It was June, 1943, and Bernie Levin had just graduated from high school. Choosing to enlist in the Navy rather than wait for the draft, his goal was to be in the Navy Air Corps as a pilot. Instead, Bernie found himself in boot camp learning to be a signalman in World War II. Active duty saw him as part of the US Navy Armed Guard aboard Merchant Marine ships that ferried oil from suppliers in places such as Curacao or Iran to wherever the US fighting forces needed oil. On November 2, 1944, while in the Indian Ocean after getting oil from Iran, Bernie’s ship took a direct hit from a Japanese submarine with German officers on board. Radio Silence was strictly enforced for the Merchant Marine ships, so the US Navy didn’t know the position of the boat when it was torpedoed; the men were on their own.
As men jumped overboard, only three life-boats existed because three had been torpedoed. Bernie was lucky to make it onto one of the three with four other men, one of whom was an officer with a pistol. When a German officer who spoke excellent English emerged from the conning tower, he very politely asked the men the name of their ship, where they were going, and if they needed anything, medical supplies, etc. The Americans were all too afraid to say much of anything, but when they were asked if they needed any cigarettes in the lifeboats, they said yes. The German threw down Lucky Strike cigarettes, told them the direction to Australia, and wished them luck getting back to the Pacific Ocean (their destination).
When the Merchant Marine ship was sinking and men were screaming to be rescued from the oil fires burning in the water, Bernie’s lifeboat (capacity of nine) took on an additional 11 men. The officer on board had to make the hard decision to order the men to row away and not rescue any others because there was only three inches of freeboard on the overloaded lifeboat.
Imagine 16 men with their legs and feet submerged in saltwater sitting in a lifeboat that had a mast. Water was rationed to 1.5 ounces per man per day or about a shot glass full. Dry crackers and tins of coconut paste were divvied out. Bernie recalled not being able to eat the crackers because their mouths were too parched. They were unable to catch any fish to eat. No rain fell to collect fresh water, and many sharks circled the boat without attacking. The men had no food for the last four days but still had water. As rations were running out, some of the self-survivalists openly talked about throwing guys overboard to save themselves. The officer with the gun quickly intervened and got control.
So how long were 16 men afloat in the Indian Ocean with no sightings of any ship for rescue? Long enough to have one poor soul hallucinating and ready to dive into the ocean for an ice cream soda, and long enough to have all 16 men with gangrenous feet and toes. Bernie admits all the men had very little hope of being found alive, when on the 14th day drifting at sea, an American Liberty ship approached in the distance. Seeing the lifeboat mast, they mistakenly fired on the lifeboat, thinking the mast was a periscope. Signalman Bernie Levin, with only a small mirror, tried desperately to signal them to stop shooting. Luckily as the ship came closer, they saw the Americans, rescued them, and took them to Sri Lanka.
When the extent of the necessary medical care for 16 men was realized, the men were transported to a British hospital in Bombay, India. Not one wanted to undergo amputation in India, so a hospital ship transported them back to a military hospital in San Pedro, CA. The internists and surgeons argued daily over whether to amputate or not. The internists held firm and with the men’s feet and toes not worsening, no amputations were performed; one man lost one toe. It was a miracle that 15 men got back to active duty with all their toes and feet still attached and alive.
After Bernie healed and was awarded the Purple Heart, of course the Navy wanted an experienced signalman back on the Merchant Marine ships again. Despondent at going back to the seas, Bernie ran into an old friend who helped in the first step of being chosen for Officers Candidate School. Luck (some would say God) was again with Bernie, as he was one of just six men chosen out of 60 interviewed. He spent about another year in the Navy attending school but chose civilian life ASAP.
Because of almost losing his feet to gangrene, Bernie was inspired to enter podiatry school. While a podiatry student, he went to Detroit to work at a Plymouth plant one summer. He had a blind date with a young coed from the University of Michigan on a Friday night and he proposed marriage to Ruth Kirschbaum less than a week later. A man who faced mortality in a life boat is not one to procrastinate! She agreed in less than a week. Dr. Bernie and Ruth Levin have been married 66 years. Watch for his NC Purple Heart license plate around the Harbour; it is PH 628.