Tuesday, April 8, 2008

USS Atik (AK-101)

Figure 1: Carolyn before her conversion to USS Atik (AK-101). Photo courtesy of SSHSA Collection. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: American Freighter S.S. Carolyn, 1912, in port circa 1917-1918, probably at the time she was inspected for possible U.S. Navy service. This steamer was assigned the registry ID # 1608, but was not taken over by the Navy during World War I. During World War II, however, she became USS Atik (AK-101), a "Q-ship" lost with all hands on 27 March 1942 as a result of an action with the German submarine U-123. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: USS Asterion (AK-100) underway, date and place unknown. She was the USS Atik ‘s “sister ship” in the short-lived US “Q-ship” program. Fortunately, she did not suffer the same fate as the Atik. Hyperwar US Navy in WWII web site. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: American Freighter S.S. Evelyn, 1912, in port probably at the time she was inspected for possible U.S. Navy service on 9 January 1918. Though assigned the registry ID # 2228, Evelyn was not taken over by the Navy during World War I. In February 1942 she became USS Asterion (AK-100), which was employed as a "Q-ship" in 1942-1943. She also served on weather patrol duty from January-July 1944 as USCGC Asterion (WAK-123). U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

One of the strangest ships in US Naval History was the USS Atik (AK-101). The Atik started its life as the 6,610-ton, steel-hulled, single-screw steamer Carolyn. The Carolyn was laid down on 15 March 1912 at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, Newport News, Virginia, for the A.K. Bull Steamship Lines. She was launched on 3 July 1912 and completed later that same year. The ship was approximately 382 feet long and 46 feet wide and had a top speed of 9 knots.

For its first 30 years, the Carolyn carried freight and passengers from the West Indies to various ports on America’s eastern seaboard. During World War I, the Carolyn was given a 3-inch and a 5-inch gun to defend itself from German U-boats, along with a detachment of Naval Armed Guard to operate the guns. But the Carolyn did not encounter any German submarines during the war.

After the United States entered World War II, though, there was yet another concentration of German U-boats off the coast of America. In January 1942, the Germans unleashed Operation “Paukenschlag,” or “Drumbeat,” its U-boat offensive against the United States. The sea routes to England had to be kept open, but the US Navy was desperately short of ocean-going escorts for its merchant ships. President Franklin Roosevelt, therefore, decided to establish a “Q-ship” program for the US Navy to help combat the U-boat threat.

The “Q-ship” was one of those naval oddities that, when it worked, it worked very well. But when it failed, it usually spelled disaster for the crew of the Q-ship. The Q-ship was a standard merchant ship that was armed with guns. But these guns were hidden under fake bulkheads and crates, giving the illusion that the ship was just a normal merchant ship. The Q-ship would act as a decoy and try to lure a U-boat to the surface and steam as close to the German submarine as possible. The Q-ship would then uncover its guns and fire on the unsuspecting U-boat, hopefully sinking it. This whole theory also depended on the assumption that the submarine would actually come to the surface and not just sink the Q-ship with a torpedo while it was submerged. The Royal Navy created the program during World War I and it met with some success, although the cost of these operations was very high. Many Q-ships were severely damaged or sunk and only a few German submarines were damaged or destroyed. But President Roosevelt thought that the concept still had some potential and so encouraged the US Navy to develop its own Q-ships.

The Carolyn was acquired by the US Navy on 12 February 1942 and was sent to Portsmouth, New Hampshire for conversion into a Q-ship. The Navy also acquired another old steamer, the Evelyn, for this same purpose. Both ships were given “AK” or cargo ship designations and the Carolyn was renamed the USS Atik (AK-101) and the Evelyn became the USS Asterion (AK-100). On the outside, the two steamers looked like ordinary merchant ships, but they had, in reality, been armed with several guns that were hidden from view. The Atik was armed with four 4-inch guns, four .50-caliber machine guns, four .30-caliber Lewis machine guns, and six depth charge projectors. The Atik also was given a crew of 141 officers and men. The Atik was commissioned on 5 March 1942, Lt. Commander Harry Lynnwood Hicks in command. The Asterion, which received a similar armament, was commissioned on 23 March 1942. Both ships left Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and went their separate ways.

From the start, the US Navy didn’t think either ship would last more than a month after starting their assignments. Atik’s holds were packed with pulpwood, in hopes that after she was torpedoed it would help keep her afloat. The Atik began steaming along the East Coast, hoping to lure a U-boat into attacking it. Because the situation was so desperate, the US Navy basically told the captains of each Q-ship that there was no help to send them if they were actually attacked by a U-boat. Every available escort was already committed to convoy duties, so the Q-ships were, basically, on their own.

Several days after the Atik left Portsmouth, she was spotted by the German submarine U-123. The U-boat happened to be steaming on the surface when she spotted the Atik at 2200 on 26 March 1942. The submarine shadowed the cargo ship for a while and then fired a torpedo at the Atik shortly after midnight on 27 March. The torpedo hit the Atik on her port side, underneath the bridge. The explosion caused a fire to break out and the ship started to list. The Atik sent out a distress signal that was picked up at radio stations at Manasquan, New Jersey, and at Fire Island, New York. The Atik stated that she was approximately 300 miles east by south from Norfolk, Virginia, and that there was a “Torpedo attack; burning forward; require assistance.”

The U-123 moved around the stricken freighter’s stern and noted that a lifeboat was being lowered from the starboard side of the ship. But the Atik had not given up the fight. When U-123 turned to starboard, the Atik began firing her guns at the German submarine. The Atik’s cannon shots fell short of the submarine, but her .50-caliber machine guns scored a number of hits on the U-boat, killing a young midshipman who was standing on the bridge. The U-boat gradually moved away from the Atik and submerged. At 0229, the U-123 fired another torpedo at the Atik and scored a hit. But the tough merchant ship stubbornly clung to life. Even though she had settled by the bow and her single screw was out of the water, the Atik still would not go down. The U-123 surfaced at 0327 to see why the Atik was still afloat and at 0350 a huge explosion ripped through the merchant ship. What was left of the Atik went down, taking the bulk of her crew with her.

Shortly after this battle, a strong storm blanketed the area, preventing ships and planes from searching for survivors. No survivors from the Atik were ever found. The U-123 left the area after burying its only casualty at sea. It was not until after the war that translated German documents from the U-123 showed what had actually happened to the Atik.

In one of those many ironies in military history, the Atik’s sister ship, Asterion, was steaming in the same area when she heard the Atik’s distress call. The Asterion’s captain, Lt. Commander Glen W. Legwen, Jr., tried to come to the Atik’s assistance, but with a top speed of only 10 knots there was no way the Asterion could get there in time. By the time the Asterion got to the Atik’s last reported position, the battle was long over. The Asterion searched the area for 24 hours before a mechanical problem with her steering gear forced her to return to Hampton Roads for repairs.

The Asterion continued working as a Q-ship for a few more months but never encountered a German U-boat. On 14 October 1943, the entire program was officially canceled. The Asterion was assigned to the US Coast Guard and converted into a weather ship. The US Navy, along with President Roosevelt, decided to cut their losses and terminate this program, placing a greater emphasis on constructing more ocean-going escorts, such as destroyers, destroyer escorts, and corvettes. Unfortunately, this decision did not come in time to save the Atik or her crew.