Local World War II vet recounts U-Boat attack 75 years later
Bill Carlson grew up on East 11th Street overlooking the Duluth harbor. He would watch ships go in and out of the port, and imagine a life on the water.
He joined the Naval Reserve in Duluth when he was 17 years old in 1939, two years before the U.S. entered World War II.
"I joined that when I was 17 because of the big pay," he said. "We got $7.50 once every three months."
Carlson shipped out on Nov. 3, 1940. Less than two years later, he found himself adrift in a lifeboat amid towering waves on the Atlantic Ocean, using a flashlight to signal "SOS" after his ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat.
Carlson survived the ordeal — and now the 94-year-old Duluth man is set to be recognized for his service and his survival. On March 29 — 75 years to the day that his ship was sunk — Carlson will be honored at the 31st annual National Merchant Marine Convention and Reunion in Reno, Nev.
"There (are) not many of these guys left" who survived the sinking of ships in World War II, said Capt. Chris Edyvean of Hurley, current president of the American Merchant Marine Veterans group. "Their stories need to be preserved."
From Duluth to South Africa
Earlier this month, in the living room of his home in Duluth with books about sailing stacked around, Carlson settled into his chair, closed his eyes and recounted his experience.
Upon joining the reserves, Carlson was assigned to the U.S.S. Paducah, a training vessel in the Duluth harbor. He trained as a gunner to protect Merchant Marine vessels.
After training on Lake Michigan, the crew sailed to the East Coast "and pulled into the Brooklyn Navy Yard on the seventh of December 1940," Carlson recalled. "One year to the day before Pearl Harbor."
Carlson transferred to the engineer division, and was classified as a fireman.
At that time the U.S. had yet to officially enter the war, but U.S. Merchant Marine ships had been under attack by German U-boats since 1939. The merchant ships had been supplying the Allied war effort, and were being targeted by the Germans to disrupt the supply chain.
America's role would change on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese forces conducted a surprise attack on the Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Hawaii. Bill Carlson was stationed on the East Coast at the time.
"I had gone to a movie," he said, referring to the day of the Pearl Harbor attack. "I came out of the movie, and people are saying, 'You got to get back to your ship.' "
Carlson said he realized then that it might be some time before he would return home.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Carlson and two other Duluth natives were assigned to the SS City of New York, a passenger and cargo ship which ran a regular service from New York to Cape Town, South Africa.
Carlson, along with Duluthians Wallace Dahlgren and John McInnis, were assigned as firemen and seamen on the merchant vessel and served as the armed guard. Their job would be to protect the City of New York, its passengers, crew and cargo from attack.
German U-boats, which had first been used in World War I, were dispatched throughout the Atlantic and particularly along the Eastern Seaboard.
"The Germans called it the 'happy hunting ground' because they sank hundreds of ships right off our East Coast," Carlson said.
After leaving New York, Carlson's ship "hugged the coast of South America going south, because German raiders were out in the South Atlantic. We swung over to Cape Town and went up the east coast of Africa."
It took about 36 days to reach Africa — long enough for Carlson to grow a beard.
Sunk by a U-boat, saved by a flashlight
Carlson and his shipmates then began the journey back to the U.S.
"We made 14 knots and we ran without any escort at all," he said.
Carlson explained that the few escort ships that were available were used to guard ships headed for the United Kingdom.
Outside of stops for repairs, the trip was fairly uneventful and an interesting one, Carlson said. No one on board showed any concern, and as the ship headed up the East Coast on March 29, 1942, those on board expected to arrive in New York the next day. That's when everything changed.
"We were in a blow off of Cape Hatteras ... and waves were over 12 feet high," he said. "We had just finished eating lunch and all of a sudden — BAM! — in the side of the ship, on the port side, a torpedo hit just forward of the engine room."
Jumping into action, Carlson and his shipmates put their training to use.
"We manned our gun and we saw the periscope" of the U-boat, he said. "So we starting firing at the periscope but the waves were so high every time a shell got out there a wave would cover it up and the shell would plow right into it."
After they fired about 10 shots, Carlson said, the U-boat's periscope disappeared.
"He went around the other side and put it up again and fired another torpedo," he said. "That hit us in the after hull and it started to go down in a hurry."
That's when the call to abandon ship was made.
"So grabbed my peacoat and life jacket and went down the ladder to the main deck," Carlson said. "I didn't have to jump because I was up to my knees in water already. I just stepped over the thing."
Lifeboats had already been deployed with passengers and some crew from the City of New York. Luckily for Carlson he was spotted quickly by the ship's petty officer, or bosun.
"The bosun had a lifeboat and he saw me — waited till I dog-paddled out to the boat," Carlson continued. "They pulled me in. We had 32 people on the boat, it was crowded."
The City of New York had sunk, and its lifeboats were adrift with survivors amid the towering waves.
"So we were out there during that blow," he said. "Since I was up in the bow, (I) put the sea anchor out, which helps the bow of the lifeboat point into the waves."
Sea anchors resemble a small parachute and are employed in heavy weather to increase a boat's drag, acting almost as a brake, offering greater control of the vessel.
"During the night that line went slack," he said, and further described pulling the line in and finding nothing more than a scrap of red canvas. "I don't know if a shark bit it off or what."
Carlson was able to jury-rig a new sea anchor using a bucket, and the supports that kept the lifeboats covered when they were on the ship. He credited that knowledge to reading Knight's Modern Seamanship while in high school.
A day had gone by when the bosun ordered the sail deployed. They began sailing toward the East Coast. Carlson said the water temperatures were warmer than the air, and the cold wind raised a fog above the water. Thirty-six hours would pass before they would be found.
"We were about 40 miles out when we got hit," Carlson recounted. "I saw a dark spot on the horizon, so I said to hand me a flashlight and I will shimmy up the mast and flash SOS."
The only Morse code that Carlson knew where those three letters — and that knowledge allowed the USS Roper to spot the lifeboats and rescue the survivors.
Carlson remembers climbing a cargo net to board the Roper, and then going below deck to warm up.
"In another of the lifeboats was a Yugoslavian consular's wife. She was pregnant and was coming to join her husband in the U.S.," he said. "During that storm she had the baby at the bottom of the lifeboat. They were recovered by the same destroyer. After they picked us up they picked them up."
The baby, who became known as the "Lifeboat Baby," would be named after the ship that rescued them — Jesse Roper Mohorovicic.
Of those on board the SS City of New York, 106 would survive, with 26 deaths.
Among those who did not survive: Carlson's fellow Duluthian, John McInnis.
"The one lifeboat that John McInnis was on got separated from all the rest (and) they didn't get picked up for 16 days and he died of exposure," Carlson said.
Life post-war, and a chance to reunite with survivors
Carlson later served on a patrol craft in a subchaser fleet, running convoys between Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Trinidad, and then later served on the LSM-461 — an amphibious assault ship — in the Pacific.
"They could put tanks aboard and put them on the beach," he said. "We were loaded with pontoons for docks in Okinawa. So we went all the way over there."
After the war, Carlson returned to Duluth and ended his time in the Navy Reserves in 1950.
"The Korean War was going, my kids were small," he said. "So I let my enlistment expire."
Carlson would re-enlist in the Naval Reserves in 1958.
"I saw one of the officers at a soap-box derby my son was at," he said. "He says 'Hey chief, why don't you come back in? We're looking for people and you'll get your rate back. ... I asked my wife, and she said "Well, why don't you' — so I did. And I stayed in then, and I am glad I did."
In addition to serving in the reserves, Carlson spent time as a mechanic, then decided to test his sea legs out once more — this time working on a laker.
"So I went on the old Sylvania — I signed on as an oiler," Carlson said. "It was like a tramp steamer. We went from Duluth down to Chicago. From there up to the Canadian head of the lakes, from there down to Buffalo. My kids didn't know who I was when I got home, so I decided I wasn't going to stay there."
Carlson then went to work for Cummins Diesel, and would remain there for just over 30 years until he retired. Since then, Carlson has remained active in veterans groups and the local lodge of the Shipmasters International Association.
It's through the shipmasters that Carlson met Edyvean, who facilitated the upcoming recognition. The Gary Sinise Foundation is flying Carlson to the Merchant Marine convention.
Despite not having been in touch with anyone else who was aboard the City of New York since 1942, the convention may bring the opportunity to meet and share his tale with descendents of some of those who were on board that fateful day.
It is a prospect Carlson said he looks forward to.
"They're sending me and my girlfriend out there," he said with a grin. "She is a little younger than me, she is only 82."
The Battle of the Atlantic
Even prior to the United States' official entry into World War II, U.S. Merchant Marine vessels were transporting many supplies — including food, fuel, ammunition and other material support — to the Allied war effort.
German U-boats, which had first been used in World War I, were dispatched throughout the Atlantic and particularly along the Eastern Seaboard of North and South America to counter the supply effort.
The danger of U-boats would continue through the end of the war in 1945. The Battle of the Atlantic, as it would be called, would become the longest military campaign of the war.
In 1942 alone, more than 1,100 merchant ships were sunk. In 1943 the U.S. ramped up production of new ships, and that production finally outpaced the rate at which ships were being sunk. That's credited as a turning point in the war, allowing needed personnel and supplies to reach the European theater and lead to the Allied victory.
According to the American Merchant Marine at War website, usmm.org, estimates put Merchant Marine deaths at more than 30,000 sailors during the war — a casualty rate greater than any branch of the military.