Williamstown sailor recounts surviving a German U-boat attack, two weeks in a lifeboat in 1943

In front of a group of Williamstown High School students, Jim Shurskis revealed his story – a tale of hardship, bravery, and resilience.

Months earlier, his ship was torpedoed in the Atlantic Ocean by a German U-boat and Shurskis and his fellow sailors were set adrift for almost two weeks awaiting rescue. Upon his return to his hometown of Williamstown, he met up with the locally renowned teacher and high school football coach, John Kopp. The “professor” invited him to speak to a boys club at the high school on a Tuesday night in the summer of 1943 to tell his story. His account was transcribed by a local Methodist minister, John Althouse.

The dramatic story was told in the American Legion Magazine in August 1943. 

americanlegionma352amer_0_0021

Most of them were kids, but every manjack of them knew how important it was that the identity of their commander be concealed.  It was. 

JIM SHURSKIS was seen about town. He had been in town for several days, in a trim blue uniform of the United States Merchant Marine. There was such an air of calmness and quietness about him that no one dreamed of his part in the adventure he was to tell us about several days later. Jim was one of our high school heroes. He was graduated and just went off and got a job quietly. Then nearly a year ago he enlisted in the Navy. So, when he came back to town, he went to visit his old friend and teacher, Professor John Kopp, Principal of our high school. “Prof” asked Jimmy if he would come to our club meeting on Tuesday night, because that story was packed so full of so many of the things we’ve read about, but have never really been very close to.

“About eight months ago I entered the Navy,” Jimmy began.  

“Soon after that I was assigned to a cadet school for merchant marine training.  

We left a southern port, and our fast cargo ship headed out to sea. We were loaded with war materials of various kinds, and headed east.

We sailed a very irregular course, zig-zagged north and south and were never on any of the regular ship lanes. Some days out from port, about 4:30 in the morning, I was almost hurled from my bunk by a terrific explosion, which was followed in the short space of about five seconds by another. I grabbed what clothes I could get my hands on quickly, slipped into them, and hurried to get on deck. Outside the cabin, as I hurried along, I saw furniture and equipment smashed to match-wood. Some of the men were trying to open a door to release other crew members imprisoned in a compartment. We got hold of axes and heavy tools and battered the door loose, letting the fellows escape. When we hurried on deck, we found one of the boats already filled with over sixty men and lowering away.

I rushed to the other side of the deck, jumped into the boat there, and the other men flung themselves in. Then we lowered the boat, but when we hit the water we could not get the gear loose to pull away from the ship. We were almost swamped with water, which came into the boat rapidly due to the uneven keel. We used hatchets and hammers to knock the gear loose, finally releasing the boat and pulling away to about a thousand yards from the ship, when to our horror we saw a periscope coming directly toward our boat. It suddenly veered away.

Another torpedo was fired at our ship, hitting the engine room and blowing her almost in half. Then the sub surfaced, ordered us to tie on to her stern.

German crew members came on the deck of the craft. Then the commander, who looked about twenty-two years old, asked us, “Where is your captain?” in perfect English. Our men, many of them boys of sixteen and seventeen years of age, under terrible strain and tension, kept as calm outwardly as one would never have dreamed. Vague answers were given. Our spokesman, a man of about forty, answered.

“Perhaps he is in the other boat,” said he. “He may have gone down on the ship.”

“Bring a machine gun,” said the commander. A young lieutenant was handed a light machine gun from below. He brought the machine gun with him as he walked toward us, pointing it at us as he came. Then he shot a burst into the air.

“Shall I shoot?” said the lieutenant, in English.

“No! Do not shoot now!” said the commander.

Well, they finally let us go. Our rudder was broken, and we had to repair that. Next we got our sail patched and rigged with difficulties, and let the trade winds carry us, knowing that in that general direction there was land, about 1200 miles away. After the fourth day, I felt that since we had got through rolling and pitching seas with fifty-foot waves and a tremendous swell, by the grace of God we’d get through this thing all the way.

On the fourteenth day, we thought we saw a cloud out on the horizon, but as we bore down in that direction, we saw that land was out there. When we got closer, men stood up in the boat and cheered. We were glad to see friendly people come to help us and give us a welcome. It was an island, and the people, though poor, fed us and tried to help us in every way they could. We had caught two fish during the fourteen days. These we held up to dry in the sun before we ate them.

Within two days after we landed on the island, thanks to radio, a large naval patrol plane came and picked us up…

War-time censorship led his account to be vague (loose lips sink ships, you know), but the details in the story told by Shurskis point to the ship on which he served with the Merchant Marine. A few of the minor details are off, but overall the story rings true.

The SS West Kebar left the West African coast heading west across the Atlantic, but found itself alone, without escort on the night of October 30, 1942. At shortly after midnight local time, a torpedo slammed into the vessel killing three onboard. The survivors raced for lifeboats, 34 crew members settling into one boat and only 8 filling another, damaged lifeboat. An hour after the initial hit, the U-boat surfaced and finished off the West Kebar with a torpedo that nearly split the vessel in two. The U-boat arrived alongside the lifeboat carrying 8 and questioned the crewmembers on board. Shurskis gives an account of that interaction.

West Kebar
SS West Kebar (Mariners Museum, Newport News VA)

The West Kebar was 350 miles from Barbados when struck by the first torpedo and after the U-boat submerged, the eight men in the lifeboat found themselves alone in the South Atlantic, hundreds of miles from land. Here are notes on what happened to them:

One lifeboat swamped on launching and had to be bailed for two hours by the eight occupants, so they lost contact to the others and landed after nine days on a small island off Guadeloupe, were brought to the main island by a small boat on 10 November, taken to Martinique by the French motor merchant Guadeloupe and then flown to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

While there are several details that don’t dovetail perfectly, such as the number of days at sea, the number of people in the other lifeboat, and the direction the vessel was sailing when struck, many details point to Jim Shurskis being aboard the West Kebar. No other vessel reported such a tale in that area of the Atlantic during the time period Shurskis served in the Merchant Marine.

After his harrowing experience, Shurskis, whose given name was Sigmund, joined up with the U.S. Army. He served in an intelligence capacity through the rest of the war and in April 1945 wrote a letter to a friend in Williamstown previously documented here.


Featured Image: Archive.org

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