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Klaas "Smitty" Smit
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Birth: Sep. 3, 1897
Noord-Holland, Netherlands
Death: Jan. 14, 1943
Aleutians West Census Area
Alaska, USA

Kirwin Tells of Alaska Shipwreck, Smit's Death

(Harry A. Kirwin, former Liberty resident, now serving in the Merchant Marine, survived the wrecking of a salvage vessel in Alaskan water in which Klass Smit of Ellensburg lost his life. Kirwin, who has now returned to Seattle, describes in the following article the experiences they went through and the circumstances of Smit's death.)

By Harry A. Kirwin

Twenty-one silent men trudged down a Seattle gangplank a few days ago in the wee hours of the morning and walked ashore in a glow of thankfulness at being alive. They are the survivors of a double shipwreck in the worst waters of Alaska. They lost all their possessions, but escaped with their lives.

Part of the story can be told, the other details must wait until the end of the war.

Hurricane Blamed

The men were members of the crew of a steamer that was lost more than a month ago. The ship was driven on the beach while attempting to pull another vessel off. They were rescued by a third ship, then returned to their own steamer and stripped it of stores and ship supplies.

This job completed, and their own craft abandoned to the elements, they boarded another ship that became their home for a few days. Then came a hurricane, screaming and tearing at the vessel, until, after two and a half days, this vessel in turn had to be abandoned.

Eight injured members of the crew, including myself, were taken off by a volunteer lifeboat crew from a ship standing by, while the others slid down a line on a breeches buoy to the beach, a distance of about one and a half city blocks. As they reached the line of breakers, they were repeatedly soaked by the high seas that swept them toward the beach. There they were caught by the men of the Coast Guard, who had walked seven miles up the beach to help in the rescue.

Gathered around a beach fire, the men were fed and their injuries cared for. Then they started the long walk to a lighthouse seven miles away. Some had to be carried most of the way. The next day a plane dropped bundles of clothing.

During the first disaster I was injured by a fall into a lifeboat and spent a week in my bunk aboard another ship. Klaas Smit left that wreck in the last lifeboat with me, our captain and a few others.

In the second wreck, the men split up, some going to the top of the ship, where they stayed in the wheelhouse, at least 40 feet above the surface of the water. But, the seas rose under the lash of a 75-mile gale until they finally smashed in all the doors and portholes and after 14 hours of misery we had to quit this wheelhouse. We went to the deck below, where we expected to find safety in the captain's cabin.

Captain Hurt

Five minutes after we left the top deck the whole structure was knocked loose and went over the side with a great roar and splash. Meanwhile we had found the cabin to be a mass of wreckage. The captain himself was wedged in a corner by smashed furniture. The ship's navigator also was injured. With one leg broken, he was unable to stand up and was washed by every sea that came aboard. He finally died of exposure and his body was washed overboard.

Smit, third assistant engineer, was with the officers in that cabin and came out uninjured and joined the rest of us who had come down from the top deck. When daylight came, we all made a dash for another part of the ship, sliding down a line and walking across the deck in icy water up to our chests.

We gained access to a midship housing, where 17 of us took refuge in a room 10 by 14 feet. We tore doors off some lockers, placed them across bunks and climbed up on them. I found a board and I and another man sat there all one day and the following night. The water was knee deep; we had no lights, heat, food or water for about two days, and the bitterly cold weather slowly numbed our hands and feet. We put the injured captain and an injured radioman in the bunks.

We made three matches last the entire time by smoking one cigarette at a time and passing it around to all in the room.

On the second morning, some of the men went out on deck during lulls and found some cans of food in the water on deck. One turned out to be grapefruit juice and I have never tasted anything better in my life.

After the rescue, I spent three weeks in the hospital recovering from the experience.

Tried to Swim Ashore

Smit did not join us in the rush to midship quarters, electing instead to climb the high foremast, where he was safe even from the high seas. When night closed in, he was still there. However, the next morning his body was found on the beach, clothed only in underwear. We supposed he had tried to swim ashore and failed. Nearby was the body of an officer and men from the ship came in with a dory and the bodies were taken to the lighthouse. Here they remained from January 14, the day they were found, to January 20, when the weather finally let up and a grave was dug.

The bodies were wrapped in blankets and placed in sturdy coffins. A Coast Guardsman read the service and they were buried on a shelf 100 feet above the beach and 300 feet back. Markers will be set up with their names and other data.

Klaas Smit's passing was felt deeply by all of us, for he was popular with the men and proved he was a good sailor. He signed on as a seaman, and when a vacancy occurred he stepped into the officer's position, at much better pay and better quarters. He was well fitted for the new berth.

A captain who interviewed "Smitty", once told me: "I wish you could get me about six or eight more men just like him; then I might have a good crew."

No landlubber could understand the joy "Smitty" felt upon returning to the sea. He had served six years in Dutch ships. We often stood together on deck in good weather and the stupendous scenery of the Alaskan country. At first "Smitty" had his bunk across from mine in the sailors forecastle and I grew to know him well.

I am sure "Smitty" met his end the way all sailors hope to meet it -- with chin up and unafraid.

(Kirwin said he came out of the wrecks with water in his left lung, a battered hand, a wrenched neck and a numbness in his heels and fingertips. He said he expected he would have to go to Arizona or New Mexico to get his lung back in shape. He said he lost all his cameras, lenses and other equipment, as well as his clothes)

Ellensburg Daily Record
February 20, 1943

Son: William R. Smit

Unimak Is., 1943, American salvage ship USS Rescuer (ARS-18) wrecked at Seal Cape while attempting to salvage SS Turksib, one crewmember killed.

The Russian steamship Turksib (ex- Hardenberg), while bound from Portland for Vladivosok with a full cargo of foodstuffs, military supplies and motor vehicles, wrecked off Scotch Cap near Unimak Pass. The Russian vessel changed course too soon while approaching Unimak Pass in a blizzard
and piled up on the shoals off Seal Cape. The salvage teamer Rescuer in charge of the salvage master Capt. William J. Moloney, was ordered to her assistance. During efforts to refloat the Turksib, the Rescuer was caught in an 80-mi gale on the night of December 31, 1942 and was driven onto the rocks. One lifeboat was launched and the crew were taken aboard the Navy minesweeper Oriole, which had been standing by. Harry Kirwin, the well-known Seattle marine photographer, was serving as captain's yeoman aboard the Rescuer and suffered a broken neck during the transfer from the lifeboat to the minesweeper. Despite this, Kirwin was among the volunteers who transferred with Capt. Moloney to the Russian vessel to continue salvage efforts. The Russian crew of 31 men and four women had remained aboard the wreck for more than a month. Further storms battered the wreck and eventually forced its abandonment under xtremely hazardous conditions. Capt. Moloney suffered a broken collar bone, Capt. Mashnikov of the Turksib, a broken hip,and Klas Smit, third engineer of the Rescuer, was lost overboard and drowned. The Russian steamship eventually broke in two and became a total loss, and the Rescuer was also pounded to pieces although some of the cargo from the former vessel and much of the gear from the latter were recovered.


Rescuer (ARS-18): Photographs

USS Rescuer (ARS-18)

Merritt-Chapman & Scott

Family links: 
  Klaas Smit (____ - 1927)
  Elisabeth Tijssen Smit (____ - 1935)
  Loreta Welty Smit (1899 - 1976)
Created by: NWpioneer
Record added: Nov 07, 2011
Find A Grave Memorial# 80009141
Klaas Smitty Smit
Added by: NWpioneer
Klaas Smitty Smit
Added by: NWpioneer
Klaas Smitty Smit
Added by: NWpioneer
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