The Unsinkable Harold Parker Ewart

My great–grandfather Harold Parker Ewart was a Merchant Mariner. His job took him all over the world and was extremely dangerous, particularly during wartime. Harold served in the merchant service throughout both World Wars and twice in his career was on board a merchant ship torpedoed by a German submarine.

Harold was born on 21 February 1892 in Carlisle, England, a border town in northwest England just south of Scotland. 1 He immigrated to the United States about 1916. 2 His wife, Mary Annie, and his three children, Grace, John, and my grandfather Harold, would join him in 1919. 3

Harold was a Merchant Mariner for both the United States and for the United Kingdom.  The role of both the British Merchant Navy and the United States Merchant Marines is to move cargo and passengers within their own waters and between nations. Merchant Mariners also maintain and operate both private and government–owned merchant vessels. Contrary to popular belief, Merchant Mariners are not part of the military. However, during times of war they can be called upon to deliver military personnel and equipment. In the United States, the Coast Guard provides training and certification. 4

The merchant service suffered heavy losses during World Wars I and II due to German U-boat attacks. 5

World War I

During World War I, the Germans enacted a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare which meant that merchant seafarers and other civilians were at risk of attack from enemy ships. On 4 February 1915, Germany declared a war zone surrounding the United Kingdom and announced its intention to sink any vessels within British waters. Earlier in the war, U-boats followed “prize rules,” which called for a submarine to surface, search cargo, and allow passengers and crew to escape before sinking the ship. 6

On 7 May 1915, the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed without warning by a German submarine en route from Liverpool to New York. The luxury passenger ship sank in less than 18 minutes. 7 1,198 passengers and crew perished including 128 Americans. 8

The sinking sparked international outrage, particularly from the United States. To prevent the United States from entering the war, the Kaiser struck a deal with President Wilson and on 28 August 1915 formally announced that passenger ships would not be attacked without warning and U-boat captains would be responsible for the safety of those on board. 9

On 3 September 1915,  the RMS Hesperian left Liverpool en route to Montreal. It was carrying cargo, passengers, and wounded Canadian soldiers. 10 Harold was part of the crew, a sixth–engineer. 11 The next evening, on the 4th of September, without warning, the German submarine U-20, under the command of Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger torpedoed the Hesperian off the coast of Ireland. In doing so, Schweiger violated an agreement that Germany made to the United States just a week earlier not to attack passenger ships without warning. 12 32 people, 10 passengers, and 22 crew members died. 13

A skeleton crew headed by Captain William Main stayed on board to try and save the vessel and tow it to shore, but the Hesperian sunk in the early morning hours of 6 September 1915. 14 Harold was one of those men and received an award from the President of the Board of Trade in appreciation of the British government. 15

World War II

In solidarity with Japan, after they attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the Axis powers declared war on the United States. 16 Just a month later, on 13 January 1942, Nazi Germany launched Operation Paukenschlag, or “Operation Drumbeat” as the allies would know it. It was one of the deadliest campaigns in World War II and its purpose was to defeat America on its own shores by attacking merchant ships and tankers. During the first half of 1942 more than 360 merchant ships and approximately 5,000, mostly merchant seamen were lost. 17 Mariners died at a rate of 1 in 26, during World War II, the highest of any group on the front lines. 18

On 23 December 1941, Kapitänleutnant Reinhard Hardegen, commander of U-123, left for the first phase of Operation Drumbeat. 19 After sinking the Cyclops and the Norness he entered New York Harbor on 15 January 1942. Due to the lack of merchant traffic, he made his way down the Atlantic coast facing little resistance from the United States. 20

On 19 January 1942, after sinking the City of Atlanta off Cape Hatteras, Hardegen had his sights set on the S.S. Malay. 21 The S.S. Malay, an oil tanker for the Gulf Oil Company, was en route from Philadelphia to Port Arthur, Texas, to take on a shipment of crude oil. Luckily the tanker was empty. 22

Harold, its chief engineer, must have had déjà vu. 23

“I had just come out of the engine room and an explosion knocked me down. I just kept lying down while the splinters dropped all around me.”

Skippered by John M. Dodge, the unarmed Malay, which carried a crew of 34, was shelled while leading an unescorted convoy. Kapitänleutnant Hardegen and his men fired ten shots, of which about six struck the Malay. The shelling killed one man, destroyed two lifeboats, and started a fire. Not realizing the size of the Malay, Hardegen decided not to use one of his two remaining torpedoes and instead left to chase other boats with the intention of sinking them. 24

While chasing down two other ships that got away, the crew of U–123 intercepted a distress message from the Malay revealing its size. Shocked at how large the ship was and recognizing its value, Hardengen planned to return and finish the job. Before heading back, he waited to attack another merchant vessel and torpedoed the Ciltvaira. 25

Meanwhile, the Scania came to assist the Malay and provided fire equipment. The crew got the fire under control and the ship underway. 26 When Kapitänleutnant Hardegen returned the crew of the Malay spotted the submarine and tried to get away. 27 Then Hardegen used his last remaining torpedo on the tanker and struck the starboard side tank. The crew abandoned the ship in lifeboats but one capsized, killing four men. 28 Harold was one of the 29 survivors.

Harold described his experience: “ I had just come out of the engine room and an explosion knocked me down. I just kept lying down while the splinters dropped all around me.” 29

Unlike the freighters City of Atlanta and Ciltvaira, the S.S. Malay did not sink. 30 The severely damaged Malay made it back to port on its own. 31 Forty-six merchant seamen died that night. 32

After hearing that her husband barely escaped with his life, Harold’s wife Mary Annie took the news in stride saying “It does no good to worry”.  Saying she was used to sub-attacks, she recalled Harold’s experience on the Hesperian in 1915 and how he escaped uninjured and assisted in the aid of others. “You know, you get used to it”. 33

By the end of the war, 733 American cargo ships and 8,651 mariners died in dangerous waters. 34 Of those who were killed, 84 percent were listed as ”missing in action.” 35

A life–long mariner, Harold died on 23 January 1947 in the U.S. Marine Hospital in Staten Island, New York, of a heart ailment. 36 That same day, his son Harold (my grandfather), also a mariner,  entered Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn where he would die 24 days later of tuberculosis at age 31. 37 They are both buried at Evergreens Cemetery in Queens, New York. 38

1 England, birth certificate for Harold Parker Ewart, born 21 February 1892; registered June [quarter] 1892, Carlisle District, Saint Mary Sub-district, Cumberland; General Register Office, Southport.
2 1920 U.S. census, Kings County, New York, population schedule, Brooklyn, enumeration district (ED) 176, sheet 3B, dwelling 31, family 60, Harold Ewart household; image, Ancestry ( : accessed 29 July 2022); citing National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilm publication T625, roll 1148.
3 “List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States Immigration Officer at Port of Arrival,” S.S. Adriatic (Liverpool to New York), arriving 10 June 1919, List 1, lines 26-29, for Mary Annie, Grace, John and Harold Ewart; imaged in "New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957" Ancestry ( : viewed 29 July 2022); citing Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957 microfilm publication T715 (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.). Roll number not specified.
4 "United States Merchant Marine," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia ( : viewed 3 July 2022), rev. 1094425384, 22 June 2022. And,"What is the Merchant Navy?," Careers At Sea ( : viewed 20 July 2022).
5 Rebecca Smith "Merchant Navy Day," National Museums Liverpool ( : viewed 29 July 2022).
6 "18 Minutes That Shocked The World," Imperial War Museums ( : viewed 20 July 2022).
7 "18 Minutes That Shocked The World."
8 "German Submarine Sinks Lusitania," History ( : viewed 20 July 2022).
9 "Kaiser Orders No Attacks on Passenger Ships Without Warning," Today in World War I ( : viewed 20 July 2022).
10 "RMS Hesperian," The Lusitania Resource ( : viewed 3 July 2022).
11 “Pluck of the Merchant Service,” Manchester Guardian (London, England), 9 October 1915, p. 6, col. 4, H.P. Ewart, sixth engineer; digital image, Newspapers ( : accessed 15 May 2021).
12 "RMS Hesperian."
13 "List of Victims," Daily Telegraph (London, England), 9 September 1915, p. 9, col. 3; digital image, Newspapers ( : viewed 3 July 2022).
14 Archibald Hurd, The Merchant Navy (London: John Murray, 1924) 2:36–37.
15 “Pluck of the Merchant Service,” p. 6, col. 4.
16 "Germany declares war on the United States," History( : viewed 29 July 2022).
17 Michael D. Hull, "Operation Drumbeat’s Devastating Toll on Allied Shipping," Warfare History Network ( : viewed 29 July 2022).
18 "Our Legacy," American Merchant Marine Veterans ( : viewed 29 July 2022).
19 "Top U-boat Aces: Reinhard Hardegen," u– ( : viewed 29 July 2022).
20 "U-Boat Attacks Of World War II: 6 Months of Secret Terror in the Atlantic," New England Historical Society ( : viewed 29 July 2022).
21 John Michael Wagner, “Waves of Carnage: A Historical, Archaeological, and Geographical Study of the Battle of the Atlantic in North Carolina Waters” (Master’s Thesis, East Carolina University, 2010) 54–56; East Carolina University, ScholarShip, PDF ( downloaded 27 July 2022).
22 "Comb East Coast for U-Boat Pack: Naval Planes, Ships Strike Back as Subs Raise Tanker Toll to Four,” Brooklyn (New York) Daily Eagle, 20 January 1942, pp. 1–2; digital image, Newspapers ( : accessed 29 July 2022).
23 For Harold's position, "Comb East Coast for U-Boat Pack," p. 2, col. 5.
24 Guðmundur Helgason,, "Malay" ( : viewed 15 July 2022).
25 Wagner, “Waves of Carnage,” 54.
26 Helgason, "Malay."
27 Wagner, “Waves of Carnage,” 55.
28 Helgason, "Malay."
29 "Borough Man Knocked Down by Explosion, Barely Escapes in Shelling of Tanker Malay," Brooklyn (New York) Eagle, Night Edition, 20 January 1942, p. 1; digital image, Newspapers ( : viewed 19 July 2022).
30 Brett Leo Holland,” The Tidewater Confronts the Storm : Antisubmarine Warfare off the Capes of Virginia During the First Six Months of 1942” (Master’s Thesis, University of Richmond, 1994); Richmond University, UR Scholarship Repository ( : downloaded 27 July 2022).
31 Helgason, "Malay."
32 Kelly Bell, "Operation Drumbeat: U-Boat Marauders on the American Coast, Warfare History Network ( : viewed 15 July 2022).
33 “Used to Sub Attacks Says Survivor’s Wife,” Brooklyn (New York) Daily Eagle, 20 January 1942, pp. 1 and 3; digital images, Newspapers ( : viewed 27 July 2020).
34 "United States Merchant Marine," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, rev. 1094425384, 22 June 2022.
35 George Goldman, "Rembering World War II Mariners," ( : viewed 29 July 2022).
36 Richmond County, New York, Certificate of Death, certificate no. 184, for Harold Parker Ewart, 23 January 1947; New York City Municipal Archives, “Historical Vital Records,” NYC Department of Records & Information Services, database with images ( : viewed 16 March 2022)
37 Brooklyn, New York CIty Department of Health, death certificate no. 4007 (1947), Harold Ewart; Municipal Archives, New York City.
38 The Evergreens Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York ( to author, email, 5 April 2019, "Genealogy Request"; held by Hendrickson.

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