Daily Event for May 5, 2014

A ship named after the second President of the United States became the first Liberty ship sunk by enemy action in World War II. SS John Adams was built at Permanente Metals in Richmond, California, she was laid down on Sept. 17, 1941, launched Jan. 18, 1942 and delivered on Mar. 16, of the same year. She was ordered by the U.S. Maritime Commission and managed by Sudden & Christensen of San Francisco.

Less than two months later John Adams was in the Coral Sea running supplies for the Allies. She left Nouméa, New Caledonia on a voyage to Brisbane, Australia carrying 2,000 tons of aviation gasoline contained in barrels. About 140 miles or so into her 900 mile voyage the peace and quiet was interrupted by a torpedo fired by Cdr. Kanji Matsumura in I-21. The ship was an easy target for Matsumura in that she was not zigzagging, but running a straight course. She was blacked out and running at 12 knots with four lookouts posted, but none saw the torpedo approaching.

At 2305 (Zone time) the torpedo ripped a hole about 20' in diameter in her port side at number 4 hold causing the after part of the ship to erupt into flames. The fuel also spilled into the water spreading the flames around the ship. Soon the helm would not answer and the engines stopped, the aerial had been brought down by the explosion preventing a distress signal from being sent. Also due to the flames the Armed Guard were not able to take action, which really didn't matter as I-21 never surfaced.

As the fire spread toward amidships the master, Conrad Peterson, ordered the ship abandoned. Three lifeboats were launched, but the eight U.S. Navy Armed Guardsmen were aft and were prevented from reaching the boats by the fire, they jumped off the stern into the sea. Sadly only three were rescued, the five others were never found, they were the only casualties of the fifty men onboard.

As the survivors pulled away the ship continued to burn, but she did not sink, the wreck remained afloat and burning for several days. On May 6 she was located by the Greek steamer Chloe and was boarded to check for survivors. Of course none were found, but the ship's cat was rescued. They also reported that the deck house had been completely burned out. There was some concern that the ship's papers, which had not been put overboard, may fall into enemy hands, but the report from the Greeks seem to show that they had been destroyed.

Chloe fell in with the same submarine on May 7 and was sunk. Matsumura fired two torpedoes at the ship which missed, so he surfaced and ordered the men off the ship and sank her with his deck gun. At 0721 (Zone -11) USS Tangire AV-8 received a report of a ship being sunk and survivors in the water west of Bulari Pass, this was SS Chloe. They dispatched a search aircraft at 0757, A second report at 0818 and a third at 1017 confirmed the story, but the plane had not located the survivors and had to return to refuel. Taking off again at 1125 the aircraft finally located the survivors. The pilot signaled HMAS Wilcannia FYP-2 which was nearby and the small Australian vessel picked up all thirty-five men. It was then that the fate of SS John Adams was learned. By 1715 the report was received aboard USS Tangier.

At 1045 (Zone -11) May 8 one of the boats was sighted by a search aircraft. A chart was dropped to them and they were told to expect rescue the next day. A second boat was sighted at 1640, under power and headed toward New Caledonia, this boat would make land on her own.

USS Helm DD-388 was sent out to pick up the survivors early on May 9. The lifeboat was relocated by a Catalina PBY (12-P-12) at 1425 and directed USS Helm to the area. They picked up thirteen survivors, but were not able to locate the third boat. While en route to the lifeboat they passed within seven miles of the still burning John Adams, however they made no attempt to approach the ship lest the rescue of the men be delayed. The hulk was last sighted by USS Helm at 23.28S-163.18E drifting toward the west. The survivors were taken to USS Tangier at New Caledonia and given medical treatment. The men in the third lifeboat were rescued, but I have been unable to learn how or when. The John Adams finally sank, but apparently nobody knows exactly when she went down. Not only was John Adams the first Liberty ship sunk by enemy action, this was the first known action made by the Japanese in the waters off eastern Australia.

Neither I-21 or Matsumura survived the war. I-21 ended her career with a total of 11 ships sunk for about 70,000 tons, 10 of them sunk by Matsumura. He left the boat in March of 1943 and was later promoted to Commander Submarine Division 34. Matsumura went along with I-177 for a war patrol and never returned.
I-177 is believed to have been lost with all hands on Nov. 29, 1943, a victim of the U.S. Navy.
© 2014 Michael W. Pocock

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

Compton, Thomas G.
Seaman 2nd Class
U.S. Navy Armed Guard
Cook, Carl W.
Seaman 2nd Class (USNR)
U.S. Navy Armed Guard
Purkeypile, Floyd R.
Seaman 2nd Class (USNR)
U.S. Navy Armed Guard
Tingle, Ray D.
Seaman 2nd Class (USNR)
U.S. Navy Armed Guard
Tryba, Richard F.
Seaman 2nd Class
U.S. Navy Armed Guard

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Location of the attack against SS John Adams.
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Dec. 14, 2016

My father Claude Vandersee, now 92 years old, was at the helm of Chloe when they encountered the John Adams and again when they were attacked by the same submarine the following day (May 7, his 18th birthday). I've CCd him on this email and attached a document we put together detailing the events, including what I imagine are quite rare photos.

I wanted to draw your attention to one thing in particular that jumped out at us from your article - the identity of the sub and its captain. Dad had no way of identifying them at the time, but in one book we have that describes the sinking, the sub is said to be the I-21 as you've said, whilst in another it is the I-29. In both books the captain of the I-21 is identified as "Sasaki."  I hope you find something of interest in Dad's description of the events.
(Claude Vandersee's Memories of the Sinking of the Chloe)

Christian Vandersee


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