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Monday, November 2, 2009

Lifeboat survivor's diary retrieved

This evocative WW2 photo shows the last throes of the freighter SS Rhexenor, which was sunk by a German U-boat in the middle of the Atlantic on February 3, 1943.
Seventy men piled into four lifeboats after the submarine had taken one of their officers on board, and left the rest to their fate. Incredibly, the chief officer, Maurice Case, kept a diary during the following three-week ordeal, as well as navigating and looking after the 17 men in his boat as well as he could in the grueling circumstances.
The eight-page penciled document has come to light after Mr Case's war-time mementoes sold at auction.
His entry for February 4 read: "Breakfast: 1 biscuit with condensed milk, 2oz water. Midday - Biscuit, milk, 6 raisins and 2oz water. Everybody satisfied." It rained the following day, leaving the men "very wet and miserable."
On February 9 there was a 'very heavy rain storm'. He added: "Everybody wet and cold, blankets and life jackets all sopping. Issued one tablespoon of brandy, all hands."
On February 13, crewman 'Aussie' Corby died from exposure on one of the other boats and was buried at sea.
Despite the conditions and the news of the death, the men's spirits were still high by the second week. Case's entry for February 14 recorded that "thirst beginning to make itself known" among the men. On February 17 the men had an evening meal of either two prunes or nine raisins each.
He added: "All hands cheerful and keeping lookout for aircraft."
The next day the weather changed and the sun glared down. Mr Case noted at this point they made an awning for shade out of a blanket and oars. Their luck finally changed at 4pm on February 20 when the shout of land ahoy went up. Mr Case wrote: "Land sighted right ahead, could not believe my eyes but there it was. The thing now was where were we, I was hoping it was Antigua where we were making for but could not think my reckoning was so accurate."
Although heavy rain fell that night, the men's spirits were too high to be dampened. At 9am the next day their lifeboat made contact with a local fishing boat, which gave them a tow to land as well as a meal of cooked fish. Upon arriving in Antigua, the men were met by US Army officers. They were checked over at a medical clinic before having a bath and more food. Mr Case wrote: "Two members of my crew were rather weak on landing, otherwise everyone was in good health except a bit groggy on the legs."
He finished his log with suggestions on items to put in lifeboats in the future. They included fishing tackle and saltwater soap for cleansing.


Buck said...

An amazing story. Reminds me of the WWII B-24 bomber Lady Be Good.

World of the Written Word said...

Exactly! I wonder who bought the diary? Let's hope it went to a museum.