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Whale of a Tale: S.S Miraflores – Lost without a Trace, the Walter Autry Story Pt. 1

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United Fruit ship S.S. Miraflores

By Gene Peterson

Over one hundred years ago, on June 2, 1918, the U-151 attacked more than seven defenseless fishing vessels, freighters, and passenger ships off the New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland coasts. The first loss of lives off the Atlantic coast occurred when a lifeboat carrying passengers from the steamer Carolina overturned after escaping from the doomed ship. Less than three decades later German U-boats would again wage war on innocent merchant fleets cruising the Atlantic Coast.

On February 19, 1942, in the darkness of the cold winter morning, the stealthy German submarine U-432 followed the silhouette of a lone freighter steaming north fifty-five miles east of Cape May, New Jersey. The order to man battle stations was relayed to the crew. On board the British steamer, most of the crew members were off duty, settled in their bunks sleeping in the early morning hours. The drone of the pounding steam engine was abruptly interrupted by the detonation of two torpedoes that slammed into the targeted ship. Within minutes the force of the sea drew the tortured hull to the sandy bottom. Thirty-four merchant sailors were lost without a word relating the circumstances of their deaths. Only a short entry in the German U-boat’s log had given a vague description of the victim with no name. Somewhere between New Orleans and New York, the S.S. Miraflores was reported missing after failing to reach her destination. Only a short Louisiana newspaper clipping noted the mystery. Miraflores had gone missing, lost without a trace.

Lost without a trace newspaper clipping

The S.S. Miraflores, a 2,755-ton freighter went missing with all crew members after leaving Port de Paix, Haiti on February 14, 1942. The exact location and details of her loss remained a mystery until the year 2007. Owned by Standard Fruit Company, Miraflores normally carried a cargo of assorted tropical fruits such as bananas, coconuts and cashews between New Orleans and Central America. On February 6, 1942, Captain Charles Thompson of the S.S. Miraflores left port on a change of orders. These new orders were to dramatically affect the fortune of Captain Thompson and his crew. The S.S. Miraflores was destined to become one of the hundreds of victims lost during the start of World War II. Thompson was to sail to Haiti to load the vessel with a fresh cargo then sail for New York. On February 14, the vessel departed and was sighted the next day en-route by a passing ship. S.S. Miraflores was not seen again, until the freighter was discovered and dived nearly 50 years later.

By the 20th of February 1942, the S.S. Miraflores failed to report in New York, and it was soon evident that her loss was to remain a mystery even with investigations by the U.S. government after the war. It was deduced that the ship was torpedoed, but the exact location was based on speculation. It remained that way for several decades. Families would find few answers if any from the shipping company or from any government agencies. Soon the S.S. Miraflores was to become buried beneath the sands of the Atlantic Ocean and her memory was to be muttered only by an occasional word from the faded memories of those that were directly affected by her sinking.

The German submarine U-432 was prowling the New Jersey coast, under the command of Heinz-Otto Schultze. This was the German submarine’s sixth successful patrol, lasting more than seven weeks while sinking five allied ships within a short time period of less than two weeks. Schultze torpedoed the Buarque off North Carolina on February 15, then Olinda on the 18th. After sinking the Olinda off the Virginia Capes, the U-432 was credited with sinking the freighter Miraflores the next day; although his logbook entry has no named vessel, only an estimated tonnage. At 3:18 a.m. Schultze positioned his submarine perpendicular to the little fruit ship steaming north and fired two torpedoes. Both struck the freighter with a united explosive power. The first torpedo struck forward of the wheelhouse cutting the ship in two which left the bow intact. The second followed striking amidships obliterating the stern forward of the aft deck house. It is probable that this enormous explosion caused the S.S. Miraflores to sink within a few minutes. The possibility of the crew escaping the doomed sinking ship was nil. Had anyone survived the tremendous blast, the icy cold water and confusion in darkness diminished all hopes of escape to less than a few minutes. Hypothermia would spare no one in such an inhospitable frigid sea so far from land. No distress call could be made due to the direct and devastating blast near the bridge that probably stunned or killed all officers and crew in that proximity instantly. For Captain Thompson and his crew their luck had run out. There was a no hope of a rescue this night in the bitter cold North Atlantic.

Miraflores helm braking surface

After sinking the Miraflores, Schultze and U-432 continued to plunder the American shipping route. The U-boat torpedoed the Azalea City farther off the New Jersey coast on February 21 and then the Marore off North Carolina before crossing the Atlantic to La Pallice to resupply. Three more successful patrols under Schultze were made by the U-432 on convoys in the north Atlantic. On March 11, 1943, the U-432 was detected by ASDIC of the Free French corvette Aconit. The U-432 success was soon to end. The crew under the new command of Hermann Eckhardt was celebrating the sinking of HMS Harvester of convoy HX-228. Failing to observe the corvette, the U-432 was taken off guard and machine gunned killing several crew including Eckhardt. U-432 was then accidentally rammed during a boarding attempt and sank. Twenty-six crew members were lost, 20 were captured, interrogated and then spent the remainder of the war as POWs.Walter Autry considered himself a fortunate man. He was 17, serving in the Merchant Marine as a fireman on the ill-fated Standard Fruit Ship. The S.S. Miraflores made her home port in Kingston, Jamaica and carried the assorted cargoes from New Orleans to New York. Walter Autry signed on as crew in 1940. Walt was the only known surviving former crew member of the S.S. Miraflores. During that year, he gained experience on the steamer then decided to join the Navy just prior to the fateful sinking. Walt was prompted to leave the Merchant Marine and join the Navy after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, taking a personal interest when his cousin perished on the battleship U.S.S. Arizona. That decision saved Walters life. On December 7, 1941, US Navy Coxswain Eligah Autry was lost on the U.S.S. Arizona in Pearl Harbor. He remains among the 900+ souls still on board the sunken war memorial. It is interesting to note, Walter’s other cousin Gene is well known for his many musical merits including “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer”, Frosty the Snowman”, “Home on the Range”, and dozens of other well-known songs.

Walter was an inspiration as a veteran of two wars, WWII and Korea. He was one of the few remaining American patriots that gave so much to insure our freedom. I made the connection with Walter in 2007 after identifying the Miraflores. I put a post on Warsailors.com announcing the discovery. Shortly afterwards I received a phone call from a friend of Walter explaining his circumstance. He was among the first of my contacts of the many directly affected by the sinking that wanted to share their story.

After Walter revealed he was a former crew member on the S.S. Miraflores, we shared many stories of diving adventures and discussions about his cattle ranch activities. We developed a kinship after years of discussing diving, the wreck and his related memories. Walter resided in Livingston, Texas. Every Thanksgiving we would talk, catching up on the past year. It was always good to hear his strong Texas accent. When we last spoke this past fall, He was 95 and his wife Lorraine was 93; they spent 74 blessed years together fortuitously by a twist of fate. Since then, Walter shared many wonderful Christmas memories and I looked forward to his calls over the years. During our first phone conversation, Walter impressed on me how the loss of the Miraflores affected his life. Walt Autry was home in between trips, lying on the living room floor listening to the radio in Louisiana, when he heard about the Pearl Harbor attack. He was 17 years old and Walt was among thousands of other young American men joining the armed forces. Walt had to ask his mother to sign his enlistment papers. His first Navy tour was from 1941-1945. “This was the start of a completely new and different life for me,” Autry remembers.

Coxswain Eligah Autry was lost on the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor

Working on the Miraflores, Walter was a steam engineer, when he enlisted in the Navy, he was sent to the University of Houston to train as a diesel mechanic. There he met Loraine, his “heart throb.” They married in April 1943. While attending the University, Autry also attended deep sea diving school. After diving school, Autry was sent to New York to begin salvage work on the Normandy which burned and sank in New York Harbor. The Navy intended to refurbish the ship into an auxiliary aircraft carrier. Autry and the diving crew broke through ice to dive to the ship and build a cofferdam to raise the 10,000-foot ship. But after 18 months of work, the cofferdam was damaged, and the Normandy was doomed. Autry was transferred after a few months of bitter winter work. He was sent to Maryland to be commissioned as acting chief engineer on the L.C.I. 688 (Landing Craft Infantry). He and others trained for three weeks before transferring to Norfolk, Va. in 1944. Autry was ready to get in the war and his ship set out to New Guinea, the Marshall, Admiralties and Philippine Islands. The crew of the LCI 688 carried soldiers and supplies in and out of battle, acted in numerous rescues, battled fires and performed salvage operations.

The LCI 688 landed with General Douglas MacArthur in the Lagonoy Gulf on Luzon Island. “That harbor was a grim sight, sunken ships were everywhere,” Autry remembers. “Some of the ships were partly above the water. On some of these ships the Japanese set up machine gun nests — making our job of getting supplies ashore very hazardous. We would locate and clean them out, but during the night the Japanese would swim out and set up new guns again.” For his service Walter was decorated with honor in World War II and again in Korea.

Looking back 76 years ago Walter Autry considered his survival a miraculous twist of fate. His patronage earned him several distinguished metals and citations for his service during World War II and during the Korean Conflict. After his retirement from the service Walt continued to serve his community, creating two successful businesses, raised his daughter and son, and remained faithful throughout that time to his spouse Lorraine. Walt resided on a hundred acres cattle ranch that is on the outskirts of Livingston, Texas. He enjoyed giving talks for his local V.F.W. and weekly square dancing. He had fond memories of his youthful adventures with the crew of the lost ship, Miraflores and his fortunate full life. Some people spend a lifetime not knowing answers to what may have been. He is satisfied knowing he was spared and was able to make a difference in the world. Knowing the true fate of the S. S. Miraflores has offered some answers to questions for Walt and the families of that ill-fated ship. How might one’s life have been changed by a twist of fate or by a decision to serve their country? Walter Autry may be one patriot who can realize that answer. When Walter signed off the Miraflores and joined the Navy after the Pearl Harbor bombing, his patriotism saved his life.

Helm restored with serial numbers leading to ship identification

In June 2008, we placed flowers over the site, offering a moment of silence for those that perished off the coast on that February night in 1942. That day, I recovered a piece of wooden decking and shipped it to Walter. He was elated and used it in his VFW discussions. It was beautiful day of diving on a spectacular and historic wreck. It was a worthy tribute to those lost sailors and their families.

Walter was doing poorly this past fall in 2018, so I kept in contact with his son, Thomas Autry to check on him and pass on my well wishes. Walter Autry turned 96 on January 1, 2019 New Year’s Day. Sadly, on January 2nd, Walter passed away. We should never forget the sacrifices this generation made for our freedom.

Finding the Miraflores

In the summer of 2007, through careful research I was able to match the serial numbers from a helm recovered in 1994 with the tragic war victim S.S. Miraflores, lost in 1942. The wreck is 53 miles southeast of Cape May in 165 feet of water. In 1992 Bill Dumeze the captain of the red hulled clammer Arlene Snow out of Cape May, New Jersey, ran over a snag while fishing. He contacted Jim Bowen an avid wreck fisher and the two left Cape May inlet following only a compass bearing to the wreck site. Jim believed this was going to be a wild goose chase because Bill had recorded no lo-ran numbers. After four long hours steaming at 12 knots to the middle of nowhere Captain Bill told Jim to slow the boat down and follow his bearings as he scanned the bottom finder. After what seemed to be a convoluted course of bearing changes over a period of a half hour, Bill shouted to drop a buoy. Jim Bowen looked over Bill’s shoulder as a large spike appeared on the depth sounding screen that looked like an ice cream cone with a sprinkle of jimmies. These were in fact fish hovering over the virgin wreck.

Brass plaque with fuel transfer directions

Jim was amazed that anyone could find a wreck scanning a depth recorder with no land bearings. Bill explained that clammers and scallopers know the bottom of the ocean well, spending ninety-nine percent of their time looking at the depth recorder searching for their harvest. Jim gave the wreck its first nick name the Ice Cream Cone. This exciting wreck led to the identification of a lost ship whose circumstance of sinking was previously unknown. Soon after the co-ordinates were passed on to Captain Bob Miembresse of the Down Deep. I chartered the Down Deep on a regular basis and put together a trip to explore the site. In July of 1992 Gary Gentile and I were the first divers to descend on the unidentified wreck.

Little was discovered except a couple port holes and a few broken shards of plain dishes. The unpredictable weather made the distant site a rare trek, but finally in 1994 we ventured back to make the helm discovery and recovery. An exciting tale in its own for a future story…