Messman
Ruffus Edgar Alston
*
Merchant Marines

December 7, 1903 - February 4, 1942
Memorial Marker
Cedarvale Cemetery
Bay City, Matagorda County, Texas

Gold Star Mother
Elizabeth Cone Alston Snedecor

 


"Lost At Sea"

The Story of Ruffus Edgar Alston

Written by Kenneth L. Thames
 



 

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Ruffus has been a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

         Interest in him dates back to 1992 when Kenneth Thames started researching all the known veterans buried at Cedarvale Cemetery for Philip H. Parker VFW Post 2438, Bay City which had adopted the cemetery as their own. His marker located in Section Four simply states Ruffus E. Alston, 1903 – 1942, with an inscription across the top that reads “Lost at Sea." So who was Ruffus? Was he a Navy man? Was he a soldier who went down on a troop transport – was he Merchant Marine – or was he a shrimper or tug boat employee?

         Initial investigation found no death certificate, birth certificate or newspaper obituary. It was decided to go ahead and list him as a veteran until such time it was proven otherwise, and he was carried on the Post list of veterans since that time.

         Things sort of just rode along for a while without too much research going on. Then in June, 2000, Carol Sue Gibbs and Kenneth joined forces and began to really look in earnest into who Ruffus was. Their research has gone from Bay City to Corpus Christi to Floresville in Wilson County . Carol Sue has collected newspaper articles from the Tribune, the Quincy Patriot Ledger from The Thomas Crane Library in Quincy , MA , The New York Times from The Victoria College Library, The Washington Sun from the Library of Congress; and from the internet, she was also able to obtain news items from The Morning Post from Camden , NJ . Kenneth has made field trips to Corpus Christi and Floresville.

         Who was Ruffus? The genealogy room at the library started to give a few small clues – he had applied for a delayed birth certificate on December 27, 1941 , in Wilson County – we had a start. We also had the cemetery property card for the lot where his stone was – there was Elizabeth Snedecor, V. G. Snedecor, I. G. Stribbling and Aaron and Audry Fondon. Were any of these folks related? If so, did they have any children living in this area? Four different family members were called and two could give a few clues. They knew Ruffus had died in WWII when his ship went down, but they didn’t know when, where or how.

         What started our research in the Merchant Marines? The real break occurred when Lynna Kay Shuffield, a military researcher, was contacted by email for help. She provided the information from the Merchant Marine book entitled A Careless Word, A Needless Sinking, which listed Ruffus Alston as a messman aboard the SS India Arrow.

         From the clue provided by Lynna Kay, information was collected about the construction of the ship Ruffus was on when it was sunk, the SS India Arrow. We learned the German U boat, U-103, sank the ship, and we learned how the ship died in flames with 26 lost souls and only 12 survivors. Ruffus was a veteran after all. Merchant Marine seamen who had served between 1941 and 1946 had been given veteran status. Those still living can receive veteran’s benefits if they apply for either an Army or Coast Guard discharge.

         The Matagorda County Genealogical Society ordered a set of the fiche, All WWII Dead, for the genealogy room of the Bay City Public Library. It lists all the casualties of WWII. This included all the combat branches plus the Merchant Marines – and Ruffus was listed as a member of the Merchant Marines. His Z number 9 (service number) was part of the information.

         On Memorial Day 2001, a flag was placed by the marker of Ruffus Alston for the first time since he had given his life for his country in 1942. A special sign that included a picture of the US flag and eagle and more information about Ruffus was also placed on his grave as it was for other KIAs and POWs buried in Cedarvale Cemetery .

         The next step was to submit a request for a government monument to place at the foot of Ruffus’ empty grave. The monument was received in November 2002. “Mariner’s Medal” was engraved on it, which is the Merchant Marine equivalent of the Purple Heart. A Presidential Memorial Certificate was also obtained and Kenneth is now doing research on acquiring his medals so a small display can be constructed at the VFW in his honor.

This is a basic biographical sketch of Ruffus:

          Ruffus Edgar Alston was born in Stockdale, Wilson County, Texas on December 7, 1903 . He was the first child of Elmer Boyd and Elizabeth Cone Alston. His father was farming in Wilson County at the time of Ruffus’ birth. The family moved to Matagorda County , Texas , before June 21, 1906 , as the next three children, John Louis, Zelda and Melba were all born in Matagorda County .

         Elmer Alston was killed in April, 1918 and his remains were taken back to Stockdale for burial. The 1920 census reveals that Elizabeth and the four children were living in Clemville ( Matagorda County ) at that time. Ral Cone, Elizabeth ’s brother, was living with them and was evidently working in the Clemville oil field. Another brother, Embrey, and his family were living nearby.

         Mrs. Alston was later married to V. G. Snedecor. She died on or near September 1, 1939 , and was buried at Cedarvale Cemetery in Bay City , Matagorda County , Texas (Section 4, Block 132). One of Ruffus’ cousins indicated that Ruffus had lived with his mother, and after her death he drifted from job to job.

         His sister, Zelda, had married a man from Matagorda named Ira Guy Stribling. They were evidently living in Corpus Christi when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Ruffus’ 38th birthday - December 7, 1941 . Ruffus went back to Wilson County, Texas, and filed a delayed birth certificate on December 27, 1941 , which he would need to join the Merchant Marines.

         It is not known exactly when he joined the Merchant Marines. He listed his sister Zelda as his next of kin. His service number was 241522.

         He joined the crew of the SS India Arrow, an 8,327-ton oil tanker owned by SOCONY [Standard Oil Company of New York]-Vacuum Oil Corporation, today Mobil Oil Company, at Corpus Christi as a messman in the galley. With a crew of 38, the ship sailed from Corpus Christi enroute to Cateret , New Jersey , carrying a cargo of diesel oil. The India Arrow was unescorted, unarmed and steering a non-evasive course on February 4, 1942 , when it was torpedoed at 7 PM by Nazi U Boat 103, captained by K.Kpt. Werner Winter, approximately 63 miles southeast of Cape May, New Jersey. The torpedo struck the ship in its starboard quarter, exploding in the engine room. The ship immediately burst into flames and sank within five minutes. Before the ship could sink, K.Kpt. Winter had his submarine surface and commenced lobbing shells into the burning tanker, hastening its demise. He made no attempt to rescue any of the survivors. Only one lifeboat was successful in getting away from the burning ship, and of the 38 crewmen onboard, only 12 survived the attack. It is unknown if Ruffus died in the burning oil that was floating on the sea or if he went down with the ship. His remains were never recovered.

 


This photograph of the India Arrow was taken Saturday, July 14, 2007 by Paul Whittaker.  It pictures the upside down fantail (stern) of the India Arrow with the prop visible in the background.  Diver, Harold Moyers, is tying in an anchor line to a fishing scallop dredge that the wreck has collected. The water even at 192 feet is blue and clear, and the wreck is majestic.

To those of us who respectfully visit these places, we think the graveyards at sea are far more beautiful then those on land. --Harold Moyers


 

26 ON TANKER LOST AS U-BOAT STRIKES; 12 ADRIFT 36 HOURS

The India Arrow Sinks in an Inferno of Blazing Oil, the Twelfth in U.S. Waters

SHIPS IGNORE SURVIVORS

Wary of Attack, They Refuse to Answer Signal— London Views Situation Gravely

          In a grim continuation of the warfare that already has claimed thirteen announced victims in United States waters, another American tanker has been picked off by an enemy U-boat operating off the New Jersey coast. Twenty-six of her crew of thirty-eight are missing, the Navy Department disclosed yesterday.

         The 8,327-ton tanker India Arrow sank in a sea of blazing oil after she had been torpedoed and shelled by a submarine that struck without a second’s warning early Wednesday evening. The twelve survivors, picked up by a fishing boat, were brought into Atlantic City yesterday morning after spending two nights and a day in a wave-tossed lifeboat.

         The ship, owned by the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company, New York City , was the twelfth sunk and the thirteenth attacked in American waters since Jan. 14, according to Navy announcements. In addition, a dispatch from an Eastern Canadian port last night told of the landing of survivors from torpedoed British tanker, the fifth sinking off the Canadian coast that has been revealed during the same period. This brings the known total of U-boat victims off the Canadian-American coast to eighteen in all.

London Takes Grave View

          The seriousness of the situation on this side of the Atlantic was emphasized yesterday in an official disclosure from London . Declaring that sinkings in the Battle of the Atlantic , including the American victims, had gone up sharply, the official sources asserted that a considerable portion of the Nazi U-boat pack undoubtedly was hunting off the United States coast and that there unquestionably “are more U-boats operating in the Western Atlantic that ever before.”

         Landing in Atlantic City after their harrowing experience, the captain and eleven others of the India Arrow’s crew revealed a new horror of the submarine warfare in home waters. Their stories indicated that prevalence of enemy raiders apparently has made merchant ships extremely wary of all signals, and it has become increasingly difficult for survivors of a sunken ship to reach a rescue ship at night. Several times during the black hours of the first night out, the men from the India Arrow had the heart-rending experience of sighting ships that might have rescued them, but, according to one of the survivors, they all steered clear when the lifeboat’s crew signaled with flashlights.

         Captain Johnson, a gray-haired, 48-year-old sea veteran, told how one lifeboat jammed with officers and seamen went down when debris from the ship’s shelled bridge struck it. He soberly said: “I am doubtful if any others survived

Bringing Oil Here

          The India Arrow, a 468.3-foot tanker, built in 1921 at Quincy , Mass. , was sailing from Corpus Christi , Texas , to her home port of New York City with a cargo of oil when the torpedo struck her at 7 o’clock Wednesday evening. Her exact location off the New Jersey coast was not revealed in the Navy announcement.

         Captain Johnson, who lives at New Dorp, S. I. , with his wife and three young children, told the story of how it happened.

         “I was on the bridge,” he said. “There was a loud report, and the torpedo slammed into the starboard side, to the fore of the engines. The ship caught fire and started sinking in about 5 minutes. Oil from the No. 10 cargo tank, which was punctured, leaked onto the water and caught fire, too.”

         The ship started to list, the shelling from the submarine’s deck gun began, the bridge collapsed and the captain fell off the bridge he related. Almost miraculously, he was “washed into a lifeboat” that had been launched successfully from the starboard side—he still is now sure how it happened. Two other men were in the boat.

         Two lifeboats were lost when the ship’s stern went under, and the bulk of the Indian Arrow’s crew rushed for the remaining port lifeboat. When the shelling began and the bridge collapsed, the debris struck this boat, survivors related, and the screaming, cursing men were knocked into the water—most of them to their death.

         “The blaze lit up the scene, and we could see the conning tower of the submarine on the other side of the burning boat,” Radio Operator Edward J. Shear related. “We were afraid to do anything—to show our lights, to set sail or start rowing or even to bail out the water that had shipped into the lifeboat—because we thought the sub might start shelling us. We were only 300 yards away.

Oil Blazing on Water

      Captain Johnson continued with the story of how the lifeboat drifted around, finally managing to pick up nine other survivors within an hour after they had taken to the water. No others were to be found by then so they finally put up the emergency sail that the lifeboat carried and, augmenting it with work at the oars, started pulling away. They could see oil blazing on the water for nearly two hours afterward. Much later, they could see in the distance the tantalizing spectacle of lights from Atlantic City and other resorts.

Radio Operator Shear, 27-year-old native of Port Arthur , Texas , told how he was reading in his room when the torpedo struck.

“I ran to the radio room and sent out the signal that we were torpedoed,” he said, “I tried to send our last-known position but before I could do so the lights failed. I tried the emergency power and it was useless. I ran to my cabin, got a lifebelt and my flashlight and made a lifeboat just in time.”

It was the radio operator who told how the survivors in the lifeboat flashed their lights at ships that passed them in the night.

“All they did was change their courses,” he said.

         Captains of coastal ships are reportedly wary of signals since one of the previous Atlantic Coast victims was lured to her fate by a false signal from a submarine that posed as a lightship.

Bitter disappointment followed the next day when not a ship was sighted, Shear continued.

One of Luckiest Aboard

          Michael Kusy, who lives at 430 East Seventy-second Street , New York City , with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Emerich Kusy, considered himself one of the luckiest men aboard the India Arrow. He tried to get in the port lifeboat but it was filled up, so he jumped in the water and grabbed a hatch cover.

         “I saw the port boat go under when the bridge hit it and was thankful I wasn’t in it,” he said.

         He was picked up thirty minutes later by the other lifeboat, but had a few bad moments in the water when he first sighted it. He yelled but could not make himself heard, so, using all of his strength, he paddled his hatch cover over to it.

         Three other “lucky” men were Gordon Chambers, 20, of the Bronx , a wiper; Norman K. Baugh, a 20-year-old ordinary seaman from New York State , and Fred H. Baker, 22, machinist, of John’s Island , S.C. Baker had been in the crushed port lifeboat but had managed to keep afloat until rescued. Chambers and Baugh were the last two men to be picked up by the captain’s boat. They hung on to debris in the water for an hour before they were rescued.

         It was not until 6:30 A.M. yesterday that the survivors of the India Arrow were picked up by Frank D. Marshall, skipper of the fishing boat Gitana, out of Atlantic City . The 60-year-old fisherman and his mate, John Shaw, 35, were twenty miles southwest of the Atlantic City light when they saw a light about a mile away. They kept going and soon they saw the lifeboat.

         Marshall told how one of the men in the lifeboat yelled that they were from torpedoed tanker, and asked if they could have a tow.

         “Tow, hell!” Marshall shouted back, “Get aboard!”

         They were a sorry looking crew, he related—soaked with oil and water, and most of them barefooted. They had had nothing to eat but oily biscuits, and oil from the torpedoed tanker had ruined the drinking water.

         Marshall brought the survivors in to the Coast Guard station at Atlantic City . There they got baths, first-aid, steaming breakfasts and beds, while the Red Cross rushed over with warm clothes. The captain was suffering a little from an injured ankle, and Edward J. Proehl, a Jersey City seaman, was a victim of shock and exposure. Otherwise the survivors were all right, and almost to a man they echoed the sentiment of Captain Johnson, who declared: “I’m ready to ship again.”

 

LIST OF INDIA ARROW CREW

Tanker’s Owners Reveal Names of 26 Missing in Disaster

 The Navy Department listed the following men as rescued when the 8,327-ton American tanker India Arrow was torpedoed off the New Jersey coast:

         Captain Carl S. Johnson, 34 Vincent Avenue , New Dorp, S. I.

         Edward J. Shear, radio operator, Port Arthur , Texas .

         Dale L. Montgomery, boatswain, Inglewood , Calif.

         Charles L. Seerveld, able-bodied seaman, Center Moriches, L. I.

         Michael C. Kusy, able-bodied seaman, 430 East Seventy-second Street , New York City .

         Edward J. Proehl, ordinary seaman, Jersey City , N. J.

         Norman K. Baugh, ordinary seaman, New York State .

         Fred H. Baker, machinist, John’s Island , S. C.

         Alvin C. Bradford, fireman, Pine Bluff , Ark.

         Bertram F. Palmer, fireman, Sayville , L. I.

         Gordon Chambers, wiper, the Bronx .

                  Sam Colquitt, messman, Madisonville , Texas . (Colquitt is carried on the crew list of the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company, owner of the ship, as Walter Colquitt.)
 

 Twenty-six men are missing in the disaster. Their names, released by Socony-Vacuum, are:

         Joseph T. Davis, chief officer, the Bronx .

         Arthur L. Brouillet, second officer, Holyoke , Mass.

         James J. Winn, third officer, Brighton , Mass.

         Eric Suderow, chief engineer, New Brighton , S. I.

         Thomas E. Brittingham, first assistant engineer, Freeport , L. I.

         Walter V. White, second assistant engineer, Tottenville, S. I.

         George D. Truitt, third assistant engineer, New York City .

         Stanton P. Heater, junior third assistant engineer, Cleveland , Ohio .

         James S. Kerr, able-bodied seaman, Arkabutla, Miss.

         Edward P. Simonson, able-bodied seaman, Philadelphia .

         Robert Tucker, able-bodied seaman, Riverside , R. I.

         Ernest Baldwin, able-bodied seaman, Huntington Station , N. Y.

         Michael Schwartz, ordinary seaman, Brooklyn .

         Harris Ellinekas, pumpman, New York City .

         Anthony Simon, oiler, Scranton , Pa.

         Henry J. Moody, oiler, Beaumont , Texas .

         Joseph B. Anger, oiler, Port Arthur , Texas .

         Victor M. Armanini, fireman, Beaumont.

         Oliver LeJeune, wiper, Frisco , La.

         Ira H. Duhrman, wiper, Baltimore , Md.

         Karl Huhnergarth, steward, Hoboken , N. J.

         Thomas E. Harris, chief cook, Port Arthur .

         Thomas Nilsen, second cook, Brooklyn .

         Michael A. Finn, messman, New York City .

         Nicholas Hetz, galley assistant, Camden , N. J.

         Rufus Alston, messman, Corpus Christi, Texas .

The New York Times, Saturday, February 7, 1942 :
 

LITTLE HOPE HELD FOR SAFETY OF SUB VICTIM

      Rufus Edgar Alston, 38, messman aboard the ill-fated tanker India Arrow, which sank late Wednesday after being struck by an Axis torpedo off the Atlantic Coast is among those reported missing. Only 12 crewmen have reached shore safely. Alston had made his home in Corpus Christi at different times, living with his sister, Mrs. I G. Stribling at 3501 Avenue D. It was Alston’s first trip to sea.

      Little hope was held for his safety as the captain of the ill-fated ship, who reached shore safely with the 12 members of the crew, said he believed a second lifeboat that was launched from the sinking ship had been engulfed in flames of oil that spread over the surface of the sea.

Corpus Christi Caller, February 7, 1942
 


*Ruffus' name does not appear on the Matagorda County War Memorial.  At the time the research was conducted to determine whose name would appear on the memorial his name was not found on any document that was included in the research. His family had lived in Matagorda County when Ruffus was young, but at the time he entered the Merchant Marines, he was living in Corpus Christi. A memorial marker was placed in Cedarvale Cemetery by his family because his mother was already buried there. When his memorial marker was found in Cedarvale at a much later date, a lengthy investigation into his war time service was conducted to determine his wartime status. Since his residence was Nueces County, his name should have appeared in their records, but since his marker is at Cedarvale and he had Matagorda County ties, we included him among the Matagorda casualties.
 


More links to the sinking of the India Arrow.

Seven Years With the U. S. Merchant Marine


America in WWII
 


There is a page for Ruffus Alston on the WWII Memorial site.

www.wwiimemorial.com

Click Search the Registry on the bar on the left

Enter Alston Ruffus

Click on his name
 



Elizabeth Snedecor
1884 - [Aug 23,] 1939

Elmer Alston
Jan 5, 1880 - Apr 2, 1918
Son of John & Mattie Alston

Photo courtesy of Ernest Young


Mrs. V. G. Snedecor

Mrs. V. G. Snedecor of West Columbia, Texas, passed away at her home last night at 8:10 p.m. She is survived by her husband, two daughters, Mrs. I. G. Stribling of Corpus Christi and Mrs. J. E. Smith of Bunkie, Louisiana, two sons, R. E. and J. L. Alston of Corpus Christi.

Funeral services were held Wednesday afternoon at Walker-Matchett Funeral Home. Rev. Paul Davis officiated. Burial was in Cedarvale Cemetery.

The Daily Tribune, August 24, 1939
 


Horrible Affair At Markham.

Two Men Dead, One Badly Injured, Others Hurt.

A horrible tragedy occurred yesterday near Markham during a barbecue where several men had gathered. A quarrel arose over some matters and rapidly developed into a general fight, in which two men, Elmer Austin [Alston] and Buck Wiley, were killed instantly and J. J. Quinney was injured so badly that he is expected to die.

The weapons used were scantlings, a pitchfork and spades. The killing was done with a grubbing hoe in the hands of one of the combatants.

The Matagorda County Tribune, April 5, 1918
[Mr. Alston is buried at Nockenut Cemetery in Wilson County, Texas.]

 

Merchant Marine graphic courtesy of

 

Copyright 2005 - Present by Carol Sue Gibbs
All rights reserved

This page was created
Jan. 12, 2005
This page was updated
Dec. 31, 2008

Newspaper copyright held by

The New York Times & Corpus Christi Caller

HOME