William Cullen Bryant
The American Liberty Ship William Cullen Bryant was damaged but salvaged between Havana and Key West, on the westernmost fringe of this area of study. All 54 men on boar managed to survive the torpedo attack by U-84 under command of Horst Uphoff. The ship’s cargo of 10,962 tons of sugar in hundred-pound bags from Hilo, Hawaii, and destined to Philadelphia was ultimately able to make it to New York, however not until the 17th of September 1942, two months after it was attacked and three months after it left Hawaii.
The William Cullen Bryant was named after a Massachusetts poet and lawyer (1794 to 1878) who is memorialized in a statue outside the New York Public Library in Bryant Park, just as the official US Navy historian of World War II, Samuel Eliot Morison is honored on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. The ship was built by the Oregon Shipbuilding Company in Portland Oregon in May 1942 and owned by James Griffiths and Sons Incorporated of Seattle, Washington. This voyage was the vessel’s very first and she is fortunate to have made it to port. The crew of 54 including twelve armed guards who manned a 3-inch, 4-inch gun and several machine guns), and two US Navy signalmen was led by Captain L. C. Perry.
The Bryant arrived in Hilo from the US west coast on the 10th of June, loaded and departed on the 20th. She arrived in Balboa Panama on the 9th of July and stayed on the Atlantic side until the 11th of July. In Colon the ship joined convoy TAW 4J which departed Panama on the 16th of July for Guantanamo Cuba, where they arrived on the 15th. The convoy left Cuba two days later, on the 17th of July 1942 and utilized the Old Bahama Channel to approach Key West, from where the ship would have been routed in other convoys up the east coast to Philadelphia, its final destination.
After threading the Saint Nicholas Channel south of the Bahamas’ Cay Sal Bank the ship was just approaching Key West at position 24.08N by 82.23W, forty miles south of Rebecca Shoals, when Uphoff sent two torpedoes streaking into the convoy at 2:07 am on the 21st of July. The William Cullen Bryant was the third ship in the fourth of seven columns. She was steaming 325 degrees, or northwest, at eight knots. The convoy was made up of 20 ships escorted by four escort vessels, amongst them HMS Churchill. The first torpedo was seen to race across the bow of the Bryant, and though Uphoff claimed it hit a tanker, it appears to have exploded on the end of its run. The second torpedo struck the ship on the starboard side, near the number one cargo hold forward.
The missile hit 19 feet below the waterline and blew open a hole between four and eight feet in diameter. Because the machinery had not been hit and the bulkheads between the holds held, the Bryant stayed afloat despite 30 feet of water forward and the forward deck being awash The main fear was that the bulkhead in front of the engine room would burst and flood the boilers, exploding them. With this in mind, reinforced by a damage report delivered to him by Chief Mate Allen Boyce, Captain Perry ordered abandon ship.
Thirty six minutes after the attack, at 3:45 am all the men abandoned in four life boats, of which the Captain’s was motorized. The motor boat shuttled between the three other boats as well as the Churchill. In daylight a US Navy PBY patrol bomber even landed in the water near the stricken ship. After consulting with Commander Fitzgerald of the Churchill, it was decided to save her. On that basis the men re-boarded the Bryant at 5:00 am, after roughly an hour and a quarter.
Tugs and salvage equipment were requested from Key West and promised by 2:00 pm. At 8:00 am the HMS Churchill left to follow the convoy. At 4:00 pm the US Navy PC 566 arrived on scene. An hour later the tug Thomas E. Moran arrived and the US Navy tug Willett at 8:30 pm, escorted by the US Coast Guard ship CG-145. Together they kept up pumping pressure until 1:00 am on the 22nd of July, which is when the Willet began to tow the Bryant to the Northwest Anchorage off Key West. They arrived at 11:00 on the 23rdJuly, ending the immediate salvage operation. The ship anchored.
Uphoff took no more offensive action before breaking of the attack, probably in light of the anti-submarine activity and his proximity to Key West, known to be an anti-submarine warfare base which had already sank one submarine in the war (U-157). Though there were 15 minor injuries, the crew stood by their posts and assisted the salvors preparing the ship to be towed to port.
A week later, on the 29th, the Bryant arrived in the large commercial port of Tampa on the northwest coast of Florida. From there it made it to Jacksonville on Florida’s northeast coast (passing over the area where it had earlier been damaged), on the 3rd of September. Joining coastal convoys the ship bypassed Philadelphia and arrived in New York on the 17th of September. There it discharged the undamaged cargo. The William Cullen Bryant underwent extensive repairs and returned to service on the 19th of March, 1944, roughly six months after it arrived in the northeast US.