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Half a ship is better than none!

The Museum recently received the donation of a Ritchie “underlit” compass from a vessel that has a rather unique story associated with it. The vessel, the steam tanker Esso Nashville, was built for the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey by the Bethlehem Steel Company at its Sparrows Point, Maryland shipyard. After its launch on June 15, 1940, the Esso Nashville had a fairly standard career transporting barrels of fuel oil to ports in the United States, Great Britain, Europe and the Mediterranean.

Compass from Esso Nashville (Accession number 2017.19.01). Gift of John S. Pearson
Ritchie “underlit” compass, with flat card with central buoyancy, graduated 0°-360°. Underlit compasses are constructed with a frosted glass bottom so that a small electric light can be placed underneath the compass for nighttime illumination. Manufactured by E. S. Ritchie & Sons in Boston around 1940.

Considering the ship was transporting cargo throughout the Atlantic during World War II, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the vessel became the victim of a U-boat attack. It’s the story of what happened after the attack, both in the hours and months following, that I found really amazing.

Esso Nashville (Accession# PB7489). Photograph by Edwin Levick.

The unarmed Esso Nashville, commanded by Captain Edward V. Peters, left Port Arthur, Texas on March 16, 1942 for New Haven, Connecticut with 78,000 barrels of fuel oil. Shortly after midnight on March 21st, while off the coast of Wilmington, North Carolina, the ship was hit by two torpedoes launched by the German submarine U-124. The first torpedo struck near the bow but apparently didn’t detonate, the second hit just aft of amidships and, according to the captain, the ensuing explosion raised the 13,000 deadweight ton, fully loaded vessel “up bodily…throwing her to starboard and then keeling her to port so violently that I feared she was going to turn over.”

Model of German U-boat U-124 (TYPE IXB). (Accession# 2015.11.01). Model made by Hans Weiss. Gift of Cathy Weiss in memory of Hans Weiss.

The force of the explosion was so great that the ship’s radio officer was tossed out of bed and “the entire ship was flooded with oil which [had] spouted as high as the foremast.” Although the explosion pretty much broke the ship in half, the Esso Nashville was apparently leading a charmed existence. Not only did the fractured tanker hold together for many hours after the explosion, but, in the biggest stroke of luck of all, the ship’s cargo of fuel oil did not catch fire which enabled the 37-man crew to safely abandon ship–at least MOST of them.

Thanks to extensive training carried out by Captain Peters and his insistence that the lifeboats remain swung out at all times, and despite the fact that the vessel was a complete ice skating rink thanks to a coating of oil, the evacuation was calm and orderly. When dawn came, however, Third Assistant Engineer Henry Garig, sitting in a lifeboat about a half mile away from the stricken vessel, noticed that the ship’s flag had been hoisted at the stern in the upside down position which indicated someone was still aboard–and that someone’s story is absolutely astounding.

After giving the order to abandon ship, Captain Peters attempted to retrieve the ship’s secret documents and other papers from his cabin. After being stopped by heavy smoke and gas, he made his way to lifeboat number 2. As he stepped onto the pilot’s ladder, its oil covered surface caused him to slip and fall into the water between the ship’s side and the lifeboat. Two crew members in the lifeboat grabbed him, but lost their grip when the lifeboat, which was tangled in the ship’s rigging and railing, was forcefully smashed against the ship’s side. Afraid the lifeboat would be crushed, Captain Peters ordered the lifeboat to move away and try to pick him up later. They returned a short time later but the captain was nowhere to be found.

According to his report, Captain Peters first tried to swim away from the wreck but after nearly an hour he determined his efforts were futile because of the quantity of oil in the water and because of one minor detail he pretty much glossed over in his report–his leg was broken! Swimming back to the ship, Peters managed to get back on board “quite easily” (yeeaahhhh, riiiight, his leg was broken and he was covered in oil!) forward of the mainmast where the ship’s deck was level with the waves.

Superman’s report then mildly continues “after considerable effort (ya think?) I got aft to the engineer’s quarters” where he rested and bandaged his leg “which had badly swollen.” He then made his way up to the poop deck where he hung a sheet off the railing and raised the ship’s ensign, upside down (the universal signal of distress), in an effort to signal to rescuers that someone was still on board. At daybreak, Peters spotted the destroyer USS McKean and Coast Guard cutters Agassiz and Tallapoosa off Esso Nashville’s bow picking up the crew in the lifeboats. But did Captain Peters just lay there and wait? NO! He made his way back down to the water and attempted to swim towards the rescuing vessels. Thankfully, after being warned by Third Assistant Engineer Garig that someone was still on board, the USCG cutter Agassiz immediately steamed towards the Esso Nashville, launched a lifeboat and picked up Captain Peters.

US Coast Guard image of USCGC Tallapoosa (WPG-52)

For his heroic efforts in placing the life of his crew before his own, Captain Peters became the first member of the Merchant Marine to be awarded the American Legion Medal.

The tanker held together for many hours after the attack but it eventually broke in half sending nearly two-thirds of the vessel to the ocean floor. Amazingly, the stern section, which housed the most valuable part of the ship–the engine room–continued to float and was eventually towed by the USS Umpqua to Morehead City, North Carolina.

Photograph of stern of Esso Nashville and tug USS Umpqua (AT-25) (Accession# PB30159)

The loss of Esso Nashville occurred during one of the worst periods of submarine attacks of World War II. The need for ships was so great the shipbuilding industry was determined to reconstruct the vessel. The remains of Esso Nashville were towed to Baltimore by two Moran Towing Company vessels (it was a crew member on one of these tugs that apparently acquired the compass) to Bethlehem Steel who, in less than ten months, completely rebuilt the forward part of the ship. By the time the ship returned to service, forty-five tankers had been lost or damaged which makes it easy to understand why even the survival of just a piece of a vessel was considered priceless.

Esso Nashville in dry dock being rebuilt. From Ships of the Esso Fleet in World War II.

After returning to service, Esso Nashville continued her career by carrying over two million barrels of oil and other chemicals on twenty-three voyages, including one trip to the Russian Black Sea port of Odessa.

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