One day late in April 1941, a general cargo freighter, the Robin Moor, pulled out of New York harbor and into the Atlantic for a routine voyage to Capetown, South Africa, and other South Atlantic ports. The Second World War had been going on in Europe for a year and a half, but the United States was still officially neutral.
The Robin Moor's deck and hold were piled with crated cargo including made-in-America automotive engines and industrial equipment. On board were 10 passengers and a crew of 36.
The ship's master, Capt. Edward W. Myers of Baltimore, had not been active in shipping since 1933. The wartime shortage of trained merchant marine officers had brought Myers, a veteran shipmaster, out of retirement. His wife and three children stayed behind in the family home, 413 S. Collington Ave., in the Patterson Park district.
Another locally based crew member was Karl Nilson, a Fells Point resident, first assistant engineer of the vessel.
On the night of May 20, two of the passengers, Mr. and Mrs. Ben Cohen of New Haven, Conn., played poker with others in the ship's lounge well into the night. The couple retired at 2 a.m. but their rest was not to be a long one.
At 5 a.m. the ship shuddered to a halt. A German submarine had signaled it to stop. "At first we thought it was a joke," recalled Ben Cohen. A launch was dispatched to the surfaced sub, and one of the ship's officers pleaded with the commander to take the crew and passengers to a neutral port and claim the ship as a prize of war.
The commander refused. "You have 20 minutes to clear the ship. . . . If you send an SOS I will torpedo immediately," he said in thickly accented English. He added that the Robin Moor was hauling equipment that would be supplied to the Third Reich's enemies.
The scramble aboard the Robin Moor got under way at once and four lifeboats were frantically loaded and lowered. Then, when -- the lifeboats cleared, the sub fired a torpedo at the Robin Moor and pumped 33 rounds from its deck gun into the vessel. The torpedo hit squarely amidships. The Robin Moor, billowing smoke, went down by the stern in 18 to 20 minutes, her U.S. flag flying. A quick-thinking lifeboat passenger with a camera snapped a unique view of an American ship afire and beginning to founder after a submarine attack.
The four lifeboats had trouble staying together in rough seas and one separated from the group. On June 9, this boat, adrift for 20 days, hailed a Brazilian steamer, the Osario, and its passengers were rescued and taken to a Brazilian port. For the first time, news of the attack was flashed to the world.
In the uproar that followed, the isolationist Representative Gerald Nye, R-N.D., charged that the British had torpedoed the ship to bring the United States into the war. At the time, and unrelated to the Robin Moor seizure, President Roosevelt had been tightening security at home. He had closed German consulates and ordered German nationals to leave for home.
On June 13, Capetown messaged the United States by radio that all remaining survivors -- those in the three other lifeboats -- had been rescued. About 200 neighbors poured into the Myerses' Collington Avenue home to celebrate.
A $3 million damage claim was lodged in Berlin, but collecting anything became academic in December 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States declared war on Japan and its allies, Germany and Italy. The survival of all on board the Moor was looked on as a miracle. Within a few months, as submarine war raged, Atlantic waters would record the highest casualty rates in the history of sea combat.
"The Robin Moor moved us a little closer to war than we were before," commented a sage of The Sun, Frank Kent.
In July 1943, for no apparent reason, Adolf Hitler's beleaguered government finally admitted torpedoing the American ship. *