Archives For American Shipwrecks

Last night marked the 38th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a record breaking bulk carrier that operated on the Great Lakes from 1958 until 1975. Launched on June 7, 1958, the Edmund Fitzgerald was, for a time, the longest ship on the Great Lakes. Owned by Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, but operated by Ogleby Norton Corporation, the Edmund Fitzgerald hauled ore from Minnesota’s iron mines to iron works in Michigan and Ohio. During her 17 years of service, the ship set multiple haulage records and became a local legend in her own time.

On the of afternoon of November 9, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald departed Superior, Wisconsin bound for Zug Island, Michigan with a cargo of 26,000 tons of ore pellets. As the ship made its way along the Canadian coast, it ran into a storm at 1am on November 10th. The Fitzgerald reported winds of 52 knots and 10 foot waves, but soldiered on through the night. As November 10th wore on, the storm increased in intensity with rogue waves as tall as 35 feet assaulting the ship with massive walls of water. Suddenly, shortly after her last radio communication at 7:10pm, the Fitzgerald plummeted to the lake floor and disappeared from the radar screen of a nearby ship. Despite a search by both nearby commercial vessels and the US Coast Guard, not a single member of the Fitzgerald’s 29 crew was found.

A subsequent search by the US Navy and the US Coast Guard discovered the wreck of the Fitzgerald in 530 feet of water. The ship had been rent in two and the bow and stern sections approximately 150 feet apart from one another. Several expeditions to the wreck site have occurred over the years, including one by two intrepid deep sea scuba divers. The expeditions have recovered the ship’s bell and helped clarify some of the facts surrounding the cause of the ship’s sinking which has never been fully explained.

Confederate warship

CSS Shenandoah Captures Whaling Fleet in the Arctic Ocean

A central tenet of the nascent Confederate Navy’s strategy during the American Civil War was to make Yankee merchants howl from the loss of their vessels and cargos. In order to achieve this aim, the Confederates commandeered suitable vessels in Southern ports to convert to armed merchant raiders, issued letters of marque and reprisal and procured vessels abroad. Because the Confederacy was not recognized as a sovereign nation by Great Britain or France, the ships procured or built there had to be built ostensibly as merchant vessels and later outfitted with armaments after leaving British territorial waters. Among the ships acquired by Confederate agent James Bulloch was the steamer Sea King.

Launched in Glasgow in August 1863, the Sea King was a 1,160 ton steamer equipped with auxiliary sails. After being purchased by Bulloch, the Sea King put to sea in October and rendezvoused with another ship off Madeira. On October 19, 1863 after several days of transfering cargo and mounting her guns, the Sea King was commissioned as CSS Shenandoah after the beautiful and bountiful Virginia valley. The ship’s design was perfect for raiding merchant vessels as she could raise and lower her steam funnel at will in order to change her identity from steam vessel to sailing vessel.

From the Madeiras, the Shenandoah and her new captain, commander James Iredell Waddell sailed through the South Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and captured nine US vessels. Shenandoah called at Melbourne, Australia where she re-provisioned and added forty more men to her crew. After departing Melbourne, Shenandoah ravaged her way north through the Pacific Ocean capturing four more Yankee vessels en route to the lucrative North Pacific whaling fleet. Unbeknownst to the Shenandoah and her crew, the Confederacy had effectively collapsed with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9. The news, though, would not reach the Shenandoah until after she had wreaked havoc among the American whaling fleet, capturing 24 ships in a period of 7 days from June 22 to June 28, 1865.

After learning of the Confederacy’s surrender on August 2 from newspapers aboard an English merchantman, Waddell successfully returned his ship to Liverpool where he struck the Confederate naval ensign and turned her over to the Royal Navy. An excellent account of the voyage, Last Flag Down, was published in 2007 by a descendant of one of the Shenandoah’s officers.

presidential yacht

For approximately 100 years, from the 1870s to the 1970s, US Presidents often feted various dignitaries or conducted diplomacy from the cabins of government owned yachts. The first of these, USS Despatch, was launched in November 1873 as a wooden hulled steamship. Acquired in 1880, the 174 foot ship first hosted President Rutherford B. Hayes on a cruise of the Potomac on November 9, 1880. The vessel went on to serve dutifully as a refuge and office for Presidents Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland and Harrison.

On the night of October 10, 1891, the Despatch was en route from New York City to Washington to pick up President Harrison and Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Tracy for an inspection of the naval proving grounds on the Potomac. Unfortunately for the American taxpayer, the vessel ran aground in the shoals off Assateague, Virginia. The ship’s lieutenant confessed to having mistaken the Assateague lighthouse’s orange light for the red light of the Winter Quarter Shoals lightship – a 1.5 mile difference that cost the vessel her life.

The entirety of the crew were able to safely make it ashore, however, the Despatch was a complete wreck and was lost to the shifting sands off Assateague. In 1997, explorer Ben Benson mistakenly believed he had discovered the Despatch in 22 feet of water, however, he was incorrect and the vessel remains undiscovered.

Baychimo Ghost Ship

SS Baychimo
Photo: Wikimedia

This year the MV Lyubov Orlova became a news sensation as reports of its ghost ship status and subsequent sightings flitted about the internet. As strange as the Orlova’s story is, though, it can never rival its sister ghost ship, the SS Baychimo. The Baychimo began life as the SS Ångermanelfven in Sweden in 1911 and quietly plied the Sweden-Germany trade route until she was handed over to the British government as part of Germany’s war reparations after World War One. Acquired by the Hudson’s Bay Company, the ship was renamed Baychimo and dispatched to the New World to carry goods, especially furs throughout Canada’s upper reaches.

The saga of the Baychimo took a strange turn when, on October 1, 1931, she became trapped in pack ice and was abandoned by her crew. The next few months witnessed several on-again, off-again attempts to winter with the Baychimo in order to bring her safely to port. At one point, the Baychimo broke free of the ice and, unbeknownst to her crew, floated away. After successfully locating the vessel, the crew offloaded the ship’s cargo and abandoned her to the vagaries of the Arctic.

Over the next 8 years, the vessel was sighted several times and even boarded on occasion. Although the vessel was last physically boarded in 1939, Inuits reported sighting the Baychimo as late as 1969. This last sighting has often been called into question, but what is without question is that the ship continued her ghostly haunting of the Arctic Sea for years after her abandonment. The Baychimo’s final resting place, if she has indeed sunk, has yet to be determined. Who knows, perhaps she is still wandering the vast expanse of the Arctic in search of her next cargo.


Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff is a thrilling tale of survival, heroism and discovery. Set in Greenland, Zuckoff switches between World War Two and the present day to relate the loss of three American military aircraft and the epic search for both the planes and their survivors. Zuckoff writing flows smoothly between the historic loss of the planes and the modern day search and the book’s 330+ pages seem much shorter as a result.

Perhaps one reason for Zuckoff’s engaging style is that he accompanied the 2011 expedition in search of the Coast Guard float plane that had gone down while searching for the other two missing planes. While set in World War Two, the book is not military history, but rather reads more like heroic survivor stories such as David Howarth’s We Die Alone or polar exploration tales like The Last Viking.

Frozen in Time showcases Zuckoff’s excellent attention to detail as the minutae of daily survival in a downed plane in arctic conditions is relayed to the reader; however, Zuckoff avoids the trap of losing the story (and the reader) in the minor details. The book also benefits from the generous use of photographs to document both the characters and the events described in the book. One amusing anecdote from the book is the author’s description of the whiskey his team chose to bring with them to Greenland – a modern recreation of Ernest Shackleton’s whiskey. Overall, Frozen in Time is a highly readable book that will appeal to anyone wishing to relieve the dog days of summer with a chilling tale of survival in a frozen land.


Kickstarter, the wildly successful crowdfunding website, is currently hosting two nautical themed projects. The first is “Twice Forgotten,” a documentary about the USS R-12, a training submarine that sank off the coast of Key West, Florida seventy years ago today. Forty US sailors and officers as well as two Brazilian officers went down with the sub and it was not until 2010 that she was re-discovered. Funding will allow the team to return to the site and conduct filming this summer to complete the documentary.


Instead of seeking to tell a true story from the past, the second project aims to produce a fictional film about a World War II submarine and its mysterious disappearance during the war. The film team has partnered with Battleship Cove, the home of the battleship USS Massachusetts and submarine USS Lionfish, to provide a filming location. If the project is funded, then the remaining half of the project’s expenses will be covered and the filming will be able to proceed as planned.

spy ship

USS Liberty
Photo Courtesy of US Navy

Today marks the forty-sixth anniversary of a tragic and deadly encounter between the US Navy and the Israeli Defense Force. Four days into the Six-Day War, the US Navy intelligence ship USS Liberty was operating off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula. The ship had been ordered to withdraw from the area, however, miscommunication had resulted in the ship keeping its station in an area hotly contested by Israeli and Egyptian forces.

Mistaking the vessel for an Egyptian warship, the Israeli Air Force and Navy launched an attack on the ship which left 34 American servicemen dead and 171 injured. In the years since the attack, anti-semites and conspiracy theorists have used the attack to paint the Israeli state as an enemy of the United States and a perpetrator of an assault on an unarmed vessel. Numerous investigations have refuted these allegations and, indeed, it would have been against Israeli interests to alienate the United States as the Israeli people faced threats from all sides. Ultimately, miscommunication and the fog of war resulted in a tragic loss of life and only fueled the fires of those who seek to wipe the nation of Israel from the map.

voyage of the damned

SS St. Louis in Havana Harbor
Photo: US Holocaust Memorial Museum

On May 13, 1939, the Hamburg-Amerika Line ocean liner SS St. Louis departed Hamburg, Germany for Havana, Cuba. Aboard the St. Louis were more than 930 Jewish refugees seeking refuge in Cuba from Nazi oppression. The refugees had secured legitimate landing certificates for Cuba, however, upon their arrival the refugees learned that the pro-fascist Cuban government had invalidated the visas and all but 27 of the refugees were denied entry. Much like White Russians after the 1917 Revolution, the refugees were now a people without a country. The refugees sought entry into the United States, but in a shameful and cowardly act, the US government denied them access.

Thus, on June 6 the St. Louis was forced to return to Europe where the refugees were eventually divvied up among several European countries – 287 to the United Kingdom, 214 to Belgium, 224 to France and 181 to the Netherlands. As the Nazi juggernaut flattened Europe over the next 18 months many of the refugees once again found themselves under the heel of the Nazi jackboot. Many of the refugees perished in the Holocaust, however, a majority were able to survive the war.

In the subsequent years, the plight of the refugees aboard the St. Louis has been highlighted in print (Refuge Denied & Voyage of the Damned) and the big screen (Voyage of the Damned). As the great statesman Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Sadly, good men chose to do nothing when the refugees aboard the St. Louis came calling in Cuba and the United States.

civil war steamboat

Sultana Ablaze
Photo: Library of Congress

In the waning weeks of the Civil War, the riverboat Sultana departed New Orleans with a load of livestock and passengers bound for St. Louis. Having developed a leak in one of its boilers, the ship stopped in at Vicksburg, Mississippi for some makeshift repairs to replace the leaking boiler plates. Following this stopover, the ship proceeded upriver against the strong spring currents of the Mississippi. Aboard the ship were hundreds of recently released Yankee POWs making their way home from Confederate prison camps. On the evening of April 27, 1865, as the ship’s crew piled on steam to overcome the Mississippi’s currents, a massive explosion ripped through the wooden bowels of the ship and set the entire vessel aflame.

Ablaze and adrift, the Sultana ran aground on the west bank of the Mississippi near present-day Marion, Arkansas. Despite the efforts of several rescue ships, hundreds perished in the frigid waters of the Mississippi from hypothermia or drowning. Dozens more were killed by the initial explosion and subsequent fire. Most of the survivors were taken ~9 miles downriver to Memphis where another ~300 died from their burns. The official death tolleventually reached 1,547, however, estimates have ranged as high as 1,900. Regardless of which figure is correct, the sinking is to this day the deadliest maritime disaster in US history. Despite its high body count, the Sultana’s sinking, both in 1865 and in a historical context, has often been overshadowed by President Lincoln’s assassination and the conclusion of the Civil War.

USS Samuel B. RobertsIn his latest book, For Crew and Country, historian John Wukovits recounts the incredible story of the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts and her rendezvous with destiny in the Philippines at the Battle of Samar. Building off James Hornfischer’s excellent The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors which recounted the larger tale of the Battle of Samar, Wukovits focuses exclusively on the Roberts, her crew, construction, shake-down and foray into the Pacific theater. Divided into four parts, the book deals first with the molding of both the vessel and her crew, then moves on to early cruises in the Atlantic and Pacific, segues into the Battle of Samar and concludes with the aftermath of the battle.

While the back story is intriguing and important to subsequent events, For Crew and Country shines brightest in Wukovits narration of the Battle of Samar. Wukovits expended hours conducting interviews and poring over first-hand accounts and correspondence between crew and family members to piece together a gripping minute by minute account of the battle. Wukovits’ narrative technique is so effective that as readers burn through the book’s pages, they can smell the sulfur of battle, hear the ringing echo of the Roberts’ five inch guns pounding away at Japanese warships and taste the sea spray that douses the crew with each near-miss from Japanese salvos.

Although some readers may find Wukovits usage of vernacular history a bit tedious and slow, especially in the telling of the backstory prior to the battle, the technique is fascinating when applied to the battle itself. Unlike some texts which focus on big events and big actors, For Crew and Country eschews this approach to present readers with a moving narration of what a World War II naval battle was like for the common sailor. In sum, For Crew and Country is an excellent read and Wukovits has done much to honor the memory of the brave and intrepid crew of the Roberts.