The American-flagged steam tanker Pan Massachusetts was built as a bulk cargo carrier by the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation at the Union Iron Works in Alameda, California, in 1919. Her original name was War Cape, however by the time of her launch in January 1919 her name was Triumph and she went to work for the United States Shipping Board, a governmental organization focused on national defense. Ten years later Triumph had 16 feet added to her overall length as part of a modernization and conversion to join the U.S. Maritime Commission. National Bulk Carriers Inc. of New York, NY, purchased Triumph in 1938 and renamed her Pan Massachusetts (there were dozens of tankers whose names started with “Pan” in the series).
National Bulk Carriers (a company still in operation), converted Pan Massachusetts into a tanker, changed her engines from steam to motor, moved them further aft in order to make more room for the tanks, and increased her gross tonnage to 8,202 tons. Her final dimensions were 456.1 feet length overall with a breadth or beam (width) of 56 feet and a draft or depth of 34.5 feet. Her port of registry was Wilmington Delaware.
In February of 1942 the Pan Massachusetts was under command of Captain Robert E. Christy and a crew of thirty-eight persons, including Chief Engineer Oivind L. Pedersen. A Fireman-rated wiper named Aubrey Francis Withee originally of Milo Junction and Bangor, Maine served in the bowels of the ship under Chief Pedersen (Seawolfproductions.com, “A Pan Massachusetts Sailor’s Story”, Bangor Public Library). Withee joined the ship after stints on the steam ships Halo, Argvidale, Choluteca and Uruguay to support his wife, Lena (nee Walsh), who kept home for him in Brooklyn, New York where he had moved to join the US Merchant Marine on 20 April, 1940 – before the American’s entry into the war. Within days of his signing aboard – on or about the 5th of February – the Pan Massachusetts set sail for Texas City, Texas, in ballast to pick up its next cargo. On the 15th of February the ship left Texas City bound back to New York carrying 104,000 barrels of refined petroleum, gasoline, kerosene and diesel oil (Uboat.net).
On about the 17thof February Pan Massachusetts rounded Key West, Florida and entered the Straits of Florida, riding the Gulf Stream northwards between Florida and the Bahamas. Since there were no attacks in Florida during the war (which had only involved the US directly for seven weeks), there would have been no cause for undue alarm on board. There were no defensive or offensive weapons on board and if the ship had had them there was no one to man them. Little did they know that the German submarine U-128 under Ulrich Heyse lay in wait, freshly arrived from Europe. The position was 28.27 North latitude by 80.08 West longitude.
The weather was rough – with heavy seas, low visibility, mist and squalls. Pan Massachusetts was motoring ahead at 13.5 knots roughly 20 miles from Cape Canaveral, Florida (to the northwest of West End, Grand Bahama) when at 1:44pm on Thursday the 19thand in broad daylight all hell broke loose. Two torpedoes fired from U-128, which lay to seaward of them, struck the starboard side in broad daylight. They penetrated the hull just forward of the engine room and Pedersen and Withee, if they were on watch at the time were able to escape above.
Spared a terrifying death in a dark confused cavernous engine room with ruptured pipes and bulkheads spewing water and burning gasoline spilling everywhere, they nevertheless faced the prospect of drowning or burning. No one survived the engine room to provide a first-hand account, so fast did the conflagration spread across the ship. Running in panic to the bow, sailors lowered a hawser into the water. Trapped between flames approaching them astern and those spreading across the sea, they were faced with a Hobbesian choice of “the devil or the deep blue sea”. One by one they tried their luck, lowering themselves into the water, then beneath the burning surface, hoping to hold their breath long enough to pop up on the outside edge of the burning oil. Many never did surface.
Those survivors that were rescued after two hours in the water were saved by their life vests, and not the lifeboats (which were destroyed and abandoned in their davits) or the life rafts, which were presumably burned on the spot. According to a summary of survivor accounts found in the National Archives in Washington DC, “flames prevented boarding of boats,” and survivors utilized wreckage to stay afloat. The seas were rough and the rescue vessels had to communicate by megaphone across the storm-tossed sea. Because the first shot was so effective, U-128 only had to fire one shot into the ship. Pan Massachusetts was abandoned after only 14 minutes and reportedly sank one minute later.
The casualty, occurring as it did both close to shore and in busy shipping lanes did not go unnoticed. Within minutes the kepper of the lighthouse at Bevard County Cape reported to the US Coast Guard via radio “Flames sighted 20 miles, 142 degrees from Cape Canaveral” (USCG report). Meanwhile, the smaller British steam tanker Elizabeth Massey sped to the scene and immediately lowered her lifeboat and approached the stricken Pan Massachusetts. However the rough seas and rampant flames prevented her crew from rescuing any of the American tanker’s crew until the US Coast Guard buoy tender USS Forward (WAGL-160) arrived.
Her first words back to base were fateful if taciturn: “Was torpedoed, name is Pan Massachusetts.” The war off Florida had begun. In an artful display of seamanship and grit, the Forward’s crew towed the Elizabeth Massey’s lifeboat amongst the wreckage. When they sighted a survivor – or more likely than not – a body, they sent the life boat out to collect them. Once the lifeboat was full it would return to the Forward and deposit the bodies of the living and the dead. After this macabre ballet it was decided to separate the living from the dead – Pan Massachusetts survivors proceded to Jacksonville with the Massey while their dead crewmates were brought ashore by the Forward to Canaveral. Though 18 men survived this harrowing ordeal, twenty died. It was the first Allied ship sunk by Axis U-Boats on the coast of Florida in either war.
Aubrey Withee did not survive to tell of his ordeal and is commemorated in his home port by the Bangor Public Library (seawolfproductions.com). In 1988 he was officially recognized along with thousands of other American Merchant Marine sailors as an active duty war veteran by the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Posthumously he received the Atlantic War Zone Bar, Combat Bar (with Star), Honorable Service Button, Mariner’s Medal, Merchant Marine Service Emblem, Presidential Testimonial Letter and Victory Medal.
There was an after story to the Pan Massachusetts as well, which did no apply to ships sunk right off the Bahamas in waters too deep to dive. On June 16 2001 divers from the Association of Underwater Explorers (AUE) was found roughly 3.3 miles off Port Canaveral in 296 feet of water. Local fisherman had referred to the wreck as the “copper wreck” for years, on the mistaken belief that it was the Elizabeth Massey, which was apparently carrying a cargo of copper. A report but an AUE diver describes the wreck as “turtled”, or upside down, and in two parts, the larger, forward part being some 325 feet in length. Because of strong currents, the depth, and visibility limited to 20-30 feet plus 60-degree water it is not an easy dive. One result is that many artifacts remain undisturbed.
Divers described a “near vertical bow”, “vertical ladders along the separating bulkheads” which were presumably tanks, and a hole where a torpedo appears to have slammed into the ship (uwex.us/061801.htm). Although survivors state that the engines were stopped before the ship sank, it appears that there was no time to drop the anchors, as the starboard anchor at least was found tight in the hawse pipe. A debris field led off to the West of the wreck, presumably the stern section can be found there. Portholes were visible in a debris field in the sand. The divers reported that due to the “architecture and size of the wreck” as well as the absence of other similar hulls in the area, the site must be that of Pan Massachusetts, though positive identification such as a ship name or ship’s bell has not been discovered.
The Elizabeth Massey has been incorrectly described in US Coast Guard reports as a passenger vessel. While she may have had passenger accommodation, she was a tramp steamer of 4,323 tons built as the Essex Noble in 1929 by William Doxford & Sons in the UK for the Essex Steam Ship C. Ltd. Her other names included Reaveley, Begonia, and Peonia before she was scrapped at La Spezia, Italy in 1964 (theshiplist.com). She sailed for W. A. Massey & Sons Ltd. of Hull at the time before being sold in 1943 to the Stag Line Ltd. (wartime regulations prevented the renaming of ships during the conflict to avoid further confusion).
Another report (seawolfproductions.com) had Mr. Withee killed in the engine room along with Chief Engineer Pedersen, but the report made by survivors states that of three men in the engine room at the time of the torpedoing made it out at least onto the deck. The same US Coast Guard report has the steamer Norlavore of 2,713 tons sunk by a U-Boat (allegedly U-432) off the Florida Coast on the 24thof February (at 28.00N, 80.00W) with a quarter of her crew saved. The Norlavore was lost, but not by any U-Boat, as none reported the attack (every torpedo was after all accounted for) – rather the ship succumbed to heavy weather (Uboat.net).
The story of the U-128 (responsible for the sinking of the Pan Massachusetts, Cities Service Empire and O. A. Knudsen in the area) is covered in its own chapter herein.