SS Alcoa Shipper, courtesy of the Steamship Historical Society of America, www.sshsa.org
SS ALCOA SHIPPER, Attack & Survivor’s Narrative
by Eric T. Wiberg, www.uboatsbermuda.com, Feb. 2014
The US-flagged steam ship Alcoa Shipper was built as the SS Davenport by the Merchant Shipbuilding Corporation of Chester, Pennsylvania in 1920, which had been building ships since 1857. Davenport was commissioned by the United States Shipping Board following the First World War. For a period up to 1940 the ship was laid up, then after 1940 her owners were the Aluminum Company of America, or Alcoa, of Pittsburgh, and she was operated by the subsidiary, the Alcoa Steam Ship Company, Inc. the ship was 401 feet long, 54.2 feet wide and 30.4 feet deep. The gross registered tonnage was 5,491 and two steam turbines developed 645 net horsepower. Her home port was New York, NY.
On her final voyage the Alcoa Shipper was under command of Captain Alderman Logan Scott who commanded a total complement of 31 other men, all of whom were American except one, who was Danish. She was sailing from Port of Spain, Trinidad, for New York with a cargo of 8,340 tons of bauxite. Her draft was an average of 26’2”. The routing instructions came from British naval authorities in Trinidad.
At the time of her attack by U-404 under Otto von Bülowthe ship was on course 336 degrees north-northwest, was completely blacked out and had not used its radio since March 11th, when at Barbados. The position of sub and ship at the time was 37.49N, 65.15W, which is 300 miles north of Bermuda and 450 miles east-southeast of New York.
On the morning of Saturday May 30th there were two lookouts scanning the horizon with binoculars from the bridge. Captain Scott had just that day implemented a complex series of zig zag patterns to avoid being hit by a torpedo: patterns #6 and #9. A full moon provided excellent visibility, the weather was clear and the wind was just a breeze of force three from the west-northwest, or off bow. The waves were described as only slight.
Suddenly, at 4:25 am, as daylight was just etching itself on the lapels of the sky a submarine was seen emerging from the depths 3,000 feet off the starboard flank of the ship, on a parallel course. No sooner was this alarming news reported than a torpedo slammed into the starboard side at the fire room, causing the secondary explosion of the ship’s boiler. Realizing that the ship was doomed, the general alarm was sounded, the engines stopped, and the men ordered to abandon ship. Before they perished Captain Scott managed to throw the confidential codes over the side and Radio Operator Talley sent a single SOS both short and long wave, which ensured the survival of his crew mates.
The number one lifeboat on the starboard side was completely destroyed by the explosions. The ship had been going forward at 10 knots. Two port side lifeboats were lowered – #4 and #2 – but the ship was sinking so quickly that as it did so it fouled the lines connecting the boats to the ship, and they were entangled and sank. Seven men were killed in the five minutes it took the ship to sink, including Captain Scott, the Chief Engineer, Triantafilos Asprodites, Frank Talley the Radio Operator, Fred Tibbetts the Chief Mate, Steward the Cook, First Assistant Engineer Soares, and an oiler named Carney. Two of them – presumably those in the engine room – were killed by the explosions of torpedo and boiler, and the five others were drowned and went down with the ship when it sank by the stern.
Fortunately for the 25 survivors, two life rafts deployed and floated free from the ship after it sank at 4:30 am. Von Bülowbrought U-404 up to these rafts and inquired as to the name of ship and cargo. He also asked if they needed medical or other supplies. He told them that he had heard a distress message from the ship and believed that the men would be rescued soon based up on it having been received on shore (he was correct). Von Bülowwas described as being in his late thirties (he was 30 at the time but probably had three-week beard), and had two stripes on his uniform (he was a Kapitänleutnant), and spoke English with a German accent. The officer’s hats were described as having a “straight eagle” which was “obviously German.”
Von Bülow’s men provided the survivors with a number of articles, including “several bottles of rum with German labels, German cigarettes and matches; also a pair of coveralls, [and] a cigarette lighter both of French manufacture.”
The American officers and crew described their attacker’s vessel as between 500 and 750 tons and 250 to 300 feet in length, with a 3” gun, a net cutter and a “jumping wire.” From the visual conditions they estimated the sub had not been away from base for long (they were right, it had left France on May 6th, just over two weeks before).
Von Bülowwas correct in saying that the SSS transmission (“submarine sighted”) had been received on shore. The Eastern Sea Frontier Enemy Action Diary for the same day – 30th May – records “The S.S. ALCOA SHIPPER was torpedoed in 38 [degrees] 37’ N., 67 [degrees] 20’W, according to a report received from DCO at 0831 Zed. ESF, when telephoned, already knew of this.”
By 1:30 pm the same day two vessels had been sent to the aid of Alcoa Shipper survivors: the PC-486 (a US Navy Patrol Craft) was sent from New London, Connecticut and the US Navy destroyer USS Decatur was also sent. The position of three (not two) life rafts was given to the patrol craft as 38-41 N and 67-28W.
As it happened there was a surplus of aid and good fortune for the men in tossed around on open rafts – the Norwegian ship Margrethe Bakke came upon them on the afternoon of June 1st, two days later. At 2:30 pm the Norwegians came to a stop and picked up all 25 survivors. Then the ship proceeded on its course for New York, where it landed the men at 7:35 pm on Wednesday, June 3rd, as reported in the ESF diary (according to warsailors.com she arrived 2 June).
Margrethe Bakke was a Swedish-built freighter or 5,478 tons which was on a voyage from Cape Town to New York and had left South Africa May 13th. She was owned by the Knut Knudsen O.A.S. company of Haugesund, Norway. Presumably the PC-486 and USS Decatur were diverted for other duties.
Mason, Jerry, http://www.uboatarchive.net/KTB123-8.htm – Hardegen’s KTB diary translated
“Survivors Statements” from NARA, in Washington DC, as found by Michael Constandy, www.westmorelandresearch.org. Formal citation: Survivor’s Statements (1941-1942) Series : Papers of Vice Admiral Homer N. Wallin, compiled 1941 – 1974. Record Group 38: Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1875 – 2006 Entry P-13. National Archives at College Park – Textual Reference (Military) 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740
“Survivors Statements” and the USS Broome war diary, as found on the website wwww.fold3.com key words “Alcoa Shipper”, search parameters “war diaries” WWII.