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A search for a long lost grandfather

December 17, 2008 - Art Smith
For 47 years I have carried around a piece of a grandfather I never met. Arthur C. Smith was, like more than 400,000 other Americans, killed in World War II.  He wasn’t a soldier, or in the Navy, or even a pilot. He was a sailor on a merchant ship. He died somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean when my dad was just a young boy.  Less than 20 years later my parents would name me after him.

I knew a little about my namesake from my father and my grandmother, but I knew very little about how he died.

A few weeks ago I decided to use the Internet to see how much I could find out about the journey that ended so many years ago. Within perhaps 30 minutes I found out more information than I had been told in a lifetime. Armed with only our shared name and the name of the ship I learned the following.

My grandfather was one of a 36-man crew that was aboard the U.S. freighter Otho; the ship also carried a 10-man armed guard and seven passengers. The ship was on its way from Takoradi, on the Gold Cost (Ghana) of Africa, where it had picked up a load of manganese ore, palm oil and tin. The ship had been built in 1920 in Tacoma, Wash. The American-West African Line owned it.  It was based out of New York.

The 4,389-ton ship was heading to Philadelphia with the ore and other cargo when the German sub U-754 torpedoed it. After crossing the ocean, it was just 175 miles due East of False Cape and the North Carolina coast. The torpedo struck mid ship directly below the smoke stack. The ship was hit just before noon on April 3, 1942,  and sunk 12 minutes later.

On April 8, an Army bomber spotted a life raft. The crew of a patrol yacht named Zircon rescued 16 people off the raft. Those rescued reported two other lifeboats and a raft had also gotten away from the sinking ship.

On April 25, a Norwegian tanker named the Gallia rescued a sailor and five of the 10-man armed guard from a raft that had been drifting in the Atlantic for more than three weeks. The survivors were so exhausted that two members of the Gallia crew had to jump overboard to help them. One of the rescued guards died an hour after being rescued.

No more survivors were found from the Otho, in total 23 members of crew, including my grandfather, four members of the armed guard and four of the passengers were lost. 

The U-boat that sunk the Otho would continue terrorizing the East Coast.&nbsp. Three days after sinking the Otho, it sank the Norwegian ship the Kollskeg before returning to a port in France.

On June 28, 1942, it attacked a small fishing boat named the Ebb that was operating out of Boston. Gunners on U-754 opened fire on the crew while they attempted to abandon their vessel.

The next day it sank a large British ship called the Waiwera, the attack would be it’s last.

A month later, a Canadian bomber piloted by Norville Everitt Small spotted the U-boat on the surface and dropped a pair of depth charges on the ship. It exploded underwater, killing its entire 43-man crew.

The Internet has greatly increased the amount of information available to the average person. It has made it possible with a little work, and several different Web sites, to fill the gaps from the past. A few years ago it would have been impossible to locate the amount of information I did on the Otho and my grandfather.

More historical information is being put online every day, making it possible for anyone to uncover long forgotten information from the past.


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The Otho