The Lost Tankers (Current Project)
When so many submerged cultural sites exist in a geographical area the size of North Carolina, the identification of so many wrecks can become clouded by folklore and inadequate research practices. Even in today's age of "knowledge", a vast number of mysteries still exist in the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
During World War I & II, the German U-boat records were accurate and precise, while the U.S. Government struggled with the new threat the German submarines brought to the East Coast of America. Even after 70 years, the U.S. records are vague and incomplete, which feeds the mysteries to this day.
Sequence of events showing attack on Papoose
What ship lies at the "hutton" wreck?"
When we first began this project in August of 1998, we thought maybe W. E. Hutton and S. S. Papoose were reversed in their positions. We had a meeting early that month, with Paul Branch, Historian at Fort Macon State Park, who was the first to find this research and discover the mistake of The Lost Tankers. We all proceeded on the "reverse theory", until then SIDCO VP, Dave Pope suggested that the ship located at the "hutton" site could be the previously undiscovered S. S. Ario. Then historian Dale Hansen shared his vast research on this mystery with SIDCO and a huge number of puzzle pieces were assembled and it all began to make sense. A team of sport divers had located S. S. Papoose off Wimble Shoals, using Dale's research. Papoose drifted, bow awash, for several days, until she finally sank near Hatteras, some time on March 22, 1942.
Dale also pointed out that S. S. Ario was one of the few T2 tankers to be equipped with a 3rd mastwhich is very rare. Only 3 or 4 of the sunken T2 tankers in NC waters had 3 masts, and only one T2 with a 3rd mast was sunk off Beaufort Inlet, Ario!
S. S. Ario
In 1920, two nearly exact ships were completed by Bethlehem Shipbuilding, one at their Alameda, CA shipyard and one at the Sparrows Point yard in Maryland. Though built on opposite sides of the country, these two vessels will become entangled in the very basics of this mystery. The ship built in Alameda would become W. E. Hutton. The other ship, hull number 4202, would become S. S. Ario.
This tanker was some 453 feet long, 56 feet wide and 27 feet in draught and weighed in at 6,952 tons. Her freeboard amidships was 33 feet, 6 inches. Ario was owned by Socony-Vacuum Transportation Company, Inc. and her home port was New York, NY.
Assigned the code letters LWOV and given the official numbers “219798”, Ario was described as a “steel schooner”, having 2 decks with longitudinal and web framing, machinery aft, electrical lighting and a wireless Directional Finder for use in navigation by radio signal. It is extremely important to note at this point that Ario was built with three masts. These masts were used to mount booms and move cargo or heavy hoses, mount antennas and navigational lighting, flags and light rigging. Most vessels of this era used only two masts. Ario was rated to carry Petroleum in bulk, and fitted for oil, fuel and “FP” above 150 degrees. Her boilers were rated at 220lbs. and 125lbs. respectively and her engine horsepower is equated at 598 HP. The engine was manufactured at the shipyard at Bethlehem, Sparrows Point as a 3 cylinder reciprocating steam unit with bores of 27”, 47” and 78” respectively and a stroke of 48”.
Official number- 219834
Official letters- KUMN
435.0 x 56.0 x 32.0, 7076 gross tons, 4359 net tons, draft- 27' 4"
2 decks, poop deck- 123', forecastle- 33', bridge- 50'
Machinery aft, longitudinal framing, fitted for fuel oil and carrying petroleum in bulk.
Built in 1920 at Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp- Alameda, CA, hull #- 1467
Original name- Portola Plumas.
Owner at time of loss- Pure Oil Co.
Home port at time of loss- Baltimore
Engine- Triple expansion- 27"/ 47"/ 78", stroke- 48", NHP 422
Engine builder- Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp.
Sunk- 03/ 18/ 1942, 2355 PM. Torpedoed at 2338, 2nd torpedo at 2348.
Torpedoed- 20 miles, SW of Cape Lookout Gas Buoy ("knuckle buoy"?)
Theoretical position- 27143.2 39524.3 (loran)
Course and speed at time of first torpedo- 049 degrees true, 10 knots.
S. S. Papoose
The S.S. Papoose
Official numbers- 226583
Official letters- WNBS 2 decks.
Machinery aft, longitudinal framing, steel and web frames.
Built in 1921 by S. Western Shipbuilding Company- San Pedro, CA
Original name- Silvanus
Owner at time of loss- American Republics Corp.
Homeport at time of loss- Wilmington, Delaware.
Engine- Triple expansion- 27 3/16 " x 45 " x 74 ", stroke- 48 "
Engine builder- Hooven, Ownes, Retschler Co., Hamilton, Ohio.
Sunk- 03/ 20/ 1942, unknown. Torpedoed at 2231, 2nd torpedo at 2244.
Torpedoed- 15 miles SW of Cape Lookout
Theoretical position- 27074.0 39431.1 (loran)
Course and speed at time of first torpedo- 236 degrees true, 11.4 knots
Evidence proving "papoose" is W. E. Hutton
Account of the attack from original U-124 War Diary- BdU (u-boat command) records:
"FIRE, Distance- 1500m, Position- 80 degrees, Speed- 10 knots Hit aft engine room. Tanker sinks at the stern a little deeper, creates a lot of black smoke."
"Tanker sends radio message on the 600m band: "USA- tanker "Papoose" 5939 tons..." Probably in ballast."
"COUPE DE GRACE, Distance- 900m. Hit the forward corner of the engine room. Strong detonation,cloud of dust. Explosion continues forwards toward the bow. Tanker continues sinking at the stern up to the smokestack. Will continue to sink further. Depth of water- 35m. Continue voyage towards South-West."
"Tankerin sight on opposite course, 50 degrees. Turn towards him to fire bow torpedo."
"SPREAD, Distance- 800m, Position- 80 degrees, Speed- 11 knots. First hit at the bow, heavy detonation, tanker sinks a little at the bow, turns to starboard and decreases speed. Second torpedoa miss."
"Tanker sends radio message on the 600m band: USA- tanker "W. E. Hutton" 7076 tons, loaded..."
"COUPE DE GRACE, Distance- 800m, hit under the bridge. Tanker sinks up to the gunwale, bow underwater,bridge is in flames."
"Disengaged towards the South. At three-quarters of an hour, the fire glow disappears suddenly- tanker probably sunk at this moment.Depth of water- 40m"
"Still 1+4 eels (torpedoes). Move 120 degrees toward the South-East away from the coast to transfer deck torpedoes."
Update: On 12 July, 2014, SIDCO divers located and documented All Three Masts on the site called "hutton". This proves that the ship at this site is actually S. S. Ario!
The Hatteras Wrecks
In 2000, we began working with historian Dale Hansen, and after compiling our research this story expanded two fold. The mistake includes two (maybe three) more tanker wrecks that are sunken off Hatteras and the northern Outer Banks. We are including them on this web page as part of the project as a whole. The information we and Dale have compiled is VAST and this web page is not near big enough to do the project justice. We are working on a book about this project called The Lost Tankersthat will include the backgrounds, the extended proof, proper identifications and descriptions and "how to"s about the wrecks themselves. This book has been delayed in publishing three times as the info comes rolling in, but we are working on it.
The photos below are pretty bad. We are looking for better photos of both Mirlo and San Delfino, especially hard copies we can re-scan in hi-res. Until then, this is the best we have. If you have a better photo, please contact us at email@example.com
S. S. Mirlo
On August 16, 1918, a German U-boat attack on a tanker took place off Chickamacomico (Hatteras) that would result in one of the most famous rescues in US Coast Guard history. Mirlo was carrying a full cargo load of 6,679 tons of gasoline and other petroleum products. Captain William R. Williams quickly turned his ship west, trying to beach her, but he only got two miles when there was a second explosion. The third earth-shaking explosion ripped the Mirlo in two, releasing her entire explosive cargo, which floated on top of the water. It ignited. The resulting inferno was too large to describe or even to imagine. One local newspaper’s headline at the time simply read “Ocean Catches On Fire.”
Captain John Allen Midgett, Jr. and his five available surfmen immediately manned their Surfboat No. 1046 and tried to launch her, but extremely heavy surf required additional help. It took a full 30 minutes to finally launch through the raging surf. They went out five miles and encountered only a wall of flames, literally hundreds of feet tall. One contemporary author wrote, “what happened next was too implausible for any book or movie. What happened next could not have happened. Nonetheless, it did.”
Surfboat No. 1046 and its crew went through that wall of flames. The heat was so intense that it not only singed the life-savers’ hair and smoked their cork life vests, but it also actually blistered the paint on the boat. After enduring a six and a half hour hellish ordeal, and traveling a total of 28 nautical miles, the gallant crew brought back alive 42 of the 51 British sailors. In his report, “Captain Johnnie” wrote, in typical life-saver understatement, “Returned to Station 11:00 PM. Myself and crew very tired.”
The six rescuers were awarded the Grand Cross of the American Cross of Honor, the supreme medal for valor. That made it the most highly awarded maritime rescue in U.S. history. The boat is still on display in Chicamacomico’s 1874 Life-Saving Station.
S. S. San Delfino
San Delfino was a British tanker of some 8,072 tons, 463 feet long, 61 feet wide and some 33 feet indraught. She was completed in 1938 at Haverton Hill, Middlesbrough by Furness Shipbuilding Ltd. Her homeport was London, and her owners were Eagle Oil & Shipping Company Ltd. They had assigned Captain Albert E. Gumbleton as her master.
San Delfino was equipped with an impressive array of defensive weaponry that borders on changing her classification of gunboat. Her main weapon, mounted aft-most on the main deck, was a 4-inch gun, with crew consisting of 6 crewmen and a 12-pounder gun with its crew, mounted above the 4-inch gun on the stern poop. Beyond these crew-serviced weapons, there were seven small caliber medium machine guns including four Marlin .30 cal., a Lewis gun and two .303 Hotchkiss weapons. A formidable collection of weaponry IF the enemy u-boat could be detected, located and targeted. Even in daylight, that would have been a great feat in itself.
She was attacked, torpedoed, and eventually sunk by U-203, on 10 April 1942, with a terrible loss of life. She had taken on a cargo of 11,000 tons of aviation fuel from Houston, Texas, on April 3rd; now this cargo of fuel was an inferno floating on deep blue water. Torpedoed ships at sea have been described as “a fire on the water…” or “…the water was on fire…” In this inferno, 28 brave merchant crewmen died, leaving only 22 survivors. These men were lost when their lifeboat drifted back into the burning oil and was consumed in the flames. Four of the six military crewmen were lost with the ship, while the other two were rescued with the ship’s crew by HMS Norwich City and taken to Morehead City, NC. One unconfirmed source states that the survivors were first picked up by a trawler out of Ocracoke named Two Sisters
U-203 was also having a bad day on April 10th. According to one account, it took seven torpedoes to do the job, due to misses and duds, a tremendous handicap to any u-boat at sea. That’s like sending a soldier in to combat with 90 of his 150 bullets being duds. The frustration would have been unimaginable, as the crew reacted with highs and lows in morale. The first torpedo struck at 0347, two more missed, finally, after firing a total of seven “eels”, a final strike at 0508 sent the tanker down.
The captain of U-203 that day, Rolf Mutzelberg and his crew were stopped, safely in deep water and open ocean, on September 11 1942, when they decided to take a swim. More like young boys playing on a hot, fall afternoon, than the crew of a lethal warship, they frolicked about, chasing one another and diving off the conning tower. When it came time for the captain’s turn, he dove short and struck his head on the fuel tank, lying just under the water. His neck was broken and he was killed.