by Robert A. Waters
At 4:30 on the afternoon of November 2, 1942, a German torpedo struck the Dutch merchant ship SSZaandam. Carrying U. S. Navy armed guards, as well as a Dutch crew, the ship didn’t sink immediately. A second torpedo, however, doomed the vessel. Seaman Second Class Basil Dominic Izzi of Massachusetts was one of the few survivors.
In 83 Days: The Survival of Seaman Izzi, Mark Murphy writes: “The ship, loaded with ammunition, food supplies, and equipment for overseas work, put out from an East Coast port in July, 1942. She stopped in Recife [Brazil] for water and food, and set out for Africa.”
In the middle of the Atlantic, disaster struck. Izzi recalled: “It was a clear day and the sun was shining bright. About 4:15 we were in my cabin playing cards, four of the fellows besides myself. Our radio man walked in and told us our position, where we were and everything. He just walked out and as soon as he walked out our first torpedo [fired by German submarine U-174] struck us. We got up and ran out to the door, we were trying to get to the guns but the shortest way was blocked by the wreckage from the torpedo from topside, so we had to go back inside the ship and through the lounge up on the next deck [as] the easiest way we could get to the guns. When we were getting there we saw the ship’s crew was letting the rafts get underway. Well, after the first torpedo the ship didn’t stop right away, it kept on going for a few hundred yards, and when the rafts did hit the water they just drifted off...”
Soon a second torpedo hit, and the boat sank quickly. Izzi jumped from the stern, found some debris to cling to, and swam away from the ship.
It would be 83 long days before he was picked up.
After two days of floating in the ocean, Izzi was nearly delirious when he came upon a life raft. Inside were Ensign James Maddox, a U. S. sailor named George Beezley, and two Dutch sailors, Cornelius van der Slot and Nicko Hoogendam. As Maddox pulled Izzi into the raft, he exclaimed: “Where have you been hiding?” Maddox, an ordained minister and a professor at Purdue University, would help the survivors by guiding them spiritually.
The rations in the raft lasted for 19 days. After that, they survived on fish, birds, and rainwater. Two days after their rations ran out, a thunderstorm descended on them and they used a canvas trough to catch the water. In order to catch sharks, they dangled their feet over the edge and improvised a lasso to corral the curious creatures. That day, they caught a four-footer that provided meat for several days.
A few days later, Izzi turned 20 and the rafters celebrated with an extra portion of food. But the ordeal was beginning to take its toll. By the 40th day, their clothing had rotted off, and Beezley lost his hearing and began going blind. On the 66th day he died. Maddox performed the rites as they tossed Beezley overboard.
On the 77th day, Maddox died. The survivors buried him at sea while saying the prayers he had taught them. (Izzi saved his wedding rings and later returned them to his widow.)
Van der Slot, Hoogendam, and Izzi drifted for six more days before a PC boat rescued them. By that time, they were mere skeletons. They were taken to Brazil, then the United States Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. Later, Izzi became a spokesperson for Navy, touring the country to improve morale. After his tour of duty was over, Izzi returned to his hometown of Barre, Massachusetts. There he lived in relative anonymity until 1977.
I have only the highest admiration for those who fought in previous wars so that we might live in peace. Freedom from the tyranny of totalitarianism was bought with the blood and valor of millions.