The 7,017-ton American steam tanker Oregon was built by the Moore Shipbuilding and Drydock Company of Oakland California in 1919. Commissioned for the US Government her first name was Quabbin, which is reservoir in central Massachusetts. She operated for the US until 1923 when she was sold to unknown owners and sailed as the Cape Cod for three years, until 1926. That year the California Petroleum Company purchased the ship and renamed her the Emma H. Coppage. In 1929 her final owners, the Texaco (The Texas Company) purchased the ship and renamed her Oregon (not to be confused with other ships of the same name which were also attacked by U-boats in World War II).
The Oregon’s dimensions were 133.7 meters long, 17.4 meters wide and 9.5 meters deep. Her triple-expansion steam engine produced 579 net horse power and propelled the ship at 11.5 knots. Her Master was Ingvald C. Nilsen and he commanded a total complement of 36 men. The ship’s homeport was Wilmington Delaware and most if not all of the crew were Americans.
On her final voyage the Oregon loaded 78,000 barrels of naval-grade 18-gravity fuel oil in Aruba, Dutch West Indies. Her destination was the US Navy base in Melville, Rhode Island, where a majority of PT-boats were commissioned and where torpedoes were manufactured in nearby Goat Island, off Newport (some survivors said the destination was New Jersey, but all the senior deck officers who would have known best were killed, and the ship’s course of almost due north [354 degrees true] was more towards Rhode Island than New Jersey – the naval grade of fuel mitigates in favor of the ship having a naval cargo receiver).
The Oregon completed loading on the 25th of February 1942 and sailed north, utilizing the Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic to gain access to the open North Atlantic. She cleared the Mona Passage at roughly noon on the 27th of February and assumed her course of 354 degrees true north. Her speed was 10 knots, the weather was clear, and the seas were calm. Meanwhile nearby the U-156 under Werner Hartenstein was thirsting for more action, having just sunk the Macgregor off the north coast of the Dominican Republic via shellfire and gunfire alone. She had dispatched five other ships in the Caribbean before running out of torpedoes and badly damaging her main deck gun, to the extent that it had been shorn to nearly half its length using a hacksaw and tested at sea, possibly on Mona Island some days before.
At 4:20 am on the 28th of February the watch had just changed and the galley staff under cook Louis Hillman were beginning to put breads and buns in the oven for breakfast. The sun would be up within two hours and the lookouts were just shaking off the early-morning grogginess and settling into their shift. Visibility was good and what light winds there were came from the north-northeast at only seven to ten knots. The ship was periodically zig-zagging as it headed north with a valuable military cargo, however there were neither air nor ocean-going escorts. Nor was the Oregon armed. There were two lookouts, one forward and one aft.
At 4:20 am Hartenstein and his men opened up a determined barrage of shell and machine-gun fire which did not let up for a full hour and twenty minutes, until 5:40 am. The ship was hit, in the words of the survivors “all over” and “many times”. There was no time for the Radio Operator, Francis J. Beaton, to send any SSSS or Mayday signals, though he died trying, as the sub targeted the radio shack as a matter of course – in fact the first shell destroyed Captain Nilsen’s cabin and the second smashed the radio shack. The senior officers in the bridge were gunned down where they served – Chief Mate William W. Watler, Second Mate William B. Wicke, an Ordinary Seama named Hurssell T. Copple, and Hillman the Cook as well as Captain Nilsen.
There were four lifeboats and four rafts on the Oregon, of which three lifeboats were damaged by shellfire. Still the remaining 30 men managed to launch two of the boats as well as one of the rafts. Some men were trying to launch a lifeboat from the port side when they said the submarine crew opened fire on them with machine guns, so they raced back to the starboard side and concentrated on releasing the number one boat there. Ultimately 26 men abandoned in one life boat and four men dove off the ship and huddled together on board one of the rafts.
By 4:50 all of the survivors had managed to get clear of the ship, whose speed had decreased to three knots. The ship was 110 miles north of the Mona Passage in position 20.44N by 67.52W. The attack was eerily similar to that on the Macgregor the night before, in that it occurred just as the watch was changing and also as the moon was setting.
U-156 approached from the starboard quarter and once the men had abandoned ship moved in very close to shell first the mid-ship sections, then “vital points” and finally the water line, circling the ship as it did so. It used, according to the witnesses, a four-inch gun forward, “a quick-firing semi-automatic small gun aft of the conning tower firing about 50 rounds per minute” and a light machine gun which was mounted on the conning tower. Because one of the sailors in the water claimed that the submarine was trying to run him over, he actually touched the U-boat, sliding his hands down its length as it passed. Based on his observations, the vessel was welded rather than riveted, and the propellers were encased in protective cages to prevent their catching wires, ropes and the like.
The submarine left at 6:15 – dawn – heading northeast on the surface at 17 to 19 knots. The sub left a heavy black exhaust trail from its diesels, as if defiantly flicking its tail. Hartenstein does not appear to have asked any of the survivors about their ship, since her name would have been visible and the fact that she was a northbound tanker would have been obvious to him. Though the attack was obviously on the surface, U-156 submerged after it deemed fatal damage was done to the ship, and remained in the area viewing the scene from periscope depth – perhaps as assurance against Allied counter-attack from the air (which never materialized).
The survivors remained in the area for four hours, until the Oregon caught fire and sank at roughly 8:15 am, by which time it was daylight. Soon fires raged on the bridge, on the stern, and in one of the fuel or bunker tanks, but not in the actual cargo tanks. Then one of the boilers exploded. Still the ship didn’t sink. At 8:15 am she settled stern first and sank (another report has her sinking five hours later, at 1:00 pm).
The 26 men in the lifeboat managed to reach land after 104 hours, beaching their boat near Puerto Plata, on the north coast of the Dominican Republic at roughly 8:00 am on the 4thof March. The following day the four men in the raft, which had been separated from the life boat, were found and rescued by the US freighter Gulfpenn.
The Gulfpenn landed the four men in Philadelphia on the 10th of March. Until word reached the US Navy establishment about the survivors in the Caribbean, they were thought to have been the only members of Oregon’s crew to have lived. The Gulfpenn was subsequently sunk by U-506 under Erich Würdemannin the US Gulf less than two months later, on 13 May 1942 – her remains were recently discovered while surveying for an oil pipeline.
Of the 26 men landed at Puerto Plata, ten of them were taken to Baracoa, Cuba – probably these were the survivors most affected by dehydration and heatstroke or injuries from the attack, or possibly they were seen as the most useful to be interviewed. In either event, 16 of the men were left in Puerto Plata. The ten taken to Baracoa were sent to Charleston, South Carolina aboard the steam ship Guardian. The incident was investigated by the US Legation in Cuidad Trujillo (present day Santo Domingo) and “not reported in the press.”