Edited by board administrator September 13, 2013, 4:26 pm
Here's what I have been able to find about your father, Henry Poniktera and SS EXCELLO.
As mentioned in some of the earlier messages in this e-mail thread, the cargo ship SS EXCELLO, built in 1919, had previously been named EXAMINER. In 1941 she was renamed EXCELLO. (There was another, separate ship also named EXCELLO, but renamed in 1940, and another ship named EXAMINER, built in 1942, so it's a little difficult keeping them all straight.) See http://shipbuildinghistory.com/history/shipyards/4emergencylarge/wwone/aisc.htm and scroll to hull number 1484 for your father's ship.
In any case, on June 10, 1942, EXCELLO returned from a voyage that had begun in January 1942 and took her at least as far as Capetown, South Africa. As was and is standard practice, most of the merchant marine sailors and officers were "paid off" and left the ship, to find positions on other ships as soon as possible. A like number of new merchant officers and sailors were signed on as crew for the next voyage of EXELLO. One of these men was Henry Poniktera, age 22, a U.S. citizen. His position aboard the ship was not noted in the record I found, which only listed the new replacement crewmen. The next voyage was described by the ship's captain as "Atlantic Ocean eastward of New York," with a projected sailing date of July 11.
The ship departed New York on either July 11, as the captain predicted, or on July 9, as a different source claims. She apparently proceeded to Hampton Roads (i.e., Norfolk), Virginia. There she joined convoy KS-521, which departed Hampton Roads on July 17 and arrived in Key West, Florida, on July 22. See http://www.convoyweb.org.uk/ks/index.html?ks.php?convoy=521!~ksmain.
Key West was a major starting point for convoys into the Caribbean and to South America. While I cannot trace EXCELLO beyond Key West until her loss nearly four months later, she may not have proceeded into the Caribbean. Whether she did or not, however, eventually I believe she made her way east into the Mediterranean and continued all the way east to the Suez Canal, discharging her cargo at some point. She was very likely in one or more convoys during this period.
One source I found indicates that EXCELLO was on her way from Suez, Egypt (at the southern terminus of the Suez Canal) to Capetown "in ballast," meaning carrying no cargo. She sailed independently, i.e., not in a convoy and without warship escort. On the morning of November 13, 1942, she was struck by one torpedo from U-181 while off the east coast of Africa, south and east of Durban, South Africa. EXCELLO sank in about 20 minutes with two casualties, an Armed Guard sailor and a merchant marine engineering officer who died in a life boat. (Since your father held an engine room position, he was surely acquainted with the officer, Patrick Finegan, and may actually have served directly under him.) The surviving crewmen, in three lifeboats, were rescued over the next seven days: one lifeboat the day after the sinking, a second lifeboat one day later, and the last lifeboat a week after the sinking. See http://uboat.net/allies/merchants/ships/2423.html. Also see http://uboat.net/allies/merchants/crews/ship2423.html for a poor-quality photograph of EXCELLLO.
I found a separate record showing your father repatriated to the United States aboard SS F. J. LUKENBACH, which picked up your father and three fellow crewmen from EXCELLO in Durban, South Africa, and reached Baltimore on January 20, 1943. (The four EXCELLO crewmen were joined by five other stranded seamen who had been rescued from two other unrelated sinkings.) That record describes your father as having been born July 22, 1919, in Detroit, with a home address of 2387 Lyman Place in Detroit.
Unrelated to his voyage in EXCELLO I found records of your father sailing aboard SS MARY LUKENBACH on a voyage from New York to Glasgow, Scotland, and return between March 30, 1942, and June 7, 1942, in which his position was that of water tender, another engine room position. (One of his fellow engine room crewmates on that voyage, a William Killian, was also aboard EXCELLO on that ill-fated voyage so possibly he and your father were friends.)
Also unrelated to EXCELLO, I also found your father aboard SS MARK HOPKINS on a voyage from Espirito Santos, New Hebrides islands in the Pacific, departing on September 16, 1943, and arriving Los Angeles on October 8, 1943. What is remarkable is that he is one of six "repatriated seamen" on that voyage. A repatriated seaman is one who has had to depart his original ship and is later transported to his home country. This could mean a survivor of a ship that sank (like EXCELLO) or was damaged beyond repair, or a seaman who became sick or injured and had to be left behind in a hospital, someone who was removed from his original ship for disciplinary reasons, or for some other reason was no longer aboard his original ship. There is no indication in the record of the original ship to which your father was attached, nor the reason he was no longer aboard that ship. But it's possible that your father was the survivor of two sinkings, not one.
Returning to EXCELLO, she was one of a number of ships that were sunk in the Indian Ocean in 1942-1943 due to the actions of German spies operating in Gao, a Portugese territory on the west coast of India. Spies would obtain information on the sailing times of Allied merchant ships (and perhaps other information like course and destination) which was then radioed to U-boats from a German merchant ship that was detained in the port of Mormugao, Gao. (Gao was neutral in the war so German (and other) ships could seek refuge there without danger, although participating in a spy network was a violation of that neutrality.) The German ship was eventually taken out of commission through a daring and unlikely raid on the part of a group of retired British military men. Read about this spy network that resulted in the ambush of EXCELLO, and the later raid, at http://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/soe-enlists-an-over-the-hill-gang-for-a-mission/ and http://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/operation-creek-going-to-war-on-a-river-barge/.
And finally, since there were likely still other voyages and other ships in which your father sailed beyond those I have been able to find, you may be able to obtain a copy of your father's complete merchant marine service record via the U.S. Coast Guard. In addition to identifying the ships in which he served, applicable dates, training, shipboard positions held, etc., his service record might also indicate why he was a repatriated seaman in late 1943. Please see this page from the Armed Guard website that I manage: http://armed-guard.com/searchmil.html. In particular see section A.2. Records of Individuals – Merchant Marine. You will have to contact the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Maritime Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The Coast Guard was and is responsible for issuing certain documents ("seaman's papers") to U.S. merchant mariners, so should have information about your father's merchant marine career. You will have to provide as much identifying information as possible about your father. There may be a fee for this service but I would expect the Coast Guard would not begin work without informing you of any charges.
Good luck. I hope this information is useful.
Ron Carlson, Webmaster
Armed Guard / Merchant Marine website