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Guest Post: Samuel Whitney Pincock: Torpedoed!

By: Clark Ricks - September 27, 2010

Samuel Whitney Pincock, “Whit” as he was known by his friends, was born December 31, 1887, near Sugar City, Idaho. (He was named for his maternal grandfather, Samuel Whitney Richards, an early apostle  leader who’s been a subject of a few posts here. [See comment 10 for clarification.)

He spent his boyhood helping out on the family farm. As a teenager, he and his brothers homesteaded a piece of property nearby, which required them to “prove up” the ground by building a house there. Supplies were hard to come by in those days – even lumber was scarce – but timber was plentiful in the nearby forests. So that winter, the three brothers set to work cutting and hauling trees. The following summer they built a sawmill and cut all the boards and most of the shingles they needed.

He was 29 and single when United States declared war on Germany in April of 1917.

Draft boards were set up, with every county in the U.S. assigned to fill a quota. Soon thousands of U.S. soldiers were being sent overseas to fight.

Whit writes: “In the fall of 1917 I was called into the Army. I left home December 7, 1917 with three other men for Fort Lewis, Washington, to fill Madison County’s quota. We stayed there until the day after Christmas, then started east. Father, Mother, Will, and Irene came to Pocatello to meet the train. We had a short visit with them.”

Luckily, Whit Pincock was not bound for the front lines. The Allies needed vast quantities of timber for the docks, bridges, trenches, and tunnels they were building. So the Army and the U.S. Forest Service assembled a battalion of foresters, lumberjacks, and sawmill operators from across the nation to produce the needed lumber from the forests of France.

Based on his experience cutting timber for the homestead cabin, Whit had been assigned to this “Forestry Battalion” (formally, 20th Engineers, Company E) They spent three weeks outside Washington, D.C., learning the finer points of operating a military lumber camp, then shipped to New York harbor, where they were loaded on the Tuscania, a British luxury liner converted to haul freight and troops to Europe. Built only three years earlier, she was supposed to be the star of the New York-to-Liverpool run, carrying the rich and famous across the Atlantic in style. Instead, it would carry nearly 2,000 raw U.S. troops crowded into the third-class steerage. Three days later, the ship joined a convoy with a single British cruiser as escort.

The fact that the Royal Navy sent only one warship to protect the convoy is a reflection of their desperate position. It was all they could afford to send. The crew of the Tuscania, in fact, consisted primarily of teenage boys and those the Navy considered unfit for military service.

The troops ate in the enormous dining rooms formerly reserved for the rich and famous. The meals had to be staggered to accommodate everyone, and each soldier was given a schedule listing the room, table, and time at which he would eat. Lifeboat drills were held, but the boats were never actually lowered, since the convoy was underway.

Whit writes, “Three days from Liverpool, seven destroyers came out to guard us the rest of the way. So we had quite a bunch.” As the convoy entered the narrow strait between Ireland and Scotland, none of the lookouts on any of the ships, nor any of the underwater microphones, detected the presence of the U-boat that was waiting for them.

“We were waiting for the supper gong to sound when all of a sudden the torpedo hit us,” Whit Pincock recalls in his life history. “All the lights went out. We had been instructed that if anything happened, the bugler would sound off so we could get on deck in a hurry. The bugler forgot his horn, but we made it on deck anyway. Some of the guys were singing, some praying, and some crying.”

It was total chaos. The boilers exploded when the ship was hit, throwing a sheet of flame and debris two hundred feet into the air. Clouds of steam hissed out of the blackness as frigid seawater poured into the ship and extinguished the red-hot furnaces. Broken lifeboats swayed uselessly from the davits, and the deck had already acquired a noticeable slant.

Men caught below deck were plunged into darkness as the lights flickered out. Blackout curtains over the windows made it impossible to see anything. Hundreds of men crammed into the maze of dark passageways, fighting smoke, water, and the panic rising inside of them to escape.

The Tuscania lay helpless, sinking in the North Atlantic, and not a single vessel was coming to lend assistance. Grandpa Pincock wrote, “When we got hit, the rest of the convoy left as fast as they could, leaving three destroyers to help us out. They went around dropping depth charges for some time.”

By all accounts, the Tuscania’s crew was less than helpful. “Being after dark, the British crew got a lifeboat off and beat it, leaving us to do the best that we could,” Whit writes. “There were not enough lifeboats for everyone, and we couldn’t get some of them launched.”

Some tried loading the lifeboats, which held about sixty, before attempting to lower them. This was more weight than the davits could hold, and the fully loaded lifeboats crashed into the water, smashing the boat to bits and leaving the occupants in the near-freezing water. After a few of these disasters, they decided to lower the boats when they were only half full, or less.

By 7:00 p.m. all the boats were gone, and over 1,350 men remained on board. Whit Pincock was one of them.

Luckily, the Royal Navy destroyers returned after dropping depth charges. One began picking survivors out of the frigid water. The other two pulled up on opposite sides of the massive ship and heaved lines to the waiting soldiers. These were quickly tied off, and the men began sliding down the ropes to the waiting ships.

By 8:45 p.m. the two destroyers’ decks were crammed with all the soldiers they could hold and shoved off. Pincock was still on board the Tuscania.

Finally, the third destroyer came alongside and shot a line over the sinking ship. It was tied onto a heavier one, which was pulled across the gap and tied off. Getting to safety meant each sailor had to grab the rope with both hands, swing his legs up over the rope, cross his ankles, and shimmy out into the open space. It was likely a forty- or fifty-foot drop to the ocean below.

Remembering the experience years later, Grandpa Pincock described his rescue much more simply. He wrote, “One [destroyer] came in alongside the ship and took off a load of men. Then another one came. I got off on the third one. Cooned a rope from the ship to the deck of the destroyer. We crossed over on that. It took all the men.”

The Tuscania finally took the plunge around 10:00 p.m., four hours after it was torpedoed. It was the first ship carrying American troops to be sunk, and was regarded as an outrage. The sinking received extensive media coverage, including a feature-length article in the Saturday Evening Post, which this author has relied on for most of the facts. The final death toll was 204 American soldiers and about 30 British crew members, the majority of which were ironically those who tried to get into the lifeboats. The captain, Peter McLean, survived to face a military tribunal for dereliction of duty.

In 1933, the Tuscania Survivors Association tracked down the captain of the German U-boat and invited him to speak at their annual dinner. He came, noting, “Their invitation stresses the fact that there are no thoughts of bitterness or revenge lingering in the hearts of the survivors of that catastrophe. They recognize that I and members of the crew of the U-77 merely did our duty as duty was understood at that time.”

As for Samuel Whitney Pincock, he and the rest of the 20th Engineers finally did make it to the forests of Le Harve, France, where they were stationed for the remainder of the war. He eventually returned home to Sugar City, Idaho, where he married and raised a family of six children, never setting foot on a ship again.

(Note:  The drawing showing the attempt to launch the lifeboats was used by the Saturday Evening Post to illustrate a story about the sinking of the Lusitania, but the scene must have been very much the same on the Tuscania.)



10 Comments »

  1. Very interesting post. Thanks, Clark.

    A couple of comments: That’s a remarkably short period of training–three weeks at Camp Lewis, Washington, and then another three weeks near Washington D.C. I don’t know when the U.S. Army began “basic training,” but these days it lasts for nine weeks, followed by additional training lasting from six weeks to a year, depending upon one’s specialty. Maybe the Army figured that men who already had lumbering experience didn’t need much training–or maybe the demands of the allies for men shortened the training for everybody.

    And, by the way, it was “Camp” Lewis in 1917. I haven’t been able to track down when its name changed to “Fort” Lewis, but it appears likely that it was during World War II.

    I wonder if the “the crew abandoned us” was really true, or if that’s just a common reaction to the confusion and fear that a soldier would feel in that situation. An American troopship was torpedoed in December 1944 just off the coast of France. The crew of the ship was Belgian and differences in nationality and language undoubtedly contributed to the confusion–but one common thread of complaints was that the crew abandoned ship, leaving the soldiers without help.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 27, 2010 @ 8:18 am

  2. Wow. What a dramatic event. Every now and then I feel some gratitude that my great grandfather came back alive from his WWI service in France. I imagine there are many families that feel the same way.

    Comment by Researcher — September 27, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

  3. This is a fun example of what I’m always gloating about — the unexpected connections that arise between stories, or that readers bring with their comments that I couldn’t possibly have guessed beforehand. This post arises from a discussion on an earlier post — thanks for following through, Clark.

    When I write posts, most especially the story posts that take some effort to turn from a bland fact of history into something exciting, surprising, or moving, I pay a lot of attention to *how* the post is structured. Should I start at the beginning and tell it in a straightforward way? Or would this one be better by jumping into the middle of the action and then going back to fill in the details? Can I use the historical figure’s actual words, or would they sound stilted and too high-falutin’ to 21st century ears?

    If I do it right, most readers won’t even be aware of how hard I work to structure a post. That’s why I’ve been having fun examining Clark’s post and seeing how he wrote it to fit so well the needs of a blog. Unless you were looking for it, you might not even notice how he has let Whit speak for himself in his own words — but also how Clark, as narrator, moves the story along by condensing and summarizing, and maybe even writing the lifeboat scene in a better, more convincing way than Whit may have written it. You probably didn’t notice, either, how he sneaks in the necessary background information on the war and the ship itself, without making it seem like a tedious history lesson for us to slog through. The pictures help, too — literally putting a face on Whit and his doomed ship.

    If you’re thinking about maybe kinda wanting to sorta try to maybe write a guest post, you could take a lot of tips from how Clark has done it here.

    End of writing lesson.

    Clark, thanks for sending this. We tend not to hear nearly as much about World War I soldiers and their adventures as we do about wars before and after. My grandfather went to France in 1918 — I wonder what ship he took? He wasn’t torpedoed, but was he afraid he might be, given the history of ships like the Tuscania? What was it like for my grandfather, a Mormon boy like your Whit, to be surrounded by so many hundreds of people so unlike, in some ways, the only people he had ever known, sailing off to war in a place he had never imagined visiting?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 27, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

  4. Nicely done. I enjoyed reading it, and I didn’t even notice all the stylistic things Ardis pointed out. Makes me think I should pay attention to them when I write my own posts.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — September 27, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

  5. Thanks for the comments and compliments, everyone.

    Mark B., regarding “the crew abandoned us” remark, here’s a few more items I discovered:
    1) The convoy was under orders to continue on if any ship were hit–to avoid additional losses–which gave appearances of being abandoned. The destroyers immediately left to drop depth charges, which added to the impression.

    2)Because there was an official inquiry, the behavior of the crew is fairly well documented. My (secondary) accounts indicate that a few key officers remained on board, including the radioman (who sent the SOS) and another below decks who secured the bulkhead doors to keep the ship afloat longer. Every eyewitness account I found highlights the fact that the troops had to try and figure out the lifeboats on their own.

    Ironically, nearly all of the deaths were among those who were in the lifeboats.

    Comment by Clark — September 27, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

  6. Thanks Clark.

    Maybe if Ardis offers to double my fee, I’ll submit a guest post about that other troopship sinking, which also has some Mormon (and family) connections.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 27, 2010 @ 3:43 pm

  7. does “my fee” refer to your usual hourly charge as an attorney, Mark, or to the fee I have paid you for earlier guest posts? If it’s the second, I can smile at you twice and even say “thank you, thank you!”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 27, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

  8. Nicely done, Clark. This is the kind of stuff I love about Keepa. For all of these events that we read about as history, they are also lived out as someone’s personal experience. We need to keep up our own journals, because we never know what may interest folks in our future.

    Seeing Samuel Whitney Pincock in his Army uniform (especially the hat), and knowing he was serving as a lumberjack, brings up unintended references to a famous Monty Python skit.

    Comment by kevinf — September 27, 2010 @ 5:37 pm

  9. I’ve heard say “There’s nothing as exhilliarating as having been shot at and missed.”

    When I was in college, I had a teacher or two who had a ship shot out from under them in WWII.

    Comment by Bookslinger — September 28, 2010 @ 7:04 am

  10. Sorry, this went right by me earlier, or I would have clarified earlier:

    Samuel Whitney Richards was not an apostle (it was his brother, Franklin D., who was). Samuel Whitney Richards was a mission president and a general go-to guy for church leaders on special assignments (he was, for example, the man Brigham Young sent on a lightning-fast 1857 trip across the plains and ocean to Great Britain to set affairs in order there and call the missionaries home, in case the Utah War turned into something much bigger than it eventually did), and he served in some local and territorial political positions. But it was his brother Franklin who was the apostle.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 30, 2010 @ 2:34 am

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