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News From France, Death at Home

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Sep 19, 2018

In September 1918 as the Spanish influenza was spreading across the United States, local newspapers tried to keep people informed of the progress of the war in far-off France. On Sept. 6, the New Jersey Courier carried a letter from a Red Bank sergeant saying, “My company lost one man killed by the name of Ambrose Matthews, of Lakewood, N.J. He surely was a fine boy and he died with a smile on his face. He never knew what hit him. He and a squad of men were on their way to the front line to relieve some men who had been working hard when a high explosive shell burst back of them and a piece of shrapnel severed his spinal cord. He died almost instantly. I buried him along one of the roads in a very small village in dear old France.”

Most of Ocean County’s men served in the 311th regiment of the 78th Infantry Division. Before the war 23-year-old Frank Mathis had worked on a local paper, the Tuckerton Beacon, and it printed many of his letters.

On Sept. 26 it ran “I move from place to place so often that a letter can hardly catch me and at last have landed at an American base after covering the whole battle front and believe me, if I was where I could talk to you I sure could tell you something. That is the worst of writing from here, I can’t say anything that I would like to.”

However, he was able to get some information past the censors.

“You read the papers, Chateau-Thierry changed hands only a few days ago from German to Allies and I wish you could see the place after the battle. I cannot describe in detail how the place looks, but I want you to know that I have been there and seen the place.”

The same day, the regimental history reported, the 311th was about to take part in the big push designed to end the war.

“The first day of the great MEUSE-ARGONNE Offensive. In accordance with Corps orders to make demonstration attacks along the entire Corps Front, ‘B’ and ‘D’ Companies, who were then in the Outpost Line made a demonstration attack against the enemy. … Immediately upon leaving the Outpost Line, enemy snipers and machine gun nests were encountered. … Throughout the day these two Companies on their new line were subjected to intense artillery fire as well as machine gun and rifle fire. Low flying enemy aeroplanes also fired on our troops.”

What most readers didn’t know was that the war was still much closer than they realized. In August, the U-117, after torpedoing the tanker Frederick R Kellogg, had placed nine underwater mines spaced at 985 yards off the LBI beach. These killers waited silently for a victim. According to the official Navy report, “American S.S. San Sabs, formerly S.S. Colorado, 2,458 tons gross, owned by the Mallory Line until taken over by the United States Railroad Administration … left New York October 3, 1918, at 5 p.m., bound for Tampa, Mobile, with a general cargo. The master was Capt. B.G. Birdsall.”

The San Saba and Capt. Birdsall were familiar with the Jersey Shore, and in June, when the U-151 had wreaked havoc on shipping, the San Saba had rescued survivors from four of the ships.

According to the Navy, “At 11.30 p.m., October 3 1918, she had Barnegat on four points at 12.25 a.m.; October 4, 1918 Barnegat was abeam. At 12.30 a.m., her course was changed to southwest, and 14 minutes later while on this course she was struck. Ship had not been zigzagging. At 12.35 a.m. the vessel was struck amidship well below the water line with such force that she practically broke in two and sank in five minutes, being completely submerged by 12.50 a.m., with her colors flying. There was no moon and the vessel was under full way when she was struck.”

The ship didn’t have a wireless, so there was no distress signal. Adolph Beer, the second officer, told the Navy “he sighted a very dim green light two points to the port bow about 500 feet distant; after the vessel was struck this light disappeared, and because of this circumstance second officer is convinced that the light came from an enemy submarine and was exposed with the intent of deceiving the San Saba.”

The Navy didn’t believe it was a submarine.

“At the time the vessel sank there was no chance to launch the boats or get buoys, and it is believed that many were killed by the force of the explosion, which was so great that the belief is entertained that it came from an anchored mine. … The second officer expressed himself as having ‘heard a heavy noise knocking on the ship’s side which followed with an explosion a minute of so afterwards.’ There was in all probability a shorter lapse of time than the minute described by the second officer between his first hearing the knocking and the subsequent explosion. This was probably the mine bumping along the bottom of the vessel from the bow back to amidship where the explosion took place.”

Only a few escaped the sinking ship.

“Edwardo Simona, seaman; and Pedro Aceredo, coal passer, are the only survivors known to us. R. Beer sustained himself by means of a life buoy, and was taken up, according to his own statement, at 4 p.m., by the Norwegian S.S. Breiford. The other two men, according to their statements, sustained themselves on an improvised life raft made in the water from wreckage, and were taken up at 4.30 p.m. by the S.S. Breiford. These two men further stated that two other members of the crew shared their life raft, but that one died from exposure at 6 a.m. and the second at noon on October 4.”

There had been 37 men on board when the San Saba struck the mine. Over the next weeks, papers carried footnotes to the tragedy. According to the Boston Globe, “The body of a man picked up Oct. 11 by a mine sweeper in the lower harbor was today identified as that of Capt. Berger G. Birdsall, master of the Mallory Line steamship San Saba, sunk Oct. 4 by a mine off the New Jersey coast. The vessel carried a crew of 37 men, of whom only four are known to have been rescued. … Capt. Birdsall lived with his wife at 202 Pearl St. Somerville. … Funeral services will be held Friday at 2 pm at the home.”

In the local New Jersey Courier, “Mayor James V. Jones of Barnegat City recently received a letter from a father who had lost a son on the ship San Saba, off Barnegat. … ‘Among the crew was my son, John L. Downie, 6 feet 1 inch tall, weight about 160, dark hair, blue eyes, 23 years old, clean shaven. Should any unidentified bodies come ashore or be picked up along the coast, I would be most thankful if you would wire me, my expense, a description. I inclose a self-addressed envelope for reply. Hand to local paper.’ Mayor Jones phoned the contents of the letter to all coastguard stations along the beach.”

What was probably the saddest story of all came as Ocean County was being ravaged by the flu.

“Coroner Parker was called to Barnegat City on Monday, as the body of a colored man had been found afloat two miles at sea, and brought in by the coastguard crew. There was a gaping wound in his head to show he met a violent death. He may have been in the crew of the steamer Saba sunk by a mine off Barnegat a fortnight ago. The Coroner was unable to get either undertaker or coffin for the body, and had to bury it temporarily on the beach.”

The 30 victims on the San Saba didn’t die in the trenches of France, but off the beaches of LBI – and one of them might still be buried there.

Next Week: The flu hits the shore.


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