Joseph C. DiCicco
Born: September 10, 1922
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Service: Merchant Marine
Position / Rank: Engine Cadet
Date / Place of death: September 10, 1942 / South Atlantic
Date / Place of burial: September 10, 1942 / South Atlantic
Joseph C. DiCicco signed on as Engine Cadet aboard the MS
American Leader, a C-1 freighter, on April 13, 1942 at the port of New York. According to the account of Captain George Duffy, then the ship’s Third Mate, the ship was carrying a general cargo of war supplies including boots, barbed wire and vehicles along with a deck cargo of nine twin engine bombers from New York to the Persian Gulf for Russia. The ship was also carrying several thousand tons of steel ingots for India. The American Leader was armed with what a survivor characterized as an “ancient 4-inch cannon on our stern plus four machine guns – two of which never fired one round without jamming”.
The ship arrived safely in the Persian Gulf, and loaded a partial cargo of rugs and
chemicals here before sailing for Columbo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to load a cargo of rubber
and latex. The American Leader headed alone down the coast of Africa to Cape Town,
South Africa. Upon arrival at Cape Town on September 7, 1942 the ship was ordered
to continue westward, without escort, toward the Straits of Magellan and the Pacific
At about 1930 on September 10th, the American Leader ran afoul of the German Navy
commerce raider, Michel, a converted merchant ship that had been operating in the
South Atlantic. The Michel, disguised as a neutral merchant ship, fired on the American
Leader, with deck guns and then launched two torpedoes. The Michel’s crew managed
to destroy two of the lifeboats as the crew attempted to launch them, forcing the crew to
abandon in life rafts. The American Leader sank in about 25 minutes, and ten crew
members, including Engine Cadet Joseph C. DiCicco and Deck Cadet Gordon Tyne,
were killed in the attack. The 39 crew members and nine Naval Armed Guard who
survived the sinking were taken prisoner by the Michel.
In addition to the survivors, the crew of the Michel recovered one body which could not
be recognized. After interviewing George Duffy the Michel’s doctor determined that the
body was that of Joseph C. DiCicco. Cadet-Midshipman Joseph C. DiCicco was
buried at sea on the evening of September 11, 1942 with full military honors, including
an American flag to cover him. The Michel’s Commanding Officer, Helmuth von
Ruckteschell, invited the American Leader’s Captain, Chief Officer, and First Assistant
Engineer to the service. During the service von Ruckteschell reportedly said, “If all the
people of the world held each other in the same respect as their seamen do, we would
not be in this terrible situation on board here tonight.” Joseph DiCicco is believed to be
the only U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Cadet-Midshipman to have been given a
formal funeral by the enemy.
The survivors, now prisoners of war, including the American Leader’s Second Mate,
1940 Cadet Officer graduate Walter Hay Lee, were handed over to the Japanese in
Batavia, Java (present day Djakarta, Indonesia) in November 1942. In September 1944
Lee and several other American Leader survivors were killed in the sinking of the
prisoner transport Junyo Maru when it was torpedoed by the HMS Tradewind. Other
American Leader survivors were killed in the sinking of the Japanese prisoner transport
Tomahaku Maru. Of the 58 merchant seamen and Naval Armed Guard on the
American Leader, only 28 (including Captain Duffy) eventually made it home. All of
these had survived more than two years as prisoners of war.
Cadet-Midshipman Joseph C. DiCicco was posthumously awarded the Mariners Medal,
Combat Bar, Atlantic War Zone Bar, the Mediterranean-Middle East War Zone Bar, the
Victory Medal, and the Presidential Testimonial Letter.
Joseph C. DiCicco was the oldest child and only son of Joseph John DiCicco and Elizabeth DiCicco. According to the 1930 U.S. Census, the elder DiCicco was a carpenter.
Photo of Joseph DiCicco at left in Color Guard at KP in 1942
Photo of MS American Leader