U-Boats New England: Atlantic States
Atlantic States, US-flagged tanker. Source: The Mariner’s Museum, Newport News VA, http://www.uboat.net/allies/merchants/ships/3484.html
The steam turbine-propelled tanker Atlantic States was built by the Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Company of Chester, Pennsylvania in 1943. She was ordered in January 1941 and owned by the Atlantic Refining Company of Philadelphia, which homeported her to nearby Wilmington, Delaware. She was 8,537 gross registered tons and could carry 19,200 deadweight tons of cargo.
At 6:48 pm on the evening of the 5th of April 1945, in the waning days of World War II, the Atlantic States departed Boston under the command of Edgar Leroy Lindenmuth of Upper Darby, near Philadelphia, aged 36. Lindenmuth had been in the US navy as well as the naval reserves. The husband of Arline, he was also the father of John Leroy and Far Mehle Lindenmuth. The master had command over a crew of 45 merchant mariners who hailed from across the United States, from St. John, North Dakota to Stifler Oklahoma and Hooks, Texas to Netcong New Jersey. Louis and W. M. Montgomery both hailed from Captain Lindenmuth’s home town, suggesting a connection to him and to each other. Twelve of the 57 men on board the ship were UN Navy gunners.
The tanker had discharged a crude oil cargo in Boston and was proceeding southwards with orders to round Cape Cod, rather than utilize the Cape Cod Canal, with water to ballast it down. The draft forward was 23 feet and aft 20 feet. Her destination was the oil terminal at Las Piedras, Venezuela. Not long into the voyage a torpedo from the nearby submarine U-879 under the command of Erwin Manchen, which was positioned to landward of the ship, found its mark in the starboard quarter of the ship, penetrating the engine room, tearing off the propeller and the rudder, and disabling it. The attack took place at 8:32 pm roughly eight miles from Cape Cod, bearing 57 degrees true from the lighthouse at Highland Light.
At the time of the attack there were four lookouts on duty plus the Chief Officer and quartermaster, or helmsman in the bridge. He course was 114 degrees true and Atlantic States was making an impressive speed of 14.4 knots to the southeast. She had anti-torpedo equipment known as degaussing on, as well as a torpedo detector which did not sound until after the attack, and then until power was lost. The radio was not in use, and the F, M and Q coils of the degaussing equipment were in use at various amps.
The lookouts were in pairs on the poop deck (naval armed guard) and on the bridge wings (merchant mariners). Although the weather was clear, the winds were high – 30 to 40 knots – the sea was riddled with whitecaps and choppy, it was dusk and there were no other vessels in sight. Neither the torpedo nor the submarine’s periscope were sighted. The torpedo strike neither injured nor killed any of the ship’s crew, though it embedded itself in the engine room. It left behind a strong scent of cordite, or explosive powder from the firing mechanism, with engine room staff witnessing powdered smoke.
Immediately the Atlantic States began settling by the stern. With a hole ten feet in diameter blown in her side she was soon down an extra ten feet by the stern, at over 30 feet of draft there. Since there was nothing for them to fire at, the gunners did not offer counter-offense. Captain Lindenmuth ensured that the confidential codes were thrown overboard in weighted boxes and bags. Immediately men set about opening valves to level off the trim of the ship, putting more water in the bow in the hopes of salvaging the tanker by redistributing weight.
At 10:40 pm, roughly ten minutes after the attack, the master gave the order to abandon ship, which was undertaken by 52 of the men, with five of them electing to remain: Captain Lindenmuth, the chief, or first officer who had been on the bridge, the first radio operator, the chief armed guard officer, and an able-bodied seaman. The 52 other men disembarked without injury into the heavy seas in three lifeboats: six in the # 2, 11 in the # 3, 35 in the #4 boats.
In retrospect the Navy recorded that “Master stated that he had ordered abandon ship because he feared further attack, and since all propulsive machinery was out, there was no need for the majority of the crew to remain on board.” Because of the fierce weather and nighttime, these boats were not able to return to the mothership even though the Atlantic States did not actually succumb to its damage and sink.
As could be expected from a U-boat attack so close to a major East-coast port in the waning days of the European war, the response to the Atlantic States attack was swift and significant. At least USS Pert, USS Action, USS Schenck, USS Mayrant, USS Cates, USS Satterlee, USS Lorain, USS Knoxville the frigates USS El Paso and USS Brunswick, as well as numerous planes were dispatched over the area to cover 50 miles around the casualty looking for a sign of the sub, which given the conditions was not possible. Other vessels which contributed were the tugs USS ATR 14, USS ATR 89, supported by the USS Wandank (ATO 26). Also involved were the USS SC (submarine chaser) 1280 and the US Coast Guard Nemesis. Overall there were at least 16 vessels involved in the retrieval of survivors and the Atlantic States itself.
Winds also made the addition of blimps impossible. A salvage tug was dispatched with an ETA of 1 am on the 6th of April. Meanwhile USS Maryant and at least six other vessels, some of them frigates and ill-suited for the job in such conditions, formed a protective screen around the tanker to prevent or at least discourage further attacks.
The frigates USS El Paso and USS Brunswick as well as the US Lorain, USS Brunswick, and USS Knoxville were dispatched from Casco, Maine, and other vessels from Boston and the USS Action and USS Pert from Nantucket. Senior among them was the destroyer escort USS Richard S. Bull (DE 402) There was confusion over whether the damage to the Atlantic States had been caused by a torpedo of a mine, which obviously would have impacted what kind of military response would have been appropriate.
The US Navy ship with overall command of the operation was the small harbor patrol vessel USS Guinevere, IX 67, ably commanded by Lieutenant Edward L. Bergin of the US Naval Reserve. The ship was actually an auxiliary schooner built by George Lawley and Sons in Neponset Massachusetts in 1921 and owned by the Edgar Palmer family, who donated her to the US Navy on 24 March 1942. She was commissioned on 16 June that year in Brooklyn and decommissioned on 2 August 1945.
A rare image of the USS Guinevere in her naval colors. You can tell from her maneuverability and low freeboard that it would have been a good ship to retrieve lifeboat survivors from.
Source: Navsource.org, http://www.navsource.org/archives/09/46/46067.htm
The action report filed by Bergin shows that he first learned of the casualty at 11:30 PM on the 5th of April, and headed for the given location, which was off by a dozen or so miles. However they were able to follow the activity of aircraft and the tanker itself which was letting off flares that were sighted by Bergin and his men at 50 minutes after midnight on the 6th. By that point the winds had risen to 40-45 knots, visibility was ten miles, the seas were rough, and the temperature was 33 degrees Farenheit.
At 1:21 am they sighted the ship’s lifeboats and Bergin maneuvered the 195-foot, 503-ton, 32.6-foot-wide and 15-foot-deep Guinevere alongside lifeboat #4 at 1:25 am and managed to collect al 35 men without injury or death, quite a feat of seamanship. Then they cut the lifeboat loose. Seven minutes later the naval ship was alongside #3 lifeboat and retrieved 11 survivors in less than four minutes. By 2:05 Guinevere was alongside boat #2 and took on six additional survivors, without losing any of the 52 men entrusted to the boats by Captain Lindemuth, though there were admittedly some “minor injuries only.”
Ten minutes later, at 2:20 am Bergin and the Guinevere were placed in charge of the overall rescue and guard operations around the Atlantic States. At 2:43 they sighted the tanker “down by the stern listing to starboard, with 3 feet of free board showing.” By then she was 17.5 miles from Cape Cod. Two minutes later Bergin ordered all small craft in the vicinity to “form a protective screen around torpedoed ship.” Six minutes later, at 2:51 am “ComCortDiv 35 arrived at scene of action and relieved USS Guinevere as Officer-in-Charge at scene.”
At 4:40 am Guinivere was wisely ordered to peel off from the scene and return the survivors to the warmth of shore. Escorted by the Submarine Chaser SC 1280 she did so, leaving at 4:47 and arriving at 1:07 pm that day, no doubt exhausted and cold. By 6:02 am on the 6th Lt. Bergin was able to inform his superiors at the command center of the Eastern Sea Frontier that their ETA in Boston with the survivors was 12:30 am and that one of the salvage tugs had a line onto the stricken tanker. He added “no one injured and ship appears in fair condition.” The Guinevere docked at US Naval Frontier Base’s Pier #1 in East Boston and disembarked the tanker’s survivors ashore just after 1 pm.
At 4:01 pm on the 6th of April the USS Mayrant was towing the Atlantic States at 3 knots. It was advised that this set-up be maintained as “tugs do not have power to hand job in this strong wind,” adding, “boarding party reports tanker Atlantic States had large hole about 10 feet in diameter at and below waterline near stern. This undoubtedly must have been caused by a torpedo.”
At 5:16 pm the same day it was reported that six naval vessels or a mixture thereof were screening the tanker, and that four of them were deemed “small and rather ineffective under present wind and sea conditions.” It was suggested to release the USS Schenck and to add two destroyer escorts or destroyers to reinforce the screen. By 5:08 pm a tug had the tanker in tow and by roughly 6 pm on the following day, the 7th of April the Atlantic States was berthed back in Boston, where ultimately she was dry-docked, repaired, and returned to service.
On 22 May 1945 Lieutenant Bergin was recommended by his commanding officers for a Letter of Commendation with the authority to wear the Commendation Ribbon. The Guinivere was transferred to the US Maritime Commission on 25 April 1945 for disposal and her final fate is unknown.
U-879 was tracked down and sunk off Capt Hatteras roughly three weeks later, on 30 April 1945 by depth charges from the USS Natchez, USS Coffman, USS Bostwick, and USS Thomas. All 52 German sailors on board perished. Atlantic States traded under the ownership of Winco Tankers Inc. until February of 1961, 20 years after she was ordered, after which she was scrapped in Hong Kong. Born on the 21st of May, 1908, Captain Lindemmuth lived until the 7thof April, 1970.
As a footnote, the report on this casualty by the US Navy was signed by Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Barbara Conard: out of the more than 250 survivor statements this author had read from World War II, this is the first and so far the only report filed by a female officer.