CRUISER A.R.A. GENERAL BELGRANO
My name is Marcelo Pozzo. I was a Class ’62 conscript. My initial task after instruction was as “chafa”, just general seamanship. In February 1982 I was sent to Machinery Division, Damage Control Station, acting as quartermaster’s assistant in peaceful times. While we were heading south I was on watch at the main alarm switchboard control station, but when clearing for action my duties were as stretcher-bearer/fireman in a damage control party.
WE WERE TORPEDOED
I’ll tell you about my experience. It was May 2, 1982. At 1600 I left my watch at the Damage Control Station in the heart of the ship. I had to be again on duty at 0000, so I decided to lie down and take a nap until dinnertime. In the very moment that I closed my eyes an unseen hammer-blow knocked me against the upper bunk. When I fell down a heat wave engulfed me, it felt as if the door of a huge blazing oven had suddenly opened. I know I yelled. In a matter of seconds my whole life run before my eyes, like in a movie. The moment passed, I stood up and heard cries and a very particular kind of silence. I realized then that the ship was silent, one gets so used to the humming of the machinery during navigation, it seems as if the boat is alive. Now it wasn’t.
I emerged from a hatchway and saw that there were people coming up from the lower decks, almost calmly. I didn’t understand why everybody was encouraging me to go out, giving me way. So I went on deck. I thought I was going to see everything in shambles but it wasn’t so, things seemed practically in order. When I turned I saw a friend of mine coming out from the same hatchway I had just passed through. He looked bruised and burnt. I asked him what had happened and he blurted out, “We were torpedoed, you asshole!” I looked at the floor and noticed that there was a pool of blood at my feet. “Gee, somebody got hurt”, I said to myself. Then I looked better: I was the one hurt. I had walked on my bare feet over broken glass. There was no trace of the socks I was wearing when I was laying on my bunk, what remained was just a torn piece of elastic. The skin in my legs was thoroughly lacerated from the knees down. My right fore-arm was covered with burns up to the hand and I had an ugly looking blister from the wrist to the little finger. I didn’t feel any pain, though – partly because of the stinging cold, partly (they told me later) because of the shock damp.
You know, it was odd. The controlled way everybody behaved, I mean. The officers voiced their commands, since power had failed and the speakers were useless. The men obeyed. Damage Control parties were assessing the wreckage, shoring up bulkheads and doing their best to bring the vessel under control. The medics took care of casualties, and there were people entering and taking out on deck the wounded that had remained trapped inside, notwithstanding the heavy clouds of smoke coming from several burning fires. Everybody was coldly doing his chores with unbelievable self control. When they called for Damage Control hands I recalled my duties and went to my station, but an officer saw me and packed me off to Sick Bay.
There are many things that I have learned since. I know now that every individual reacts differently in front of the same situation, but it is of the essence to keep a clear mind, to avoid getting flustered and to assign the right priorities. On the other hand, drills are important. Nobody thinks that his ship can sink, but has to know what to do if it happens. You’ve got to be prepared, exercising your brain in your moments of leisure about how would you behave if – or at least, bearing in mind and even memorizing where is every survival element on board, commenting it with the rest of your companions. I know, I know, it seems so silly, but it can happen to you. As my grandpa used to say, “Never say never...”
Where was I? Yes, going to Sick Bay. While making my way I saw the medics carrying people out (there were two that had just undergone appendectomy) towards the next abandon ship station. They told me to do the same if I could walk by myself. I could indeed, my only fear (for I was barefoot) was to hurt my feet further with some splinters from the deck timber. So I proceeded to my assigned life raft muster station, which was starboard. My raft, # 63, was “hanging” from # 5 gun-turret astern. I was then halfway the vessel, so I started to walk laboriously astern. Going along I saw my mates of Damage Control trying to bring to life some portable drainage pumps. I came across a conscript loaded with a mountain of poncho-like covers, used by men on open deck watch as protection from the intense cold. He offered me one that I gratefully accepted. How commendable: the ship was sinking, and a guy had the sensible idea of distributing protective clothing among those who were unprepared to face the climate – as I was. You get to really know people only at moments like this.
Well, I put on my poncho and kept on walking astern. The General Belgrano was 182 meters long, so everything was far away. When I reached my station I found out that the life raft # 63 was no longer in its berth, it had probably gone overboard when the ship was hit. Other crew members assigned to the lost raft were as worried as I was, so we asked permission from the Officer in Charge to board the neighboring raft which had just been launched. In that moment we heard the repeated command of “Abandon Ship!” It was a frightful order.
The list to port was rather pronounced, it wasn’t easy to stand straight on deck. I looked around and saw several images that still remain in my memory: 1) there were several rafts already launched on the sea, 2) the portboard was touching the water, and crew members reached the rafts by doing just a short jump, 3) there were people badly burned, they looked black, a dreadful sight, 4) some tactical divers were setting up a motor-driven rubber dinghy, 5) the Second Commanding Officer was standing on the bridge and shouting the order to abandon ship using his hands horn-like, 6) actions were performed in an orderly fashion.
The Petty Officer in charge of the newly found raft shook me out of my contemplative surrealistic environment bringing me back to reality, and told me that since I was injured I was going into the raft first. The matter was far from easy. The ship listed to port and we were starboard. Somebody secured a rope and I started to descend, barefoot, hanging Batman-like until I could step on a bull’s-eye. The other guys coming down after me were urging me to jump. The raft was rearing and plunging upon 15 m high waves, so I calculated the trajectory, committed my life to God and jumped. I was lucky, I fell upon the raft’s roof and sprang immediately inside; then I huddled myself up and heard my mates falling down one by one into the raft. Some of them failed the target however, and fell screaming into the icy sea. We were able to pick up just two of them, the other three died after a few minutes of being suddenly plunged into the glacially cold water, we could see them afloat in their lifebelts – lifebelts, what an irony, their life was gone. The oil in the water made quite difficult to grasp anything, everything was so slippery. In addition the raft was almost round, so managing her to get near the men was terribly difficult.
When nobody else seemed to be on deck we decided to cut the anchor rope. The vessel was by then almost totally leaning to one side, her port rails dipping under the surface of the sea. We could perfectly see the hull bottom, the axis of one of the propeller screws, the chalky incrustations. Since the port to access the raft was rather small I slipped inside and left the others to man the oars to pull us away. When we were just five meters away from the hull everybody started to yell, “She’s sinking!” There followed a deep silence. We were all thinking the same: now the rushing vortex of water is going to suck us down. A corporal beside me embraced me in tears, I was also crying when I returned the embrace. Once again I saw in rapid sequence sundry images of my life, and I felt a strange sensation, as when you are observing a scene from above. Perhaps I thought that I was going to die. I reacted when I heard my mates shouts, “long live our country!”, “long live the Belgrano!”
We started to pray, all of us. God heard us, because suddenly the tactical divers were among the rafts using their motorized rubber dinghy to separate one from the other, thus allowing more freedom of movement. (Another commendable behavior, wasn’t it?). They succeeded in removing us to a certain distance, but all the same we remained very near the place where our ship had sunk. From the bottom of the sea came several muffled explosions. That was the end. The ARA General Belgrano would never come back.
SURVIVAL ABOARD THE RAFT
The Belgrano sank on Sunday, May 2, 1982 at about 1700. At that latitude it’s already dark at 1800, and the skies are usually clouded over. Dusk was falling and we prepared ourselves to spend the night. We didn’t imagine then what was expecting us.
We were under leaden, lowering clouds, and after a while a storm struck with appalling savagery. Some of the waves towering over us were 10 m high, topped with frothing caps of white. For minutes on end, the screaming wind held steady at 100 km/h, dropping the temperature well below zero. We were dancing to the tune of the ocean, a wild and malevolent dance that made our raft climb the wave until the crest kicked our backs sending us flying to the other end of the raft. Then we crashed down endlessly, with a roller-coaster-like sensation that made us sick. The effort was double when we had to go back hastily to our position to keep the balance of the raft. Besides, the ports didn’t close well. When waves broke their tops in the roof, water seeped inside so the raft kept a constant 3 cm water level in the bilge. We did our best to drain the bilgewater to no avail, there was always new water entering.
I felt rather ill. The dehydration of the injured tissues was noticeable now. Shuddering, I curled up under the poncho and was able to sleep for a while. Nevertheless it was not possible for me to sleep much, the breaking waves and the nausea prevented it. When I was seasick the corporal beside me pulled the navy cap out of my head and put it on my face. When I finished the cap was passed by hand until it reached the guy at the port. He washed it and then it was returned back to me.
When somebody had to urinate the situation became something out of a Kafka book. Let me tell you about it. When the need arrived, we had to sit onto the raft sidepipe. By making an effort and taking very good aim, we did pee into the only available vessel: the Bengal lights packing tube, similar to the one containing tennis balls. Then the tube was passed by hand until it reached the man at the port, who gave it the same treatment received by my navy cap. Mind you, it wasn’t an easy manoeuvre. To sit on the sidepipe we had to stand up, support the wave blows right onto our shoulders, open the fly with numb fingers, find Dickie (who had a strong tendence to disappear inside) and make a laborious effort to aim the spout – all this while the massive mountains of water, broken and confused, shook the raft this way or that. Everybody had to submit to this. At the start those who were near the port tried to urinate out just like that, but after a couple of times they gave up because it was so frightfully cold outside that Dickie risked frostbite – and that was no joke.
Speaking about the cold, it was indeed intense. A “port watch” was established to keep ports manually closed as much as possible, but it was sheer torture: hands froze to the very marrow of the bones. Even donning two sets of gloves, the flying spray and the chilled winds made impossible to stand more than ten minutes on watch.
Let’s go back to my wounds: when I had entered the raft by instinct I had protected my burnt hand and forearm against my chest. The wounds were suppurating so after a while they stuck to my undershirt. In one of the many shakes and jolts of the raft the whole lot became unstuck and I started to bleed. I asked for ‘Pancutan’ or something alike from the first-aid box, covered the burns with the paste and then somebody dressed my arm and hand with a bandage.
As I said before, there was always bilgewater in the raft floor. The water was quite cold and the deadly chill crept upwards from feet to calves. My toes were numbed so I was continuously moving them to avoid the well known “trench foot”. I was lucky, I didn’t get any frostbite.
You know, we were in silence almost all the time, although the officer in charge tried to keep us awake by singing or praying. In general we were serene and hopeful, so much that the few comments that were made from time to time were about when will our raft be seen, or how we were going to be rescued.
The dawn brought with it better climate. Above, patches of blue sky and some sun rays could be seen at fleeting intervals and our hopes for a prompt rescue grew. Nothing happened during the morning. Alas, about 1300 a Neptune airplane passed wavehopping and saluting with the wings in the best Hollywood style. We were desperate to be seen so we tried to signal our position with the Bengal lights (the instructions were written in English!) but we failed to do so with the type to be fired. At last, we succeeded with the manual lights.
Actually, we thought we were the only survivors because we hadn’t seen other rafts. Later on we realized that we had another raft quite near, less than 100 meters from us, and a couple more farther away. The fact is that we were all the time in a sea of massive mountain-like waves which plunged our raft, and the others, into the depths between the crests so we couldn’t see each other easily.
After the first sighting we felt more animated and willing to chat. After a while another airplane appeared, an A.R.A. F28 I think, and once again we started to yell, howl, shouting long live to our country and all those things that actually are more directed inside than outside. The rescue was near. I was thinking then that I was surrounded by guys I had never met before, there were some of them that I had never even seen on board. However, the fact of being together in a situation of life and death created such a feeling of closeness and affection that we knew that we were going to be “friends for life”.
The darkness closed on our Monday at sea. Nobody said anything, but all of us were afraid of another stormy night. More often than not new volunteers went to keep watch at port, not so much to comply with the specific task but to be on the lookout for any rescuers. Only after midnight we started to see the flaring lights of the salvage ships which were gradually getting near. Finally, on Tuesday at 0400 a flare light focused on our raft and accompanied the manoeuver until we brought ourselves alongside our rescuing ship, the Aviso Gurruchaga. Their skilled actions were complicated by the still agitated sea. We learned afterwards that there was a further storm expected that night, providentially delayed.
We were instructed to cut the raft roof with our navy clasp-knives to facilitate the boarding. When my mates were doing it I thought, “what a pity, how are we going to use it if we break it up so?” Probably I was losing my marbles by then, I didn’t recognize the difference between my raft and my ship. Then the instructions were for casualties going first. It seemed I was the only one on board, so I stood up and grasped the Gurruchaga port gangway ladder which was hanging down. I was able to climb just a couple of steps, then I looked up and cried, “take me up ‘cause I can’t do it!” They raised the ladder and finally I was on board. In the precise moment that two sailors took my arms my body literally became disconnected from my brain. I was conscious, I could see the deck when they dragged me along but I wasn’t able to move one muscle, I couldn’t even raise my head. I was taken inside, undressed, cleansed, cured and covered with a blanket. Now, when we meet, my friends still pull my leg recalling that as soon as I recovered my strength, I went on deck naked and greeting happily everybody – even the Captain, who embraced me when he saw me alive and kicking.
IN LAND AGAIN
When we reached Ushuaia I was taken to the Naval Hospital, where my wounds and burns were duly treated. We were looked upon with the greatest regard. Doctors, nurses, even standard citizens who came to the hospital to chat with us, everybody did their best to help us recover. I met there several crew members that were also burned, or that suffered sundry ailments caused by the cold. We heard about dead bodies found where there were no more than five people manning the raft, and about a couple of capsized drafts, one empty, the other with two bodies inside. We heard about some cases of trench-foot due to cold bilgewater, but fortunately none of them suffered any amputation.
From Ushuaia we were flown in a hospital plane to Puerto Belgrano. Our Commander, an old marine, was with us. He gave us courage with phrases like “be strong, my boys” or “come on, marine!”. He was an inspiring presence. Unfortunately, in the bunk upper to mine was a first corporal who died during the trip. We all prayed for his soul.
When we reached the Puerto Belgrano Naval Hospital I was taken to an intensive care room. A Surgeon-Captain entered the room carrying a basin and a bristle-brush of the type used to wash clothes. He asked me, “What do you like best, chlorinated water or lemon juice?” I didn’t understand much, but I remembered well that when I was a kid lemon juice hurt a lot when it fell on any bruise, so just in case I chose chlorinated water. The Captain filled the basin with liquid, took firmly the brush in his right hand and said matter-of-factly, “yell as much as you want, but if you touch me I’ll knock you out”, and started to clean up my wounded legs. I’m sure my cries were heard in the Antarctics. Once he was finished with the legs he continued with my arm and hand. When the brushing up was over I passed out. Later on he explained to me that it was the most effective method he knew to avoid infections. He was right. Burning wounds are very painful indeed, not only during treatment but because of the long recovery period required. I was burned in a 25% of my body with first, second and third degree burns. This notwithstanding, no grafting was ever needed.
After a couple of days, on Thursday, I saw my parents looking at me from the other side of my room window. As mothers come, my ma started to cry and it was not possible to make her stop. And my dad tried to tell jokes (they were awful, by the way) to avoid crying himself. They had not received my news since the sinking of the Belgrano, they were desperate and had been tracing me for days. Mother surreptitiously entered a corridor and was able to see me face to face just when I was being taken to intensive care to be treated. I realized then that I was probably looking very bad, her face said it clearly, but her eyes gave me also strength.
I get melancholic when I remember this, so I’ll cut it out. I spent 30 days in the hospital, then I was sent to Buenos Aires – to finish my conscription! I was lucky to be destinated to the Northern Dock Naval Station. It was light work, in the remaining 4-5 months spent there I just did one night watch at the barracks and another at the dock-yard. Of course: I was the quartermaster who prepared the duty lists so everybody was friendly to me. In October 1982 I left the service.
All of us who came out alive after the South Atlantic Seas experience have a common message: there is only one problem that offers no solution, and it’s death. Anything else can either be solved or it’s temporary. It’s like if you’d need to pass through such a dreadful ordeal to be able to establish a realistic range of values. With a few exceptions, almost all of us – commanding officers, petty officers, conscripts – have made our way in life, studying, working, raising a family and growing up as human beings. We have never lost – no, I’d prefer to say that we have purposely maintained the spirit-de-corps we found so many years ago. We still meet, there are always stories to be told about those days. The main feeling, however, is to renew the honor and the pride of being the cruiser ARA General Belgrano last crew. And we feel as our mission to pay homage to our 323 mates, heroes who were left behind in the South and who gave their lives for the best of reasons, our country.