Daily Event for February 3, 2010

Barbarity and compassion, two words that describe the sinkings of two ships by German submarines on Feb. 3, 1917, one of which was an American ship. Only a few days before on Jan. 31 the German government sent out a statement to the world outlining that neutral ships would be stopped and sunk if they were within the boundaries laid out in the statement. The first such neutral ship sunk was the U.S. owned Housatonic, which ironically was originally built for Germany.

Pickhuben was launched at Barclay, Curle & Co. Ltd. in Glasgow on Nov. 13, 1890 for Dampfschiff Rhenedai Hansa of Hamburg, in 1895 she was sold to the Hamburg-Amerika Line and renamed Georgia, she was sold again on Apr. 16, 1915 to the Housatonic Steamship Company of New York where she received the last name she would carry. Her sale caused some suspicion as several German companies had sold ships to U.S. interests in an attempt to hide their true identity. They were re-flagged, but were used to clandestinely supply German warships and to bring contraband into Germany, a clever trick as a ship flying the stars and stripes would not be molested by Allied forces. While several ships were held in various ports, Housatonic's' sale seems to be above board.

On that day, Feb. 3, 1917, the U.S. government expelled the German ambassador to the United States, Count Bernstorff and severed diplomatic relations with Germany and it was originally thought that the sinking of the Housatonic was some kind of retaliation for this action, it was also thought, at first, that this act might draw the U.S. into the war. It was first reported that Housatonic was sunk without warning, which would have been a violation of the law, but as the story unfolded it was learned that nothing could have been further from the truth.

According to captain Thomas A. Ensor of the Housatonic his ship was stopped at 10:30 a.m. by SMS U-53, which was under the command of Kapitänleutnant Hans Rose. Rose fired two shots across the bows and Ensor stopped his engines. His ship was boarded and he was ordered to board the U-boat and present his papers to the captain. His ship, although U.S. owned, had been chartered by Brown, Jenkinson & Company of London and had loaded over 144,000 bushels of wheat in Galveston, Texas bound for the U.K. The grain being contraband, Rose told Ensor "You are carrying foodstuffs to an enemy of my country, and, though I am sorry, it is my duty to sink you". Ensor protested to Rose, who spoke perfect English, but to no avail, he was told to reboard his ship and instruct the crew to abandon the ship. The thirty-seven man crew got into two lifeboats and Rose dispatched the former German cargo ship with a torpedo at 12:30 p.m.

What happened next showed that not all German submarine commanders were bloodthirsty killers as was so often reported, Rose took the two lifeboats in tow toward the English coast. After towing them for an hour and a half a patrol boat was sighted on the horizon, this turned out to be the Salvator. When the ship was sighted Rose told Ensor"I am going to leave you now as that fellow will pick you up soon". However when Ensor looked through his binoculars he believed the ship had not seen him and he told Rose this and asked him not to leave, Rose responded by saying "That fellow is asleep, but I will wake him up for you". Rose then had a shot fired from his deck gun, which "woke up" the crew of the Salvator and they made all speed to the area, by then U-53 had submerged and escaped. Rose took a huge chance with his boat in order to insure the safety of the survivors of Housatonic, but 275 miles away Kapitänleutnant Erich Sittenfeld and his U-45 would write another sad story for the German submariner.

Eavestone like Housatonic sailed from Galveston, Texas and stopped at Newport News for coal, also like Housatonic she was carrying material for the war effort, steel billets and cotton. When she was nearing the English coast SMS U-45 shelled the ship without warning, but when the crew abandoned the ship, Sittenfeld deliberately shelled the lifeboats killing five men including an American, this act caused outrage in the U.S.A. and helped to push America into the war. President Wilson declared war on Germany a little more than a month later on April 6, 1917, sighting the unrestricted submarine war as one of the reasons.

The two U-boat commanders shared different fates, Rose the compassionate one survived the war and was awarded the Pour le Mérite, he died in 1969, Sittenfeld, the barbarian, suffered the horrors of dying in his submarine when HMS D-7 torpedoed U-43 on Sept. 12, 1917.
© 2010 Michael W. Pocock

Roll of Honour
In memory of those who lost their lives in
SS Eavestone
"As long as we embrace them in our memory, their spirit will always be with us"

Applewhite, Ernest E. B.
Able Seaman
Cullinane, James
Hyde, Walter
Kolmn, John R.
Wallace, Richard
Able Seaman

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