This article was written by a new contributor to Delaware’s World War II Fallen, Danny E. Waite, who will be focusing on Kent County’s fallen. This is also the first article pertaining to the at least 23 Delawareans who died serving in the U.S. Merchant Marine during the war.
|Born in Pennsylvania, moved to Delaware as a child||Merchant seaman|
|U.S. Merchant Marine||M.T. Atlantic Sun|
|Merchant Marine Mariner’s Medal||Battle of the Atlantic|
Early Life & Family
Robert J. Burger, or Bob as he was known to family and friends, was born in Altoona, Pennsylvania in 1919. According to a handwritten letter by his sister Mrs. Elizabeth (Betty) Casson the Burger family moved to Dover, Delaware in the early 1930’s. Bob’s parents John and Bessie had five children, with Bob being the second oldest. John worked for the Diamond State Telephone Company. The Burgers lived at 668 North State Street. It was the first house upon entering Dover on State Street from the north.
Burger’s sister Betty described him as, “wholesome, curious all around good and happy young boy.” He spent much of his youth on Silver Lake in Dover canoeing, fishing and swimming. He was known to take hikes and enjoyed hunting for arrowheads, many of which he mounted. Bob enjoyed target shooting with his .22 rifle but would only shoot tin cans, never any animals. The environment and astronomy were of great interest to him. Burger enjoyed photography and developed pictures in the basement of his home.
Burger made extra money in his youth by picking peaches in the summer around Dover. He was active in Boy Scouts attaining the rank of Eagle Scout and was a counselor at Camp Rodney. Burger was also a Sea Scout and once played the role of Santa Claus in Dover arriving by plane.
In 1939, Burger graduated from Dover High School. He found employment in Seaford at the DuPont nylon plant. His goal was to earn money to pay for college. His sister Betty wrote, “Because of the depression not many young graduates were able to attend college without working to save toward that goal.” Burger discovered he could make more money working on an oil tanker. He signed on as a seaman for the Sun Oil Company (Sunoco) at Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania in August of 1941.
Merchant Marine Career
Burger was assigned to the motor tanker Atlantic Sun. The ship displaced 11,335 tons and had been built in 1941 by the Sun Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company in Chester Pennsylvania. It was armed with a 5-inch gun. The work was dangerous with war already being waged in Europe. Of the seven billion barrels of oil utilized by the Allies during World War II, six billion were provided by the U.S.
During his free time Bob learned to play chess, studied the stars, and spent time in the chart room and at the wheel. He visited many ports including Beaumont, Texas and Aruba. Bobs goal in life changed during his time on the Atlantic Sun. He decided to attend Officers Training School at Kingsport, New York and make the sea his career. According to his sister Betty, Bob was accepted by the Officer Training School but at that point U.S. had entered World War II and the U.S. Navy had taken over the important role of oil transportation and would not release anyone from oil tankers.
Bob would encounter his first brush with danger at sea on March 21, 1942. The Atlantic Sun was in route from Beaumont, Texas to Marcus Hook Pennsylvania with 156,840 barrels of oil. The ship was travelling unescorted when it was located by U-boat 124 near Cape Lookout, off the coast of North Carolina. With a speed of 15 knots the Atlantic Sun did not offer a clean shot for the U-boat but it was able to fire a torpedo which struck the starboard side around 10:05 a.m. Although damaged the ship was able to make port at Beaufort, North Carolina under her own power. None of 45 men aboard the ship were injured. While the Atlantic Sun was at dock being repaired, her crew were given time off.
Bob was able to come home to Dover and shared his harrowing experience with the Dover Rotary club as a guest speaker. In an article titled, “Dangers Involved In Merchant Marine Service Explained” from the May 15, 1942 Delaware Republican newspaper it states that Bob told the group that, “service in the Merchant Marines involves many dangers, but also provides many thrilling adventures and interesting incidents.” He informed the club of the attack which, “resulted in tearing a large hole in the forward end of the oil tanker.” Bob was also able to show the group some fragments of the torpedo which hit the ship.
Just four days after speaking to the Dover Rotary Burger would have another scare on water closer to home. On May 16, 1943 he led five other Sea Scouts on a trip across the Delaware Bay. It was an 18-foot slope called The Lark, skippered by State Senator G. Leslie Gooden. An article titled, “Encounter Rough Weather” from the May 19, 1942 The Morning News, Senator Gooden said, “the water was the roughest the sloop had ever sailed and about half the stays and shrouds were carried away.” The group spent the night at a dance hall in Fortescue, New Jersey. Their return trip was much more pleasant with the group catching several dozen croakers and two trout.
The crew of the Atlantic Sun was promptly put back into service once the ship was repaired. The ship would begin its final journey on January 14, 1943, when it left New York carrying fuel oil destined for Iceland. The journey was uneventful until the end when they encountered a very heavy storm. Their convoy was dispersed but they sailed alone the next few days to arrive in Iceland safely.
The men discharged their oil and anchored in a fiord waiting for their convoy to form. In early February as part of convoy O.N.-165 the Atlantic Sun departed Iceland. The journey once again started without incident until the ship suffered engine problems. She fell behind the convoy which could not risk endangering other ships by slowing for a straggler. The Atlantic Sun was about 150 miles from Cape Race, Newfoundland, Canada on the morning of February 15, 1943 when there was an explosion. What took place that morning about 10 a.m. was described by Atlantic Sun Seaman William Golobich. His statements on the sinking of the Atlantic Sun were first published in Our Sun on May 1, 1945:
About 1000 that morning, I was awakened by a jarring sensation as if an extra-large wave had hit the ship. The ship seemed to quiver, I got up, dressed and put on my life preserver. The engines had slowed down and the ship was very silent. I raced up on deck and when I arrived I saw a sight I’ll never forget. The ship was cut in half with the forward end inclined about 60 degrees with the surface of the water. There was a large gash in the extreme end of the bow. The midship house was already almost entirely submerged. The men there never had a chance to escape.
The after half of the vessel remained on an even keel. The starboard boat was safely launched in charge of the chief mate. This boat contained 22 men both Navy and crew members. The rest of us remained on board. We did not try to launch the port boat because it was on the weather side and would have been difficult to launch. About 25 minutes after I got on deck, the bow reached a perpendicular position and slowly sank. About 2 hours later, the men in the lifeboat returned aboard, cold and wet from spray. They went below to change their clothes and drink hot coffee. The Chief Engineer and others inspected the engines and there was talk of backing the stern section to the nearest port.
About a half hour after the lifeboat returned, the steward spotted another torpedo headed directly toward us on the port side. We raced to the starboard rail and braced ourselves. The torpedo struck about 15 feet forward of the stern. I ran to the port lifeboat and started to do what I could to launch it. By this time some men were coming up from below. Somebody tried to help me but we could not get the boat launched. Then I thought of my exposure suit which I had brought up on deck with me. When I went to look for it, the suit was gone, blown away by the explosion. Suddenly the sea threw me against the starboard rail. As there was no chance of getting back to the port lifeboat and we were sinking fast, I went over the side. As I swam away from the ship, I figured I had about 2 hours to live and I mentally said good-bye to my folks and friends at home.
Then a ring buoy floated by and I grabbed it and attached it to my shoulders. When I was about 30 yards from the stern section, it began to turn over. Soon after, it turned over and lay keel up before it sank. I also caught a glimpse of the port lifeboat. Somehow they had gotten away from the ship.
The water was cold – about 32 degrees and the air about 25 degrees. I made for the lifeboat and when I reached it I found 8 men aboard. The boat had no oars and was waterlogged. Their situation was pretty desperate as they were sitting in water waist high and they were soaking wet. The eight men in the boat were: Henry Miller, 1st Engineer; Wallace Horton, 3rd Engineer; Robert Burger, AB [able seaman]; William Guilford, Steward; Donald Winey, OS; Louis Rose, Fireman; Andrew Kokoska, Oiler; and Harry Belfar, Wiper.
After about a half hour in the water, I was exhausted so I grasped the side of the boat and rested. Then I noticed my legs were growing numb. Suddenly the sub surfaced about 25 yards away. Out of the conning tower popped a German officer and four or five of the crew. The officer was pointing a machine gun at us. For a moment we thought he was going to use it. He asked the name of our ship. He was told and then the men in the lifeboat asked for oars and help from the sub, to make the lifeboat more seaworthy. But the sub left and began cruising around where the tanker had gone down. After a few minutes the sub returned and came to within 25 yards of the boat. The men in the boat again pleaded for oars and some help.
In desperation I let go of the boat and swam toward the sub. I was nearly all in but I had in mind getting close to the sub and asking for assistance that might have meant life for our surviving band. I recall reaching the sub, climbing aboard, and walking toward the conning tower. Then I blacked out.
Seaman William Golobich was destined to survive the sinking of the Atlantic Sun. According to the February 6, 1945 article titled “Sailor Returns from Dead After Rescue by Nazi Sub” in The Pittsburgh Press, the Duquesne native, “had been a swimming champion of Duquesne High.” Seaman Golobich awoke inside U-607 with German crew taking his wet clothes off and massaging his body to bring him back to his senses. He asked the captain of U-607, Ernst Mengersen, about the fate of his shipmates. Captain Mengersen informed him there was nothing he could do for them.
Seaman Golobich would spend 23 days as a captive aboard U-607, during which he stated he was not mistreated. On March 9, 1943 he was put ashore at Saint Nazaire, France. William would spend 22 months at a prisoner of war camp at Milag, near Bremen Germany. The camp was designated to detain merchant seaman. It held about 60 other Americans. Seaman Golobich would remain a P.O.W. until he was freed on January 15, 1945.
U-607’s service to Germany would end on July 13, 1943 when it was sunk by depth charges released from a British plane in the Bay of Biscay. Only seven of the crew of 52 would survive. However, the former captain of U-607, Ernst Mengersen, was not onboard when the submarine met its fate. Captain Mengersen would survive the war earning the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross. He died at the age of 83 on November 6, 1995.
Seaman William Gobolich arrived at New York City on February 21, 1945 aboard the ship Gripsholm. He was the sole survivor of the 66 men aboard the Atlantic Sun. Shortly after returning home he was given a life ring from the Atlantic Sun, perhaps the one that he clung onto upon diving off the ship. In his statement to Our Sun he said, “The men of the Atlantic Sun went to their end with calmness and great bravery. They died in the service of their country.”
It is believed that Bob Burger and his 7 shipmates who made it to the life raft would have succumbed to the elements within a few hours at best.
Able Seaman or Quartermaster?
There are conflicting sources as to Burger’s grade. He is referred to as quartermaster in the April 2, 1943 Delaware Republican newspaper article and on the Individual Military Service Record filled out by his father, John Burger in 1945. However in the account by Atlantic Sun survivor William Golobich and the crew list provided by Uboat.net, Burger is listed as able seaman.
Delawareans Aboard the Atlantic Sun
Also of note fellow Delawareans Wiper Joseph T. Winn Jr. and Messman Walter G. Craig were also lost in the sinking of the Atlantic Sun. Winn was a resident of Milton, Delaware when he enlisted on November 20, 1942 at Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania. Craig was from Christiana, Delaware.
Special thanks to Betty Casson for contributing photos and information about her brother.
“Atlantic Sun.” Uboat.net website. Accessed June 11, 2021. https://uboat.net/allies/merchants/ship/2654.html
Burger, John. Robert J. Burger Individual Military Service Record September 25, 1945. Record Group 1325.53, Record of Delawareans Who Died in World War II. Delaware Public Archives, Dover Delaware. https://cdm16397.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15323coll6/id/17921
Casson, Elizabeth. “Life Of Bob Burger.” Letter to Danny Waite, July 1, 2005.
“Dangers Involved in Merchant Marine Service Explained.” Delaware Republican, May 15, 1942.
Golobich, William. “The Only Survivor Tells the Story of the Torpedoing of the ATLANTIC SUN.” Our Sun, May 1, 1945. https://www.armed-guard.com/survivor.html
“John Burger Home Here Saddened By Telegram From Navy Department.” Delaware Republican, April 2, 1943.
“Sailor ‘Returns from Dead’ After Rescue by Nazi Sub.” The Pittsburgh Press. Pg. 11. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/79179015/the-pittsburgh-press/
“Sea Scouts Have Rough Trip.” The News Journal. Pg. 24. 19 May 1942, Page 24 – The News Journal at Newspapers.com
Sun Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co., Chester PA. Accessed December 14, 2006. http://coltoncompany.com/shipbldg/ussbldrs/prewwii/shipyards/atlantic/sun.htm
“Top U-Boat Aces: Ernst Mengersen.” Uboat.net website. Accessed January 22, 2007. http://www.uboat.net/men/mengersen.htm
Yeboah, Yaw. “Lesson 6 – Oil Strategy and World War II.” Accessed June 11, 2021. https://www.e-education.psu.edu/egee120/book/export/html/237
Yergin, Daniel. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, & Power. Free Press, 2008.
Last updated on June 14, 2021
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