The Sinking of the Zamzam

65 years ago an 8,000 ton Egyptian cruise ship, named for a sacred well in Mecca, was shelled and sunk in the South Atlantic Ocean by a German raider. On the Zamzam were 122 Christian missionaries, 24 young ambulance drivers, and a crew made up of Muslims from Egypt. I recently met and talked with Luella Danielson, a survivor of the Zamzam sinking. Here is the story of the sinking of the Egyptian cruise ship and rescue of all the passengers on board. It is a heart wrenching story of Luella’s family and their 3 month odyssey on the Atlantic Ocean.
Luella’s father and mother were Christian missionaries. In December of 1940 the Lutheran Church sent Rev. Elmer Danielson to Tanganyika, East Africa, to start a mission. His wife and 6 children waited in Lindsborg, Kansas, until he could locate proper housing for his family at the new mission. In April 1941 Rev. Danielson sent word that he wanted his family to join him. Arrangements were made for his family to sail from New York harbor to South America and then across the South Atlantic to Capetown on the southern tip of Africa. Luella was only 4 years old at the time. She had two brothers whose ages were 11 and 3 and three sisters 9, 7, and 18 months. On March 20, 1941 Luella’s mother with 6 small children boarded the Zamzam. Their living quarters on the ship were so crowded that the two older children slept on the floor. For weeks the Danielson family sailed along the northern coast of South America in unbearable heat. Finally on April 9
th the ship arriving at Recife, Brazil. There the Zamzam took on two new passengers. One was Charles Murphy, writer for Fortune Magazine, and the other being David Scherman, a LIFE photographer. Both men had flown to Brazil and were on their way to cover the war in Africa.
Early on the morning of April 17
th the Zamzam encountered the Tamesis, a German raider, which proceeded to fire 17 shells into the helpless passenger ship causing considerable damage to the Zamzam, injuring some passengers, but not killing anyone. Lillian Danielson, still in her nightgown, managed to get her six children into life jackets and then into their assigned lifeboat. However, the lifeboat had been riddled with shrapnel and immediately sank when lowered into the choppy sea. With the help from the other missionaries already in the water, all six children were kept afloat until rescued, including baby Lois who held onto her mother’s neck through the 45 minute ordeal where the crew offered no assistance to the Christian missionaries. After discovering that they had mistakenly shelled a passenger ship, the Germans sent out boats to pick up all the passengers and crew who were struggling in choppy sea.
The German navy did not broadcast the sinking of the Zamzam and when it did not arrive in Capetown on April 23rd, everyone assumed that a German U-boat had sunk the ship and all on board were lost. Elmer Danielson was devastated. He believed that he had lost his wife and six children when if fact they had been safely transferred to the German liner
Dresden which had rendezvoused with the Tamesis in the mid-Atlantic. For the next 30 days the Dresden sailed north with its prisoners through the cold waters of the North Atlantic. The food was terrible and the Danielson children lack enough clothes to stay warm. Avoiding the British blockade, the Dresden landed the missionaries in Occupied France on May 20th. From there the Americans were released and transported to Portugal where they were placed on a neutral ship sailing to the United States. The ambulance drivers and Egyptian crew were placed in a prison camp. When Elmer Danielson heard that his family was safe, he fell to his knees in prayer. It would be another 3 years before he would be able to see his family in Kansas. After the war the Danielsons all returned to Africa. Today Luella has her own family and lives in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Lillian Danielson with her 6 children.
Luella is standing behind baby Lois.

Fortune writer Charles Murphy described the sinking in an article published in the June 23, 1941 issue of LIFE magazine (found in Youngstown’s Main Library). This lengthy article was accompanied by photographs taken by David Scherman who had smuggled several rolls of films pass the German authorities in a toothpaste tube and a bandaged hand. The Germans later claimed the cruise ship was carrying a big cargo of oil and they had been justified in sinking the Zamzam.

More information can be found on the internet and in a book entitled “LIFE Photographers What They Saw.”