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TCI in World War II

The Fauna, Part I, 1942

By Captain Eric Wiberg, Boston, MA

What is remarkable about the sinking and the loss of the Fauna off the Turks & Caicos Islands is that her destination was the TCI, and her survivors spent nearly three weeks essentially circumnavigating the Islands in a lifeboat and a local sailboat over the course of an impressive 300 miles!

This is a rare photo of the diminutive freighter Fauna.

The Fauna was a Dutch 1,272-ton steamship constructed in 1912 by Rijkee and Company, N.V. of Rotterdam. Her only owners were the KNSM, or Royal Dutch Steamship Company, of Amsterdam. By 1942, long after the Netherlands were overrun by the Germans, the firm was being operated out of 25 Broadway in New York City. Her dimensions were 262 feet long, 36 feet wide and 16 feet deep. A 800-i.h.p. triple-expansion engine drove a four-bladed propeller which boosted the ship at 9.5 knots.

Fauna was a small ship whose cargo reflected her size. She carried 5 barrels of gasoline and 15 barrels of kerosene (presumably for the generators on the small island of Grand Turk where there was a salt works), and a full general cargo including matches, cement, machinery and flour. The 20 barrels of gasoline and kerosene were stowed on deck. The master was also entrusted by the British with 22 bags of mail plus 1 bag of registered mail.

A crew of 29 men was under the command of Captain Jacob den Heyer, a Dutchman. Four of the crew were British, including a 42-year-old “servant” named John White; Othniel Dickenson, aged 46, sailor; Ben Eve, 49, sailor’ and Sam Sanny, a fireman, 25, of 92 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, New York. Of the 25 Dutch men on board, 2 of them were gunners manning a 3-inch gun aft: Wilhelm Johann Kervezee, aged 29, and Tonnis Bierling, aged 42. Some of the crew helped man the guns as well. 

The Fauna left New York on May 6, 1942 destined for Grand Turk, followed by a stop in Port au Prince, Haiti, where she was to deliver some Lend-Lease cargo. The ship was under orders of the British Naval Control and took some 11 days to cover roughly 1,300 miles. She was less than a day from her destination on May 17 when she was found and intercepted by U-558 under Günther Krech in the Caicos Passage. 

This map details the route of the Fauna and location of its sinking in the Turks & Caicos.

The position of the subsequent attack was 22.00ºN (or 22.10ºN) by 72.35ºW (or 72.30ºW) which is east of Mayaguana Island, Bahamas, west of Caicos Island, and just 10 miles or so north of Northwest Point, Providenciales, in the Turks & Caicos. The passage is some 30 miles wide at this point. The Captain described it as “very narrow (about 10 miles), and . . . not generally used as a shipping lane or route.” This is an unusual statement given that the Fauna was, according to the position given, in the Caicos Passage, a deep, wide shipping channel commonly used to gain access between the Windward Passage and the open Atlantic Ocean. Captain den Heyer may simply have been referring to the ship’s proximity to land, which was only 10 miles.

At seven minutes before midnight the men on watch were no doubt anticipating their eminent relief from duty. The ship’s course was east–northeast and speed ten knots. It was a clear night with a slight swell and no wind to speak of. Without the moon, visibility was one to one-and-a-half miles. There were three lookouts on station, one on the forecastle up forward, one manning the gun aft, and a third on the bridge. 

Günther Krech began his first patrol into The Bahamas area aboard the U-558 on May 15. The Fauna was struck in a channel so narrow—only ten miles wide—that the survivors supposed that the sub must have been waiting there for resupply. Krech was tracking the Fauna from seaward, or the ship’s port side to the north. Suddenly a single torpedo pierced the merchant ship’s Number Two cargo hold, roughly two feet below the water line. The explosion ignited the cargo of matches stowed there. The large hole blown in the Fauna’s side immediately flooded the number two and soon after the number one cargo hold, then the engine and boiler rooms. Hatch covers from both holds were blown into the air, the radio shack and the ladder to the bridge were destroyed and the port-side motorboats were knocked clear of the ship. There was no opportunity to send a radio distress message or to man and train the guns.

Given the circumstances, the men behaved with restraint commended by Captain den Heyer, particularly Third Mate Jan Noordveld, Third Engineer Jan Rab, sailors Nicholaas Plugge and Maarten de Jong, and Wilhelm Johann Kervezee, a gunner, who “stayed on board to see everything clear” and in doing so perished. Soon the Fauna was listing to starboard at an alarming 26º, then 30º. The men on watch grabbed personal papers and some cash and made their escape. Within ten minutes, 27 men had leapt into the water or clambered into the only remaining lifeboat—the one from starboard. Just before midnight, and only five minutes after the attack, the men in the water saw U-558 approaching from the starboard beam. Krech brought the submarine to within three quarters of a mile, kept it darkened and circled the bow of the stricken ship. When U-558 made it to the port quarter, aft of the beam, it switched on its searchlight to help the men in the water make it to the boat. 

Then the sub circled the lifeboat and asked for the name, tonnage and destination. One officer came down to the deck to do the questioning, which he did in English. Den Heyer responded in German, but still there was a misunderstanding about the spelling of the Fauna, and the Germans ended up writing “Towa” instead of the correct name. After this brief interrogation the sub motored through the wreckage and then set off in a northeasterly direction, submerging as it did so at five minutes after midnight, twelve minutes after the attack.

As the lifeboat set about gathering survivors from the water, Fauna performed a death-roll. A heavy explosion rocked the ship, on which six men remained—this was possibly a boiler exploding when the sea water hit it. At first the ship stayed on course, but then it veered to starboard. Finally, after roughly 50 minutes, at 43 minutes past midnight on May 18, the Fauna rolled over to port, the side with a gaping hole in it, and sank quickly. The Germans did not attempt to board the blazing wreck. Of the six men who remained on board, four of them—Noorduelt, Rab, Plugge, and de Jong—managed to escape and swim to the lifeboat. Keverzee, of the Royal Dutch Navy, who had been born in Rotterdam on August 22, 1912 and was 29 years old, drowned, as did G. C. van Baardwyk, aged 40, a trimmer from the engine room. Both men were seen on deck by their crewmates just before the sinking. Captain den Heyer observed, “It is believed they went back below, and were trapped.”

Once they had collected all 27 survivors, the men set out for the nearest land. Strictly speaking this would have been Northwest Point, Providenciales, however winds and currents pushed the lifeboat west and south. As a result, they managed to make landfall on the unpopulated island of West Caicos, at 11:00 AM on Monday, May 18. There appears to have been a settlement named Yankee Town near Lake Catherine, but den Heyer and his men “found no people there.”

The same day, the lifeboats set off to the north, and after 14 miles they rounded Northwest Point and headed southeast, looking for signs of habitation. While they were underway, the boats were discovered by two local fishing boats. Captain Ralph A. Ewing, owner and skipper of the schooner Sister E. (also known as The Sisters), was the first one back to shore at 1:00 AM on Tuesday, May 19. The local craft, weighing 10 tons and built in Blue Hills in 1922, was loaded with roughly half of the Fauna crew. 

According to historian Kendall Butler, “the Ewing family was prominent in High Rock, Blue Hills, Providenciales. Hilly Arthur Ewing [was a] boat builder.” Doris Ewing was nine years old at the time and remembers her father Captain William Ewing returning to Blue Hills aboard his boat The Flirt, with the balance of Fauna’s survivors. She says that “the boats used to go down by Inagua and the Caicos Passage to look for food and clothes floating in the sea that came from torpedoed ships.” In this instance the Islanders discovered more than they expected in the jetsam of war.

The men were found in poor condition—cut up and bruised—and several of them were naked and covered in oil. The children were kept at a discrete distance from them. Captain Ralph enlisted the help of his wife to clean them up, and they would have enlisted the help of the island midwife, who was the senior caregiver in the community. Doris Ewing relates that her “mother and aunts and other men and women, from North-side, bandaged them up and fed them.” Local historian Sherlin Williams relates that “The midwife was the only healthcare giver to be found in each of the three settlements . . . No young women in the entire island during those days would have been allowed to be exposed to naked men. Only mature persons in age bracket of the wives of boat owners, whose children were already grown, would have been in direct contact in their condition.”

TO BE CONTINUED . . .

 

Eric Wiberg has operated over 100 yachts, many of them as captain. A licensed master since 1995, he is qualified as a maritime lawyer, with a Master’s in Marine Affairs, a year at Oxford and a certificate in screenwriting. He commercially operated nine tankers from Singapore, worked for two salvage firms, and was an executive head-hunter, shipping newspaper salesman and tug-boat fleet marketer. He has published over a dozen books of nautical non-fiction. A citizen of US and Sweden who grew up in the Bahamas, he lives in Boston near son Felix.

Contact: eric@ericwiberg.com.



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Photographer Marta Morton was enjoying another spectacular sunset when she spotted this lovely scene—a picture-perfect clump of Old Man Cacti and the pastel colours of what she later learned were crepuscular rays (see page 18). For more of Marta’s images, turn the pages of this issue and visit www.harbourclubvillas.com.

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