They would not leave the ship. They would not leave their captain. They all volunteered to stay. The captain stopped polling. Then the men heard a muffled explosion.
The cargo hold covers were simply blown into the air. The cargo booms were bent and twisted.
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Out came the life preservers aflame. Food and other debris scattered high above in the air and fell back on the deck. On the right side of the hull, above the water line, but far below the deck, a jagged hole 12 by 8 feet had appeared. One of the 2,pound bombs had detonated. Miraculously none of the others had. In the context of The Badger State, this disaster was a relative piece of good luck — and its only piece. The abandon ship signal sounded instantly.
The engine room was abandoned. Thirty-five crew members boarded the starboard lifeboat and were lowered away while the master and a few others stayed on board. So high were the waves that the lifeboat, upon hitting the water, was carried back up to the deck and banged about. Despite the heavy seas and winds, the boat was launched successfully.
The odds for getting away seemed good. But the men discovered that the sea painter — a device that dragged in the water and held the ship steady against the wind and waves — had disappeared when the boat was banged about. But nothing happened and they could not hold their own against the swells. The rudder on the lifeboat could not be shipped or installed, so the men had no way to direct the vessel and turn it away from the boat. It drifted after and was thrown against the ship.
It drifted, helplessly, toward the open wound in the ship, the large hole where the bomb had exploded. It drifted directly under the gaping hold. And, in slow motion, a 2, pound bomb rolled out of the hold through the hole and fell onto the men and the lifeboat below. Above them on the flying bridge, the captain and four crew members were trying to launch life rafts. The life rafts were deployed. The captain told them to put life rings over their life preservers. Life in those temperatures is measured in minutes not hours.
They looked down at the water and saw men scattered about. Burnette threw life rings to them. Then Third Mate Burnette jumped. Then Captain Wilson. Only Fireman-watertender Kaneo remained. He hesitated. The water was cold and rough. Smoke still poured from the cargo hatch. The men below him were swimming desperately away from the ship, knowing it would blow any moment. Kaneo was caught between two negatives. He looked at the smoking cargo holds.
He looked at the cold water.
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Kaneo jumped. To the rescue came the Khian Star. Her crew had seen the explosion and 30 minutes later came upon this scene.
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All around The Badger State now, there were dead and dying men in the water. Some were still clinging to the wrecked boat. Others were still swimming away from the ship — expecting an explosion any second. Still others made for the Khian Star — but were quickly carried off by the foot swells and lost. As if in a horror film, first one albatross then another, began attacking the men, diving at them and pecking them.
The large seagoing birds, with wingspans over six feet, caused no serious harm.
But it was if the furies of hell themselves were dogging the men of The Badger State. From above now, a US Airforce plane swept low and dropped rafts. They inflated. Then flipped end over end, useless save one.
Third Cook Donald Byrd, near the overturned lifeboat, grabbed the line of a raft. He held fast. Seaman Henderson swam to the raft. He helped Third Mate Sam Bondy on board then jumped in himself. They pulled Seaman Richard C. Murray in.
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Electrican Konstantinos Mpountalis hung alongside, but the men in the boat were now so weak they could not bring him in. Byrd, who had held the raft, was no where to be seen. One of the men, Murray, was so weak and sleepy he could not hold up his head. Hypothermia was claiming him. Henderson held him and slapped him roughly and revived him. But it did not.
So the Khian Star crew threw lines. They tied lines arounds McLure and Serafino. And they were saved. And he was saved. The others were so weak they could not hold well to the ropes. The crew members above were swept by waves, up to their waists at time in the swells.
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Others were brought up in any manner possible. Tangled in lines. Feet first. It did not matter. She picked up six men. But soon, the Khian Star saw only dead men floating head down in the water. The huge albatross swept in to peck at the dead. Even then, the Greeks did not quit. But the man was already dead. The Khian kept at it, seeking out each individual seaman, and finding mostly dead bodies. All told, the Khian rescued 14 men, including the master and two men who had jumped in the water with him.
The crewmen were given blankets and hot food. And that was how masters and crews could fight to save their ships.
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That was the high water mark of bravery. And if not every master and crew were expected to go to those lengths, they were expected not to embarrass the standard. And expected that of themselves.
Compared to the Badger State, the Marine Electric was in positively excellent shape. On the Marine Electric, Corl really had no choice but to risk staying on the ship. He could not launch boats into those waves, only to have the ship survive.