May 11, 2016

The unsinkable SS Robert E. Peary

Launching of the Robert E. Peary, Kaiser Richmond shipyard, November 12, 1942

But what happened to her after the festivities and before she was scrapped in Baltimore on June, 1963? The article, “Liberty Ship, Built in Week, to be Honored” in the Oakland Tribune, September 15, 1944, tells us much of her wartime performance:

When the Merchant Marine of World War II is honored on Victory Fleet Day September 27, high on the list of celebrated ships will be the Robert E. Peary, the Liberty ship built in the world’s record time of one week to establish a high record for sailing the seas of war.

She sailed out of San Francisco Bay that November on her maiden voyage of more than 19,000 miles, carrying war cargoes to the South Pacific and followed this with trips to Casablanca and the British Isles.

Once a Lyle gun [a short-barreled cannon firing a projectile attached to a rope to a boat or victim in distress] on her deck shot a line to American soldiers marooned on an island by Japs and the Americans were thus supplied with ammunition and food until they could defeat the attackers. Even while undergoing repairs at Halifax, Nova Scotia, following a collision, her record for speed was unbroken, for loading of war supplies proceeded at the same time.

Operated by the Weyerhaeuser Steamship Company for the War Shipping Administration, she is commanded by Captain Dael P. Baird, of 3617 22nd Street, San Francisco.*

However, behind every story there’s another story.

Stock photo of the Foundation Franklin, circa 1930
Stock photo of the Foundation Franklin, 1930 [circa]

On Christmas Day of 1943, Franklin was setting a precedent. This was the first Christmas in four years that she had been in a port. Her people were celebrating, but warily, and none of them was surprised when at 1:30 P.M. the long wail of Franklin's whistle rang out over Halifax and Dartmouth. Resignedly her people put down their glasses, their after-dinner cigars, or their lady friends from off their laps, and made hurriedly for the docks.

A distress message from a vessel called the Robert Peary had just been passed to the Foundation Maritime Company from the Canadian Navy, together with instructions that Franklin was to sail at once. The information was meager, consisting of a dubious location and the fact that a naval vessel was reported to be standing by the casualty [salvage term for stricken ship].

… It was not until dusk on December 28 that Franklin finally [located] the crippled ship. The Peary was in the trough and far down by the stern as a result of the collision damage she had sustained. She was being swept by every heavy sea that passed and, seen through the curtain of blowing snow, she was a spectral shape. By 8:40 P.M. the tow was under way for Halifax, which then bore one hundred and eighty miles to the west-north-west.

At dawn Peary's master signaled to [Franklin’s Captain Harry] Brushett that his after bulkhead, which alone was keeping the ship afloat, was being badly strained and had begun to leak seriously. He was afraid that it might let go at any instant.

Franklin gave of her best. A hundred and sixty miles of head sea and head wind still lay before her, and the ship astern was sheering from side to side with depraved abandon. At dusk on the following night the cripple took a violent sheer until she rode out almost abeam of Franklin and then, with pure brute ugliness, she turned hard away, bringing such a strain on the tow-line that it rose out of the water for five hundred yards.

USPS 1991 Liberty Ship stamp featuring a portrait of Henry J. Kaiser and a collage of ships.
USPS Liberty Ship stamp, 1991

Things then proceeded to go from bad to worse.

The wire itself withstood that savage lunge, but the strain of it was too much for Franklin's steering gear and the rudder chain was ripped from the quadrant, leaving her as helpless as her charge.

…The Peary was hauling Franklin's stern so far down that every sea was breaking on the after deck. Nor was this the worst of it. The constant jerking on the wire was sending the rudder crazy, and the quadrant arm was banging back and forth with a violence that could have decapitated a man with ease.

Brushett had two courses open to him. Either he could cast off the wire in order to ease the strain so that his men would have a chance to repair the steering gear; or he could remain fast to the Peary, and hope for some moderation in the weather before the casualty was overwhelmed. He deliberately chose the latter course; for he was aware that if he cast off he might not find her again in time to save her or her crew.

The two ships lay at the mercy of the storm for six hours. [Eventually] the [Franklin’s] arresting tackle was set up taut; the rudder was firmly held, and two men crawled aft under the grating to struggle with the chain amidst the freezing slush.

The Franklin's rudder got fixed, and by midnight the Peary was headed for the safety of Bedford Basin in Halifax, the Franklin' s massive pumps keeping her afloat. They docked on December 31, the Peary was repaired, and she continued to make history. While in the Atlantic starting in April, 1943, she ran convoy routes to Europe, ferried prisoners of war from North Africa, and served off Omaha Beach on D-Day.

Tough men aboard tough ships during tough times.

*According to a September 29, 1944 article in the Kaiser Richmond shipyard newspaper Fore 'n' Aft, the first ship's master was Captain Harold E. Widmeyer, of San Pedro, Calif.