Fireman Low On

This is part of a series of essays about the First World War casualties commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in New York.

The grave of Fireman Low On

Fireman Low On[1] is one of the few casualties buried in the United States who died as a result of enemy action.

He was born in the mid-1880s in Guangdong province in southern China. There is no record of his early life or when he became a mariner but he signed on for service with SS Diomed in Hong Kong on 14 March 1918.

The Diomed was a 7,523-ton cargo ship, built in 1917 for the Blue Funnel Line—one of the United Kingdom’s largest merchant fleets. The company lost 16 ships to enemy action during the First World War.[2]

SS Diomed
SS Diomed

On 4 June 1918 Diomed had arrived in Liverpool from Shangai under the command of her master, Captain Alfred Baker.[3] She departed Liverpool on 2 July for New York, arriving on 13 July, where she picked up her last cargo and returned to Liverpool, arriving on 3 August. In mid-August she set off from Liverpool for New York, in ballast (i.e. without a cargo). En route she became the seventh, and final, victim of the submarine U-140, 195 nautical miles east-south-east of Nantucket.

U-140 was one of the three largest cruiser submarines of the Kaiserliche Marine, the Imperial German Navy. She was launched in November 1917 and commissioned in March 1918. She was one of the few German submarines to be named—in her case: ‘Kapitanleutnant Weddigen’.[4] Commanded by Korvettenkapitän Waldemar Kophamel,[5] her only war patrol began on 2 July from Warnemunde, a German port on the Baltic Sea. She journeyed into the North Sea, around the Shetlands, and into the North Atlantic, reaching the waters off Newfoundland on 26 July. Over the next month she engaged 11 ships by gun, torpedo or by boarding and placing charges—six of these were sunk. Having been damaged in an engagement with the destroyer USS Stringham and losing fuel, she began her journey home on 17 August.

Just after dawn on Wednesday 21 August, U-140 spotted SS Diomed. She engaged the merchant vessel with her 5.9-inch (150mm) deck gun and the crew of the Diomed responded with her gun. Further shots from the submarine put Diomed’s deck gun out of action and disabled her steering gear. Diomed was then hit low on the hull and an explosion destroyed the ship’s boiler, causing the majority of the ship’s casualties. The crew abandoned ship and U-140 finished her punishing attack, sinking the Diomed. Captain Baker described the engagement:

The first solid shot was fired across our bow, and this was followed by a second shot which struck the ship on the starboard side forward of the bridge. We could see the submarine plainly, about a mile and a half away. She appeared to be one of the largest types, and had two big guns on deck, one forward and the other aft.

Our gunners opened fire with the stern gun, by which time the U-boat had increased the distance to two miles and was bow on, a difficult mark to hit. The man had just fired the twelfth shot when one of the U-boat’s hundred-pound explosive shell struck the stern, putting the steering gear and the stern gun out of commission. This was followed by another big shell, which exploded in the boiler room, killing one sailor and seriously wounding another, who died after being removed to one of the lifeboats.[6]

The two seamen killed were: Boatswain Edward Graham, aged 39, and Assistant Steward Harry Ross, aged 16. Both were from Liverpool and both have no grave but the sea; they are commemorated on Tower Hill Memorial. A number of other crew members were injured by the explosion and by escaping steam, including Fireman Low On, who suffered wounds to his shoulder and foot from the explosion in the ship’s boiler room.

Captain Baker and the surviving 103 crew members managed to launch eight lifeboats. Korvettenkapitän Kophamel launched a small boat that made its way to the lifeboats. An offer to treat the wounded on board U-140 was made but Diomed’s master made no answer, believing it a ruse to capture him or the Diomed’s engineers.

SS Aungban
SS Aungban

Soon after the departure of U-140, the SS Aungban[7] arrived on the scene and picked up the survivors. They were taken to New York, arriving on Friday 23 August. Fireman Low On was the most seriously injured. He was admitted to Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn that day. Eight weeks later he died of wounds on 15 October 1918. He was buried in The Evergreens Cemetery, Brooklyn, in the ‘Seaman’s Grounds’, which is on the southern edge of the cemetery. There are 12 other CWGC burials in this cemetery.[8]

U-140 succeeded in reaching Kiel at the end of September, where she spent the rest of the war.[9]

Fireman Low On’s medals group comprises the British War Medal 1914-20 and the Mercantile Marine War Medal.

The Memorial Arch at Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens
The Memorial Arch at Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens

Amongst the many memorials in Hong Kong, two commemorate the sacrifice of Fireman Low On. The first is the memorial arch at the entrance to the Botanical Gardens. That memorial is inscribed ‘IN MEMORY OF THE CHINESE WHO DIED LOYAL TO THE ALLIED CAUSE IN THE WARS OF 1914-18 AND 1939-45’. A new memorial was dedicated in 2006 in Stanley Military Cemetery; it uses the same inscription but also includes the names of the missing.

William P. Gonzalez for the photographs of Fireman Low On’s grave.

1. (Back) For many years the CWGC recorded this seaman’s name as ‘Ou Loo’, believed to be the consequence of a series of transcription errors. That error has now been adjusted and he is correctly commemorated as ‘ Low On’. His gravestone has been replaced.
2. (Back) The Blue Funnel Line lost 16 ships to enemy action, with the loss of 35 lives: SS Achilles (1916, torpedoed by U-44), SS Autolycus (1918, torpedoed by U-34), SS Calchas (1917, torpedoed by U-80), SS Diomed (1915, torpedoed by U-38), SS Diomed (1918, torpedoed by U-140), SS Eumaeus (1918, torpedoed by U-55), SS Glaucus (1918, torpedoed by UB-68), SS Kintuck (1917 (possibly mined), SS Laertes (1917, torpedoed by UB-31), SS Machaon (1918, torpedoed by UC-27), SS Moyune (1918, torpedoed by U-34), SS Oopack (1918, torpedoed by UB-68), SS Perseus (1917, mined by German raider SMS Wolf), SS Phemius (1917, torpedoed by UC-45), SS Troilus (1914, shelled by SMS Emden), and SS Troilus (1917, torpedoed by U-69). One ship foundered: SS Knight of the Thistle (1917).
3. (Back) Captain Alfred Douglas Baker (20 May 1859-22 December 1936). Born in Greenock, Scotland, Alfred Baker was an experienced mariner—he joined the merchant marine as an apprentice in 1875 and obtained his master’s certificate in 1884. He was Commended for his war service (London Gazette 29 November 1918. Issue 31038, p 14091.) and awarded the British War Medal 1914-20 and the Mercantile Marine War Medal.
4. (Back) Named after Kapitanleutnant Otto Eduard Weddigen (15 September 1882-18 March 1915) who, while commanding U-9,  sank three British armoured cruisers in less than an hour on September 1914. He was killed on 18 March 1915 when U-29 was rammed by HMS Dreadnought.
5. (Back) Fregattenkapitän Waldemar Kophamel (16 August 1880-4 November 1934). Kophamel served in the Imperial German Navy from 1898 to 1920. Initially a surface navy officer, he was involved with submarines from their introduction into service. During the First World War he commanded the ocean-going, torpedo attack submarine U-35, and the cruisers U-151 and U-140. He sank over 157,000 tons of Allied shipping and was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class and 1st Class and the Pour le Mérite. A Second World War submarine support ship was named after him; it was sunk by the Royal Air Force in 1944.
6. (Back) ‘Submarine Offered Doctor To Victim’. (24 August 1918). The New York Times. p 4.
7. (Back) SS Aungban was a 5,125-ton tanker, built in 1917 for the Burmah Oil Co. She was sold to Okada Gumi KK, a Japanese merchant fleet operator in 1938, and leased to the Imperial Japanese Navy as an oiler a few weeks later, having been renamed Toen Maru. Ironically, she was torpedoed and sunk by the submarine USS Thresher off Borneo in the Southern Makasaar Strait on 2 March 1943, with the loss of 28 crew members.
8. (Back) See also: Serjeant George Birkenhead, Trimmer John Walter Bowles, Able Seaman Thomas Drinkwater, Private William Richard Eveleigh, Leading Seaman William Charles John Geeves, Trimmer Percy Hyett, Able Seaman Patrick McDonagh, Stoker 1st Class Henry John Gardner Miller, Leading Seaman Sydney Stephen Milliner, Scullion William B. Parr, Stoker 1st Class Alfred Weeden, and Leading Seaman Sam Gordon Wills.
9. (Back) U-140 was surrendered to the Royal Navy and later taken to the United States. After a period on show at New York she ended her days at Philadelphia Navy Yard. On 22 July 1921 she was taken out to sea and sunk by gunfire from the USS Dickerson.

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