U.S. ship sunk by torpedo in South Atlantic (5-21-41)

The Pittsburgh Press (June 10, 1941)

Vessel sunk by attacker near Brazil

Captain of ship which saved 11 survivors confirms loss

SS Robin Moor, photographed on May 6.

Washington, June 10 –
The U.S. Maritime Commission announced today that the Seas Shipping Co. owners of the American freighter Osório that the Robin Moor was torpedoed May 21 about 950 miles northwest of Cape São Roque, Brazil.

The Osório was the ship that picked up 11 survivors from the Robin Moor.

This information corresponded to earlier unofficial reports indicating that the American ship had been sunk by torpedoes.

At Rio de Janeiro, the captain of the steamer Osório, which picked up 11 survivors of the Robin Moor, sent a radio message to the United Press today saying that the Robin Moor had been torpedoed.

The government is making every effort to determine the authenticity of these reports and Stephen T. Early, the President’s secretary, urged that the public withhold opinion until all facts have been assembled.

The Commission said 10 new members and one passenger from the Robin Moor have landed at Pernambuco, Brazil, after being rescued by the Osório.

No word, the Commission said, has been received about the other 35 persons who were on the Robin Moor, including seven passengers.

Full report soon

Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles said that the State Department hopes to have a full report of the sinking within 24 hours. He said that American officials in Pernambuco would obtain complete details from the Osório’s master and the survivors.

The Robin Moor, which sailed from New York on May 6 for Cape Town and other South and East African ports, was reported to have been torpedoed at 6° 15′ N 23° 30′ W.

The rescue scene was approximately 800 miles from the locality in which the Robin Moor was reportedly sent to the bottom by a torpedo fired from a vessel of as yet unidentified nationality.

According to the Maritime Commission, the rescue ship Osório is apparently the former American vessel Commercial Bostonian, sold by Moore McCormack Co. Lines to the Lloyd Brasileiro Line.

Secretary Stephen T. Early said President Roosevelt is seeking information through every official channel on the cause of the sinking of the American freight and passenger steamer.

As yet, however, Mr. Early said, official reports do not disclose the exact cause of the sinking. Some reports had said that the ship was torpedoed. It sank in the South Atlantic.

Mr. Early said:

I think the President would appreciate it if you suspend judgment until the facts are ascertained. We don’t know yet the cause of the sinking. We are trying to determine that.

In American waters

The position of the ship [when it went down] seems to be fairly well determined, and that would put it in American waters, on this side of the Atlantic.

Mr. Early said he knew nothing of a report that the captain of the Brazilian vessel which picked up some survivors had asserted that the Robin Moor was torpedoed. But he said that if this report was true, the report undoubtedly will be transmitted quickly to the State Department by Jefferson Caffery, United States Ambassador to Brazil.

But up to this point, said Mr. Early, the President and State Department officials have no information on the sinking in addition to what has already been published.

Second war victim

One other American ship, the freighter City of Rayville, 5,883 toons, has been a war victim. It sunk after an explosion, presumably by a mine, on Nov. 8, 1940, in Bass Strait, six miles off Cape Otway, Victoria. One of a 38-man crew was lost.

The State Department received a report last night from U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, Jefferson Caffery, giving the details as related to him by the Fortaleza port captain. There was no mention in Mr. Caffery’s cable of the report of the German attack, but it was assumed that the ship met other than normal difficulties in view of his words “was sunk.”

Sailed for Cape Town

The owners of the Robin Moor, the Seas Shipping Co., announced in New York that it sailed from there May 6 for Cape Town, South Africa, with 8 passengers, including three women and a two-year-old boy. The owners said it carried no munitions, just general cargo, including motor truck parts.

A spokesman for the line said:

There could be no question of the Robin Moor being mistaken for an allied belligerent ship by a Nazi submarine because she was conspicuous by the large American flag painted on both sides of the hull. A large searchlight was continuously played on the American flag flying from the stern after sundown.

Report quoted

The Robin Moor was commanded by Capt. Edward Myers of Baltimore and carried these passengers:

  • Mr. and Mrs. Ben Cohn, Americans (Mr. Cohn is an employee of Loew’s, Inc., motion picture distributors);
  • Mr. and Mrs. R. W. McCullough and their two-year-old son (en route to the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. plant at Port Elizabeth, South Africa), Mr. McCullough is American, Mr. McCullough is Dutch;
  • Mr. and Mrs. Harry G. Gennell, British East Indies (Mr. Gennell is former secretary of the Trinidad Leasehold);
  • Philip C. Eccles, a British banker.

The Robin Moor was built in 1919 and was formerly the Exmoor of the American Export Lines. It had a cruising speed of 19 knots.

Crew listed

The Seas Shipping Co. furnished the following list of officers and members of the Robin Moor’s crew which included:

  • Capt. E. W. Myers, Baltimore, MD;
  • First Officer Melvin V. Mundy, Bethlehem, PA;
  • Second Officer Robert E. Taylor, Salisbury, MA;
  • Third Officer John J. Benigan, NY
  • Radio Operator George Newton, Taylor, NE;
  • Hollie O. Rice, Bowls, TX;
  • Fred Hayes, Cleveland, OH;
  • Peter A. Buss, Bethlehem, PA;
  • Jose Reyes, San Juan, Puerto Rico;
  • Francis J. Batkiewicz, Altoona, PA;
  • Chief Engineer Henry Elrod, Newberry, SC;
  • First Asst. Engineer Karl Nilson, Baltimore, MD;
  • Frank B. Ward, Portsmouth, VA;
  • Robert P. Burton, New Orleans, LA;
  • Peter Danielak, Akron, OH;
  • Peter P. Ruda, Trenton, NJ;
  • Richard Carlisle, Maywood, CA;
  • William D. Malone, Miami, FL;
  • Troy E. Elrod, Newberry, SC;
  • Oscar L. Grimm, Berne, Switzerland;
  • Stanley H. Boice, Somers Point, NJ;
  • Frank S. Stevenson, Wichita, KS.

The Pittsburgh Press (June 12, 1941)

Skipper knew its identity, consul told

Government awaits more details before deciding on next move

Washington, June 12 (UP) –
The State Department announced today that the American freighter Robin Moor was undoubtedly sunk by a German submarine whose commander knew it was a neutral vessel.

There is little hope for 35 of the ship’s crew and passengers who are missing.

A Berlin spokesman said that if “by any chance” the Robin Moor was sunk by a German submarine or warship, it can be “said with certainty” that the commander acted according to international law. He added that the case was not yet clarified “as there are still reports from only one side.”

Shortly after the State Department’s announcement, based on official depositions from 11 survivors now at Recife, Brazil, the White House indicated that President Roosevelt is convinced that Germany must accept the full responsibility for the destruction of the vessel.

Free to pass judgment

The American public, White House Secretary Stephen T. Early said, is now free to pass judgment on the sinking.

Mr. Early said:

You will remember the other day you were requested that judgment on the sinking be withheld. That request them made to you is now withdrawn. There seems to be no longer any reason to reserve judgment.

The preliminary official report on the sinking was announced by Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles. He emphasized that the Robin Moor was proceeding to African ports which are not within any proscribed combat zones and that it carried no contraband of war. All details of the voyage were in conformance with the U.S. Neutrality Law, he indicated.

General cargo carried

The general cargo, Mr. Welles said, consisted of many items ranking from women’s brassieres to autos and steel rails.

The sinking occurred at a point in the South Atlantic Ocean about 700 miles south of the Portuguese Cape Verde Islands. That is along the general route of American ships carrying Lend-Lease cargoes of war supplies toward the Red Sea ports for Britain’s Imperial Army of the Near East.

A brief summary of the deposition taken from the 11 survivors landed at Recife last night by the Brazilian freighter Osório was forwarded here by U.S. Consul Walter J. Linthicum.

In good health

The report said all survivors were in good health despite their 19 days in a lifeboat, but that there was no trace of the 35 other persons aboard the ship when she went down on the morning of May 21. Among the missing are six passengers, including three women and an infant.

Mr. Linthicum said he was forwarding further details as soon as they could be coded.

Among prime questions remaining to be answered before this government would take any formal action such as a stiff protest to the German government are:

  1. Were the passengers and crew removed to lifeboats before the ship was sunk?
  2. Was the ship fired upon without warning?

International law cited

Established international law requires that such a ship be searched for contraband, and if any is found, the crew and passengers must be removed and their safety provided for before the vessel may be destroyed. Or the contraband may be removed and the vessel allowed to proceed.

If it develops subsequently that the missing persons were killed or drowned, some diplomatic quarters anticipated that the American government might take a view more serious than it did when American vessels were sunk in the period prior to this nation’s entry into World War I.

Unrestricted submarine warfare by the Imperial German government in 1917 was the principal immediate cause of American participation in that war.

The text of Mr. Linthicum’s preliminary report paraphrased by the Department said:

The Robin Moor undoubtedly sunk by a German submarine at 6 Greenwich time on the morning of May 21 at 6.10 N 25.40 W. The commander of the submarine was fully aware that the vessel was American. All survivors in good health. Depositions of survivors have been taken and complete summary will be telegraphed as soon as coded.

It was the first instance of an American vessel being sunk by direct belligerent action since the start of the war.

The City of Reyville, a U.S. freighter, was sunk in the Bass Strait off Australia, presumably by a mine. The findings, however, were not conclusive.

The fact that many precautions were taken in the Neutrality Act to protect U.S. shipping from such incidents was expected to strengthen the tone of any U.S. action.

The Pittsburgh Press (June 13, 1941)

Eye witness tells of sinking –

Pernambuco, Brazil, June 13 (UP) –
Karl Nilson, first assistant engineer of the Robin Moor, said today that armed German sailors boarded the American freighter and took over the radio room to prevent the ship from sending an SOS.

Mr. Nilson was the first of the 11 Robin Moor survivors landed here by the Brazilian steamer, Osório, to give a public account of the Robin Moor’s experiences.

He said the Robin Moor was intercepted early on the morning of May 21 and that, within 23 minutes, the ship had been sunk by German shelling.

Mr. Nilson said:

We took to the three lifeboats – 37 of us including one child. We sailed together for eight days and then separated to increase our chances of being saved. We had rowed without stopping for 19 days and nights when the Osório picked us up.

Our only provisions were biscuits and rainwater which we caught. For five days we drifted in a calm. Everyone aboard kept his gaze fixed on the horizon, looking for a rescue ship.

Finally we sighted the Osório about 11:30 p.m. June 8. We started signaling with our electric flashlights. The Osório immediately took us aboard. We were all extremely weak and unable to stand. The Osório crew carried us aboard.

Exhausted as we were, we probably could have lasted another 10 days or so. We suffered badly from the wind and spray and our lips and faces were raw.

All the survivors praised the treatment, particularly the medical attention, received on the Osório. All the survivors were in fairly good condition when they arrived here.

Philip E. William, third secretary of the American Embassy at Rio de Janeiro, said the survivors abandoned ship in four lifeboats – not three as Mr. Nilson said.

He reported that five of the passengers were British, two of them women and one child.

Mr. Williams said the boats cruised together for some days and finally were separated by storms and high waves. All headed for the Brazilian coast under the captain’s instructions.

The third officer, in charge of navigation, who was one of the survivors, reported that on one occasion they sighted a ship which was in view for some hours but were unable to attract its attention due to rain and low visibility.

The Brazilian news agency, Agência Meridional, quoted Antonio Santos, chief cook of the Robin Moor, as saying that when the crew and passengers were abandoning their vessel, the German commander said:

I am very sorry for you, but that ship carries war material for an enemy country, and we have orders to sink it.

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The Pittsburgh Press (June 14, 1941)


Hope is held that 35 survivors of Robin Moor may be alive

Washington, June 14 –
Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, replying to German threats to sink all ships carrying contraband to the British, said today that:

Throughout the history of the United States, the people have never been impressed by what they regard as bluster and threats.

Washington, June 14 (UP) –
The administration is expected to send Germany a strong protest on the sinking of the freighter Robin Moor, based on the contention that the attacking submarine commander failed to comply with international rules for safeguarding the ship’s passengers and crew.

Officials awaited word of the fate of 35 missing passengers and crew members of the ship. There was believed to be a possibility they are still alive.

Well-informed quarters predicted the protest would demand compensation and would warn against any further violations of this government’s recently-reaffirmed doctrine of “freedom of the seas.”

Well-informed Congressional circles did not believe the incident would inspire drastic action on the part of this government, such as arming merchant ships.

Sen. Carter Glass (D-VA) said:

If a German U-boat did it, the Germans ought to be made to pay for it. Of course, I have said before that we ought to shoot hell out of every U-boat and I still believe it.

Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles told his press conference yesterday that this country stands on the principle of international law, that proper precautions must be taken for the lives and safety of passengers and crew members before a ship is sunk.

46 cast adrift

Official reports to the State Department, based on the accounts of 11 known survivors, said the 465 passengers and crew members were cast adrift in open lifeboats when the submarine torpedoes had shelled the Robin Moor in the South Atlantic.

Mr. Welles said, in connection with German assertions that published lists of the Robin Moor’s cargo showed goods classified as contraband by the British – and hence placed in the same category by Berlin – that this country has never accepted the British or German definitions of contraband.

Officials held out two possibilities that the rest of the Robin Moor passengers and crew members might still be alive:

  1. Their lifeboats may have reached St. Paul’s Rock, a barren desolate island 500 miles off the coast of Brazil.

  2. A British or some other belligerent vessel which dare not use its radio had picked them up but cannot report the rescue until arriving in port.

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New York, June 14 (UP) –
President Arthur R. Lewis of the Seas Shipping Co. with the approval of the State Department, offered public proof late yesterday by a German submarine, carried no contraband.

Mr. Lewis, whose company operated the Robin Moor, invited newspapermen to examine the ship’s manifest and “decide for yourselves” whether any of the 1,667 items in its cargo could be called contraband. He said:

None of these items were contraband under the definition of President Roosevelt.

The bulk of the 5,263-ton cargo consisted of steel and autos and 98% of it was ultimately destined for British purchasers in South Africa, the rest for Portuguese East Africa.

The items coming closest to being contraband, Mr. Lewis said, included 459 motor cars and trucks, 959 50-gallon drums of lubricating oil, 30 15-gallon drums of lubricating oil, 141 cases of shotgun shells, 4 cases of metallic cartridges, 12 .22 caliber sports rifles, and 6 gas masks for workers on refrigeration plants.

Examination of the manifest required 4½ hours. It disclosed that the Robin Moor carried a general cargo including such items as brassieres, silk dresses, medicines, canned foods, sik hose, breakfast foods, fly swatters, artificial flowers, hardware and plows.

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Berlin, June 14 (UP) –
German informants said today that the sinking of the United States merchant ship Robin Moor was now strictly a military matter. They said that, within a few days, the high command might provide the “necessary information” on which an official statement might be based.

It was even said that the government might possibly “permit the case to slide gradually” if details available were “insufficient and did not merit an official statement.”

Newspapers and the radio had still given the German public no information of the Robin Moor, even of the fact that it had been sunk.

Germany’s position on the sinking cam be summarized as follows:

It had not yet been established, so far as the German government is concerned, that a German submarine sank the ship.

If the submarine were German, then the submarine commander was undoubtedly within his rights under international law.

The Robin Moor was en route to an enemy harbor, carrying goods which are included in both the British and German contraband lists.

Neutral observers expressed belief that Germany is not seeking an incident which might bring the United States into the war, and on the contrary hoped to avoid such an incident, but that it did not intend to cede what it considered its “wartime rights.”

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New Orleans, June 14 (UP) –
Survivors of the torpedoed Robin Moor will be brought to New Orleans June 25, aboard the passenger-cargo ship Deltagentino, the Mississippi Shipping Co. announced today.

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The Pittsburgh Press (June 15, 1941)


Nazis told sinking talk is considered 'bluster’

By John A. Reichmann, United Press staff writer

Washington, June 14 –
The United States announced today that Americans don’t scare easily at Nazi “bluster or threats” of unlimited German sea raids on their commerce.

The reaction to the German threats was voiced by Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles who is awaiting detailed depositions from survivors of the torpedoed U.S. freighter Robin Moor before making any formal protest to the German government. So far, he said, the facts are clear that a German submarine has sunk an American vessel in violation of international law, humanity and morality and that many American lives undoubtedly have been lost.

Welles said:

Throughout the history of the people of the United States, they have never been impressed by what they regarded as bluster or threats.

The first Axis press statement on the Robin Moor appeared in the Italian newspaper, La Stampa of Turin, today, coupled with a declaration that President Roosevelt “in his self-appointed role of world dictator” has failed to recognize the Axis war zone. La Stampa reported that the Robin Moor was sunk by a submarine “after the crew had been given ample time to board lifeboats with a supply of food.” The paper said:

International law was scrupulously respected.

Official Nazi spokesmen commented in Berlin that:

Germany will continue to sink every ship with contraband for Britain.

Mr. Welles said the situation created by the sinking of the Robin Moor with the probable loss of 35 lives, including three women and one child, needs to be viewed dispassionately.

These facts, he said, are clear: An American merchant vessels in accordance with the historic policy of the United States was on the high seas engaged in peaceful commerce. While it was in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean remote from any combat zone which Americans have imposed upon themselves, and carrying nothing considered contraband by this country, it was sunk.

Forced into small boats

On board were American citizens, including women and children. In a half hour, they were forced to go into small lifeboats in violation of agreements to which all concerned – the United States and Germany – are parties. They are left in a position where they could not be assured of safety. Now it appears that, of these American citizens, about three-fourths have been lost.

Ten members of the crew and one passenger, a Briton, were rescued by the Brazilian fireghter Osorio and are to be brought from Recife, Brazil, to New Orleans.

These, Mr. Welles said, are the real issues. He asserted that the submarine commander’s lack of proper precautions to insure the lives and safety of the Robin Moor’s passengers and crew was contrary to international law, morality and humanity.

Report due Monday

The full facts are expected to be assembled here Monday when an American consular officer is scheduled to arrive by plane from Rio de Janeiro with the complete deposition. The White House said that President Roosevelt would have nothing further to say on the matter until these facts have been studied.

Upon the basis of the depositions, it was presumed that the administration would send Germany a strong protest, demand indemnity and a guarantee against future acts of such nature.

Mr. Welles said that reports received earlier in the week that an Italian shortwave station had broadcast that some other Robin Moor survivors had landed in Italy were denied categorically by the Italian Ministry of Marine.

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The President’s Message to Congress

June 20, 1941

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (D-NY)

To the Congress of the United States of America:

I am under the necessity of bringing to the attention of the Congress the ruthless sinking by a German submarine on May 21 of an American ship, the Robin Moor, in the South Atlantic Ocean (25°40’ W 6°10’ N) while the vessel was on the high seas en route to South Africa.

According to the formal depositions of survivors, the vessel was sunk within 30 minutes from the time of the first warning given by the commander of the submarine to an officer of the Robin Moor.

The submarine did not display its flag, and the commander did not announce its nationality.

The Robin Moor was sunk without provision for the safety of the passengers and crew.

It was sunk despite the fact that its American nationality was admittedly known to the commander of the submarine and that its nationality was likewise clearly indicated by the flag and other markings.

The sinking of this American ship by a German submarine flagrantly violated the right of United States vessels freely to navigate the seas subject only to a belligerent right accepted under international law. This belligerent right, as is known to the German government, does not include the right deliberately to sink a merchant vessel, leaving the passengers and crew to the mercies of the elements. On the contrary, the belligerent is required to place the passengers and crew in places of safety.

The passengers and crew of the Robin Moor were left afloat in small lifeboats from approximately two to three weeks when they were accidentally discovered and rescued by friendly vessels. This chance rescue does not lessen the brutality of casting the boats adrift in mid-ocean.

The total disregard shown for the most elementary principles of international law and of humanity brands the sinking of the Robin Moor as the act of an international outlaw.

The government of the United States holds Germany responsible for the outrageous and indefensible sinking of the Robin Moor. Full reparation for the losses and damages suffered by American nationals will be expected from the German government.

Our government believes that freedom from cruelty and inhuman treatment is a natural right. It is not a grace to be given or withheld at the will of those temporarily in a position to exert force over defenseless people.

Were this incident capable of being regarded apart from a more general background, its implications might be less serious – but it must be interpreted in the light of a declared and actively pursued policy of frightfulness and intimidation which has been used by the German Reich as an instrument of international policy.

The present leaders of the German Reich have not hesitated to engage in acts of cruelty and many other forms of terror against the innocent and the helpless in other countries, apparently in the belief that methods of terrorism will lead to a state of affairs permitting the German Reich to exact acquiescence from the nations victimized.

This government can only assume that the government of the German Reich hopes through the commission of such infamous acts of cruelty to helpless and innocent men, women and children to intimidate the United States and other nations into a course of non-resistance to German plans for universal conquest – a conquest based upon lawlessness and terror on land and piracy on the sea.

Such methods are fully in keeping with the methods of terrorism hitherto employed by the present leaders of the German Reich in the policy which they have pursued toward many other nations subsequently victimized.

The government of the German Reich may, however, be assured that the United States will neither be intimidated nor will it acquiesce in the plans for world domination which the present leaders of Germany may have.

We are warranted in considering whether the case of the Robin Moor is not a step in a campaign against the United States analogous to campaigns against other nations. We cannot place reliance on official declarations to the contrary.

Like statements, declarations and even solemn pledges have been forthcoming in respect to many nations, commencing with the statement that the government of the German Reich considered its territorial aspirations satisfied when it seized Austria by force. Evidence that the government of the German Reich continues to plan further conquest and domination is convincing, and, indeed, scarcely disputed.

Viewed in the light of the circumstances the sinking of the Robin Moor becomes a disclosure of policy as well as an example of method. Heretofore lawless acts of violence have been preludes to schemes of land conquest. This one appears to be a first step in assertion of the supreme purpose of the German Reich to seize control of the high seas, the conquest of Great Britain being an indispensable part of that seizure.

Its general purpose would appear to be to drive American commerce from the ocean wherever such commerce was considered a disadvantage to German designs; and its specific purpose would appear to be interruption of our trade with all friendly countries.

We must take it that notice has now been served upon us that no American ship or cargo on any of the seven seas can consider itself immune from acts of piracy. Notice is served on us, in effect, that the German Reich proposes so to intimidate the United States that we would be dissuaded from carrying out our chosen policy of helping Britain to survive.

In brief, we must take the sinking of the Robin Moor as a warning to the United States not to resist the Nazi movement of world conquest. It is a warning that the United States may use the high seas of the world only with Nazi consent.

Were we to yield on this we would inevitably submit to world domination at the hands of the present leaders of the German Reich.

We are not yielding and we do not propose to yield.