Torpedoed and adrift in the Atlantic

Longtaker under her former name Sessa. Photo courtesy of Danish Maritime Museum, Elsinore and Uboat .net

On the 17th August 1941 the United States ship Longtaker, previously the Danish ‘Sessa’, was torpedoed en route to Iceland where it was taking supplies for the United States garrison. This was the first of several incidents that led Roosevelt to change the rules of engagement for the United States Navy. Hendrik Bjerregaard, Danish first officer of the Sessa, was still crippled by frostbite and exposure when he told the following story to the British Press:

We left New York with a cargo of supplies for the American forces in Iceland. After some time at sea we were torpedoed at midnight, and then shelled by the U-boat as the ship sank. She went down in two minutes.

I had no lifebelt, but I grabbed a pole as I was thrown into the water. A seaman joined me, and we hung on for two hours. Then we floated to a lifeboat which was upside down, and found four more of the crew sitting astride the keel. We joined them, and stayed on the lifeboat all night. Besides myself there were three Portuguese, a Swede, and a Canadian.

Next day a raft from the ship drifted alongside, and as we could not right the boat we all jumped on the raft. I cut the canvas cover off the lifeboat, swimming under water to do it. Then we put the cover on the raft to make a roof. After seeing we had a drum of water and tin of biscuits, I cut a sliver off the raft and started a log.

Every day at sunrise I made a notch to mark another day. After the tenth day on the raft one man died, and on the thirteenth two more died. One of the men was the Canadian, and another Portuguese. To mark their deaths I cut a little cross into my wooden log above the day of the month.

We had a sip of water each day and hard biscuits. When the water ran out we caught rainwater. On the seventeenth day all our water went, and our throats were so parched that we could not eat anything.

The sea was moderate most of the time, but it was impossible to go right off to sleep. We should have been washed off. When I got to Reykjavik I had my first night’s sleep for three weeks.

Every sunrise as I notched my log my two remaining companions, the Swede and the Portuguese, asked: “Shall we ever be picked up?” Every day I said “Yes. We are drifting towards Iceland. A fishing-boat will see us.”

I was quite confident that I should live through it. On the eighteenth day we saw smoke on the horizon, but to our intense disappointment it faded away.

Then on the 19th day, as I lay utterly exhausted, I heard to my joy a ship’s siren and raised myself weakly to see the Stars and Stripes of an American destroyer. There were 27 men in the Sessa, and all the others must be lost. Our ship was flying the Panama flag. We were a Danish ship taken over by the American Government.

Hendrik Bjerregaard’s story of survival gained quite a bit of attention and his wooden ‘log’ features in the following newsreel:


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