SS Fairport, US ship sunk south of Bermuda by U-161 under Albrecht Achilles 16 July 1942

The sinking of the Fairport is remarkable in that her master was a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy Reserve, the rescue of so many people (123) was executed so quickly, and the men repatriated so efficiently. It was also one of the few ships in this area which was in convoy when sunk. The ship was new – it was the first built by Gulf Shipbuilding Corporation of Chickasaw, Alabama, and launched on 21 November 1941. Fairport was commissioned under a US Maritime Commission contract. She was fitted out in April 1942, registered to Mobile, and purchased by the Waterman Steamship Company of the same city. On her maiden and only voyage she was chartered by the Army Transport Service. Fairport’s master was Captain George Starling Hancock. He was responsible for 123 men including himself. The breakdown was ten officers, 33 crew, 14 Naval Armed Guards, and 66 US Army personnel. All except two crew (one British and one Costa Rican) were Americans. The ship was armed with a four-inch gun, four .50-caliber machine guns and two .30-calibre machine guns. Her length was 445 feet, beam 63 feet, and draft 31 feet and two inches. Fairport was propelled by two steam turbine engines which were geared to a single propeller which produced up to 15.5 knots of speed ( On her final voyage the Fairport joined convoy AS 4 which sailed from New York on the 13th of July 1942. Their destination was Suez, Egypt, via Cape Town, Durban, Aden, and Socotra. Her cargo included 8,000 tons of war material and on her deck she carried a bevy of tanks. Fairport was the middle ship on the outside port column of a convoy of nine ships. Ahead of her was the Hawaiian Shipper and of the starboard bow the Exhibitor, with Convoy Commodore Rear Admiral H. D. Cooke aboard. The Zaandam (sunk by U-174/Thilo with the loss of 134 lives, many of them survivors of other wrecks, on 2 November 1942 300 miles north of Brazil), was on the starboard side. The American Manufacturer was on the starboard quarter, and the Mormacdale astern. There were five US destroyers protecting the convoy – the USS Kearny under command of Lieutenant Commander A. H. Oswald was positioned off the Fairport’s bow. The other destroyers, in clockwise position, were the USS Livermore, the USS Mayo, the USS Gleaves, and USS Wilkes. The Fairport was in position 27.10N by 64.33W when sunk, well east of Abaco, about equidistant between Bermuda and Anegada, or about 500 miles northeast of the Virgin Islands. Two days before, on the 14th of July, the convoy had come across a Spanish merchant ship which they deemed too far south of its’ intended track to Gibraltar and there for suspicious. However no concrete nexus was established between this sighting and the later attack on the convoy. On the morning of 16th of July 1942 the convoy was steaming at 153 degrees and 7.5 knots. There were five lookouts on the Fairport – two aft by the gun, one on the fly bridge, one on the upper bridge and one amidships. It was a clear and sunny day with strong sunshine, calm seas and no wind to speak of. Unbeknownst to the highly vigilant prey, U-161 under the veteran skipper Albrecht Achilles was stalking the convoy. He chose his moment to attack at 08:43 am, firing three torpedoes into the convoy, followed by two hits on the first ship and a detonation heard two minutes and 32 seconds later that Achilles presumed (incorrectly) meant he’d hit a second ship. With counterattack in mind Achilles wisely broke off and sped away. The first torpedo struck the number four cargo hold and caused a large spray of water and a yellowish cloud of smoke to envelope the bow of the ship, whose speed reduced from 13 knots to two knots. A second torpedo then slammed into Fairport on the port bow, in the number one tank. As a result the ship developed a sharp list of 40 to 50 degrees to starboard. The men abandoned ship within ten minutes, in an orderly fashion in two lifeboats and four life rafts and five life floats (the only time one of the ships sunk in this region appears to have used this particular apparatus). The two boats and four rafts with all 123 men on them were pulled out of the water after just 48 minutes by USS Kearny, meaning they were plucked from the sea by 10:48 am. The Kearny thought they had a sonar contact on the submarine and went after it, dropping a series of depth charges. The men in the life boats saw a spume of water erupt after the last of these and a black shape which appeared to be a submarine (but could have been a whale). Because the Kearny lost contact with the submarine after this attack it was assumed that she had made a kill of U-161, however this was not the case. The Kearny dispatched from the convoy and returned to New York, landing the men from the Fairport in that harbor on the 21st of July 1942. The 14 survivors from the Navy Gun Crew reported the Naval Receiving Station in New York that day, just as the 66 Army Personnel reported to Fort Hamilton, New York that day. In order to replace the valuable tanks and other cargo lost from the Fairport the ship Seatrain Texas was dispatched post-haste to the Middle East. Rumor has it that it was carrying 250 or more tanks, making it one of the most valuable cargoes carried on a single ship during the war. “These Sherman tanks, the first Allied tanks which matched the German Mark IV Panzer in firepower, were a decisive factor at the battle of El Alamein, which began on October 23, 1942, and resulted in an Allied victory (