Born: March 17, 1922
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Service: Merchant Marine
Position / Rank: Engine Cadet
Date / Place of death: November 29, 1942 /
Indian Ocean, 28-00 S, 54-00 E
Date / Place of burial: November 29, 1942 /
Indian Ocean, 28-00 S, 54-00 E /Lost at Sea
Meyer Egenthal signed on as Engine Cadet aboard the MS Sawokla at the port of New York on June 16, 1942. Also aboard with him was his classmate, William O’Hara, the Deck Cadet. The ship sailed two days later loaded with general war cargo bound for the Soviet Union via Abadan, Iran. After arriving in Abadan via Port of Spain, Trinidad and Capetown, South Africa the Sawokla delivered its cargo. The ship then sailed in ballast for Colombo and then to Calcutta, India where it loaded a cargo of gunny sacks in bales. The Sawokla returned to Colombo for sailing directions and to pick up some home bound passengers.
On November 21, 1942, the MS Sawokla sailed from Colombo with a crew of 41, a
Navy Armed Guard contingent of 13 and five passengers. Eight days out of port and
about 400 miles south of Madagascar, the Sawokla was sighted and attacked by the
German surface raider Michel. Junior Third Mate Stanley Willner, a Merchant Marine
Cadet Corps Cadet Officer on his first voyage as a ship’s officer, was standing watch on
the bridge on the 8-12 watch. After the war Willner reported that about 2035 he saw the
outlines of a ship take shape in the darkness and immediately called the Captain to the
bridge. However, just as the Captain was opening his cabin at door at 2037 the Michel
opened fire on Sawokla, targeting the bridge and radio shack with its main battery of six
150 mm guns.
The captain was killed immediately as were most of the bridge watch and forecastle
lookout. The Michel also launched a motor torpedo boat, which circled the Sawokla,
spraying the decks with machine gun fire, and preventing the crew from launching any
of the lifeboats. Willner reported that eight minutes after the attack began the Sawokla
was on fire from stem to stern and sank. The crew, Armed Guard and passengers who
survived the initial attack were forced to jump overboard into the rough seas. Cadet-
Midshipmen Meyer Egenthal and William V. O’Hara were among those seen jumping
overboard by other crew members.
According to Willner, the Michel, including its two aircraft, spent two days destroying any evidence of the sinking of the Sawokla and searching for other ships to attack.
Willner and 38 other men were rescued by the Michel and its crew.
Sawlokla’s wounded survivors, including Willner, were treated by the Michel’s medical
staff. However, neither Meyer Egenthal nor his classmate William O’Hara were among
those rescued by the Michel and are presumed to have drowned.
For those that had survived the initial attack, the ordeal had just begun. On February
19, 1943 the Michel arrived in Singapore where its prisoners were handed over to the
Japanese by the Michel’s crew, which was their normal procedure. The prisoners were
taken to the Prisoner of War camp at the former Changi Prison. According to Willner,
when the Sawokla’s survivors arrived at Changi they were “fairly fit”. However, after a
few months about ½ of the survivors were taken from the camp while most of the
remainder were taken to work on the Thailand-Burma Railway, sometimes known as
the “Death Railway” and immortalized in the film “The Bridge Over the River Kwai”.
Willner and the men of his group returned to Singapore in December 1943 and
remained there until the camp was liberated September 7, 1945. Willner, along with his
shipmate Dennis Roland worked for decades to earn official veteran’s status for
merchant seamen in World War II, serving as a named plaintiff in litigation that finally
bore fruit in 1988, more than four decades after Willner’s ordeal.
Cadet-Midshipman Meyer Egenthal was posthumously awarded the Mariners Medal,
Combat Bar with star, Atlantic War Zone Bar, the Mediterranean Middle East War Zone
Bar, the Victory Medal, and the Presidential Testimonial Letter.
Meyer Egenthal was the only son of Abraham Egenthal, a Polish immigrant, and
Pauline Egenthal a Romanian immigrant. Meyer was the middle child of a family that
included his older sister Fay, although she was often known as Fanny, and his younger
sister Freida. By 1940 Fanny was employed as a sales clerk in a department store
while Meyer attended the Manual Training High School in Brooklyn. In high school he
was active in athletics, and received a varsity letter in track. Abraham owned a grocery
store in Brooklyn where Meyer worked part time. His outgoing nature and cheerful
service made him popular with the customers. According to his family, Meyer was
ambitious and had a strong desire to make himself valuable to the family business. His
family also said that Meyer had learned that the priceless value of a good nature costs
nothing and benefits the individual and those around him. Meyer’s “magnetic”
personality resulted from his unusual mental, social and emotional characteristics.
Photos of Meyer and Father at his Grocery Store; Frieda, Fay and Meyer; and Meyer (center) with his Father and Mother.