Frank Vicovari at the 1991 reunion

Frank Vicovari

This is a condensation of excerpts from "I Rode a German Raider",

Collier's, 1944, by Frank Vicovari, as told to Lucian Gray.

It was prepared and presented by Ray Ternstrom (survivor spouse) at the Zamzam reunion in 2006.

I have been requested to acquaint you with some of the experiences of one of the Zamzam passengers, Frank Vicovari. Frank was in command of the twenty-four ambulance drivers who were on their way to drive ambulances for the army of the Free French in North Africa.

They had been equipped by the British American Ambulance Corp with excellent equipment, including twenty-two ambulances, two trucks, a staff car, a rolling kitchen, and spare parts and medical supplies to last a year. The Zamzam was the only ship they could find to transport men and supplies to Mombasa, Africa.

The morning of April 17, 1941, Frank was asleep in a hammock on the starboard deck of the ship when he was awakened by a shell whistling overhead. He ran to his cabin on the portside, grabbed a steel box containing documents and dropped it through a porthole, and then proceeded down a passage. There was an explosion behind him and he felt a hefty slap on his back and his legs buckled under him. Frank writes, “some morphine tablets from a doctor were given to me”.

He was assisted into a lifeboat by others of his group. He was one of three severely wounded passengers carried to the raider’s hospital room for immediate surgery. He had two broken arms, broken right ankle and left thigh. Ned Laughinghouse and Robert Starling were also in the hospital with extensive injuries. Ten days later, Ned Laughinghouse died.

Frank was now a guest of the German Navy aboard the raider. He was separated from the Zamzam passengers when they were transferred from the raider to the “prison ship”.

The raider traveled for a month and then one night there was an alert and another British merchant ship, the Rabaul, was destroyed. A few nights later, another alert. This time it was the Trafalgar, a British freighter.

After two months on the raider, Frank was carried up to the deck and was able to survey the ship he was on. The raider was well designed with diesel engines, thus, there was no smoke trail. It had large guns built into the ship so they were hidden from sight. There were two torpedo tubes and machine guns. It had a second funnel of canvas that could be raised in a few minutes.

Lights could be manipulated to give the impression that it was going when in reality it was coming, and lowered to give the impression that it was a submarine. The raider carried a small seaplane equipped with a small cannon, a bomb rack and a grappling hook on a cable to snatch the wireless aerials of ships.

The raider had been deployed for more than a year, had sunk sixteen ships before encountering the Zamzam, besides laying a mine field off the coast of Cape Town.

The raider continued to hunt down more ships—the Tottenham and the Balzac. They had a good number of prisoners on board.

When a Norwegian freighter appeared in the Indian Ocean, they stopped it and plundered it for supplies, then loaded it with prisoners to send them to Germany.

Robert Starling was among this group. Frank thought he was to go also, but the Germans found a Life magazine (the Zamzam issue) aboard the Norwegian ship. It contained Frank’s name in relation to the sinking of the Zamzam and they decided he was a more important person than he admitted to be, so they kept him on board.

Five months had passed since the sinking of the Zamzam. Now there was a plan to meet up with a German U-Boat. However, before this would take place a British warship, the Devonshire, sighted the raider and fired two torpedoes.

The raider went down in flames. Frank had been “swept” into a lifeboat with other crew members. As they watched the raider sink, the crew shouted “Three cheers for the Atlantis!” It was the first time Frank had heard the raider’s real name.

The German U-Boat that was in the area, the Queen of Diamond, glided in among the lifeboats and picked up the wounded crew members. The five lifeboats were then tied together and towed by the U-Boat.

After two days, they met a German supply ship, the Python, and Frank was taken on as a passenger. Two days later this ship was sunk by a British warship. Again, two other submarines came to the rescue and each towed five lifeboats. They started for the shores of South America. Frank had “officially” become a mascot—he had been sunk three times and was still alive! Many of the crew knew him by a name they had given him—Victor.

They soon met up with a third submarine. It was decided that all should board the three subs. It was very crowded as there were three times as many men as the subs were designed for. Frank was given a bunk during the day, but a crew member used it at night. This was December and Lieutenant Mohr, aide to Captain Rogge on the Zamzam, informed Frank that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.

On December 11th, Lieutenant Mohr delivered a news report that Germany had declared war on the United States. Frank’s chances of getting home had melted. He was no longer a guest of the German navy—he was now a prisoner of war!

December 24, 1941, the submarines docked on the shores of France. He awoke the next morning to the sound of church bells ringing in Christmas Day.

Frank was moved from prison to prison. He required assistance in walking and had lost weight. It was cold and he had only summer clothes. Finally the Red Cross assisted and things were improved. He was in a camp in Northwest Germany.

In February, 1944, Frank was released and made his way to Lisbon and freedom. He had spent almost three years with the Germans.

I first met Frank at the fifty-year reunion in 1991. We had a car and volunteered to meet several people at the airport who were arriving for the reunion. The first trip to the airport was to pick up Dr. Paul O’Neil and his wife, Peg (Zamzam survivors). In conversing as we traveled back, Dr. O’Neil expressed his hope that Frank would attend the reunion.

He then told how he had come upon Frank lying injured on the deck the morning of the attack. Dr. O’Neil surveyed Frank’s condition and felt all he could do was administer morphine to relieve his pain. He removed a syringe from his medical bag, crushed a morphine tablet and gave him a shot. A second morphine tablet had dropped on the deck and, as he picked it up, he reasoned that Frank should have it, also. This gave him an extra dose of morphine.

Frank was lowered to a life boat and these two men had never met again. It was probably this act that saved Frank’s life, preventing him from serious shock. Dr. O’Neil was concerned how things had turned out for Frank.

On our next trip to the airport we picked up Frank. He proceeded to tell us about a missionary doctor who gave him morphine that morning on the Zamzam. He inquired if we knew if the doctor would be at the reunion. We assured him that we had just transported him to the reunion site.

It was a very emotional moment when Frank and Dr. O’Neil met and embraced—one who preserved a life, the other the recipient; each answering one another’s questions about the previous fifty years!