“Tomorrow, I re-embark on another steamer, and we will leave shortly after for the British Isles. I am the first of the 19 survivors from my other ship to re-embark, not that I like it very much. But, we have to. There is a war on. “
— Robert Coninx, Belgian Merchant Navy, July 6, 1941
IN SEARCH OF A NEW LIFE
Robert Coninx, a Belgian national serving in the Belgian Merchant Navy, wrote the above paragraph to his aunt on July 6, 1941. She was living in Argyle, Minnesota, with her parents – Robert’s grandparents. The Coninx family had emigrated to the United States prior to the First World War with all of their children except two who were adults and had their own families: Irma and Arthur (Robert’ father).
Robert's grandparents had left Belgium with their children (except those two eldest) to establish a life in the United States They believed they could protect their younger children from the growing hostilities in Europe. Their hopes, however, were short-lived. Not long after they took up farming in Minnesota, the United States entered WWI. Julius, their oldest boy in America, was inducted into the U.S. Army in 1917.
When Julius sailed to Europe in September 1918, as part of the American Expeditionary Force, it would be his second sea voyage across the Atlantic. When he arrived, he was assigned to Battery C of the Army Artillery Park. He participated in the Verdun and Meuse-Argonne offensives.
Following the armistice — but before he made his third trip back across the Atlantic — Julius visited his brother and sister who had remained in Belgium years earlier. The war had not left them unscathed, however.
Julius’ older sister, Irma was already a young widow when the rest of her family left for America. She stayed in Belgium to work as a priest’s housekeeper. When she found the Padre dead on the rectory’s lawn in August 1914 — murdered by the Germans— she, along with her older brother Arthur and his family (including 4-year old Robert), gathered what they could and fled to neutral Holland. She described those harrowing days to her “American” brother, explaining how they had to travel in the ditches because the roads were filled with invading Germans. She wept as she described eating grasses for the want of food. During this brief reunion with his older brother and sister, Julius met his nephew, Robert. The boy was already 10 years old, but he knew the horror of war far too well.
After Julius returned to the United States, he shared his stories with his parents and his other siblings. Though he was proud to have taken part in liberating his former homeland and was overjoyed to reunite with his older brother and sister, Julius carried dark souvenirs of his service in the Great War. Several years of deep coughing and blood pressure took their toll. Julius Coninx died in 1933.
SEE THE WORLD
Back in Belgium, little Robert Coninx turned 18 in 1927. He was facing compulsory service. Though Belgium had just abolished its navy, joining the Belgian Merchant Navy would still meet service requirements.
Robert's parents were uneasy with his decision to go to sea. But Robert recognized the opportunity of seeing the world. With his parents consent, he signed on with the Belgian Merchant Navy.
Most of his journeys were between Europe and North America. One Atlantic cruise, however, found him with shore leave in Rosario, Argentina. He drank and swapped hats with a German Navy sailor who was also on shore leave from his own ship: The Admiral Graf Spee. This chance encounter would provide Robert with details that, later, would save his life
Meanwhile, world tensions were growing. When Germany invaded his Belgian homeland for a second time in May 1940, Robert remained at sea. He was determined to do his part as Belgian Merchant Navy sailor.
On one journey to North America aboard the Greek-owned steam merchant, Dirphys, Robert was fast asleep in his bunk when, at 6:04 AM on June 8, 1941, an explosion rocked him to the floor. U-Boot 108 had fired a G7e torpedo that exploded amidships on the starboard side of the Dirphys.
Picking himself up, Robert grabbed his lifebelt and ran through smoke. When he reached the deck, Dirphys broke in two. He was on the forward part of the ship. He ran toward the bow —now lurching upward out of the water. Before jumping into the night sea, he put on his lifebelt
In a letter he later wrote to his “American” aunt, he described how the forward half of the ship sank first. When it did, it pulled him under water with it. He assured her, “My lifebelt brought me to the surface in a short time, but then I saw the after part of the coming closer to me, and once more, I went down, but again came up quickly to the surface.”
From the time the torpedo struck, it took only 2-1/2 minutes for the two halves of Dirphys to sink.
In that brief time, the crew had been able to launch only one lifeboat. With only the moon lighting the night, Robert spotted it and called out. Two men heard his calls. Minutes later, Robert was lying in the boat, though it was leaking badly. He described to his aunt, “Soon, I regained a bit of strength, and as good as I could, gave a hand to rescuing my other comrades [who were] crying and calling all around.”
Eventually, 19 men filled the open, partially wrecked lifeboat. Six men were not found. Nobody had any personal belongings, and a dozen were nearly naked. Several were injured, though none seriously. They believed they were 700 miles from the nearest shore.
For three days, they floated in the rain. They had dry biscuits and a small barrel of water. Robert later confessed to his aunt, “To tell you about the three days we spent in the boat somewhere on the Atlantic is impossible. That will be a story for after the War.”
In fact, it was after the war that more of the story came to light. German records described how, on the third day after the sinking, U-Boot 108 reemerged near the lifeboat. They did not rescue the sailors, but rather, took one man aboard who spoke fluent German for questioning: Robert Coninx.
During the interrogation, the Germans attempted to learn of other warships or transports in the vicinity. Robert denied any knowledge and convincingly told the Germans that he was a disgruntled sailor who only wanted to go home to Belgium. He explained to them that prior to boarding the Dirphys, he had spent three months in a Liverpool prison after the Secret Intelligences Service filed charges against him for meeting a member of the Admiral Graf Spee in Rosario. Using details from his chance encounter with a Graf Spee sailor years prior, Robert told his U-Boot captors that he had asked a Graf Spee sailor to take him home to Belgium but was refused.
Robert’s story seemingly convinced the U-Boot crew that the lifeboat full of merchant sailors posed no immediate threat to Germany. And since they had no room on their submarine for passengers, they gave Coninx the course to reach land and provided the lifeboat with water, bread, two bottles of rum, aspirin, and a box of matches before resuming their North Atlantic hunt for more prey.
Four hours later, the 19 survivors were picked up by the HMCS Orillia (K 119) and taken to St. John, New Brunswick. In his letter describing his harrowing experience, Robert pleaded with his aunt, “Please, my dear aunt, in your writings to Belgium, do not speak about the above story. Tell them just that I am safe and well and they have no need to worry about me.” He revealed a deeper conviction by adding, “I insist on the point that they must know where I am, where I go, and what I am doing. You know the reason, don’t you?”
He promised his Aunt Charlotte, “As soon as I am back, I will let you know my whereabouts again. I may not be back before two or three months, but I am coming back to this part of the world—naturally, the sooner the better.” He signed his letter with “love to all…Your sincere nephew, Robert.”
Soon thereafter, Robert was aboard a second ship to be torpedoed. Regrettably, no details filtered to the family of that event. But, he survived — and continued to sail.
About a year and a half after surviving the Dirphys, Radio Officer Coninx was aboard a third ship to be sunk. This time, he was one of a crew of 87 aboard the S.S.Emile Francqui, a Belgian steam merchant sailing as part of Convoy ON-153 from Liverpool to St. John, New Brunswick. At about 8:13 PM on December 16, 1942, Kapitänleutnant Adolf Graef positioned his U-Boot 664 and fired, striking and sinking the Emile Franqui. This time, the boy who survived the German invasion of 1914 and two prior sinkings in WWII, ran out of luck. Robert was one of the 46 who died that night.
There were no more letters to his American relatives, no surprise visits. Robert’s body was never recovered, so there wasn’t even a funeral. He is commemorated at the Belgian Merchant Navy Memorial in Liverpool, England and remembered by his family — in Belgium and the United States.
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