Daily Event for April 4, 2015

The tanker Byron D. Benson was built by the Oscar Daniels Company in Tampa, Florida in 1922 for the Tidewater Oil Company of New York. The ship was 468' long and originally registered at 8,212 gross tons. By the Second World War she had been reregistered at 7,953 gross tons (4,932 net tons).

On April 4, 1942 she was en route from Port Arthur, Texas to Bayonne, New Jersey with almost 100,000 barrels of crude oil. Coming up the eastern seaboard she was sailing in company with the tanker Gulf of Mexico under escort of HM Trawler Norwich City FY-229. At about 1930 the escort detached and the two ships proceeded alone off the coast of North Carolina. Waiting for a target some distance ahead of them was U-552 under the command of one of Nazi Germany's most famous commanders, Kapitänleutnant Erich Topp.

Topp had been in the area for several days and had sunk the David H. Atwater two days before, but he was being frustrated by U.S. air and sea patrols, which kept him submerged during daylight hours. Unable to attack by day, Topp remained submerged only able only to look through his periscope or listen to the ships as they passed by. On Apr. 4th he counted 25 (lucky) ships that passed near him.

At 2350 (U-boat time) about 1650 zone time, Topp picked up the sounds of the ships. Even though his forward periscope was steaming up he was able to make out the two tankers and an escort. He attempted to track them while submerged, but his gyrocompass had failed, further annoying him. Topp however did not give up and he followed by sound only. At 0139 (Apr. 5th U-boat time) he surfaced and sighted the ships. It was twilight and soon darkness fell and he lost sight of them. He remained surfaced and ran at high speed on the course he felt the ships would follow, even though he could not see them. At 0220 he came to a full stop and tried to listed for the ships, however contact was not made so he set off again at high speed.

Ten minutes later he sighted a shadow off to starboard, it was the escort, but the tankers were not to be seen. This would have been about the same time that Norwich City had detached. Just as Topp thought he was getting close, the starboard diesel clutch overheated and the engine had to be shut down. He submerged and listened to the ships, plotted a course and the chase was on again albeit at a lower speed.

At 0253 he surfaced again and moved toward his projected attack position. He again sighted the escort, but not the tankers and decided to make a run around the stern of the escort. By 0348 Topp realized that the escort was too far out of position to be a threat and he made best speed toward his victim. It took until 0447 (U-boat time) to get into a firing position. He fired one torpedo which was all it took.

The men in the tankers had no idea they were being hunted, the submarine was never seen by them or picked up by the escort. The torpedo hit the Byron D. Benson amidships on the starboard side at 2145 (ship time) causing a massive explosion and fire. The fatal shot had hit her between tanks 7 & 8 setting the oil ablaze. The explosion was seen by her former escort Norwich City and by two other ships, USS Hamilton DMS-18 and USCG Dione WPC-107. Hamilton was about 20 miles away and made all haste toward the stricken ship. About an hour later when they neared the burning ship they began a sweep for submarines, but found nothing. Topp had wasted no time getting out of the area. He could see the starshells being fired by Hamilton and Norwich City and moved away by 0530 (U-boat time), about 45 minutes after the attack.

On the burning tanker it was chaos, the ship's engines could not be stopped and she proceeded to make way. The ship was abandoned without orders, but as the ship was a flaming coffin orders were not necessary. Apparently there was a general panic to get off the ship. At least two lifeboats were launched, one with the master and six or eight men, the other with twenty-seven men. Two others jumped off into the water. One of them stayed aboard for half an hour and later told a terrible story. He had seen the masters lifeboat drifting toward the flaming water apparently out of control. It is not known if the boat was destroyed by the fire or not, but it is a little hard to imagine that all the men in that boat would have stayed in it knowing that they were about to be burned to death. Nevertheless neither that boat or the men in it were ever found.

The three ships on the scene, Hamilton, Dione and Norwich City searched for survivors, USS Hamilton picked up twenty-seven men out of one lifeboat at 0048 on Apr. 5th. HM Trawler Norwich City fished one man out of the water at about 0352 and USCG Dione picked up one other man, ten men were never found. The survivors were landed at NOB Norfolk, Virginia the following day. Topp claimed that the ship had sunk, but this was not true, she remained afloat until the 7th.
© 2015 Michael W. Pocock

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

Adams, Eugene
Ordinary Seaman
Baldwin, Travis V.
2nd Mate
Callahan, Vincent H.
Able Seaman
Lundbeck, James
Chief Mate
Macomber, Charles E.
Radio Officer
McMillan, John
Nielsen, Niels P.
Shields, Harry P.
Able Seaman
Sturtz, William J.
Ordinary Seaman
Vanderwoude, Jacobus H.
3rd Mate

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