Sources


Gibbons Letter
sinking of the "City of Barcelona", August 1937.

Some reports on the sinking of the ship from JACK FREEMAN wrote home on Sept. 25, 1937 and from Abe Osheroff, 2 USA volunteers, can be read here.

September 4, 1937

Dearest Florence,

I also received the two copies of the 'Zepher' that you sent, also the August 1 [censored] with the story of the boat. The only reason I did not write the details sooner was that we were forbidden. How that letter was in the 'Zepher' got thru, I do not know, as the censor told me that it should never have gone out at that time. Now that it has been in the [censored], I suppose it is alright to talk about it. The main events are related very well in that article, but about Ed [AHERN], no one knows exactly what happened.

We had been warned about 9 a.m. that the enemy submarine had been seen, and were keeping about 1 to 1 miles from shore. We had an escort of two aero-planes, who were continually scouting. Well at 12 o'clock we had called a meeting to discuss what would be done when we landed in Barcelona. This was a very fortunate thing, as everybody happened to be gathered together, as otherwise many more of the fellows would have been in their cabin resting or reading or something. Well, the meeting had just broken up when there was a terrific explosion. Many who happened to be standing immediately above where the torpedo struck, or were below at that spot, must have been killed immediately.

It struck about 30 feet from where I was standing, leaning on the rail, so you can imagine how lucky I was. If it had struck half a second sooner, I would not have been writing this.

While the aeroplanes were looking for it, the submarine had sneaked in close to shore, where they apparently did not think it would be, as they were scouting out to sea. Well, immediately the ship started to go down stern first. I was quite away from any lifeboat, and of course those comrades who were nearest to them, immediately filled them.

Not realising the terrible danger we were in (and this is what caused many lives to be lost) many of us went downstairs to get lifebelts and personal possessions. When you realize afterwards that the boat sank in about 3 minutes, you can see what this meant; but it did not seem possible that a beautiful steel ship, very modern, built on the Clyde, which at one moment was filled with 500 happy, healthy, strong young men, would minutes later be at the bottom of the sea.

Well, to continue; I went down to my cabin, but all the lifebelts were gone. I was even debating whether or not I should put on those big boots that Sol bought me, hob nails and all, as I knew they would be invaluable here. However, the floor suddenly tilted about a 45 degree angle and all thoughts of the boots left me. If I had time to put them on they would probably have caused my death. I was even looking for my razor. Can you imagine!

When I look back at it, I still shudder, but one can always be [clever] after the event. I ran across the hallway to another cabin and fortunately found a lifebelt, and on my way up got two more which I gave to two more boys who were without. This of course was all happening very fast. Suddenly, all the lights went out, leaving the three of us in the dark. We were two decks down and in the middle of the ship, hence the lights in the daytime.

We rushed upstairs and out on deck and what a horrible sight. The whole rear end of the ship was under water, which means that those [volunteers] who had done what I done, were trapped like rats. There was not a lifeboat left, and one which was being lowered became stuck somehow, and when the ship gave another lurch, was turned completely over, and it was loaded with [censored]. Other fellows have since told me that Ed was in this boat, so whether he struck his head on something or was dragged down by it, no one knows.

Well, dear, almost everybody that was left started to jump into the water. We shouted to everybody we could see to jump, but as the read end was going down, of course, the bow was coming up, and many comrades, from a false sense of security, or otherwise, kept climbing higher, which was suicide, as it was obvious what would happen when the ship plunged. Well anyway, I jumped to the landward side of the boat, and then I had the most horrible minute of so of my life. The tide seemed to be racing seaward, and I was immediately smacked up against side of the boat, then carried across that part which was already submerged, striking my head against a ventilator, dragged underneath the iron awning bar, then up against the mast, and I was glad when I was finally washed clear of the deck and put towards sea.

Well, I just for clear of the boat when an English comrade grabbed my arm, saying he could not swim and another comrade grabbed my belt, and there was nothing to be done about it. I swam with my left arm, away from the boat, as no matter how often I told the comrade to let my right arm go and hold onto my shoulder or belt, he would not do so, but held my bicep like a vice. As a result, I had five big blue welts on my muscle for over two weeks where his fingers dug into me. We finally for to see wreckage, where they were able to hold on until they were picked up.

In the meantime, the ship was standing on end, with comrades hanging onto it, some falling off it, some sliding down the deck; remember it was almost vertical, when suddenly it plunged to the bottom with its human cargo. The horror of it still makes me sick when I think of it.

In the meantime, the fishermen were coming out in their row-boats, and it seemed like they would never get there. Men were scattered all over the sea in an area of a square mile, and momentarily one could see sole comrades disappearing after another, and there was nothing anybody would do, we were scattered so far apart.

By this time, I had kicked all my clothes off, and felt able to stay in the water for a long time. Then to add to the tensions of the situation, an aeroplane swooped down out of the sky and dropped some bombs close to us, and you must remember that at that time, we did not know [whether] we had been torpedoed or bombed, and from conversations held later, all the comrades thought that maybe we had been bombed by an enemy plane and now he was bombing us in the water.

He swooped right over us, and his machine-gun looked like a canon pointing at us, and many of us really thought we were going to be machine-gunned. However, it was our plane bombing the sub, which he did not get.

I do not know what Sol Cohen [Saul B Newton aka Sol Cohen] wrote his wife, but we were being swept out further to sea by the tide, and after quite a while were picked up by the fishermen.

Well, darling, this is the story and this is how Ed [Ahern] died.

Tell John that all the [censored] who were left of his group are scattered, but that they held him in the highest esteem, and respect. He died, as many more brave [censored] in the line of [censored] duty, and it is too painful for me to write to Joan about it, so let her see or read this and her my deepest regrets.

Love

Joe.





GO TO TOP OF PAGE