Archives For American Shipwrecks

SS John Barry

August 28, 2014 — Leave a comment

John Barry

On the night of August 28, 1944, the American Liberty ship SS John Barry silently glided through the waves on its way to Saudi Arabia loaded with a secret cargo of silver. Unfortunately for the Barry and her crew, the Nazi U-boat U-859 detected the ship and successfully torpedoed her, sending her to the bottom of the Arabian Sea along with millions of silver riyal coins (shown above). Rumors quickly arose that the ship had not only been loaded with 3,000,000 silver riyals for ARAMCO, but also with tons of silver bullion destined for the USSR via India.

Due to the ship’s depth (8,500 feet) the wreck was left undisturbed until a consortium of Americans assembled a hodgepodge of recovery components primarily scavenged from the oil and gas industry. After winning a bid to recover the wreck from the US government, the consortium, dubbed “The John Barry Group” successfully located the Barry in 1994 and used a grap to bring up 1,300,000 (17 tons) of silver riyals before they ceased operations. Although no sign of the Soviet silver shipment was found, some experts still believe there is a high likelihood the Soviet silver is aboard the vessel and was not located due to the primitive technology employed by The John Barry Group. Stalin’s Silver, by John Beasant, presents a well-written account of both the recovery and the rationale for why more silver may be located aboard the Barry. Sadly, due to bureaucratic intransigence, the US government has not re-opened the vessel to a recovery bid process and, until then, neither will the mystery be solved nor the American taxpayer enriched by the recovery fees paid to the US government by a successful salvor.

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pacocha-3fn-993x652Today marks the 28th anniversary of the sinking of the Peruvian Navy submarine Pacocha which was lost off the Peruvian port of Callao near Lima. Running on the surface on the night of August 26th, 1988, the Pacocha was accidentally rammed by a Japanese fishing trawler. Mistaking the conning tower of the sub for a small craft and thinking the two craft would pass one another harmlessly, the trawler’s crew did not take evasive action and the trawler struck the sub’s hull. The Pacocha‘s captain, Captain Daniel Nieva and six crew members were killed immediately while twenty-two sailors were able to successfully abandon ship. The United States immediately dispatched an underwater rescue team, however, the Peruvians quickly deployed a diving bell and, within 24 hours, gained access to the sub’s trapped crew through one of the Pacocha‘s hatches. The remaining twenty-three crew were safely brought to the surface, escaping an excruciating death of painful asphyxiation from chloride gas or drowning as the sub’s remaining compartments slowly filled with water.

Ironically, prior to its service in  the Peruvian Navy, the Pachoca had been the USS Atule, a Balao/Guppy class diesel submarine whose sole kill during World War II was a Japanese merchant vessel, the Asama Maru. Later, the sub torpedoed and sank the former Kriegsmarine U-boat U-977 during naval exercises in 1946. After thirty years of service in the US Navy, the sub was sold to Peru where she was named after a 19th century Peruvian naval battle. Following the rescue of her crew, the sub was later salvaged and scrapped.

Glorious Misadventures

Glorious Misadventures, by Owen Matthews, is a fascinating glimpse into a little remembered aspect of American history – the Russian colonization of what is now Alaska and California. Matthews details how, spurred on by eccentric Russian nobleman Nikolai Rezanov, the Russian-American Company established outposts throughout the American Pacific coast. Flowing between America and Russia, the book weaves a tragic tale of initial success but ultimate failure as Rezanov’s dreams are undone by his own flaws and environmental conditions. For history buffs looking to learn more about the settling of the American West or Russia’s colonial history in the western hemisphere, Glorious Misadventures is a great read.

ship bombingThe late 19th century and early 20th century were the heyday of luxury trans-Atlantic steamship travel. Among the numerous liners plying the waters between New York City and Liverpool was the RMS Umbria, a Cunard luxury liner. Launched in 1884 the Umbria and her sister ship Etruria were named for regions of Italy and reflected the Victorian obsession with all things Egyptian, Greek or Roman. The two vessels were the last liners built for the Cunard line with auxiliary masts that could be rigged for sailing. Additionally, they were designed for easy conversion to armed merchant cruisers in the event of war. Both Umbria and Etruria held the westbound Blue Riband at points in their careers for being the fastest vessels on the Europe to New York journey.

Arguably the most intriguing anecdote in the Umbria‘s career was her being the target of a bomb plot by the Italian Mafia. On May 9, 1903, a letter was delivered to the New York police claiming a bomb had been placed aboard the Umbria. Incidentally, the chivalrous bombers claimed they had originally planned to target the RMS Oceanic but changed targets because Oceanic contained too many women and children. The police acted swiftly to prevent Umbria from sailing and a search of the ship revealed a 3×2 foot box filled with 100lbs. of dynamite and a fuse. The bomb was defused and police traced it back to the Mafia Society in Chicago. The ship sailed for Liverpool after only a short delay.

By the time of her scrapping in 1910, the Umbria had served the Empire twice as a troop ferry and auxiliary warship, been disabled in the North Atlantic, grounded herself on the wreck of a coal barge and even sunk another steam ship in a collision.

Jack Cheevers

The events surrounding the capture of the USS Pueblo, a US Navy spy ship, rank among the most ignominious in the storied history of the United States Navy. Jack Cheevers’ book Act of War brings to life the capture of the Pueblo, the torture and humiliation of her crew at the hands of the North Korean government and the efforts to secure their return to the United States. Relying on period documents, interviews with crew members and government records, Cheevers reconstructs for readers not just the “exciting” parts of the capture and torture, but also the bureaucratic decision making that led to the capture of the Pueblo.

Cheevers devotes special attention to the captain of the Pueblo Commander Lloyd Bucher, his background, the agonizing decisions he had to make while under fire and his subsequent pariah status within the US Navy. One of the strongest aspects of the book is how the reader is presented with the facts of the capture of the Pueblo and allowed to decide on his or her own where the blame should lie for the capture of the Pueblo and whether more should have been done to prevent her capture. While not a light beach read, Act of War is an enlightening tome worthy of one’s time, especially given the continued saber rattling by an increasingly unhinged North Korean regime.

War of 1812

Award winning author George C. Daughan’s latest book, The Shining Sea, is a timely narrative of the voyage of David Porter and the USS Essex from October 1812 until March 1814. As the bicentennial of the War of 1812 continues, Daughan’s book does an excellent job presenting the reader with an exciting tale of adventure on the high seas, a failed attempt at nation-building, diplomacy in South America and the South Pacific and, ultimately, the dangers of man’s hubris. Two particular points where Daughan’s work shines is his thorough but brief background to the War of 1812 as well as his vivid and readable descriptions of Porter’s voyage. Instead of getting bogged down in the minutiae of how the War of 1812 came about, Daughan provides just enough background to bring the reader up to speed and then sets sail on Porter’s epic adventure. By the same token, Daughan avoids the trap of making the work too dense with nautical terminology and sailing jargon and instead focuses on the incredible actions of Porter and his men.

For twenty-first century readers, imagining a world where a merchant raider could disappear into the mists of the sea for months at a time and leave the entire British Admiralty perplexed is something near unthinkable, but this is exactly what David Porter did with the Essex. Porter and his men laid waste to the British whaling fleet in the South Pacific in a feat only rivaled in its completeness by James Waddell fifty years later in the CSS Shenandoah. Also foreign to twenty-first century readers is Porter’s ability to act without constant communication with his chain of communication. In an age when the President can watch a raid in Abottabad, Pakistan in real-time, the ability to act under only the loosest of orders is a stunning reflection of the weight of command and responsibility assigned to ship captains. Functioning as a double-edged sword, this responsibility allows for both innovation but also the opportunity for poor decision making. Daughan’s conclusion to The Shining Sea makes light of this double-edged sword and will leave the reader both entertained and cautioned against man’s failings.

Texaco-Oklahoma

March 27, 2014 — 1 Comment

oil spillOn the night of March 27, 1971, the oil tanker SS Texaco Oklahoma was ploughing its way through heavy seas about 120 miles northeast of Cape Hatteras. Laden with 33,000 tons of crude oil bound from Port Arthur to Boston, the tanker was suddenly rent in two. The bow rolled over but stayed afloat while the stern section drifted for 32 hours. The thirteen crew members sleeping in the bow of the ship were never found, however, the remaining crew were able to abandon the stern section in a lifeboat. Unfortunately, only thirteen survivors were picked up.

The wreck resulted in extensive changes to American maritime safety regulations, including the decommissioning of 200+ WWII-era vessels. Five years later a memorial was erected to the fallen in Port Arthur and an annual memorial service continues to be held for all seaman lost at sea.