This account is from “Beyond the World War II We Know,” a series from The Times that documents lesser-known stories from World War II. Seaman Second Class Joseph Shannon, an 18-year-old sailor from Greenwich, Conn., was stationed aboard the SS Robert L. Vann, a Merchant Marine transport ship, when it was hit by an underwater mine in March 1945. Records show the entire crew survived.
We had just left Belgium, where we had delivered all sorts of food and supplies, and I had managed to buy a pair of wooden shoes for my girlfriend, size 8. The return trip brought us the same way we arrived, through the Scheldt River, just south of the North Sea. The plan was to return to our home port in Brooklyn, N.Y., reload the ship and set off to our next destination.
There were about 28 sailors and dozens of merchant mariners aboard the SS Robert L. Vann. It was a routine sea voyage for transporting food, which usually took about six days. All of the sailors on board were gun crew, standing guard in case the vessel came in contact with any German E-boats, which was what the Allies called the Kriegsmarine warships. So far, we hadn’t seen any action. We were fortunate that we never had to dispatch for missions into Russia, where there was a German battleship stationed that would raid on ships carrying supplies for the Allies.
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We traveled in convoys, and each ship was armed with a 3-inch, 50-caliber gun on the bow, and a 5-inch, 38-caliber gun on the stern. Each of us had our own 20-millimeter machine gun. The merchant mariners ran the ship and provided the meals; frankly, we were ready to protect the ship in whatever way we could.
As the SS Robert L. Vann sailed up the English Channel, we would stand guard in four-hour shifts around the clock. At the time the Germans were launching buzz bombs, or V-1 flying bombs, which would nose-dive into the ground with about a ton of TNT. I had once felt the effects of a small concussion just from the sound of one of those bombs. The British were said to be tracking down about 90 percent of the buzz bombs, but they were raising hell with the Belgian population.
On March 1, while standing watch in the rear gun tub, which was surrounded by steel and was our largest piece of armament, I suddenly heard a bang on the side of the ship. I didn’t know what it was, but a second or two later, there was an explosion. I quickly got onto the main deck, where I saw a friend unleashing a life raft. It was already in the water, and we watched it float straight into the propeller, which still had a head of steam. It was a good thing we didn’t get into that raft. I knew at the time that we would have to abandon the ship. I turned to my friend, Joe, and asked, “Where do we go now?”
We ran to midship, downhill, because the ship was sinking from the center. The explosion had been as clean as a whistle, splitting the ship right in half. As water flooded in, it sounded like a waterfall, and I believe the only reason we didn’t sink faster was because they had poured cement into the ship for buoyancy.
As Joe and I were running toward the lifeboats, we saw the officer-in-charge sitting in a life raft on the deck with his suitcase. We knew he was in danger of being sucked under with the raft if the ship became submerged. When Joe and I reached the lifeboats, we called for him to jump into it. But he grabbed two ropes that were on the same side of the pulley, and went straight into the water, like a bullet. Luckily, Joe was able to yank him into our boat.
I have to give credit to the merchant mariners: They had been trained on how to get out of the ship, and when to lower a raft, and we just knew how to use our guns! It was up to them to protect us from harm. We couldn’t even find the explosion, since it took place at the bottom of the ship, which was probably 25 feet below the waterline.
I don’t know exactly how far out we were; if there was a tall building in the distance, we probably could have seen it. We were in that lifeboat for maybe five or six hours, and that was enough for us. An Army tugboat eventually pulled up with a big, bright light and rescued us. That was eerie, because we had heard rumors that German vessels would pull up along Allied ships, shine a bright light on them and then strike with machine guns. So when we first came across tugboat, we thought we’d be dead soon. Thank God it was an Allied tugboat. Once we were rescued, I finally puked! That was my gift to that situation. Our nerves were really worked up. And, of course, I wasn’t able to grab those shoes for my girlfriend from my locker on the ship.
We were transferred next to a British crawler, which took us all the way to Ramsgate, England. From there, we were sent down to London, where we stayed in a hotel for what was supposed to be two weeks, but it ended up being 18 days because of a train strike. In London, we didn’t have any uniforms, only our work shirts, for the first few days. We made the best of it: We would play a lot of card games, or we would find a bar and congregate with anybody and everybody. We weren’t even sure if the ship had sank; I was told it might have gone down and just hit a rock ledge or something.
This account has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Joseph Shannon told his story to Jake Nevins, The New York Times Magazine’s editorial fellow.
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