SS Cities Services Empire sunk by U-128 Ulrich Heyse 22 Feb. 1942


Cities Service Empire as Ampetco, her former name – the American Petroleum Co., Rotterdam.

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           Ulrich Heyse in U-128 did not let up after his attack on the Pan Massachusetts, and it was only less than three days later that he made his next attack, this time on the Cities Service Empire, with two torpedoes fired from a great distance from seaward. The “Empire” was launched in 1918 by the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation of Sparrow’s Point, Maryland for the U.S. Shipping Board and launched on 18 May as the Ampetco for the American Petroleum Company of Rotterdam, Netherlands. In 1919 it was sold to the Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey and in 1923 sold back to the American Petroleum Co.

            In 1928 she was purchased by the Cities Service Oil Company of New York, flagged to that port, and given the rather British-sounding name of Cities Service Empire. She was 8,103 gross registered tons, 464.7 feet long, and 60.2 feet wide. On her final voyage she left Port Arthur, Texas laden with 9,400 barrels of crude oil destined for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Under the command of William Faucett Jerman, Jr. she had a total complement of fifty persons at the time, including a Naval Armed Guard of nine.

              The US Coast Guard were still investigating the wreck of the Republic, torpedoed hours earlier, when the Cities Service Empire was struck further offshore at 11:51 hours German time (04:51, Florida time) on Sunday the 22nd of February, 1942. The location is roughly 25 miles north of Bethel Shoals, Florida, near Cape Canaveral. The two torpedoes entered the starboard quarter of the tanker, in the after pump room, causing the ship to erupt in flames.

            The ship was armed with one five-inch gun and two .50-calibre machine guns as well as two .30-calibre guns which were manned by nine Naval Armed Guard, but because of the burning oil on the ship and in the sea, Captain Jerman ordered the men to abandon ship ten minutes after the attack ( Though all the lifeboats were destroyed, thirty four survivors were able to jump off the ship and get away from the burning oil in two of the ship’s life rafts.

          At 5:55 A.M. the US Coast Guard cutter Vigilant (WPC 154), under the command of Lieutenant L. R. Daniels sighted a flare and was the first to the scene. At 8:00 A.M. the Vigilant approached the burning wreck and found the full life rafts, the cutter bypassed it in favor of saving three men caught in the lines leading from the life boats. The Vigilant nosed directly onto an overturned lifeboat tangled alongside the Empire, and some of her crew actually boarded the dangling lifeboat and tried to untangle the men caught up in it, all the while battling approaching flames. Two of the men were wrestled aboard the Vigilant. As the coast guard crew went back for the third, it was 50 feet away from the last remaining survivor when a massive explosion ripped the Empire apart, sinking her. The Vigilant was doused in oil and forced to retreat – fortunately the oil was not alight at the time. (US Coast Guard report).

          Said John Walsh, wiper: “I saw our captain on a life raft. He and some of the other men were on it and the current was sucking them into the burning oil around the tanker. I last saw the captain going into a sheet of orange flame. Some of the fellows said he screamed. I didn’t hear him. . . . Monroe Reynolds was with me for a while. He was screaming that he was going blind. . . . Gus, the quartermaster, was with us. He had a piece of steel in his head and he said: ‘I won’t last long.’ He didn’t.”  (Time Magazine,,9171,885904,00) Altogether eleven of the 41 merchant crew and three of the nine Naval Armed Guard perished. The ship broke in two and sank.

              Meanwhile life boats had set out from the Fort Pierce Lifeboat Station and together with the Vigilant combed the area for survivors and bodies. The recovered seven corpses, including that of the man the Coasties had endeavored to save. The US Navy destroyer USS Biddle (DD 151) under Alfred G. Zimmerman arrived on the scene and picked up thirty four men from the rafts, who had been retrieved by the Vigilant taking them to Fort Pierce. Altogether fourteen men were killed and 36 rescued – two from the ship and 34 from rafts. The Biddle, built in 1918, was decommissioned in Boston in 1945 and scrapped the following year. In the interim she participated in the rescue of survivors from the Esso Boston, E.J. Sadler, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Cities Service Missouri, which was to come to the rescue of the W. D. Anderson mere hours after her sister ship Cities Service Empire was destroyed.

          The wreck of the Cities Service Empire lies in about 240 feet of water, and sits “bolt upright” according to divers ( The location of the wreck is given at 33 miles east of the coast (, however this would place it in the Gulf Stream and immensely deep water, so it can be discounted. The wreck has to lie much closer to shore and this author suspects the distance is closer to 3.3 miles from shore. The actual position is 28.25N and 80.02W.

           The vessel has not been dragged over as it is not a navigational hazard and is remarkably intact, with divers discovering “the remains of a large ‘float-free’ raft in the sand just off the stern,” as well as “the barrel of the deck gun pointing off the stern” and “a nice china dish, a telegraph stand pinned under some wreckage …and the brass hubs of the auxiliary steering station” all intact. The engine is exposed due to skylights having fallen down. As well as discovering the compass they found numerous brass portholes (

          Other divers believe that the ship was mistaken for a submarine and depth-charged as “every fixture and vertical structure seems to have been vibrated loose.” ( Eighty feet from the stern is evidence of a torpedo attack: “an entire tank has been removed and flattened down to the sand. … The force of the explosion blew out the hull on the opposite (port) side, with one hull plate peeled outward and upward like tinfoil. One can proceed forward following the remains of the catwalk that ran along the center of the ship (Ibid.).