Daily Event for July 6, 2014

The tanker Esso Harrisburg was built at Bethlehem Steel in Sparrow's Point, Maryland in 1942 for the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. Like most other ships of her type she was chartered to the War Shipping Administration. Until 1943 the ship remained in U.S. waters making three voyages between Texas and New York. In 1943 Esso Harrisburg began making trans-Atlantic runs. Starting in January she sailed in convoy HK-120 from Hampton Roads to Gibraltar then on to Casablanca, Morocco. Four other voyages across the ocean and several others in U.S. waters brought the total of oil/fuel delivered by the ship in 1943 to 55,216,934 gallons.

In Jan. 1944 she sailed from Aruba to Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea and back, without escort. The voyage took from Jan. 19 to Apr. 1 to complete. This was followed by a voyage from Aruba to Tonga and back. Her last trans-Pacific voyage took her from Aruba on May 16 to Espiritu Santo then to Cartagena, Columbia.

The ship left Cartagena on July 5 with 113,342 barrels of crude oil bound for New York. The following day, July 6, 1944 around 1930 one of the crewmen noticed what he thought was the wake of a submarine about 500 yards off to starboard. As the object approached it was seen to turn sharply to the right and began to run parallel to the ship. The master was informed and he ordered a hard turn to port. Not long after that a torpedo struck the ship in the stern. The explosion wrecked the steering and shut down the engines, all power was lost and the master ordered the ship to be abandoned. The guns had been manned, but because the enemy did not surface they had no target to fire at. Nevertheless the guns that were still operative were fired in the direction they thought the submarine to be.

The ship had been hit by a Zaunkönig (acoustic torpedo) which homed in on the sound of the propellers, this was a relatively new weapon and was designed to be an escort ship killer, however it worked just as well on a tanker. A second torpedo struck the ship about ten minutes after the first and a third 15 minutes later. Esso Harrisburg sank a minute later.

It was fortunate for the men that the ship's cargo did not ignite as so many others had done. This made leaving the ship much easier. However the oil pouring from the hull filled the sea around the ship. Four lifeboats and two rafts were launched, but several men had jumped into the water, the master being the last man off the ship. He was seen to jump into the water, but was not seen again. Seven other men were lost in the sinking.

The survivors were between 70 and 100 miles north of Puriatujo, Columbia and drifting in rough seas. They did not know if anyone was aware of their plight, a distress call had been sent, but no reply was received. The SOS was not picked up by any shore instillation, but it was received by the tanker Guarico. But due to the lack of a radio operator (which does not explain who received the SOS) they could not alert the authorities until they arrived in Aruba at 0300 on July 7.

At 0507 a Catalina PBY-5A (P-12) took off to begin the search for the survivors. Two more PBY's (P-8 and P-14) were in the air before 0630 and USS SC-1299 sailed from Aruba toward the search area. When the morning broke one of the lifeboats had drifted out of sight, they were now making for the Columbian coast. The rest did all they could to stay together, but this was impossible. Two of the lifeboats became separated. At 0941 P-12 reported sighting an oil slick and some of the survivors. The pilot could see a raft and one lifeboat containing eighteen men in all. P-12 remained in the area until relieved by P-9, who directed SC-1299 to the position of the survivors.

Rescue did not come before night fell, but at least they knew it was coming. At midnight on July 8 the tanker Point Breeze reported sighting a submarine and P-14 was sent out to investigate, at 0625 P-14 sighted the two other lifeboats and directed HNLMS Queen Wilhelmina to the area. By that afternoon all forty-nine survivors had been picked up, SC-1299 recovered 18 men between 0800 and 0900 and Queen Wilhelmina pulled 31 more out of their boats at 1500. They were all taken to Aruba and landed. This left fifteen men in one lifeboat unaccounted for, so the search continued.

The last lifeboat made land near Santa Maria, Columbia late on July 10 where one of the men, Simon Linares who was from Peru, spoke to some of the natives. They told them of a village nearby where they could use a telephone and call for help. They were taken to Dibulla where they went to the local police station. The men were fed and housed in a schoolhouse for the night. The next morning they were offered a ride in a barge to Santa Maria, but before they left an U.S. Navy blimp, K-122 was seen a few miles off the coast.

Smoke was made and parachute flares were sent up and to signal the airship. The pilot, Lieutenant (j.g.) Willie L. Boehrs, showing a great deal of skill, brought the K-122 into a small landing zone, and lowered his co-pilot, Ensign H. L. Lewis to the ground to organize a landing party. The survivors helped with the ropes and Boehrs set the craft down. Two men were taken aboard and the airship lifted off, a second landing and two more men climbed into K-122, but this was the limit the airship could take. Ens. Lewis got back into the blimp and they made for Soledad Field in Barranquilla. The eleven men remaining were taken to Santa Maria where they were picked up by a patrol boat on the 12th.
© 2014 Michael W. Pocock

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

Breite, Leo E.
Signalman 1st Class (USNR)
US Navy Armed Guard
Henter, Robert C.
Able Seaman
Merchant Marine
Kelley, James A.
Seaman 1st Class (USNR)
US Navy Armed Guard
Kelson, Ernest S.
Merchant Marine
Klemonick, Frank E.
Gunner's Mate 3rd Class (USNR)
US Navy Armed Guard
MacDonald, Randolph E.
Merchant Marine
Stachowiak, Eugene S.
Able Seaman
Merchant Marine
Whalen, William F.
Gunner's Mate 3rd Class (USNR)
US Navy Armed Guard

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Jan. 13, 2016

Thank you for the information about the Esso Harrisburg. My Great uncle, Robert Henter, was one of the men lost. According to my dad, when the ship went down it pulled everything around it downward. I believe my grandmother, his sister was born about 1880. So Uncle Bob had to be in his 50's or 60's I'm sure.

John S. Schultz