Mobiloil during her launching ceremony, 1937.
The Mobiloil (spelled Mobile Oil in the original, contemporaneous survivor reports on file at the National Archives in Washington) was completed in January of 1937 by Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company of Chester, Pennsylvania. Here owners were the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company Incorporated of New York, to which port she was also flagged. Mobiloil was a steam tanker of 9,925 tons. She was proceeding in ballast from New York, which she left on 16th April 1942, to Caripito, Venezuela, via Norfolk Virginia, and maintaining a speed of 14 knots. Her crew consisted of eight officers, 33 crew, two workaways (who worked for room and board for the passage), and nine armed guards.
At 19:50 German time on the 28th of April U-108 under Klaus Scholtz sighted the tanker, but because of the high speed which Mobiloil was maintaining, it would take thirteen hours of hot pursuit for the sub to catch up to her and assume an attack position with even a moderate chance of success (wrecksite.eu). The ship and the sub were then in a position northeast of the Bahamas, between Bermuda and Puerto Rico at 25.35N and 66.10W, when the first torpedo was fired, at 04:12 on the 29th. It missed.
At 08:57 two more torpedoes were fired, and these made contact at the starboard bow, rupturing tanks one and two at the bow of the ship. Rather than abandon, however, Captain Ernest V. Farrow defiantly turned the stern of his ship towards the direction the torpedoes were fired from and with his crew of 51 other individuals steamed at full speed away. Her course had been 141 now it was more like 90 degrees East, or even North of East. Exasperated, Scholtz took his submarine to the surface and began selling the ship from 2,000 meters away. At that point the Naval Armed Guard on Mobiloil manned and operated their 4-inch stern gun and fired a dozen rounds towards the muzzle flashes of the sub.
Captain Farrow, in his report to the Navy, claimed “two hits scored on sub” though these could not be verified. Less than an hour into his barrage, Scholtz had to break off firing due to poor visibility (after all, the U-Boat could not approach too closely with fire being returned), and the boat’s 20-milimeter gun jammed. Not only that but the 37-mm Anti-Aircraft gun’s sighting mechanism proved defective (these delicate instruments were often – but not always – removed before submerging).
Captain Farrow managed to ballast his stern down to compensate for the loss of buoyancy in the flooded bow, and he swung further north in the direction of Bermuda. U-108 did not break off the attack, but rather followed it with two torpedoes a minute apart, the first striking at 11:12 AM. Only the second struck, but the damage was considerable, rendering inoperable the cargo pump room, the radio antennas a lifeboat, living quarters and the gyro compass (Uboat.net). The tanker however steamed on. The final salvo of the fifth and sixth valuable torpedoes of the attack struck between seven and eight tanks and stopped the engines, flooded the holds, and snapped the ship in the middle.
As evidenced by their aggressive resistance, Captain Farrow and his crew had not been idle on board. They managed to send an initial distress signal on the first attack, which was acknowledged. The confidential codes were then thrown overboard. A second SOS or SSS for submarine sighted was sent at 0445 local time. The master noted that his SSS “was acknowledged by shore station and several ships” (Survivor Reports, NARA2). Indeed the station at Amagansett New York acknowledged. The transcript of one message optimistically reads “Torpedo detectors indicate torpedo has been fired at ship – prompt maneuvering saved ship”, received at Washington and relayed to New York (Id.).
Even Diamond Head Honolulu was passing on messages from the Mobiloil. To shoreside observers it must have seemed that the outcome would mirror that of Cherry Valley, a tanker attacked in the same area which managed to make it to San Juan on its own steam despite a hull ruptured by torpedoes. The ambiguity of Mobiloil’s message lead to a message to New York reading “Request your evaluation Mobiloil torpedo attack reported.” (Id.).
The captain counted six torpedoes fired at his ship. When the demise of the tanker was apparent, the remaining lifeboats were ready and launched. At 11:00 ship’s time, with the ship stopped, all 52 crew boarded them, and while the submarine stayed off about two and a half miles, they set course for Cape Haitian, the northwest point of Hispaniola, to the southwest. Mobiloil was finally abandoned at 26.10N and 66.15W, in the shape of a “V”, with both extremities pointing skyward. Captain Farrow recorded that she sank at 11:05, or eight hours and thirty-seven minutes after the attack began.
On the first of May an aircraft sighted the survivors and informed them by a note literally dropped from the sky that a British destroyer was coming to their aid. Two aircraft circled the lifeboats at different times, lifting the morale of the men in them. Instead of a British destroyer, the US Navy Patrol Craft (USS PC-490) arrived on the 2nd of May, 84 hours after they abandoned, and carried all the men to San Juan.
Perhaps anticipating a brouhaha, Captain Farrow went on record to John A. Young, USNR Ensign, stating that “he had been furnished routing instructions by the Naval Authorities at New York and that upon reaching Norfolk he had been given additional routing instructions which were contradictory to those given him at Ne York and that he did not have enough fuel to follow the Norfolk routing instructions. He was on the New York routing when he was sunk.” Furthermore the Captain of the Armed Guard, F. T. Sims, observed wryly that the ships needed more star shells, since “once a submarine has a ship located, keeping the area dark is advantageous only to the submarine.”
Despite his valiant resistance and successfully saving all of his crew, Captain Farrow “was later convicted of violating convoy routing orders, because he had been ordered to await a convoy off Norfolk, but the vessels did not arrive at the appointed hour, so he proceeded alone” (Uboat.net) showing that even in the height of war time administrative bureaucracies were hard at work and effective in their punishment.
The question “any personnel fault” at the bottom of the US Coast Guard questionnaire is normally reserved for Captains to vent their issues with undisciplined crew or passengers, and is rarely used. If anything is written, it normally reads “no – crew behaved in an exemplary or orderly fashion”. In this space in the Mobiloil report written on 25 November, 1944 the following words are hand written: “Yes; Master was convicted of violating convoy routing orders.” (“Report on U.S. Merchant Tanker War Action Casualty,”, US Coast Guard, NARA1).