This is the story of a German submarine torpedoing the tanker Pan Massachusetts during the second World War, 18 miles from shore at St. Augustine, Florida, on February 19, 1942. A Jacksonville newspaper described it as "the most dramatic ship-sinking of the War."
The ship, commonly known at "The Pan Mass" to mariners of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coasts, was blown apart by two torpedoes, while loaded with over 100,000 barrels of gasoline, kerosene and diesel fuel. It went down in a lake of fire.
Twenty of the crew of 38 perished in the inferno aboard ship or attempting to escape the flaming cargo that spread out over the water. Eighteen others, including the writer, miraculously escaped by diving or jumping off the ship - some without life preservers - making their way past the fire on the water, then swimming in a cold, rough, wind-and rain-swept sea until rescued.
December 3, 1941, to late February 1942 were the first few perilous weeks of the second World War, when our merchant ships were obliged to travel our coastal routes unarmed and unescorted. Enemy V-boats lie in wait much of the way; it was a time that came to be described as "the Atlantic coast massacre" and Suicide Alley.
The ship was the first to be sunk by enemy action so near shore during daylight hours; the first to be attacked south of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina - marking the extension of the V-boat menace southward - and the 31st of more than 270 cargo ships that would be sunk in our Atlantic coastal waters before the War's end.
Torpedoes from the German V-boat transformed the ship into a roaring inferno, the surrounding sea into a lake of fire. Six of us were trapped far below in the engine room by flame and smoke. Three perished; three escaped.
We made it to the fantail, encircled by a flaming sea littered with dead and dying men. It was every man for himself. The ship was believed to be going down. By a lucky turn of fate, it became possible to dive off and make it past the flames on the water. Then came the hours of struggle in the cold, rough sea without a life preserver. Finally, rescue came at sundown. We were rescued by the crew of a British freighter and put ashore at Jacksonville, Florida, the following day. Ten of us were hospitalized.
As I checked out of the hospital one week after admittance, the only one of us remaining there, George Fox, was on the critical list and under heavy sedation. Two days later came a happy reunion with my beloved wife and daughter. One day in 1947, I again encountered George Fox, in a surprise meeting on a ship in the Houston Turn Basin.
By Joel. Wright submitted by Inez Wright
Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.