SS Quaker City – Torpedoed 18th May 1942. The story of John Heller

The morning of Monday 18th May 1942 dawned like all previous mornings since the SS Quaker City, a Hog Island class merchant ship, left Bombay and sailed via South Africa on the way to Norfolk, Virginia. She was loaded with 4,500 tons of Manganese Ore. This is a very important ingredient in the production of steel and was in heavy demand due to the war.

This report was in the Barbados Advocate on Monday 25th May 1942:

15 More Survivors in Port. Lady Bushe in Relief Party.
Fifteen Survivors who had been part of the crew of a missing vessel reached this island on Sunday after a few days in two open boats. Others expected in another boat have not arrived.

Of the total crew of forty, thirty got safely away in the boats after ten of them had been killed in the explosion that opened the stem where they had been sleeping. They brought with them one of the six cats which had been on the ship.

At Central Station
Captain E. Richmond and his men except for sunburn and stiff joints were in fairly good shape.  One party arrived in St. John and the other in St Peter. They were all brought to Central Police Station. Here Police officials and Harbour Authorities were present. The men were examined by Dr H.E. Skeete who had in attendance No 2 Unit of the St. Johns Ambulance Association.  Lady Bushe was among the uniformed assistants whose work lasted until afternoon.

Among this group was John Heller of Milwaukee, Wisconsin who had recently served with the American Volunteer Group in Burma.

The Story
The story told was almost identical with that released a few days ago by another group. Their craft was hit and sank within minutes. The German submarine was described as a monster with two anti-aircraft turrets and a plane catapult came to the surface.

“It is somebody’s duty to go out there and get that fellow with his courtesy and his brand new death machine.” Said one of them. “Oh! Don’t fear he will soon get all he wants” said another.

Barbados Advocate on Monday 25th May 1942

John E. Heller was a passenger on the SS Quaker City travelling from India to re-enlist in the USA Armed forces. He had been in the US Army and was mustered out when he volunteered to serve in China and Burma with the American Volunteer Group (The Flying Tigers) under Gen. Chennault. He served in Burma and China and after war on Japan was declared by USA he was returning home to re-enlist.

He boarded the Quaker City in Bombay, (today called Mumbai), India. As they approached the Caribbean Captain E. Richmond warned of the U-boat activity in the area. He asked John to take turns as a lookout, even though he was a passenger, which he did.

Soon after John came off watch there was a loud explosion to the stern of the vessel. No one had to ask what had happened. The 10 men sleeping in the stern never heard or felt the attack.

John knew that the ship was sinking and quickly collected his important papers before getting into a lifeboat. The surviving 30 crew and passengers, and one cat, had 10 minutes to get into the 4 lifeboats before the Quaker City sank. He was on the lifeboat with the Captain.

The German U-boat U-156, captained then by Kapitänleutnant Werner Hartenstein, had been shadowing them for some time waiting for the correct moment to attack. The U-boat surfaced and came close to the life boats. He gave them their position and a course to reach Barbados before leaving the area.

One life boat with seven survivors was picked up on the Sunday 24th May by USS Blakeley and carried to Trinidad.  Another lifeboat with eight survivors reached Dominica on the Tuesday 26th May. The remainder 15 in two Life Boats reached Barbados on the Sunday 24th May 1942.

After reaching Barbados and recovering from the incident, John Heller travelled to Trinidad to re-enlist at the USA base there. He served the remainder of war in Trinidad in the Army Air Corps. He left the armed forces as a Master Sargent.

John Heller was more fortunate than most of his shipmates. While recovering from dehydration and sunburn he was treated by the Ladies of the No: 2 Unit of the St. John Ambulance Brigade. His favourite nurse was Elsie Dorothy Whitley Griffiths.  The same year she followed him to Trinidad and they married on Thursday 5thNovember 1942 in Port-of-Spain. They spent their honeymoon in Tobago.  After the war they moved to the USA.

Korvettenkapitän Werner Hartenstein had a successful period in the Caribbean.  He showed humanity to his enemy and tried not to cause unnecessary loss of life. He attacked and sank The Laconia.  His actions here, and the results, to save as many as possible led to new rules of engagement for war at sea.

During her fifth patrol in 1943, before she made any attacks, U-156 was attacked twice. As a result of the second attack, on Monday 8th March 1943, she was sunk east of Barbados in position of 12.36N 54.39W, by a US PBY Catalina  captained by Lieutenant E. Dryden operating out of Trinidad, close to where she sank the Quaker City the previous year.

The aircraft dropped four Mark 44 depth charges at 13:15 from an altitude of between 20 to 30 Meters which straddled the submarine. Two were observed to hit the water close to starboard and just aft of U-156, lifting it and breaking it in two, followed by an explosion.

At least eleven survivors were seen swimming in the water. Two rubber rafts and rations were dropped, and five men were seen to reach one of the rafts. The USS Barney was dispatched from Trinidad to rescue the survivors. None were found and the search was abandoned on Friday 12th March 1943.

At that time John Heller was stationed in Trinidad with the Army Air Corps. He was responsible for making sure that the aircraft had the fuel and armaments for their submarine hunting duties.   So he had a hand in the sinking of the Submarine that sank him.    It would be interesting to know if he handled the depth charges that ultimately sank the U-156.

Captain E. Richmond of the Quaker City gave the ships compass to the Barbados government. This was installed on the Investigator that operated in the 50’s and 60’s for Department of Fisheries.

Boat builders in front of the research vessel “Investigator”

In 1949 the first motor propelled fishing vessel in the form of the “Investigator”, owned by the Fisheries Division, was introduced to the Barbadian fishing fleet. The dimensions of the vessel were 43′ 6″ overall length, 13′ 2″ beam and 6′ 8″ draft. It was powered by a 53 H.P. Caterpillar® diesel marine engine. The vessel was officially launched on 21st October 1949 and its inaugural trip took place on 12th December 1949.

If anyone can give the names of the boat builders in this picture please contact me or add their name as a comment.

John Heller never forgot Barbados. He made sure his children knew the island and how well he was treated on his arrival. The family moved to Barbados for a few years in the 1950’s and one of his 4 children, John Heller, was  born here in 1952.  After returning to the USA the family returned a few times on Holiday. He worked with Kollmorgen  which produced periscopes for submarines and he was involved in the inquiry into the sinking of the USS Thresher.

His last visit to the island was a few months before he died.  He was interviewed by Alfred Pragnell at Martin’s Bay for his “Sunday Magazine” radio program on Redifussion Barbados.  This was broadcast nearly 57 years to the day that John landed in Barbados on 24th May 1942.

You can listen to Alfred Pragnell ‘s very moving interview with John Heller at Martin’s Bay here on the 57th anniversary of his arrival. This 30 minute interview is very very moving and will bring a tear or two.

While in Barbados John E. Heller also gave an interview to the Nation Newspaper which was published on Friday 23rd July 1999. John died at home in the USA a week later on the Thursday 29th July 1999.

John Heller feature - WEEKEND NATION Fri 23 Jul 1999
John E. Heller feature. Survivor returns. War veteran recalls nightmare at sea . Source: Friday 23 July 1999, WEEKEND NATION.

Below is a transcript:

Survivor returns.  War veteran recalls nightmare at sea.
By Valerie Jones, WEEKEND NATION – Friday 23 July 1999

It was at Martins Bay, St. Philip where John E. Heller and a crew of 14 others landed on Sunday 24th May 1942 (Empire Day), after a fateful battle at sea and nearly 7 days adrift in a lifeboat.

American War Veteran John E. Heller is neither a typical visitor nor an average man.

His original sojourn in Barbados in 1942 was precipitated by tragedy at sea and a perilous voyage by lifeboat.

And that trip was accomplished only by courage, determination, and the will to survive.

That fateful first landing in Barbados has it genesis in 1939 when Heller enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps.  Discharged in 1941 to serve with the American Volunteer Group (AVG), a civilian organisation mandated to assist in the training of the Chinese armed forces, he become a member of what was subsequently referred to as the Flying Tigers.

Serving in both Burma and China as a supervisor of military aircraft, parts and equipment, Heller along the rest of his group, shifted from an advisory to a participatory capacity when the United States of America entered the war in December 1941.

In April 1942, his AVG stint over, the young American was homeward bound – or so he thought – and flew from China to Calcutta and thence by train to Bombay to locate a ship headed for the United States.

Accompanied by two AVG colleagues, Charles Richardson and a Mr. Hanley, he boarded the SS Quaker City, a freighter carrying manganese ore an jute bound for Norfolk, Virginia.

Torpedo Strike

Under the command of Captain Edward A. Richardson, whose insistence on frequent lifeboat drills was later to pay dividends, the Quaker City sailed from Bombay to South Africa without event before heading out into the South Atlantic.

The three passengers, placed in the only available space, the ship’s dispensary, made themselves useful.

Heller and Hanley volunteered to stand lookout for enemy submarines.  Richardson, who developed a habit for sleeping on deck to avoid the heat below, assisted in the galley.

At about 5:30am on Monday 18th May 1942 disaster struck.  Heller and Hanley had just switched watches with Heller eschewing Richardson’s invitation to join him on the deck in favour of returning to the dispensary. He barely had time to stretch on his bunk when a massive explosion ripped into the ship, killing Richardson and several crewmen and dealing a death blow to the Quaker City.

“It caught us completely by surprise, but there was no doubt in my mind that is was a torpedo” Heller told the WEEKEND NATION.

Snatching a small waterproof bag of supplies, including his trusty pith helmet and waiting just long enough for the sound of flying debris to subside, he made his way to the partly submerged deck and helped lower a lifeboat.

“There were four lifeboats, all of which got away, so I guess the drills paid off he recalled.  “We pushed off and watched the ship sink.  She went up, stern first vertically, then straight down.  It took about seven minutes from the time of impact to the time she went under”.

Face to face with the enemy

Shortly afterwards the German submarine U-156 under Commander Hartenstein surfaced. It made its way towards the lifeboats occupied by Heller, Captain Richmond and seven others, setting the stage for an unusual dialogue.

“There was a German ship’s officer, two seaman and another man armed with a machine gun. At that point we didn’t know if we were going to be shot or not” Heller recalled.  “The officer confirmed the identity of the Quaker City, asked about our cargo and where we were bound, and how many men we had lost”.

He then asked if we knew our position – our captain did – and preceded to tell us we were about 380 miles from Barbados and if we were and if we sailed south-west, we would hit it.

“I hope you do” the German officer said adding that he was very sorry about the loss of life, but this was war.

“He even asked if we had food and water and if we needed anything. Our only request was for a deck of cards, was apologetically turned down. He wished us luck, then the submarine pulled off and submerged”.

The gentle German was later to lose his own life to the horrors of war and the cruel sea.

Starting out at 14 degrees, 55 degrees 40 west and well out of sight of land, the lifeboats gradually became separated. Heller later learned that one had been picked up by a destroyer (USS Blakeley), while another landed in Antigua [Dominica] where a crew member finally succumbed to his injuries.


The two remaining boats with a complement of “15 men and a kitten we’d rescued floating on a pillow” somehow stuck together.

They survived on two tablespoons of water a person, a day, canned meat and hard tack and took cover un the shard of tarpaulins, with Heller’s pith helmet saving the day for the man at the helm.

Heller, preferring not to go into detail, did say, however, that there were times when he and his companions wondered if they would make it.

“We always had hope, but we realised there was a possibility we could miss Barbados “, he said softly.

But that was not to be.  In the early days of Sunday 24th May 1942, they sighted Ragged Point Lighthouse in St. Philip and the captain sent up a flare.

Later that day they were towed safely to shore by fishing boats led by Captain King, to finally reach safe harbour at Martin’s Bay.

Treated by Dr. A.G. Skeete of the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade and clothed by the Salvation Army, the survivors soon began to recover from their nightmare at sea.

And for John Heller , it became the stuff that dreams are made of right from the very first day.

It was here that he met a beautiful young Barbadian, Elsie Griffiths, a volunteer with the Brigade who attended to his badly inflamed eyes.

“I guess it must have been love at first sight”, Heller admitted.  “By the time I left Barbados in early June, we had decided to get married”.

Final pilgrimage

Heller’s next stop was Trinidad where he reenlisted with the Army Air Corp. and was stationed at Waller Field.  He and his beloved Elsie exchanged vows that November in Port-of-Spain, and went on to raise four children an enjoy a long and happy marriage until Elsie passed away in 1997.

The couple who left Trinidad in in 1945, spent the rest of their lives together in the United States , except for the period 1949 to 1952 when in Barbados where their oldest son John was born.  They revisited the island on two occasions, more recently in 1983. 

Heller returned in May 1997 for his “final pilgrimage” to Martin’s Bay, Barbados.

“I’m 82 and I haven’t got too many years left; so I figured this would be my last trip.  The children urged me to come down too, knowing how much it meant to me”.

The guest of Blythwood Beach Apartments spent much of his time with his Barbados family.  His late wife’s niece Sandra Plat, and cousins Mary Marshall and Seymour Cuke went with him to pay his “final respects “to Martin’s Bay, 57 years after it had been a refuge for him and his ship wrecked mates. 

And a visit to the late Captain King’s brother completed the nostalgia.

John E. Heller sadly died at home on Thursday 29th July 1999, a week after the feature article above was published. Below is his obituary:

John Eward Heller 1916 -1999 Obituary
John E. Heller 1916 -1999 Obituary. Source: 6 August 1999 WEKKEND NATION.

Here are some pictures that the Heller family have kindly shared with us:

I wish to thank the following without whose help this article would still be in my pending file.

  • Ellen Lutzow  for contacting me many months ago asking for help in researching her father’s story. She is the daughter of John and Elsie Heller. That request was sitting in my “to do box” for a very long time.
  • The staff of the Barbados Library Records department who are always helpful in assisting me in researching this and other stories.
  • Lana Yearwood of the Library of the Nation Publishing Ltd for finding the article on John’s story.
  • Harriet Pierce, Librarian of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society for providing John Heller’s obituary.
  • Gregory T. Franklin of the Barbados Fisheries Department for taking the time to find the picture and information on the Investigator.
  • Peter Gooding for sending us the recording of Alfred Pragnell’s interview with John Heller. Peter’s wife Carroll-Ann nee: Marshall was a relative of Elsie Heller.

For further information on the events and people mentioned in the article check:

Response to “SS Quaker City – Torpedoed 18th May 1942. The story of John Heller”

  1. bajanvegan

    Another interesting & well written account.

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