From an Interview Of Aaron Weinstein and Jeff Sparks
by Adrienne Moore – Public Relations Department, American Red Cross
Jeff Sparks stood beside his cabin-mate, Jack Harrigan, on the promenade deck, and watched the battle of bombers and Spitfires.
Suddenly one seemed to detach itself from the rest as though it were out of control. But with deadly precision it glided straight for the ship in front of them. “What the devil is that?” Jeff Sparks asked Harrigan, as completely fascinated, they watched the infernal glider bomb, controlled by radio from a German plane above, suddenly turn and circled above them, then plummet dead into their ship, ripping a hole in the starboard and exploding in the hold. A great concussion followed instantaneously, and then a burst of flame enveloped the ship. Bodies flew into the air from the stern like so many gunny sacks. War had ceased to be a sideshow, it had become a inferno.
Only a few minutes before Sparks had been rushing from one side of the ship so as not to miss the show. “We didn’t take it seriously”, said Sparks. “It was just like a football game-watching the bombers and fights. We hadn’t any real sense of danger, not even when a Spit-fire exploded.” In the flash of the bomb everything had changed.
Men were scrambling over the hull at the high side of the ship which had already begun to list. Sparks could also see the hold. The descending gloom of evening was rent with nightmare cries. For a moment he hesitated, then taking his precious ditty bag, containing valued papers, which he had in hand at that moment, he tossed it into the Mediterranean . “It was a very hard thing to do”, he said. Then Sparks turned to the infernal of the hold and plunged into it.
Meantime, Weinstein below, talking to an officer in the corridor, saw nothing of what was happening. The first thing he knew was that a terrible explosion ripped through his eardrums and the concussion sent him spinning. “It was like falling, down, down into a bottomless pit.” He said afterwards. Actually he fell only a few feet the now pitch darkness. Rubble and debris tumbled around him. “I was too surprised to know whether I was hurt. I just began fumbling through the darkness and wreckage for the stairs which I knew were in a certain direction,” remembers Weinstein. Finally he found them and made his way to the deck. It was a madhouse. He could see no one he knew. Men were running wild, cries rent the air and shrieks of agony. He looked for Sparks and as he could not find (him) he made his way to the boat station he had been instructed to go to in the event of emergency.
“I saw men scrambling out of the flaming hold,” related Weinstein. “Some were mangled beyond recognition and crawled like animals.” Tracer bullets were flying. He wondered if there would be strafing. Finally he reached the life boat station where he found Reckseen, Zebrack and Goltry. Somebody lowered the life boat. Zebrack got in and the boat, greatly overcrowded, swung over the side and down. It was one of the few life boats which ever got off the ship. Soldiers were frantically trying to work the winches.
Waves were dashing high and slapping the ship like flagellum. The life boat was soon out of sight. It later capsized. But Weinstein did not see this.
Next Reckseen went over the side. He went down the rope ladder and disappeared into the black sea. Then Goltry went over the side, down the rope ladder and into the sea. The sickness of the coming night and water swallowed him up. “I saw him trying to get away from the ship, then a wave came and I didn’t see him any more,” said Weinstein.
Then it was Weinstein’s turn. Blowing up his life belt, with only one chamber functioning, he climbed over the ship’s side and started down the ladder. Part way down he paused, and took off his shoes. He felt the sickening warmth of the hull with his bare feet. Then he dived in. “I know it isn’t the way we were supposed to get in,” said Weinstein but I had to get as far from the side of the ship as possible to avoid being sucked in.
From every side and from the blackness of the now ink-like waves came cries of Help. Sparks stayed on the ship almost to the last but can’t really say how long. He had no sense of time.
Men were everywhere beyond their wits. One soldier arrayed himself in full battle dress with gun and helmet and jumped into the sea. An officer just before jumping, turned to his companion and said, I’ll sell you my Lugar for five bucks.” He was in dead earnest.
Finally Sparks decided to go. The ship might explode at any minute. The list was heavy. There was only emptiness and flame and death left with the ship. He went to the rail. There he found two soldiers. He said, “Lets go boys.” They shook their heads and mumbled half inaudibly that they were going to stay. He looked at them. They just shook their heads and said, “We can’t swim.”
Sparks told them the ship was going, blew up their life belts, and got them to jump. Then he took off his shoes and looked for his canteen. He was grateful that it was filled with fresh water. In shirt, pants and field jacket he went into the blackness of the Mediterranean . The waves lapped and stuck. The cesspool of death was covered in spots, with the slime of oil
All this while, Weinstein had been floating away from the ship. Within half an hour he had become aware that the other half of his life preserver had failed.
“In that awful moment I felt I had to live. I had to see my wife who was having our first child. I had to see that child. I called “Ruth, Ruth over and over again,” remembers Weinstein.
Then suddenly there was a swish and before he knew what had happened and oar about ten feet long came to him. Weinstein grabbed it in the middle and clung. He drifted with the oar for the next ten hours.
In the emptiness of the night Weinstein heard men’s voices. One voice said, “Come on Tommy. Keep going.” The voice said it over and over again at almost regular intervals. “Come on Tommy, Come on-there’s a boat coming-come on, come on—-.”
There was another group. The leader counted one, two, three, and then they would all call together, “AHOY!”
Above all this someone was praying- saying the Lord’s Prayer.
Weinstein’s teeth chattered. And as they chattered he looked into the empty sea which was so weirdly filled with sound. Then way in the distance there was a blue searchlight; in another direction there was an amber light. “I kept turning the oar so I could face the light,” says Weinstein. “The chances of being spotted were so very slim. Then my hands began to slip from the oar. I felt slimy all over. I had the wild idea that I was beginning to decompose. Only later I realized that I had been floating through oil.
While Weinstein was enduring his 10 hour vigil alone, Sparks had found a small raft. To this pencil of wood clung nearly 25 men. Sparks was never sure because it was too dark to see. And now and again a man would silently drop off into the arms of the sea.
The man next to him seemed to be wearing an officer’s shirt, but he was not taking charge. The men were without a leader. Finally, a man climbed on the raft and capsized it. Sparks felt forced to take over, officer or no officer. Later he learned the man next to him had only grabbed an officer’s shirt in his haste to leave the ship.
Sparks remembered that earlier he had found an old boatswain and asked him what happened when a convoy was hit. Did the ships stop and pick up survivors? The old boatswain had replied: “Convoys never stop.”
After a very long time a dark form loomed on the horizon. Sparks reckoned that it was a quarter of a mile away but he really had no way of knowing. The effect was electrical. He and the men began kicking and pushing the raft. Sparks counted, “One two, three.” Then everybody together yelled “AHOY”. “We were determined to be heard and I thought “ahoy” which is a lingering word, would be heard better than ‘help’, said Sparks . “We pushed our hearts out that night. We got very near the ship and called and called,” he continued.
The great prow loomed high and black and terrible from the black sea. The ship neither saw nor heard. It passed by them.
The men were enveloped in the maw of emptiness and darkness. “You could hear our hearts drop,” he said.
They clung to the pencil of wood grimly and doggedly. Some, unknown to the others, dropped away. Sparks turned to the soldier next to him and said, “If my wife could only see me now!” His humor was without conviction but the soldier tried to laugh through swollen lips.
The Mediterranean was terribly big that night. The men kept talking and encouraging each other. But more often they were silent, lost in their own thoughts or just numb with cold and fear.
Sparks was shaken from his reverie by a man sobbing nearby. Another vomited and his bowels discharged. With the help of a soldier he got the man up on top of the raft so he could rest for a short time. Sparks dove down and took off the shoes of a soldier whose legs were too tired to float.
The monotony of endless ups and downs went on in relentless repetition. The sea surged and threw them into water gulleys. The wetness was no longer wet. It was like some sinister trying to lure them down into the icy comfort of the deep.
Sparks took off his precious water bottle, and poured a great gulp of water into his mouth. It had become salt!
All this time Weinstein was clasping his oar. His tongue had become swollen. He could hardly loosen his mouth. Time and time again he was tempted to let go of the oar and make an end of the ordeal which had no end. His teeth chattered against his swollen tongue.
His mind also was working. But it was not on entertainments in North Africa or the comforts of shipboard. “I kept thinking how they would feel at home when they got the news. I clung on. “Finally I began swearing at the Mediterranean. I cursed as I fought her,” he said.
Sometime during the long night when hope hung by a slender thread and men disappeared like ghosts into the sea a small light was seen swinging from side to side, scouring the waters. “I wondered if the Angel Gabriel had acquired a lantern,” muses Sparks . The light shone dead on the raft then a voice in the distance called,” Hold on for five minutes more.” According to Sparks , “It was the most awful five minutes in the world.”
While they waited they called to one or two men who were now seen to be floating around on their own. Then the ship came near. It was a small American navy minesweeper. The men were pulled onto the deck. But two or three never made it; they were sucked under and mangled in the propellers.
As they were hauled up men murmured “God bless you.” Sparks who was not so weak as some of the rest, stood by the ship’s rail and helped pull up the others. By the time the ship left for port, there were 500 survivors on board, including Red Crossers Jack Harrigan and Nels Guam. The little boat bent low in the water with its load.
Long hours later Weinstein was picked up. An amber light flooded his eyes. “I thought for a minute that I had really hit the gates of Saint Peter,“ he said. Then a voice called, “Grab the life preserver.” He reached for it and put his arm through. “Put it over your head,” said the voice. But Weinstein could not unclamp his left arm from the oar. Finally somebody grabbed him by the hair. Looking back, Weinstein exclaimed, “I sure was glad I hadn’t had a G.I. haircut then.”
Weinstein was yanked aboard a British destroyer. He fell to the deck exhausted and his clothes were stripped from him. After that he was wrapped in dry blankets and warm tea was trickled through his swollen lips. But his teeth would not stop chattering. Every bit of tea was like swallowing knives,” he remembers.
The men, he recounts, treated him and the others they had rescued like brothers. That sat up with them all night and talked to keep up their morale until they could get them to port and a hospital. Weinstein couldn’t sleep. He kept thinking of the rest—of Zebrack, Reckseen, Goltry, Sparks and the others. He kept seeing men go over the side of the ship and the horror in the sea. He smelled the odor of burning flesh.
On board Sparks’ ship, men shaking from cold were stuffed into the warm hatch like sardines. Sparks heard that the mess hall had been turned into a hospital. He went forward to see if he could help. The only available assistance Sparks found were Pharmacists mate Wilson and Sgt Pawlak who had been attached to an army mobile surgical unit. Harrigan and Quam were too ill from exposure to assist.
The three men pooled their efforts. The supply of medicine was limited. The situation was critical.
“As long as I live I shall never forget that night,” said Sparks. Those tragic hundreds-men with 3rd degree burns, hands charred to formless masses, faces burned deep with tinders, cracked skulls, men as stiff as rigor mortis with shock. It was impossible to treat them all.” They had to take them first who had a chance to survive. That night they were the three fates of Greek mythology, spinning, hold and cutting the threads of life, suturing heads, making compresses and administering what morphine and blood plasma there was to those whom they felt they must choose.
Sparks also remembers the tarpaulin of death on the ship deck. Dozens of feet protruded around the edges from bodies hauled in from the sea.
The little ship hovered near the spot of the bombing until two in the morning looking for more survivors, then nosed its way with full steam ahead to port, six hours away.