Archibald Carr Gibbs, born in 1906 on a small farm outside Cincinnati, Ohio, spent his childhood in poverty and homelessness. His family moved from town to town, desperately trying to make ends meet. The strain eventually sent his mother to a hospital for the mentally infirm, and the day after she was taken away, his father deserted the family. Gibbs and his older sister, Lillie, found themselves stranded in a shack in Denison, Texas. Word got around town that the father had deserted the children, and the Salvation Army folks took Lillie to their Rescue Home for Girls. Gibbs, then ten years old, was put on board a train headed for Gatesville, Texas, and spent the next four years of his life at a reform school.
Eventually, Gibbs heard from Lillie, who was married and living in Dallas. Gibbs was released from reform school in 1920 to her custody. Within six weeks, Gibbs hopped a freight train and hoboed. Five years later, he was working on the docks in San Francisco. One night he sat, broke, on a lumberpile in the Embarcadero. A couple of sailors walked by and asked if he would like to ship out on one of the docked freighters. Without hesitation, he signed on as a seaman—and would remain at sea until he retired, some 46 years later.
On 22 May 1942, Gibbs reported on board the SS Scottsburg as an able-bodied seaman. The 8,000-ton Lykes Brothers Steamship Company freighter was bound for the Persian Gulf by way of Trinidad and Capetown. The ship laid on a cargo that included seven U.S. Army medium bombers, five tanks, a supply of ammunition, and railroad rails. The Scottsburg joined a large convoy out of New York that sailed for the West Indies on 25 May.
The first six months of 1942 were disastrous for Allied and neutral merchant shipping in the U.S. and Canadian coastal areas. Some 300 merchant ships were sent to the bottom by German U-boats, and Allied military forces frantically attempted to counter a fierce underseas enemy.
On 14 June, as the Scottsburg convoy approached the Tes-tigos Islands, 16 U-boats were operating in the Caribbean area. Unfortunately, the convoy sailed right into the path of the U-16I, commanded by one of Germany’s best U-boat commanders—Kapitanleutnant Albrecht Achilles. The Scottsburg was on the port outer column of the convoy, closest to the U-161. At dusk, Achilles fired two torpedoes at the Scottsburg—the first hit the engine room; the second, the Number One hold on the port side.
Gibbs recalled the sudden torpedo attack. “Bam! It sounded like a million depth charges going off all at once . . . the ship heeled to port so fast I was tossed against the bulkhead.” Gibbs and 43 of the crew of 49 succeeded in getting into two lifeboats. The Scottsburg slowed down after being hit and began to settle in the calm sea. Within minutes, she was on her way to the bottom.
The following morning, 15 June, two scouting planes sighted the lifeboats. Later that morning, a lifeboat was sighted with survivors from the SS Cold Harbor, a Panamanian freighter that had been torpedoed by the U-502. Survivors of the Cold Harbor had seen the glow in the sky to the west of the Scottsburg burning.
At about 1400, a Matson Line freighter, the SS Kahuku, picked up the survivors from all three lifeboats. There were 112 men—crew and survivors—on board when the Kahuku set off for Trinidad. One of the lifeboats from the Scottsburg was towed behind the Kahuku, because she had only two lifeboats.
The survivors received clothing, towels, and blankets. The chief mate asked for deck lookout volunteers, and Gibbs and the others readily stepped forward. At 0500, Gibbs was relieved, and after supper turned in for some much-needed sleep. Outside his cabin, the night was pitch dark. There was no moon, and with the ship blacked out, the only light came from the stars.
At 2120 the Kahuku was torpedoed by the U-126, which was commanded by Kapitanleutnant Ernst Bauer. Less than an hour before, Bauer had fired dual torpedo salvos at the Arkansan, sinking the 7,000-ton U.S. steamer. Almost immediately, the Kahuku took a second torpedo, and the ship seemed to fall apart. The men on board panicked and released the ship’s lifeboats while the ship was still moving— the rafts drifted astern and were lost in the darkness. Gibbs ran to the stem and slid down the rope to the lifeboat that was under tow. However, the boat swept by him, and he was left alone in the water. He had a rubber duffle bag attached to a strap around his neck that contained some clothing, his identification card, and a flashlight.
Gibbs lit his flashlight and looked for other survivors. After about 15 minutes in the water, a shadow loomed up below him and he suddenly felt a hard surface under him. The U-boat had maneuvered itself directly under him. Gibbs recalled, “. . . before 1 knew it, 1 was rolling on the foredeck of the submarine, and she was out of the water.” A member of the U-boat crew reached down and pulled him to his feet. Bauer noted in his war diary, “One survivor fished in, in order to get his testimony.”
A rattled Gibbs was taken immediately to the conning tower, where a lieutenant spoke to him in broken but understandable English, inquiring the name of the ship and whether she was a merchant vessel or a warship. Gibbs was asked whether he wished to stay aboard the boat or get back into the sea, with the suggestion, “best you stay aboard.” With little chance of survival out in the open sea, Gibbs agreed to stay. He remained on the conning tower bridge for more than an hour while the U-boat circled the Kahuku, attempting to sink her. Although the ship was destroyed, she continued to drift. The U-boat fired two more torpedoes into the vessel, and numerous shells were fired from the forward deck gun and the antiaircraft gun aft of the conning tower. Finally, after what Gibbs estimated as almost two hours from the time of the first attack, the Kahuku listed heavily to port; Gibbs was ordered below. Shortly thereafter, the U-boat got under way and Gibbs was taken to the control room, where he was interrogated further by the English-speaking lieutenant.
Lieutenant: “What was cargo of ship you were on?”
Gibbs: “Don’t know, just boarded her today. Think it was water.”
L: “Where is she from?”
G: “Don’t know.”
L: “What is name of ship you were on before this one?”
L: “When was she sunk?”
G: “Last night.”
L: “What survivors were aboard the KahukuV’
G: “From Scottsburg and Cold Harbor."
L: “Where was Scottsburg from?”
G: “New York.”
L: “Where was Scottsburg bound for?”
G: “Trinidad for orders.”
L: “What was cargo aboard ScottsburgV’
G: “Airplanes and railroad rails.”
L: “How long did it take Scottsburg to sink?”
G: “Five minutes.”
L: “Why did the Scottsburg not put into Curasao for fuel?” G: “Don’t know.”
Following questioning, Gibbs was taken to the forward torpedo room and told to lie on the floor. The U-boat submerged and cruised under the surface for the remainder of 16 June.
Gibbs observed that the forward torpedo room had ten bunks for the crew, four torpedo tubes, eight warheads, and space for a reserve of nine torpedoes. When he entered the room there were no reserve torpedoes, but he believed that all tubes were loaded, because all were tested frequently.
After a short while, an officer entered the room with a bottle of French brandy. Tin cups were passed around, and the crew and skipper toasted their latest victories. Gibbs was offered a drink, which he accepted, silently toasting his brave, lost shipmates.
After dark, the (J-/26 surfaced and cruised until about 0200 the next day. Gibbs kept track of time by sneaking looks at a clock in the control room. Feeling somewhat nauseous from the oil and saltwater he had swallowed while in the water and drowsy from the brandy, he laid down and fell into a deep sleep on a thin mattress on the floorplates.
Gibbs woke up at 0600 as the crew set up a folding table between the bunks and ate their morning meal. They asked him to join them, and although still feeling sick, he tried to eat some potatoes and black bread covered with a fatty substance (Schmalz—lard—was spread on bread and salted because butter and margarine were not available in war- torn Germany). Forcing the food down with bitter coffee turned his stomach sour and he became more nauseous. One of the crewman called to a petty officer, who came forward and gave Gibbs some tablets. Gibbs was allowed to lay his mattress out again, and after a short sleep, he awoke feeling much better.
Gibbs was taken to the control room, where he noticed that a small hose ran from the engine room aft toward the forward torpedo room that most likely provided compressed air in the bowroom to check out the pistons in the torpedo tubes. The U-boat—now surfaced—had stopped, and all engines were shut off completely. The vessel was rolling, and Gibbs heard the crew working in the forward torpedo room and on deck. After an hour or more, the antiaircraft gun on the conning tower went into action and Gibbs was rushed from the control room back to the forward torpedo room. However, he couldn’t get in the torpedo room because there was a torpedo stuck in the deck hatch. The U-126 started her engines and began a high-speed run on the surface. Suddenly, two bombs seemed to hit close to the boat. All this time the crew was working frantically to get the torpedo down the hatch. As soon as this was accomplished, the boat crash dived. Bauer noted the action in his war diary:
0110 Start of torpedoes (torpedo resupply)
0330 Plane ahead, low flying, lights set. Shoots L.G. and throws “flibes.” Turned away with M.G.C./30. Uncomfortable situation because torpedoes are clearly on deck. Proceeded with caution and steered in zigzag course. . . . First the plane lost us, torpedoes secured as quickly as possible and upper deck readied as fast and as well as possible for dive.
After diving, the U-126 moved very little. The boat lay on the bottom all day on 17 June; the engines were shut down and the boat rolled from side to side. Periodically, there were explosions in the distance, but Gibbs estimated that none were closer than several miles. The air became foul after some hours and several cans (potash filters called Kalipatronen, which released oxygen—Sauerstoff—into the air) were opened and placed around the boat, and air improved.
Gibbs and some members of the crew chatted about their families, homes, and the war. Several of the Germans had spent time in the United States and were unhappy that the two countries were at war. They were convinced that the United States had declared war on Germany. Gibbs tried to sway their thinking, relating the sequence of events following the attack on Pearl Harbor. When he finished they shook their heads and said that their newspapers clearly reported that the United States made war on Germany. Despite this difference of opinion, the crew and their prisoner shared family pictures, and the Germans talked of visits to theaters, restaurants, and parks in San Francisco and New York.
On the night of 17 June, the U-126 operated under the surface, then surfaced and after cruising for a while, slowed down but continued moving. About midnight, the hose again was run from the engine room to the forward torpedo room, and Gibbs was brought back to the control room. This time Bauer took aboard additional torpedoes without interruption.
0130 Start of torpedo transfer. Due to high sea, impossible to transfer to stern compartment.
0450 Torpedo transfer concluded.
1130 Dived down during daybreak. Visibility is especially unfavorable during the morning.
The U-126 remained down almost the entire day, moving very little. She surfaced that evening and cruised most of the night. At daybreak on 19 June, Gibbs was brought on deck for about 15 minutes for his first bit of fresh air. While there, the English-speaking lieutenant again questioned him.
Gibbs was taken below; the U-boat resubmerged. At 1200 the boat resurfaced, and Gibbs heard firing from the antiaircraft gun. He was told to get his duffel bag and go on deck. When he arrived, he saw a small motor skiff about 50 feet away. The lieutenant told him to jump overboard and swim to the skiff. Gibbs leaped into the water and started to swim. The lieutenant motioned to the skiff to throw him a line. The U-boat immediately moved off on the surface to the southeast.
Gibbs was free and on board the 50-foot Venezuelan motor skiff Minataora. Unfortunately, the skipper of the boat and his two passengers (who were prostitutes) spoke only Spanish, so Gibbs could not determine where the boat was headed. Finally, one of the women pointed to a crate on the deck that had the word Curasao stenciled on it.
Upon their arrival at Curasao, Gibbs reported to the customs authorities that he had been transferred to the Minataora from a German U-boat five hours earlier at a position some 45 miles southeast of Willemstad. He was taken to the local police station and turned over to U.S. Navy authorities, and for the next four days, he was debriefed by the Curasao Naval Liaison Officer, Ensign Charles E. Anderson, U.S. Naval Reserve.
Anderson noted that Gibbs was not an educated man but that he had good observation skills and a retentive memory. In fact, Gibbs’s description of the Type IXC U-boat—its exterior, interior, and the boat’s operations— and his comments on various crewmembers were remarkable, considering that he had no in-depth knowledge of U-boats on which to base his observations. His description of Kapitanleutnant Bauer was typical of the detail Gibbs offered his debriefer.
“He was a heavy-set man between the ages of 35 and 45; height, five feet four inches; weight 200 pounds. He was well muscled and agile for so large a man. He was slightly bald, with a close beard and a florid complexion. . . While below deck the captain wore white shorts and a white V-neck sweatshirt. On deck he wore an olive-drab long-sleeved shirt and trousers and an overseas cap. I got the impression that the captain had been the master of a merchant vessel before the war as he did not give a military appearance, and seemed more easy-going than the usual naval officer.”
After his debriefing, Gibbs ate at the local American Red Cross facility and then went to an Army post to be outfitted with clothes, shoes, and shaving gear. After waiting five weeks for transportation, he was booked on a Clipper plane and flown to Miami, then flew to New York and reported to the National Maritime Union office, where he was awarded the Union Medal for being torpedoed.
Once Gibbs’s story reached the media, he became an instant celebrity. He spoke on radio and had his picture taken with Mrs. Roosevelt; Life magazine ran an article about his capture in its 24 August 1942 issue. He spoke at numerous war-bond rallies and toured war plants where he talked about the importance of getting arms and supplies to our soldiers fighting the war overseas. Then, as quickly as it had started, Gibbs’s fame ended. Archie Gibbs faded from the public eye. There were other heroes to be honored as the war continued. Gibbs went back to work at sea and remained there for the rest of his working life. The last ship he signed aboard was the Keystone State of the States Marine Line, in 1971. U.S. Coast Guard records show that he married and had a daughter; he died in 1977.
Gibbs did put his unique experience on paper. In 1943, Houghton Mifflin Company published his U-Boat Prisoner: The Life Story of a Texas Sailor. Copyrighted by King Features Syndicate, Inc., the book’s rights were sold to Columbia Pictures Corporation. The movie version of U-Boat Prisoner was released in 1944, starring Bruce Bennett and a cast of relatively unknown actors.
Gibbs must have stared in disbelief when he first viewed the picture, for somewhere in the screen-writing process the story was altered. The Sony Pictures Entertainment Archives contains this critique: “Based on the story of a former merchant seaman, this wartime tale is awfully tough to swallow. Bennett is cast as a Yankee seaman who singlehandedly knocks out a German sub by posing as a Nazi. He gets on board during a rescue operation completely undetected, renders everyone helpless with some flying fists, and then allows a U.S. destroyer to sink the sub. He shows a touch of humanity, however, by rescuing the crew from certain death. The people who would believe this story are the same ones who think the Third Reich never fell.”
Perhaps the folks in Hollywood felt the need to add some flourishes, but Gibbs’s story is compelling on its own.
Gibbs, Archibald C., U-Boat Prisoner (Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 1943)
Kelshall, Gaylord T. M. The U-Boats in the Caribbean (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994)
Kriegstagebuch (War Diary) of U-126. National Archives, microfilm publication T1022, roll 2939, ONI roll T-202-D. 1 March-23 December 1942.
Moore, Arthur R., A Careless Word ... A Needless Sinking (Kings Point, NY: American Merchant Marine Museum, 1983, 1985)
Office of Naval Intelligence, Navy Department, Intelligence Report #912- 1000/907-800/708-100: 6-42 Curasao. Interview with Archie Carr Gibbs.
Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Naval History Division, United States Submarine Losses, World War II (Washington, DC: 1963)
Rohwer, Jurgen, Axis Submarine Successes (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1956)
Roskill, S. W., The War at Sea, vol. Ill, part I (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1956)
United States Coast Guard, U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington, DC: Seaman Documentation and Records Branch/Merchant Vessel Personnel Division—Archibald Carr Gibbs Record of Service