Mr. Grover is a retired Commander in the Naval Reserve and a Chief Mate in the Merchalll Marine. He is the author of five books of Naval/Maritime lzist01y and many articles in related journals. He lives in Napa. California.
One of the most unusual relationships that existed between an American ship and German U-boats through the early days of World War II was that which surrounded the SS LIBER-A TOR. Somehow she had become a ship whose years of solid unspectacular service were interrupted briefly by occasional bizarre episodes of contacts with U-boats, resulting in the spinning of a complex and tangled web of circumstances involving undersea warfare.
The strange story culminated shortly after the traditionally ominous Ides of March in 1942. The setting was the infamous Torpedo Junction, that stretch of the East Coast between Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout in North Carolina along which large numbers of ships were sunk by German submarines in the opening months of American involvement in World War II, a period known as the happy time among the U-boat crews.
At that critical time and place occurred a freakish event, when-what might have passed as a comedy of errors-became instead a tragedy of errors. It was the result of an ill-fated encounter between two American ships, one World War I vintage destroyer and the other a merchant freighter which had also served in the Navy in that war. A third vessel, a German U-boat, made it an even deadlier menage a trois.
The destroyer was the USS DICKERSON, DD 157, and the freighter was the SS LIBERA TOR, which had been designated SP 3134 by the Navy in the earlier war. At the time they met at Cape Lookout in 1942 they had two things in common: each ship had been built during a World War I construction program to serve in the Navy, and each had sunk a World War I German U-boat in peace-time.
The DICKERSON was a flush-deck four-stack destroyer completed in 1919 at New York Ship in Camden. Aside from an eight year lay-up which she shared with several of her sisterships, she had experienced a typical peacetime career. At the beginning of American involvement in World War II she was working out of Norfolk on a limited patrol schedule for the Navy’s coastal command, the Eastern Sea Frontier.1 That command had only 14 destroyers on such duty on the entire East Coast, ten of which were 20-year-old classmates of DICKERSON bearing numbers in the 140s or 150s. Furthermore, these ships were not well utilized, averaging only five days at sea during the crucial month of March in 1942. DICKERSON had managed to spend 8 days on patrol that month before she … but that’s getting ahead of our story.
Her opposite number in the strange drama that was about to unfold was the steamer LIBERA TOR. A product of the shipbuilding program of the Emergency Fleet Corporation of the U.S. Shipping Board, this ship was one of a number of cargo vessels built by the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Company in San Francisco. At 410 feet in length and measuring out at 7720 gross tons with a displacement of 11,713 tons, she was one of the large and successful West type freighters which would go on to long and productive careers in the merchant fleet of the United States.
Before that service began, however, she was called upon to perform her World War I duty which had been the raison d’etre of her construction. That duty was carried out as USS LIBERA TOR. Unlike most Shipping Board freighters that were completed after the war, she actually began active duty in the Navy while the war still had several months to run. She served first as an animal transport for the Naval Overseas Transportation Service and then as a troop transport for the Cruiserrf ransport Force in bringing home the men of the American Expeditionary Force. LIBERA TOR made a number of Atlantic crossings before she was turned back to the Shipping Board in October of 1919 after 15 months of service. At that time the destroyer DICKERSON had been in commission for only one month, so it is highly unlikely that the two ships had ever been together.
During this early Navy career LIBERA TOR apparently had no direct contact with U-boats.~ That would change eight years later when, while still owned by the federal government, she was working as a freighter for the Barber Line. In those days, steamship companies could acquire government-owned ships and operate them on specified runs with subsidy from the Shipping Board. LIBERA TOR would remain in this federal ownership status until 1933.
LIBERA TOR was not the first American ship to encounter a U-boat in the Pacific in 1927. On April l01h of that year the freighter SS ELKRIDGE, under the command of Captain T. J. Flynn, encountered a submarine, apparently a derelict, in the Pacific, about 500 miles northeast of Midway, and reported the event to the Hydrographic Office of the Navy.5 On August 61\ 118 days later, LIBERA TOR encountered the same vessel, I 000 miles southwest of where she had been sighted in April, suggesting that she was drifting at 8.5 nautical miles per day. The submarine had drifted first to the east, and then after looping around Midway had come back to the west in what the Office of Naval Intelligence would later characterize as the Black Current.
The hull of the submarine was intact and was floating at a normal depth in the water, presenting a traditional profile. The most conspicuous thing about her, however, was the conning tower which consisted only of the steel frames of the structure with no plating covering them.
The captain of LIBERA TOR, a man with the unusual name of Columbus Darwin Smith, was curious about what he had found. 7 He was unaware of the earlier sighting for the simple reason that Captain Flynn had contacted the Hydrographic Office by surface mail from the Philippines, and information about this hazard to navigation had not yet been widely disseminated to mariners.
Captain Smith sent his chief officer and chief engineer to investigate; they found that the submarine hatches were dogged down and that she was seaworthy, but there was no trace of anyone having been aboard. The vessel appeared to be a German U-boat, but also had some temporary structural reinforcement inside her that had a Japanese look.
Aware of a storm out ahead on his track line to Yokohama, Captain Smith rejected an initial impulse to try to tow the vessel, and instead decided to sink her. With no explosive charges available and no desire to risk his ship by ramming the submarine, he was forced to use a slow but safe form of scuttling. After reporting his position and decision to the Hydrographic Office, he ordered his men to open all the hatches, letting the swells that sloshed across her deck eventually sink her. The submarine had taken on a list and had sunk deeper into the water by the time LIBERA TOR resumed her passage.
Upon arrival in Yokohama Captain Smith initially encountered stone-walling from officials when he asked about the submarine. Even high-raking American naval officers scoffed at his claims, until he produced photographs of both the exterior and interior of the vessel he had scuttled. These photographs are extant today, and illustrate dramatically the odd appearance of the submarine.
Eventually Smith found a Japanese naval officer who offered a logical explanation: that the vessel was probably the 0-2, the former U-46, one of seven submarines given to Japan by Germany as part of the reparations settlement immediately after World War I. She had been an eminently successful U-boat, sinking 35 merchant vessels totaling more than 150,000 tons during her career. Two of her victims had been American vessels, including USS BUENA VENTURA, an auxiliary with the Naval Overseas Transportation Service, aboard which 16 men died.
While being towed from Yokosuka to Kure in 1925 she had been separated from her tug when a storm parted the towline. The U-boat was never found again, giving the Japanese reason to assume that she had foundered. Thus, the story of the phantom submarine was finally resolved with Captain Smith’s discovery of her in 1927, even though there was still no absolute assurance that she actually had sunk after her latest encounter with LIBERA TOR.8 Moreover, a by-product of her scuttling at the hands of an American ship was the retribution which had symbolically been exacted from her for the loss of BUENA VENTURA.
It is worth noting that Captain Smith was no stranger to the U.S. Navy. As an ensign he had been awarded the Navy Cross for his role in commanding a sub chaser in World War I in the Battle of Durazzo in the Adriatic, at which time the sub chasers were assigned the containment of German U-boats. Following his time aboard LIBERA TOR he would go on to a colorful career in which he commanded Yangtze River steamers and served as a Shanghai bar and river pilot before assuming command of USS WAKE, the gunboat that was left in Shanghai at the start of the war in the Pacific. The ship was overrun by the Japanese just hours after the Pearl Harbor attack, and Smith and his crew were imprisoned for the duration.
In the meatime, Smith’s former ship, LIBERA TOR was making a name for herself back home. In 1933 she had been acquired from the U.S. Shipping Board by the Lykes Brothers, an aggressive and well-regarded steamship company headquartered on the Gulf Coast. In March of 1942, under the command of Captain Albin Johnson, she was off the North Carolina coast en route to New York with a load of sulphur when she re-established her relationship with U-boats.
March of 1942 was an exceptionally bad time for shipping along the East Coast. As many as ten German submarines were lurking between Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout, each of which could sink a number of ships before running out of torpedoes. Fires from blazing tankers lit up the nigh time sky, and by day crewmen aboard still-functioning vessels could see the half-sunk and smouldering hulls of derelict ships around them.
American destroyers, as previously noted, were scarce in the area. Smaller patrol craft were equally in short supply in the danger zones. The 51h Naval District, headquartered in Norfolk, had only five naval vessels (an eagle boat, patrol yachts, and three sub chasers) plus 16 Coast Guard craft (6 75-footers, 2 80-83 footers, 4 125-footers, 4 158-65-footers) and 4 ex-British trawlers. These vessels were augmented by the Coast Guard power boats from the coastal lifesaving stations, generally 36 footers.
It would be an understatement to say that everyone aboard the ships in that area was edgy because of the known presence of the U-boats. Aboard LIBERA TOR the edginess had turned to near-panic. According to the records of the Eastern Sea Frontier, on March 18 in mid-morning the ship had reported by radio the sighting of a U-boat, followed twenty minutes later by a report that she had been torpedoed. Shortly thereafter, she signaled that her reports were in error, and that she did not need assistance.
Apparently, at that time no workable system of recognition and challenges had been devised for ships running independently and for patrol vessels that ventured infrequently into these wild waters. Thus, it was impossible for a merchant vessel to anticipate what naval vessels to expect in the area. In the early hours of the morning of March 19, 1942, USS DICKERSON was present. She had not yet experienced a baptism of fire in World War II, but, curiously, had one German U-boat to her credit from many years earlier. In 1921 off the Virginia Capes she had been ordered to sink with gunfire the U-140 which the U.S. Navy had acquired at the end of World War I and which had been damaged in General Billy Mitchell’s infamous bombing tests earlier that year.
On the previous day, March 18, 1942, DICKERSON had picked up survivors from the torpedoed tanker, E. M. CLARK, and had transferred them to a Coast Guard small craft for delivery to the shore. Now, in the middle of the night, she found herself within two miles of LIBERA TOR, still unaware of the ship that would soon become her nemesis.
The destroyer’s captain, LCDR J. K. Reybold, then saw the contact of LIBERA TOR on the radar screen, and identified it as a large tanker, northbound at about ten knots. Having reached the southern limit of his assigned patrol sector, he came about, and placed his ship on a zig-zag pattern on a base course of045 degrees.
The night was dark, and only a sliver of a new moon was visible. Aboard LIBERA TOR, although the sequence of events has never been fully explained, someone detected nearby motion in the dark and concluded that it was a submarine on the surface. Neither is it known definitively who ordered the shells fired, but LIBERA TO R’s armed guard crew fired two rounds from the ship’s 4-inch gun at the dark target. The target turned out to be the DICKERSON. She was then only about 1500 yards from the freighter; as a result, the first shot turned out to be incredibly accurate and deadly.
The attack by LIBERA TOR decimated the bridge and chart house of the destroyer, killing four men including the ship’s captain. Much of the electronic and electrical equipment of the bridge was destroyed, but the ship could still be conned from that station. DICKERSON then began an emergency run to Norfolk at flank speed under the command of her executive officer. Apparently, Captain Johnson of LIBERA TOR had no idea at that time what his ship had done.
Johnson continued on north to a point inside of Diamond Shoals lighted buoy which was serving as a replacement for the lightship which was normally stationed there but had been called in for her own safety. That action reflected what had happened in World War I when the Diamond Shoals lightship, alerting mariners to the shoal which was located off Cape Hatteras, had been sunk by a German submarine, the U-140 no less, DICKERSON’s trophy from 1921.
At that location in mid-morning of March 19, 1942, Captain Johnson of LIBERA TOR had his first documented encounter with a real U-boat. Although it was a sunny day and Johnson had stationed no less than eight men as lookouts, no one detected any indication of trouble.13 The clear weather and choppy sea apparently favored the attacker; U-332 put a single torpedo into the port side of the engine room of the ship, killing five men and shutting down all the vessel’s power. LIBERA TOR stayed afloat for about 20 minutes, during which time the 31 survivors abandoned her in two lifeboats. The old fleet tug USS UMPQUA, A TO 25, which had witnessed the sinking, then picked up the men in the two boats and took them to Morehead City, North Carolina.
As is the case with any sinking, a number of questions arose after the loss of LIBERA TOR, and her shelling of DICKERSON. Principal among these was: who was in charge of the four-man armed guard crew, and what protocols existed for ordering the guns to be fired? Later in the war the standard naval armed guard crews had as many as 30 men commanded by a young ensign who had a few first or second class petty officers for support. Written protocols outlined the responsibilities of both the ship’s captain and the armed guard officer. However, during both the start-up and the winding down of the armed guard program throughout the Navy small detachments of only a few enlisted men sometimes existed (the author sailed on a tanker in 1945 that had a two-man armed guard crew). The risks inherent in such an arrangement were obvious, particularly when the ship was sailing alone and the senior petty officer did not have recourse to a convoy commander or to an armed guard officer on decisions concerning the use of weapons.
Today, several internet sites dealing with the prospective diving locations and with naval history indicate that the crew of LIBERA TOR reported that before their own sinking, they had engaged a U-boat in battle and sunk a German submarine, a reference to the shelling of DICKERSON.14 Thus, it seems likely that the crewmen, as they left their rescue vessel in More head City, were feeling pride in having sunk a U-boat, rather than regrets over having hit an American destroyer.
The captain of LIBERA TOR was ultimately accountable for what took place; the law of the sea, written and unwritten, could have it no other way. Yet the Navy, which by all accounts was doing an ineffective job of protecting shipping along the Atlantic Coast, must assume some responsibility, too. The trigger-happy Navy gun crew, the lack of convoys, the absence of recognition and challenge procedures, and the infrequency of destroyer patrols in the area were the result of Navy decisions. These circumstances contributed to a confusing milieu, full of jittery seafarers and ships that were incidents waiting to happen.
The armed guard crewmen in explaining their action created an additional discrepancy in the account of the incident. Their leader, a Coxswain named Camillo, reported that the firing occurred at 0105, not at 0230 as generally reported, and that he “saw the sub tum over after the attack.”15 This interpretation, however, seems to reflect only the relatively inexpert perspective of the petty officer.
Although the war diary of the Eastern Sea Frontier headquarters on March 23 contained a correct statement of the basic facts of the incident, apparently the whole story emerged only at the time of the Court of Inquiry which was convened to investigate what had happened. That investigation was surprisingly superficial; its principal findings were that the destroyer captain failed to identify or challenge the tanker, and that the gun captain on the tanker had no training whatsoever in ship recognition. In spite of these findings, it concluded that there was no improper performance of duty on the part of either man.16 It is clear that no corrective or punitive action was taken to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again, even though action reports and endorsements on those reports all agreed that recognition procedures needed improvement.
Unfortunately, neither the Naval Historical Center nor the National Archives can furnish any additional information on the engagement between DICKERSON and LIBERA TOR. Ironically, Captain Arlin Johnson of the freighter experienced deja vu only six months later when he had another ship torpedoed out from under him, JOHN PENN, a Liberty ship that was sunk by aerial torpedoes with a loss of several lives while in a convoy bound for Archangel.11 The ship initially failed to sink, and had to be sunk by the guns of escort vessels, perhaps a bittersweet memory for Johnson of his own attack on DICKERSON. One can only imagine what losing two ships under his command in six months-thus being perceived as a bit of a Jonah-may have done for the professional pride of the captain.
The only other sequel to this curious story concerns the two vessels that LIBERA TOR encountered during that briefinterlude off the North Carolina coast. In May of 1943 the U-332, which had sunk LIBERA TOR, was in turn bombed and sunk by Allied planes north of Cape Finisterre on the Spanish coast. There were no survivors. The American destroyer DICKERSON after extensive repairs returned to service with the fleet, and was subsequently redesignated as APO 2 I, a high speed attack transport. In this role, in April of 1945 at Okinawa she was hit by a Kamikaze plane in an attack that killed her commanding officer and 53 others, and rendered the ship uninhabitable and unusable. She was ordered scuttled shortly thereafter.
Thus ended the final chapter of the strange story of LIBERATOR, and of the ships and lives she touched during her impulsive showdowns with submarines.