The sea is calm and the sky clear the night Alex Schenck dies aboard the SS John Straub in the waters off Alaska.
He stands on the bridge of the ship, waiting to be relieved. It is shortly before midnight, April 18, 1944.
The next man on watch arrives. Schenck leaves, probably for bed or maybe to watch a poker game. Darkness, cold and chaos are about to engulf him.
Minutes later, an explosion shatters the ship. Many of the 70 men on board are asleep. They don’t have a chance.
They awaken to a horrible sound in the darkness. The floor tilts. Frigid water crashes into their quarters. They cry out, but only the ocean answers. Within three minutes the Straub’s bow is sucked into the night-black sea.
The disaster makes the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Times, The Spokesman-Review, The Washington Post and The New York Times.
“Laden with munitions, the Liberty ship John Straub sank last Wednesday in a mysterious disaster in Alaskan waters with a presumed loss of 55 lives,” reads the P-I’s story on April 24, 1944.
Reports follow that the ship - one of thousands of Liberty ships built to ferry supplies for the American war machine - cracked in two. There are also reports of unexplained explosions.
Twelve months later, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal sends a form letter to the families of the lost sailors. One goes to the mother of Spokane sailor Arnold Hansen.
“Dear Mrs. Hansen,
“Your son, Arnold Arthur Hansen … was a member of the armed guard crew serving on board the S.S. JOHN W. STRAUB when that vessel, while en route from Seattle, Washington to Attu Island, was damaged as the result of one or more internal explosions and subsequently sank almost immediately.”
Half a century passes before Alex Schenck’s oldest son fastens onto a different explanation for his father’s death.
Moved by what he learns, Schenck’s son reaches across the United States to tell other families of the 55 lost sailors. He makes hundreds of phone calls and writes scores of letters. After nine months, he’s filled a three-ring binder with 3 inches of notes and documents. He hears the harrowing accounts of survivors.
He talks with families from Spokane to Butler, Pa. Their long-slumbering sorrow shrugs off its blanket as he reveals his conclusion: The SS John Straub was sunk by a Japanese submarine the families were never told about.
The torpedo theory
Alex Schenck’s wife, Vera, heard of the disaster on the radio at home. Earlier in the evening, she had celebrated her son William’s third birthday. She had two boys, the other, Alex, was 4.
The family never held a memorial. For more than a decade, Vera Schenck hoped her husband would come home.
In 1996, she leafed through a AAA magazine and learned of the restored Liberty ship SS Jeremiah O’Brien in San Francisco Bay.
“She asked me if I would like to see what kind of ship my dad died on,” says Alex Schenck, the now-59-year-old son who bears his father’s name.
Alex Schenck brought a wreath of flowers. The captain stopped the ship under the Golden Gate Bridge, where Schenck tossed the blossoms into the sea.
“When I threw that wreath into the ocean I felt like I had laid flowers on my father’s grave,” Schenck says.
After the ceremony, a volunteer aboard the ship found a listing for the SS John Straub in a history book. Alex Schenck read the following:
“For some forty years the loss of this vessel has been attributed to a brittle fracture in the shell plating, due to the Arctic cold. However, recent research of records in the Puget Sound area reveals that the `violent explosion’ - followed by a burst of white flame and a huge pillar of smoke - suffered by the ship was, in fact, caused by a torpedo from the Japanese submarine I.180, and this in an area which had, then only recently been declared `free of enemy submarines’ by the U.S. Navy.”
The words left Schenck numb.
The family had long suspected the Straub might have been torpedoed, but there was never official word. Their grief had always borne the heavy thought that their father may have died in vain - the victim of a cracked hull.
“It was like a weight was taken off my shoulders,” Schenck says. “I was sad, but it finally cleared it up once and for all.”
But what Schenck had read gnawed on him as months passed.
“I knew what had happened and it preyed on my mind. For some reason it was as if the crew was haunting me. It was as if they were coming to me saying: “You know. You know. You must tell our families,” Schenck says. “I could not live with myself knowing there were families out there that did not know what I did.”
With nothing more than a 54-year-old list of names and hometowns of the dead, Schenck set out last August to find the families and tell them what he knew.
Records raise questions
But what was there to know?
In San Francisco, Schenck had learned of the torpedo theory of the SS Straub’s demise from “The Liberty Ships,” by L.A. Sawyer and W.H. Mitchell. The authors cited records in the Puget Sound area for their conclusion.
Schenck wrote the publisher, wanting to know more. Both authors were dead, came the response.
The Spokesman-Review contacted another historian, who had written about the Straub and the thousands of other Liberty ships.
“I agonized over the Straub,” says author and historian Capt. Arthur Moore. “The Navy says it was an internal explosion. But the men I talked to were adamant this was not an internal explosion.”
Moore’s book, “A careless word … A Needless Sinking” concludes the Straub was sunk by a torpedo.
To Moore’s recollection, he used a secondhand account from a survivor for his conclusion.
“Based on the testimony of these (survivors), I said `Well if that’s wrong let the Navy rebut it.’ The book’s been out for more than a dozen years and I haven’t heard from them,” he says.
The Navy’s records on the Straub raised questions.
Less than a week after the wreck, secret dispatches were sent to naval commanders in Seattle stating that while an investigator could not find enough evidence to determine whether the explosion was internal or external, he thought it was internal.
No explanation is given why the investigator reached this conclusion. Months later a Coast Guard report said the Straub was sunk by a mine, but the Navy disagreed.
There are hints of more information in the government archives. A June 1944 letter from a Navy lieutenant commander mentions a 222-page transcript of a hearing on the Straub.
But that document is not with the letter. Numerous requests to government archives in Seattle and Washington, D.C., have yet to turn up the document. And a search of newspaper archives failed to produce any mention of the document.
Alex Schenck spent months calling newspapers for obituary information. He took out a $200 ad in the Portland Oregonian newspaper trying to find families. He wrote 31 museums seeking a photo of his dad’s ship.
To find the family of Arnold Arthur Hansen, Schenck resorted to calling everyone in the Spokane phone book with that last name. There were hundreds of Hansens.
On the 85th call, he reached Robert Hansen, Arnold’s older brother.
“It just curdled my blood to hear about my brother after all those years,” says Hansen, 85. “I thought there might be a chance … that he might still be alive.”
Arnold Hansen was the youngest of six children born in Spokane. He was 19 when killed as a member of the Naval Armed Guard, which defended Liberty ships.
“He just wanted to do his part and nobody could talk him out of it,” Robert Hansen says. “He was in the service and he wasn’t shy of anything. He was just a little too brave for his own use. I tried to tell him to duck wherever he could.”
Robert Hansen was 12 years older. When Arnold was about 6, their parents separated. Robert Hansen taught his brother to drive. They fished together on the Spokane River and Hangman Creek. They hunted rabbits and pheasants.
“I think he looked up to me like a dad because I was so much older. He was loved by everybody in the family.”
A year before Arnold Hansen boarded the Straub, he visited his older brother in California, where Robert was working.
“I gave him a hunting knife. I’ll never forget that. I told him: `If you’re ever in a fight, you’ll have something in your fist.”’ It was the last time the brothers saw each other.
Through newspaper reports, the Hansen family heard the Straub broke in two. They also heard that one of the Straub’s lifeboats was unaccounted for.
For Arnold’s mother, Lillian, that was enough to nurture hope.
“She always hoped somehow that lifeboat got out of there,” Hansen says. “Mom always thought Arnold would come back.”
As decades passed, Robert Hansen guarded his brother’s memory. He flew an American flag in front of his home near the Manito Golf and Country Club in honor of his brother. When someone cut it down earlier this year, Hansen posted a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the vandal. The offer still stands.
Hansen is glad to know what happened to the Straub even though it stirred some long-slumbering sorrow.
“I got more from Alex than from the Navy or anybody,” Hansen says.
In gratitude, he sent Schenck a $300 check. Schenck sent it back.
Survivors are found
There were 15 survivors. They had last names like Moore and Steele, Jessup and Howard. Names as common as waves on an ocean.
But there were names like Spang, Eucalano and Krolak. In Washington state, there are only twenty-some people with the last name Spang. Call all of them and you’ll find Bruce Spang’s relatives. They’ll point you to Kendrick, Idaho.
Spang is 74 years old and retired. He spent hours floating in the cold Arctic waters after the Straub sank. His body was never the same. Standing on the cold steel decks of ships was something he could no longer do. He became a trucker and then worked for lumberyards and sawmills.
“I survived by sheer luck,” he says. “It just wasn’t my time to go.”
Having worked aboard Liberty ships in the Atlantic for three years, Spang had seen ships torpedoed and heard the explosions.
“When one of those goddamned shells goes off you know it,” Spang says.
He believes the Straub was sunk by a torpedo.
So does Solomon Branch, another survivor who has lived in Winslow, Ariz., for more than 50 years.
After the war, he worked for a newspaper and then as a municipal court judge. Now retired, he still serves as a court interpreter for immigrants in trouble with the law.
Each year, Branch celebrates the anniversary of the ordeal. He calls it his “resurrection day.”
This is how Branch’s diary, Spang’s memory and newspaper clippings describe the sinking:
The Straub leaves Seattle on April 12. By the night of the 18th she is 2,200 miles northwest of Seattle, making her way south of Sannak Island. It is near midnight.
In the chart room, Spang turns over his watch to another officer.
“The two of us were standing side by side over a bunch of charts. I was telling him what the captain wanted done,” Spang recalls.
Something hits the port side of the ship. An enormous explosion hurls Spang and the other officer against the wall. Lights blink out.
Another explosion, then another. White flames leap skyward. Smoke boils into the night.
In minutes the frigid north Pacific sloshes down a hallway outside the chart room. The Straub’s captain, A.W. Westerholm, stands there, water swirling around his feet.
“Save yourself,” Westerholm tells Spang.
Branch tries to run to the bridge. He, too, meets Westerholm, who hustles the young sailor to the lifeboats. Branch tries to launch one, but the forward part of the Straub sinks under his feet.
The ship. The lifeboat. The captain. Everything is gone.
The ocean seethes with a carpet of burning oil and gas. Men scream and Branch recognizes the voices crying out in the darkness.
Branch’s sheepskin coat balloons around him and he floats. Another man, Kenneth “Red” Baker struggles nearby. The pair find a half-floating barrel. They reach across it, grab each other’s arms and wait.
They are covered with oil. They are freezing. Their grips are failing.
Still on board in the darkness, Spang finds the lifeboat station. The boats are gone. For a moment he feels as if the ship is already abandoned.
Then he hears someone pounding a fist against a boat deck door. Someone is trapped. Spang grabs the door handle. It sticks. The ocean rises.
The door pops open and a man scrambles out. Spang makes his way to the pilot house, the highest point on the ship. The water is waist high. He steps into the ocean.
He pulls himself onto an overturned lifeboat. Lt. Donald Moore pops up nearby, having lost his pajamas after diving into the water.
They watch the forward section of the Straub vanish. Dozens of men are trapped inside the ship as she plunges. Spang sees men burning in the water.
Improbably, the stern of the ship still floats in the distance. One man clings to it.
From their barrel, Branch and Baker see a floating pile of lumber. They make for the wood. Then they see a raft and struggle to it. Baker is pulled on immediately, but the men are too numb and exhausted to haul in the oil-slicked Branch. They lash him to the side of the raft with rope.
Branch slips through the coils.
“Grab the Mexican, he’s getting away from us,” says Leo Harrelson, a 19-year-old from Savannah, Ga.
But no one has the strength. Harrelson uses the only muscle he can still move.
“He held on to me with his jaws clamped onto the collar of my coat,” Branch remembers. “I could hear him breathing through the mucky oil. He never let go. He saved my life.”
After awhile, the other men regain enough energy to pull Branch aboard. They have drifted. The screams of the men dying in the debris of the Straub are gone.
Three hours later a ship’s silhouette appears, small and low against the horizon of stars. The men start waving electric lanterns and hollering.
The gunner’s mate silences them.
“It kind of looked like a submarine,” Branch recalls. “It headed straight for us, bearing down on us.”
“Then I heard the sweetest words I’ve ever heard. They came from the boat. `Hey Charlie, here the sons of bitches are!”’
It is a small Army cargo ship. Its crew pulls the men aboard and sets about cleaning the gooey black oil from their flesh. The ship picks up Spang and the others three hours later.
The first thing some survivors want is a cigarette.
Crewmen swab their lips clean. They light cigarettes and hold them to the mouths of the oil-covered men. Branch smokes his first-ever cigarette. He still smokes today.
A thousand questions
The men were taken to an Army hospital in Cold Bay, Alaska. Within a day or two of their arrival, two clean-cut men in civilian clothes arrived to question them. Branch and Spang both say the men were FBI agents.
“They were the nicest gentlemen you’d ever want to talk to. They never raised their voice, they’d do anything for you,” Spang says. “But my gosh, they can ask you one question a thousand different ways until they trip you up.”
Spang is adamant about the directions the questions were headed.
“They wanted us to admit it was faulty construction and that the ship was overloaded,” Spang says. “But there was no way in hell that I would say that. Never did and never will.”
Branch remembers talk in the hospital of one of the men having seen a torpedo wake come at the ship, but he admits his memory is faded.
“There was no doubt in my mind or any of the survivor’s minds that it was a torpedo,” Branch says.
The investigators stayed several days. One asked all the questions, the other wrote everything down in a notebook.
Kenneth Baker, who had survived with Branch, passed time by making pencil sketches of the Straub.
“He drew pictures you wouldn’t believe. He must have had three or four of how the debris looked in the water after she sank,” Spang says. “The government men took all of Baker’s drawings. They took them and never gave them back.”
After recuperating, merchant marines Spang and Baker were taken to Seattle for more questioning before a Coast Guard and Navy board. Branch and the other Naval Armed Guard members were taken to Treasure Island in California.
Branch remembers little of the subsequent interviews. Spang says they had the same drift.
“I just sat in a closed room with a bunch of brass. They were nice and polite and in a nice and polite sort of way they tried to get me to say it was the construction of the ship.”
What the naval commanders likely knew, but Spang did not, was that seven days after the Straub sank, the destroyer USS Gilmore attacked and destroyed a Japanese submarine just 500 miles from where the Straub went down - a distance easily traveled in that length of time by a submarine.
More than 40 years later, historians - Capt. Moore, L.A. Sawyer and W.H. Mitchell - learned of the Gilmore’s kill. All noted it in their references to the Straub.
“It has been determined that the Navy told all captains of these ships there were no Jap subs in the Gulf of Alaska,” Moore says. “You will get pros and cons, but the odds are much in favor that the ship was torpedoed.”
But Moore admits: “If you’re looking for real proof of this thing, I don’t think you’re going to find it.”
Running out of leads
For Alex Schenck there is proof enough.
“That submarine was there and it sunk the ship. There is no doubt in my mind,” Schenck says.
But acting on that conclusion hasn’t been easy. Fifty-five men died aboard the Straub. He’s found the families of 12 of them. Only two had ever heard the torpedo theory - both learned of it from survivors who visited them.
“Some of these people you can tell are bitter that the Navy never did anything to inform them. All they have are little newspaper accounts,” Schenck says.
Early on, Schenck tried to enlist the help of the government in his search for relatives. He wrote to several members of Congress to no avail.
The Navy wouldn’t consider re-examining such an old case unless directed to do so by Congress, a Washington, D.C., spokeswoman says.
A Navy veteran himself, Schenck is almost ready to end the search. He’s nearly run out of leads and the whole thing has been more painful than he expected.
“I think of those families and the pain they went through, like the pain my mother went through,” he says.
Schenck started this journey as a son remembering his father. It may continue as a grandson remembering his grandfather.
“Once I feel I can go no further and have done everything I can, I’m going to seal up everything in a box. It will be there for my son.”
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