Daily Event for October 30, 2013

Built at Oregon Shipbuilding Corp. in only 27 days, the Liberty ship John A. Johnson was destroyed in only a few minutes by a Japanese submarine. She sailed from San Francisco, California on Oct. 25 bound for Hawaii with a full load of war materials. Food and provisions totaling 6,900 tons, decks filled with trucks and 140 tons of explosives. The loading of the ship turned out to be most fortunate for the men on board, the explosives were in 1 and 5 holds, while the canned goods and provisions were tightly packed in the rest of the ship.

On October 30, 1944 when the ship was almost exactly half way to Hawaii she was sighted by a Japanese submarine. The I-12 was apparently the only Japanese submarine operating off the U.S. west coast and it was just a stroke of luck that Lt. Commander Kaneo Kudo located a lone ship in the middle of the north Pacific. He had commanded several other of the Emperor's submarines, but had failed to gain a confirmed kill. At 0605 Kudo fired two torpedoes at the John A. Johnson, one found the mark. Just as the ship was rolling to port a torpedo exploded on the starboard side below the waterline under #3 hold, which was filled with canned goods. Some auxiliary steam lines and fuel lines and two of the lifeboats were damaged and the radio was knocked out, but because the hold was firmly packed the amount of water being taken on was small.

The second torpedo passed astern and detonated about two miles away. The engines and most all other machinery was still in working order, there was no fire and with no other significant damage the ship might have been saved, but it was not to be.

The damage to the ship soon became apparent, only three minutes after the torpedo hit the ship began to break in half. A design flaw in Liberty ships that was usually dealt with by welding a reinforcing plate along the sides of the ship. I don't know if this ship had been fitted with such a plate or not. Ten minutes after she had been hit, John A. Johnson spit into two pieces forward of the bridge. The entire crew, including the U.S. Navy Armed Guard contingent and a U.S. Army security officer were gathered on the stern section and began to abandon the ship.

To a man all seventy got off the ship without injury, even when a lifeboat capsized, but getting off the ship was just the first hurdle they had to jump. The men were 1,200 miles from either port in two lifeboats and a raft. The distress signals sent were not picked up because the radio or antenna had been damaged and last but not least, the I-12 had come to the surface.

At first Kudo only fired on the two parts of the ship, but after the forward section exploded and sank and the stern section was set alight Kudo turned his attention to the survivors. He moved I-12 toward #2 lifeboat and the men soon realized he was going to ram them. They jumped overboard, some swimming away others hiding on the opposite side of the boat. The I-12 brushed the boat aside and then opened fire on the men in the water with machine guns and small arms. After the submarine had passed through the men returned to the lifeboat, only to jump out again when I-12 returned. This time they knew without a doubt that the submarine commander was trying to kill them all.

I-12 again only brushed the lifeboat, but when the lifeboat was about amidships Kudo turned his boat hard in an attempt to wreck the lifeboat with his screws. Five men had been killed, but Kudo failed to sink the lifeboat, he then turned toward the raft.

There were about seventeen men on the raft and as Kudo approached he again opened fire on the survivors. They went over the side and after the sub had passed reboarded the raft. Kudo came around again and tried to ram the raft, but the bow wave pushed it out of the way. A third attempt at ramming succeeded, but with only moderate damage. The machine-guns were again firing on the survivors. The other lifeboat was treated in the same way, but Kudo had failed to wipe out the crew. He finally submerged and sailed off leaving the terrified survivors to the sea. In the horror of those minutes ten men had been killed.

Having survived the loss of their ship and an attempt to murder them, the men were in leaking lifeboats a long way from land. They were lucky that a Pan American clipper flew over them and made contact. He radioed their position and a patrol boat that was nearby was sent to pick them up. At 2135 USS Argus PY-14 picked up the wet, scared and bedraggled survivors. Argus landed them on Nov. 3 at the port that had sailed from.

I-12 and her crew never made it back to Japan, she was sunk Nov. 13 by U.S. warships. None of the over 100 men on board survived.
© 2013 Michael W. Pocock

Survivors of SS John A. Johnson seen alongside USS Argus PY-14.

Roll of Honor
In memory of those who lost their lives in
SS John A. Johnson
"As long as we embrace them in our memory, their spirit will always be with us"

Boling, Frank E.
Seaman 1st Class (USNR)
U.S. Navy Armed Guard
Brady, James H.
Merchant Marine
Bunch, William H.
Seaman 1st Class (USNR)
U.S. Navy Armed Guard
Burman, Willard E.
Seaman 1st Class (USNR)
U.S. Navy Armed Guard
Christensen, Donald R.
Seaman 1st Class (USNR)
U.S. Navy Armed Guard
Cloyd, Lyle T.
Seaman 1st Class (USNR)
U.S. Navy Armed Guard
Curtius, Billy M.
Merchant Marine
Pugh, David
Merchant Marine
Race, James
Merchant Marine
Shisler, Robert R.
2nd Lieutenant
U.S. Army

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