Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Naming the Liberty Ships - Part Eight

Note: This is part of a series of posts on odd bits of history as memorialized in the names of World War II Liberty Ships.  I am organizing them, after a fashion, around proposed artwork for imaginary "ships' insignia"  For a more complete explanation and background: Part One.


For the S.S. Stephen Hopkins II there is only one possible inspiration for a ship's insignia:

The Hopkins II was of course named for its predecessor the S.S. Stephen Hopkins.  And it, as one of the earliest Liberties, got one of the primo names, that of a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  The first batches of Liberty Ships took longer to make, so the lag time from laying of keel on 2 January, 1942 to commissioning on 14 April was not surprising.

As it turned out the Hopkins never returned from her maiden voyage.

On September 27th she was homeward bound from Capetown to Surinam when out of the fog came a suspicious ship.  The weather conditions were such that they were only two miles apart, leaving little time for deliberation.

The Hopkins had in fact encountered the Stier.  This was the last of the ten "Hilfkruezer" ships that Germany had sent out as commerce raiders concealed as tramp steamers.  It was a very effective effort especially in the early war years when merchant ships were armed ineffectually or not at all.

The captain of the Hopkins alertly called his crew to battle stations, and when a demand to surrender was sent and ignored the fight was on.

It should have been a short, one sided affair.  The Stier had six 5.9 inch guns, each able to fire a 100 pound shell.  Three of these plus secondary weapons could be brought to bear as a broadside.  The Hopkins had a single 4 inch gun on its stern, firing a relatively puny 33 pound shell.  But Captain Paul Buck had turned the Hopkins away from the Stier giving his gun crew the best possible shot.  And as at this time the range was only 1000 yards, neither ship's gun crews had any excuse for missing.

It was over quickly.  The Hopkins drifted away on fire, 42 of her crew dead, three dying.  The 15 survivors brought their life boat ashore in Brazil 31 days later.  But captain Buck and his ship had their revenge.  The Stier was after all just a converted merchantman herself, lacking in armor and advanced damage control systems.  The Hopkins' gun crew kept firing and mostly died at their stations.  They scored 35 hits on the Stier, the last five at the hands of an Engine Room Cadet named O'Hara who came up from the heavily damaged lower decks and finding the gun unmanned was able to operate it entirely on the basis of what he had seen watching the Armed Guard contingent at their drills.

It was enough.  The Stier had lost steering and power and her captain scuttled her, transferring his men to a supply ship that he had in the area.

So ended what was essentially the only surface engagement between German and American ships in either World War*.

It was a gallant fight and one that was at the time quite celebrated.

In commemoration there were Liberty Ships named S.S. Stephen Hopkins II, S.S. Edwin Joseph O'Hara**, S.S. Paul Buck, and in honor of the chief mate, the S.S. Richard Moczkowski.  The commander of the Armed Guard contingent aboard the Hopkins was a newly minted Lt (jg).  His actions were honored in the christening of a destroyer escort, U.S.S. Kenneth M. Willet.
*There were a few brief skirmishes between US ships and German E-boats in the English channel, most notoriously the bungled Operation Tiger.

** The S.S. Edwin Joseph O'Hara is listed in some sources as having been torpedoed and sunk in 1943. This appears to be in error, the ship involved being the Liberty ship Sambridges .  A series of Liberties built for the British all started with SAM in their names.  If there was a re-flagging of this ship I find no mention of it.

No comments: