Uncle Asbjørn

This is the story of the sinking of SS El Lago and the circumstances regarding the death of my mother’s brother, Asbjørn Magnus Koppen, age 22.

At the time of the German occupation of Norway, my uncle Asbjørn was visiting his brothers in Portland, Oregon. His occupation was that of an able seaman and he had served on several Norwegian ships. He enlisted in the U.S. merchant marine and was shipped to New York in the summer of 1941 for assignment as a deck hand on the SS El Lago. The following narrative was collected from various internet sites.

The freighter, SS El Lago, was an American flag ship owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad. She was purchased from this company by the U.S. Government on June 26, 1941. At this time the ship was placed under the Panamanian flag to be operated by the U.S. Lines under a GAA agreement.

The SS El Lago was torpedoed by the German U-615 (Captain Ralph Kapitsky) and the U-607 (Captain Ernst Mengersen) at 1512 local time on October 11, 1942, while en route from Reykjavik to New York in ballast.

On board the ship was a complement of 39 crew members (7 Norwegians, 8 Chinese, 5 Canadians, 5 Belgians, 3 Dutch, 2 Swedes, 2 Scots, and one each from Denmark, Ireland, Estonia, Portugal, Latvia, Poland, and the U.S.), 14 U.S. Naval Armed Guard, and 6 passengers who were merchant seamen being repatriated. The Master and First Assistant Engineer were the only survivors, as they were taken prisoner by the U-615.

The El Lago had left New York on August 20, arriving in Boston the next day. After loading cargo, she left Boston on August 30 in Convoy BX-35 and arrived in Halifax on September 1. She left Halifax on September 5 in Convoy SC 99, arriving Reykjavik, Iceland, on September 17. After discharging all her cargo at Reykjavik, the SS El Lago departed on October 5, 1942 as a part of Convoy ONS 136S. The convoy was made up of 12 ships in two columns. The El Lago was the number three ship in the port column and the convoy was heading south to join a larger convoy from the U.K. to the U.S. About 250 miles south of Iceland, on October 5, the convoy ran into a storm with hurricane force winds, tremendous heavy seas, rain, and poor visibility. Because of weather conditions, the El Lago was forced to slow down, thereby losing contact with the convoy. At noon on October 11, observations fixed the position of the ship at 442 miles east-northeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland, with a speed of 13 knots. On this day, at 1512 local time, the ship was struck by two torpedoes amidships, one on the port side and the other on the starboard side. The stern section sunk within seconds and the forward section sank in less than a minute.

The ship was equipped with four lifeboats, four square rafts, and two donut-type rafts. Both aft boats were destroyed in the explosion and the two forward boats went down with the ship. The Master was on the bridge at the time of the attack. The ship sank under him. Without his life jacket he managed to stay afloat for about half an hour and then climbed aboard one of the square rafts. When he got aboard he found the Second Mate, First Engineer, Bosun, Carpenter, an A.B., an O.S., the Second Cook, and a Messman. All of them had been in the water for some time and were covered with oil. The Master also saw two men clinging to a potato crate plus three others on one of the square rafts and two more on another. The two donut rafts were empty. As there were too many on the Master’s raft, three men shifted to an empty raft. At this time, the two subs surfaced. The U-615 approached the rafts and asked for the name of the ship and for the Master. The Master identified himself and he was ordered aboard the sub. They then asked for the Chief Engineer. When told he was not among the survivors they asked for an engineering officer. The First Engineer then identified himself and he was also ordered aboard. The Master asked the Commanding Officer of the U-615 what he intended to do with the others on the rafts. His only answer was, “This is war!” He then ordered the two below. The Master judged the time to be about 1715. No survivors were ever found so it can be assumed they died from either exposure or drowning.

The U-615 arrived at La Pallice, France, on October 30. Captain Abrahamson was taken to the prison at La Rochelle and the Engineer, who was suffering from severe burns, to a hospital in Bordeaux. Captain Abrahamson was transferred to a prison camp for Merchant Seamen at Bremen. He was repatriated to the U.S. from Oslo, Norway, on the Liberty ship SS M.E. Comerford on July 30, 1945, arriving in New York on August 16, where he reported to U.S. Lines office.

The Engineer was hospitalized at La Rochelle for 14 days before being taken to Bordeaux, where he remained until December 20, 1942. He was then returned to La Rochelle, placed in prison for two days, and then taken by train to Camp Marlag in Bremen, where he was reunited with Capt. Abrahamson. He was repatriated to the U.S. from Rotterdam on August 29,1945, aboard the SS Morgantown Victory, arriving in New York on September 7, 1945.

Capt. Abrahamson was a Norwegian citizen from Kristiansand where his wife was living. Mr. Baas, the First Engineer, was a Dutch citizen but lived with his wife in New York City.

The U-615 was sunk south of Curacoa on August 7, 1943, by U.S. Navy aircraft and U.S. Army Squadron #10. Five were lost and 43 taken prisoner. Under the command of Ralph Kapitsky, she was responsible for the sinking of the American tanker SS Atlantic Sun, from which there was one survivor. The U-615 pulled this man aboard and made him a prisoner, thereby saving his life.

The U-607 was sunk northwest of Cape Ortegal, Spain, on July 13, 1943 by British Squadron #228. There were 45 lost and five taken prisoner. Under the command of Ernst Mengersen, she was responsible for the sinking of the SS Edward B. Dudley, an American Liberty ship. There were no survivors from the Dudley.

After the end of the war, my uncle Carl (Asbjørn’s brother) received a letter from Captain Abrahamson. Unfortunately, the content of that letter remains a mystery, as it can no longer be found.

This article is part of the column Long Ago & Far Away by John Lind.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 5, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.