ONE night, while dining at the Harvard Club with Captain Custance R.N.R., who in times of peace commanded the famous Arcadian, I happened to notice that the silver identification tag which he wears, welded to a thin chain on his wrist, had turned bottom-side-up. Now, for the last year, I have seen a great deal of Custance, and though he had told me that this identification tag was made out of the lace of an old admiral’s coat, I never knew, until I saw it printed on the reverse side, that the British Admiralty had given Custance that tag ‘For Valor.’
Custance and I have been friends for years. I am closer to him than any man in the United States; yet he was very much embarrassed that I should have found out in his presence about that tag. The yarns about him which have already appeared in the Atlantic (the reason for his getting the D.S.O.) seem to be but part of the story. With the help of another seaman, I gave the little man an uncomfortable time of it, as we lounged in the living-room of the Harvard Club of New York, a fit setting for tales of valor. The other seaman knew the story and told it, while Custance kept saying, ‘Others have done so much more, it is not worth talking about.’
The Mingary was coming off patrol (this happened before the Warspite incident already related). The month was December. Custance picked up a wireless to the effect that, on another patrol route, a collier, the armed patrol yacht, and a trawler, were being attacked by two U-boats and were sinking. This all occurred up around the Shetland Islands. Custance at once put on full speed for the seat of action, which was some distance away. On the way he passed a trawler, which told him she had been going to the rescue, but two immense U-boats on the surface had stood in her way and she had had to turn about. Now, the Mingary was not very heavily armed, and a submarine could readily have destroyed her with its longer-range guns; but Custance kept on, for he knew that there were men floundering in the wintry sea as they clung to wreckage. The little trawler about-faced and went on, with Custance just abreast.
Ten miles farther on, Custance came upon the two big Germans on the surface. He drove his tiny yacht at one of the beasts and his flotilla of two put up a wonderful show of fight. The Germans, not knowing what was coming, submerged and cleared out, and Custance passed on to pick up from the sea twenty-six survivors of a collier, armed yacht, and trawler. That is all of that story of sheer nerve.
One of the men picked up out of the sea was an officer of the armed yacht, who, like Custance himself, in times of peace was a merchant-ship officer. I am told that, like Custance, that officer had attacked the submarines in trying to save the collier. Six months later, Custance met him in Southampton and asked him what he was doing. ‘Oh,’ he replied, ‘after they let me out of the hospital, I went mine-sweeping.’ And Custance says, ‘Why distinguish what I’ve done from the rest? I’ve but done my duty.’
Very true, yet the knowledge of these tales makes the world a better place to live in, and bucks up Americans to equal the daring of these modest men of the sea who but do their duty.
I have just received a letter from a neutral port, telling me what a chap named Rathkens did; and I can do no better than set down the copy of the letter. It is from a merchant-ship officer who has done work in this war with the same stout heart that Rathkens showed at the sinking of the French hospital ship Salta.
As you know, I was for ten months on a hospital ship, making several trips a week across the Channel. The Salta was making Havre, as we were, with us about three minutes ahead of her. According to instructions we came straight in through the opening, but the Salta, for some reason or other, tried to cut in at an angle. We had just dropped our hook inside when the hospital major called my attention to the Salta and to the constant screeching of the whistles of the trawlers outside. I took one look and my hair stood on end. My God, I thought, he’ll be in it in a minute! Her skipper got wise too late. (Of course I won’t give you details of the layout.) He tried to back her, but he was coming down before a wallowing sea and a heavy blow. As her wheels churned up the foam underneath her counter, instead of backing straight back and out of danger, the sea caught her on the quarter and swung her around. The major and I stood like pillars of salt as we watched her. Yes — she got it — good and plenty. I’ve seen many ships torpedoed and mined, but never so much smoke and such a volcano of water as when the Salta struck the edge of that mine-field. Jehosaphat, to use your American slang, it was hell! There before our eyes we saw the Salta go right down — pushed below the surface of the sea as you would collapse a tin drinkingcup. In about five minutes not even her masts were showing. We were powerless to act. About a hundred and seventy were drowned on her, including her skipper, who went down on her bridge, yet was n’t drowned but choked to death by his false teeth.
Rathkens, as you may recollect, was a second officer on the West Indian mailships, and after the war started, he was stationed at Bermuda for a year or so as boarding officer. On being relieved, he was given an old torpedo-boat—the P-32, as I recollect it. When the Salta struck, Rathkens pushed the P-32 right plumb up against her. It was a fearful risk for him to enter that mine area, but evidently he thought he could go at least as far as the Salta had. I bet you he never thought anything at all — simply acted. He was alongside her in two shakes — took off forty-eight from the Salta, mostly nursing-sisters; and then, not to be carried down by the Salta, had to back away.
You can imagine my sensations, standing there on the bridge. Of course I did n’t know till later that it was Rathkens who had the P-32; but considering what she was, I felt, that some merchant-ship man was showing the men of the world the gumption in a merchant-ship man.
Well, Rathkens backed away, but he got it — got it like the Salta had. Struck him amidships, and the P-32 broke in two. The after-section sank immediately, carrying down the forty-eight who had been taken off the Salta. Glad to say that Rathkens himself was saved.
There is a captain I know of, by the name of Willetts, who in this war has had more ships go down under him than any man I know, and yet still has his nerve with him, and goes to sea as soon as ever his company will appoint him to another ship. Until the Moewe bagged the Radnorshire, Willetts navigated the war-zone — had his days and nights of strain, and the experiences that other merchantmen have. After enjoying a spell on the Moewe, with other prisoners of war, he was set ashore in Brazil, and at once sailed for England on the big Drina. Off the coast of Wales she was torpedoed and went down, the engine-room force on duty at the time dying at their posts. Willetts was saved and his dander was up. So they put him on a transport — the Arcadian, well known to us Americans. As he was without proper convoy, a submarine banged him. The loss of life was nearly two hundred and fifty; and though Willetts was on the bridge, keeping up the tradition of the sea, as she went under, he nevertheless was rescued after being in the water many hours.
Returning to England, he took command of the big Demarra, a ship famous for having been the first merchant vessel to punish a submarine for attacking her without warning. Of course, ever since she has been a marked ship. Under convoy, Willetts took her from Liverpool, round through the English Channel to La Pallice, and just as he was making port, a submarine got him. In spite of the fact that she was sinking under him, Willetts got her to the beach, patched her up, and brought her back to Liverpool through the danger zone again.
Last December there was a ship torpedoed, and until the British Admiralty announce it, I do not feel free to give her name. She was saved, and saved by the pluck of a British Naval Reserve captain, famous in the American passenger-carrying trade. The ship was the flagship of the convoy and had just turned over eleven American freighters to their country’s destroyers, and was swinging over to lead the remainder to England, when she got it.
It was a wild sea, and even if the boats could have been got overboard safely, they would have had difficulty in living. Nothing was seen of the submarine. Nobody even saw the wake of the torpedo. The explosion took all hands unawares. As the hatch had been battened down and made watertight, the effect of the explosion was terrific. It struck in number 5 hold, abaft the engine-room, and the gases simply blew things to smithereens. The hole made in the side of the ship was 17 feet by 34. It was mighty fortunate that the hatch-covering blew off, for the result was that the damage was all confined to number 5 hold, which was loaded with oil and Quaker Oats.
Fortunately, not a soul was in that section of the ship; so nobody was hurt. Other ships nearby took on a new form of camouflage, for they were pasted with a mixture of crude oil and cereal.
It was four o’clock in the afternoon when the pirate shot his bolt, and from then on till she limped into port — seventy miles distant — early next morning, the big ship gradually settled lower and lower, until finally it became a case of touch and go as to whether or not she would reach the beach. As it was, there was only two feet freeboard at the stern when she touched the shore, and she had limped the entire distance with her funnel-shaft full of water and her engineers, momentarily during the long hours, expecting that the sea would seep in and put the fires out, or that the bulkhead separating them from number 5 hold would give way and drown them like rats in a cage, as many an engine-room force has been drowmed since the Huns began their piratical warfare. Do not forget that these men are merchant-ship men. Think of the stick-to-itiveness of the beggars!
And the little man on the bridge, — the little man who has safely ferried so many of us Americans about the world, — think of the strain on him, realizing everything and injecting his personality into the souls of his assistants on the bridge or in the stoke-hold, so that they would hang on! He had a Chinese crew, and as soon as the vessel was ‘strafed,’ they panicked, stripped off every stitch of clothing they had, and piled into the lifeboats; and though the boats were not lowered, the Chinks sat there in their birthday suits, their teeth chattering in harmony with the surging sea, which was licking its chops at the prospect of a good-sized meal, Yes, tragic — but humorous, which frequently saves us from tragedy.
Although other skippers have recently told me that credit for saving the ship was entirely due to one man, yet that man saw to it that the Admiralty gave the credit to the officers and men under him.
And even if the Huns are escaped, the life of a merchant-ship man in these days is far removed from beer and skittles. An example of what they have to go through is furnished by the narrow squeak the Empress of Britain and the Cardiganshire had one night in the Ægean Sea. Both are big ships, and they were loaded with troops and going at full speed, — zigzaging, — not a light showing. It was one of those nights when you can hardly see your hand before you. There were no stars, no phosphorous, — nothing, — nothing but to trust to luck and the ears of the man on the bridge.
The captain of one of the ships has told me that, before he knew it, there was a ship, bow on to him, dead ahead. Of course, the first impulse was to shift his helm; but if he did so, the danger would be of one ship giving the other a glancing blow. Fortunately, the other skipper appreciated this, also. Their nerve, in spite of several years of war zone work, was still equal to the occasion. It all happened in the twinkling of an eye, and they passed safely though there had been less than fifty feet separating the ships, and their out-swung lifeboats nearly scraped. The captain of the Cardiganshire, though he could not see him, heard the captain of the Empress of Britain, above the noises of the sea — heard him yell, ‘For God’s sake, old man, don’t shift your helm!’ so close were they on their respective bridges high above the sea.
Instances of this kind, which try men’s souls, nightly occur, and quite frequently there are collisions and tragedies in the pitch-dark. The only way that the two ships identified themselves was ten days later, at Saloniki, when the captain of the Cardiganshire heard the skipper of the Empress of Britain asking a friend if he knew what ship he nearly bumped on a certain night. I am sorry to report that the captain of the Empress of Britain lost his life in the Halifax explosion, while doing hospital work.
But the story of the unlucky Sundays of the Cephalonia takes the palm for varieties of valor.
Of course, Cephalonia is not the ship’s name, as military expediency requires me to protect her, and, until she appeared here in July, 1917, with the shell-holes in her sides temporarily covered by patches as if they were her croix de guerre, I had not seen the vessel since the Admiralty commandeered her at the beginning of the war. She’s a queer-looking craft, with four stumpy masts and stocky funnel all planted perpendicularly rather than at a sheer, to make her look more like a lady and less like a washerwoman. She has forty-two derricks and twenty-nine winches, and a stern which no ship afloat can equal in ugliness. Beauty is certainly not her long suit, yet her vast holds have meant more to the Allies the past few years than scores of graceful Mauretanias.
Captain Weller, — not his name, of course, — Sammy, as I call him, has been in command of her during her war work. Sammy is a little runt of a man, whose rule of life seems to have been that to be simple and natural and kind is to find the real music of the living life. His face has an expression of perpetual alertness, and there is a funny little twist to his head when he listens, something like a curious puppy. He is a most companionab e man, always wanting to do something for you, and possessed of a devotion to his wife and kiddies which is equaled in magnitude only by his desire to punish Germany for the cruel things the U-boats have done to human beings.
Last July he told me how for six months a hoodoo had hung over the Cephalonia; but the details of his own part during the fires and the U-boat attacks I had to get from his junior officers or from Fong, his Chinese servant. We were yarning away in his cabin, like the old pals we were, when the sudden whirr of a winch just outside brought Sammy to his feet with a jump, and he peered through a port to see what was up. Satisfied that it was but the work of the ship, he sat down again, with a whimsical smile. Finally he blew a cloud of smoke which merged with the fog of fumes already in the cabin, and began speaking, almost as if to himself, and the angle of his thoughts was most mystifying, for he said, —
‘When death comes in dark places there is a certain congruity about it. But when the days are all gold, the sun alight in the heavens, nature showing her beauty, and gladness is in our hearts — to see death come quickly before one’s eyes, surely that is the most incongruous thing in the world. That winch out there has been my nemesis these many months. It killed a man before my eyes one Sunday. Sunday! Everything happened on a Sunday: this last voyage to Vladivostock, even the submarine, and that was on Easter at that!’
The voyage began at London one Sunday in October, 1916, Sammy told me. The Cephalonia was deeply loaded with shells, and her chill-rooms were filled with T.N.T. for the Italian army. She had been ready to go to sea since Thursday, when she was warped out of the Albert Dock; and it had chafed all hands to swing idly round a hook in midstream less than a quarter of a mile off shore, with tiny cottages arrayed before their eyes, bringing thoughts of home. Sammy said it was damnable, especially at night, for he could not display a riding-light, and he did not know but what any minute a destroyer or some blighter of a tug would come crashing into him, and the Cephalonia would vanish from human sight, as the Mont Blanc did at Halifax, and wipe out of existence all those pretty little cottages, where by day he saw kiddies in bright pinafores playing, as he knew his kiddies were playing at home in Southampton.
It was Sunday morning when Admiralty orders came to up hook and join a convoy outward bound. The Cephalonia was well in the midst of the convoy proceeding down the Thames, and had just passed beyond the submarine net, when a thin pencil of smoke was seen to rise from the corner of number 1 hatch. It happened to catch the third officer’s eye first, and he called Sammy’s attention to it. In a minute another pencil came, and then another, and another.
In two shakes Sammy had sounded four blasts on the siren, and a flag fluttered from the yard-arm, which caused all other ships to give him a wide berth, as the propeller of the Cephalonia churned up the sea in her frantic effort to back and turn as if to return to London. A ship on fire should return to port, but Sammy, with a cargo of T.N.T. was n’t the kind of a skipper to risk blowing cottages and kiddies into the next world in an effort to save his own skin. No he turned the Cephalonia till her stern was head to the breeze, and slowly kept her backing seaward to restrain the fire, if possible, from spreading aft to his chambers of T.N.T.; backed her away from port and other ships, so that, if she did blow up, the military loss would be confined to the Cephalonia alone. And all the while he was wondering what moment a U-boat would pop up and send a torpedo into him, or he would strike a drifting mine.
It was only about three hours before the fire was out, and the Cephalonia could in safety put back to port. But those three hours at the beginning of a voyage — sure to be telling on any skipper’s nerve, even in times of peace — were a hell which I fail to find words to express. The repairs took only a matter of a day or so, and the Cephalonia made another start for the open sea. But during her delay Fritz’s ‘tin fishes’ had got busy again, and off the Goodwin Sands she was forced to anchor till another Sunday came round and the Admiralty thought it safe to proceed.
No sooner was the hook up from the mud and a white bone of action beginning to show at the Cephalonia’s prow, than a fog descended on her and the scores of ships in her vicinity. To blow the whistle would attract Fritz; not to blow meant possible collision; and to anchor meant a good chance of being rammed and of both ships going to Kingdom-come, as the Cephalonia exploded. Realizing that the God of Chance frequently favored the nervy, Sammy silently drove on at full speed. Really he had to do it, for a big P. & O. mail-ship was just astern of him, loaded with women and children, and a collision with her would be the worst of tragedies.
As suddenly as it fell, the fog lifted, and as it did so, just half a mile off to port, a tower of water shot up over the big Maine of the Atlantic Transport Line. The Cephalonia shook from stem to stern, and Sammy said he prayed to God that his cans of T.N.T. would behave themselves, as he turned the Cephalonia’s nose for shallow water where a U-boat could not operate. A little Danish ship went to the rescue of the sinking Maine, as the Admiralty records will show. But the tenderhearted Dane never got there. The Hun banged her, and she disappeared from sight in exactly two minutes.
Sammy saw red then. It was the first time during the war that he really admitted having murder in his heart; but, until the Admiralty decided that it was safe to proceed, the Cephalonia hung round at anchor in shallow water.
He was hugging the Spanish shore, making in for Gibraltar, when he came across a lifeboat. Being in neutral as well as shallow water, he risked a visit from Fritz by stopping the Cephalonia and rescuing the boat-load, who turned out to be all that were left of the crew of a Q-boat. And the story of those Q-boat men I believe I can best tell by quoting from a letter I received about nine months after Sammy told me his experience. The letter is not from Sammy, but from another one of my commanders.
I know you have heard about them and probably saw some of them as you came through the danger zone; and I feel sure I am doing no wrong in writing about them. We ’ve had a type of boat — war boat — known as the ‘Q’ type. They look like old crooks, and go out looking for Fritz with a vengeance. And they’ve got a lot of Fritzies, for the work they did is this. Fritz would show himself and shell them, and then the merchant crew would abandon the Q-boat and row away. Fritz would close up. Then the Q-boat would drop her fake topsides and have a go at him. You see, the point was to get Fritz close in by making him think the Q-boat had been abandoned. Well, Fritz got on to it after a bit, and the German Admiralty warned the Naval Reserve men who man the Q-boats, as to just what would happen. So a man going out in a Q-boat took his life in his hands.
Some time ago, when entering port, I met one of your old friends, now a lieutenantcommander in the Reserve, and he told me the cheerful news that Fritz had bagged four Q-boats that week and done what he said he’d do. Judas! Can you imagine this in a civilized (?) day, to lash men to the rail of a submarine, pour paraffine over them, and set them on fire? No — neither could I. But that is what Fritz did to all the Q-boat crews, with the exception of one boat-load whom he made stand by while he did it, and then sent them into port to tell their story. Of course the object is, by terrorism, to do away with the Q-boats; but, bless my soul! the more of such stuff Fritz does, the more men of England there are to volunteer for Q-boats. Yes, Fritz lashed the crews of the Q-boats to the railing of his submarine — oiled them well — lighted them, and to make sure they’d burn steamed around in a circle, — steamed around the Lifeboatload of men he sent into port to tell the tale. Since Ernest told me the tale, I’ve heard it in many quarters, and it’s true — true as I’m a living being. Everybody knows about the Belgian Prince and the Westminster, and I feel the world should know of this.
Sammy, on that peaceful Sabbath off the coast of Spain, did not see the actual offering that the Germans burned to their pagan God of War. He was spared that horrible experience, thank God!
It was a British Naval captain who told me a story which has come out in the British press, of a chap — a junior officer on an Atlantic liner in peacetimes — who acted like the famous Spartan youth with the fox. All hands were lying flat on deck as the German ‘ sub ’ began shelling the Q-boat. A shot passed into the latter’s hold, and set her on fire. The merchant-ship officer was lying flat on top of the hatch, above the fire. If he got off, it would give the Q-boat game away to the submarine; so the man lay there as the smoke came up around him, knowing full well that there was ammunition in the hold, that there would be an explosion, and that his chances of living were very slim. The explosion came; but, as luck would have it, the man on top of the hatch was not killed, simply horribly mutilated, especially in the face.
The day he got out of the hospital he was ordered to report, just as he was, at the Admiralty in London. He had on an oil-skin coat and looked much the worse for wear. It was a Sunday, and the Admiralty at once dispatched him, in spite of his protests, to Sandringham, where the King’s carriage met him at the station and took him to His Majesty. And, wearing an oil-skin coat, he received the Victoria Cross from George V, after which the King and Queen showed themselves the democrats they are by treating the embarrassed merchant officer as human beings in ordinary life treat each other. And not only that, but His Majesty refused to let him return to London that night, and lent him a pair of his pyjamas.
Until after he got rid of that blessed cargo of T.N.T. at Genoa; had reached Alexandria, with three Sundays passing and nothing happening outside the ordinary humdrum of ship life; had nosed through the Suez Canal, and was well on his way down the Red Sea toward Aden, Sammy said he did n’t draw a free breath or appreciate that God was still in his heaven.
It was on Sunday, while he was preparing to sail from Colombo for Hong Kong, that the big Warwickshire passed him, her decks lined with passengers. Half an hour later she had struck a mine laid by a Swede the night before.
And the following Sunday, as the Cephalonia was making Hong Kong and the chief was getting his gear ready to work cargo in the morning, the intermittent whirring of the winch outside his cabin door attracted Sammy’s attention. He had just dressed himself in a clean set of ‘whites,’ to meet the boarding officials. As the winch continued its song in a manner not quite in accordance with the usual tune of a well-oiled winch, Sammy stepped out on deck to satisfy his curiosity. As he did so, he felt a drop of what he supposed to be rain strike him in the face, and then another and another. He thought it kind of queer, for there was not a cloud in the sky. Suddenly he noticed that his ‘whites’ were covered with red spots. His foot struck something. He saw it was a heart, and looking at the winch — well, Sammy said he simply stepped over to it and shut it off.
Some nerve, believe me; for it was what he saw on the drum of that winch which had made him say to me at the beginning of this story, that ‘to see death come quickly before one’s eyes, surely that is the most incongruous thing in the world.’
Before his eyes a poor blighter of a coolie had gone to his happy hunting-ground, while the sun was alight in the heavens and nature showing her beauty in the dazzling spray, always moving, always catching the sunbeams and dazzling everything with color.
From Hong Kong the Cephalonia went to Shanghai, and then on to Yokohama and up to Vladivostock; and Sundays — four — came and went peacefully. The only incident out of the ordinary was, that at Vladivostock Sammy had to dig deep into the ship’s chest for the wherewithal to buy trousers for his Lascars, as Vladivostock was cold as Greenland. And when I think of what he told me about Vladivostock and what has happened in Russia since, I can well understand why the Japanese and British have landed troops there. For Vladivostock, as far back as January, 1917, was a veritable gold mine of war-supplies. The clocks and warehouses were bulging with them, and for miles back of the town were mountains of goods, ever increasing in number and height as ship after ship unloaded. And for Germany to bring her diabolical efficiency to the management of the Trans-Siberian Railroad and get that war-material, would be a world-calamity indeed.
From Vladivostock the Cephalonia dropped south to Manila, and two months of Sundays had passed with nothing happening except the worry in the hearts of her crew that something would. And when the Sunday came that that something did happen, it cost the lives of two men — her carpenter and the mate of the hold, who bunked together.
Sammy was in his cabin, putting his soul in the letter to his missus that he hoped to get off from Colombo by the homeward-bound mail-ship, when the chief officer reported that the chief steward had gone down to the chillroom and had not come up again. Now, Sammy had been having trouble with ammonia fumes in that chill-room, and he and the chief officer looked at each other blankly for a moment and then their eyes involuntarily turned to the calendar on the wall. ‘Sunday, March 11, 1917,’ branded itself on their souls. With the shrug of the shoulders which is typical of an Englishman when he is about to perform an unpleasant duty which might cost him life itself, Sammy rose and followed the chief out on deck and along to number 5 hatch.
Matters had gone from bad to worse, for not only the carpenter and the mate of the hold, but the chief engineer, had gone after the chief steward, and none of them had returned. Sammy’s first order was to whip off the hatch-cover. A mist of ammonia fumes drove all hands away from the edge. A derrick was speedily swung over the opening, and, planting himself in a bo’s’n’s chair, Sammy was lowered into the bowels of his ship. There were any number of volunteers to go in his place; but the little man preferred to take all the risk himself. As they lowered him, the ammonia fumes were blinding, and before his feet touched bottom he was in agony. Yet he groped along toward the entrance to the chill-room, till he stumbled over a body. Grabbing it, he signaled to the men above to hoist away, and soon appeared with the chief engineer, whose life he had saved by about two minutes. Two trips more Sammy made into the depths; but he brought up only dead bodies, as the carpenter and mate of the hold had succumbed. And still there was the chief steward to be accounted for.
Realizing that the man must be in the chill-room itself, on his next trip Sammy swung himself clear of the bo’s’n’s chair, and on his stomach, his nose to the floor where the fumes were less pungent, he wormed his way into the room, and in the slinging darkness of that icy chamber felt about for the steward. Each second must have been torture to him, wondering, if he wandered at all in the intensity of the situation, whether the next second would find him still alive. Yet the next did, and, with the indomitable courage of the Anglo-Saxon which German terrorism cannot quell, Sammy fought on till he had got his man and dragged him to the outer hold, where somehow he tied a rope round him, and then lost consciousness himself as the limp body of the chief steward was hoisted upwards.
It was Lancaster, the second officer, who rescued Sammy himself; and as Fong, his Chinese boy, told me, exactly one hour later Sammy was at his desk again, writing his missus as if nothing had happened to mar the gloriousness of a Sabbath at sea. There’s the Englishman for you! Now, if Sammy had worn the uniform of the Navy, no doubt he would have been gazetted and have got the V.C. But being only a simple merchant-skipper, who had done nothing more than transport troops overseas and dodge submarines in order that England should not starve, his risking his life as he did in number 5 hold was not glorious enough to be publicly recorded.
After leaving Colombo, the secret orders that Sammy opened once he was outside, lengthened his voyage home by sending him to Durban, Natal, for coal, and round the Cape of Good Hope rather than via Suez. And on Easter Sunday, 1917, in the English Channel, the Cephalonia had one of those fights with a submarine which only a merchant skipper on a poorly armed ship seems to know how to carry on. It was a two-hour fight, and, heavily laden with foodstuffs as the Cephalonia was, it was a case of touch and go with her, as she had only one gun aft and that but a 4.7, which was outranged by the gun on the U-boat. Furthermore, there was no naval crew on board except two youthful gunners who had to depend on the orders of a merchant-ship chief officer and the untrained assistance of the other officers.
The Cephalonia was in the Chops of the Channel, and all hands expected that, ere the sun had set on Easter, they would be safely tied to a dock, and that some of them would get a chance of going to church with their wives that evening.
It was Lancaster, leaning over the starboard side of the bridge-rail and scanning the white-capped sea, who first spotted Fritz’s periscope; and it was Sammy who had the Cephalonia turning toward that stovepipe inside of twenty-five seconds. If Fritz had had but another two minutes, the Cephalonia would have been abreast of him and he would have got her. As it was, he had to come to the surface to save himself from being rammed.
And then the fun began in earnest. The U-boat encircled Sammy, trying to get in a position to launch a torpedo, at the same time firing solid shells into the ship. But with every fibre in his body alert, every corpuscle in his veins fighting mad, Sammy kept swinging the sluggish Cephalonia about, so that her bow was always pointed toward his enemy; and he took the shelling until Fritz had got himself into a position where Sammy could safely swing around and give his gun-crew a chance to go into action. And zigzaging over the sea sparkling in the glory of the morning sun, running the risk of being cornered by a second or third U-boat, the Cephalonia put up such a fight that her antagonist was forced to get out of range of the 4.7 on her stern.
Yet Fritz could still reach her with his shots, which tore gaping wounds in her steel sides. Sammy took his punishment, and as his fire became less, the U-boat got more daring and ventured closer, only to be driven out of range again. As Sammy said, with a laugh, that gun crew of his were ‘damned poor marksmen.’ They should have sunk the blighter, and no doubt would have, if anybody had had brains enough to give merchant-ship crews a little gun instruction.
Finding that he could not get near the Cephalonia or stop her with solid shells, Fritz began to give an exhibition of Kultur by peppering her with shrapnel. It fell about her like hail, embedding itself in her decks, puncturing ventilators, tearing awnings into ribbons; and a piece lodged in Sammy’s leg. He was the only one hit on the ship, and though he stood there on the bridge, with a pool of blood about him, the little man sent his ship this way and that for half an hour, until the Hun gave it up and made off after a tanker which had appeared on the horizon — a victim that he got, for Sammy heard the bang and saw the tower of water shoot up over her.
And this is all that happened to the Cephalonia. She made port in the dusk of Easter evening, and ten days later, although he limped badly, Sammy took her to sea again for another voyage to Genoa with T.N.T.