Surviving Aboard MV San Demetrio

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Nov 30, -0001 12:00 AM
In the June issue, Downhome shares the heroic tale of 87-year-old St. John's-native Art Taylor, who survived a brutal attack from the German raider, Admiral Scheer while on board the convoy escort ship, HMS Jervis Bay in 1940.

But another amazing story of survival emerged from that fateful day in November 1940. The San Demetrio, one of the 37 ships in the Jervis Bay's convoy, was also hit by the Admiral Scheer. Carrying 12,000 tons of aviation fuel, the order to abandon ship was quickly given for fear that the vessel's cargo would soon explode.

Each crewmember made it safely off the ship and rowed quickly away from the ticking timebomb in two lifeboats - 26 in one and 16 in the other. The lifeboat carrying 26 of the crew was sighted and taken safely to Newfoundland; the other drifted at sea until the next day, when they spotted the tanker they'd abandoned. Amazingly, its cargo had not not exploded - though the vessel was still alight with fire. The 16 crewmembers decided against re-boarding their vessel. Eventually, the tanker drifted out of sight.

But a day later, they sighted the San Demetrio once again. Still in flames, the vessel continued to sail the sea despite its fuel-laden cargo hold. This time, the crew decided to re-board their ship in fear that they would perish in their lifeboat anyway.

The 16 brave souls climbed aboard the badly damaged San Demetrio and set to work extinguishing the blaze. With only the stars to guide their course, the 16 men steered east - back toward the warring seas they'd nearly fallen victim to days earlier (returning home - west - would mean encountering fierce weather the men knew their badly battered ship could not handle).

Incredibly, by November 16, 15 of the crew safely reached the waters off Ireland with nearly all its cargo in tact. Only one crewmember, John Boyle, died of his injuries before landfall was made.