SS Pipestone County sunk by U-576/Heinicke N of Bermuda: 23 rescued by Tropic Star, fought off another U-boat, 13 by USCG Calypso, 10 by F/V Irene & May

S.S. PIPESTONE COUNTY, Attack & Survivor’s Narrative

By Eric T. Wiberg, Esq., November, 2014

US steam ship Pipestone County, sunk by U-576 under Heinicke north of Bermuda on 21 April 1942.

Photo source: courtesy of John Lochhead,
The US-flagged steam ship Pipestone County was built as yard number 532 by American International Shipbuilding Corporation (Hog Island Shipyard) in Philadelphia. Her original name was Shawano, however when completed in July of 1919 here name was Pipestone County. She was built for the United States Shipping Board. The name is derived from a county in Minnesota in which fewer than 10,000 people reside presently.

The ship was 5,102 gross registered tons (GRT) and she was 401 feet long, 54.1 feet wide and 32 feet deep. A single steam turbine powered by three boilers turned a single shaft which turned a four-bladed propeller at 11.5 knots. The General Electric and Babcock and Wilox machinery developed 2,500 s.h.p.. From 1923 until 1942 the Seas Shippin Company Inc. of New York (known as the Robin Line) owned Pipestone County.

The ship had an active war. In 1939 she called in New York in September, October and November and in 1941 in March, April, July, and November. Then on the 8th of January she sailed for the Middle East and Africa. In Laurenco Marquez (present day Mozambique, then Portuguese East Africa), she loaded 3,500 tons of manganese ore, 1,200 tons of wattle extract (a vegetable tanning material originating in wattle, or acacia tree, bark), asbestos, skins, hides, and 100 kegs of brandy.
On the way to Cape Town, on the 16thof March 1942, the Pipestone County men came across survivors of the recently-sunk Dutch ship Alcyone. The survivors had struck a mine laid by the captured British ship Speybank, which the Germans used as a decoy to deploy mines off Cape Town. The 65 other crew rowed ashore. But the state of the survivors in boats brought the war to the men in the American ship, some of whom vowed to be prepared for whatever lifeboat situation might await them in the long voyage to Trinidad and Boston which lay ahead.

Pipestone County left Trinidad, where it had called for bunkers, on Monday the 13th of April at 4:00 pm ship’s, or local, time. Her total cargo consisted of roughly 6,700 tons, which is said by some sourced to have included gold worth 17,600 British Pounds Sterling (Mozolak). When they were approaching Trinidad they had been warned by a ship in the same company, the Robin Hood, about the presence of an enemy submarine east of Barbados.

Then on Sunday the 19thof April they received word via wireless radio to be on the alert for enemy U-boats and to zig zag around the clock, which they immediately began to do. The same day they received word of U-boats the men noticed a strong smell of petroleum on the ocean’s surface at 25 degrees north by 62 degrees west and “…in scanning the horizon could see through binoculars a small red spot to the eastward,” that may (or may not) have been a lifeboat with red sails which were standard on British ships. This position was 400 nautical miles south southeast of Bermuda (the author has been unable to match the data with any known sinking in this position or at that time).

The master of the Pipestone County at the time was a naturalized American raised in England named Captain Richard E. Hocken. The Second Officer was Gabriel Covas Reina. Most of the crew were Americans or naturalized, however two of them came from the Philippines. Overall there were 37 merchant mariners aboard the ship led by Captain Hocken and nine members of a US Navy Gun Crew 28E of Brooklyn, New York, led by a US Navy Ensign in charge, with seven seamen and a coxswain. The vessel was armed with a four-inch gun located aft below the bridge, four .50-caliber machine guns and four .30-caliber machine guns.

On the afternoon of Tuesday 21stApril there were an able-bodied seaman (A.B.) and a seaman 2nd class on the upper bridge about 45 feet elevation, Second Office Reina and n A.B. on the lower bridge, and a navy seaman 2nd class at the aft gun. The Ensign, Frank M. Keathley, USNR, said that Kirchmer was on the flat bridge and harder in the machine gun turret at the time.

The ship was in the Gulf Stream. Some of the engineers were complaining that the bunker fuel taken in Trinidad was of an inferior quality and produced too much smoke from the exhaust stacks, making the ship particularly vulnerable to lurking U-boats. The weather was moderate, they had experienced a storm in the morning but by afternoon the seas were settled, wind was about 20 knots from the north, and visibility was good. The zig zagging pattern employed at the time was from diagrams 9 and 37, but the base course was 310 degrees true, or roughly north northwest. The ship was 325 nautical miles north of Bermuda and 275 nautical miles southeast of Nantucket.

At 1:05 pm ship’s time (according to the German logbooks 12:54 pm local time), Able Bodied Seaman John J. Culeton was the quartermaster at the wheel. Culeton contradicts the Second Officer by saying that at 12:54, “BERG, the lookout on the bridge, called out ‘Torpedo’. I looked and saw the torpedo about a half mile away. I’ve always been told that torpedoes run under the water but this one was on top and I saw it plainly. I then saw about 4 feet of the periscope bearing about 1 point forward of our starboard beam at a distance of ¾ of a mile. As soon as BERG shouted, I threw the helm hard astarboard (left rudder). It seemed to be a full minute before the torpedo struck the forward part of #1 hold. It blew the hatch covers off and I narrowly missed being hit by flying cargo.”

The captain was not on the bridge at the time. When he did arrive and assessed the fact that the ship had lost 10 feet of draft and was down by the bow, and sinking, and that the engines had stopped and a submarine had been sighted in the vicinity, he ordered Abandon Ship within 10 minutes. According to some witnesses Captain Hocken was “nervous” and the men abandoning ship were “panicky.”
Hocken did manage to throw overboard the secret signals and collect the ship’s papers in a satchel. And he ordered the Radio Operator to send an SOS message, which was acknowledged from shore – at 1:05 pm the Eastern Sea Frontier Enemy Action and Distress Diary records “SOS from S/S PIPESTONE COUNTY…. torpedoed….300 miles N of Bermuda.  Bermuda sent patrol plane to scene.”

Culeton wrote that “The boats didn’t wait and the Bos’n and I got on the raft which was on the port quarter.” The US Navy Coxswain I. R. K. Culley wrote that “We didn’t have any orders from our Ensign, in fact I never saw him at any time. I just followed my orders.” The Ensign says he was busy conveying the Captain’s orders to abandon ship to his and other men.

The submarine which had sunk them was U-576 under KapitänleutnantHans-Dieter Heinicke, aged 28 (this submarine was discovered off Hatteras in the fall of 2014). Once the Pipestsone County sailors and gunners had all abandoned ship in four life boats and at least one raft the submarine approached the captain’s boat, apparently identifying him as he transferred from boat to boat carrying a satchel and wearing a cap. There was a balancing of men among boats.
Before doing so Heinicke sent the final torpedo into the side of the ship about 25 minutes after the first, or at about 3:15 pm local time. Carpenter Anselm Snow was quite close to where the torpedo whizzed past, writing “I was about 200’ off the starboard side, almost astern, when I saw what looked like the prow of a fast motor-boat coming through the water, followed by a heavy concussion which hurt my eardrums for one hour afterward. The ship sank in less than 1 minute. I had not seen the sub previously. A couple minutes later the sub came to the surface about ¾ of a mile away. It approached slowly – it took about ½ hour to approached – went directly to the captain’s boat.”

Kapitänleutnant Hans-Dieter Heinicke, who attacked and sank S.S. Pipestone County on 21 April 1942 from U-576. Over the course of his career he sank or damaged six ships of 34,907 tons. His submarine was sunk with him in it off the coast of Cape Hatteras on 15 July, 1942. He was 29.

Heinicke held a conversation with Captain Hocken in what was described as poor English. He said he was sorry to have to sink their ship and asked after the cargo, destination, and name of their ship. Witnesses describe seeing eight men on the conning tower of the sub. The captain was considered in his early 30s and clean shaven. He asked a younger officer to do the questioning, and this officer was in his mid-twenties. A lot of the men were described as being boys in the 17-year-old range, with about 10-12 days’ worth of facial hair growth.

The conversation lasted 10-15 minutes Hienicke said, or communicated through the intermediary that he hoped they reached land, but that they were far away from it. He asked if anyone was wounded (they were not). Hienecke was described as 5’10” and 160 pounds, with light brown hair. He had on “what looked like an aviator’s helmet – wool or fur lined.” The other sailors were casually dressed, not in any discernible uniform. The Germans provided two eight-kilo tins of bread marked “KLEVE 8 kilograms” which were apparently Danish in origin was well as a kilogram of Danish butter.

Most of the American witnessed described seeing insignia which were not corroborated by the known emblems of the submarine. They mostly describe a “snorting bull,” or “either a laughing cow or laughing jackass stenciled in white on the dark grey conning tower.” Others described an  inscription along the barrel of the large gun on the U-boat. Some said it read ‘PIERMOLE”, other said “TRIDPOLLI”. As for the crest or emblem, in fact the symbol was of a lion holding a key, which is the coat of arms for Radevormwald, a German region.

The coat of arms displayed on U-576, mistaken by Allied sailors for a snorting bull, when in fact it is the coat of arms of Radevormwald.

By the following day all four lifeboats had separated, indicating a lack of centralized control, given that many other lifeboats had managed to stay together in far worse weather, using a painter and signals from flashlights. Fortunately for the majority of the survivors they were found by the Norwegian motor ship Tropic Star the very next day, on Saturday the 22nd of April. At 5:00 pm Captain Anderson of the rescue ship came alongside to rescue the men. Then an hour later they managed to find the occupants of the second lifeboat and picked the up as well.

Together 23 out of a total complement of 37 were plucked from the seas and an uncertain fate This left one lifeboat of 13 men in it and 10 men in the fourth lifeboat waiting to be rescued. The Tropic Star either did not search for or did not find the remaining two boats. It proceeded to Boston, where it arrived on the afternoon of Friday the 24th of April, 1942.

The motor vessel Tropic Star under the name Yomah, which she carried from 1926 until 1937. The ship rescued the majority of the Pipestone County survivors on April 24 1942 and took them to Boston shortly thereafter. She survived the war and was scrapped in 1961.

Photo source:

The motor ship Tropic Star was a Norwegian-flagged 5,088-tonner owned by Alf Jakhelln of Oslo. Her original name from when she was built by William Denny and Brothers at Dumbarton, Scotland in 1926. To 1937 she was the Yomah, then for the next decade the Ashburton. She could carry 8,455 tons of cargo, was 415 feet long, 52.3 feet wide and 25 feet deep. She was capable of 12.5 knots. The fleet was involved in the general tramping and petroleum trades globally. The vessel was scrapped in 1961.

The master of the Tropic Star was Captain Anderson. He commended Captain Hocken, noting that he “…was sitting up in the boat looking around and had refused to take cover down in the boat, although he was wet and cold.” During the voyage from where the Tropic Star picked up the Pipestone County and Boston, they fired upon a German submarine on the 24th of April – Friday – at 8:10 am.
According to Ensign Keathley, who took over the gunnery role aboard the Tropic Star, “…the periscope of a submarine was first sighted about 25 yards from the port side of the TROPIC STAR. The sub apparently crash dived and passed a few yards astern of the ship. We could see the bow wave. The alert was sounded and panic occurred among the survivors of the S/S PIPESTONE COUNTY. The crew of the TROPIC STAR acted better.”

This occurred when Nantucket was abeam about 65 miles to the west. The men fired at the periscope about half an hour later and thought they scored a hit. The ship sent an SSS signal via radio which was acknowledged ashore. She picked up speed and zig zagged until out of the danger zone. There were over ten witnesses to the attacks on the submarine.

It would be over two long weeks – 16 days – before the next group of Pipestone County survivors was rescued. At 10:17 am on Thursday May 7th the US Coast Guard cutter Calypso recorded in its deck log that “Coast Guard patrol plane sighted lifeboats with occupants 30 miles east of Oregon Inlet. From Elizabeth City Coast Guard Station by despatch. Calypso directed to scene.”
By 3:20 pm that day she was on the scene and reported “Picked up 12 survivors from torpedoed American SS Pipestone County. Boat at sea 16 days and separated from three other boats with the remainder of crew since first day. Condition of survivors goo except for two possible mental cases.” The same day the Calypso landed her charges at the US Navy base in Norfolk, Virginia.
USCG Calypso (WPC 104), which rescued 13 survivors of the Pipestone County on May 7th, 1942. She had also rescued 42 survivors of the SS Buarque on March 8th and 54 from the SS Arabutan, was well as 60 survivors of the USS Plymouth (PG 57) on August 5th, 1943.  

The US Coast Guard Cutter Calypso (WPC 104) was built at Bath Iron Works in Maine and launched in January, 1932. She was commissioned two weeks later (16 January) and served the Coast Guard, rescuing innumerable mariners before during and after World War II, until she was decommissioned on 18 July 1947. Sold in 1955, she went into service ferrying passengers around Manhattan for the Circle Line, which she continued to do until late 2008 before being replaced.

The last group of 10 survivors had the longest to wait until rescue: 17 days, or until Friday May 8th. Fortunately for them this boat, which was led by Second Officer Reina, discovered an abandoned raft from a Panamanian ship at sea four days into their ordeal, on the 26th of April. They stripped the craft of water and food. Reina was not happy with his boat, however, stating that he actually put his thumb through the boat’s rotten hull and had to patch it with rages.

Then on the 30th of April at about 7:15 pm a PBY airplane spotted the survivors off Cape Hatteras. The plane signaled that help was on its way, and the men ate more of the rations than they usually would in expectation of imminent rescue. The following day a second PBY from Elizabeth City, North Carolina dropped them a US Navy parachute at the end of which was water and food.

When the realization set in that no immediate rescue was on the horizon, the men’s morale fell. One officer even stated that it would have been better not to have the false hopes raised at all. But the new water helped to offset the loss of water consumed in the expectation of soon rescue. Meanwhile the Gulf Stream pushed the boat further north for a week. Then at 4:00 am on the 8th of May they fired flares to attract the attention of a Canadian fishing schooner with an auxiliary motor, the Irene & May, of 94 feet. At the time they were off McCries Shoals, roughly eight miles from Cape May New Jersey, near the mouth of the Delaware River. This is apparently not far from Hereford Inlet.

It first the captain and crew of the Irene & May were concerned that the men in the boat represented some kind of Axis trap and called the US Coast Guard for advice. However my 5:30 am the fishing boat came alongside the lifeboat. By then there was a US Navy blimp circling overhead as well. The Irene & May interrupted their fishing to take the 10 survivors ashore at the Cape May Naval Air Station. By 1:30 pm efforts were made to repatriate the two Navy Gunners from Gun Crew 28E, Brooklyn, but they – J. L. Giannotti and L. D. Greene, were told to remain in Cape May.

The fishing vessel Irene & May “tied up at wharf, with Imperial Oil truck delivering fuel, 1948”. In Canada, from the Memorial University library archives

The fishing vessel (F/V) Irene & May was built in Essex Massachusetts in 1901 as a schooner of 94 feet length overall. By 1920 she was owned by Maude E. Morris of Nassau, Bahamas. In 1926 she was sold to Mark Sheppard of St. John’s Newfoundland. By 1940 it was still owned by Mr. (or Captain) Sheppard, and was registered at 89.8 tons with an auxiliary engine installed.


Clydebuilt Ships, for information on the Tropical Star, – for the war diaries and deck logs and Eastern Sea Frontier and NOB Bermuda

Holm Lawson, Dame Siri,

Jordan, Roger, The World’s Merchants Fleets 1939, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1999

Mason, Jerry,

Mozolak, John, “New York Ships to Foreign Ports, 1939 – 1945,” for the articles from the Associated Press

Ship Index for information on the Irene & May, and
“Survivors Statements,” from NARA, in Washington DC, as found by Michael Constandy, 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 for much of the information, including photos of U-boat Commander and its victim, for specifications and history

Wynn, Kenneth, U-boat Operations of the Second World War, Volume 1 and Volume 2, 1997