Cape San Juan


When my research into the histories of other American-Hawaiian vessels brought me to the Cape San Juan I was surprised at the lack of information available on the web compared to other vessels. In fact, what little information was available often contradicted itself, and generated more questions than answers for me. My surprise was based on the fact that the sinking of the Cape San Juan represented the greatest loss of life of any American-Hawaiian Steamship operated vessel. Perhaps the lack of information was because there were no Merchant Mariner or Armed Guard casualties, but the loss of life among her US military passengers was significant. As significant as that loss was, the fact that over a thousand men entered the oily, shark infested, fifteen foot rain swept seas that November morning in the South Pacific and all but 117 made it out is nothing short of a miracle. A miracle helped by men selflessly putting their own lives at risk to help others. From ship and aircraft crews to the men in the water themselves, encouraging their buddies and sometimes strangers to hold on just a little longer. I've identified as many as I could based on official reports in the following summary, but I'm sure there were many more.

As has always been the case with my research, I am amazed, and impressed with the help that complete strangers offer. The volume of information I received, especially from Tom Gauthier, Chester Driest’s family, the Dybas family and Chuck Moss, was probably enough to warrant a website just on the Cape San Juan, but I already have my hands full with this Arkansan website. Trying to boil the Cape's story down to one or two paragraphs on the American-Hawaiian page seemed at once impossible and inadequate. I decided to compromise and add a page to this website on the Cape. I started with a modest summary and then expanded upon it once additional information came to light. I hope this provides those that were there that are still with us (survivors and rescuers), family members of both, and other researchers with a good, accurate picture of what occurred.

Vessel History

The Cape San Juan was not a purpose built troop ship or even a converted passenger liner, but a conversion of a ‘small’ dry cargo freighter known as a type C1-B. According to the US Merchant Marine site;

The C1 types were the smallest of the 3 original types designed by the United States Maritime Commission and were intended to be used on routes that did not call for fast ships. 173 were built between 1940 and 1945.

Below is an example of a standard C1-B, the Cape Johnson before her conversion.

Cape Johnson taken sometime between May 1943 and June 1944, apparently before any troopship modifications were made. Note king posts and standard configuration of deck house, lifeboats and Armed Guard ramp rafts. Photo courtesy of Frank A. Gerhardt at

Even so, compared to Liberty and Victory ships they were generally better built, more versatile and more modern with a steam turbine propulsion system. The general specifications of the type C1-B are as follows:

C1-B (Full scantling)

Length overall: 417.75 feet

Beam: 60 feet

Depth: 37.5 feet

Draft: 27.5 feet

Gross tons: 6,750

Deadweight tons, steam 7,815

Speed: 14 knots

Horsepower: 4,000

For comparison, these specifications made her 23.75 feet shorter, about 3 feet wider, 3 knots faster and about 3000 dead weight tons smaller than a Liberty ship, such as the Edwin T. Meredith that would come to her rescue. Her draft, tonnage and speed would also have been affected by the modifications that were made, but there doesn’t appear to be any post modification specifications available.

The modifications were comprised of additional external deck structures, conversion of several holds to hold six-tiered bunks and additional lifesaving equipment to account for the passengers. The modifications allowed her to carry between 1,300 and 2,000 passengers.

The Cape San Juan was one of eight C1-B’s that were modified in this way, although there was some variation between them. These vessels, in order of delivery, were:

      1. Cape Newenham – April 24th, 1943 to American Mail Line, Ltd.

      2. Cape Perpetua – May 3rd, 1943 to American President Lines, Ltd.

      3. Cape Cleare – May 18th, 1943 to Matson Navigation Co.

      4. Cape Johnson – May 25th, 1943 to Pacific-Atlantic Steamship Co.

      5. Cape San Juan – June 10th, 1943 to American-Hawaiian Steamship Co.

      6. Cape Mendocino (II) – June 13th, 1943 to American President Lines, Ltd.

      7. Cape Meares – June 20th, 1943 to Matson Navigation Co.

      8. Cape Victory – July 28th, 1943 to Moore-McCormick Lines, Inc.

Cape San Juan was the only one of the eight to be lost during the war.

On the Cape, the external deck structures were described as follows by Master Strong:

An additional deck house had been built on deck over troop exits thru #1, 2 and 3 hatches. This deck house was used as a washroom and was also used as a means of exit from the troop quarters in #1, 2 and 3 upper ‘tween deck. The deck house was so laid out that it covered a deck area extending fore and aft over the watertight bulkheads where they were fastened to the main deck. The purpose of this was to cover the troop exits that came from #1, 2 and 3 ‘tween decks with the one deck house. The deck house was watertight to the sea and weather, but no provision was made inside the deck house itself to separate the deck openings which were close together”.

This would impact her survivability, which I will detail later.

It is somewhat unclear from this description and the available photos of the Cape San Juan to determine if she was fitted with full width enclosures covering hold #3 forward of the main deck house and hold #4 aft of the main deck house as seen in pictures of some of her ‘sisters’, like the Cape Newenham below.

Sister ship of the Cape San Juan, the Cape Newenham, operated by American Mail Line, Ltd. Photo was taken May 26th, 1944 in position 48° 30' N, 126° 9' W approximately 35 miles southwest of Vancouver Island. Photo enhance to show locations of troopship modifications, armament and life saving equipment.Courtesy of Frank A Gerhardt at

The fact that the Cape San Juan retained her ventilated king posts just forward of the main deck house, where most of her ‘sisters’ apparently did not, may indicate that she had a different design.

Master Strong identified the location of where the passengers were located as:

#1 shelter and ‘tween deck, #2 shelter and ‘tween deck, and officers in #4 shelter deck.

This contradicts his statement about troop quarters in the #3 hold. The Merchant Mariners and Navy Armed Guard would have occupied the original cabins in the main deck house. A few of the spare cabins in the main deck house were occupied by some of the Army transport officers as well, such as the Transport Commander, Major Robert A. Barth, who was located in the first cabin at the forward starboard corner of the main deck house.

The vessel had three full decks below the main deck, and five holds so it is assumed that the remainder; #1 & 2 lower deck, #3 & 4 ‘tween and lower deck and all three levels of #5 were all used for cargo.

As far as lifesaving equipment, the usual complement of two lifeboats was increased to six, the four wooden rafts normally carried for the Navy Armed Guard were retained and up-sized, and thirty-six Carley floats of 20, 40 & 60 person capacity were added. They also had life vests for everyone of course as well as 120 lifesaving suits (for cold water survival) which were not used.

Passengers on the bow of the Cape San Juan as they depart San Francisco, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

The Attack

Cape San Juan (Master Walter Mervyn Strong) was torpedoed at 0530 local time by the Imperial Japanese Submarine I-21 (Commander Hiroshi Inada) on Thursday, November 11th, 1943, approximately 300 miles southeast of Fiji. She was on her second voyage, traveling unescorted from San Francisco California to Townsville Australia with 57 Merchant Crew, 42 Navy Armed Guard, 3 radio operators and 1,340 passengers on board. The passengers were primarily comprised of three units of the US Army Air Corps:

855th “All Negro” Engineers (Aviation) Battalion – 811 Officers & Enlisted Men

1st Fighter Control Squadron - 367 Officers & Enlisted Men

253rd Ordnance (Aviation) Company - 162 Officers & Enlisted Men

There were also 21 “permanent” army personnel (3 officers and 18 enlisted men), commanded by Major Robert A. Barth, responsible for the troops while being transported, plus 1 civilian, for a total of 1,464 souls on board.

Cape San Juan was on a westerly course (270°), traveling at 14.7 knots. The weather was clear with the seas slightly choppy with a few whitecaps. The sun had not quite risen, but it was described as light out. The Cape was blacked out, zigzagging, and had lookouts posted with the Navy Armed Guard crew at general quarters. Defensive armament included three 3”/50’s, one 4”/50 and eight 20mm. I-21’s periscope (submerged firing) and torpedo tracks were spotted shortly before she was hit as the Cape was executing a turn to starboard in accordance with her zig-zag plan.

Various eyewitness accounts described the following:

Two water spouts seen at a distance of approximately 2000 yards; relative bearing 120 degrees. Wake seen on water when 15 yards distant from the ship; very straight path; approximately 2 feet wide; went aft of vessel, missing stern by 20 yards. Wake was light greenish color; water itself was deep dark green. Left slight white foam on surface.

Another eyewitness claims he saw the wake of this torpedo some 300 feet out on the starboard quarter and claims that it missed the ship’s stern by only 15 feet. A few seconds after first torpedo passed aft of vessel several armed guard lookouts saw two water spouts, generally described as from 6 to 10 feet high and from 2 to 3 feet in width. Both spouts broke the surface at a distance of from 1500 to 2500 yards; relative bearing 130 degrees. They were described as egg-shaped by one witness; as fan shaped by another; and as being “in the shape of a pine tree” by another. Both spouts did not rise simultaneously. The second came up as the first settled. Described by some as narrower than whale spouts.

This was actually an unusually short range attack for the Japanese, who typically fired a two to three torpedo spread from at least twice this range to immobilize the target and then one or two to finish it off. They also had a piston system like the German’s to eliminate the release of the compressed air (the water spouts mentioned above) during submerged firings that would give away their position. This could indicate there was a malfunction with the system, or an error on the part of the new Torpedo Officer, or that they simply weren’t worried about it. Although the shorter than usual range did put them within range of the Cape San Juan’s defensive armament.

There was quite a bit of disagreement on whether the torpedoes left a visible wake on the surface or not, and if so, for how long. This is odd because the Japanese were known to have the best torpedoes of the war with advanced propulsion systems that burned a combination of kerosene and pure oxygen which enabled them to attain great speed, remarkable distance, with little or no wake. The most likely candidates were the Type 95 Mod 1 (a submarine version of their famous Type 93 “Long Lance”), capable of speeds up to 51 knots for shorter range firings like this and equipped with a 893lb warhead. The other candidate was the Type 96 (only 36% oxygen) capable of speeds up to 50 knots and equipped with a 1,213lb warhead. The later was known for depth keeping issues.

The report went on to say:

When some 250 yards from ship, this wake broke and an object skimmed on the surface of the water, in the line of the wake, for a distance of some 20 feet. It traveled so fast that no one could identify color, shape or size. When object submerged, wake did not reappear and explosion against starboard side of ship immediately followed. Torpedo struck starboard, abreast of the after end of No. 2 hatch, far below water line, (because of the quantity of oil which emerged to the surface immediately after torpedo hit, it is believed to have struck very close to the double bottom). A heavy oil slick immediately appeared. Inasmuch as the ship immediately took on a hard starboard list, the exact position, size, shape of hole and damage done to the hull could not be viewed or ascertained.

When this torpedo struck, eye witnesses stated that immediately on the impact, a great flash of light came up over the gunwale on the starboard quarter, reaching as high as the ship’s bridge, covering a width of over 20 feet.

They went on describe the color of the explosion, the smoke that immediately followed, and finally the water that cascaded back down onto the vessel. They described the impact as follows:

The ship shook and shuddered and the bow raised slightly, then settled and the vessel took on an immediate 10 degree to 15 degree list to starboard, and then settled to a 20 degree to 25 degree list within a few minutes.

The torpedo had struck below where the troops from the 855th were berthed. The hatch covers over the No. 2 hold were blown upwards, and then collapsed down into the hold killing and injuring several men.

An SOS was sent along with the message: “torpedoed, ship sinking fast”. Inexplicably, the Officer in Charge of the radio, Lt. (j.g.) Harris, ordered the radio destroyed immediately afterwards and abandoned ship, so no further signals were sent. Some effort was made to repair the equipment, but to no avail.

The Navy Armed Guard returned fire immediately towards the area the submarine was believed to have fired from. The 4”/50 fired 21 rounds (range 3000 yards), two of the 3”/50’s (Gun tubs “B” and “D”, range 1,500 yards) fired a total of 200 rounds, and the four starboard 20mm’s fired a total of 1,000 rounds, sweeping area 1,000-2,000 yards fore and aft of torpedo track. One of the 20mm’s jammed after 20 rounds. All guns fired intermittently for about 10 minutes. Occasional shots were fired throughout the day to let the enemy know they were still aboard.

The ship’s engine was ordered stopped, and she coasted to a stop as she continued her turn to starboard. The evacuation, mainly of the enlisted Army personnel, commenced about 15 to 20 minutes after being hit. More torpedoes were expected at any moment. The seas started to deteriorate into 15 foot waves with white caps. The number 2 hold flooded quickly and the ship settled down by the bow with the starboard list increasing.

A valiant effort was made by several of the 855th’s officers including Captain Herbert Edward Bass (according to 855th TEC Sargent Gene Hines, Bass was a Lieutenant at the time of the attack, in charge of Company “A”) Captain Wholley, and 1st Lt. Mutchler and enlisted men including Sgt. Chester L. Rivers, First Sgt. Shelton and Private Monroe Barkley. Bass and Barkley in particular showed remarkable courage by diving into the dark, oily, flooded hold to tie ropes to an injured man (Theodore Harris) so he could be pulled out. Doctors on board, 1st Lt. John G. Schurts, 1st Lt. James V. Davis and 1st Lt. Leo S. Wool set up a dressing station on hatch No. 4 to care for the injured men. Major Floyd C. Shinn, the senior passenger officer, was also singled out for his actions.

It is unclear exactly how many men perished from the initial torpedo explosion, subsequent flooding, and the collapse of the hatch structure. Bass estimated 20 at the time, but most sources now state 16. Some men drowned during abandon ship by jumping over board in full combat gear and others were lost who were in the water near the ship when large wooden rafts were released over them. Understandably, most men in the water and even in the rafts tried to get to the few life boats, which soon became heavily overloaded. The number 4 motor boat was swamped and lost when too many men (estimated at 65) attempted to board it, and another came very close to capsizing. Some rafts drifted away before they could be manned (described as “not less than two and not more than six”).

Many of the men initially ended up with nothing but a life vest. These were a mix of cork and kapok. Years later, survivors, Chester Driest and James Reed of the 1st Fighter would laugh at how some of the life vests were stenciled ‘For Inland Waterways Only’, including Reed’s. Wind and wave action quickly dispersed the men in the water to the south, and the oil caused severe eye irritation and even temporary blindness in some cases. Cape San Juan had been carrying 6 lifeboats, 4 large rafts, and 36 smaller rafts. Overall, the evacuation was described as controlled, and by 0630 all lifeboats and rafts were away except those rafts retained for the 200 personnel still on board.

About two hours after first getting hit a dull thud was felt throughout the ship, followed by what was described as an “explosion beneath the ship”. My working theory is that it was a glancing blow and not an actual impact by a dud torpedo for the following reasons:

      1. Men in the water around the aft port quarter actually felt a torpedo pass beneath their feet. The water was full of men, especially around the stern because that’s the direction the wind and waves were carrying them. An explosion in that close of proximity would have caused massive internal injuries and casualties due to the pressure wave, but none are reported. Nor was an explosive column reported.

      2. A torpedo which failed to detonate would have likely been moving with sufficient force to at least puncture the side the ship and cause some flooding. The ship was inspected before the last of the men left and no flooding was found in the aft portion of the ship.

      3. Since the vessel was down by the bow and listing 15° to starboard, the aft port quarter (diagonally opposite) was possibly higher than normal and the third torpedo, if set too low or perhaps even breaching the water and diving as the fatal shot did may have struck the bottom of the hull, not the side, resulting in a very shallow angle oblique hit. This could have deflected the torpedo down where it eventually exploded at a safer depth.

At 0740 a RNZAF Hudson patrol bomber of No. 4 squadron circled and then left. At 0930 the Hudson returned and signaled that help was on the way.


First on the scene was the Liberty ship Edwin T. Meredith (Master Murdock D.MacRae). Click on the highlighted link above to learn more about their involvement with the rescue.

Next on the scene at about 3:00pm was an unarmed Pan American Martin PBM-3R Mariner flying boat, serial number (BuNo) 6459 (NATS Flight V2163). The civilian crew included: Captain William W. “Bill” Moss Jr., First Officer Frank W. Saul, Second Officer George H Roblin, Engineering Officer Harry L. Knebel, Radio Officer Don V. Mackay, and Steward Kenneth S. Taylor.

They had just arrived in Fiji that morning on their way to Noumea from Pearl Harbor when word of the sinking was announced. Bill Moss, his crew and Navy Pharmacist Mate A. Burress from the base volunteered to search for survivors. Moss noted in his report that Third Officer J. B. Kelly, Assistant Engineering Officer A. F. Aready, and Assistant Radio Officer D. Holton also volunteered but were left behind to make room for more survivors.

As they were preparing to leave, a Navy Captain who had been a passenger aboard the PBM from Pearl approached Moss and asked to come along, which Moss had to refuse. The Captain handed him 5 bottles of I.W. Harper, top shelf Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which he was bringing to Admiral Halsey, and said “If you need it, use it”. Moss handed it to his steward, Kenny Taylor.

The original plan for the mission called for landing at the scene of the disaster, picking up as many survivors as was considered possible, taking off and proceeding to Tonga Tabu, discharging passengers and returning to the scene to repeat the procedure.

After unloading their cargo they topped off all their fuel tanks, and loaded rafts, life vests and extra line and took off at 12:39. At 12:44 they were ordered to abort the mission, but they radioed back requesting permission to continue, which was granted at 12:49. About halfway through the flight they ran into a tropical storm.

Captain William W. Moss Jr. - Photo from the Pan American World Airways Annual Report for 1943, Courtesy of Chuck Moss.

What they found as they came out of the storm clouds was the Cape San Juan still afloat about 10 miles dead ahead. At first they only saw the life boats and rafts. Then they noticed small clusters of black dots, which they soon realized were men wearing life vests. The swells were described as “confused” with the wind at 10 to 12 knots and Moss had a difficult time finding a patch smooth enough to attempt a landing. These planes were designed to take off from sheltered bays, not the open ocean, and especially the ocean under these conditions. The large amount of oil in the water smoothed out the waves somewhat in the immediate vicinity, so Moss set up his approach for the smoothest spot he could find. He attempted to land cross wind, opting to try and maintain relative motion with the swell as best he could. Everything was looking good as he came in at 70 knots until he hit the first wave crest which slammed the plane 30 to 50 feet back into the air. Moss dumped the throttles and held the elevators full back as the nose hit successive sides of waves in an extremely violent manner. As a matter of fact, so violent where the shocks that Moss did not believe the plane would remain in a floatable condition, let alone flyable. After a quick inspection verified they were OK they began formulating a plan to rescue the men in the sea.

They decided to concentrate on the most vulnerable men, those not in rafts. It was deemed too risky to try and maneuver the plane through the men and the survivors were too exhausted to swim for the plane so they devised a system where they trolled for survivors by towing a string of small rafts behind them as they zig-zagged upwind along the edge of the rescue area. Moss stayed at the controls, blipping the throttle continually to steer the plane while the rest of the crew were aft, reeling the survivors in and lifting them into the plane. Several of the crew was incapacitated by seasickness as the plane rolled in the heavy swells. 48 men were rescued in this manner, roughly split 50/50 between African-American and Caucasians. Their oily, water soaked clothes were stripped off and thrown back into the sea, and they were given blankets, food, hot coffee, water, and/or a shot of the Admiral’s whiskey.

Navigator George H. Roblin circa 1942. Photo courtesy of his daughter, Lena Christensen. All Rights Reserved.

Watercolor painting of PBM rescue of Cape San Juan survivors by combat artist Lt. Seymour (Dwight) Thompson, USNR (1910-1981). Image was included with the article 'SOS FOR A SKYHOOK' by William Van Dusen - Collier's Magazine October 7th, 1944. Original caption read: "Getting the rescued men aboard proved the most difficult of all. It took superhuman effort for the three rescue workers to drag one oil-soaked man up to the hatchway." This color image highlights details which were not as obvious in the original black and white image I posted in an earlier release. One liberty Thompson took was to depict the Martin PBM Mariner as a later PBM-3C which was armed, as evidenced by the twin .50 gun turret in the nose, rather than the smooth nosed unarmed PBM-3R used in the actual rescue. Note the string of yellow rafts and the desperate arm sticking up in the foreground. Thompson was a watercolor artist known for his landscapes in civilian life.

After two hours of this grueling work a RNZAF Hudson that was circling the scene fired two red flares in their direction. The planes were not able to communicate via radio, and Moss assumed the signal meant danger (possibly the submarine surfacing for attack). Knowing his crew was exhausted, the plane at maximum capacity, and with another heavy rain squall closing in, Moss made the difficult decision to quit while they were ahead.

Since it had taken much longer than expected to collect survivors, Moss knew he didn’t have time to reach Tonga Tabu, unload and get back before nightfall. He therefore dropped both auxiliary fuel tanks to lighten the load. As it was, he estimated his gross takeoff weight at 45,258 pounds.

The difficult take-off was achieved in only about 50 seconds, but what a ride. They had to make the attempt downwind since the squall was closing from the right and survivors blocked the other side. According to Moss;

At 55 knots the plane bounced off the top of a wave to a height of 30 to 50 feet, setting up a series of five or six bounces until the plane finally became airborne at approximately 70-75 knots. 0n the second bounce the left wing dropped approximately twenty degrees, but full aileron control brought it up before the plane touched the water again.

It took an exceedingly long time before the plane was able to increase its speed and altitude. The takeoff was considered by the crew to be much more violent than the landing.

Many years later Frank Saul would describe it as: “The hairiest take-off of my life”.

Moss simply stated “It was the longest 50 seconds of my life”.

For an eyewitness description of the dramatic take-off, see this blog about the part a RNZAF PBY Catalina had in the operation.

A U.S. Navy Martin PBM-3R Mariner transport aircraft (BuNo 6465) taking off under normal circumstances, circa 1942-43. Official U.S. Navy photo 80-G-K-13496 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command.

The survivors were flown back to Suva in Fiji where they received medical care. The landing this time was considered picture perfect. As they unloaded, Ken Taylor gave Moss back two full bottles of whiskey and one partial. The Navy Captain was waiting on the barge, so Moss gave him back what remained. The Captain handed him back the partial and said “Here, you look like you could use this”. Moss had intended to share it with his crew, but by the time he was debriefed they had all gone to chow. Bill Moss sat on the end of his bunk in his Quonset hut and finished the bottle, reflecting no doubt on the day’s events.

Moss and his crew actually began preparing for another trip the following morning, but this was called off when news of the other vessels joining the search was confirmed.

USS McCalla (DD-488) off San Francisco, CA January 11th, 1944 after returning to the states and having her bow replaced. Photo courtesy of

The destroyer USS McCALLA - DD-488 (LCDR Halford A. Knoertzer) arrived in the vicinity late that first night, but was not able to home in on the survivors until daylight when they were joined by the minesweeper YMS-241 (Ens. Emery L. Burgess) and the submarine chaser SC-654 (Ens. John C. Boutall). Click on the highlighted links for each vessel to learn more about their involvement with the rescue.

YMS-241 shortly after her commissioning in February, 1943. Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Library.

At 0900 the destroyer escort USS DEMPSEY (DE-26), joined the search having made a high speed run from Suva, Fiji. Click on the highlighted link above to learn more about their involvement with the rescue. By 1004 the 4 vessels had picked up all the survivors they could find, and proceeded to Suva, Fiji with Dempsey, YMS-241, and SC-654 providing anti-submarine screen for McCalla.

USS Dempsey (DE-26) May 10th, 1944, Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides, entering the floating dry-dock ARD-5. US Navy photo now in the collections of the National Archives. Photo #: 80-G-382982. Photo courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command at

At 1445 SC-654 transferred her 152 survivors to McCalla and left the group to proceed to Tonga Tabu due to lack of fuel. At 1532 an attempt was made to transfer survivors from the small YMS-241 to Dempsey, but had to be called off due to weather after only 40 men had been transferred.

SC-654 docked somewhere in the Pacific. Photo courtesy of the Family of Robert C. Heinze who served on the SC-654 from March 9th, 1944 (F2c) to September 17th, 1945 (MoMM2c). All Rights Reserved.

Later that day, officers of the submarine chaser SC-1048 boarded the Cape San Juan where they found 6 bodies that were rescued from the number 2 hold but did not survive. These men were:

      1. Terrie Harden

      2. Winston Dina

      3. Lawrence Burns

      4. Daniel Franklin

      5. Vernon A. White Jr.

      6. Olie Hagans

The commanding officer of the SC-1048, Joseph L. Hoguet, conducted a proper burial at sea. They also reported that the number 2 and 3 holds were flooded and the ship was gutted by fire which originated in the number 4 and 5 holds. Master Strong had noted the number 1 hold was also flooded before he abandoned ship. Watertight bulkheads had been added between the holds, but the additional deck house that was added to facilitate easier access below decks for the troops also allowed the flooding in the number 2 hold to over-flow into the number 1 & 3 holds, likely dooming the vessel.

The fires were noticed by survivors in the water during the first night. The most likely cause of the fire was the shelling of the Cape San Juan by her gunners aboard the Edwin T. Meredith. The fire damage can be seen in the photos below, shortly before she plunged down by the bow and sank in 1400 fathoms, witnessed by SC-1048 and YMS-117.

Part of SC-1048’s reason for boarding the Cape San Juan was to determine if she was salvageable and could be towed as described on her page. The fire burned with such intensity in the number 4 & 5 ‘tween decks that the paint sloughed off the hull.

SS Cape San Juan listing and down by the head on 12 November 1943. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command. Photograph. Catalog #: NH 89892

Series of photographs taken from RNZAF Catalina of No. 6 Squadron showing the Cape San Juan shortly before she sank, smoldering, listing heavily to starboard and down by the head. The other vessel in the photos is the small Submarine Chaser SC-1048. Note oil slicks visible in all photos and the wing tip of the Catalina at the top of each photo. The radar antenna is also visible in the top right of the two bottom photos. Photos courtesy of Archives New Zealand, Wellington, New Zealand. From the photograph album of Number 6 (Flying Boat) Squadron [AIR 144/3 12 page 49].

Detail of first photograph taken from RNZAF Catalina of No. 6 Squadron. This photo seems to clearly indicate the Cape San Juan does not have the extensive deck house extensions her sister ship’s had. Note also the cargo nets deployed adjacent to the number two and three holds and the reflection of the sun off the bare steel along the aft portion of the ship. Photo courtesy of Archives New Zealand, Wellington, New Zealand. From the photograph album of Number 6 (Flying Boat) Squadron [AIR 144/3 12 page 49].

Detail of second photograph taken from RNZAF Catalina of No. 6 Squadron. This photo shows the water up to her main deck on the starboard bow. Photo courtesy of Archives New Zealand, Wellington, New Zealand. From the photograph album of Number 6 (Flying Boat) Squadron [AIR 144/3 12 page 49].

Detail of third photograph taken from RNZAF Catalina of No. 6 Squadron. This photo also seems to clearly indicate the Cape San Juan does not have the extensive deck house extensions her sister ship’s had. Note also the cargo nets deployed adjacent to the number two and three holds as well as numerous ropes. The reflection of the sun off the bare steel along the aft portion of the ship as a result of the paint sloughing off due to the intense fire in the aft holds is also evident, as is the smoke still pouring out of her. This photo also shows a nice profile view of SC-1048 and her boarding party between the two vessels. Photo courtesy of Archives New Zealand, Wellington, New Zealand. From the photograph album of Number 6 (Flying Boat) Squadron [AIR 144/3 12 page 49].

Detail of fourth photograph taken from RNZAF Catalina of No. 6 Squadron. This is another photo showing the starboard side, this time from slightly aft. SC-1048 is barely visible, her bow facing the camera behind the forward mast. Photo courtesy of Archives New Zealand, Wellington, New Zealand. From the photograph album of Number 6 (Flying Boat) Squadron [AIR 144/3 12 page 49].


It is difficult to pin-down the exact number of casualties. This is due in large part to the complexity of the situation, such as:

      • The number of commands aboard Cape San Juan herself,

      • The number of rescue ships/planes involved,

      • The fact that survivors were transferred between ships,

      • The fact that survivors died en route,

      • The fact that survivors were brought to different ports, and

      • The fact that black and white survivors were segregated in different hospital facilities.

Just about every report had a different count not only for the casualties, but for the number of men on board to begin with. At the beginning of this summary I used the Merchant Mariner and Armed Guard counts from Master Strong, and the Army counts from Major Barth, the Transport commander, which totaled 1,464. From this I subtracted 438 that Master MacRae said he delivered alive to Noumea, 48 that the PBM picked up, and 843 which the four other ships picked up to arrive at 131 casualties. This was comprised of 16 men killed in the initial attack, and 115 who drowned after abandoning ship. Another 200 of the survivors were estimated to have been injured.

The survivors of the 1st Fighter, 253rd Ordnance and 855th Engineers were sent to Australia afterwards to re-group and re-supply before being sent to front line operations.

Recently, the daughter of one of the Merchant Seamen that crewed Cape San Juan contacted me looking for information on her father's experience. His name was Rudolph "Rudy" E. Wahlstrom and he was an oiler. I had not seen his name in any of the other reports, so I took a chance and searched on his name on I received a number of hits, one of which was a passenger list for a US Army transport named the General George O. Squier (AP-130) that left Noumea on November 29th, just a few weeks after the sinking. There were hundreds of names, mainly Naval personnel, but the group that Wahlstrom was with stood out because they were all Merchant Mariners.

Upon further examination I noticed several other names of known Cape San Juan crewmen, such as Master Strong. I also noticed that when taken as a group, based on their positions they made up almost an entire complement of crew that you would expect for a ship like the Cape San Juan. Below is the list that I found:

I also added several names from the reports that were not part of AP-130's passenger list. This brought the total up to 58, although this is 1 man over the 57 total that Master Strong said were on board. These men were not expressly identified as Cape San Juan survivors on the passenger list, so it's possible some may have been from other ships, but for the most part I believe this list represents the bulk of the Cape San Juan Merchant Mariner survivors.

Chief Mate Earl F. Manning was also a survivor of the SS Alaskan which was sunk the previous year.

The men in bold print are the ones I’ve been able to positively identify based on allied reports and family that has contacted me directly. Two men, Ottoson & Rose are listed as Chief Steward, so only one of these men was likely aboard the Cape. There was also a second 1st Assistant Engineer in the list named Chalmers, who I eliminated because Raeish was positively identified.

The eight men in bold red print are the merchant seamen that manned the life boats and were later rescued with the bulk of the survivors by McCalla, Dempsey, YMS-241 and SC-654 and taken to Suva, Fiji. I was recently contacted by the son of Irving L. Morlock, who preferred to go by the name "Frank". Frank had just passed away in March of 2017. Hopefully this will lead to some additional information on the story.

AP-130 was likely transporting the Cape San Juan's Navy Armed Guard personnel back home as well. There were hundreds of Navy personnel listed in alphabetical order, and so it's impossible to determine who was on the Cape San Juan and who was not. However, I did recognize Radioman 3rd Class Howard E. Smith and Radioman 2nd Class Richard P. Sego from the list.

Several of the survivor’s families have mentioned that Master MacRae of the Edwin T. Meredith was reprimanded or court-martialed for stopping. Transports like this were not supposed to stop because they had little means to counter a submarine and put themselves at extreme risk by stopping. This was a job for the Navy. Having said that, Edwin T. Meredith was the closest vessel by far, and if they hadn't stopped, many more lives would have been lost. The main thing that probably saved them was the suppressive fire by the Navy Armed Guard and the Royal New Zealand Air Force boys keeping a constant orbit in their aircraft, which would have kept the submarine at bay.

There is no hard evidence that MacRae was reprimanded. All the post incident reports were very complimentary of MacRae's actions and his crew. They saved a lot of lives. At most the Coast Guard (who oversaw the Merchant Marine) would have pulled his Master's License if he was found to be negligent. Unfortunately, these legal proceedings were purged from Coast Guard records about 10 years after the war.

The Edwin T. Meredith was operated by a shipping company named Smith & Johnson. MacRae left the company soon after the rescue, either of his own accord or worst case fired by the company. It didn't seem to affect his career, however, as he remained a Master and switched to McCormick Steamship Co., where he commanded the liberty ship Robert J. Walker. MacRae later had the misfortune of being the only Master to have his vessel sunk by a German U-Boat in the Pacific theater. You can read the dramatic account of the sinking here.

You can zoom, pan and explore the following interactive map to learn more about the locations mentioned in this summary.

Many thanks to author Dr. Tom Gauthier for generously providing his research documentation. His father Donovan Gauthier was Jr. 3rd Mate on the Cape San Juan for her first voyage and a subsequent coastwise trip, and spoke of her often. The sinking would be become the basis of his work of historical fiction named ‘Code Name: ORION’S EYE’, a riveting story which includes a fairly accurate description of the sinking and subsequent rescue efforts. More information on Dr. Gauthier’s book can be found at

Also, special thanks to Chuck Moss for providing more details on his father Bill Moss, the pilot of the PBM. Moss had first soloed at the age of 14 in a glider and had flown for the Navy as a carrier dive bomber pilot before the war, and left in 1939 to join Pan American. Although a Navy Reservist, he served as a Pan American employee operating Naval Air Transport Service (NATS) aircraft during the war. He first saw action while he was the first officer (co-pilot) on the Philippine Clipper (Martin M-130) which was strafed and bombed at Wake Island when the Japanese struck the same day as Pearl Harbor. He received a letter of commendation from the Navy for the Cape San Juan rescue.

During his career with Pan American he flew just about everything from the DC-2 to the 747, was a pioneer in the transition to jet transports after the war and was in charge of all flight training for Pan Am's Atlantic Division prior to and during the transition to jets. The third pilot to be licensed by the FAA to fly commercial jet transports, he wrote and administered Pan Am's first jet training program. He was instrumental in the FAA certification of inertial navigation systems. In fact, the performance index number for the INS is also known as the 'Moss number' throughout the industry.

His skill and leadership would come into play once more in the twilight of his career when in 1974 the 747 he was piloting had an engine catch fire shortly after take-off from Honolulu International. The fire could not be extinguished so Moss had to turn the aircraft around and land very heavy (more than 80,000lbs. over max normally allowable landing weight). Evacuation was successful with only a few very minor injuries. Moss would later comment it was "a hell of way" to start his last year of flying. For his “outstanding professionalism” Moss won the 1974 Civilian Air Safety Award of the Order of Daedalians (see picture to the right). By the time he retired to his eight acre farm in Hawaii in 1975 he had accumulated nearly 24,000 flying hours. William W. Moss Jr. passed away in 1998 in Kona, Hawaii at the age of 82.

Bill Moss shortly after receiving the 1974 Civilian Air Safety Award. Photo courtesy of Chuck Moss.

Walter M. Strong

Walter Mervyn Strong was born in Amityville, Long Island, New York on July 11th, 1884, and so was 59-years-old at the time of the attack.

He was the oldest of six children born to Walter R Strong and Henrietta Wicks. His father passed away in 1936 and his mother in 1940.

He appears to have become fascinated with the sea when he was 13 on a voyage up Long Island Sound and ran away from home when he was 15. According to his obituary;

After three years at sea he spent two years ashore as a sail maker, then sailed in that capacity on such deep-water square-rigged vessels as the four-masted barks Manga Reva and Astral.

Strong later built a model of the Manga Reva (see below).

Walter M. Strong circa 1937.

Model of the American Bark 'Manga Reva' made by former crewmember Walter Strong. This model was later donated to the Monterey Maritime Museum by Strong along with a painting of her by Antonio Jacobsen. The Manga Reva would be lost in a gale about 450 miles Southwest of Plymouth, England in 1916. Photo courtesy of the Strong Family.

The obituary continued;

Strong joined the American-Hawaiian Steamship Co. as a Third Mate in 1905, a time when the firm operated via the Straights of Magellan, from Atlantic to Pacific Coast ports, and to the Hawaiian Islands.

This was of course before the Panama Canal was opened and vessels had no choice but to navigate around the treacherous southern tip of South America to get from one coast to the other. This was also back when American-Hawaiian Steamship Co. was the main freight carrier between Hawaii and the mainland (hence the name). Strong does not appear to have had any formal nautical training, which wasn’t necessary, as long as you could pass the exam for each position.

The obituary went on the state;

He rose to the rank of Captain, and in 1915 was given command of the SS Californian.

His Merchant Mariner’s service record backs this up and shows that he was Master of the Californian from October 1915 to April 1917. Note that this was just prior to our entry in World War I, and Charles Bamforth (see Honolulan page) joined Californian as a Third Mate just after Strong left.

Immediately following Californian, Strong took command of the SS Kerowlee in April 1917, owned by the Kerr Navigation Corporation of New York (not believed to be affiliated with American-Hawaiian). On December 1st, 1917 the ship was chartered by the U.S. Army at Le Havre, France to support its forces in Europe. On October 17th, 1918 the Navy took her over, and commissioned her as USS Kerowlee at Cardiff, Wales for operation on Army account. Strong commanded her not as a civilian, but as a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy Reserve during this period. For the next five months, USS Kerowlee transported coal and supplies between ports in England and France. In the spring of 1919 she steamed to Danzig, Germany, with a cargo of food, and in July she carried Army cargo back to the U.S. from France. USS Kerowlee was decommissioned on August 11th, 1919 at Norfolk, VA and transferred to the U.S. Shipping Board for return to Kerr Navigation. Kerr, which owned eight freighters at the time, was bought in its entirety by the American Ship and Commerce Navigation Corp. on September 4th, 1919, which in turn operated the vessels under the Kerr Steamship Co. name.

Young Walter Strong circa early 1900's. Photo is embossed with name of studio in San Diego, CA. Courtesy of the Strong Family.

USS Kerowlee in port, possibly at Danzig, Germany, while commanded by Master Strong. Circa April-June 1919 while employed carrying foodstuffs between France and Germany. Note the small steamer partially visible in the right foreground, with "Johannes Ick. Danzig" written on it's paddle-wheel box. Photo No. NH 103074. Courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

In February 1920 Strong transferred over to another vessel in Kerr’s fleet, the SS Kermit, which he would command for the next seven years.

Kermit was built as Norddeutscher Lloyd’s (NDL) Elsass and was seized by US authorities at Pago Pago, Samoa on April 6th, 1917, after being laid up there from August of 1914. Details are she was built in 1912 at yard No.555 at Bremer Vulkan, Bremen, Germany, 6,591 Gross tons. The ship was renamed Apelles and operated by the US Shipping Board for the US Government. Sold in 1920 she was bought by American Ship & Commerce Navigation Co and renamed Kermit. In 1923 the company was taken over by United American Lines. United American, address 39 Broadway, New York was in fact the holding company for American Hawaiian.

In 1921 he applied for a passport which indicated prior to that he had been living in Salisbury, MD, where his father was also living. He had left the United States on October 3rd, 1920 and had been living in Buenos Aires, Argentina since September 22nd, 1921 under the employ of United American Lines. He planned to travel from Argentina to Holland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

The passport application included some personal details, such as; Height 5’-6”, Eyes: Hazel, Hair: Dark Brown, Distinguishing marks: Tattoo on both wrists. Later he apparently also had a tattoo of “a shapely young woman on one arm, along with an anchor, and the other arm sported “Hands across the sea”.

In 1927, United American Lines was merged into American-Hawaiian and the ship was renamed Nebraskan, the second ship so named in their fleet. The first Nebraskan was built in 1902 and sold in 1926.

His service record actually shows the transition from the Kermit to Nebraskan in May of 1927 and remained her Master through April 23rd, 1937 when the documents were created, and beyond.

He not only held a Master, any Ocean license, but also a 1st Class Pilot’s license for Boston, Nantucket & Vineyard Sound, New York Bay & Harbor to Yonkers North River, East River, Delaware Bay & River to Philadelphia, Charleston Bay and Harbor to City Dock, Los Angeles Harbor, San Francisco Bay, Astoria to Sea & Return, Tacoma to Sea via Seattle, Everett & Bellingham.

Master Strong circa late 1920's/early 1930's in doorway of pilot house of unidentified vessel. Photo courtesy of the Strong Family.

SS Nebraskan September 5th, 1934. Francis Palmer photographer. From the private collection of artist Dave Boone, Copyright (c), All Rights Reserved.

Nebraskan was transferred to the Soviets under lend-lease in December of 1942 and renamed Sukhona (СУХОНА) until April of 1944 when she was returned and reverted back to Nebraskan, no longer under A-H ownership, but under the U.S. War Shipping Administration. She was eventually scrapped in Baltimore Q1 1948 by Patapsco Scrap Co.

He married Onalee Wyckof in 1941 at the age of 57 (she was 45). He had moved to California by this point, and sent his sister an A-H company Christmas card with his current ship (Nebraskan) on the cover (see below) with a personal note and a photo of his home.

The country was now at war again, and this 58-year-old Master was about to serve in his second World War. In early 1943, Strong was Master of the A-H liberty ship Lyman Beecher for a supply run to the Pacific.

Strong was Cape San Juan’s first Master and Tom Gauthier’s father, Donovan Gauthier sailed with him on a short coast wise voyage from San Francisco and on the Cape’s first voyage to the Pacific theater. Tom’s mother remembers having dinner aboard the Cape with Master Strong and the rest of the ship’s officers before that voyage.

After the Cape San Juan sinking I don’t see any activity in 1944, but by the beginning of 1945 he was back at sea as Master of the new type C-2 freighter West Wind. The Cape San Juan’s 2nd Mate William Dorcey served with Strong first as his 2nd Mate on the West Wind, followed by Chief Mate.

He appears to have stayed with American-Hawaiian after the war as well, serving as Master of Drury Victory as well as the Type C4 MountGreylock (both added post war). Strong retired in 1952, shortly before American-Hawaiian folded. See below for a list of Strong’s sailings that I’ve found to date:

SS Nebraskan Christmas card from Master Strong to his sister, circa 1941. Note he signed it 'Mervyn'. Courtesy of the Strong Family.

His wife passed away in 1958 at the age of 62, and they had no children. Strong passed away in early 1984 in Monterey, California at the age of 99. Per his request, his ashes were spread at sea.

One interesting anecdote I found was that Strong was interested in genealogy and in 1941 applied for membership in the California Society of the National Society Sons of the American Revolution. He appears to have been the great, great, great grandson of Captain Benajah Strong Jr. who as Captain of the Islip Company was involved in the Battle of LongIsland (defeat) and the capture of Fort St. George (victory). He was the fourth generation of Sea Captains on his Mother’s side of the family, and was also the great, great grandson of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall.

Some of the 1st Fighter Control personnel were critical of Master Strong for having the Cape San Juan evacuated so quickly. Hind-sight is 20/20, however, and no one could have predicted how long the Cape San Juan would stay afloat or known why the I-21 didn’t show more determination to finish her off quickly with additional torpedoes. If the troops had stayed aboard and there was another successful torpedo hit the results would have likely been catastrophic with men trapped aboard and more lifeboats and rafts lost.

Prior to the attack Strong was also using all the tools at his disposal: speed, evasive course, blacked out, and her rather extensive armament at general quarters. By the time the torpedoes were spotted and reported to the bridge, it was too late.

After the hit he got the passengers off in quick order. Could it have gone better? Yes, but short of performing a full blown practice evacuation (impractical; regular drills were held so that everyone knew their assigned abandon ship station) it probably went about as well as could be expected. In fact, they were fortunate to have a captain with this much experience.

Walter Mervyn Strong at the age of 94 while living at Driftwood Convalescent Hospital, Monterey, CA. Courtesy of the Strong Family.

Hiroshi Inada

There generally isn’t as much information available on Japanese commanders as there is on their German or American counterparts.

What little information is available indicates that Hiroshi Inada (or Inada Hiroshi using the tradition of putting the family name first) came from Tottori Prefecture, Japan (listed in the IJN report as his "last known residence", so not necessarily where he was born).

No date of birth is available, and his age can only be estimated by working back from his graduation from the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy (Class 51) in Etajima, Hiroshima in 1923. The Academy took 4 years to complete, which would mean he entered in 1919. Assuming he was in his late teens when he entered, that would mean he was likely in his early 40’s at the time of his death.

There were 255 men in his graduating class, and Inada was one of seventeen known to go on to serve in the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine service. According to Sander Kingsepp, an authority on the subject;

the memoirs of Inada’s classmate, Captain Michimune Inaba (who torpedoed USS Saratoga in early 1942 as the skipper of I-6), Inada was well-known by his judo skills. This seems to have been his only achievement at the academy. It is somewhat surprising that Inaba did not elaborate about him -- he usually devotes several pages to each of his classmates.

Upon graduation, he would have been commissioned as a midshipman, and taken part in an international training cruise. His records show his cruise lasted from November 7th, 1923 to April 5th, 1924 to the Southeast Asian-Australian area aboard the Iwate (One of several older armored cruisers used for training during this period).

He does not show up in the records again until 1938, when Lieutenant Commander Inada is ordered to take command of the medium Type L4 submarine RO-66 on July 30th, 1938. He served as her commander for a little less than 8 months until March 20th, 1939.

There is another gap until he is ordered to take command of the large, fast Kaidai Type KD6 submarine I-169. Around July 30th, 1941 he was promoted to Commander, and ordered to take command of the Junsen Type J1 submarine I-2, launched in 1925.


The type was armed with six torpedo tubes forward, two aft and usually carried twenty torpedoes. This was supplemented by two 5.5”/50 canons, one forward, one aft of the conning tower.

That following December the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, beginning our involvement in World War II. Inada and I-2 were there too for what was to become their first official war patrol.

Most of the information that follows is a summary of the Tabulated Record of Movement’s for the I-2 and I-21 available on the website, as well as some info from

First War Patrol

On December 7th, 1941, I-2 arrived at her assigned patrol sector in Kauai Channel between Oahu and Kauai with I-3. Its mission was to reconnoiter and attack any ships that tried to sortie from Pearl Harbor. Nothing appears to have come from that, but on December 27th after the main attack fleet had departed, I-2 received orders to shell Kahului Harbor, Maui, on December 30th. They arrived off Kahului during the day and conducted periscopic reconnaissance, spotting a small merchant moored by the pier. After sundown I-2 surfaced and fired ten 5.5” HE shells at that vessel. Most shells fell short of the target, and some landed in the direction of Puunene.

They departed their patrol area on January 9th, 1942 to join the hunt for the carrier USS Lexington (CV-2). They finally returned to their home port of Yokosuka on February 1st.

Second War Patrol

On February 8th, 1942 I-2 was assigned to the Dutch East Indies Invasion Force with I-1, I-3, I-4, I-6 and flagship I-7, and they departed around February 12th for their second war patrol.

On March 11th, 60 miles South of Padang, West Sumatra, Inada sighted the 4,360-ton armed British freighter Chilka on a voyage from Calcutta to Padang. At 0023, I-2 battle-surfaced on Chilka’s port quarter and opened fire with both deck guns. Chilka returned fire, but received 14 hits in 25 minutes, killing 7 of her crew. After his only gun was disabled, Captain Walter Bird ordered the engines stopped and signaled his surrender. I-2 then ceased fire, allowing the survivors to abandon ship. Chilka sank in position 00-30S, 95-50E. Later, Captain Bird was awarded the Lloyd War Medal for bravery at sea.

By April 3rd, I-2 was acting as a weather report ship off Trincomalee, Ceylon. This is the Japanese offensive that would lead to the loss of American-Hawaiian’s Washingtonian at the hands off I-4 on April 6th. On the 7th Lt. Commander Inada reported the sinking of an unidentified merchant in position 00-48N, 82-18E. This attack was never confirmed.

Third War Patrol

I-2 departed Yokosuka on her third war patrol on June 11th, 1942 in support of the invasion of the Western Aleutians (Alaska). They were in the company of I-1, I-3, I-4 and I-7.

On July 17th while I-2 was 100 miles South of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, Inada shelled an unidentified Soviet merchant and a tanker, but was driven off by a US Navy PBY "Catalina" flying boat.

By August 1st, I-2 was back in Yokosuka to affect repairs.

Guadalcanal Supply Runs (9)

On August 7th, 1942 America invaded the Japanese held island of Guadalcanal in the Solomons.

Between September 27th, 1942 and February 18th, 1943, Inada and I-2 performed nine supply runs in support of the beleaguered Japanese forces at Guadalcanal, and eventually assisted in their evacuation. Even though these nine voyages were not considered offensive operations and therefore not “war patrols”, The I-2 and her compatriots were in just as much danger from allied anti-submarine efforts.

During the evening of December 14th, 1942 I-2 was nearly lost when she was spotted on the surface by Lt. Commander Marvin G. Kennedy’s USS Wahoo (SS-238) in bad weather. Despite firing a spread of three torpedoes from 800 yards, I-2 survived due to the torpedoes likely exploding prematurely. Inada, alerted to the danger, crash dived and later assumed they had been attacked by aircraft. Wahoo was initially given credit for the kill, but this was reversed postwar by JANAC (Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee).

On the 16th of March Inada was given command of the large Type B1 submarine I-21.

I-2 (Lt. Commander Yamaguchi) would be lost with all hands (110) on April 7th, 1944, sunk by depth charges from the USS Saufley (DD-465).


I-21 was a Type B, which was the most numerous class of Japanese submarines. They were fast (23.5 knots surfaced/8 knots submerged), long-ranged (14,000 nautical miles at 16 knots), and carried a seaplane (Yokosuka E14Y “Glen”), which was housed partially disassembled in a hanger just forward of the conning tower and could be launched on a catapult built into the forward deck. She was armed with 6 torpedo tubes in the bow and was designed to carry 17 torpedoes though several wartime reports suggests that up to nineteen torpedoes were sometimes carried. This was supplemented with a 5.5”/50 canon aft of the conning tower on the main deck and a twin-barreled 25mm canon on the conning tower aft deck for anti-aircraft defense.

From 'Imperial Japanese Navy Submarines 1941-45' by Mark Stille, Illustration by Tony Bryan (Osprey Publishing, Series: New Vanguard 135 ISBN # 9781846030901)

I-21 was fairly new. She was laid down on January 7th, 1939, launched February 24th, 1940 and completed on July 15th, 1941 at Kawasaki, Kobe. Commissioned in the IJN, she was assigned to SubRon 1's SubDiv 3 in the Sixth (Submarines) Fleet, and based in the Yokosuka Naval District.

Her first commander was Commander Kanji Matsumura, who remained with I-21 until Inada took over. Matsumura was a fairly successful commander with five kills to his credit. He was killed in action on October 3rd, 1944 aboard I-177 and received a double promotion to Vice Admiral, posthumously.

First War Patrol

Inada departed Yokosuka May 6th, 1943 on his first war patrol in command of the I-21, his fourth of the war and the fifth for the I-21. It is not clear where his intended patrol area was to be.

On May 11th, 1943 American forces initiate Operation “Sandcrab”, the invasion of the Aleutians, partially taken by the Japanese the previous year. On May 19th, I-21 was ordered to abort her mission and return to Yokosuka in order to participate in the evacuation of Kiska. I-21, I-9 and I-24 were attached to the Fifth Fleet for the duration of the operation.

Kiska Supply Runs (2)

During the summer of 1943 Inada and I-21 participated in two supply runs to Kiska and assist in evacuating some personnel.

On June 18th, 1943 I-21 returned to her home base in Yokosuka to repair her sonar gear. She was fitted with the newest E27 radar detector. One of the areas that the Japanese were behind was the use of radar. Their submarines were not equipped with search radar at this time, and these radar detectors helped provide some measure of early warning of approaching Allied radar equipped ASW aircraft while they were surfaced. The E27/Type 3 was usually able to provide a 3-minute advance warning. Its maximum detection range was around 160 nautical miles.

At this time I-21 was also the first IJN submarine to receive an experimental anti-radar hull coating designated as “LI”. IJN wartime tests with centimetric radar suggested that at 6,000-7,000 meters distance their coating reduced the radar return of the surfaced submarine by 20 per cent.

The coating was regularly renewed prior to each sortie, but in the case of I-21's last patrol, Truk simply did not have the necessary equipment. It is assumed that her coating was last applied at Yokosuka sometime between August 9th and her departure to Truk lagoon on September 11th, 1943.

Whether the coating actually had any impact on I-21's lack of detection prior to the Cape San Juan’s loss or her subsequent loss is a topic that probably deserves further investigation.

Second War Patrol

As mentioned above, Inada and I-21 departed Yokosuka on September 11th, 1943 for what would be become their second war patrol together and their last.

It is interesting to note that the previous day, September 10th, Inada’s home area of Tottori Prefecture was devastated by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake which hit around dinnertime. An estimated 80% of the Tottori city’s downtown structures were damaged or destroyed and over 1,000 people lost their lives. It is not known if or how whatever family he had may have been impacted.

I-21’s main mission was not to reconnoiter Suva, Fiji as previously reported. According to Sander Kingsepp;

the orders clearly state: "reconnoiter Suva en route to the New Hebrides area." By mid-October the IJN Sixth Fleet HQ intended to concentrate no less than five subs in that area, all tasked with commerce raiding.

On their way they stopped at the nearest main Japanese naval base at Truk Lagoon probably to top off their fuel and supplies. They had reached Truk on September 18th, and on September 25th they departed and headed southwest.

On October 8th, 1943 I-21 launched her Yokosuka E14Y “Glen” 2 seat reconnaissance plane for its flight over Suva. The flight was conducted by PO2C (Pilot Officer, 2nd Class) Hideki Nakamura. The flight apparently does not raise concerns of a Japanese submarine operating in the Fiji vicinity.

Inada reportedly attacked an unidentified enemy merchant “off New Hebrides” (west of Fiji) with torpedoes on October 16th but failed to hit her. This vessel has never been identified and it is not known if they realized that they were under attack or reported the incident.

On October 19th I-21 was ordered to intercept a convoy of six fleet oilers that had previously been sighted by I-36 in the Hawaiian area. Nothing appears to have resulted from that.

By the morning of November 11th 1943 I-21 was operating in the shipping lanes south of Fiji. It is not clear how long she had been there or when Inada first spotted the Cape San Juan, and may never be known. The same applies to how long she remained there, and when and where she might have surfaced again.

All that is known is that after reporting his success, Inada was ordered to return to Truk and that by November 19th they were en route. Their trip home was interrupted by the American invasion of Tarawa and Makin Islands on November 20th, which resulted in new orders to divert and attack the invasion fleet with several other submarines. This included I-19 and I-135. I-175 (which actually torpedoed the USS Liscome Bay) was added to the same group later.

On November 27th Inada reported that he had sighted the American ships, but this was I-21's last transmission. Captain Dixwell Ketcham's escort carrier USS Chenango (CVE-28) of Task Group 53.6 was supporting the invasion, and at 2157, Grumman TBF "Avenger" torpedo-bombers from her Air Group 35 find and sink a Type B submarine. Several days later the Japanese try to contact I-21, but receive no response.

On December 24th, 1943 I-21 is presumed lost with all 101 hands in the Gilberts area, and finally removed from the navy List on April 30th, 1944. The standard complement for the Type B1 was 94 and the extra personnel likely consisted of floatplane crews and medical personnel. I-21 was not only carrying a doctor (Surgeon Lt.(jg) Tamura Yoshiharu), but also two orderlies.

According to Sander Kingsepp;

I-21's loss remained a mystery for the Japanese until long after the end of war. Author Zenji Orita in his "I-Boat Captain" (Publisher: Major Books (1976), English, ISBN-10: 0890411034, ISBN-13: 978-0890411032) notes that Inada’s "crew was weary and his submarine near the end of its cruising endurance" (p. 184), but does not even speculate about the cause of I-21's loss.

Also identified as a member of the crew was the Torpedo Officer/XO (Executive Officer), who was a Lt Masaru Ono (Class 66, from Hiroshima Prefecture), the former navigator of I-21.


The fact that the Cape San Juan was traveling solo and not in convoy has been questioned by families of the survivors and puzzled me as well, especially for late 1943. In 1942 when my relative's Arkansan was sunk it was not unusual for ships to sail "solo", also known as “independent”. In the Atlantic, by late 42, early 43 most vessels moved in convoy, for most of their journey, protected by warships and/or aircraft.

The Japanese operated differently than the Germans though. They tended to concentrate on warships, not supply lines in the Pacific, what they referred to as 'Commerce Raiding' (a critical error that would be a factor in their downfall). It's also important to remember the front in the Pacific had shifted hundreds of miles to the Northwest. When the Cape San Juan was hit she was “behind our lines" in what was assumed to be relatively "friendly" territory.

According to historian Peter Cundall: "Independent sailing was favored by the Allies in the Indian and Pacific Oceans for two reasons. Firstly both are large oceans. Secondly Ultra intercepts enabled the Allies to have a fair idea of where the submarines were operating- admittedly less so with the Japanese who did not I think report noon positions while operational. Radio interception at Kilindini, Kenya of traffic from Penang was actually quite good although Monsoonal weather could make an adverse difference."

I did a little research to help give you the reader some perspective on the odds the Cape San Juan faced when traveling through the Pacific at the time.

Here are some totals for 1943 (sunk and damaged):

      • German U-Boat successes in all theaters = 579

      • American Submarine successes in Pacific = 284

      • Japanese Submarine successes in Pacific = 44

So, first and foremost, you can see that Japanese submarines were nowhere near the threat German U-Boats were in the Atlantic, or even American submarines were to Japanese vessels in the Pacific.

The monthly breakdown for the Japanese successes in 1943 makes it even more apparent:

      • Jan = 5

      • Feb = 2

      • Mar = 1

      • Apr = 6

      • May = 13

      • Jun = 5

      • Jul = 2

      • Aug = 3

      • Sep = 1

      • Oct = 2

      • Nov = 4

      • Dec = 0

Note that this includes attacks on both US Navy vessels and Merchant Ships. These were also based on Japanese claims, many of which were not confirmed, so the numbers are probably a bit lower, perhaps 41.

Of the four claims in November;

      • One is an unconfirmed on an unknown merchant ship.

      • One was the US Escort Carrier USS Liscome Bay.

      • One was the US Submarine USS Corvina

The two successes in October were both US Destroyers.

In fact you have to go back to August to find another transport/merchant success, and there wouldn't be another confirmed until nearly a year later in October of 1944.

The Navy had reason to be confident the Cape would pass through unscathed.

They took a calculated risk based on the lack of Japanese submarine activity, and relied on the defensive capabilities of the ships themselves during the night (blacked-out, zig-zagging, armed) as well as air escorts by aircraft during the day. In fact, there was a nearly constant stream of vessels sailing back and forth on this route. The records that Chester Driest found on the RNZAF No. 4 squadron indicate that they were covering numerous ships in the vicinity at this time, including:

      • USS Rochambeau (AP-63) (Troop Transport)

      • USS General G. O. Squier (AP-130) (Troop Transport – the one that would eventually take most of the Merchant Mariner and Armed Guard survivors home)

      • Edwin T. Meredith (Liberty Ship – who would come to the rescue)

      • Cape Johnson (Troop Transport - Cape San Juan’s sister)

      • Stephen M. White (Liberty Ship)

      • Broad River (T-2 Tanker)

      • Bloemfontein (Troop Transport)

      • R. C. Stoner (Liberty Ship)

As well as several others identified only by their call signs, which I have yet to identify. According to 855th member Gene Hines, the ships were spread out, approximately 50 miles apart. The Battalion’s heavy construction equipment was on other ships behind them.

The Cape San Juan was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another 30 minutes or so and her RNZAF Hudson air escort would have been overhead and may have prevented the attack. Any of the ships listed above could have just as easily been the I-21’s victim.

There was also some criticism by the passengers (in particular the 1st Fighter Control men) in the days and years after the incident that the number of boats and rafts was inadequate. From the perspective of some of these men who had nothing more than an inland waterway life vest and perhaps a hatch cover to help keep them afloat, one can see why they would think this.

The fact of the matter is that the Cape San Juan would not have been allowed to sail without an adequate amount of lifeboats/rafts and per regulations was probably carrying a reserve capacity as well. There were different standards for civilian passenger ships and military vessels. Even pre-war passenger liners that were converted to troop ships did not carry enough lifeboats for all their passengers, and had to supplement them with some of the alternatives I will describe below. For example, the SSPresident Coolidge, which was lost in 1942, was designed to carry up to 840 passengers (all classes) before the war, and was carrying over 5,000 troops when she struck mines. Luckily all but 2 survived.


A Standard C1-B freighter carried two lifeboats. These were located on top of the deck house, aft of the funnel and were typically allocated to the Merchant Seaman Crew. They were made of wood and were very susceptible to shrapnel and blast damage by torpedoes and gunfire. It was very common for enemy submarines to aim for the center of the ship they were targeting, and for the lifeboat(s) on the side of the ship that was hit to be destroyed or otherwise rendered unusable by being holed.

Standard lifeboat features

Lifeboats required specialized gear which took up a lot of space and needed to be launched by trained Merchant Seamen. The lifeboats on the high side of a list often had difficulty being able to be lowered because they couldn’t clear the side of the ship.

If the lifeboat survived the attack and was launched successfully, however, it offered the best protection from the elements, and the ability to effectively maneuver via oars, sails, or in some cases an on-board motor. There are many stories of survivors saving themselves by navigating hundreds of miles to the nearest land. To date I've written about the epic survival stories of American-Hawaiian's own Alaskan, Coloradan, Honolulan, Montanan, Texan and Washingtonian. There was no guarantee however, and there are also many stories of men if lifeboats simply disappearing, never to be seen again.

The Cape San Juan had a second lifeboat added on each side on top of the deck house. They also added a single lifeboat station on each side just aft of the main deck house, for a total of six lifeboats, three to a side. They would lose one of the six during the evacuation.

It should be noted that in photos of her sister ships later in the war, up to ten lifeboats were carried. The single stations aft of the deck house were upgraded to doubles, and a third lifeboat station was added to each side just forward of the main deck house.

Another of Cape San Juan's sisters, The Cape Meares on January 25th, 1944. Note 10 lifeboat configuration and the decks crowded with personnel. Also note how extended deckhouse does not seem to match photo of Cape san Juan shortly before she sank, and of course missing king posts forward of bridge. Photo courtesy of Frank A. Gerhardt at

Wooden Rafts

A Standard C1-B freighter would carry four wooden rafts. These were positioned on ramps on each side of the forward and aft masts and were typically allocated to the Navy Armed Guard Crew. They were made of two rows of 55 gallon drums, framed in by wood and covered with wood decking. They came in various sizes. The standard raft for the Armed Guard had a recessed area in the center running the length of the raft, while the Cape San Juan’s looked quite a bit larger and had the wood decking all the way across.

On the left is a standard wooden raft carried aboard merchant ships for their Navy Armed Guard crews. On the right is a larger variety, similar to what the Cape san Juan was equipped with.

They were not quite as susceptible to shrapnel and blast damage as lifeboats because the raft would still float if a certain percentage of drums remained watertight. They were somewhat similar to a floating platform or dock you might see being used on a lake. They also carried emergency supplies of food and water and well as oars and sails like a lifeboat, although they weren’t nearly as maneuverable.

In a worst case scenario they were designed to release and float free when the vessel sank (sometimes this required some modification by the crew). They needed to be secure enough not to rip loose during heavy weather/seas. They were too heavy to manhandle into the water so they were mounted on steel ramps, the idea being that once they were released they would slide down the ramp and into the water. This didn’t always work as advertised and they sometimes jammed, especially on the high side of the list. They were typically double sided so it did not matter which side they landed on, although they could sometimes be damaged when they impacted the water.

In the case of the Cape San Juan, the wooden rafts were all grouped together, a pair on each side of the forward mast. This would lead to issues during the Cape San Juan’s evacuation as men swimming for the first raft were struck by the second raft as it was released. Several men were reportedly killed in this manner.

Carley Floats

The primary lifesaving gear added for the vast majority of the passengers was something called a Carley float. This was the principal lifesaving device used by the US Navy, as well as many other navies, on their war ships since the First World War.

The Carley float looked like a raft, especially when stowed withe the floor collapsed, but was really more akin to a giant life ring. There appear to have been two construction methods. One was comprised of a copper or steel tube about 18 inches in diameter, bent into an oval or rectangular loop. The metal tube had internal baffles welded in place every 12-18 inches to prevent the entire tube from flooding if holed. The outside of the tube was then wrapped in subsequent layers of cork or kapok for added buoyancy, sometimes a layer of cotton, then canvas and glue, and finally paint. A thin wooden lattice platform was provided in the center, which could be used as a floor or suspended below the float by a curtain of rope netting so you could stand on it. Rope handles were provided around the outside perimeter every 12 to 18 inches.

Carley Float with floor extended.

The other style was made of a rectangular frame of Balsa Wood covered in a special water-proof material called "Hydrotuf", which according to the manufacturer, was also flame and abrasion resistant. It too offered a collapsible lattice floor and handle around the perimeter for the men to hang onto.

Period advertisement for a balsa wood version of the Carley float made by Winner Manufacturing Co., Inc.

Benefits of the floats were that they could take an enormous amount of damage and still remain a usable flotation device (obviously a key factor for the Navy), and could be easily launched just by throwing it overboard. They self-righted so it did not matter which side they settled on. Large numbers of floats could also be mounted to any flat surface or stacked in out the way locations. Another important advantage on the crowded deck of a ship.

It really had only one disadvantage, but it was a big one: it offered absolutely no protection from the elements. It was impossible to get dry, and of course provided no protection from large marine predators such as sharks.

The stated capacity of the floats (in this case 20, 40 and 60) was not how many personnel could be seated on top or within the ring, but also how many could hold on the ropes around the perimeter. Some of the 1st Fighter Control Squadron men seemed surprised by this, but that is how the floats were designed to be used.

Many men were seen to abandon their Carley floats and swim for the nearest lifeboat or wooden raft, all of which became heavily overloaded.

The keys to surviving in a Carley Float were moderate temperatures, and the speed of rescue. During the Cape's sinking, it was cool enough to be uncomfortable, especially with the tropical rain storms that passed through, but nowhere as bad as conditions found in the North Atlantic, where men could die of hypothermia in a matter of minutes.

As bad as the Cape San Juan sinking was, there were several instances of Navy men surviving nearly a week on Carley floats in the Pacific. Most notable of these was the USS Indianapolis tragedy (4 nights/5 days), and the survivors from the infamous Battle off Samar (50 plus hours).

Life Vests

As noted in other sections, the men were supplied with a mix of cork and kapok life vests, some stenciled with “For inland waterways only”. These were supposedly lighter duty life vests that were only rated for about 9 hours. Many men rescued 30 plus hours after abandon ship were still wearing these vests, so they obviously performed adequately. Despite the number of first person accounts collected by Chester Driest, I found no evidence that the lighter duty vests contributed to the loss of life.

All passengers were provided with a vest when they embarked and were instructed to wear them at all times, with the exception of when they slept, in which case they were to use the vest as their pillow.


As noted in ‘the Attack’ section, some “rafts” drifted away before they could be manned, described by Master Strong as “not less than two and not more than six”. The term “raft” was used interchangeably to describe the large wooden rafts and the Carley floats which adds to the confusion. Eyewitness accounts state that the painters (ropes that tether the raft to the ship) were all cut loose on the wooden rafts for fear that they would be pulled down with the ship. The Carley floats weren’t attached at all. The wind and wave action quickly dispersed them along with the survivors, so the weather was just as much a factor as anything.

This was evident to the men still on board, who started throwing 2’ x 4’ wooden hatch covers and anything else they could find overboard.

The Poem

A poem about the incident was written by Private Hugh H. Shanks of the 855th and typed by the 253rd Company Clerk Americo L. Vergari from Cambridge, OH. Kent Hunt of the 253rd provided the cover art, which I show on the 253rd's page.

The two units were stationed nearby in the Philippines in 1944 and collaborated on creating and distributing the poem to all their members. Pretty amazing considering the official segregation policies in place at the time.

I debated whether I should include the poem in the 855th’s section because one of its members wrote it and most of the references to men in it refer to 855th members, or the 253rd’s section because they published it and survivor Stephen Dybas generously provided a scan of his copy. Ultimately, I decided it would be best to create a new section for it at the end because it applies to everyone involved, and helps summarize the whole event.

Disclaimer: The following poem includes some very dark passages, but captures the full range of emotions the men were feeling. Political correctness was not a consideration for them, so readers sensitive to such issues should exercise caution. While I don’t agree with everything in it, especially the characterization of the Merchant Marine, it provides a raw, uncensored view of the events that is very unique. I am presenting it here in its original form with spelling and grammar intact.


(Ed. NOTE – Events and Incidents are accurate and true. Names mentioned are all real characters: Because of censorship Fictitious names used for ships)


Thru out the year of ‘43

The “Gods of Death” ruled the sea.

Enemy Subs were scourge of the Waters

Making Widows of Mothers and Daughters.

Convoys molested, lone ships sunk,

U.S. Sea Supremacy – was that the bunk?


Early the morn, October Twenty Eight (28)

The Transport El’Kopiton, steamed out the

Golden Gate.

Alone, 2000 men going over sea,

The _____Battalion, C. of E.

How quiet and calm the vast Pacific

We’d all expected the waves to be



Men on deck, a milling mass,

torture of seasickness over at last.

Time stands still as days pass,

Gulls all gone from the main top mast,

Boxing today, somebody said

Ah! heres a book I haven’t read.

Rinse the decks, not once but twice

resume your reading, cards or dice.

Jumpin over legs, steppin on hands,

Buddies making post-war plans.

Ice cold Cokes, being sold below

Olds will buy, he’s won our dough.


7-O’clock, the water is on

Good! my canteen’s empty, every drop gone.

Nite Falls on the El’Kopiton.

Blackout, til the crack of dawn.

Men are singing, all are gay

some admiring the Milky Way.


Nite over the boys are gay

as usual gambling starts the day.

The good ship plods sou’west direction

Calesthenics, Rifle and hatch inspection

10 O’clock, abandon ship drill

done to suit The Captains will.

Musical show on Hatch No. two (2)

Neptune party, Joy of the crew.

Vesper service, softly spoken,

Hear the mate, “lights out, no smoking”.

Movie to-nite, in the Troop Mess Hall

one hatch at a time can’t take all.


Three days off the Fiji Isles,

sight British Bomber, we’re all smiles

“Torpedo Junction” they call this spot,

because Jap Subs keep it hot.

Oh well, so far the trip’s been fine,

tomorrow we cross the great date line.

Where do we land? Some-one shouts,

Melbourne or Moresby, we bare doubts.

Where do we land? That’s the issue,

hope it’s soon cause we’re out of toilet tissue

And we’re tired of rationed water, tired of making wishes,

We’re tired of pretty sunsets and countin’ Flyin Fishes.

Nite falls on our ocean queen

cloudy and dark, no silvery sheen.

Some still gamble, others sleep.

Cramped in hatches (800) deep.

Some never saw another dawn

disaster befell the El’Kopiton.


November eleventh, (11) five-forty (5:40) in the morning.

I stand on deck stretching and yawning;

As I watch the water I gasp for breath,

for speeding our way come’s Sudden Death!

“Torpedo”! I cried”, off the Star-board bow,

too late, Our guns boom now.

The “Fish” explodes in lower two (2),

the steps blow out, hatch caved thru

carrying sleepers to their death

crushing others last breath

Men die as they sleep;

without a sound. Some weep.


Captain shouts “Abandon Ship”!!

El’Kopiton can’t finish its trip.

Terror held many in its grip,

Havoc reigned aboard the ship.

Merchant crew rowing o’er the Horizion

have deserted us all, this is surprisin!

Men jumpind, oily water

Sharks approach from ev’ry quarter

Cap’n shouted “Rafts!!” We let’em go,

killin’ some who swam below

T’is a ghostly thing, but its always been true –

to save the many, sacrifice the few.


Cap’n Bass and Corp. Barkley of Company “A”

shall long be remembered for their deeds this day,

Braving the terrors of the flooded hold

bringing up bodies, crippled, crushed, some cold.

Stout of heart they will not fail

Hear us shout – “Hail Heroes, Hail!!!”


And there are others, brave and true

saving buddies from the blue.

Yokum, Watson, and Wyatt I call by name;

the’ lost, you’ll live, in our Hall of Fame

I loved you much, I knew you well

God Grant, for you, there be no Hell.


Many men ne’er left the Ship,

held by terror, white of lip.

Merchant crew has stole life boats

Ironical, yes, it got our goats

Sharks hang round, dare not draw near

strugglin’ men shriek in fear.


The good ship ______ comes our way

And saves two hundred men (200)(same day)

Its Cap’n carries orders for a non-stop trip;

but loudly he cries – “Stop the Ship,”

Defies his orders in spite of Court-Martial.

T’wixt Orders and Mercy to Mercy he’s partial.


He knows our ship is a Troop Transport,

“Pick-up those Men”, “To Hell with the Court”.

Men left forlorn as she sails out of sight.

Sadness aboard. “Josh” died that nite,

he was my pal, every man’s friend,

Parlyzed, he smiled and welcomed the end.


Left behind in Tropical Squall

deepens the misery of us all.

Some weaken and slip in to the water

midst the Prayers and insane laughter.

Some scream, and curse the Sea,

some are mute, like Ross and Lee.


Just fore darkness falls o’er the Sea

A Plane is heard by Brown and me.

A Giant Sea Plane, takes forty (40) men

“Thats all this trip, be back again”

High she soars and flies away

We know she won’t be back to-day.


Huddled close, chilled to the bone,

but each man still feels all alone.

Mom once said she feels when I’m in trouble.

Does Telepathy traverse this big blue bubble?

I’d say “all’s well” if I could write.

God grant she doesn’t feel this night.


Amidst our plaintive sincere prayers,

To our Savior way up stairs

A choking gasp, a splash is heard

another gone without a word.

Pal calls Pal, to find out who

weakened and slipped into the blue.

Rafts drift far in two (2) long days

toss by furious Ocean waves

roughest days we’ve seen so far

Ironic yes, but so is War.

Nites dark and eerie, faces drawn

We pray – “Oh God please rush the dawn.”


Grey morning falls in a misty shroud,

the sky is hid by a solid cloud

A plane! A plane! some one shouts

some have hopes, some have doubts.

Oil smeared faces scan the sky

Tears welled-up in every eye.


A Bomber sweeps down, inspects the lot,

We aren’t sure if its ours or not.

Drops food and water, soars away

He’ll bring help sometime to-day.

Feeling better we all are calm

A ray of hope is soothing balm.


Mast Ahoy! On yon Horizion.

Wobblylegs on Raft a’risin.

Oil filled eyes strain and peer.

“A U.S. Destroyer” – We shout and cheer.

Fast she speeds bearin round,

looks as though she’ll run us down.


Hauled aboard in hasty fashion,

given food and coffee ration.

Sailin round to pick up others,

friends greet friends like long lost brothers.

Some in need of Medic care;

Eyes blind beyond repair.


Off to Fiji, rest in Suva

Heal quickly Soldier, Mac Arthur needs ya!

Telegraph home all is well

Jus’ ‘bout all we’re ‘llowed to tell.

Heat, humidity, jungle stickiness;

Tropic Fruits good for sickness.


Giant natives awful haughty,

Hindu Urchins awful naughty,

Souvenirs at inflation prices.

Smells of cooking, lots of spices.

Jungle fighters, some yet ill,

anxious to go to Bougainsville.


Thanks givin dinner, Turkey and Peas.

Second helpin? If you please.

Pack-up to-nite, we sail in the morning.

The H.P. Ship looms grey in the dawning.

Happy lad? You’ll see your pal

He was saved with the rest, they’re in “New Cal”.


Land Ahoy!! Sounds from the nest

mountains seen far in the West.

Scissors and comb, I’m a barber

dozens of ships, Noumea Harbour

New Caledonia, owned by the French

Jungles and mountains; Native stench.


Ridin’ at anchor, ships of all nations.

Linin’ the shores, men of all stations.

Many races, creeds and faces

gathered here from many places

United in cause, tho’ different in birth.

Preserving democracy, fightin’ for earth.


We camp on a hillside, o’er looking the sea

‘Bove winding roads. Whats that I see?

A truck convoy, hear the noise

Hey gang! Fall out! Here come the boys;

Theres Parker, Skipper, and Chicago Red!

Why Hell! We thought you guys were dead.


Strong men weep; a slap on the shoulder;

Even the timid seem more bolder.

We welcome many whom we used to hate.

Boy, Oh boy! Reunion’s great.

Freddie Price, arguing as usual,

he makes an issue of a casual perusal;

adopted me, call’s me big brother,

I call him mouse cause he’s such a bother.

“Diesel” Hill shouts to be heard;

Hi ya kid, whats the word?

Frantic lad, my home town boy,

reg’lar fella, full of joy.

Here’s Harry Gaddis, starry eyed

dashing, bold, Pittsburgh’s pride.

There’s Pierce, “Prim”, and T’ler, as usual calm.

Smilin’, sweatin, neath tropic Sun.

Here’s “Bill” Jones, called “Soho Slim”,

(I’m carryin’ $200.00 bucks for him)

loud his laughter, firm his grip,

squeezin’ my hand till I bite my lip

Chambers, Gill and Mason from the Buckeye State.

Ask either a favor, t’is never late.

Could go on naming, giving honorable mention

but 1st Sgt. Arnold calls us to attention.


“Fall in formation in reg’lar places.

We gaze forlorn for absent faces

Roll Call shows there is much absence

Names unanswered cause reminiscence,

Jones, Kincade, Parsons, Parker, Logan,

Lee, Nelson – Absent. (His place was next to me.)


Absent! Echoes thru the lines.

Bleeding hearts; angry minds.

O’ Son’s of Nippon you shall pay and pay

ten-fold for that bloody day.

We’ll smash your cities for revengeful glory,

and crumble Tokyo to end our story.


Pack-up men, we sail tomorrow

forget your pain, cast out your sorrow

Our Battalion’s motto is “Can Do”

Push on, we must, til’ War is through.

Standing on deck, in the early dawn

We think ahead; what lies beyond?


Farewell New Cal. We leave you now.

But on your shores we made a vow;

We swore to never quit this battle,

to slaughter Japs like Hogs and Cattle,

‘Til their women shall wail, their children lament.

To kill til Nipponese blood is spent.


Well used influence, Nippon mothers

might have saved sons and brothers

too late now – their doom we seal;

their death the salve our wounds to heal.

Away Vile thoughts, for I need rest.

We’ll keep our vows, we’ll stand the test.


Sleep on dear brothers you’ve staked first claim.

In your Battalions Hall of Fame.

A lesson you taught in blood and hell

True t’was tough, but we learned it well.

Your deeds were good, the mem’ry clings

Our laughter we trade for more sober things.


O’ you mothers, sweethearts and wives

Weep on lament once precious lives,

Fear not for them; they know no sorrow

in that land “Beyond to-morrow”.

To go “Beyond” makes none forget,

they loved you then, they love you yet;

Tho’ life was short they loved you much

for your caress and tender touch.


Your names be remem’bred, you died not in vain;

expendable you were, t’was Tojo’s gain.

Death took you away but glory remains.

Without seeing a battle your lives were lost.

You’ll be avenged no matter the cost.

Someday we shall meet, face to face,

but first we must earn a right to that place;

and win your approval of our deeds here on Earth

in defence of America, land of our Birth.

We’ll meet you someday and share your

leaven. Wait for us there – At the

Gates of Heaven.



Most of the information on the Cape San Juan itself came from Chester Driest via Tom Gauthier initially, and then from the Driest family directly.

  • Memorandum from A. L. Mare, Commander of the U.S. Naval Base in Fiji dated November 19, 1943.

  • Statement of Steward F. Van Kirk, Technician 4th Class, US Army

  • Interview of Harold E. Smith, Radioman 3rd Class, USNR

  • Report by R. A. Barth, Major, US Army - Transport Commander

  • Statement by M.D. MacRae – Master, SS Edwin T. Meredith

  • Interview of Herbert E. Bass, Captain, Corps of Engineers, US Army, November 20, 1943

  • Interview of Monroe J. Barkley, Private, 855th Ordnance Aviation Battalion, US Army, November 20, 1943

  • Interview of Donald W. Harris, Lt. (j.g.) USNR

  • Entries from ships log of the USS McCalla

  • Entries from ships log of the USS Demsey

  • Statement by Charles A. Mullen, Able Seaman, Cape San Juan, November 16, 1943

  • Statement by John E. Watt, Able Seaman, Cape San Juan, November 16, 1943

  • Statement by Roy E. Erickson, Oiler, Cape San Juan, November 16, 1943

  • Statement by Walter E. Gibson, Engine Room Cadet, Cape San Juan, November 16, 1943

  • Statement by John W. Geary, Cadet, Cape San Juan, December 9, 1943

  • Testimony of Walter M. Strong – Master, SS Cape San Juan, November 18, 1943

  • War Action Casualty Report filed by Master Strong October 24, 1944

  • Statement by William J. Dorcey, 2nd Mate, Cape San Juan, November 18, 1943

  • Statement by Theodore Hall, Chief Engineer, Cape San Juan, November 18, 1943

  • Statement by Earl F. Manning, Chief Mate, Cape San Juan, November 18, 1943

  • Essay ‘Love Lifted Me’ by Mitch Williamson, a US Army enlisted man describing his experience abandoning ship and eventual rescue by the PBM. Date unknown.

  • Interview of Chester W. Driest, 1st Fighter Control Squadron, US Army, rescued by YMS-241. Date unknown.

  • Entries from ships log of the YMS-241.

  • Interview conducted by Robin Sellers, Ph.D., with James J. Reed and Chet Driest, April 30, 1998. Reichelt Oral History Program, World War II collection, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida.

In addition to the information provided by Driest and Gauthier, Chuck Moss provided the following on his father and the PBM rescue:

  • Pan American 1943 Annual Report which included Moss photo and summary of rescue.

  • Essay ‘The Day I Drank The Admiral’s Whiskey’ by Bill Moss

  • Article ‘SOS for a Skyhook’ by William Van Dusen, Illustrated by Lt. Seymour Thompson, USNR from the October 7th, 1944 issue of Collier’s magazine.

  • Driest letter to Moss dated December 23rd, 1986.

  • Driest letter to Moss dated February 2nd, 1987.

  • Driest letter to Moss dated June 24th, 1984.

  • Driest letter to Moss dated June 13th, 1987.

  • Ernest Miller letter to Moss dated January 11th, 1988 (Rescued by Moss and his Crew).

  • Tom Hartley letter to Moss dated March 16th, 1987 (Rescued by Moss and his Crew).

  • Frank Saul article ‘Survivors Recall Daring Rescue In South Pacific’ by Michael McCabe, San Francisco Chronicle, Thursday, May 14 1987.

  • Mariner take off photo

  • Moss 1974 Award photo

  • Moss memorandum ‘Technique for Open Sea Landing and Takeoffs’ dated December 1, 1943.

  • Moss memorandum (untitled) about rescue dated November 13, 1943.

  • Moss hand-written notes from day of rescue operation, November 11, 1943.

  • Moss retirement article titled ‘Thanks, Captain Moss’.

  • Article ‘Pacific Rescue – 48 Oil-Soaked, Half-Blinded Men Saved From Choppy Sea by Plane’. Author and newspaper not known.

  • Article ‘Rhode Island Heroes’ by John Fawcett.

  • Radio Interview from the show ‘We the people’ hosted by Milo Boulton in New York, date unknown. Interview conducted by reporter Don Mozley from San Francisco.

Finally, there were a few sources I found that provided some additional info:

  • American Battle Monuments Commission website for information on Cape San Juan casualties.

  • for information on Walter M Strong and crew lists.

  • Archives New Zealand, Wellington, New Zealand - for the images from the photograph album of Number 6 (Flying Boat) Squadron [AIR 144/3 12 page 49].

  • Boone, Dave - ( artist who provided the photo of Nebraskan from his private collection from the 1930's originally taken by Francis Palmer.

  • Christensen, Lena for the photo of her father George H. Roblin, navigator of the PBM.

  • Cundall, Peter for information on Kermit/Nebraskan, and the lack of convoys.

  • DANFS – Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships website for history of the USS McCalla (DD-488).

  • Driest, Barbara and Edie for information and photos of Chester Driest.

  • Dybas, Greg for information on his father Stephen Dybas and his unit, the 253rd Ordnance. Specifically his father's experience, unit history, photos, and 'The Poem'.

  • Gerhardt, Frank A. - for his website: for photos and information on Cape San Juan's sisters.

  • Hackett, Bob and Kingsepp, Sander - for their website: ‘SENSUIKAN! - Stories and Battle Histories of the IJN's Submarines’ for information on I-21 and Hiroshi Inada, particularly the Tabular Records of Movement (TROMs) for the I-21.

  • Hines, Bolden E. - for his help on the 855th Engineers.

  • Hoffman, Richard Alden - Book: ‘The fighting flying boat: a history of the Martin PBM Mariner’. Naval Institute Press, June 2004, ISBN: 1591143756.

  • Naval History and Heritage Command website for information and images of the Cape San Juan and the USS Dempsey (DE-26).

  • Rohwer, Jurgen for information on Japanese activity in Indian Ocean from his book Axis Submarine Successes 1939-1945, Naval Institute Press - Annapolis, Maryland ISBN 0-87021-082-3.

  • Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, Colonel Stanley Wolfe Collection - for the images of the survivors arriving in Suva, Fiji.

  • Kingsepp, Sander - for his help with specifics on I-21, Hiroshi Inada, IJN tactics and weapon systems.

  • Scott, Jenny - Blog about RNZAF No. 6 Squadron participation in rescue of SS Cape San Juan, and her book 'DUMBO DIARY Royal New Zealand Air Force No.6 (Flying Boat) Squadron 1943-1945'.

  • Singler, Cammie, daughter of 253rd member Shelby Cunningham for images of tribute money.

  • Strong Family for biographical and photographic information Walter M. Strong.

  • Tullys Port - Historical Naval Discussions Forum , and its members for help clarifying some details of the attack.

  • U.S. Coast Guard National Maritime Center, 100 Forbes Drive, Martinsburg, WV 25404 for Merchant Marine career information on Walter M. Strong.

  • US Merchant Marine website at for information on the C1-B.

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