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Surviving the sinking of the SS Fort Lee

Posted on Monday, June 24, 2013 at 10:46 am

Nearly three months after the SS Fort Lee sank on Nov. 2, 1944, 3rd Class Gunners Mate Jim Wilson arrived back in the U.S. from Australia. The very same week Jim, along with several other Navy personnel who were on the SS Fort Lee at the time of its sinking arrived in San Diego, a local newspaper ran a story on the sinking of the ship.

At just 17, Jim decided to join the Naval Reserve until his 18th birthday, when he would be able to join the Navy. Once in the Navy, Jim literally traveled around the world on his very first trip. His experiences in the Navy have given him many great stories and allowed him to visit countries across the world. The most incredible story, however, is probably the story of the SS Fort Lee.

The SS Fort Lee was an American merchant tanker ship hauling 93,000 barrels of Navy Bunker C fuel from Abadan, Iran to Brisbane, Australia. Jim was one of 26 Naval Armed Guard crewmen aboard the ship who were led by Officer in Charge, Lt. James W. Milne. Also on board were 46 merchant crewmen, which included the Master, Ottar M. Andersen.

On Oct. 30, 1944, three days before the SS Fort Lee was to sink the crew noticed a submarine surface while crossing the Indian Ocean on their way from Abadan, Iran to Brisbane, Australia. Jim says it was strange because the SS Fort Lee could out run a sub that had surfaced because Lee could travel at 23 knots while a sub that had surfaced could only travel at 12 knots, but after seeing the sub the SS Fort Lee slowed to only 16 knots. Jim also noted that after seeing the submarine surface the SS Fort Lee started to run a straight course rather than one that zigzags. Most ships ran the zigzag pattern when traveling across open water as it made it more difficult for a submarine’s radar to zero in a ship. So a ship running a straight course became easier to find and follow.

On Nov. 2, 1944 around 8 p.m. local time, Jim left the mess room and headed to his quarters located directly above the engine room in an effort to put together a card game. After being unsuccessful Jim returned to the mess room just in time to hear and feel a torpedo hit the SS Fort Lee. The first torpedo hit and struck the SS Fort Lee on the port directly under the boilers causing them to blow up, stopping the engines and flooding the fire room. At this point Jim tried to exit the mess room and was stopped from using the door by the heat created by the steam from the engines. So Jim had no other choice but to exit through a porthole.

As the lifeboats were being lowered a second torpedo struck the SS Fort Lee in the engine room at the starboard quarter right under lifeboats number 3 and 5 destroying both. However, lifeboats number 1, 2, 4 and 6 were safely lowered and Jim Wilson found himself in lifeboat number 6 along with 16 other men from the sinking ship.

About one hour after the first torpedo struck the ship the SS Fort Lee sank about 1700 miles from Western Australia. At that time the German U-boat U-181 under commander Kurt Friewald surfaced looking for the captain of the SS Fort Lee. Friewald was looking for the captain of the sunken ship and Jim remembers the crew telling the German commander that the captain had gone down with the ship although they were unsure if it was true or not. The German skipper also interrogated the crew about cargo and destination. Jim said he never knew where they were headed and the crew refused to answer any questions.

The lifeboats tried to remain together surviving off no more than sea rations and a gallon of water per lifeboat until a storm hit on their second day adrift and tore the convoy apart. On lifeboat number 6 Jim remembers mapping their course and figuring out water rations. They had limited water which amounted to two ounces per person per day and figured they had enough to last them for 30 days. Unfortunately, they figured it would take 32 days to reach land.

Luckily for Jim Wilson and the survivors of lifeboat number 6 the SS Tumacacori had drifted some 365 miles off course and ended up on course with lifeboat number 6, which had floated 675 miles in just six days. On Nov. 9 the SS Tumacacori rescued the 17 survivors including Jim and took the men to Albany, Australia. The SS Mary Ball rescued lifeboat number 1 Nov. 16, lifeboat number 2 was rescued by the British freighter MS Ernebank on Nov. 7 and lifeboat number 4 was never heard from or seen again.

After arriving in Albany Jim was taken to a hospital where he was given a soup diet. Then Jim and the rest of the survivors were taken by train to Perth where they were questioned about the sinking of the SS Fort Lee and given survivors’ cards. He was flown to Adelaide, and then preceded by train to Melbourne, where Jim was kicked off the train because he was not high enough priority. In Melbourne the port director gave Jim and the rest of the survivors coupons for food and clothing because they had no money. After a short stay in Melbourne Jim was able to get a train ride to Sydney and then boarded a ship to San Diego.

From San Diego Jim boarded a plane to Brooklyn and then headed to Deland, Fla. for two weeks of recovery. When Jim arrived in Florida he weighed only 118 pounds. While in Florida Jim was to eat three meals a day to gain weight, but Jim says he did not gain a single pound because the portions were so small. Jim did enjoy playing golf while in Florida with some of the other men that were there.

Once Jim was finished with his stay in Florida he served aboard the SS John L. Stoddard before being discharged from the Navy in 1945. Even after 39 months of service, surviving his ship being sunk and earning a purple heart Jim had to fight to be discharged.

Once out of the Navy Jim returned to his hometown of St. James, Mo. and later lived in De Soto. Jim now resides in Troy where has lived since 2000 and recently participated in the Honor Flight Program.


Jim Wilson at his home present day.

Jim Wilson at his home present day.

Lifeboat #6, carrying Jim Wilson, being rescued by the SS Tumacacori.

Lifeboat #6, carrying Jim Wilson, being rescued by the SS Tumacacori.

Jim Wilson (seated second from left) with fellow sailors in Venezuela.

Jim Wilson (seated second from left) with fellow sailors in Venezuela.