Numerous accounts of vessels being torpedoed by Nazi U-boats appeared in the newspapers. Some occurred not far offshore while tourists sunbathed on the beaches of South Florida. These articles listed the size of the ships sunk, the seamen saved and the number drowned. Due to the news embargo imposed by the government during the war, the exact locations were never listed in the newspaper stories.
At night skies flared red with explosions in some sections of Florida. In the daylight hours heavy coats of oil and charred corpses covered the white sand beaches.
Despite these attacks from killer subs, hotel owners refused to dim their lights, which glowed six miles out at sea. Authorities made no attempt to enforce any type restrictions so tourists could continue to enjoy vacations in the sunshine state.
By June 1942 the Gulf of Mexico had become the graveyard of 26 ships. That month, General George C. Marshall wrote that losses by subs off the coast ``threaten our entire war effort.''
But no known activity existed in this area at that time. After two Apalachicola men, Nick Fortunas and a Mr. Thigpen, reported sighting a submarine while mullet fishing off St. George Island, their friends laughed at them. They soon stopped telling anyone about the mysterious U-boat.
When four German terrorists were picked up by authorities near Jacksonville after they rowed ashore in a rubber raft on June 27, coastal residents became a little more concerned. During the night horse patrols along the beaches provided the only defense against invaders. Effective radar and sonar had yet to be developed against enemy planes and ships.
Vessels sailing along the coast were urged to follow the 10-fathom curve, where submarines were at a disadvantage. They also were encouraged to seek safe harbour at night. Several ships sailed the regular scheduled run along the Northern Gulf Coast with oil and gasoline destined for England and other countries.
Despite what the American forces were saying, the U-Boats were not being destroyed and the U-Boat commander's confidence grew daily. Some U-Boats had sailed right into New York and many of the commanders were now calling this "The Great American Turkey Shoot".
The 8032grt tanker, the Empire Mica and the rest of the convoy sailed across the North Atlantic without any major problems. The convoy passed through the Cape Cod Canal and finally reached Key West where the ships dispersed. Before this, the convoy had sailed in line down the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn where it was greeted with cheering and shouting from people all along the riverbank.
It has been suggested that the Empire Mica was on the return trip of her maiden voyage, but the truth was, the Empire Mica was no stranger to travelling in convoy. She had already crossed the Atlantic on numerous occasions. Two convoys that she had been in were HX-151 and HX-162. Both of these convoys had sailed to Halifax in Canada.
The crew loved this new ship, it had only been built 11 months before and it had an early form of air conditioning, something new to the men and, all going well, they all agreed to stay with the ship. After leaving Key West they had orders to sail in daylight and hide up in some convenient anchorage for the night. It was in this way that the ship reached Baytown, Texas, where it was loaded with about 11,200 tons of kerosene, the same sailing rules applied on the return trip to Key West. The plan was working well and the ship was intending to anchor in either St. Andrew or St. Joseph Bay on the evening of June 28th. But her heavy load prevented her from entering either harbour. The tanker's weight also forced her to venture beyond the 60-foot water depth, recommended for safety. Having no safe harbour to hide in, and being forced out into deep water the Captain, Hugh Bentley, knew that he had no choice but to continue with the journey.
The 70-year-old captain, ordered full speed through the smooth waters. After clearing the shallows of Cape San Blas, the darkened ship sailed south, her 674nhp triple expansion steam engine gave it 11 knots. But nobody could have imagined that German Captain Gunter Muller-Stockheim, stalked her in his deadly U67 submarine. The huge 463.5ft ship, that was built by Furness SB of Haverton Hill, was a sitting duck.
It was a beautiful clear summers night with a full moon. The date was the 29th June 1942. At 1am the watch shift changed. The only men who were awake on the Empire Mica were those who were either going on shift, or those coming off. Captain Bentley stood peering over his charts when in the brilliant moonlight; Ronald Mowatt spotted the U67's conning tower, about a half mile off the port beam. The light of the moon reflected in the water that still poured from the newly surfaced sub. The 21-year-old sailor who was on the return of his maiden voyage quickly reported his sighting to all in the wheelhouse. Being so close to the American coastline, he was not sure whether this was a friendly sub, or an enemy one. He would not have to wait long to find out.
My grandfather Joseph Steele was just taking up his watch in the engine room. Harry Hale from Falmouth had just been releived by Ronald Mowatt from his look-out on the port wing of the bridge and was walking along the catwalk and looking forward to his break, when half a minute later there was a terrific explosion and Harry, was killed.
A torpedo from the German submarine, the U67 tore into the Micas hull igniting the oil and immediately, violent explosions could be heard along the coast, some 29 miles away. This explosion knocked out the communication system so that no general alarm could be sounded. Then, the ship burst into flames and the whole after part of the vessel became a raging furnace which was heading towards the port side of the midship housing. The entire Captain’s quarters, Chart Room, Wireless Office and Bridge were completely wrecked and quickly burst into flames. All Confidential books and ship’s papers were lost as it was not possible to re-enter the Chart Room in the fierce fire. The men were faced with an enormous wall of fire, cutting them off from everything aft. The port lifeboat had turned turtle in its davit, no doubt due to the force of the explosion, and the aft falls of the starboard lifeboat were surrounded by the flames. Mowatt was instructed to release the raft situated on the well deck forward, but this hit the water and floated away, clearly the ship was still moving at that stage. Bentley, Mowatt and a few others made for the starboard side of the bridge, but before they had crossed another torpedo struck.
The U67 had been on her fifth active sailing, and between 20 May 1942 upto that night she had already sunk three ships. The U67 would go on to sink another four ships before she returned home on the 8 August 1942. A total of eight ships were hit on this patrol, six were lost, including the American 3,664 ton Rawleigh Warner which had been sunk on the 23rd June 1942, just six days earlier.
Reports of an explosion at sea were telephoned to Lt. Wefing by coast Guard lookouts at the two capes' lighthouse stations.
My grandfather, Joseph Steele who was the ships third engineer rushed into action. Battling his way through the fire he managed to cut the ships power, stopping it dead in the water. It was this action that allowed the lifeboats to be launched and earn him the King's Commendation for Brave Conduct.
Under the direction of the second mate, Mr Sydney, Dougie Davidson and a few others were able to alert some of the engineers. Mr Sydney and the Chief Enginner, Harold Rose managed to pull the 2nd and 4th engineers through the port hole of the Second Engineers cabin, which was also on fire at that time. The starboard lifeboat was now the only chance that the crew had to escape. For a few minutes chaos reigned. Because of the fire, the life boat could not be lowered normaly, so Mowatt was instructed, together with the First Mate, Mr. McIlraith, to board it and prepare for the boat to go vertical. For Mowatt, this was truly a brave action as the young sailor could not swim. It was when the two men were in the boat that the falls burnt through making the boat lurch forward and throw McIlraith into the sea, where he drowned. Mowatt clung to the seat for all he was worth and did not see the first mate fall. It was then a race against time to haul it forward in order to take off three or four men who were huddled against the break of the forecastle head with flames all round them. One of the men jumped from the Bridge onto the deck and fractured his heels.
The life boat was rowed towards the stern of the ship, but although they could see their shipmates struggling, the fire was so intense that they were unable to rescue them. Although one man, had climbed to the highest point on the stern and from there, had dived over the flames to be taken aboard the boat. The men knew that all they had to do was wait by their colossal beacon, and await rescue.
Several of the survivors told horror stories of seeing crew mates on fire on deck before they plunged into the sea. Some remembered one crew member stuck in a porthole. He had wedged his head and shoulders through the opening trying to escape the explosions, then could not slide out. He begged fellow seamen to shoot him before he burned in the fire.
It was still dark when the "Countess", a 32-foot pleasure boat owned by R.J. (Dick) Heyser reached the burning tanker. Seeking survivors, the "Countess" circled the ship at a distance. The intense heat and recurring explosions made it impossible to get any closer. In the first light of day the "Countess" came across the life-boat, with just fourteen men inside.
The "Countess" took the life-boat in tow and started to head back to the shore. Several miles off West Pass, "Seadream" reached the "Countess" and was ordered by Lt. Wefing to continue to the scene of the stricken tanker in the hopes of finding more survivors. But, sadly, there were no more.
A little later the Seadream returned to the Countess and being a larger and faster boat, the survivors were transferred from the Countess to it. But on it's journey back to the shore, it ran out of fuel and was towed back by Trouble. Trouble was the third boat in the rescue effort, and had been on her way to help the stricken tanker when she found the Countess.
News of the disaster spread, and by the time the survivors reached the Apalachicola pier, the local residents had put out blankets and mattresses for the men. First aid, ambulances and trucks were there for them. The men were then taken to the National Guard Armoury, where hot coffee and other items were there waiting.
The SS Empire Mica, drifted and burned for more than twenty four hours before sinking in 108ft of water at 29° 18' 54.8 N 085° 21' 11.69 W