The Tzenny Chandris (previously known as the Eastern Packet) was built at Kobe, Japan in 1920. After serving a period of usefulness during the postwar boom, she was towed up the James River, anchored at the head of a long line of idle ships and left to rust. In the summer of 1937 she was purchased by John Chandris of the Greek company bearing his name. Shipyard workers came aboard, Greek crew appeared—together chipping away rust, painting and putting her machinery in working order. Her engines were overhauled, her wireless was put in working order and her lifeboats were patched up.
With these hurried repairs complete, the Chandris was put to sea under the command of George Couhopadelis. Of the 28-man crew all except Joseph Corrie, a 46-year-old English coal passer, were of Greek descent. Many had not been to sea for several years and her wireless operator was young and inexperienced.
Before leaving Norfolk, VA she was loaded with several thousand tons of scrap iron and moved across Hampton Roads to Newport News for more cargo. She left Newport News October 27, 1937 and took on the last of her 9,010 tons of scrap and junk at Morehead City on November 11. When an attempt was made to move her away from its pier it was discovered that the weight of the added scrap caused her to “bump the bottom.” After waiting for a high tide, she floated free and began her voyage to Rotterdam on November 12.
By time she passed Cape Lookout she was already taking on water. “We begged the Captain to turn back to some port when we found she was leaking,” Joseph Corrie later stated, “but he said the pumps would take care of the water.”
Between Lookout and Hatteras the first winds of an approaching storm reached the Chandris. “She commenced listing to starboard before we got into the storm,” Corrie said. “When the storm hit us Friday afternoon water came pouring in from somewhere in the coal bins, shooting through a little door that coal fell through. When I went on watch Friday night I didn’t want to go down in that place, but the Captain persuaded me to go. I couldn’t swim and when the water came rushing in that place again, I went on deck. About that time the engine went off fix, and all lights went out.”
As the sea swept over the boat deck, several of the lifeboats were carried away and cargo began to shift so that the vessel was canted over at a 15-degree angle. Kostas Palaskas, 25-year-old 3rd engineer, later said that he and others of the crew had been “pleading with the captain for five hours,” to send an S.O.S. When the Captain finally gave the order to send it, the operator became confused and was unable to send it quickly. Palaskas said that he finally had to threaten the operator at the point of a knife before he got the message off. “I told him I would kill him if he didn’t send that S.O.S.,” Palaskas said. The S.O.S. went out at 4:06 a.m. Saturday and, though it was repeated several times and was picked up both by shore stations and ships in the vicinity, at no time was the position of the sinking ship given—one ship passed so close in the darkness that Captain Couhopadelis tried to signal for help with a flashlight.
In the end the Captain ordered all hands to put on life belts and then sent them over the side into the stormy sea. At the time, the position of the Chandris was approximately 40 miles N.E. of Diamond Shoals Lightship. Corrie was the last man to leave the sinking vessel. “The rain and wind made so much noise you couldn’t hear anybody yell,” he said. “I waited there on deck. I didn’t want to jump because I had seen some of the fellows jump and they looked like they got hurt. Then the ship lurched once and went over on her side. She lurched again and went over flat on her side, level as a floor. Then is when I walked down and jumped. I was caught in the suction but I had to open my mouth to breathe and every time I did I took in sea water. It seemed like a year before I came back up.”
Twenty-eight men and miscellaneous sheep, hogs and fowl were left foundering in the open sea as the Chandris went down. Six of the men located a battered, water-filled lifeboat and managed to climb into it. Fifteen others were grouped closely together, clinging to pieces of wreckage. The rest were scattered nearby, supported by life belts and debris.
At 9:30 that morning, about 5 hours after the Chandris sank, the tanker Swiftsure sighted the floating lifeboat and rescued the men who were in it. Before proceeding on her way to Boston, she wired news of the rescue and its position and cruised the area for several hours without sighting other survivors.
Throughout the day and night the other crewmen drifted in the open sea: Two men drowned during the day; a third went crazy, lunged at Captain Couhopadelis in a maniacal fury and bit the captain’s nose before being subdued by shipmates. He died that afternoon; during the night three more died from exposure; and one, no longer able to control his thirst, drank salt water, went berserk, tried to choke Palaskas and finally swam off and disappeared. At dawn, Sunday, surrounded by dead and bloated animals and fowl, and with bodies of their deceased crew mates floating in their life belts nearby, the survivors were faced with the threat of sharks.
Meanwhile, one of the most intensive and methodical rescue attempts in history was being carried out. Four Coast Guard vessels were patrolling the sea in systematic sweeps and 7 Navy planes and one Coast Guard plane were combing an assigned area of 19,200 square miles in search of survivors. At 10:30 a.m., Sunday, Lt. A.C. Keller, piloting a Navy patrol plane, sighted the survivors about 90 miles east of Kitty Hawk. Diving low he dropped a smoke bomb to mark the spot, then flew back to the near-by Coast Guard cutter Mendota, and directed it to the scene. When picked up soon afterward, the Chandris crewmen said the sound of the plane had driven the sharks away.
Altogether, 19 men had been rescued by the Swiftsure and 13 by the Mendota; the bodies of four others were recovered; and 5 were unaccounted for, including Joseph Corrie. By then the Naval planes had nearly exhausted their fuel and were forced to return to Norfolk, leaving only the Coast Guard patrol plane piloted by Lt. R.L. Burke. Soon afterwards, Burke sighted two more men and the bodies of the other three nearby. His smoke bombs guided the Mendota to the scene and, after more than 30 hours in the sea, Joseph Corrie, last of the 28 crewmen to leave the sinking freighter, was picked up.