Rafael Ramirez Rivera
Hometown: Mayaguez, Puerto Rico
Class: 1942 Cadet Corps
Service: Merchant Marine
Position / Rank: Third Mate
Date / Place of death: March 11, 1943 / North Atlantic,
51-35 N, 28-30 W
Date / Place of burial: March 11, 1943 / North Atlantic,
51-35 N, 28-30 W – Lost at Sea
Rafael R. Rivera signed on aboard the SS William C. Gorgas as Third Mate in Mobile,
AL on January 27, 1943, shortly after the ship was delivered to the War Shipping
Administration from its builder. Joining Rafael Rivera were four U.S. Merchant Marine
Academy Cadet-Midshipmen, James Cordua, Edwin Hanzik, James Moon, and Edwin
Wiggin. Six weeks later, on March 10, 1943, the Gorgas was traveling in convoy
HX-228 en route from New York to Liverpool loaded with general cargo, including 900
tons of explosives and a deck cargo of an LCT and two PT Boats. The ship carried a
crew of 41 merchant mariners and 26 Naval Armed Guard Sailors.
At around 2030 on March 10, another ship in the convoy was torpedoed, and the
general alarm was sounded. The crew remained on alert, with the Naval Armed Guard
manning the battle stations. The weather was hazy, with moderate to heavy swells,
and bright moonlight. At 2330, the Gorgas was hit on the starboard side amidships by
a torpedo fired by U-757. The explosion destroyed the engine room, instantly killing the
three engineers on watch. The master ordered the crew to abandon ship. By 2350, 51
survivors in lifeboats and rafts had left the ship in driving snow and high seas. The U-
757 located one of the boats and questioned the survivors. Shortly thereafter the
submarine found the ship still afloat and fired another torpedo to sink it. Immediately
after the ship settled under the waves it’s ammunition cargo exploded, damaging U-757
so much that it was unable to dive. The submarine was escorted on the surface back
to France by another submarine.
The Gorgas’ 51 survivors were picked up at about 0700 on March 11th by the destroyer
HMS Harvester (H 19). Shortly after rescuing the Gorgas’ survivors, the Harvester
sighted U-444 on the surface. Although the submarine dove to escape the Harvester’s
gunfire, a depth charge attack brought the submarine to the surface. It is unclear why
the Harvester’s commander made his decision, but U-444 was rammed at full speed by
the Harvester, severely damaging both ships.
Although U-444 was able to break free of the Harvester, it was rammed again and sunk
by the Free French corvette Aconit (K 58). However, the almost motionless Harvester
was easy prey for U-432 who fired two torpedoes, quickly sinking the destroyer with
nearly all of its crew and 39 of the Gorgas’ survivors. The Aconit was immediately on
scene attacking the U-432 with depth charges and forcing it to the surface. The Aconit
fired at the surfaced submarine and then rammed it, sending the U-432, and all but 20
of its crew to the bottom. With this vital task accomplished, the Aconit rescued twelve
Gorgas survivors, 48 survivors of HMS Harvester, and 24 German Sailors from U-444
After the Harvester sank, the Master of the Gorgas, James Calvin Ellis Jr., was seen by
some of the survivors floating in a life ring in the cold seas. When he was offered a place
on a life raft by one of the seamen, he declined, telling the man to keep his place. Soon
after, he lost his grip on the life ring and was lost in the icy waters.
Rafael R. Rivera and all four U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Cadet-Midshipmen were among those lost. It is believed that all five survived the initial attack, but were lost
in the subsequent sinking of HMS Harvester.
Rafael R. Rivera was posthumously awarded the Mariners Medal, Combat Bar with star, Defense Bar, Atlantic War Zone Bar, the Victory Medal, and the Presidential Testimonial Letter.
Merchant Marine Academy records indicate that Rafael R. Rivera joined the U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps on November 28, 1940.
However, Rafael Rivera was not appointed a Midshipman, USNR because he did not
meet the Navy’s minimum standards for height, weight and number of teeth. Despite
not meeting Navy physical standards, he was assigned to the SS Shawnee, SS Mexico,
SS Oriente and SS Agwiprince as Deck Cadet. He returned to Kings Point on February
27, 1942 to complete his education and prepare for the U.S. Coast Guard examination
for Third Mate. He received his license as Third Mate, Ocean on June 4, 1942.
Photo of Launching of SS William C. Gorgas