10 Days in a Lifeboat

Editor’s note: The following article is reprinted from Assemblies of God Heritage magazine in 1985. Paul L. Kitch, who served as an AG pastor and missionary to Africa, died in 2005 at the age of 94. His son Paul A. Kitch, who also served as an AG missionary to Africa with his wife, Delma, retired in 2001 and lives in Springfield, Missouri.

By Paul L. Kitch

My 8-year-old son Paul A. Kitch and I had just concluded our evening devotions in our cabin aboard the West Keybar, a British cargo ship bound from Africa to America. Without warning, a great explosion rocked the ship. The lights immediately went out.

This was 1942 and the U.S. was at war with Germany. It didn’t take an expert to know that we had been hit by a German torpedo and that we had no time to lose.

I quickly took a flashlight, found Paul, and grabbed our life preservers. We had drilled for such a disaster but hoped and prayed that we would never have the real thing.

Paul asked, “Daddy, are we having another lifeboat drill?”

I said, “Yes, Son, we’re having a real lifeboat drill; come, let’s find the lifeboats.”

We had left America in 1938 as appointed missionaries to Africa. After studying French in France for several months, we went to French West Africa to labor for the Lord among the Mossi tribes. We took up our assignment in Tenkodogo, Upper Ivory Coast.

In 1941, we laid to rest our 2-year-old girl, Lita Ann. Seven months later, my wife, Bernadine, died of typhus. I was so low with the same disease at the time that the news of my wife’s death was kept from me for a month. Paul was also sick with typhus.

As soon as I was strong enough, I packed our furniture, straightened our business affairs, and moved to Ouagadougou where I convalesced for several weeks.

MAN THE LIFEBOATS!

In October 1942, we left Africa aboard the West Keybar with some 80 people aboard — nine passengers and the crew. It would be the last trip for the West Keybar, for within three weeks it would be at the bottom of the South Atlantic.

After the torpedo hit the ship, Paul and I hurried to the deck where we met about 12 others searching for the lifeboats. We learned that the explosion had blown both lifeboats from that side into the water.

We were then ordered to the other side of the ship. There we saw a lifeboat with about 15 persons pulling away from the ship. Another boat, with nearly as many in it, was still there, so we hurriedly climbed down the “spider web” rope ladder to it.

Thirty-five of us crowded in this 28-foot boat. I wanted to go back to save a few valuables, but the officer ordered me to get in the boat immediately. Later he explained that if the ship went down while our little boat was within 75 yards, the suction would pull us under.

Paul lost his shoes climbing down the ladder, and all of our other possessions were lost except our passports, my billfold, and the clothes we were wearing.

Soon after we pulled away from the ship, we saw a red flash through the darkness. Our wireless operator signaled back with a flashlight. A shout came in answer, and by means of our signaling and his shouting, we were able to locate and rescue a man. He was alone in a half-sunken lifeboat. Although we were overcrowded already, we took him into our lifeboat, and from the sinking lifeboat we salvaged a keg of drinking water (about 30 gallons) and a little store of food to add to our own meager stock.

At about this time a second torpedo hit the ship right in the middle. There was a big gush of fire and the ship broke in two. The entire ship was under water within about 60 seconds.

Shortly after this, we sighted a life raft on which were about eight navy gunmen from our ship. We could not take them into our lifeboat because we were already too overcrowded, so we tied their raft to our lifeboat with a 30-foot rope.

Suddenly we heard a very peculiar noise, and a ghost-like figure came up out of the dark blue ocean. It was the German submarine!

A few minutes later we heard a voice say in broken English, “How are you all?” Then the voice called for our captain and our radio operator. We had to pull alongside the submarine, and in order to do that it was necessary to cut the life raft loose again. We were at the enemy’s mercy, so our captain and wireless operator went aboard the submarine. Our lifeboat drifted off while these two men were questioned. After about 20 minutes, we were called back to the submarine, and our captain and wireless operator got back in with us. Then the spectral figure disappeared.

All that night we tossed about in our little lifeboat. One moment we were up on the crest of a mighty wave, and the next we were plunging down into the trough. We had prided ourselves upon being pretty good sailors by this time, but we found that the tossing of the little lifeboat was quite different from the rolling of a big ship.

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LIFE AT SEA

For a day and a half we waited, looking for the life raft and for the other lifeboat that had pulled away from the ship. We failed to see anything of either, so the captain said, “After all, we are eight souls and a crew of 27” — adding with a laugh, “since we sailors are not souls.” So we prepared to depart. All the ship’s passengers were in our lifeboat except another missionary we had met on the trip.

We hoisted a sail, arranged the compass on the stern of the lifeboat, and steered for land. Our rudder had been broken when the waves dashed us against the submarine, so we rigged up a rudder by means of an oar and rope fastened to the stern. The captain knew our approximate location, and by means of maps and compass, he was able to chart a course, which he hoped would take us to land.

Rations were handed out twice a day. Each morning, we were given two ounces of water, two small crackers, and one third of a 3½-ounce can of pemmican per person (pemmican is a compound of concentrated food prepared for emergency use, consisting of raisins, coconuts, apples, dextrose, fat, oil, vanilla, and salt.) Each evening we received two ounces of water, two graham crackers, and a half-inch square of sweet chocolate. Once every three days we were given a small package of malted milk tablets about the size of Lifesavers.

We were so crowded that it was impossible for one to relax properly. Hour after hour we would sit until we were cramped and aching. Any sleeping we did was in a sitting position. However, I managed to make room for Paul to be quite comfortable most of the time. He was the only child in the lifeboat.

Paul had been reading the story of Robinson Crusoe, so I said, “Now Paul, we are going to play Robinson Crusoe and look for land, and the Lord will see us through.” I told him how the Lord Jesus calmed the storm on the sea for the disciples and how He would take care of us, too. He asked whether the submarine would come and shoot a torpedo at us again, but I told him the submarine wouldn’t waste a torpedo on a little lifeboat.

The officers were respectful and reverent. They were thankful to God for sparing their lives through this disaster. Others, however, were cursing God because He permitted them to be torpedoed.

We ran into strong rains, but these were a blessing. By dropping the sail and fixing it so as to catch the rainwater, we were able to add to our precious supply of drinking water. However, the rains brought a little hardship. We had to stand up and huddle together in the center of the boat. There were only about four blankets among 35 of us, and very few coats. We had to sit in sopping wet clothes, our bodies shivering and teeth chattering, until the sun would come out the next day. As we were in the tropics, it was warm in the day, even in November, but at night it grew chilly, and when it was wet we were quite cold. Sometimes the waves washed over the bow, and the crew had to pump the water out of the lifeboat. We thank the Lord for graciously preserving our little lifeboat through those 10 days of tossing about with such a large load of occupants.

On the eighth day a ship passed by. When we were on the crest of a wave we would catch sight of the top of it; then when we sank into the trough of the waves, it was out of sight. But ours was such a small boat and we were so far away that the ship did not sight us, and we drifted on.

LAND HO!

On the morning of the ninth day, we sighted land. We were all very happy, and to celebrate we had a double ration of water that day — four ounces instead of two, in the morning and in the evening.

On the morning of the 10th day, a plane spotted us and, as we later learned, reported us to the coast patrol. A rescue committee of ladies was notified to get warm things ready for us. An hour after we were spotted, a sub chaser came out and met us two miles from land. It was with joy that we crawled out of the lifeboat, up the spider-web ladders, and into the sub chaser. We sped toward land, which we learned was the island of Barbados.

After a good bath and a change into some clean clothes, we felt much better. The trousers bore a label on which was printed British and American flags and the words, “British War Relief Society — sincere good wishes from a friend in the U.S.A.” You can guess how we felt at seeing the grand old Stars and Stripes again! The gracious hand of God was upon us in all this experience.

We were very grateful to the many friends who told us, after we returned, that they had been praying for us. I am sure God heard and answered. Out of about 80 persons on board, only 35 of us survived.

Jesus has certainly been a wonderful Pilot to me. We had to trust the captain and other officers of the ship and lifeboat, but our faith went beyond them to the Lord Jesus Christ, and He did not fail us.

Pictured: The West Keybar before its final voyage
Source: AG News

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