On the Water

Boat Compass

This boat compass was used by merchant seamen aboard one of the lifeboats from the SS Alcoa Guide, an American freighter sunk by the German submarine U- 123 three hundred miles east of Cape Hatteras on April 16, 1942. The donor, Waldemar Semenov, was a Junior Engineer aboard the vessel and one of twenty-seven men who survived the attack. After drifting for three days, crowded into two lifeboats, they were spotted by a search plane and rescued a day later by the USS Broome, a navy destroyer. A life raft carrying another four members of the freighter’s crew was not found until three weeks had passed, at which point only one man was still alive. Seven lives were lost in the attack.

Nineteen forty-two was a deadly year for shipping in the waters of the Atlantic. U-boats roaming the seas destroyed over 400 ships, including 82 American merchant vessels, in the first six months alone. The Alcoa Guide was the fourth U.S. merchant ship sunk by U-123 in the first two weeks of April. Unarmed and without an escort, the ship was vulnerable as it steamed from New Jersey toward the island of Guadaloupe with a load of U.S. Army equipment for troops stationed in the West Indies, and a cargo of flour for the island. After detecting the freighter, U-123’s commander, Lt. Reinhard Hardegen, ordered the sub to the surface and began firing. Desperate to defend his ship, the Alcoa Guide’s master, Capt. Samuel Cobb, attempted to ram the sub, but to no avail. The bombardment continued and, after two hours, the freighter sank.

ID Number:
Marine Compass Company
Place Made:
late 1930s
2 x 4 1/2 in.; 5.08 x 11.43 cm
Gift of Waldemar Semenov

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