History is just the stories of our ancestors, our families, and us. Some people live their entire lives without knowing where they came from or what they believe in. But that’s no longer me, thought Anna Venu. Not after last year.
Anna’s gray eyes battled the sun as she looked out onto the caramel desert stretches of Phoenix, Arizona, from Sky Harbor International Airport. Her cell phone vibrated and pulled her out of her reverie. Her flight to the Dominican Republic had been delayed.
Maybe it was the sweet smell of espresso from Cartel Coffee Lab, or maybe it was the distinct German seductively whispered between two traveling lovers. Still, whatever it was, something made Anna yearn to revisit her grandfather’s memoir.
The Memoir of Navy Lieutenant John Venu
It was the end of the 19th century in New York. Like the stories of many Americans, my parents were immigrants; Sicilians hoping to escape poverty and life under mafia rule. However, fate intervened and weaved unwanted irony into their expectations, turning their American dream into just another impoverished neighborhood centered around Elizabeth Street in Manhattan—a district now affectionately dubbed Little Italy. During my parents’ era, there were no quaint souvenir shops and gelato cafés; just slums, survival, and, yet again, the ruthless control of the Italian Mafia.
On the corner of Elizabeth and Hester Street, a tiny pastry shop emerged from my parents’ endless work and perseverance. Our Vennuci family secret cannoli recipe earned the shop its reputation. The innocent dessert became the particular favorite of a not-so-innocent man Joe Masseria, better known as Joe the Boss, head of one of the largest New York gangs. My father was expected to pay him respect each morning with a delivery of ten fresh cannolis.
In 1901, my older brother, Lorenzo, was born, which all of Eliza- beth Street celebrated. He was a newborn in America, destined for greatness. Each penny was saved. He was going to be a doctor; he was going to make something of himself; he was going to take every scrap the American dream claimed to offer. My parents were to watch it all unfold—justification for coming here and for their continued suffering and hard work. And maybe they would have been, if the Masseria Gang did not exist, or if Lorenzo did not have a temper easily seduced by power, but it did, and he was.
By the age of 17, he was already a street soldier of the Masseria Gang, the cancer that metastasized throughout our neighborhood, preying on the lives of young men. Street freedom, easy money, and easier girls trumped working at the bakery with immigrant, foreign-speaking parents. And so, he looked past the tears of my mother and the painful silence of my father; he simply ignored them.
By the time I came into this world in 1922, Lorenzo was out of the house completely. The first shots of the famous 1930s Castellammarese War were fired around my eighth birthday. The bloodshed be- tween the Masseria and Maranzano gangs skillfully orchestrated by Charles “Lucky” Luciano, spread like wildfire throughout New York City. My brother was one of its first victims and so, too, was our American dream.
Devastated, my parents turned their focus to me, to make sure I would not follow in my brother’s footsteps. They did not have to try hard. I hated the Mafia as much as they did. I was not given the freedom Lorenzo had, so instead, I read about it.
Books about traveling and seafaring adventures filled my lungs with the aspiration and hope that one day, I too would see distant lands. My copies of Captain Blood and Moby-Dick were worn from use. I imagined myself pulling lines on a ship while kneading dough at the bakery. Every moment I could get to the docks, I was there. The stronger the wind, the heavier the rain, the more vividly I could see myself at the mast of a ship, a real seaman.
When World War II began in 1939, I was nearly eighteen and ready to enroll in the navy but was rejected—to my parents’ relief. A childhood fracture had caused my right leg to be slightly shorter than my left. It was hardly noticeable but unacceptable to navy physicians. I felt cheated, my dream taken from me by something I had no control over, but I persisted. There just had to be another way, and I found it when I applied to the U.S. Maritime Training Station, in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. I started my training as an apprentice seaman and graduated as a merchant marine in the rank of ordinary seamen.
The Connecticut, a steam merchant ship, was the first realization of my long-awaited vision. The ship sailed between South America and New York, importing coffee, sugar and exporting cars and heavy machinery for South American factories. This first trip was more thrilling than I had ever dreamed. Tropical flora; exotic ports humid dense air with every particle carrying the deep scent of coffee and cacao beans. Nothing like the street life of my New York City childhood.
Intoxicated with joy, I looked to the future with the certainty and conviction that I was following my destiny. It was on the Connecticut that I met James, my best friend.
On my first day on the docks, I walked alongside the ship, looking for the captain to introduce myself. The Connecticut looked like a massive sea monster groaning with delight as the port cranes’ giant arms fed it different pieces of heavy machinery. Crate after crate disappeared one after another into the beast. Obediently, provisions stood along the dock waiting for their turn to be swallowed up into the ship’s steel belly.
In front of me, a group of sailors and port workers were gathered in silence, hanging on someone’s every word. Straightening my uniform, I made my way swiftly in their direction, hoping to catch the last of whatever instruction was being given to the crew. I joined the semicircle just as a roar of laughter erupted. To my astonishment, the center of attention was nothing more than a young sailor only a couple of years older than myself. The look on my face must have expressed such surprise that it caught his attention. He locked his sharp eyes onto mine, ceasing his laughter abruptly.
“So, who are ya anyway?” he asked me. Caught off guard, I stared at him wide-eyed.
“Oh, my lads, I think the lady needs an introduction,” he continued to taunt me. Everyone’s attention was focused on me, watching as redness splashed across my face.
“Oooh no! We got ourselves another shy one!” The sailor snickered, fanning himself in a bashful exaggerated motion. The crowd once again erupted in laughter, while I attempted to look like I was in on the joke. To my relief, with their last laughs, the crowd dispersed. Still having no instruction, I was about to pick a direction to self-assuredly walk to when the sailor grabbed my shoulder.
“Don’t be upset, lad. We were just having a bit of fun. I’m James,” he said to me. James began to tell me a story with his arm draped around my shoulder as if we had been buddies for years.
“Two days ago, it was Mikie’s birthday and now, whachya gotta know about Mikie is....the kid runs his mouth about messing with dames all the time. Thinks he’s Clark Gable. So, I figure, okay, I’ll take him to the cathouse, see how suave he really is! So, we’re togged to the bricks, looking real sharp, except Mikie’s trousers are too big, but it’s the best pair he’s got from his old man.” James stretches his hands to show the width of Mikie compared to the trousers.
“When we get inside the joint, Mikie starts looking like a mess of nerves.”
James imitated Mikie trying to keep his cool.
“We’re facing the room of girls now; they’re all winking, you know, pretending like they’re crazy about us. And as I’m chatting up this one broad, I look to my right and Mikie is frozen staring at a blonde who’s stroking his chest. All the hairs on this kid shot straight up like a damned cat. The girl glances at me because the kid looks stupefied. I mean, not moving stupefied, as if he’s just seen a ghost. I shrug my shoulders and say that it’s nerves. So, the dame gets this sly look on her face, says she knows just how to change that. Suddenly, she’s shoving Mikie’s head between her breasts and he starts shaking uncontrollably. We start cheering him on, not expecting that all the shaking would wriggle his pants straight to the floor! Poor Mikie feels it and starts waving his arms around, but the broad doesn’t notice and thinks we’re all laughing along with Mikie’s good time! The idiot steps back and trips over his own pants and falls backward! So, there’s Mikie on his arse, beaming red like a Christmas light in front of a room of laughing dames!”
James is laughing so hard he can barely finish the next sentence. “And then,” he says, trying to keep his words straight, “we see his
underpants wet right where it counts, the poor devil!” James’s laughter turns into tears, making me dissolve into hysterics right alongside him. “And then you walk up with that petrified look, just like Mikie...
Oh, I’m sorry, lad, but I couldn’t help myself.”
James composes himself and wipes his face. He then asks me where I’m from and what crew I will be a part of. He gets a bit more serious and says, “Kid, listen, we’re your family now, so don’t think for a second that you can’t rely on any of us like you would on your own brother.”
Shaking his hand, I smirked at the irony in his sentence; I wouldn’t have trusted my brother with anything.
James was about 5'8" and, even though I towered over him at 6'1", I still felt like I was the one looking up at him. His jawline was strong and the features on his face were prominent all at once, giving him the appearance of somehow being bigger than he was and more mature than he was. Knowing James meant knowing an incredible storyteller with a sense of humor so great it heightened your own. With a strong willingness to help, a sense of camaraderie, and the Irish ability to drink himself sober, James was loved by every crewmember from the captain to the wiper. The only treasured possession James carried was a stone cross that hung from a thick leather string between his collarbones. A well-known priest gifted it to him when he was just a boy, days before his family emigrated to America. Even though his Irish roots should have rendered him my enemy, they brought me closer than my Italian blood had to my own brother. Being a few years older than me, but already ranking as able seaman, James took on the responsibility my older brother never did. We became inseparable.
On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. A day, which will live in infamy, had turned our lives upside down. Four days later, Germany declared war on the United States, and overnight sailing became a life-threatening ordeal. German submarines arranged themselves into wolf packs ravaging our transatlantic communication lines. Those of us who sailed between South America and the United States didn’t experience U-boat encounters. Yet hearing the stories of other seamen who’d survived the brutal attacks in the Atlantic and were miraculously rescued by merchant or naval ships kept our eyes constantly scanning the seas.
The situation changed dramatically by 1942. U-boats increased the range of their operations and now started to hunt us along the Atlantic coast and between the Caribbean Islands leading to more and more sunken merchant ships. In response, the U.S. Navy began forming convoys of merchant ships, which they guarded with destroyers. The problem was there were never enough destroyers to cover all the transatlantic and South American routes. Many ships had to risk sailing alone since the eastern industrial centers desperately needed bauxite ore from Trinidad for steel production and fuel from the Gulf.
By 1943, two things had changed: The U.S. Navy learned how to deal with U-boats, turning the tide of the Battle for the Atlantic in favor of the Allies, and both James and I started sailing on the turbine tanker the Esso Gettysburg. The ship belonged to the Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey and transported crude oil from the Gulf to the upper east coast. The Gettysburg changed my life, and I always keep a photograph of her on my desk. Peder A. Johnson was our captain and James swore with 100% assurance that he was a descendant of bloodthirsty Vikings.
“His ancestors sailed ’round the world for generations,” James would declare.
Captain Johnson was in fact of Scandinavian descent and an incredible leader with seasoned wartime experience on the Josiah Macy and Esso Providence tankers. We held onto his career successes like a comfort blanket. Johnson was a tall, well-built man who projected authority, confidence, and composure. Always clean-shaven and without a wrinkle on his uniform, he ran our crew with an iron fist, but always remained fair and calm.
The Esso Gettysburg was a new ship launched in 1942. Onboard, we had a mercantile crew of forty-five officers and sailors, and twenty- seven U.S. Navy personnel who served as gun crew including one officer. We sailed from Atreco near Port Arthur, Texas, on June 6, 1943, carrying more than 120,000 barrels of crude oil destined for Philadelphia. The weather was great, and the trip promised to be an easy one, aside from the looming threat of potential German U-boat attacks. Captain Johnson warned us to be extremely vigilant since we were sailing unescorted with five Navy anti-aircraft gun crews on board as our only defense. They would need time to react to a torpedo or U-boat attack.
The Florida Strait and the Atlantic coast between Florida and Virginia were our two significant challenges on this voyage. Captain Johnson assigned two sailors with binoculars as watchmen on each open side of the bridge. One constantly scanned the ocean from bow to bridge, while the other scanned the ocean from the bridge to the stern and the waters behind the ship. If a watchman could report an approaching torpedo from a far enough distance, it gave the captain enough time to maneuver the ship away from the hit and for anti-aircraft guns to destroy the approaching torpedo. Depending on the model, U-boats carried fifteen to twenty-five torpedoes; if they had been on duty for a while, there was a good chance they only had a limited number of torpedoes left.
On June 10, we were approximately 100 miles southeast of Savannah, Georgia, when at 0100 hours Captain Johnson received a coded message that an aggressive U-boat patrolled the sector we were passing through. Within the last two weeks, it had managed to sink one British merchant ship and severely damage another U.S. tanker. Captain Johnson immediately put the entire ship into alarm mode. He ordered maximum speed and changed the course to a short zigzag to make it more difficult for a torpedo to target us.
James and I had the watch on the port side of the bridge. The night was peaceful, the ocean calm, and the moonlight gave the water a mercurial appearance. In this sort of weather, we were sitting ducks for a U-boat, but it also gave us a chance to see the torpedo’s trail from afar.
At Approximately 0340 hours, James shouted with all his might, “Torpedo on the port side directed to the bow! We are on a colliding course!”
My chest contracted with sharp intensity. Without even locating the torpedo’s trail, Captain Johnson ordered full reverse while throwing our ship as far to the left as possible. We froze in terror because the torpedo’s trail was now clearly visible, even without binoculars. Our gun crews started to fire at the approaching torpedo and toward the approximate location of the U-boat.
The torpedo was getting closer and closer. Despite the full reverse, our ship’s momentum continued to push us toward disaster. The torpedo was headed straight for our bow. I remember everything in slow motion: the white silverfish torpedo trail, the ship dipping to the far left as it tried to avoid collision, and my clenched fists around the rails expecting the deafening blow of impact.
Instead, cheers rang into my ears. My eyes burst open; the torpedo had missed our bow by a couple of feet. Everyone jumped from joy below me, and I was about to yell in triumph, but my voice immediately cracked. The trail of a second torpedo suddenly became visible as it snaked toward us.
I screamed in a high-pitched voice, “Torpedo on the port side directed toward the bridge!”
Our ship began to pull in reverse. The captain called for continued full speed as the torpedo grew closer. We prayed for our lives and then, it happened. It hit us mid-ship, somewhere between tanks #6 and #7. I don’t remember the moment of impact because I was thrown overboard by a powerful explosion, which disabled our steering gear.
What happened later, I only know from the way James described it to me. The explosion threw him against the wall of the bridge and, for a second, he was disoriented. When he got up, he saw a 25-foot hole in the deck and oil spilling into the ocean. He didn’t see me anywhere until he looked at the waters below. I was floating facedown in the water motionless. Without thinking twice, he immediately dove into the ocean. Somehow, he was able to turn me on my side, drain my lungs, and force me to breathe. I started to cough and spit out the rest of the water. I was disoriented and only able to frantically squeeze James’s shoulder. He began to talk to me. “You are okay! You are okay!”
As soon as I heard his voice, I began to calm down. We floated close to the ship as I tried to get myself together. Suddenly, James grabbed me by my life jacket and paddled us away from the ship. Simultaneously, I felt a wave hit me; it looked like a huge shark had passed by me.
“Oh, my God! A third torpedo!”
A burst of fire erupted into the sky. The torpedo had hit the ship’s engine room. The explosion ignited a fire that ate greedily at the oil that gushed out of the damaged tank. Our ship was engulfed in flames, quickly becoming a floating torch. My chest tightened. She was burning and sinking and I couldn’t do anything about it. With every sound of steel splitting and glass shattering, we heard her cry out to us.
A firestorm rose 100 feet into the air, lighting the entire sky with an unnatural red-orange haze. The steel surrounding the hole in the deck glowed red from the heat generated by the burning oil. Scorching waves of steam distorted our vision; it was hell in its most dramatic personification. Amazingly, the Gettysburg kept fighting as she died. The gun crew was still shooting in the U-boat’s direction up until the damage forced them to abandon their posts.
Suddenly, James’s completely calm, deep voice broke my fixation. “Can you swim fast?”
I turned to him, with a silent question in my eyes. He pointed behind our backs and I immediately understood how grave our situation was. The entire ocean was on fire from the oil burning on its sur- face, creating a surreal image of burning water. We floated facing the ship’s port side close to the stern, and on our right the burning oil continued to leak from the tanker. It was spreading around us, pushed by new oil, wind, and current. A burning snake trying to encircle its victims against an already flaming ship. If it happened, we were going to be burned alive.
“Yes!” I shouted.
Quickly, we deflated our “Mae West” life jackets and began swimming in the direction of the stern to escape a fiery death. I never swam so hard in my life, and the concussion I most likely had, began to take a toll on me. I felt myself slowing down more and more until my swimming finally became useless paddling. I was out of breath and dizzy to the point of vomiting. I simply didn’t have the strength to continue onward.
James grabbed my collar and pulled me forward to help me swim. The burning oil was getting closer, and around us, the water and air were growing unbearably hot.
I screamed for him to leave me alone and save himself. His wet head turned, his face blurry from my pounding headache, but his words rang clear. Every single curse word I had ever heard combined themselves into one powerful vulgar sentence that shot out of James’s mouth. Somehow it gave me a final boost of energy to make it through the narrow strip of clear hot water between the wall of fire on the left and the burning ship on the right.
It was a victory, but my heart was pounding so hard that I barely acknowledged the win. We caught our breath, and James inflated our life vests to take a break. He pointed to the stern of the ship. “Johnny, listen, we need to do one more swim, okay? Are ya with me?” he asked between fast, shallow breaths.
I nodded, spitting out water.
“We need to swim around the stern to the starboard side of the ship. The crew must’ve launched lifeboats there because the fire is on our side of the ship.”
I tried to focus on James to keep my head from spinning. My legs kicked automatically. My brain knew it had to keep going, but my body didn’t cooperate. After a couple of minutes of floating to regain some strength, we started to swim again. Suddenly, we heard a deafen- ing explosion from the starboard side of the ship. We stopped and stared up at the Gettysburg. She had taken in much water and began to settle by the stern and roll towards us. James cursed and spat into the water. “Damn it! Johnny, swim away from the ship or the whirlpool will suck us in when she goes down!”
The ship continued to sink while we tried to get away as fast as we could. Once at a safe distance, we stopped and floated, completely exhausted. James thanked God we were alive and without burns.
The ship sank slowly with its stern first, a fiercely violent event. Like a demonic being, the black ocean tore apart the steel insides of the helpless Gettysburg. The sounds of snapping cables rang through our ears like gunshots from ghostly shooters. The low creaking noise of pressure building up within the vessel, the deafening noise of tearing metal accompanied by the sound of raging fire created a gut-wrenching soundtrack to the devastating visual. The air finally pushed out of the ship as she sank with a final groan as if a giant living creature was drowning in front of us.
Deep sadness emerged from my core as I watched her go. A final realization that this was it. Our home, our protection was gone, and we were left alone, vulnerable to the elements, and unsure of what to do.
Only burning oil and various debris on the ocean’s surface were left after she went down. The fire eventually exhausted itself and the early morning hours allowed us to look around, but we didn’t see any lifeboats. James started to paddle. My eyes followed his gaze until I saw a partly burned large buffet from the officer’s dining room floating a few feet to the left of us. We swam to it and I immediately understood how lucky we were. Just the day before, the steward, with the help of two sailors, took the buffet onto the deck to clean the mold he found growing on the back of the furniture. Now, this cabinet became our savior.
“Look at that, Johnny,” James knocked on the wooden buffet. “Looks more like a tree trunk shaped into a buffet than a buffet made out of a tree, it’s so thick. We have come up on some luck, kid. This will be our raft to get us out of the water for a bit.”
When James got on the buffet, it partially sank. The two of us were too heavy for it, so we took turns. Our only food and water source were the kitchen’s apples that bobbed among the debris, little spots of red salvation.
As I floated on our newfound raft, the guilt hit me: It was all my fault. The scene replayed in my head: the first torpedo, my fear, my eyes closing, the hoorahs that made me forget about my post. I had abandoned my duty of watching my sector for another possible torpedo. When I did finally see it, it was too late. Too late to make any changes in the ship’s course, too late to save my crewmates, too late to stop our ship—our world, ourselves—from drowning. And now, where were we? In the middle of an ocean that had already tasted drowned men. Hot tears rolled from my eyes, soothing the burn of saltwater.
I started to weep uncontrollably, and James stared at me. “What the hell’s wrong?” his voice rose to concern.
“It is my fault, James, don’t you see? I missed the second torpedo. I shouldn’t have stopped looking; I’m so sorry... I’m so sorry... James, please forgive me.”
I was hysterical now, barely making sentences. “We are going to die here.... It’s all my fault.”
James tried to calm me down, but I was inconsolable. I cried for my crew, for James, and for myself. He started to shake me.
“Get a grip of yourself, lad! This isn’t anyone’s fault; we are in a goddamn war, for Christ’s sake! There’s people dying everywhere.”
I wasn’t hearing him until bam! The left side of my cheek throbbed, and the taste of blood got into my mouth. James had punched me. It shocked me at first, but my hysteria attack stopped. I looked at him. He wasn’t sure if I was going to punch him back or cry again.
“Thanks...” I said slowly, rubbing the left side of my face.
“You gotta hold it together, Johnny. Nobody’s going to die out here. At least I’m not planning on it,” James assured me.
“I know for sure that our radioman sent out an SOS signal after we were hit and any passing merchant ships, the Hooligan Navy, or the navy will sooner or later show up and pull us out of the water. We just need to survive twenty-four, forty-eight hours to give them time to get to us. Okay?”
I nodded. I had completely surrendered myself to James and was immediately sure that this was exactly what would happen. We continued to float on the buffet, each of us holding onto it for an hour or so at a time.
It was James’s turn to climb onto our raft when he suddenly grabbed my hand and calmly said, “Look to your left.”
I turned, and we momentarily froze. Less than 100 feet away, a periscope looked at us from above the surface of the calm ocean.
“Oh my God! It’s the U-boat that hit us!” I said in disbelief. “Really?” barked James. “And I thought it was Captain Nemo
comin’ to save us.”
James’s sarcasm annoyed me, but it worked at diffusing the tension and fear for a few seconds. The periscope started to move forward slowly, and James gave it the finger.
“Are you fucking crazy? They’ll kill us!” I hissed.
“To do that, the bastards gotta surface first, and they aren’t dumb enough to risk it while a navy ship can pass by at any moment,” he finished.
Slowly, the periscope disappeared back under the water’s surface. “Why are they still here?” I asked.
“It’s a trick. Our ship sent out a distress signal. U-boats hang around waiting for another ship to show up to rescue survivors. Then they make their next kill,” James explained with disgust.
“Ruthless cowards,” I said.
“Damn right they are. Any navy ship or submarine that sinks another ship and abandons its crew in the middle of the ocean aren’t seamen; they are damned war criminals,” James spat in the periscope’s direction.
“Do you think we’re the only survivors?” I asked.
James immediately felt the pain in my voice. “John, where’s your logic? It was forty-five of us crew and how many of the gun crew did we have?” he asked.
“So it was seventy-two souls and the ship didn’t sink quickly. I bet some got hurt, but they had enough time to launch lifeboats and abandon the ship from the starboard side. Remember how the gun crew continued to fire at that damned U-boat when we were in the water? We got separated from them by the burning ship and, after she sank, the current dragged us apart. They’re safe and we’ll see ’em as soon as we get to shore.”
What James said made sense and I started to feel better, but it didn’t improve our current situation, which began to get more and more desperate.
I could tell it was around 0630 hours by the way the sun hung over the horizon, illuminating nothing in the distance aside from occasional debris.
“Here we go again!” James uttered. “What do you mean again?” I asked.
James pointed to my left and I saw the periscope for a second time. It slowly rotated and, after a couple minutes, it once again went under. “If we were closer, I’d break that thing!” James weakly punched
the water with the little strength he had left.
That was what I was thinking, too.
“What should we do to warn other ships about the U-boat?” I asked.
Just before James tried to answer my question, we heard a strange noise and suddenly the water started to swirl around us. Approximately 300 feet from us, the German U-boat began to emerge from the ocean. The bridge appeared first, a steel gray shark fin gliding through low waves. The nose followed, and then the submarine’s massive body shot upward from the depths picking up and slamming down onto the sur- face with a loud blast. It rolled side to side on its own waves, waiting to stabilize itself. An eerie roaring cartoon lion head with the number “66” inside a black rhomb was drawn onto the side of its conning tower as if this killing machine was a mere toy.
“Listen,” James whispered to me, “we need to surrender and offer ourselves as POWs. The Germans will take us on board and we’ll live.” “But won’t someone eventually show up to rescue us?” I asked him
“John, don’t be an idiot! Everyone on the bridge saw me dive into burning oil. They’re gonna assume us dead and as soon as the lifeboats make it to shore, the rescue search will stop. Nobody will look for us!” he blurted out. “This is our chance to get outta here alive!”
“James, but you just told me—”
“Forget what I told ya and follow me,” he interrupted.
A scraping sound disrupted the panic building inside of me. The hatch on the top of the conning tower opened and a young boatman materialized; he briefly looked at us and carefully scanned the ocean with his binoculars. He said something into the conning tower and, a minute later, the captain appeared. A trimmed beard partially covered his pallid face, and a white scarf tied around his neck. Both men looked at us expressionlessly.
James asked me to stabilize the buffet. He had managed to sit upon his knees and started to wave, trying to explain that we were merchant sailors and needed their help. He also told me to push him closer to the U-boat slowly. The Germans were silent for a couple of minutes; then the captain said something to the boatman, and he shouted at us in a powerful German accent. “Name your ship, tonnage, and your route!”
“Esso Gettysburg, a hundred and twenty tons, we were sailing from Atreco, Texas, to New Jersey with crude oil,” James answered officially.
The boatmen looked to the captain, but he remained silent until a sickly cough broke the tension. By now, we had come very close to the U-boat, thanks to my slow paddling. James continued to plead for help, talking very slowly. The captain said something to the boatmen who disappeared into the hatch. We remained in the ocean next to the submarine while the captain stared at us from atop the conning tower. Finally, he moved, and I saw something flash in his right hand. I realized that he was pointing a gun at us only after James started to shout: “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”
Bang! It was too late. I heard the shot, but the pain didn’t come. I saw James start to fall back on the buffet. It was James! He was shot! My breath stopped. With all my strength, I steadied James on the makeshift raft. Blood covered his face; I held his head only to see that his right temple was gone. He was dead. My soul ripped open.
I looked at the German at the top of the U-boat desperately; plead- ing for him to turn the clock of time back, but instead, the gun was now pointed at me. I looked into the shaft; a small black hole responsible for the demise of both my brothers. Peace suddenly engulfed me. I didn’t care. Let it come; I wanted this tragedy to end.
Suddenly, an alarm sounded inside the U-boat, causing the German captain to hesitate for a second before lowering the gun. He looked at me with cold hard eyes; a thin smile spread on his face. He closed the hatch and the U-boat immediately started to submerge, dis- appearing in several minutes. A nightmare vanishing with the morning sun.
James was on his stomach with his head turned to the left. He looked asleep—or at least that’s what I needed to believe. Panic was making me nauseous. I couldn’t see him dead. I started talking to him like he was still alive.
“My God, James, we almost died!” I understood that I was talking crazy, but I ignored my common sense.
“James, it’s okay. I’m going to take charge now. You said yourself that no one is dying here.... Just leave it up to me, okay?”
I slapped myself in the face hard while the ocean calmly stroked me. I started to think about what to do next.
“If the ocean gets rough, James, I’m going to have a hard time keeping you on the buffet.”
I tore his pants into long strips of fabric using my teeth and tied them together, securing James onto the buffet. I took the life jacket off James and inflated it to the max. Then I placed it into the buffet, which gave it more stability. My energy faded; I chewed on an apple—salty skin with sweet juice underneath.
The sun was getting higher, the stress of the last few hours took its toll on me and I slowly drifted into a semiconscious state. I dreamt I was walking with my father along a cool forest road in the Catskill Mountains where we had rented a small cabin for the weekend. Suddenly my dream was interrupted by a sense of bitter loss to the point of physical discomfort. I woke up and I realized to my horror that I was floating utterly alone in the middle of the ocean. I started to panic and called for James, but I had drifted away from him.
With adrenaline fueling what was left of my lucid mind, I identified that I was floating up to my chin and saw everything on the water’s level. I needed to lift myself above the surface to look around. I fumbled to take my life jacket off and tried to jump out of the water, but I lost all my strength after two attempts.
After several unsuccessful tries, I put my fully inflated life jacket under my knees and rose above the water.
Carefully scanning the horizon, I noticed a dark spot directly against the sun. With great relief, I realized it was James. I tied the life jacket around my shoulder and swam in the direction of the sun, taking short rest stops to float on the jacket trailing behind me. I don’t know how long it took me to get to him, but it felt like hours. When I finally reached the buffet, I attempted to speak through a parched mouth.
“Please, James... Please don’t ever leave me alone here. We almost lost each other!”
Only bits of the sentence came out. I was mostly mumbling. Using the remains of the fabric, I tied myself to the buffet. An entire day passed, and I constantly talked with James, trying to keep his spirits up and inform him of any changes. My only goal was to get him ashore. I no longer cared for my own life.
Exhaustion ate at me, my mouth swelled with salt, and my eyes lost themselves in the identical waves surrounding me. The endless sky, the feeling of constant suspension, my mind was in a state of hypnosis and I blacked out more frequently. We floated between the heavens above and the hell below, lost souls unable to find peace.
I think it was midafternoon the following day when I hallucinated a boat approaching. I felt myself being pulled from the water, but I was sure it was only the waves toying with me. I heard myself yelling not to forget James but didn’t know who I was talking to. Only when I hit the deck of the ship did I realize we’d been rescued.
Our savior was the private yacht Gloria, belonging to the Hooligan Navy, who patrolled the Atlantic coast’s waters for possible U-boat and survivor sightings. The crew realized James was dead after he was pulled on board. I didn’t listen to them and kept repeating that they must put us in the same cabin. They didn’t argue, and, in several hours, we docked in the Savannah port.
I was rushed to the hospital but aside from complete exhaustion, dehydration, and an intense sunburn on my face, I was okay. I soon learned that only fifteen crewmen from the Gettysburg aside from my- self survived the U-boat attack. They were saved by the U.S. Navy’s George Washington and were in Charleston.
The guilt I felt for James and the crew’s deaths was devastating, and this time I did not have James to punch it out of me. It set in firmly, plastered into my chest. What right did I have to live? A deep depression overtook me, and I was transferred to the psych ward.
My days felt pointless. I wasted them away drawing pictures of the U-boat and its goddamn commander who had pointed his gun at me only to do worse and murder James. The detailed graphic drawings that I left blanketing the floor around my bed got the nurses’ attention, the doctors’, and for some odd reason, Navy Intelligence.
My doctor notified me that Lieutenant Commander Kramer from the U.S. Navy had requested to visit me, hear my story, and ask me some questions. I obliged and, the following day, a tall thin man with a crooked nose and a forehead that hung heavy with the type of lines carved by stresses that far surpassed any ordinary man, stepped into my room.
He patiently sat on the edge of my bed while I told him the detailed play-by-play of what had happened to me, James, and the Gettysburg. He took notes and carefully studied my drawings. When I finished, he said that he had never heard of a German captain shooting survivors in the ocean. If he hadn’t talked with the crew of the Gloria, he simply would not have believed that what I was telling him had actually happened.
He pulled out many photographs of U-boat captains and asked me to identify James’s murderer, but I failed to. All I could remember was his icy, lifeless stare.
Disappointed, Lt. Commander Kramer returned to my drawings. “These are inaccurate, you know. U-boats of this type have only one periscope, not two.”
I closed my eyes to inspect the image in my head.
“The sun was in my eyes that day and the captain was on the top of the conning tower, so I couldn’t see him clearly, but I remember that damned steel shark. My drawings are accurate.”
For a second, annoyance flashed on his face. I did not care if he believed me or not. He thanked me for my time and left.
Two days later, he returned with another officer and a navy psychologist; they wanted to test my memory. Now I was the one irritated; first, they didn’t believe me and now they considered me insane?
By the day’s end, I had passed all tests and was wished a speedy recovery by the three men. Before Lt. Commander Kramer left, he gave me his contact information in case I remembered anything else. He added that if I ever wanted to enlist with the navy, he would find me a position at the Norfolk base in Virginia, where he was stationed.
Only later did I find out why my account had caused such a commotion. I was the first to report witnessing the new VIIC 41 U-boat, the first model equipped with two periscopes. It was later confirmed by the French Resistance agents who saw the new VIIC 41 leaving the Saint-Nazaire base in France for Atlantic patrol.
After leaving the hospital, I tried to snap myself out of my new reality and back into the life that had not been taken from me. Figuring I would start where things had ended, I traveled to Charleston to see my remaining crewmembers from the Gettysburg.
My nerves got the best of me as I geared up for their anger and blame for failing to spot that second torpedo. Instead, they rejoiced at my arrival.
Thomas, our second mate, pulled me into a firm embrace, “Johnny! I can’t believe you’re here! We were sure you had died.”
“I felt like I had died myself,” I replied. The joy I felt made me realize I would be able to keep on living. Everyone thought highly of my actions and were shocked by the circumstances of James’s tragic death. I wanted to know what had happened to the rest of our crew.
The men around me sobered and Clyde broke the silence to speak. “After the second torpedo hit, we all panicked, but Captain Johnson, God rest his soul, remained so damn calm directing rescue efforts amidst the firestorm coming from our gunners that all of us fell into line. Immediately, we began lowering lifeboats and, for a moment, we thought we’d be okay.” Clyde wiped his face but continued talking. “And then the entire starboard exploded and the Gettysburg quickly sank, taking the lives of the captain, thirty-seven crewmen and twenty armed guards.
“Two lifeboats made it to the water and most of us dove over-board, but not Ensign John Arnold.” Victor grimly took over the tragedy, “Burning oil sprayed his face and neck, but he continued to direct the gun crew to keep shooting until they too had to dive overboard. He’s going to receive the Navy Cross for his heroism.”
“Fifteen of us had made it to the lifeboats.... We didn’t see you, Johnny, and we didn’t see James. We floated through sunrise and much of the next day. Down to our last flare gun, it miraculously signaled the SS George Washington.”
What a tragedy. We were grown men, but we wept like children. That night, we saluted our crew and Captain Johnson, true heroes taken by the sea.
With a heart full of dread, I visited James’s family in Boston. I felt deep guilt that I was there instead of their son but James’s parents hugged me and gave me his stone cross. I wear it to this day—it is my most precious possession.
With Lt. Commander Kramer’s help, I joined Navy Intelligence, mastered German language courses, and quickly rose in the ranks. After D-Day, I was transferred to Army Intelligence and stationed in France throughout the war’s end. For that, I thank God each day because in Paris I met my wife, Helga.
After World War II, I was convinced people wouldn’t let such atrocity happen again. Still, as I watched wars unfold in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Somalia, Iraq, and Sudan, I realized how susceptible we are to violence. When our inner values and beliefs are manipulated by power-hungry leaders, we too become victims of war.
This madness must stop within each family first and as I have heard it said, it is better to have ten years of negotiations than to have one day of war.
This memoir is dedicated to the bravery of the 9,300 merchant seamen who died in the Atlantic Ocean, maintaining the U.S. economy and supplying a lifeline to the Red Army with weapons, ammunition, and food rations. Survivors returned to a nation that denied them veteran status and any benefits of the G.I. Bill for four decades, the majority of their remaining lives.
—Lieutenant John R. Venu, USN, 1995
Anna sat staring at her cell phone, her grandfather’s photograph stared back at her; his eyes focused with the keen intellect that helped him survive the war. Though she’d read his memoir before, this was the first time that its greater meaning—and its impact on her family—finally hit her. Anna’s mind began stretching back to the beginning, which started with the end of her grandmother’s life.