This information is a composite that attempts to weave together the various accounts, some of which conflict on specifics, from the three ships involved; the Arkansan, the Kahuku, and the U-126. Most other accounts I've seen tend to separate the Arkansan and Kahuku attacks as two individual events, but I feel there is some value in showing the whole picture. You can click on the interactive map below to zoom in and explore the area. I have flagged key locations/events with colored symbols which include details if you click on them as well.
The seas were calm and the sun had set about two hours before the attack, with only a sliver of a crescent moon. The skies were overcast, obscuring what little light would have been available from the moon and the stars. The average evening temperature for Grenada in June of that year was around 81° F with 76% humidity.
The unarmed, unescorted Arkansan was steaming a straight course at about 11 knots on a northwesterly bearing (300°), having left Port-of-Spain Trinidad earlier that Monday morning on her way to New Orleans, Louisiana. She was carrying 9,000 tons of general cargo, mostly coffee. Her crew consisted of 10 officers, 1 radioman, 27 crew and 2 passengers. Bernard was Chief Mate, and had just turned 33 nine days prior. Arkansan’s Master, Captain Paul R. Jones decided to stop zigzagging about an hour after sun-set, probably to make better time under the cover of darkness. He did have three look-outs posted and the Arkansan was blacked out.
Unknown to Jones, he was being hunted. A large German Type IXC U-boat, the U-126, commanded by veteran 28-year-old Ernst Bauer was patrolling in the vicinity. U-126 had been at sea for 53 days and was about halfway through her patrol. They had already sunk the large Norwegian Motor Tanker, the Høegh Giant on June 3rd as they approached South America. U-126 headed north after that and entered the Caribbean on the 14th passing about 60 miles north of Barbados around midnight. She turned to the southwest, sinking the two-masted British schooner Dutch Princess with gunfire at 6:58pm that evening, just 18 miles east of St. Lucia. U-126 entered the Granada Basin at midnight using the St. Vincent Passage, passing less than 5 miles from the southern point of St. Lucia. Bauer noted in his war diary that the lights 'burn on shore as in peacetime'.
U-126 spent the rest of the day traveling southwest on the surface until about 2:00pm when they adjusted to a more southerly course. At 3:16pm her watch spotted an aircraft and they crash dived. About two hours later at 5:20pm they came up to periscope depth for a look around and not only spotted the aircraft again, but a freighter to the southwest that the aircraft was protecting. This freighter was the Arkansan, and they estimated she was on a course of 290°, her speed at 12 knots, and her size at 7,000 tons.
It is not clear whether the aircraft had been orbiting the Arkansan since she left Trinidad or whether it was simply patrolling the area at the same time. Allied air assets in the area at this time were very limited. There is no mention of an air escort in Arkansan’s reports. U-126 identified it simply as a “Flugzeug” or aircraft, rather than “Flugboot” or flying boat. Possibilities include an Army Air Corps B-18 Bolo of the 1st Bombardment Squadron out of Waller Field on Trinidad or a Navy PBY-5 Catalina of VP-31 “The Patrolman” flying from the entrance to the Gulf of Paria known as the Dragon’s Mouth. The B-18’s likely were not equipped with radar at this time, nor capable of night flying, whereas the PBY’s were.
Whichever aircraft it was, it stayed around long enough to keep the U-126 down at least until dark. Unfortunately for Arkansan, it still wasn’t enough time, and her position due west of the U-126 put her in a favorable position on the bright horizon to allow Bauer to maintain contact even submerged. When it became dark enough, U-126 surfaced and gave chase. It would be a lucky night for the crew of the U-126. As they ran at full speed due west after the Arkansan her lookouts on her open bridge spotted a second freighter (Kahuku) at 8:20pm on her starboard side heading southbound towards them.
After passing the Arkansan on her starboard side using her superior speed the U-126 actually maneuvered ahead to her port side and let the Arkansan come to her. U-126’s First Watch Officer, Hans-Adolf Schweichel, who was acting as Torpedo Officer for this surface attack, patiently waited as the dark shape of the Arkansan loomed closer and closer. The U-126 quietly trolled along on her electric motor at 2 ½ knots. He looked through the special sighting binoculars mounted on the bridge and locked in Arkansan's speed, bearing and distance. At 8:31pm as Arkansan passed the U-boat’s stern at a distance of only 350meters (about 2 ½ lengths of the Arkansan) Schweichel gave the command to fire, "Torpedo Los!" Two G7e electric torpedoes were launched from aft tubes V and VI at the middle of the ship.
About the same time the U-126 fired, Captain Jones spotted the surfaced U-boat "two points forward of the port beam". He sounded the general alarm and ordered the Arkansan to increase speed to 13 knots and execute a hard starboard (right) turn to avoid the torpedoes and start putting some distance between them and the U-boat. It was too late though; the U-126 was practically on top of them and the torpedoes, racing along at 30 knots, closed the distance in just 22 seconds.
The first torpedo impacted the port (left) side of the Arkansan at a point just under the bridge, 10 feet below the water line. The second torpedo hit a split second later further back where the superstructure ends. Both torpedoes were packed with 617 pounds of explosive which caused a devastating amount of damage.
Arkansan, likely already heeling to port during her hard turn to starboard, lunged heavily to port and “ships a large sea” over the shelter deck. The port life boat was destroyed in the explosions and the port raft located on the after poop awning was washed overboard. The wireless antenna, a series of cables strung between the masts on pulleys, was also wrecked, preventing Arkansan’s radio operator, William Brewer, from radioing for help. No emergency transmitter was carried. Geysers of sea water rained back down onto the ship. Reports conflicted as to whether any of the men were killed by the torpedo hits, but at least eleven men were injured when they were knocked down onto the deck or into railings and other obstacles. It is likely that most if not all of the crew were knocked off their feet or out of their bunks.
The collapse of the antenna was a blessing in disguise for Arkansan, and likely sealed the fate of the Kahuku. The Germans would have been monitoring the allied frequencies and any attempt to send out a distress signal would have been viewed as a form of resistance. The signal could not only bring help for the Arkansan's crew, but warships and aircraft down onto the U-Boat. If the Arkansan had started to signal, the U-126 would have first used her aft 37mm canon in an attempt to silence it. The orientation of the two ships would have placed Arkansan's gathering crew on the far side of the radio shack, out of the line of site, but within the line of fire. If that did not work, Bauer would have needed to bring the U-126 around to starboard (remember she was stern to, and Arkansan continued to move away to the North) to bring her larger 105mm main deck gun to bear. This would have cost the U-126 precious time, perhaps enough for Kahuku to make good her escape in the darkness. This was not to be.
Realizing his ship was doomed, Captain Jones ordered the lights set and the crew to abandon ship. The list was so heavy that men had to crawl to the lifeboat on the starboard side. The list started to even out as the seawater rushed in through the two huge gaping holes the torpedoes just punched in her side, typically 25 feet or more in diameter.
The U-126, seeing the two successful hits and the crew preparing to abandon ship, broke off the attack to pursue the Kahuku, who had just witnessed the Arkansan getting hit, "a white light/explosion astern” followed by "a dull thud" as her watch reported. Other members of U-126's watch were likely keeping an eye on Kahuku, and the U-boat's big diesel engines roared to life as the U-126 increased her speed to full and plotted an intercept course.Scottsburg (46) and the Cold Harbor (17) the previous day (although this had been U-502). Many of the 63 extra men had already been posted around the ship as extra lookouts and they now helped ready her life boats. Unlike Bernard’s ship, they knew what was coming, had plenty of time to think about it, and it must have been absolutely terrifying.
Meanwhile, aboard the Arkansan, the evacuation hadn't gotten off to a very good start. The telegraph between the bridge and engine room was damaged and the engines wouldn’t shut down. She was still trying to make top speed which could cause the lifeboat on the starboard side to capsize if it contacted the water wrong. The preferred method was to bring the ship to a complete stop before the lifeboat(s) were lowered. Along with the ship’s speed, the initial list to the port side meant that the one remaining lifeboat wouldn't clear the side of the ship if lowered. They were trapped.
Luckily, after a couple minutes the list evened out enough for the life boat to clear and the speed reduced to 7 knots as the Arkansan plowed deeper into the water. Jones decided to chance a launching. The Captain threw the ship’s logs and codes overboard. 36 of the survivors started to board the life boat, which was designed to handle 40 men. The one remaining life raft was thrown overboard by one of the Wipers, Donald Lambert, who jumped in after it. The Deck Engineer, Leo Marchesseault headed aft to build a raft. Chief Mate Bernard Conners left the boat deck to retrieve papers for his men. No mention was made of A.B. Sigurd Bentsen. The survivors in the lifeboat stood by for 20 minutes waiting for the missing men to show up, then, when “it was no longer safe to remain”, “we cast off, and the vessel sank a few min. later.” The Arkansan reportedly slipped beneath the surface 38 minutes after she was hit. The calm seas were definitely a factor. If there were significant waves, the lifeboat probably would not have been lowered successfully and the crew would have had to jump overboard, resulting in a greater loss of life.
Despite being well armed for the time, Kahuku was unable to maneuver, sinking, outgunned, and was overloaded with people, many of whom were panicking because they recently went through a sinking. The evacuation was somewhat disorderly since there were so many extra people aboard and there simply weren't enough lifeboats/rafts for everyone. The starboard boat was damaged in the explosion and of the three lifeboats towed behind them (from Cold Harbor- 2 and Scottsburg-1), two had broken loose earlier and the one remaining boat was too far astern and just not easily boarded. To complicate matters, the unsecured life rafts were cut loose immediately after the torpedoes hit, but before the ship came to a stop, and so were out of position. Most people ended up leaping into the water and struggling to find lifeboats and rafts in the darkness.
What happened next is unclear from the documentation I have. A newspaper account states that several men stayed on board, including:
Master Eric Johanson,
Chief Mate George Collings,
Radio Operator Ted Blazewicz,
The officer in charge of the Armed Guard gun crew, Lt. (J.G.) Christian Kammerer.
Second officer Harlan Soeten recalled “The lieutenant had told his own men to leave and he stood there by the rail and wished them good luck as they jumped overboard.”
I speculate that the officers of U-126, standing off and observing the evacuation noticed the unusually large number of personnel jumping overboard and realized something was not right. U-126 approached cautiously in the darkness and helped several of the people in the water get to life rafts. Bauer assured them that the patrol craft Opal would be out in the morning to pick them up and wished them "Good Luck". The survivors noted that the German officers spoke very good English with no accent. The last survivor they picked up is a man named Archie Gibbs, who was given a cursory 'interrogation' near the U-126’s main gun to find out more about the Kahuku.
IV. Despite reportedly carrying a 7,000 ton load of cranes, tractors, and structural equipment, the stubborn Kahuku refused to sink.
During this time Archie Gibbs was on the open bridge of the U-126 watching the show. Shortly after the coup de grace, without another raft handy to place him in, he was sent below into the U-boat. He remained there for 4 days until Bauer released him to a neutral vessel.
At 11:00pm U-126 opened fire with their deck guns. It is likely that this was return fire. Second officer Harlan Soeten stated that “After we had left the ship he [Kammerer] managed to fire about three shots at the sub with the help of the first officer [Collings], who didn’t know anything about the gun.” It is also possible that the radio operator started transmitting. There are no surviving detailed records from the U-126 on what she fired other than “fired artillery shots” in the War Diary. The Kahuku survivors reported about 30 shells being fired from U-126’s 105mm main deck gun, concentrating on her bridge, radio room and armament. Another account mentions suppressive fire was laid down from her smaller canons. Eventually Kahuku’s after magazines (ammunition stored at the rear of the ship) were hit, resulting in an explosion and a fire, and she finally started to settle at the stern. None of the men onboard survived.
The Arkansan survivors saw the Kahuku's magazine explode in the distance and thought there was a firefight between the U-boat and the ship she was attacking, not knowing how lopsided the engagement was. Jones estimated they were about 5 miles away.
The U-126 then headed back over to where the Arkansan was hit at about 11:30pm. The men in the lifeboat had been rowing amongst the wreckage for over two hours looking for the missing men when they observed the U-boat approach to within a half mile. They weren't sure if the U-boat saw them, but noted that it made no attempt to "molest" them. A popular belief among sailors at the time (which persists to this day) was that U-boats would machine gun survivors, but history shows this is unwarranted. Bauer likely did not see them since he would usually try to question survivors to find out what the name of the ship was (he didn't know) or what its cargo was. Arkansan was simply identified as "unbekannter Frachter" or "unknown Freighter" on the torpedo report. U-126 made the correct assumption that the Arkansan had gone down, and then went back to the Kahuku to see how she was progressing. This tells me that the ships were much closer together than the 46 nautical miles the coordinates reflect. Assuming a worst case travel time of 30 minutes and at the top speed of a surfaced Type IXC of 18.3knots, the ships were likely less than 10 nautical miles apart.
After the Arkansan survivor's close call with the U-126, “the 36 men in the life boat took a vote and unanimously agreed that it was futile to continue the search longer.” They started rowing towards the coast of South America. Ironically, Bauer would not only have not shot them, he would have likely provided whatever assistance he could. ‘Perception is reality’, however, and it is impossible to say whether this would have changed the outcome in any meaningful way.
U-126 lingered in the area, probably to confirm their sinking of the Kahuku. It was very important to confirm the sinking or the level of damage because that’s how the commander and crew were graded. From the U-boat Commander's Handbook; "Better to destroy little, than to damage much!" A damaged ship's cargo may be at least partially saved, or at the very least the ship returned to service delivering more supplies, making the attack a wasted effort.
At about 20 minutes past midnight on the 16th, roughly three hours after she was first hit, the Kahuku finally slipped beneath the waves stern first. It had been about four hours since the Arkansan was hit, which to me was an indication of the inadequate measures we were taking to protect these ships and the brave men who served on them. Bauer obviously wasn’t too concerned about anti-submarine activity while he shuttled between two sinking ships for four hours.
According to Schweichel’s torpedo reports, both the Arkansan and Kahuku were sunk in depths that measured 4,000 meters (13,123.4 feet). For comparison, the famous Titanic wreck lies at a depth of 3,810 meters (12,500 feet). They are lying in an area known as the Grenada Basin just off the point where the northern edge of the South American continental shelf drops off. Unfortunately well past the boundaries of human sport diving. 50 to 60 miles almost directly to the east is the southwestern tip of the Island of Grenada. Roughly 70 miles to the west begins a submerged mountain range known as the Aves Ridge, separating the Grenada Basin from the main Venezuelan Basin of the Caribbean Sea. Their exact locations are unknown because no one has ever actually attempted to find and survey them. The locations I note in the map to ED9414 for Arkansan, ED9412 for Kahuku), U-126's torpedo reports (ED9412 for both), and Headquarters' (BdU) war diary (ED9414 for Arkansan, ED9413 for Kahuku).
The U-126 eventually moved off to the northwest to re-load, but ran out of darkness before she could begin and submerged at sunrise (5:20am) due to unfavorable visibility about 20 miles northwest of where the Kahuku was attacked. The rest of the day was spent surfacing and crash diving due to the air activity she had stirred up. At 6:48am she spotted an aircraft, but eventually surfaced at 7:18am, only to crash dive less than an hour later due to an aircraft on her starboard aft quarter. She surfaced a short while later and made good progress to the west until she had to crash dive again at 1:36pm due to an aircraft ahead on her port side.
A short while later U-126 changed course and headed southwest towards Blanquilla Island, which nearly became a fatal mistake. At 7:10pm, while they were about 20 miles northeast of Blanquilla they turned west and finally began replenishing their torpedoes from the exterior containers under what they assumed was the relative safety of darkness.
There was much work to do. U-126 had used up 12 of her 14 internal torpedoes so far on this patrol. To supplement this internal inventory, 8 more (G7a’s) were stored externally in watertight containers between the pressure hull and the top deck, and it was no easy task, especially in the dark. An “A”-frame was erected on the deck and with a series of pulleys and cables they pulled the torpedoes out of their containers and onto a cradle. From there the cradle swiveled up and the torpedo was slowly and carefully lowered into the forward torpedo room through a hatch in the ceiling that also acted as an emergency escape. Once there it was rotated horizontal again and prepared for loading in the torpedo tubes or for storage on or under the deck plates. For an animation of the process, see here.
After almost 2 ½ hours of this back-breaking work they still hadn't made much progress. The torpedo they were loading was about halfway through the ceiling hatch when it became stuck. As the crew attempted to free it, a PBY-5 from VP-31, number 31-P-6 piloted by Lieutenant Donald Gay Jr. and Lieutenant (j.g.) T.R. Evert had just reached Blanquilla Island on route from Grenada when their radioman, Lubinsky, informed the captain that he had a radar indication 5 miles to starboard.
U-126 could hear the Catalina approaching, but with the torpedo stuck in the hatch it was impossible to crash dive and they had no choice but to fight it out on the surface.
Per Gay’s report, he “Turned right and commenced the let down – radar on “homing.” Lubinsky informed me that the indication was weak and that it might be a submarine. Bow and after station were manned. While at about 400 feet altitude and with ½ mile to go I pulled the port flare release. The flare failed to function and I could see nothing. NAP Hammond reported that he thought he saw a small wake to starboard. At this time we were at 250 feet altitude. The position at this time was 12-09 N – 64-27 W. I immediately went into a steep climbing turn to the left and ordered radar to switch to “search”. Lubinsky reported an indication on the port side. He then switched to “homing” and I continued the turn left. When “1/2 mile to” I released a parachute flare. Almost instantaneously the submarine opened fire with what appeared to be two .50 cal. machine guns.” According to Bauer’s war diary U-126 actually opened fire with their MG C/30 - L 30/37 which was a single barrel, automatic 20mm antiaircraft canon mounted on the round platform at the aft end of the conning tower known as the “Wintergarten”. It was manned by 2 to 4 men and fed by a 20 round magazine. It had a practical rate of fire of 120 rounds per minute. Each round weighed 0.7 lbs (320g). Maximum elevation was 90°, and effective range was 1,500m (1,640.42 yards). U-Boats often carried smaller caliber machine guns, such as the 7.62mm MG34, which could be mounted on the conning tower, but there is no reference in the war diary that these were utilized.
Tracers were spraying on both sides – above and below as we pressed home the attack. 4 Mark 17 depth bombs were dropped in a stick and Hammond reported “Dropped four”. All hands (including myself) were quite surprised and very excited. We passed over the submarine and employed violent course changes in order to evade his fire. Donaldson who was in the starboard blister estimated our stick as shown in the accompanying sketch. It is estimated that the enemy expended 12 – 1500 rounds of ammunition.” U-126 was taking evasive maneuvers at this time, and the four depth charges, set to go off at a depth of 50 feet, fell short to port. Amazingly there was no serious damage to the U-126 (missing deck plates) or the Catalina, and no casualties among their crews.
U-126 continued west submerged for awhile, spending the couple days surfacing and crash diving and would eventually make it not quite as far west as Curaçao, before being instructed to head back east due to the now heavy Allied air activity. Not before releasing Gibbs to a small neutral Venezuelan vessel Minataora about 45 miles off Curaçao.