San Francisco, CA Sasebo, Japan

As noted he served on the replacements for the Arkansan and American in the early 1950’s. While searching for info on Colman Raphael I stumbled upon some documentation stating Murphy became Captain of the American in May of 1952, and left in December 1952 due to illness. There was some legal investigation that took place in 1956 to determine whether the vessel itself may have been the cause of his illness. The trail goes cold after this.

Robert Hugh Murphy is believed to have passed away in Massachusetts in 1981, but my investigation is on-going.

 Woodrow Wilson


Woodrow Wilson was born in Thomaston, ME, September 30, 1912, and named after the former US president, although friends and family just called him Woody.


He lived in Thomaston until September 6, of 1930, when at the age of 18 Woody followed the beckoning of his father's cousin, Ross L. Wilson, Captain of the American-Hawaiian SS Co. SS Kentuckian, and joined that ship's crew as an ordinary seaman. Kentuckian was Bernard’s first assignment upon graduation in the spring of 1931 and the two men quite possible served together.


Woody later transferred to the SS Californian, one of only two diesel-powered motor ships at that time. He studied navigation under the tutelage of that ship's navigation officer, and at that officer's direction, sat for his 3rd Mates License. During that time he continued shipping the East/West Coast route, aboard the SS Californian.


After spending three months in Philadelphia during a National Seaman's Strike in 1937, he signed on with the SS Coloradan. He continued serving aboard that ship and by 1942, had become the Chief Mate, second in command.


Coloradan had left New York on her final voyage on or about May 14th, 1942. While in the port of Philadelphia on May 23, 1942, he married Martha E. Whitehill, his childhood friend and high school sweetheart. After a one-day honeymoon, he returned to sea aboard the Coloradan (ultimately earning his Masters License) and his bride returned to Thomaston by train. It was on the return leg of this voyage that the Coloradan was lost, but luckily Martha’s new husband survived.


After being repatriated on the Hawaiian, Woody returned to his hometown of Thomaston, Maine where about six months later, he received a draft card in the mail. Rather than being drafted, he returned to the Merchant Marine.


He returned to sea as Chief Mate of Kansan in 1943 as his first assignment after the Coloradan sinking, serving under 60 year old Master Orrick M. Rogers. Coincidently, this was another voyage from New York to Bandar Shahpur, Iran, like the last voyage on the Coloradan. Something happened in Iran because 3 crewmen died on June 19th and 3 were hospitalized the following month, but I have not been able to determine why. They stopped at Buenos Aires, Argentina (August 31st) and Port of Spain, Trinidad, BWI before arriving back in New York on October 9th, 1943; the 1st anniversary of Coloradan’s loss.


His first command was the Colabee (now back in service after it’s close call with U-126) arriving back in New York February 29th, 1944 after stops in Mobile, Alabama and Georgetown, British Guiana.


From there he was Master of the liberty ship Marion McKinley Bovard in 1945 and transported troops from the U.S. to Italy. As the war progressed, he transported troops between Naples and North Africa and also transported German prisoners from Italy to the United States. Ports of call included Casablanca, Morocco September 21st, and Livorno (aka Leghorn), Italy September 29th.


When the war was over, as Captain of the Liberty Ship Samuel Chase, he had the honor of bringing troops home, sailing from Cherbourg, France July 23rd, 1946. He later transported sugar and other supplies back to Germany.


Later in his career he returned to Thomaston and worked for Gulf and Chevron, running a small tanker out of Rockland, delivering oil around the Maine coast.


Larz's son, Larz F. Neilson first met Woody in 1964 when he attended a press convention in Rockport, Maine with his father, Capt. Larz, but then lost touch.


Until Woody’s retirement in 1986, he worked with Maine State Ferry Service, as a Captain of Ferryboats serving coastal Maine islands. He occasionally continued to work part time and in 1992, at age 80, he delivered the new ferry Captain Henry Lee from Rockland to Swan's Island to her new captain, one of his former students.



Woody’s old friend Captain Larz D. Neilson passed away in 2000, and his son starting going through his mountain of photos and documentation trying to organize it. Quite by chance in 2009 Larz was looking though his local Rockland Courier Gazette and found an article on Capt. Wilson celebrating his 96th birthday with his picture. He couldn’t believe his father’s old friend was still alive.

They met several times in the following years, and Larz was able to share his father’s pictures, books, stories and a recording of an interview his father gave to David Boeri in 1991 at WGBH-TV Channel 2 on The Ten O'Clock News. In turn, he was able to learn more about his father’s early career.

And what of that old Willboro sign? Well, it was later moved from his father’s garage to the Town Crier newspaper office where it was nearly lost during a fire in 1988 that destroyed the office. Fortunately the sign survived, albeit a little charred on one end, and was taken to Larz’s son Stu Neilson’s garage, where it sat for another 22 years. Larz was able to present the Willboro sign to Woody as a gift at the beginning of 2011.


Captain Woodrow W. Wilson, 98, died peacefully, Wednesday, May 4, 2011, at The Homestead Nursing Home in Cushing, ME.


 James C. McCollom


James Cornelius McCollom was born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1921 but grew up in Winthrop, Massachusetts. He was a graduate of the Massachusetts Nautical School, a member of the April class of 1941. He was recruited upon graduation by American-Hawaiian Line, Serving as Junior Third Mate on the Columbian under Master Edwin E. Johnson.


Below is a list of sailings I found for him:


Arrival Date Vessel Position Port of Departure Port of Arrival Master
10/2/1941 Columbian Jr. 3rd Mate Durban, South Africa New York, NY Edwin E. Johnson
4/2/1942 Columbian Jr. 3rd Mate Trinidad, BWI,
Capetown, SA,
Aden,
Port Sudan
New York, NY Edwin E. Johnson
N/A Coloradan 3rd Mate Durban, South Africa N/A Robert H. Murphy
3/12/1943 Hawaiian 2nd Mate Casablanca New York, NY John N. Hansen
10/09/43 Hawaiian 2nd Mate Loch Ewe, Scotland New York, NY Nels Nelson
04/24/44 John Drake Sloat Chief Mate Liverpool New York, NY Walter R. Millington
N/A William D. Burnham Chief Mate N/A N/A Emil Rosol
06/12/45 Samuel Chase Chief Mate Antwerp, Belgium New York, NY George A. Wilson
02/19/46 Marine Runner Chief Mate Calcutta, India New York, NY John B. Knowles

As noted above he was serving as Chief Mate on the Liberty Ship William D. Burnham when that vessel was torpedoed off the coast of France in 1944. He has provided more details of that attack as well, which I hope to post at a later date. He was repatriated from that attack on the USAT Brazil.

Jim McCollom now resides with his family in Maryland.


 Sources


Ancestry.com for crew lists and biographical information.


Duffy, Captain George W. for contact information for James McCollom.


Freepressonline.com for information from Obituary on Woodrow Wilson.


Library of Contemporary History in Stuttgart, Germany for U-159/Coloradan Torpedo Report.


Maine Department of Transportation for photo of ferry Captain Henry Lee.


Mason, Jerry and Charla for U-159 KTB and technical/glossary information from their uboatarchive.net site.

McCollom, James for his recollections of the Coloradan sinking.


Moore, Capt. Arthur R. for "A careless word...A NEEDLESS SINKING". Eighth Printing - 2006. Published and distributed by the Dennis A. Roland Chapter of the American Merchant Marine Veterans, Midland Park, NJ. Printed by Reed Hann, Williamsport, PA. for sinking details on the Coloradan.


Neilson, Larz F. for providing numerous articles and photo’s relating to his father, Captain Larz D. Neilson, Captain Woodrow Wilson and the Willboro/Coloradan.


Uboat.net for information on Witte, U-159, their victims, and for help on the emblem meaning through their user forum. Also for information on other Group Eisbar U-boats


The Wilson family for sharing Woodrow Wilson’s report of the sinking and subsequent experience in the lifeboat.


Wikipedia free on-line encyclopedia for summaries on miscellaneous topics related to this story.