U-Boats New England: Black Point
SS Black Point as the Fairmont, from the US Navy Historical Center Photograph #NH70454.
The coal carrying steam ship Black Point was built at the New York Ship Building Corporation of Camden NJ in 1918 as the Fairmont for Coastwise Transportation Incorporated of Boston. The US Navy acquired her for their Overseas Transportation Service and named her USS Fairmont (ID 2429). She was returned to Coastwise in 1919, then two years later sold to the Hawaiian Steamship Company of New York and named the Nebraskan. That lasted until 1927 when she was sold to C. H. Sprague of Boston, her owners until her demise 18 years later.
Black Point was 5,401 gross tons (another source said 5,353) and could carry 8,000 tons of coal, for which she was designed. Black Point was owned by C. H. Sprague and Son, Inc., operated by the Sprague Steamship Company of Boston, which was her home port, and was on time charter to the WSA, or US War Shipping Administration.
In early May 1945, as the war in Europe was waning to its very last days and Hitler was trapped in a bunker in Berlin, the Black Point set off from Newport News, Virginia unescorted for a voyage to Weymouth, Massachusetts, which is south of Quincy and Boston. The ship was laden with an almost capacity cargo of 7,595 tons of coal. In command was Captain Charles E. Prior, who had responsibility for 45 other souls, of whom 41 were merchant mariners and five were Naval Armed Guard.
The evening of 5th May 1945 found the Black Point rounding Point Judith, Rhode Island by about five miles, and heading just south of east along the southern shore of Rhode Island. According to contemporary war diaries, the ship was just 8,000 yards and bearing 129 degrees True from Point Judith. She was steaming at eight knots, not zig zagging, and though there was a heavy ground swell from the east, the weather was described as fair, winds about 15 knots from the southeast and visibility about five miles. By other accounts the conditions were foggy and visibility less. There were two other freighters, a tanker tug and three barges visible to the lookouts on the bridge of the 27-year-old collier.
At 9:40 pm a torpedo fired by the audacious (if not outright suicidal) German U-boat commander Helmut Frömsdorf of U-853 found its mark in the side of the Black Point on the starboard flank. (Local reports state the attack began at 5:35 local time). The lookouts never saw the wake of the torpedo, although one of the several ships in the area – the pilot and engineer of the Yugoslavian freighter Karmen – claimed to have seen one. There was no time for avoiding maneuvers. The concussion was so severe that glass broke, smoke and soot shot from the engine exhaust stack, and survivors reported smelling cordite, or gunpowder. The engines were shut down right away.
Captain Prior related how it felt the ship had hit something, not the other way around. He said the stern after of the #5 hatch had simply disintegrated, and the main mast fell over aft. He felt that the navy gunner who was killed must have been trapped in the gunner’s shack way aft. “About seven men were below aft, and I don’t believe they had a chance of saving themselves.”
The chief engineer raced from the mess to the engine room and in a minute or so the water had risen there to five feet. The first assistant engineer was in the engine room and reported the “terrible explosion, followed by a terrific vibration, and at the same time the engine raced like hell.” The Chief Officer said they were half a mile from “Buoy Charlie” and reported seeing a “great deal of heavy blue smoke coming from #5 hatch.” He described how the “gunner’s shack and mount were completely gone.” Two firemen reported being blown against a bulkhead.
The last 40 feet of the ship, from the #5 cargo hold, was blown away from the rest of the vessel, and the blow was clearly mortal. A dozen men were killed, and these were likely situated on or near the stern. At roughly 9:55 the Black Point’s bow section capsized, with part of it remaining floating for an indeterminate time. Sometime after 10:05 pm this sank in roughly 100 feet of water. Some of the confidential signals went down with the ships, other were carried ashore by Captain Prior.
Captain Prior immediately ordered his ship abandoned, and the instructions were carried out in an orderly manner. Thirty-four survivors found themselves in the cold New England night in two lifeboats and a raft. Fortunately for them (an unfortunately for Frömsdorf) there were US naval facilities throughout nearby Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, and a crash boat, or high speed rescue craft, from Quonset Point promptly set out and retrieved 15 men from other rescue vessels, taking them to Newport.
When witnesses first reported the casualty they thought it was a tanker since the stern had been blown up, and it was difficult to identify. At 9:22 pm local time radio stations in Salem Massachusetts picked up a Mayday and nearby Fort Adams, where a naval listening center had been set up, detected explosions in the east and west Narragansett Bay sectors at 9:35 pm. According to local rescue diaries, at 6:40 pm (they must mean 9:40 pm), numerous 83-foot PT-style boats were requested from Newport, and five minutes later a radio station on Fishers’s Island at the entrance to Long Island Sound advised that the New London naval base was sending four destroyers as well as two mine clearing vessels, YMS 201 and YMS 444, which were 270 ton and 136 feet long.
A Yugoslavian freighter named the Karmen (2,541 gross tons) rescued 17 men from a life raft and put them aboard a US Coast Guard boat. Then the nearby Norwegian steam freighter Skandinavia plucked two men to safety and deposited them aboard the same local vessel. The US Coast Guard cutter USCG 83487 in nearby Point Judith then took these 19 survivors from rescue ships and took them back to the busy fishing port of Point Judith. Two of the men were injured.
Other USCG boats on the scene were 36354, 38344, 36383, 36400, and 38679 and a rescue vessel named the Hornbeam. A PBY aircraft also circled the area as well as a blimp and later on the USCG vessels 36466 and 83486. After witnessing the bow of the ship sink at 9:55 pm, they marked the location of the wreck with two Dan-type buoys.
Out of the 12 men who perished, 11 of them were merchant mariners and one was an armed guard, named Stephen Spetz, aged 29. Boatswain’s Mate Lonnie Whitson Lloyd, USNR, age 26 had already survived the loss of the Expositor. All of the perished mariners were American except for a Finn named Reino Emil Lindstrom, a fireman and wiper.
The Black Point goes down in history as the final American vessel and the last ship sunk in American waters by a German U-Boat in World War II. She was avenged the following day by a savage counter-attack by numerous destroyers who persistently tracked and ultimately pinned the submarine down, destroying it and blasting away until conclusory debris (German sailors and officers caps, an abandon ship kit, rations, sou’westers, mattress, a rubber boat, etc.) floated to the surface.
Among those USN vessels which drove home the attack, which proved fatal to all 55 submariners, were the destroyer escort USS Atherton and the patrol frigate USS Moberly. An entire chapter or more could be written about the counter-attack, which also involved two PBY aircraft, at least one blimp, patrol boats and destroyers USS Breckenridge, USS Blakely, as well as USS Semmes, USS Barney, USS Amick, USS Ericsson, USS Baldwin, USS Frankford, USS Newport, USS Booth, USS Restless, USS Action, USS Card (an aircraft carrier), and USS Nelson. The operation was named Operation Observant.