The S.S. Nerissa steamed at full speed through the darkened seas. It was April 30, 1941 and below decks, adventure writer Kenneth B. Collings was awaiting his arrival in Europe. Though he was always ready for adventure, he loathed the wide-expanses of the sea. Three weeks before setting sail aboard the Canadian troop ship, Collings had quit his position as a member of the SAFAIR Flying Service at Roosevelt Field to take a position as an American flier with the Canadian Royal Air Force. With the United States not yet in the war, Collings, a veteran of the First World War, wanted to ensure that he could assist in keeping the German Luftwaffe in check in the skies over Britain and Africa. As Collings and two hundred and eighty-six souls also aboard thought of their pending arrival in war-torn Europe, Lieutenant Eric Topp watched as the outline of the troopship steamed directly into the cross-hairs of his periscope. Topp passed orders quietly and efficiently to his men.1 Three torpedoes were ready. As the troopship continued on her course, Topp ordered three fish into the water. The wakes of the torpedoes sliced through the water. The S.S. Nerissa, oblivious to the lethal steel hunter, steamed on into the darkness.
Kenneth B. Collings was born in Lincoln, Nebraska on September 22, 1897. From his earliest days as a child, Collings was always on the hunt for adventure. When he was old enough, Collings joined the Washington, D.C. National Guard and upon the entry of the United States in the First World War, Collings was sworn in as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps on October 11, 1917. After the completion of officer candidate school, Collings received orders for the Marine Aero Detachment in Miami, Florida. In March of 1918, Collings received his gold wings. He was now a naval aviator serving in the United States Marine Corps.2
On July 17, 1918, Collings boarded the U.S.S. De Kalb bound for Europe. After an uneventful passage, Collings joined an elite and exclusive number of United States Marine Corps aviators as part of the 1st Marine Aviation Force on the frontlines of combat in the battle-ravaged country of France. Collings’ efforts were well-regarded but he was grounded in October of 1918, a victim of the rampant spread of the Spanish Influenza. Returning to the front lines on November 9, 1918, the armistice would come two days later. The First World War, the War to End All Wars, was officially over. Collings returned to the United States in December of 1918 and remained in the United States Marine Corps.
After the First World War, Collings was ordered to Haiti with the U.S. Marine Corps to assist with their occupation of the island country.3 During his time in Haiti, Collings, never one to shy from adventure, was informed that a native man had been horribly mangled including two broken thighs in an accident. His condition was critical. To get him the necessary medical attention would require him to be transported through the heavily dense jungles and rough terrain for several days by automobile. The pain the man would further incur would be tortuous and dangerous as the roads were also plagued with roving bands of bandits. Collings had an idea. After flying to the location, he landed and discussed an alternative mode of transportation. Collings would strap the injured man to the lower wing of his bi-plane. “The man was bandaged to the eyes, covered by a blanket, and securely lashed to a six-foot plank. A helmet and goggles were slipped over his head and he was placed on the lower wing, where he was tied by straps secured to the wing supports and the fuselage.” Upon taking off, Collings realized that his human cargo had drastically changed the aerodynamics and performance of his aircraft. Collings fought the controls the entire flight but within thirty-five minutes, the critically injured man was delivered to a local hospital to receive treatment for his life-threatening wounds. For Collings, the daredevil lifestyle was just beginning. During the inter-war years, Collings would continue to fly and seek adventure. He was a barnstormer for the Gates Flying Circus and also served as a pilot for many of the pioneering flights for Pan American Airways throughout various destinations in the Caribbean. In 1928 Collings also “gained attention” when he became the first “hit-run” pilot in documented history when he decided to tear off the top of a truck with his airplane to “get even” with a driver who had spattered mud on his airplane.
During this same time-frame Collings also joined the National Life Insurance Company and by the 1930’s became one of the company’s top agents. With a diligent work ethic, Collings was able to “work hard for several months then take time to travel the world in search of adventure.” During his hiatus from his vocation, Collings began writing and served as a correspondent for Liberty Magazine and other periodicals. Collings’ sense of adventure led him to securing an interview with Emperor Haile Selassie during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and he also covered the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. During his coverage of the Nazi invasion, he found himself in a bit of a jam when he inadvertently walked into Russian territory. Russian soldiers found him and quickly found his ribs with the tips of their sharpened bayonets. Collings quickly offered his United States passport. The soldiers did not want to hear about his passport. Collings, they had decided, was a spy. Speaking Russian would have greatly assisted his predicament but to no avail as Collings only spoke English. On three separate occasions, Collings was told to stand against a brick wall. Each time he waved his passport and claimed his United States citizenship. When a lieutenant arrived on scene, he ordered his men not to shoot the alleged spy. Collings, believing he was finally going to be released from his situation was quickly taken to a basement and placed under armed guard. Tossed into a small make-shift prison with many other prisoners, one Polish prisoner, also in the small and dank basement, recommended to Collings that he hang himself instead of suffering a fate at the hands of the Russian troops. Collings would take no such action. He was determined to fight on.
The following day Collings was transferred to another prison and then, the night after, yet another. Collings was convinced that his days on earth were numbered until a German-speaking soldier was able to intervene on his behalf. Upon learning of his citizenship and position as a war correspondent, the Russians apologized for their actions and immediately transferred Collings to a much more appropriate setting – the officer’s quarters. Collings had once again brushed death aside.
In addition to covering current events, Collings also wrote fiction for other publications including Argosy. In 1938, Collings collected his adventures overseas and his autobiography, These Things I Saw - Just for the Hell of It, was published by Dodd, Mead & Company. In the same year, he co-authored with Lowell Thomas another book titled With Allenby in the Holy Land.4 Despite his literary efforts, Collings wanted more adventure and he wanted to support Great Britain’s fight against the Nazis. After a refresher course at Roosevelt Field, Collings worked shortly at the SAFAIR Flying School before bidding his wife and son Kirby goodbye as he boarded a flight to Montreal where he was going to join a small contingent of flyers and other troops ready to ship out across the Atlantic Ocean bound for Great Britain.
The S.S. Nerissa, known as a lucky-ship as she had successfully completed thirty-nine passages across the Atlantic Ocean, was struck by all three of the U-552’s torpedo spread. The S.S. Nerissa’s luck had changed dramatically. In the melee of panic and sheer terror, Collings, along with other survivors of the massive explosions aboard, found few of the lifeboats in serviceable condition. Many of the lifeboats had been destroyed by the catastrophic explosions. A few that had been launched successfully sank upon hitting the water, their drain plugs not properly in place. Within five minutes, the troopship slipped beneath the waves. Those who had survived were thrown into the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
The U-552 did not take on any survivors and continued on her voyage to France for much needed repairs.Those cast into the savage and chilled seas clamored to flotsam and each other. With each passing moment, more and more of the survivors succumbed to the elements. Collings, adorned in a life-jacket, fought valiantly in the waters but the hypothermic conditions began to take their toll on his body. Despite his condition, he assisted a fellow soldier out of the water and onto some floating debris. The heroic and selfless act saved the soldier’s life. Collings would not be as lucky. In total, only eighty souls of the two hundred and eighty-seven souls aboard would survive the sinking of the S.S. Nerissa.
In early May of 1941, Collings was listed as missing in action. At the learning of her husband’s status, Mrs. Katherine Collings told reporters that “he beat death so many times, but I feel now he’s gone. He went the way he wanted. He felt he was helping the right side.” Collings’ son Kirby, aged fourteen, was numb to the news and, like his mother, attempted to hold out faith that he would be found alive. Those hopes were dashed when on August 12, 1941, a lifeless body washed ashore along the ragged coastline of Scotland. Pulled from the water, the body and its effects were inspected. A gold watch bearing an inscription were the final piece of evidence needed to determine the fate of Kenneth Brown Collings. One man had been found from the one hundred and twenty-one men listed as missing in action as a result of the sinking of the troopship. Initially interred at a Royal Air Force cemetery in Scotland, he was later returned to the United States were he was buried in Section 34, Grave 3763 in Arlington National Cemetery. K. B. Collings, a veteran of the First World War, a veteran of adventures from around the globe, and an ardent patriot who volunteered for service to fight against the scourge of Nazism in the skies over Great Britain had died in his lifelong pursuit for adventure on a voyage that had started in 1918 aboard the U.S.S. De Kalb in our waters.
1 The souls aboard included men, women and children.
2 Collings’ affiliation and support of the United States Marine Corps continued in earnest during his career. He was a founding member, in 1937, and First Junior Vice Commander of the Marine Corps League.
3 On July 28, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson ordered three-hundred and thirty U.S. Marines ashore at Port-au-Prince, Haiti in an attempt to restore order after the assassination of President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. The United States Marine Corps remained in Haiti until 1934.
4 Lowell Thomas had a much storied life of his own. His initial claim to fame came from time serving alongside Captain T.E. Lawrence and his efforts as a war correspondent and film-maker made T.E. Lawrence a household name. Over the course of his life Thomas was a film narrator, radio broadcaster, and television personality. A prolific writer he also worked with Count Luckner – the infamous Sea Devil of World War I fame – on several volumes of stories of the seas. Thomas died at the age of eighty-nine.