HOW did an African-American who was a cook on a US cargo ship in 1942 end up being buried in a cemetery on Acklins Island? Eric T Wiberg tells the story, as The Tribune continues its focus on war stories and the Bahamas in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday this weekend.
THE SS Potlatch was an American cargo steam ship displacing 6,085 tons. On June 6, 1942, the Potlatch, which was owned by the Weyerhaeuser Lumber Company of Tacoma, Washington and on lease to the US government during the Second World War, left New York bound for Suez, Egypt via Trinidad.
It never made it.
On June 27, roughly 650 miles east of the Virgin Islands, the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine, U-153 under Wilfried Reichmann and quickly sank, taking with it six out of 55 crew and US Navy gunners.
Under normal circumstances the four life rafts and one lifeboat would have fetched up in the Windward Islands of the Caribbean, however Captain John J. Lapoint had neither sextant nor charts to navigate with. Thus began a gruelling 32-day voyage in open lifeboats and rafts during which two men died. After 26 days 48 survivors landed in uninhabited parts of Great Inagua, then Little Inagua.
We pick up their story as they head north, malnourished, in a battered and leaking boat.
One of the civilian crew on the Potlatch was an African-American named David Parson who served as Second Cook under Chief Cook John Beckels, originally from the Virgin Islands. Parson was born in Norfolk, Virginia three days before Christmas in 1879, and was 62 years old at the time Potlatch was attacked. In the US Census he is listed at the time as a cook aboard steamships, living with his sister Lilian Parson and Blanche Nickerson in Harlem, New York.
When the torpedo struck the severe concussion shocked and partially deafened those within the ship. Parson was unable to don his lifejacket efficiently, and was not responding to orders from Chief Cook Beckels, who ultimately had to lift the older man up and carry him to the lifeboat. Parson was one of the lucky ones to have made the overcrowded boat, as most of the other men had to crowd aboard little rafts which were then towed by the boat. And so they carried on, gradually cutting rafts free and crowding into the boat.
On the tenth day rescue seemed at hand when the lifeboat from the Dutch ship Tysa hailed them in mid-ocean, however their allies, afraid of overcrowding their own boat, sheared off for the Caribbean, leaving the Potlatch men to drift westwards. Then on the 15th day they ran out of food, subsisting on rainwater, fish and seaweed. For nourishment they took daily immersions in the sea water. On the 22th day crewman John Miller died from a shark bite sustained seven days earlier. Then, on the 26th they sighted land and bounced over the reefs at night to the beach on the northeast tip of Great Inagua.
On Inagua they found jackasses, whelks and conch and the following day followed the wild donkeys to a sulfuric spring, which replenished them. After two days Captain Lapoint was concerned for the men’s health and they pushed on for Little Inagua, which they could see from a bluff. Doing so involved half of the men pushing the boat over the reef for hours at night, backbreaking work even for fit men with proper footwear. Finding water and whelks on Little Inagua but no people, the ragtag group of 48 men set off north, towards Acklins, not knowing the names of any of the islands, as Captain Lapoint still thought they were in the Virgin Islands.
The wind was roughly 15 knots and there were large swells coming into the Mayaguana Passage from the open Atlantic. Because of the waves, water seeped underneath the weather cloth as well as over the gunwale on the starboard. All night the men had to bail continuously. Parson’s condition deteriorated badly. Just after sunrise they sighted the first ship and a gunner named Henry Jensen wrote, “we had had enough of phantom ships, and planes. Most of us had reached our absolute limit of endurance. We lay like so many stacked up corpses.”
At 7pm on Tuesday, July 28, the men sighted two small islands – the Plana Cays – but ignored them. It would have been suicidal for them to have attempted to land at night without charts or local knowledge. At 30 minutes after midnight on Wednesday, July 29, the 33rd day of their voyage, David Parson died with his head in the lap of Captain Lapoint, of what was described as exposure and exhaustion – more likely the latter. Certainly the men were exposed to scorching hot in the daytime and cold at night. One of the gunners weighed 160 pounds when he boarded the boat and only 90 pounds 35 days later.
Just an hour and a half later, at 3am the welcoming beacon of Hell Gate Light, on the northeastern tip of Acklins, near Atwood Harbour and the Devils Backbone hove into sight. Lapoint wisely decided to hove-to a safe distance from the reefs until he could be certain he and the men would be taken care of ashore. At 6am, in sunlight, the boat approached the lighthouse, but found bad shoals encircling it. Looking for somewhere sheltered to bury Parson, they spotted a small community – actually “dwelling houses” five miles ahead. It was the small coastal community of Pinefield on the northeast coast of Acklins. They sailed south, towards it.
According to Newton Williamson he and several other children were playing in front of their homes in Pinefield, overlooking the bay. Their de-facto leader was the oldest, his future sister-in-law Remilda Cox. Newton was only about six at the time. When they saw the lifeboat come through the reef and beach itself, they ran down to see for themselves. The adults – men as well as women - were out in the fields.
Newton dispatched several children to run and notify adults. This led to women arriving with some food, and Reverend Captain Collie in nearby Hard Hill ordering his sailing schooner Go On to be moved from Hard Hill up the coast to Pine Field. Only 45 minutes later the Constable and town officials arrived in a sailboat in order to lead the survivors to another settlement. According to the American Consul General in Nassau, John W. Dye, “Local people were very kind to them, fed and accommodated them for two days.”
There was one crucial errand that Lapoint had to accomplish before he could sign off. His diary of events concludes: “Parson buried. Casket and funeral services furnished.” David Parson was buried at the Hard Hill Cemetery located in the Anderson Settlement, on the northeast coast of Acklins Island, by local islanders. On David Parsons’ Death Certificate Captain Lapoint, the most powerful man aboard the Potlatch, was asked to describe his relationship to Parson, effectively his ‘subordinate’ aboard the ship. Under the box reading “relationship” to deceased he penciled in the word “friend.”
The following night the survivors of the Potlatch were rescued off Bird Rock, Crooked Island by Marion “Betty” Carstairs of Whale Cay, who sped down in her yacht Vergemere IV. They arrived in Nassau on August 1 and were repatriated to the US roughly a week later.
ABOUT the Author: Raised in Nassau, Eric Wiberg is licensed as a sea captain and maritime lawyer. He has spent the last five years researching and lecturing on German and Italian submarine attack in the Bahamas area for the book “Drifting to the Duchess,” to be published by Brick Tower Press of New York, NY in early 2014. The website is www.uboatsbahamas.com.