Slim Houston and the Parismina
As I write this account of the death of Cisco Houston's brother Slim, I'm listening to Cisco sing "The Sinking of the Reuben James" which is, of course, Woody Guthrie's tribute to the men of the first U.S. Navy vessel sunk in the Atlantic in the World War II era. That ship actually went down on Oct. 31, 1941, a victim of a German U-boat. Note that this destroyer was lost 37 days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, bringing the U.S. officially into the war. "Reuben James" sank west of the coast of Iceland, and of the 120 crewmen only 44 were saved.
Cisco and Woody were already acquainted by the time the song was written, but Woody recorded the first version with the Almanac Singers, who are also credited with co-writing the song, and Cisco was not part of the group at that time. I don't know whether Cisco heard the song during the first year of its existence, or ever sang it during that time. But 13 months after "Reuben James" met its fate, the Merchant Marine vessel SS Parismina was torpedoed by the German submarine U-624. Accounts say this ship had approximately 75 people on board, and 19 or 20 died, including Adrian Moncure Houston, Cisco's brother. The ship was heading toward New York from Iceland. It was November 18, 1942, and surely, after this tragedy, Cisco's relation to Woody's song about the "Reuben James" must have changed profoundly.
"Slim" Houston was a wiper on this ship, one of the 40 members of its merchant crew. Also on board were eight Merchant Marine officers, 12 armed guards of the regular Navy, and 14 or 15 passengers. The passengers were survivors from the torpedoed American tanker Hahira. The Parismina sank in only four minutes, following the torpedo's hit at 5:06 a.m. Built in 1908 in Northern Ireland, this ship was normally in the service of the United Fruit Company. At the time of the attack, the ship was in ballast, with nothing in the hold to cushion the explosion, which came on the starboard side between Number Two Hold and midships. Parismina settled by the bow, and sank at 5:10 a.m. in rough seas, with a fire in the forward area.
The crew attempted to launch lifeboats and rafts, but while Number Two boat was being lowered, the after falls let go, throwing those in the boat into the water. Then the boat itself fell on top of its dumped group of souls, who were struggling in the frigid water. Master Edward T. Davidson was in the water, holding on to to the rudder of the Number Three boat. Two men in that boat moved him around to its port side. Unable to lift him, they tied him to the boat. He died of exposure.
Lifeboat Number Four filled with water, and men died in this boat from exposure. Because the ship was part of a convoy, fifty-four people who had been on the Parismina were picked up by the British Rescue Ship "Perth" and one survivor was found by the "HMS Rose." These fortunate ones were landed at Halifax, Nova Scotia on Nov. 25th, a week after the sinking, then put on a train to Boston, arriving on Nov. 27th.
The submarine U-624 (Graf von Soden-Fraunhofen) was finally bombed and sunk in the North Atlantic on February 7, 1943. There were no survivors.
Adrian Moncure Houston's age was not recorded. His father had the same name, but "Jr." is not listed as part of Slim's name on the Merchant Marine casualty list. However, both Adrians, along with mother Mary Louise and Gilbert Vandine Houston (Cisco) are listed in the 1920 census records for Los Angeles. In the 1930 census, another brother, John B. Houston, is listed as being four years old. At the time of Slim's death in late 1942 his next of kin was listed as Mary L. Houston, 1428 and one-half Colorado Boulevard, Los Angeles.
And of course, in 1943, Cisco, and Woody, and Jimmy Longhi were serving as Merchant Marine crewmen on the North Atlantic convoy runs, making meals by day and singing to the troops in the holds by night. Did Cisco fear meeting the same fate as his brother? Did he ever wonder if he was steaming along the same final path as the Parismina? Cisco, bad eyes and all, was on at least three different ships in 1943 alone, one of which hit a mine, and another was struck by a torpedo, although both ships stayed afloat. Did he ever sing "Reuben James" in the last 20 years of his life without thinking about Slim?
It was there in the dark of that uncertain night,
That we watched for the U-boats and waited for the fight --
Then a whine and a rock and a great explosion roared,
And laid the Reuben James on the cold ocean floor...
This account was made possible by the kind help of the volunteers manning the website for the U.S. Maritime Service Veterans, P.O. Box 2361, Berkeley, CA 94702. Thanks, Toni.