World War II

Fire on the Atlantic

... and suddenly it was daylight

by Jerry Norton

There’s something about the month of April (and it’s not the showers) which calls to mind an incident from my distant past. The year was 1945 when I was a young bluejacket serving in SS Kittanning, a “T-2” oil tanker on the Atlantic run to Great Britain. This was to be the last of my many Atlantic Ocean convoys before participating in the Pacific theater. Oil, of course, was the fuel which was driving our armed forces in the closing days of our war against the Third Reich.

My ship was one of approximately thirty-eight sailing in a convoy which had departed New York on 8 April of that year. It was a highly volatile assemblage of oil tankers and ammunition ships, protected by an escort of ten US Navy destroyers. The prospect of enemy interference had been dramatically reduced at that late stage of the war. Still in order to avoid detection (except for a blue stern light) we traveled as darkened ships without navigational lights. This requirement made night-time station keeping a more difficult task, given the relatively close proximity of ships in formation.

In addition to our cargo of oil, my ship had a deck load of Army Air Force P-51 Mustang fighter planes for delivery to our air force flying out of England. Unlike the slower Liberty ships to which I had previously been assigned, this convoy was comprised of ships which traveled at a speed in excess of 14 knots. This speed, particularly while we were engaged in zigzagging, required the close attention of all bridge personnel and lookouts.

It was on our second night out of New York when your writer, a signalman, was leaving the ship’s bridge at the completion of his watch just before 2000 (8 PM), when a glow of light appeared on the far side of our formation. It was followed by a low rumbling sound and then a massive ball of flame arose to light up the entire night sky over the dark Atlantic.

Two of our oil tankers had collided with disastrous results, causing the loss of both ships and the thirty-nine lives of their Navy armed guard and crew members. The war-time policy, even within the military itself, was to minimize disclosure of our losses. However, we did learn that the accident was probably caused by a loss of steering control by one of the ships.

The sky remained aglow for a lengthy period of time as the convoy continued on, leaving any survivors to be picked up by our escorting destroyers. Had this accident occurred two years earlier in the war, when U-boat strength was at its greatest, that lit sky would have summoned the enemy (from even well below the horizon) to our position and the battle would have commenced.

This association with the month of April has another memory which lingers on … for it was three days later, April 12th, when our ship’s radio operator posted on the bulletin board the news that President Roosevelt had died that day in Warm Springs, Georgia.

April 3, 2009

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