This account of a merchant marine’s World War I experience was originally published in the Allentown Messenger dated December 6, 1917. It attests to the high price paid during times of war.
Warren Brown Thompson, son Mrs. Julia F. Thompson, of Imlaystown, N. J., enlisted in Uncle Sam’s Naval Service on May 1, 1917, and until July 3 was detained in and about parts of Maryland and Virginia, after which he was assigned as a gunner in a crew of thirteen on the steamer “Rochester,” which was owned by the British firm Furness-Withy Company. The young sailor’s maiden trip from Baltimore to Liverpool was made without mishap and he returned home in August on a few day’s furlough.
After this he reported to Baltimore, where, on September 1, the “Rochester,” under the command of Capt. Eric Kokeritz, with a crew of 49 men, having a cargo of cotton, corn, meat and shells, began its second trip, headed for Manchester, England.
Only a little way out from port, bunker fires were discovered and they were forced back to Newport News, where fresh coal replaced that partly damaged by fire and water. Proceeding again, similar experiences in the engine apartments caused them to land at Halifax, where other and better fuel was exchanged for that already damaged. When nearing Manchester the ship’s magazine was found to be flooded. This, with the fires in the bunker, aroused suspicion among the officers, who on landing promptly turned one of the crew having Teuton appearance over to the British authorities, who interned the man for investigation.
The stops made at the above two mentioned places were each of about two weeks’ duration, and this with time needed for sailing caused Manchester to be reached about the middle of October, when the cargo was safely landed.
The route to the port was around southern Ireland, through St. George’s Channel, Irish Sea, around Isle of Anglesey, into the Mersey river and canal to the city of cotton mills. At this place they remained until the last of the month of October and prepared to return, taking only ballast enough to insure the safety of the boat during any rough seas they might encounter by the northerly passage home.
Starting on the return trip, they steamed up the Irish Sea between Ireland and the Isle of Man, through the North Channel into the Firth of Clyde, stopping at points near the coast of Scotland, where a convoy of about 15 ships accompanied them through the remainder of the North Channel, around northern Ireland into the Atlantic.
Early one Friday morning, November 2, the convoy, thinking the danger zone passed, allowed the “Rochester” to proceed alone. From the time the convoys left until 4:40 o’clock on the afternoon of the same day the usual routine of work was followed on board the “Rochester.”
Mr. Thompson had completed his watch at the forward gun at 4 o’clock and had gone to the mess room and prepared for his rations. Sitting at the table waiting for this meal (which quickly realized from the terrible noise and jar that a torpedo from a German submarine had caused the commotion that killed outright two men – the third assistant engineer and an oiler, both in the engine room.
At the time of the accident the bearings were 56 degrees North Latitude and 18 degrees West Longitude. When the true situation became known, the captain’s “All-hands-to-life- boats” command was very promptly obeyed. There were three about 25 feet long to be lowered – one of them was blown into fragments.
During this time several of the sailors rushed below for heavy coats which they knew would be a necessity. Finally all alive on board succeeded in making the small boats, the hero of this article waiting until the last ones.
A little way out from the sinking “Rochester” the three lifeboats in calm waters balanced up their numbers and Mr. Thompson was transferred into the boat containing the captain and others with the machine handgun.
This was indeed a fortunate exchange for Warren, as that boat drifted for 18 days and only 4 men were alive out of the possible 13 that embarked. In another boat containing 13 men, 7 died. The one in which Mr. Thompson was transferred contained 22 men, who after drifting five days, where all picked up by the British patrol “Scot,” on the afternoon of November 7, and take to a hospital tug in Loch Swilly, northern Ireland.
Shortly after this they were landed at Bun Crammer, from which place they proceeded in Red Cross ambulances to the hospital at Londonderry.
It is quite difficult to give the detailed experience during the 5 days in the open boats, with abundance of sea-biscuits, but a scarcity of water. A canvas covering partly protected them from the direct fury of hail, snow, and rain, but all were dripping wet most of the time from spray and occasionally salt water. At one time only a swallow of water was allowed each for several hours. Sometimes rain was caught in the canvas and lapped out at intervals. A puppy dog owned by the captain came through alive and was not neglected at mealtime.
More than once some of the 22 men became despondent and received words from the captain that would astonish Sunday-school pupils. Hardly any of them slept as conditions were rather against slumber. The steel machine gun owing to its interference with the compass, was thrown overboard.
From Londonderry hospital Mr. Thompson went to the Sailor’s Rest of the British and Foreign Sailor’s Society and with others by rail to Dublin, thence by boat to Holyhead and train to Liverpool, where he remained until November 17, when he boarded the U. S. M. S. “St. Paul,” American Line, and got into New York on Monday, November 26, and reported at the Armed Draft Detail Barracks, Brooklyn from which office he was granted a 10 days’ furlough. He arrived home on Wednesday afternoon, November 28.
Reports claim that out of the 49 persons that were aboard the “Rochester,” 16 died from exposure, 2 killed, and 1 jumped overboard.
The gun crew saved were: 1. E. N. Macauland, chief, Somerville, Mass. 2. William Foulis, New York City 3. Stephen J. Stauvish, Plainfield, N. J. 4. Joseph P. Hoff, Mississippi 5. William Eisenhardt, New Orleans, La. 6. Thaddeus Fellows, New York City 7. Warren B. Thompson, Imlaystown, N. J.
Those lost were: 1. Ernest H. Gragg (buried in Ireland), Corpus Christi, Tex. 2. Merle R. Cox, Kansas City, Mo. 3. Marshal U. Corum, Lexington, Ky. 4. Bernard J. Donovan, Phillipsburg, N. J. 5. James Crawley, New York City 6. George F. Wheeler, Waterbury, Conn.
Those saved lost all their belonging, including considerable money in their lockers on shipboard.