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Oral History - Battle of the Atlantic, 1941-1945

Recollections of Seaman Second Class Basil D. Izzi, USNR, an Armed Guard crew member on the Dutch merchant ship SS Zaandam which was torpedoed by German submarine U-174 off the coast of Brazil. He was rescued after 83 days adrift on a raft, 2 Nov 1942 - 24 Jan 1943.

Adapted From: Basil Izzi interview in box 15 of World War II Interviews, Archives, Naval History and Heritage Command.

I was torpedoed on November 2nd on a Tuesday afternoon about 4 o'clock. It was a clear day and the sun was shining bright. About 4:15 we were in my cabin playing cards, four of the fellows besides myself. Our radio man walked in and told us our position, where we were and everything. He just walked out and as soon as he walked out our first torpedo [fired by German submarine U-174] struck us. We got up and ran out to the door, we were trying to get to the guns but the shortest way was blocked by the wreckage from the torpedo from topside, so we had to go back inside the ship and through the lounge up on the next deck [as] the easiest way we could get to the guns. When we were getting there we saw the ship's crew was letting the rafts get underway. Well, after the first torpedo the ship didn't stop right away, it kept on going for a few hundred yards, and when the rafts did hit the water they just drifted off. We got back to the guns and our gunnery officer radioed down [to check] if everything was all set, and we told him yes. Everybody was in their positions, loaded the gun, and were looking around to see if they could see the submarine, but there was no submarine sin sight. At that time there was nobody jumping off the ship and no abandon ship was given as yet.

There were three lifeboats on the starboard side that were pretty well loaded but the Captain didn't let them down yet. A few minutes after that we got struck by the second torpedo and the ship started sinking rapidly. Everybody started jumping over the side, there was a lot of screaming and panic going on, everybody was nervous, and the boats on the portside were damaged by both torpedoes. Two lifeboats on the starboard side got off safely and the third one didn't get off so safely, it had a hole in it's side. By that time the gun crews were about the only one left on the ship, so we started jumping over the side, some over the stern. Well, I jumped over the stern and it was at a great height. When I got into the water I found wreckage that I hung onto and I swan as fast as I could away from the ship.

I was hanging on to that wreckage for all that afternoon and that night and all the next day. Early that morning I spotted this raft which I was on for 83 days. I saw that there were four men on it which I couldn't recognize then from the distance where I was, so I started swimming to them and finally got there. When I did get there they gave me some chocolate, milk, and a little bit of water. We started talking about the days that we spent in the water just hanging on to the wreckage.

Finally, when I got there, I found out it was my gunnery officer, another sailor and two Dutchmen. One of the Dutchmen belonged to the ship's crew of the ship I was on. He was in the engine room. We slept pretty well that day, and we didn't see anything at all, we didn't see any more bodies, no planes or ships coming out. The next day came and we thought we would have to start pulling watches day and night. In the day time we pulled watches for about 10 minutes, and in the night time maybe an hour or two hours. We did that until about the 35th day when we got so weak that we couldn't pull watches anymore. Our food lasted for 16 days, we rationed it out in very small pieces, chocolate and very small rations of water. For a while they were feeding these hardtack biscuits to the birds as we thought for a while that we would get picked up. After our food ran out we still had little water but we had to get some food somewhere, so we had a line about 12 feet long and we made it into a running bowline like a lasso, and we hung it over the side and we knew that the sharks would come under the raft to attack us. We hung our toes or hands or feet in the water. So, we did that for a while and we didn't succeed at first, but the second time a shark did go through the rope and we pulled it and caught it by its tail. We took that shark aboard and hit it with everything we had, we hit it with the paddle, we had a knife and we took its heart out and liver, and still the heart was beating for 15 minutes after we took it out. We ate the heart and liver first and after that we cut some of the white meat off its back. Well that was tough and it was very dry, but we ate a little of that anyway. We cut some more off and we put it in a food container, which by this time was empty, to try to see if it would be good tomorrow, the next day. We got up the next morning and we found that the meat wasn't any good and it wasn't fit to eat so we had to throw that overboard. That was the first fish that we caught. At night time there were a lot of birds fishing around, and they would come and roost on the raft on account of the water being so rough they couldn't ride the waves so they would come onto the raft and rest, so we would just creep up behind them and catch them. We caught about 25 of those birds the same way. One day we caught about eight little fishes, like sardines, these big green fish would fight on the outside and the little fish would get scared and would come inside the cracks of the raft and we would just catch them with our hands, and sometimes we would have bait from a bird, sometimes we used the head or the intestines.

It was Thanksgiving Day we had our best meal. It was late in the afternoon about 3:30 and this bird came flying like it wanted to get on the raft and yet didn't want to, so finally the bird rested on the water alongside the raft and one of the boys wanted to jump in the water to get this bird, but we told him to wait awhile, probably, the bird would come on the raft or come closer. It didn't come any closer so this young Dutchman took a leap, and we held him as he leaped over the side of the raft and caught this bird by its neck. That was Thanksgiving Day, and we had a very big amount of meat to eat. We ate that about an hour and a half--that's how long it took to eat that bird.

On the 20th day we saw our first ship. We burned [f]lares and we waved our hands and waved our shirts, but the ship, I guess, didn't see us so we felt kind of bad but still we thought that probably another ship would come by and a ship did come by the next day. It was late in the afternoon about 4:30. We did about the same thing, we also burned flares, we had four left and we burned three. We waved a flag and our shirts. We had a yellow cloth there that we used to wave so that ship might have seen that bright color. That ship struck around a good time but finally went off. About three weeks later we saw a large ship but it was so far away that we didn't even attempt to try to let them see us.

The days would go on and sometimes we would be without food for two or three days, sometimes without water for four and the longest we were out of water was for six days. On the sixty-sixth day one of the sailors died on the raft. Before he died he was sick a long time, somewhere around a month or five weeks. He was very sick, complained of pains in his stomach, he went blind in one of his eyes, and he couldn't hear out of one of his ears. He suffered quite a bit and on the night of the 65th day he was groaning and he talked out of his mind, people that we didn't know of he talked about. We put him a dry spot on the raft for that night and when we woke up the next morning he was dead. My gunnery officer was sick at the same time but not as bad and he said that he hoped that he wasn't next, but he was next. He died on the seventy-sixth day, but he didn't suffer as bad as Beazley did. We said prayers for them and we buried them at sea. Well, the three of us were left and we hoped that if anybody else was going to die that all three of us would die together.

On the eighty-second day we saw our first airplane and it was so high that we didn't think that they saw us. But early the next morning this same type of plane came back again. It was not as high but was at a far distance. So, then we knew that we were near land and we thought probably some convoy was coming out of some port. About an hour later we saw smoke at the horizon then it disappeared. Later on it came back and then more smoke and more. That went on for about one hour and finally we could see masts of all these merchant ships and we saw one destroyer and we saw another which we thought was a destroyer which was a PC boat [submarine chaser, 173-foot class, crew of 59, armament was 3" deck gun and depth charges] that picked us up. We had one of the Dutchmen stand up, we held him by his knees so he wouldn't fall down while he was waving his flag. He wave this flag and we saw this ship would turn around and head one way and then it would head the other way. One time he said--"Well, it looks like it is not coming to pick us up," but we told him not to give up, to keep on waving that flag. The fellow on the starboard watch [on the PC boat later] said he spotted us about 5,000 yards. He said he called the skipper up and the skipper looked through his binoculars and said it was a life raft, so he signaled to the commander escort vessels [and] said he was going to investigate a raft. They were coming full speed ahead for us and a gush of smoke came from the starboard side of the ship and the Dutchman thought they got hit by a torpedo and he says--"Gee, they got hit by a torpedo." I turned around and looked, there was smoke over the side but I knew it wasn't a torpedo, the ship kept on going. They were blinking their lights and the fellows waving flags, and then we knew that they spotted us. They pulled alongside and they dropped the ladder off the side and they helped us climb aboard and the first thing they gave us was peaches. That Dutchman hollered for beans but they said that beans were kind of heavy so they gave him peaches. It started raining after that, and they took us down below and gave us some more peaches. I was on that ship for eleven days when we finally pulled into a civilian port, and I was brought to a Naval Dispensary there for one month. From there I flew by plane to Miami, from Miami to Washington, and they brought me to the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Interviewer: What was the name of the ship you were on?
Izzi: It was the S.S. Zaandam

Interviewer: And you were sailing from where?
Izzi: The last port we stopped at was Cape Town, Africa.

Interviewer: How many days were you out there when you were torpedoed?
Izzi: I would say about a week and a half.

Interviewer: In other words you were entirely across the southern Atlantic, did you?
Izzi: Well, we were only 12 days from New York, so that would make us just around the bulge of Brazil.

Interviewer: For the record you had better state your rating.
Izzi: Seaman, Second Class. I am a member of the armed guard gun crew.

Interviewer: Did you have any life preserver on when you jumped off the ship?
Izzi: Yes, I did.

Interviewer: Were you by yourself on that wreckage or were there some other people around you?
Izzi: Well, sometimes you would bump into somebody, Sir, and sometimes you would be alone. At night time you just bump against debris and you would hear fellows hollering because a shark would either get his arm or leg and you couldn't see him at all.

Interviewer: Did sharks ever come near you?
Izzi: I saw some of them come but I just kept kicking my feet and they didn't seem to bother me that way.

Interviewer: That raft, of course, that these men on that you met, had they been on the raft since they left the ship?
Izzi: No they picked it up a few hours before I did. Three of the men found it and my gunnery officer got on it about an hour before I did. I was the last man to get on.

Interviewer: Can you give us the names of the men of that raft?
Izzi: There was my gunnery officer, James Maddox; there was a sailor that was on the same ship I was, Seaman 2nd class George Beazley; the two Dutchmen Vanderslot and Mikelhugandown; and there was a sailor that was on another merchant ship.

Interviewer: Was there another ship torpedoed near there at the same time yours was?
Izzi: Not the same time, no, when we were coming down the Indian Ocean [toward Cape Town] these two boys, Mikelhugandown and Beazley, they were on different ships and they also got torpedoed going to their destination, and they were picked up by the British escorts and brought to Cape Town, that is where we picked them up.

Interviewer: Did I understand you say, when you were on the raft, something about seeing bodies in the water?
Izzi: No, I wouldn't say that. Before I got on this raft you would see bodies in the water.

Interviewer: What do you make of the first ship that stayed around several days and then cruised away?
Izzi: Well, it didn't stay that long, we didn't mind it at first because we thought that they were scared to come over, we thought they thought there would be a submarine around there. We thought probably they pulled into a port and let somebody else come out.

Interviewer: Could you tell the nationality of the ship?
Izzi: No, we couldn't.

Interviewer: Did anybody keep a log while you were on the raft?
Izzi: Yes Sir, we tried to keep a log on a flare can, it was made of copper, but the salt water would hit it and it would just rust away.

Interviewer: Do you save any souvenirs from the trip?
Izzi: Yes Sir, I saved the drinking cup that we had aboard the raft.

Interviewer: Beside these services for men who died, did you have any religious service on the raft?
Izzi: Yes, before anyone died we used to have services, like every night before we would go to bed. Each man would say his prayers or sometimes one man would say them for the whole party.

Interviewer: Was your family notified that you were missing while you were on the raft?
Izzi: Yes, they were notified November the 18th that I was missing, and they were notified again February 1st that I was picked up.

Interviewer: What was the name of the rescue ship, do you know?
Izzi: It was a PC boat 576 [U.S. Navy submarine chasers were not named - PC 576 was built in Dravo, Delaware in 1942], an American boat, a small patrol boat. It was escorting a convoy from Trinidad.

Interviewer: How about your weight?
Izzi: My regular weight is around 145 but when I got picked up I weighed something like 85 pounds. Right now I am just a few pounds out of the way [i.e., short of regular weight]. I am going to make a country tour in a few more days and after I finish that I am going to take about two months leave and then return to the hospital here in Bethesda.

Interviewer: You are going to talk to war plants?
Izzi: Yes Sir, I am.

Note: Dutch merchant ship SS Zaandam, bound for New York, carrying 8600 tons of chrome and copper ore as well as 600 tons of general cargo, had a crew of 112, 18 armed guards and 169 passengers including survivors from four previously sunk ships. The only survivors were a group of three including Basil Izzi.

11 December 2000

Published: Mon Sep 21 07:50:04 EDT 2015