By Rachel Hall
A total of 22 men were on a lifeboat for 18 days after their ship was torpedoed during World War II, including Cleveland centenarian Arthur Watson.
“I will never forget when that thing hit. It scared the daylights out of me. That fire looked like it went 100 feet in the air,” explained the 100-year-old Watson, who served as a Merchant Marine during the war.
Watson credits God for helping to see him through the attack while 50 other men did not make it off the ship that day.
“I was on the bridge on lookout and that blast knocked me down. I got a big blister on the side of my cheek and my hand,” he said. “I thought I needed a life jacket, and when I looked back, there was nothing but flames.”
Watson eventually made it to the deck below to his lifeboat station where lifejackets could be found. He arrived around the same time as an officer of the ship and helped to crank the lifeboat out to the ocean.
“By time we got in the water, the whole ocean looked like it was on fire,” he remembered.
The captain of the lifeboat decided to wait nearby in order to make rounds to see if others had made it off the burning ship and needed to be picked up by the lifeboat. One member of the gun crew was found blowing his whistle in the water for help.
“We picked him up and he just kept blowing that whistle. That poor fella went completely berserk and lost his mind,” he said.
As they waited and prayed for a rescue, Watson said the darkness was so intense without moonlight that no one could tell what was in front of them or behind them in the ocean. The men couldn’t even see their own hands right in front of their faces.
“The captain’s name was Alfred. We were never lost. He knew where we were and how many miles we traveled each day by watching the stars,” he recalled.
One day the captain explained they would come upon an island, and the crew on the lifeboat did indeed find an island in the distance. However, they dropped anchor one night, in order to approach the shore in the morning, and woke to find that a strong wind had pushed the lifeboats too far away to get to land.
There was another time on this perilous 18-day journey that the group was able to find land; however, if they went to shore, they faced another 75 miles of walking to get to civilization and find help. The captain did not believe any of the men would make it 75 miles on foot. However, he allowed the 22 men to vote to see if they wanted to land or not.
“I agreed with the captain and told him, ‘You brought me this far. I’m going to stay on the boat,’” said Watson.
On the 17th day of the 18-day journey, a plane circled overhead and then left. On the 18th day, planes circled again two or three times and radioed for a ship to help rescue the men on the lifeboat.
“The ship that rescued us was the sister ship of the Texaco ship we were on. We were on the Oklahoma [when torpedoed] and the one who picked us up was the Delaware,” said Watson.
Transportation was eventually provided to get the men back to Miami and on to New York where Texaco held a main office. The men were paid off for their service, provided with identification papers lost during the attack, and returned to civilian life.
“When they paid me off when the war was over, I was through, finished. I came home and got a job and went to work,” said Watson.