Lost at Sea

Polish Navy sonar image of S. S.Steuben laying on her side.

“Past the promenade deck I saw the entrance to the concert halls that had been packed with wounded German soldiers, and I knew that inside there must be the remains of thousands of them. I remembered what Polish Navy officers had told me after they’d investigated the wreck in late May 2004. They’d taken a good look at the sea bottom with a remotely operated vehicle and found the entire area around the wreck “covered with human remains, skulls, and bones.” – Marcin Jamkoswki, “Ghost Ship Found,” National Geographic, February 2005

Jamkowski was the Polish editor of National Geographic Poland. An adventure writer and expert diver, he brought to the magazine an amazing story about the German liner, S. S. Steuben. She was filled with 4500 (some say more) men and women, including thousands of wounded German soldiers, and more than 1,000 refugees when she was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine. Jamkowski’s eyewitness account is of finding and examining the wreck in deep water, below 150 feet.

I was the fact-checker on the article, and helped with arranging some of the firsthand accounts from survivors to be translated into English. Working on the article brought me to the stark realization of what war does to non-combatants. A very powerful visualization of the deaths during WWII, especially the civilians, is shown at the video at Omeleto: The Fallen of World War II: A Data Visualization of War and Peace.

I wrote a “Did You Know” on the three largest losses of human life in wrecks at sea. People throw a lot of statistics around. It’s always interesting to chase down what the actual numbers are, and who they represent. Because it is always about the people, from children to women and men of all ages. Along the way in my research for the article, I had read Antony Beavor’s piercing study of war crimes perpetrated against civilians as the Red Army moved westward in 1945. I expanded into the refugees that streamed, and were herded across Europe, against their wills, forced out of their traditional homes for political reasons. Some of those migrations, which were then considered the largest movements of people in history, remain a thorn in the side of countries in Eastern Europe today. The loss of the S. S. Steuben, a German passenger liner that had been converted to serve as an ambulance ship comes out of the large, forced migrations of Europe at the tail end of World War II.[1]

“Did You Know: The Three Largest Marine Disasters”

David W. Wooddell, for National Geographic, February 2005

The three largest marine disasters in history were the 1945 Baltic losses of Wilhelm Gustloff, Goya, and Steuben. But how many people were on these ships? Approximately 5,200 people were on Steuben when it set sail on February 9, according to our article, and 4,500 people died when the ship sank. This is based on the eyewitness testimony of Joachim Wedekind, a German merchant marine officer who was on Steuben as a passenger and says he was involved in helping the ship’s officers estimate the number of people on board: “I counted 5,200, but we reported only 3,600 or so.” Wedekind claims they reported less than were on board because German authorities had forbidden such large evacuations.

Counterbalance that with historian Heinz Schön, who claims that a smaller total is accurate. Schön says Steuben had 2,800 injured soldiers, 800 refugees, 100 returning soldiers, 172 navy hospital crew including doctors and nurses, 12 Red Cross nurses, 64 crew for the ship’s anti-aircraft guns, 61 navy seamen, radio operators, signal men, machine operators, and administrators, and 165 navy crewmen, for a total of 4,267 people. Since 659 survivors were counted after Steuben sank, according to Schön, 3,608 died when the ship went down.

Let’s compare that to the sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945. The Gustloff’s records cite 918 naval officers and men, 173 crew, 373 women’s naval auxiliary, 162 wounded, and 4,424 refugees, for a total of 6,050 people. In 1980 a trio of British journalists studied the tragedy and reported an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 deaths on board Gustloff. But Schön, a survivor of the Gustloff tragedy, has revised the Gustloff numbers in his more recent works, based on an analysis of the movement of people conducted by a documentary film company. “When it sank,” Schön wrote to me, “there were 10,582 passengers on board. 8,956 were refugees, mainly women and children. 9,343 died when the ship sank (it took 62 minutes after the torpedo attack) and 1,239 survived.”

And Goya? One of the more reliable reports says 7,000 refugees and wounded soldiers were on board when it departed Hela, near Danzig. When Goya was hit by Soviet torpedoes and sank in four minutes, all except 183 survivors went down with the ship. And until Schön revised his figures in the late 1990s, Goya was reported to be the largest loss of life in maritime history. Now it is the second largest loss. And Steuben remains third.

—David W. Wooddell

[1] Beevor, Antony. The Fall of Berlin 1945. Viking, 2002.

Beevor, Antony. “They raped every German female from eight to 80.” The Guardian (May 1, 2002).

De Zayas, Alfred-Maurice. A Terrible Revenge: The Ethnic Cleansing of the East European Germans, 1944-1950. St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

Dobson, Christopher. The Cruellest Night. Arrow Books, 1980.

Schieder, Theodor (editor). The Expulsion of the German Population from the Territories East of the Oder-Neisse-Line. Federal Ministry for Expellees, Refugees, and War Victims, 1959.

Christmas 1861 at Camp Allegheny



Christmas 1861, Camp Allegheny*

©  David W. Wooddell, December 22, 2015

Up at Top of Allegheny, the soldiers who had not fallen sick, or been wounded or killed, or were on leave of absence in Richmond or elsewhere were guarding the Staunton to Parkersburg Turnpike through the remainder of December’s frigid winter. The men were put to work during the day digging the trenches deeper, and digging proper fortifications for the artillery on Battery Hill, making embrasures for the guns and barricades to protect the gunners. Private James Hall said on December 18, “We are expecting another attack. I have been working on some batteries today. We have to sleep with our arms and accouterments fixed.”

Hall was a 20-year-old former student from the Monongalia Academy in Morgantown. The son of John and Harriet (Rightmire) Hall, he’d returned home to his father’s farm near Philippi before enlisting in the middle of May in Company H, 31st Virginia Infantry. Hall’s great ambition the first year of the war was to serve as an officer. He was elected 3rd lieutenant in June the following year, to replace one of the lieutenants killed in battle.

Hall was less than sanguine about his cold existence on Allegheny Mountain on the 25th of December, when he wrote:

“This is Christmas, and as is common there must be some amusement and festivities going on. We are amusing ourselves hovering around a fire in our tent, which smokes us nearly to death. Though last night was Christmas Eve, I did not sleigh ride much! Instead of that, we were marched out with the regiment on the mountain, to guard the batteries and artillery. We spent our Christmas Eve very gaily, sure. We are still living in our tents, but we make them tolerably comfortable by constructing rude fireplaces in them. At night we do not fare so well. Some mornings when we awaken our blankets are wet with frost, and the inside of our tent lined with hoarfrost. Many times our hair is frozen stiff by congealed respiration, and our floor is covered with snow. This is a pleasant life, sure. I was at home this time one year ago.”

* Excerpted from David W. Wooddell, Hoffman’s Army: The 31st Virginia Infantry, CSA [Baltimore: David W. Wooddell/Createspace, 2015] Available exclusively at: http://www.amazon.com/Hoffmans-Army-31st-Virginia-Infantry/dp/1515396991


Hall’s quotes are from: James E. Hall, The Diary of a Confederate Soldier, edited by Ruth Woods Dayton, [Philippi, W.Va.: 1961]




Scouts and Raiders At D-Day

One of my enjoyments as an editorial researcher at National Geographic was writing a “Did You Know” article for the magazine website. This was reserved for the fact-checkers for the article text. It was an additional task that I never minded, for it gave a place to put some of the extra facts turned up while researching an article.

Did You Know: Scouts and Raiders at D-Day

Did You Know?
Early in the war Allied planners realized the value of scouts for reconnoitering enemy-held beaches. From this need the Scouts and Raiders were born. Originally a joint Navy-Army unit, by 1944 the outfit was all Navy and all volunteer. Scouts and Raiders were trained in long-distance swimming, small-boat handling, and the use of weapons and explosives. They used rubber boats and a type of kayak-like craft called a Folboat to sneak onto the shore without being seen. 
In the weeks just prior to D-Day, Scouts and Raiders visited many Normandy beaches, checking on such things as the type of sand—to see if it would hold up a tank—or the placement of steel obstacles and teller mines on wooden poles. They also verified water depths and the speed of currents, then slipped back to sea, sometimes swimming miles to their moored Folboats before paddling quietly and swiftly to waiting motorboats for return to their base in England.The Scouts and Raiders trained closely with other special teams such as the naval combat demolition units (NCDUs), whose specialty was demolition of beach obstacles: welded-steel hedgehogs, Belgian gates, and other impediments to landing craft. The Navy recruited civilian experts from coal mines and quarries to train the NDCU teams in handling explosives.

As landing craft approached Omaha and Utah Beaches on June 6, 1944, they were guided by Scouts and Raiders in several LCC—Landing Craft, Control. One of the boat captains off Omaha Beach was Lt. Phil Bucklew, who saw that sea conditions were too dangerous for launching amphibious duplex drive (DD) tanks from landing craft several miles at sea. Unfortunately, his radio report was ignored. Most of the DD tanks that were launched toward Omaha Beach sank, some taking crewmen to the floor of the shallow but deadly Bay of the Seine.

Other Scouts and Raiders teams were close to the beaches in LCS—Landing Craft, Support—armed with twin .50-caliber machine guns, .30-caliber machine guns, and rockets mounted in racks. Their job was to give covering fire for landing craft as they approached the beaches.

In the water near the tide line on Omaha Beach, NCDUs worked with Army teams from the 146th and 299th Engineer Combat Battalions, placing charges against steel obstacles and blasting eight clearings through to the beach. They had trained together before the invasion and were combined for this operation to form part of the Special Engineer Task Force, arriving on the beach five minutes after the first landing craft came to shore. The NCDUs accomplished their task at a heavy cost to themselves and were sometimes hampered by soldiers who tried to use the obstacles as shelter while under heavy fire from German machine guns. The NCDUs on Omaha Beach lost 31 men and suffered 60 wounded out of a total of 180 men. They later received a presidential unit citation.

On Utah Beach, where the firefight was much less intense than on Omaha Beach, the NCDUs lost only 6 men, and 11 were wounded. There, Navy teams worked with Army demolition men from the 237th and 299th Engineer Combat Battalions and cleared the beach of all steel and concrete obstacles—by day’s end they could claim 1,600 yards (1,463 meters) of cleared beach available for safe landings. It was an invaluable accomplishment, allowing the Navy to unload 20,000 troops and 1,700 vehicles onto Utah Beach by the end of the day.

The Navy’s use of Scouts and Raiders, NCDUs, and other special operations groups including underwater demolition teams (UDTs) in World War II eventually led to the creation of a dedicated unit that handles many secret tasks that involve the sea and land. Called SEALs (for Sea, Air, Land), they are one of the elite forces in the United States military today. As their command historian, Don Crawford, says, they are “busier than ever answering ‘911 calls’ from around the globe.”

—David W. Wooddell

On Assignment for National Geographic: Normandy Invasion and D-Day

As a magazine research editor, I was occasionally fortunate enough to have a special assignment for National Geographic magazine. I had developed military stories as one of my specialties, along with marine archaeology. Sometimes, I helped pre-visualize artwork, and turned up locations for the magazine photographers to include in their coverage.  Tom Allen’s story, “Untold Stories of D-Day” sent me to Normandy, France to look for the wrecks of the sunken craft that went down during the invasion. The magazine was kind enough to give the readers a glimpse of my work in the On Assignment section.

A D-Day Mosaic; France; (Brief Article), National Geographic, June 1, 2002, Copyright 2002 National Geographic Society, SECTION: No. 6, Vol. 201; Pg. 142; ISSN: 0027-9358

Peering out of an old German bunker, now part of a museum on Normandy’s Utah Beach, senior researcher David W. Wooddell scouts out the sites where ships sank and men died. “You know people have paid a terrible price for something that was vastly worthwhile,” he recalls thinking.

David began his research for our D-Day article by reading every book he could find on the subject, surfing the Internet, “looking for the best documentary sources available.” Then he spent the equivalent of two weeks in the National Archives looking for maps and aerial reconnaissance photographs. “I was a photographer before I came to the magazine, so I shoot my own copies of historical photographs,” he says. Finally, he went to France for a week, visiting museums devoted to the invasion, seeking artifacts and other visual material.

David at St. Vaast
On assignment with underwater mapper, Bertrand Sciboz and his crew.    Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, Normandy, France

While in France, David worked with Bertrand Sciboz, a French diver who owns a company in Normandy that maps wrecks of all ages off the coast. “At NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC we have the resource of time to develop information in detail, a luxury few other magazines have,” David says.

David’s research greatly aided our photographers, as well as author Tom Allen… Tom, who has written several articles and books about World War II and the people who fought in it, set out with the goal of covering the part of the invasion that has received minimal attention over the decades, the delivery of men and materiel to Normandy’s beaches.

“I’ve had the privilege of talking to people who helped win the war,” reflects Tom, 73. “You find a survivor and you find one little piece of the mosaic of that day, of the memory we’re all supposed to have of D-Day. I put my story together from their remembrances.”


Touching the Plastic Jesus

Touching the plastic Jesus


Bonampak Show

We flew into the jungle in a single engine Cessna, the pilot and me up front. A couple of others, two of the scientists were in the backseat. Most of our gear, and the rest of the team rode in the two other aircraft. No decent road ran to our destination, and we had too much gear to carry on our backs — generators, gasoline, fresh water, food enough for a half dozen people for two weeks, cases of cameras, film, lights, strobes, extension cords, step ladders, reference books. Clothing, boots, raincoats, hammocks, mosquito nets, and sleeping bags. Lots of coffee. Big first aid kits with epinephrine pens in case of poisonous snakebite – to keep you comfortable until you die, I think – and special dressings for gunshot wounds. Just in case of gunshot wounds. The nearest hospital was hundreds of miles away, but there was no telephone to the outside, no cell phone reception, and one short-wave radio that worked sometimes. I enjoy a nice, isolated camping trip now and then, but this one had some real possibilities.

Bonampak Show

This was the edge of the rainy season, when one major storm every afternoon fills the sky with lightning and hard rain. Thunderheads build over the mountains with deep purple and puffy white clouds, and the pilots skirt them out of caution. Few places offer somewhere to set down in a hurry in the southern Chiapas jungle. Next to me, the pilot, Jose, an older man with a bushy mustache and a tan ball cap ran his hands nervously over the worn dash of the old plane. He was touching the plastic Jesus, and feeling the temperature of the windshield; touching the dials on the dashboard, none of which appeared to work too well. Wind-speed indicator was broken. Altitude indicator said we were on the ground. The fuel gauge looked uncertain.

Bonampak Show

The Cessna skimmed the ridges of mountains and dodged big clouds and suddenly the wings waggled with a gust of rain. Jose the pilot let the air out of his cheeks and said “Madre Dios.” I didn’t need a translation. The plane was flying crab-wise, pushed by strong gusts. Don’t worry, the pilot seemed to smile in my direction, then went back to muttering and touching things, always touching. He must’ve touched that plastic Jesus a hundred times for reassurance. Sometimes, on expedition, life is like that. We look for something to keep us equitable and calm, even when there seems a bit of danger. The butterflies in one’s stomach could be from a case of nerves back at the office, the uncertainty of how a boss might review one’s work; or they could be from an adventure such as this. I know which one I prefer.


The aircraft came around the airfield once from a good altitude, checking it out. A slash in the jungle, it was just a light-colored line to show where we were planning to land. The aircraft spiraled down and gave the field another buzz. Down below I saw some horses kick and run off the field. The horses, surrounded by clouds of fleas, were wild, and were used as inexpensive lawnmowers to keep the grass trimmed to a manageable length on the single airstrip. The trick was to look for water splashing from hooves when the horses run. Too much water on tall grass can be a fatal mistake for a bush pilot. And the horses keep poisonous snakes off the field, or so the locals believe.

Bonampak Show

Landing was a blur of trees whizzing past on either side of the wings. Looking like we would scrape at any moment, the wings had about fifty feet of clearance on either side. We cheered the pilot as he taxied to the aircraft parking area just barely off the strip. From there we watched the two following aircraft land with our luggage and supplies. I made some pictures of the other aircraft, so we could prove how narrow the airstrip was. I’ve heard it called “the most dangerous airstrip in the world.” I don’t know if that is true, but the remains of airplanes surround the runway, where they’ve been pulled into the jungle. To inspire the other pilots, perhaps.

Bonampak Show

Pascal, the INAH guardian, stepped out from behind a tree that was twenty feet wide at the base. He was a Lacandone, one of the modern Maya. Perhaps forty years old with a black moustache, wearing a blue cap with the INAH logo on the front, he carried a big machete. He was expecting us.


I’d been there before, and had done a good turn for Pascal and the villagers at this location. Before flying out after my previous expedition, I turned over to Pascal the generator I’d brought to power the photographic lights. To go with it, I’d drawn up a document on my organization’s letterhead that gave the INAH guardian custody of the generator, and the right to use it for the convenience of the people in his village. To Pascal, and some other local people, I am Senior Electrico. Pascal laughed when he saw the new generator I brought on this second journey to his part of the rainforest. Wouldn’t take long for the village to start making plans for putting the second generator to work.


It was all part of going to the job. Weeks of planning, arranging, logistics, supplies, team building – I’d contributed as I was able, and depended on others to finesse the permits. The art historian from Connecticut, and the archaeologists from Utah and California gained the approval of INAH. The imaging specialists from Utah arranged funding from their parent organization. And of course we’d faced the questions from the Mexican Army at the small airport in Palenque. They asked to see the permits and papers, and searched through our massive pile of equipment. For some, it was a test of patience.

Bonampak Show

What would we find on this expedition, that we didn’t already know? That was always the question when setting out on such excursions. The questions one asks at the beginning are not the same as those one broods about when departing some days or weeks later. Is there more to be learned? Yes, there is always more to be learned, especially about oneself. Finding the ability to laugh at a critical and difficult moment; discovering again how to walk away, stiff-legged from anger and conflict; it becomes a time of basic truths. Those are as important to me as what was found in the archaeology, or in the paintings on the walls.


We dance and bleed, one wall of the murals tells us: we who come there to study also dance and bleed, in our own ways. Some prey on others; some just pray and touch the plastic Jesus.


– David W. Wooddell