Tuesday, March 4, 2014

USS El Occidente (No. 3307)

Figure 1:  S.S. El Occidente photographed prior to her World War I-era naval service. This steamship served as USS El Occidente (No. 3307) from 1918 to 1919. US Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2:   US Navy cargo ship photographed circa early 1919. Location may be the Gironde River, France, off the American Bassens port facility. This ship is either USS El Oriente (No. 4504), USS El Occidente (No. 3307), or USS El Sol (No. 4505). What may be a name board on her bridge face indicates, from its length, that El Occidente is the most likely identification. Note that the ship still carries her bow gun, and is still in freighter configuration. El Oriente and El Sol were converted to transports in the spring of 1919, while El Occidente was decommissioned in March of that year. Donation of Dr. Mark Kulikowski, 2008. US Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

The 6,008-ton cargo and passenger steamship SS El Occidente (which means “The Western Region” in Spanish) was built in 1910 by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company at Newport News, Virginia. The Morgan Line took possession of the ship on 2 December 1910 and she was the newest in a set of four sister ships, the other three being El Sol, El Mundo, and El Oriente. El Occidente was approximately 430 feet long and 53 feet wide, had a top speed of 16 knots, and could carry more than 4,000 tons of cargo.

The Morgan Line, which was a subsidiary of the Southern Pacific Railroad, used El Occidente to carry cargo and a small number of passengers between New York City and New Orleans, Louisiana. In April 1913, The New York Times reported that El Occidente, loaded only with cargo, rammed a schooner in fog off the coast of New Jersey. El Occidente was not seriously damaged in the incident, but the name and fate of the schooner were never reported.

El Occidente continued on the New York to New Orleans route until the United States entered World War I in April 1917. At the time, the US Army needed ships to transport men and cargo to France, so a select committee of shipping executives examined a large number of American cargo ships to see if they could be used by the Army. The committee determined that El Occidente and 13 other American-flagged cargo ships had the speed and the fuel and cargo capacity that made them ideal for immediate convoy duty between the United States and Europe. After El Occidente completed her last voyage between New York and New Orleans, she was acquired by the US Army on 30 May 1917.

But before these ships could begin transporting men and cargo to Europe, they had to be refitted and armed for military use. Of the 14 ships, four (including El Occidente) were designated to carry animals and cargo, with the other ten designated to carry troops and cargo. The four ships that were designated to carry animals had to have ramps and stalls built in them (giving them the capacity to carry up to 800 horses or mules), and all of the ships had to have gun platforms and guns installed. El Occidente was armed with four 4-inch guns and carried a crew of merchant officers and men, but also carried two US Navy officers, Navy gun crews, quartermasters, signalmen, and wireless operators. The senior Navy officer on board would take command of the ship if it came under enemy attack. The combination of Merchant Marine and US Navy personnel added up to a crew of 112 officers and men.

El Occidente made her first voyage to France on 17 June 1917, carrying the first units of the American Expeditionary Force to Europe. Several days later, her convoy arrived at Saint-Nazaire, France. From June 1917 to August 1918, El Occidente made several round trips to France. During one of these trips on 2 February 1918, El Occidente spotted two German submarines. In a 20-minute running gun battle, Naval Armed Guardsmen on board El Occidente exchanged fire with the two German U-boats, one on the port  and one on the starboard side of the cargo ship. El Occidente’s gunners seriously damaged one of the submarines and eventually forced both U-boats to retreat. It was one of the few instances during the war where an armed cargo ship successfully beat back a submarine attack, especially one that was made by two U-boats at once.

On 27 August 1918, El Occidente was transferred to the US Navy and placed in commission on the same day. She officially became USS El Occidente (No. 3307) and was loaded with 585 horses and mules and sailed from the United States to France on 17 September. Five animals died during the voyage, but the rest of the cargo arrived safely at Saint-Nazaire several days later. Trucks were still in their infancy during World War I, being fragile and lacking in mechanical reliability. Most artillery and supplies were still being transported by horse-drawn wagons, so horses and mules were important to the US Army, making El Occidente’s cargo very valuable. El Occidente returned to the United States on 1 November, shortly before the war ended ten days later. The cargo ship made two more trips to France for the US Navy before being decommissioned at New York City on 18 March 1919 and transferred to the US Shipping Board for disposal.

El Occidente was returned to the Morgan Line in March 1919 and, after having her animal stalls, ramps, and guns removed, was overhauled and converted back into a civilian cargo ship. She served in this capacity until June 1941, when the United States Maritime Commission announced that it had acquired the entire Morgan Line fleet of ten ships, including El Occidente. The ten ships were purchased for $4.7 million, with an additional $2.6 million being given for repairs and refits. The principal mission of the ten ships was to bring supplies to countries fighting Germany during World War II, even though the United States was still technically neutral.

El Occidente was officially transferred to the US Maritime Commission on 7 July 1941 and assigned to the United States Lines. Ironically, the ship was placed under Panamanian registry by the United States Lines. Since the ship no longer carried animals, weapons, or US Navy personnel, the crew size was reduced to 41 Merchant Marine officers and men. Little is known of El Occidente’s movements over the next several months, but on 30 January 1942, shortly after America had entered the war on 7 December 1941, El Occidente left Boston, Massachusetts, for Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, with general cargo. Arriving at Halifax on 1 February, the ship joined Convoy HX-174 and headed for Liverpool, England, on 7 February. The convoy reached its destination on 21 February 1942.

Two days later, El Occidente sailed for Reykjavik, Iceland, where she arrived on 1 March 1942. The ship arrived just in time to join Convoy PQ-12 to Murmansk, Russia. After the convoy arrived at Murmansk on 12 March, El Occidente unloaded her cargo and took on a partial ballast load of chromium ore. She left with Convoy QP-10 bound for Iceland on 10 April.

On 13 April 1942, the German submarine U-435 spotted El Occidente and fired two torpedoes at her. Both torpedoes hit the cargo ship in the engine room, nearly breaking the vessel in half. The 32-year-old El Occidente, proud veteran of two World Wars, went down stern first in the frigid North Atlantic waters and sank within two minutes, not enough time to launch any lifeboats. After 30 minutes, one of the British destroyers escorting the convoy rescued 21 of the ship’s 41-man crew. The remaining 20 crewmen went down with the ship.