Published 25th May 2023, 8:46am
The sinking of the S.S. Comayagua 14th May 1942 brings reality of World War II ashore.
Eighty-one years ago, on the morning of 14th May 1942, the cargo vessel Comayagua, a Honduran registered United Fruit Company ship, was torpedoed by a German submarine 14 nautical miles SW (off ‘Southwest Point’) of Grand Cayman. In the words of Miss Annie Huldah Bodden describing the incident in a December 1972 Northwester magazine article, this event occurred “within sight of George Town Harbour in broad daylight.” Miss Annie, as she was (and still is) affectionately known, described the rescue account this way: “The Cimboco, under the command of Capt. Eugene Thompson, with her noble crew and some volunteers, left the safety of the harbor and sailed out, braving the danger of U-boat attack, to see if there were any survivors of the torpedoed ship.” (p.14).
Capt. Paul Hurlston (born 11th January 1931), then a young school boy, recalled the event this way in his 2012 booklet, Did you know that? 58 Tidbits of Cayman’s History: “I was in school when we heard the explosion. We ran out on the beach and could see a flash of fire and black smoke.”
Several of our Oral History narrators also spoke about the events of that day and the days after in their interviews.
Mrs. Ella Latter (nee Hurlston) (b. 22nd November 1906) made mention of Commissioner John Penry Jones sending the motor vessel Cimboco to investigate and rescue any survivors. “Many were found in the water, on lifeboats or rafts whatever they could get on… The majority were taken to the small George Town hospital for care. Most were severely burned and two unfortunately succumbed to their injuries”. As a member of The Friendly Society (a group formed to help distribute staple food supplies to residents in need, prior to and during the war), she was given the job of going to the hospital every morning to help with wounded survivors. Mrs. Latter especially remembered being asked to care for one badly burned young man, Archie McDougal. Her job was to keep him company and feed him. “I felt very badly when they finally took him to Guantanamo Bay, which they did as soon as they could. But he died in Guantanamo Bay.”
Mrs. Janilee Clifford, (b. 10th April 1932), was then ten years old and living in Bodden Town. She observed that it was this pivotal incident that brought the reality of WWII home to Cayman’s shores. Before this, “[everything seemed very distant] until one Sunday, we had a guest at our house, from Honduras, that had been torpedoed right off George Town, and I remember he was in the hospital…or the one-room hospital here, and he came…out of the hospital I don’t remember how long he’d been there, but I remember he looked awful with all the burns over his face and arms and stuff…”
In the same December 1972 Northwester article, the forthright Miss Annie asserted that “Capt. Thompson, his Chief Engineer Rudy Hinds, Second Engineer Vernal Bodden, and the boatswain and other crew members should have been cited for medals in risking their lives to save the lives of men they did not even know. The Cimboco could have been destroyed that fateful day, but the fervent prayers for the safe return of crew and ship by all Caymanians prevailed, and she came safely back to harbor with her human cargo.” (p.14)
The deep appreciation and affection for the brave Caymanians who came to the rescue of the ship and its crew was shared with the Caymanian public in Government Notice #99 of 194, posted on the Government Notice Board on the 26th May 1942. In it, Commissioner Jones, shared the gratitude expressed by the Captain of the ship, Peter Larsen, who said that for him and his officers and men, Grand Cayman would always remain “an island of refuge”. This was due to the kindness shown to them after being torpedoed, rescued and cared for by the brave Caymanian seamen as well as those who volunteered to support the local doctor during this unusual incident.
14th May 1942 is indeed a significant date in Cayman’s history, a day when Caymanian bravery and seafaring prowess were displayed selflessly. So, this Discovery Day weekend, especially on Sunday 14th May 2023, visit Fort George, The National Trust Historic Site on Fort Street. The signage and paintings at this location will take you back in time to George Town, 81 years ago to wartime Cayman. You can read about this event and view the dramatic wall painting that portrays it. The etchings and text on the signs within the small park remind us of how much downtown George Town has changed physically over time They also highlight key events and periods in our history back to the 1700s. Hopefully the information contained in this small park will remind all of us of the Cayman spirit that we should attempt to keep alive and pass on to future generations: bravery, patriotism, caring and community.
Image: DI4561: MS ‘Cimboco’. 1938 (Oxford University Biological Expedition)
Transcript: GN99/42 26th May 1942
A Tribute To Cayman
The departure by plane on Sunday of the last survivor of the ‘Comayagua’ closed a chapter in the history of Grand Cayman which will never be forgotten by those whom the fortunes of war cast upon its shores. To them Grand Cayman will always remain the island of refuge.
Captain Peter Larsen spoke in the warmest terms of “the kindness received by himself, his officers and men, whilst Dr. Harold Hoover paid the highest tribute to the unremitting care and attention which was bestowed upon the two hospital cases”.
The seafaring sons of Cayman have good cause to be proud of those whom they have left behind.
J. P Jones