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AtlanticDivers

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Ninety years ago today the U-151 attacked over seven defenseless fishing vessels  and commercial ships off the New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland coast.  The first loss of lives occurred when a life boat carrying passengers from the passenger steamer Carolina overturned while making way to the New Jersey coast.   Less than three decades later German U-boats would again wage war on innocent merchant fleets cruising the Atlantic Coast.

Lost without a Trace
  The mystery of the S.S. Miraflores is solved.
   
It is February 19, 1942.  In the darkness of the cold winter morning, the stealthy German submarine U-432 follows the silhouette of a lone freighter steaming north fifty-five miles east of Cape May, New Jersey.  The order to man battle stations is relayed to the crew.  On board the British steamer, most of the crew members are off duty, settled in their bunks sleeping in the early morning hours.   The drone of the pounding steam engine is abruptly interrupted by the detonation of two torpedoes that slam into the targeted ship. Within minutes the force of the sea draws the tortured hull to the sandy bottom.  Thirty-four merchant sailors are lost without a word relating the circumstances of their deaths.   Only a short entry in the German U-boat’s log gives a vague description of the victim with no name. The next day the S.S. Miraflores is reported missing after failing to reach her final destination, New York.
    
Walter Autry considers himself a fortunate man.  He was 17, when he served in the Merchant Marine as a fireman on the ill fated Standard Fruit Ship. The S.S. Miraflores made her home port in Kingston, Jamaica and carried her cargo of  bananas to New Orleans where Walt signed on as crew.  Walt is the only known surviving former crew member of the Miraflores.  He spent a year on board gaining  experience on the steamer then made a decision to join the Navy a year prior to the sinking.  The 2,755 ton  freighter went missing with all 34 of his fellow crew members after leaving Port de Paix, Haiti on February 14, 1942.  The exact location and details of her loss remained a mystery until the year 2007.  In December 1940, Walt was discharged from the Miraflores and joined the Navy where he served in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of Operations from 1941 to 1945 during WWII.  In the summer of 1941 he attended diesel engineering school at the University of Houston.   His luck continued for he  met his wife to be with whom he has been married to for more than 65 years.

Owned by Standard  Fruit Company, Miraflores normally  carried a cargo of assorted tropical fruits such as bananas, coconuts and cashews between New Orleans and Central America.  On February 6, 1942, Captain Charles Thompson of the S.S. Miraflores left port on a change of orders.  These new orders were to dramatically affect the fortune of Captain Thompson and his crew.   The S.S. Miraflores was destined to become one of the hundreds of victims lost during the start of World War II.   Thompson was to sail to Haiti to load the vessel with a cargo of assorted fruits then sail for New York.  On February 14, the vessel departed and was sighted the next day en route by a passing ship.  S.S. Miraflores was not seen again, until the freighter was discovered and dived nearly fifty years later.  
By the 20th of February 1942,  the S.S. Miraflores  failed to report in New York and it was soon evident that her loss was to remain a mystery until investigations by the U.S. government after the war.  Even then it was deducted that the ship was torpedoed but the exact location was based on speculation.  It remained that way for several decades.  Families would find few answers if any from the shipping company or from any government agencies.  Soon the S.S. Miraflores was to become buried beneath the sands of the Atlantic Ocean and her memory was to be muttered only by an occasional word from the faded memories of those that were directly affected by her sinking.

 The German submarine U-432 was prowling the New Jersey coast, under the command of Heinz-Otto Schultze.  This was the German submarine’s sixth successful patrol, lasting more than seven weeks while sinking five allied ships within a short time period of less than two weeks.  Schultze torpedoed the Buarque off North Carolina on February 15, then Olinda on the 18th.  After sinking the Olinda off the Virginia Capes the U-432 was credited with sinking the freighter Miraflores the next day; although his log book entry has no named vessel, only an estimated tonnage.  At 3:18 a.m. Schultze positioned his submarine perpendicular to the little fruit ship steaming north and fired two torpedoes.  Both struck the freighter with a united explosive power.  The first torpedo struck  forward of the wheelhouse cutting the ship in two which left the bow intact.  The second followed striking amidship obliterating the stern forward of the aft deck house.   It is probable that this enormous explosion caused the S.S. Miraflores had to sink within a few minutes.  The possibility of the crew escaping the doomed sinking ship was nil.  Had anyone survived the tremendous blast, the icy cold water and confusion in darkness diminished all hopes of escape too less than a few minutes.  Hypothermia would spare no one in such an inhospitable frigid sea so far from land.   No distress call could be made due to the direct and devastating blast near the bridge that probably stunned or killed all officers and crew in that proximity instantly. For Captain Thompson and his crew their luck had run out.  There was a no hope of a rescue this night in the bitter cold North Atlantic.

After sinking the Miraflores, Schultze and U-432 continued to plunder the American shipping route.  The U-boat torpedoed the Azalea City farther off the New Jersey coast on February 21 and then the Marore off North Carolina before crossing the Atlantic to La Pallice to resupply.   Three more successful patrols under Schultze were made by the U-432 on convoys in the north Atlantic.  On March 11, 1943, the U-432 was detected by ASDIC of the Free French corvette Aconit.  The U-432 success was soon to end.  The crew under the new command of Hermann Eckhardt was celebrating the sinking of HMS Harvester of convoy HX-228.  Failing to observe the corvette, the U-432 was taken off guard and  machine gunned killing several crew including Eckhardt.  U-432 was then was accidently rammed during a boarding attempt and sank.  Twenty-six crew members were lost and 20 were captured, interrogated and then spent the remainder of the war as POWs.
  

Looking back 66 years ago Walter Autry considers his survival a miraculous twist of fate.  His decision at the age of 18 to join the Navy and take an offensive part in World War II actually saved his life. His patronage earned him, but several distinguished metals and citations for his service during World War II and during the Korean Conflict.    After his retirement from the service Walt continued to serve his community, creating two successful businesses, providing for his daughter and son and remaining faithful throughout that time to his wife Lorraine. Walt now resides on a hundred acres, his cattle ranch that is on the outskirts of Livingston, Texas.  Today, he enjoys giving talks for his local V.F. W.  and weekly square dancing.   He has fond memories of his youthful adventures with the crew of the lost ship.  He is grateful  to have been blessed with such a full life.  Some people spend a lifetime not knowing answers to what may have been.  He is satisfied knowing he was spared and was able to make a difference in the world.   Knowing the true fate of the S. S. Miraflores has offered some answers to questions for Walt and the families of that ship.  How might one’s life have been changed by a twist of fate or by a decision to serve their country?  Walter Autry may be one patriot who can realize that answer.

Today we placed flowers over the site, offering a moment of silence for those that perished off the coast on that February night in 1942. It was beautiful day of diving on a spectacular and historic wreck.  May we never forget the privileges we have given to us by those that suffered and died for our freedom. 



Attached are Paul Whittaker's pictures of the dive.  Also my birthday dive:
http://gallery.mac.com/p.whittaker#100043

http://www.websitetoolbox.com/tool/post/atlanticdivers/vpost?id=2316161

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