Tuesday, December 16, 2008

SS Stephen Hopkins

Figure 1: The launch of the SS Stephen Hopkins in April 1942. Five months later she fought and sank the German raider Stier. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: A Liberty Ship steaming in the Atlantic during a winter storm. The weather in the Atlantic was almost as dangerous as the Germans. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: A Liberty ship on fire in the Pacific. These cargo ships were usually easy targets for enemy surface raiders and submarines. SS Stephen Hopkins changed all of that. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: The Navy cargo ship USS Carina, formerly SS David Davis. This ship is similar to Stephen Hopkins. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5: SS Jeremiah O’Brien, one of only two Liberty Ships still in existence. She is currently docked at San Francisco, California, as a floating museum. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 6: SS John W. Brown, the other Liberty Ship still in existence. She is currently docked at Baltimore, Maryland, as a floating museum. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 7: Rare photograph of the German raider Stier, the ship that sank Stephen Hopkins. Her guns were hidden by fake panels and bulkheads, giving the false impression that she was a harmless cargo ship. Once an Allied target was sighted, the fake panels and bulkheads were lowered and her guns would begin firing at her unsuspecting prey. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 8: The US Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea comes up to the starboard side of the US Naval fuel tanker Paul Buck at the McMurdo Station ice pier. The research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer cruises along the sea ice channel in the distance. Paul Buck was named after Captain Paul Buck, the commanding officer of Stephen Hopkins. Photograph courtesy Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation. Click on photograph for larger image.

Named after a politician from Rhode Island who signed the Declaration of Independence and went on to serve as governor of that state, SS Stephen Hopkins was a 7,181-ton American Liberty Ship built at Henry J. Kaiser’s shipyard at Richmond, California, and was one of the first 20 of an eventual 2,750 Liberty Ships that were mass-produced by the United States during World War II. She was delivered to the US Maritime Administration on 11 May 1942 and was approximately 441 feet long and 57 feet wide and had a top speed of 11 knots. Although a cargo ship, Stephen Hopkins did have some defensive armament, consisting of one antiquated stern-mounted 4-inch gun, two 37-mm guns forward, and six machine guns. The ship had a Merchant Marine crew of 42 men, as well as a US Naval Armed Guard detachment of 15 men. The Naval Armed Guard was given the task of manning all of the guns on board the ship.

Stephen Hopkins was managed by the Luckenbach Steamship Company and her maiden voyage took her to New Zealand, followed by stops in Australia and Cape Town, South Africa. While steaming from Cape Town to Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana (now the country of Suriname), Stephen Hopkins encountered a rain squall in the south Atlantic just east of Brazil. It was the morning of 27 September 1942 and the captain of the ship, Paul Buck, was hoping to avoid any German submarines or merchant raiders that were prowling around the area. Suddenly, out of the morning gloom two ships appeared directly in front of the Liberty Ship. They were the German merchant raider Stier (which means bull in German) and her supply ship, the blockade runner Tannenfels. Stier had originally been built as the 4,418-ton cargo ship Cairo and was approximately 408 feet long and 56 feet wide. In April 1941, she was converted by the German Navy into a merchant raider and armed with six 5.9-inch guns, two 37-mm guns, four 20-mm guns, and two 21-inch torpedo tubes. Stier was under the command of Kapitanleutnant Horst Gerlach and was camouflaged to look like an ordinary cargo ship, with its guns hidden behind fake panels and bulkheads. Once an unsuspecting Allied cargo ship was located, Stier would uncover its guns and start firing at the defenseless merchant ship. Stier had destroyed several Allied cargo ships in this manner so, when she stumbled upon Stephen Hopkins, Kapitanleutnant Gerlach thought it would just be another easy “kill.”

The three ships did not see each other due to the poor weather, but when they suddenly sighted each other after coming out of that rain squall they saw that they were only about two miles apart. Stier began shooting at Stephen Hopkins almost immediately, hurling 5.9-inch shells at the American Liberty Ship. With a top speed of only 11 knots, Captain Buck knew that he didn’t stand a chance of outrunning Stier. But Captain Buck had stated previously to his crew that if they ever encountered a German surface raider they would stand and fight with what they had rather than surrender. So Buck turned his ship to face the German raider and ordered his only 4-inch gun to commence firing. By now some of the German shells were beginning to hit Stephen Hopkins. One of the shell fragments hit Ensign Kenneth M. Willett, US Naval Reserve, commander of the US Naval Armed Guard gun crew in charge of the ship’s 4-inch gun. The youngest member of the ship’s crew, Cadet Midshipman Edwin J. O’Hara from the US Merchant Marine Academy at King’s Point, New York, took over command of the gun and started firing at the German warship.

Remarkably, the first shot out of the gun hit Stier squarely and jammed her rudder. The second shot from Stephen Hopkins cut a water feed pipe in Stier’s engine room, leaving the German raider unable to move or bring her torpedo tubes to bear. But by now Stier’s guns were pounding the Liberty Ship, starting fires and killing many crewmembers. Yet the American gun crew kept up a steady stream of fire, hitting Stier repeatedly. Even Hopkins’ 37-mm guns got into the act, hitting the German raider as well. Stier was hit again and again, with some of the hits even scoring below the waterline. One 4-inch shell hit Stier’s fuel bunker and set it on fire and another shell hit the bridge as well as the diesel generator. All in all, Stier was hit by 15 4-inch shells from Stephen Hopkins, an amazing accomplishment.

But Stier was scoring numerous hits too and soon Stephen Hopkins was turning into a flaming wreck. The Liberty Ship’s gun crew was being cut to pieces by flying shrapnel and, at one point, the severely wounded Ensign Willett was the only one manning and firing the gun. He was killed by an exploding shell and soon after that Captain Buck, seeing his ship ablaze and his only gun now silenced, reluctantly gave the order to abandon ship. As what was left of the crew started to go over the side of the burning ship, they heard their 4-inch gun begin firing again. Evidently, Cadet O’Hara had gone back to the gun after Willett was killed and began loading and firing the gun all by himself. He fired the gun’s last five shells at the Germans, scoring hits on both Stier and Tannenfels. When he was out of ammunition, O’Hara went over the side to join the other men already in the water.

Stephen Hopkins was now engulfed in flames and started to sink rapidly. German shells continued pounding the hulk as she started to go down. Captain Buck was last seen on the bridge, throwing the ship’s secret code book over the side. He never made it off the ship. The crew managed to launch only one lifeboat which eventually picked up 23 men. Ensign Willett and Cadet O’Hara were not among the survivors. Stephen Hopkins sank at approximately 10:00 AM.

But Stier was in desperate shape as well. She was so badly damaged that she had absolutely no hope of making it back to friendly port, let alone Germany. Two hours after the battle, Kapitanleutnant Gerlach reluctantly gave the order to scuttle the ship. After the severely damaged raider was scuttled and sank, Gerlach and the Stier’s surviving crewmembers were picked up by Tannenfels and brought back to Bordeaux, France. Gerlach was convinced that he had run into a heavily armed warship, probably an auxiliary cruiser. He refused to believe that a lightly-armed Liberty Ship had destroyed Stier. Even after the true identity of his adversary became known to him, Gerlach refused to believe that Stephen Hopkins had not been secretly fitted with more heavy armament than was officially reported.

As for the 23 survivors from Stephen Hopkins, their ordeal was only beginning. Shortly after the ship went down, two of the men died. The rest of the men had to survive on a small ration of pemmican (a concentrated mixture of fat and protein used as a nutritious emergency foodstuff) and malted milk tablets. They rigged a small sail and headed for what they thought was land, hoping that, in the meantime, a ship would find them along the way. But no help came and eventually, over the next few weeks, six more men died on board the small lifeboat. Finally, on 27 October 1942, 30 days after the loss of Stephen Hopkins, they reached a small fishing village on the coast of Brazil. They travelled an amazing 1,800 miles of open ocean, but only 15 men remained out of the original crew of 57.

This was the only time in World War II that a cargo ship sank a heavily armed surface raider. The men of Stephen Hopkins displayed a remarkable amount of courage under fire and they simply did not quit even though the odds of succeeding were nil. In addition, after the battle, what was left of the crew made an awe-inspiring journey in an open boat across the south Atlantic that few thought was possible. For their heroism, Ensign Kenneth M. Willett was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, while Captain Paul Buck and Cadet Midshipman Edwin J. O’Hara were posthumously awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal. Eventually a destroyer escort was named after Willett and cargo ships were named after Buck and O’Hara. The crew of Stephen Hopkins were determined to go down fighting and, in this case, that gritty determination proved deadly for the merchant raider Stier.