Willard Cavanaugh

Willard Cavanaugh, Coxswain, United States Navy, has returned to New Orleans, LA, after spending a 20-day leave, visiting his wife, and his mother, Mrs. Laura Cavanaugh, at Osseo. This was his first visit to his home in a year, during which time he has made two trips overseas.

He reports an exciting experience, when their ship was torpedoed on the night of August 16, damaging it badly and killing over 200 Italian prisoners, which were onboard. They managed to return to Algiers, Africa, where they spent six months, repairing the ship in order to make the return trip to the United States, reaching New York the latter part of January.

Osseo Man on Torpedoed Ship with 1,900 Italian Prisoners
William Cavanaugh, son of Mrs. Laura Cavanaugh, Osseo, was a member of the crew of the S.S. Benjamin Contee when it was torpedoed in the Mediterranean Sea, shortly after it left an Algerian port with 1,900 Italian prisoners and a British guard detachment as prisoner escort last August 16.

In an article by Harnett R. Kane, carried by the United Press, the events of the torpedoing were recently told.

The terrific impact of an enemy torpedo blew off the ship hatches, killed nearly 300 of the prisoners, and injured 150 of them. Leaving a gaping hole 50 by 22 feet, it made the ship stand almost on end. Many of the prisoners were trapped below in narrow passages; others rushed about, screaming in terror and frenzy. 

For a time, it seemed certain that the vessel would go down by the head. But American Merchant Marine Captain Even Evenson herded the prisoners together, brought them into line and, in a highly precarious operation, maneuvered the ship into an even keel and to safety. 

Bodies of some of the prisoners, who had been trapped below decks, were devoured by the sharks in the water. A number of men, caught there but still alive, managed to survive, until wrecking crews could cut them out hours later.

After the impact, the vessel settled rapidly, its bow pointed down into the water. Prisoners milled about, yelling, crying, "Madre Mia." 

The captain recalled one of the Navy men onboard, an American of Italian descent. Calling him, Captain Evenson thrust a megaphone into his hand and told him to address the men in their language. 

"The ship isn't sinking!" he yelled. "We're not going to abandon you. We're headed for port. Now, do what you're told!" 

The captain said that, from then on, they behaved like sheep. He recently added, "I wouldn't be surprised if some of them were home fighting with the Allies." 

No medical officer was aboard the Benjamin Contee. Prisoners assisted in attending to the injured.

Captain Evenson will receive the infrequently bestowed Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal for "courage, seamanship and disciplinary control" that averted immediate loss of his vessel, crew, military guard and prisoners.