17 days on a lifeboat in the Atlantic

Bob Talley... 12/16/98
Baton Rouge resident Bob Talley spent 17 days adrift on a life raft with several dozen other soldiers during WWII, and lived to tell the tale. (Photo by Mark Schiefelbein, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

Shortly after America’s entry into World War II, when German submarines were sinking American merchant vessels at a frightening rate in the Atlantic Ocean, Bob Talley was far from that action — and, he thought, about to get farther.

A U.S. Navy gunner, Talley was aboard a troop ship about to sail from San Francisco to Australia. But, an hour before it lifted anchor, Talley was ordered ashore. He stood on the pier and watched the ship leave.

“We were in San Francisco having a time,” Talley said. “We felt sorry for those fellows on the East Coast. Those subs were knocking them off one a week over there.

“All of a sudden, we woke up one morning and got orders to report to New York City.”

Those orders led Talley directly into the U-boat war in the Atlantic and to an ordeal that all mariners dread.

Talley and 25 others spent 17 days in a lifeboat after their ship was sunk in 1942. They endured hunger, thirst, blistering heat, rough seas and uncertainty before finally being rescued.

By that time, they had traveled more than 700 miles and were on the verge of finding land themselves. They didn’t realize it at the time, however.

“The chief cook told us the night they pulled us in, he said, ‘If they hadn’t picked us up tonight I was going over the side the next morning.’ He was giving up,” Talley said.

Their odyssey began on July 9, 1942. They were coming to the end of a nearly five-month voyage aboard the SS Santa Rita, a cargo ship that had left New York and taken them to South Africa, Egypt and India before starting its final leg home. In the tropical Atlantic, they were scheduled to reach Philadelphia within two days.

Talley remembers the day clearly. Unescorted cargo ships were equipped with guns, and Navy personnel called Armed Guards were assigned to man those weapons. It was 11:30 a.m., and Talley was reading a magazine on the deck waiting to be called to lunch.

“All of a sudden that ship jumped and rolled over and threw me up against railing,” he said. “I thought we’d hit a mine.”

A glance over the side convinced him it was a torpedo. Talley headed for his gun. Other Armed Guards asked him to go to their quarters and retrieve their life jackets — a foolhardy risk in a ship under attack.

“I went back down in the quarters like a jerk and got them,” Talley said.

When he returned, the torpedo wake was still visible in the water. The order to abandon ship came quickly, and panic turned those efforts into chaos. Merchant crewmen lowered one lifeboat, capsizing it. Talley and another Armed Guard, Chick Harris, cut loose a life raft, left the ship and swam to a lifeboat.

“The sub surfaced and sprayed the deck with machine gun fire in case somebody stayed aboard to fire on them when they surfaced,” Talley said. “They pulled up alongside one boat and asked for the skipper. He was in that boat, so they told him he’d have to come aboard. They were taking him prisoner.

“He told one of the men to give him his box of cigars. The sub captain told him, ‘That’s all right. We’ve got cigars aboard.’ He said, ‘I’ve got my own cigars. I don’t want your damn German cigars.’ He was a tough rascal.”

The submarine fired about 10 shots along the ship’s water line to finish it off. The sub commander told them they were 750 miles northeast of Puerto Rico. The Germans then submerged, leaving the three lifeboats to their fate.

There were 26 men in the metal-covered boat, which Talley said was about 20 feet long and 8 feet abeam. It was equipped with a mast, two sails, blankets and emergency rations. The three boats set up their sails and set a southeastern course.

“Night came, and the next morning we woke up and there wasn’t a boat in sight,” Talley said. “We were by ourselves. We didn’t know what happened to them.

“We found out later that nine or 10 days later they were picked up by a destroyer. We saw them later on. They said, ‘We were picked up one day and the next day we were scraping paint.’”

Talley’s boat wasn’t so lucky.

The ship’s second mate, who was in charge, assessed the rations — pemmican (dried beef), chocolate, milk tablets and water — and divided them so they would last a month. The pemmican was packed in cans about 1.5 inches across and an inch thick. One can was a day’s meal for three men, Talley said. They could fill the pemmican cans twice a day with water.

“We didn’t have much, but it did give us strength,” he said.

Occasional rain helped supplement the water, but there was little escape from hunger, sun, heat and boredom. Space was so cramped that men just lay still. For the first few days, men would climb overboard to cool themselves in the water, but that didn’t last long.

“One night I was steering the boat and something bumped the stern,” Talley said. “I looked around and there was a shark fin about 2 feet high in the water. He had bumped the boat. He followed us for two days. The older seamen … said that was a 12-foot shark if it was an inch.”

Several days after the sinking, a storm hit that lasted two days. Talley said the swells were 30 feet to 40 feet high.

“That lifeboat rode those waves better than the ship did,” he said. “It would ride the crest. You’d look way down in the bottom of that swell. It rode it right on through, no problem at all.”

No sooner than the storm died down, though, than a strange banging occurred on the bottom of the boat. Initially, the men thought the shark had returned. It hadn’t, and from Talley’s description, the fish sounds like a swordfish or marlin. It kept attacking the boat for more than an hour.

“He had a long pointed something or other on his front,” Talley said. “He would get about 30 feet out and come in and ram that boat. Boy, I was glad that was a metal covered boat. He’d have torn it all to pieces.”

As unnerving as the fish attack was, at least it relieved the boredom. After that incident, the wind died, and they spent three days and nights barely moving on glassy waters. Conversations to pass the time covered all sorts of subjects — including, of course, women.

“One fellow said he would pass up Hedy Lamarr for just one good glass of water,” Talley said.

Finally, late on the 17th day, the men heard an airplane. It passed overhead but, in the near darkness, didn’t seem to see the yellow distress flag they waved. The second mate shot a flair, which the airplane’s tail gunner saw. The airplane circled back and passed overhead with its bomb bay doors open, then left.

About 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. on July 26, a ship’s searchlight pierced the darkness and spotted the lifeboat. The rescuers said they were about 30 miles off Puerto Rico. The men drank all of the rescue boat’s water on the way back to land.

Bob Talley... 12/16/98
Bob Talley, third from left, and others who spent 17 days adrift on a lifeboat after their ship was sunk by a German U-boat in 1942. during the war. 

When they docked at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Talley said, the men almost fell on their faces trying to walk. Lack of exercise for 17 days caused them to stagger like drunks.

After showering and being examined by doctors, they were sent to the mess hall, which set out big trays of beans and franks, which many of the men wolfed down. Their shrunken stomachs, however, couldn’t handle the meal, and many got sick.

The next day they were flown to New York and given two weeks leave. Then, Talley reported for duty on another ship. He served the rest of the war without encountering any other submarines.

“I realized how much I had to be thankful for, and I thanked the good Lord for seeing us through,” Talley said.

Returning to his hometown of DeQuincy a few years after the war, Talley moved to Baton Rouge and worked for Ethyl Corporation. He retired in 1985.


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