June 19, 2009
[caption id="attachment_1374" align="alignleft" width="182" caption="Drawing of a Pelican Hook"][/caption]
Your father was a real hero, Manual Dias told me. The 88-year old World War II veteran had contacted me in 2008. He knew my late father when the two men served in the Merchant Marine together. I made a point of visiting Manny and his wonderful family in Massachusetts this spring.
Manny remembered every detail of the sinking of the SS Deer Lodge on 17 Feb 43. Your father ran around the deck unlatching the pelican hooks on the rubber boats. That was not his assigned duty. Without that, many of our crewmen would have died, Im sure. Manny corrected an earlier misimpression Id had: that my father ran around cutting the stays for those boats and pitching the boats overboard. No, Manny said, if hed done that, the boats might have struck some men in the water. The boats could have killed them. No, Pop had to unlatch those pelican hooks one-by-one, as the ship was rapidly sinking.
[caption id="attachment_1373" align="alignright" width="182" caption="Photo of a Pelican Hook"][/caption]
My father, Leslie Morrison, passed away at the age of 87, in 1998. He was loved and honored by his entire family. But this contact with one of his dearest friends and shipmates thrilled me. It was like a message in a bottle. Or, like a message from heaven.
My dad talked about the sinking of the Deer Lodge, of course. He never claimed to be a hero. He always minimized his own role that fateful night. He never mentioned those pelican hooks. When he and his shipmates were rescued, Pop told me they were taken to a nice hotel in South Africa. Mostly, Pop regaled us with stories of how he got to play tennis every day for six weeks with the rather attractive South African womens tennis champion.
When my cousin Barbara interviewed Pop on the fiftieth anniversary of the sinking, she was amazed. Pop told her that when the U-boat skipper finished questioning the men in the life boats, he had simply turned the submarine around and steamed away. Wasnt that horrible, my cousin asked, just to leave you there? At least he didnt shoot us, Pop answered.
Manny told me much more about that German U-boat commander. He was a humane man. He gave us water, food, and charts.
Through my own research, I had learned that the German submarine was the U-516 and her skipper was KorvettenKapitan Gerhard Wiebe. I was astonished, too, at the extraordinary kindness of Captain Wiebe.
Manny told me that Captain Wiebe had delayed sending in the second torpedo to finish off the Deer Lodge. If he had followed up his first fish with a second, just minutes later, he could have killed dozens of the seamen clambering over the sides of the stricken American vessel. But something in his heart told him to hold back. Was there a single case of an American submarine commander providing such aid, say, to a Japanese freighter he had just torpedoed?
Growing up, I had been surprised at my fathers complete lack of bitterness toward the Germans. He had survived that sinking, true, but his elder brother Harry had been torpedoed in the South Atlantic just a few months before Pop was. Harry was first rescued by a Dutch merchant vessel off Brazil. Then, that ship was torpedoed and Harry and almost the entire crew were lost. Pops attitude reflected the wisdom of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The line between good and evil runs not between classes or nations, but through the heart of every man.
Along with treasured photographs of Pop in my study, I keep a plaque he gave me. It shows a German U-boat in brass, mounted on a plain wooden background. It reminds me of that incredible story of the high seas. Its a tale of honor, courage, forgiveness, and humanity in the midst of the most terrible war. And Ill thank God for all that my father meant to me and to my own family.