Cullen R. Hugghins, Ensign, US Merchant Navy, KIA, WWII – The Andalusia Star-News
Deep beneath the emerald blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, just north of the US Virgin Islands, lies the rusting hulk of the American merchant ship, SS Sam Houston. On June 28, 1942, a single torpedo from the German submarine, U-203, hit the Sam Houston. Three men were killed instantly; Third Assistant Engineer Cullen R. Hugghins, Fireman Hamm M. Hall and Oiler Clyde A. Dunning. The ship remained afloat briefly, but within minutes had taken on so much water that her captain, Robert Perry, ordered her to abandon ship. Three lifeboats were lowered carrying 43 men and the Sam Houston was left adrift with just two feet of the vessel above the waterline.
About 20 minutes after the initial attack, Kapitanleutnant Rolf Mutzelburg surfaced on his submarine and finished off the merchant ship with his deck gun. Captain Perry was then brought aboard the submarine and questioned. He would later recall that the Germans knew not only his name but also the name of his ship and its destination. Just six months after Hitler declared war on the United States, the Germans had spies in place who knew our secrets.
Of the three men killed in the first torpedo attack on the SS Sam Houston was Cullen Root Hugghins, originally from the Cohassett community, located in Conecuh County, just across the county line from Covington County Alabama. Cullen was born on October 25, 1907 to Henry Terry and Effie Barrow Hugghins. He was one of 8 siblings. He graduated from Red Level High School around 1925 and moved to Houston, Texas. Cullen was 32 when he entered the draft on October 16, 1940. His residence was listed as Houston, Harris County, Texas. He was single and listed his mother, Effie Hugghins, who lived in Red Level, Alabama, as next of kin.
Cullen Hugghins joined the Merchant Navy and trained as an engineer. We don’t have a list of ships he served on, but he had been commissioned an ensign by the War Department and worked his way up to third assistant engineer. [officer] when he was assigned to the SS Sam Houston for her maiden voyage.
The Sam Houston was a 7,176 ton Liberty ship built by the Todd-Houston Shipbuilding Corporation in Houston, Texas. It belonged to the Waterman Steamship Company of Mobile, Alabama. On her initial voyage, the ship was loaded with 10,000 tons of army supplies at the Port of Houston. His itinerary included stops in Mobile, Alabama; Capetown, South Africa with final destination Bombay, India. The ship was only three or four days from Mobile, en route to Capetown, when it was torpedoed.
On July 2, 1942, Cullen Hugghins’ mother received the following telegram:
MADAM. EFFIE IRENE HUGGHINS
RED LEVEL, ALABAMA
THE NAVY DEPARTMENT DEEPLY REGRETS TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON CULLEN ROOT HUGGHINS WAS KILLED AT SEA FOLLOWING ACTION IN THE EXECUTION OF HIS DUTY IN THE SERVICE OF HIS COUNTRY. THE SIDE GUARD OFFERS ITS DEEPEST SYMPATHY FOR YOUR GREAT LOSS. To PREVENT POSSIBLE AID TO OUR ENEMIES PLEASE DO NOT DISCLOSE NAME OF HIS SHIP.
VICE ADMIRAL RR WAIRCHER
COAST GUARD COMMANDER
One can only imagine the pain and anguish for the Hugghins family, especially for the parents. Terry and Effie Hugghins had sent three sons to war but only Cullen was killed. Some of that pain is reflected in a letter from Effie to her daughter, Willie Mae, dated August 11, 1942. The family had just received pictures of Cullen in full dress uniform. [One is shown with this article]. The letter was shared by Jo Ann Walton Parham, daughter of Willie Mae and niece of Cullen Hugghins. Excerpts from the letter follow:
“Dear Willie Mae,
Well, we finally have the photos…I think they are the best I have ever seen. It’s just like him. I could sit and stare at this picture all day… And say he’s sleeping at the bottom of the sea is about to get the better of me, and I can’t help him as hard as I try to put him out. This tragedy and millions like it caused by a man, this demon Hitler. O Lord, how long will this last?
On June 28, the ordeal of the 43 survivors in the lifeboats had just begun. A diary was kept by one of the survivors, Gunnery Mate Third Class Louis R. Padula. He died in 1993 but in 2014 his son, Louis J. Padula, posted a copy of the handwritten diary on the website that honors the memory of the crew of the SS Sam Houston.
Padula had just been released from the infirmary where he had been for a week when the torpedo hit. Quoting his June 28 entry, “There was a thud and the ship rolled a little on its side. It knocked me over. I got up right away and went to wake up a shipmate who was in the infirmary with me…we went to the gun deck but we saw nothing.The ship was on fire and the smoke was choking us…Since we couldn’t fire the guns if the sub came, the captain told us Said to abandon ship There were a few guys burned and a few that were in the engine room We went to the engine room but it was full of water and we couldn’t help them at all .
After the crew abandoned ship and boarded the lifeboats, Padula provided an update on the situation, “There were five very badly burned men and two with minor burns…. There were 14 in our lifeboat and only three of us able to do anything…. The submarine that had torpedoed us came to the top about 30 yards away.…My heart was in my mouth…the first man out of the sub pointed a machine gun at us. He waved his hand and we answered him.
The ship’s cook had been thrown overboard and was between the submarine and the burning ship. One of the lifeboats picked him up and cleared the area between the ships. The sub-captain then sank the Houston with his deck gun. After that, the submarine docked with one of the lifeboats and moored. Padula recalled, “They could speak English quite well. The captain asked if anyone had any broken bones and offered to send a doctor on board… We told him there were a few that had been burned but there was nothing he could do for them.
The men in the other lifeboats were unhurt and were already out of sight by the time Padula’s boat set sail. He later recalled, “A few hours after our departure, one of the burn victims died. We wrapped him in a blanket and tied him down, thinking we could keep him there as long as possible and soon we could see dry land.
On July 1, Padula and his crewmates awoke to the beautiful view of the mountains some 40 miles away. Again Padula recalled, “What a sight! Wondering how many of us would stay when and if we reached dry land. We got there in the afternoon. We spotted a patrol plane and the mate ordered me to fire a few rockets The plane saw them and flew towards us.
Several of the men got out and swam ashore wearing ropes. They pulled the boat while the others rowed and they finally got to the beach. They overturned the boat and placed the injured men out of the sun. By then the seaplane had returned and landed nearby. After the two injured men were placed on board the plane, it taxied into open water and began to take off.
Padula again gave his account in the first person, “Just as it came out of the water, a big wave seemed to reach out and touch the plane, just enough to cause it to crash… We all took off and ran in that direction, but when we got arrived on scene the pilot had the two men outside and on the beach….Another plane finally came out piloted by a major.In the meantime, one of the two companions died.I guess the crash finished him off We got the last one on the plane and the major took off. The whole ordeal lasted about 10-12 hours.
On the same day, July 1, the remaining survivors of Padula’s lifeboat were picked up by a minesweeper. He had already picked up survivors from the other two lifeboats. The sinking of Sam Houston [including the three that died immediately after the torpedo hit]. The minesweeper arrived in St Thomas on July 2, 1942 and the men were met by the Red Cross. On July 11, a Navy subfighter picked up the men and took them to Puerto Rico. From there, a Navy transport took the men to Norfolk, Virginia, where they arrived on July 14, 1942.
After the war, one of the survivors of the Sam Houston came to visit the family of Cullen Hugghins. There is a concrete memorial marker honoring Cullen Hugghins at Long Branch Cemetery, Cohassett, Conecuh County, Alabama.
Postscript: U-203 met the same fate as so many German submarines on April 25, 1943, when she was sunk by British forces. However, Rolf Mutzelburg was no longer in charge. He had died on September 22, 1942, when he dived into the water from the turret to swim. A swell picked up the sub’s nose, causing it to bang its head against the casing.
He died as a result of the accident and was buried at sea.
[Sources: Maritime Quest, “Daily Event for June 28, 2008”; uboat.net; the diary of Louis R. Padula, Gunners Mate Third Class, courtesy of his son, Louis J. Padula; thanks to Jo Ann Walton Parham, Willie Mae’s daughter, for sharing her mother’s letter about Cullen and special thanks to Bill Hugghins, nephew of Cullen Hugghins, who has written extensively about his uncle and shared his information with the author]