STEAMING NORTHWARD IN THE SOUTH ATLANTIC OR 6 June 1942, the tanker Stanvac Calcutta was eight days out of Montevideo, Uruguay, bound for Caripito, Venezuela, to pick up a cargo of oil. She was in dangerous waters. Nazi U-boats were staging a carnival of death and destruction in the Caribbean and its approaches. They were so bold that much of the time, they approached their victims on the surface because they knew there would be no planes or warships to attack them.
Captain Custaf O. Karlsson had posted extra lookouts. All hands were on alert and guns were readied for instant action.
There had been intermittent rain squalls, with occasional banks of scudding rain momentarily hiding parts of the sea and horizon. Otherwise, visibility was good. The sea was almost calm, with a slight swell.
At about 1000, Karlsson and First Mate Aage Knudsen were drinking coffee in the mess room and talking about what the mate was having the men do in routine ship's work that day. At the same time, a lookout on the bow had focused his binoculars on a spot where a thinning rain squall was blowing away. No doubt about it. The indistinct shape he had been watching was visible now as a ship. He shouted the information to the bridge, "Ship ahead - off the starboard bow".
Studying the vessel through his glasses, the third mate, who was the officer on watch, could see that it had the outline of a
merchant ship. While he was trying to identify her further, there was a puff of white smoke from the vessel's foredeck and,
seconds later, a muffled sound of gunfire. A shell plummeted into the sea a hundred yards or so off the tanker's bow.
There was no need to call the captain. He and Knudsen had heard the shot. Taking the steps two at a time, they ran for the
bridge. Karlsson was quick to act. After one look at the stranger, he sounded the general alarm, calling all hands to battle stations.
The Stanvac Calcutta was owned by the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company of New York but, like many American-owned tankers, she flew the Panamanian flag and carried a small contingent of Naval Armed Guard gunners.
There were not enough of them to man all the guns, so the merchant crew also served as gunners, loaders, and shell handlers. Navy Ens. Edward Anderson was in charge of the gun crew.
As the captain and first mate watched, the stranger came closer.
A shell was rammed into the breech of the three-inch gun on the tanker's bow, and the gun pointer trained his piece on the
oncoming ship. The gun captain adjusted the telephone headset firmly over his ears and reported to Ensign Anderson on the
bridge "Bow gun ready, sir".
Again, there was a puff of smoke on the stranger's bow followed in seconds by a plume of water a hundred yards or so away as another warning shell fell into the sea. At the same time, a signal in international code was run up on the vessel's halyards. "Stop your engines." A Nazi flag whipped out at the gaff on her mainmast.
"She's a German raider, all right," the captain said. "But if he thinks we're going to lay down and give up he's mistaken.
We're not surrendering this ship without a right". He ordered a sharp turn to starboard so that the four-inch stem gun, the largest gun with the longest range, could bear on the enemy. Hoping his ship was faster than the raider, he rang the engine room and asked for every possible revolution they could produce. "Give us everything you can," he said. "This is for life or death."
At the forward gun were able seamen Champagne, Larsen, and Reed; Sarrazin, the pumpman; and fireman DeLong. All
were part of the ship's regular crew - no professional gunners these. As the Calcutta began her turn, they received the order to fire and answered the raider's shot with two of their own. No hits, but the shells were close.
Every man, with a steel helmet and life jacket, was now at his battle station and waiting orders from the bridge.
Able seaman Saedie Ben Hassan was standing on the bridge when the captain turned to him and said, "Run up the ensign.
Break out a hoist with our code number."
It was probably the first time that the flag of Panama ever went into battle on the high seas/ and it couldn't have flown over
more undaunted men.
After hoisting the flag to the truck of the mainmast, Ben Hassan ran back to the top of the pilot house to help run up the ship's identification in code on the signal halyards. As soon as the flag and pennants whipped into the breeze, the raider was spurred to action. There was a flash of fire from one of the guns on her foredeck, and a shell soon hit the tanker along the
Down in the engine room, the fireman and third assistant engineer on watch hurried from fire door to fire door at the boilers. They took out the burners and inserted small-sized tips that would shoot a fine, hard stream of oil into the furnaces for a
hotter fire and more speed. The needle on the steam gauge passed the thin, red danger line, but they paid no heed to this warning. The oil pressure pump was speeded up, and the third assistant engineer wired down the safety valve on top of the boilers. Every pound of steam would count. Every knot of speed was vital. The ship was only a year old, and Karlsson hoped to outrun the raider.
During the next ten minutes, the raider's guns hulled the Stanvac Calcutta in a dozen places. Men had to shout to be heard
above the bark of the 20-millimeters, the roar of the big guns, and the crash and grind of the shattered steel. A shell smash-ed the after crew's quarters and wounded two men.
Karlsson maneuvered his ship calmly and deliberately, swinging to left or right so that the bow and stem guns, the only effective pieces in such an action, could take shots at the raider. Ensign Anderson, directing his gun crews as though they were at target practice, gave the gunners the range and reporting results of their fire over the intercom.
"Bow gun ... bow gun ... more elevation . .. doing fine ... doing fine".
"Stem gun . . . that was a close one . .. smash 'em with the next one".
Many of the Calcutta's shells misfired, and the gunners lost precious opportunities to score hits because or the faulty ammunition. The fifth shot from the stem gun was well aimed, knocking out one of the raider's guns and, they later found out, killing the gun crew.
The German raider now concentrated her fire on the stern gun. Shrapnel shattered the pointer's telescope and bent the sighting bar. Miraculously, the gun pointer was not killed, nor did the courageous sailors leave their posts when more shrap-nel burst around them. Although the sighting mechanism was now useless, they kept ramming shells into the breech, laying the gun on the target, and firing without mechanical aids. Seventeen rounds were fired in this way before a shell from the raider pierced the magazine beneath the gun platform. Anderson now ordered his men to leave their dangerous position. The magazine was afire and could explode at any moment.
"Just give us three more rounds", the gun captain replied. "We've got three more shells to throw at 'em".
Several of the gun crew tried to clear a path through a shattered hatch down to the flaming magazine to obtain more ammunition. The magazine blew up beneath them.
The forward gun kept firing.
Determined to end this unwanted battle as quickly as possible, the raider poured shell after shell into the battered tanker with such precision and accuracy that it was evident that the men of the Stanvac Calcutta were dueling with well-trained naval gunners.
After taking more than a dozen hits below the waterline, the tanker developed a heavy list. When water poured into the shellpierced tanks. Karlsson ordered Knudsen to shift ballast so the vessel could be brought back on an even keel. The mate responded instantly, although he had been badly wounded by a shell fragment and was bleeding profusely. As he was working valves along the main deck, a shell smashed into the bridge and fumed the entire steering and navigating section into a smoking, battered shambles. Running back to the bridge, Knudsen found the captain dead from multiple wounds. Able Seaman Neldon Okander was slumped over the wheel, his hands still clutching the spokes as though he was determined, even in death, to keep the valiant ship on her course. He, too, had been killed by flying steel.
At the foot of the broken stairs leading to the bridge, Knudsen found radio operator Philip Heath dead at his instrument panel. He had been killed while sending out the SOS. The radio room had been all but blown to pieces.
With the vessel now out of control and sinking from holes in the hull, as well as from water pouring in through the shattered
stern, Knudsen pulled the whistle cord and sounded the call to abandon ship.
At the forward gun, the crew waited to get off one last shot, but their gallant gesture proved fatal. As they left the gun platform and ran down the deck toward lifeboats near the stem, an exploding shell killed Larsen and Champagne and wounded Sarrazin. Reed, and DeLong.
The Stanvac Calcutta went down soon after the survivors got away in the lifeboats. But the raider had to launch a small torpedoboat and send two tin fish into her torn, shell-gashed side before the waves engulfed her; the signals still whipping from the halyards and the flag of Panama still flying at the gaff. Eleven men had been killed.
Survivors were taken aboard the German ship, which turned out to be Raider 23, otherwise known as the Stier. Converted from a fast freighter, she was a large ship armed with six large five-inch guns, plus smaller guns, and carrying two aircraft
for reconnaissance. The Germans said they had fired a total of 123 shells at the fighting Stanvac Calcutta. They admired the tanker's spirit and regretted that such a brave captain had to go down with his ship.
After taking the survivors on board. Raider 23 hurried away from the scene of battle; the Germans knew that the tanker's SOS might have been heard and that any warships in the area soon would be on their trail, several days later, the rendez-vouse with a supply ship and transferred the survivors, including eleven wounded. Ben Hassan, who was too badly hurt to be moved, was kept on board the Stier. All of the wounded men had been given good care by the ship's doctor.
From then until 21 October, the men of Stanvac Calcutta were crowded together with 171 survivors from other sunken vessels in the forward hold of the supply ship, which had been the Australian steamer Nanking until she was captured. On 6
November, the Stanvac Calcutta's crew were turned over to the Japanese and spent thirty-four months in various POW camps in Japan.
Ben Hassan was still on board the Stier as a bed patient when the raider challenged the Stepnen Hopkins, another lone ship
in the South Atlantic and gave her orders to stop. This time, the Stier met her match. Instead of stopping, the intended victim opened fire. The ensuing battle became one of the most gallant sea fights of the war, an all-time epic battle of the sea.2