The SS Liberator

Sunk March 19th, 1942


The following narrative was written by unknown U.S. Naval historian for the "Fifth Naval District War Diary" and was transcribed directly from the microfilm records of this account.  The account of this event was compiled from official sources and interviews from survivors cotemporaneous to the events occurrence and those sources are listed below. 



During the week ending March 21, 1942, the Axis submarine campaign reached its peak in the waters of the Fifth Naval District.  And during this peak drive, there was witness in the last few hours of the SS Liberator, a drama more strange than fiction, as the brave 7720 ton American freighter, doggedly fought her way north only to succumb in the end to an unseen lurking U-boat.

Bound for New York, the Liberator, owned by the Lykes Brothers Steamship Company of New Orleans, and built in 1918, had departed from Galveston, Texas, on March 12, 1942, with a cargo that included 11,000 tons of sulphur.  The ship was 410 feet long, and carried a crew of thirty six United States citizens.  Armed with one four inch gun mounted aft, a four man United States Navy gun crew increased the ship's complement to forty.  On this voyage no colors had been flown.  Captain Albin Johnson, and his crew, were aware of the hazards of war, and since the departure from Galveston, strict precautions had been observed.  At night the vessel remained completely blacked out, and during the day the Liberator had zigzagged in accordance with United States Navy standard pattern No. 5.

It was the misfortune of the Liberator that her operation schedule should cause her to pass through the waters off Cape Hatteras at the peak of Axis activity in that area.  But twice in the late evening of March 18, the Liberator was spared as the less fortunate freighter      SS W. E. Hutton and the tanker SS Papoose were torpedoed and sunk very near to the freighter.  All three ships, while each steaming independently, chanced to be in the same general vicinity at the time of the attacks.  Distress signals from both ships announced to Captain Johnson their fate.  Prior to evening of March 18, the long trip from Texas had been uneventful.  However, the approach to the Cape Lookout area augured disaster and the nerves of the entire crew were taut.

At 0100 March 19, two and one-half hours after the Papoose had been attacked and as the Liberator passed nine miles off the Cape Lookout Light Buoy, proceeding toward Diamond Shoals Buoy at a speed of approximately ten knots, Frank Camillo, coxswain, USN, captain of the Armed Guard Crew, observed through a telescope a "dark object" 2500 yards off the port quarter.  Immediately, Camillo prepared his gun for action, and as the object appeared to gain on the Liberator, it was identified as a "submarine".  Estimating the range as 2100 yards, one round was expended which Camillo believed hit the "conning tower of the submarine".  A mass of sparks, flashes and flames flew from the "conning tower".  The first shot had been well fired.

A minute later as the "submarine" was dimly visible in the shadows, the Armed Guard crew expended the second round, which they believed was as well aimed as the first, as a mass of sparks lighted the target as the shell exploded on the starboard side of the "submarine", just below the "conning tower".  After this shot, three lights appeared over the "conning tower" for a second or two, and then a flare was fired which landed about 1000 yards astern of the Liberator.  The flare, "a very bright white light", burned for about five minutes and turned into a red glow as it burned out.  Camillo and the other members of the Liberator's gun crew were quite positive in their description of the "submarine", describing it as 175 to 200 feet long, with a sharp pointed bow, conning tower, and a gun near the stern.  Only two rounds were expended, as after the second hit, they observed the "submarine" to "turn over on its starboard side and go down".

At no time did the Liberator or the "submarine" attempt to exchange recognition signals, and both ships remained completely blacked out.  Other members of the Liberator crew confirmed the opinion of Camillo that a "conning tower" was seen in the darkness.  The two shots had been fired between 0105 and 0110, March 19, and after the target was seen to disappear, the Liberator continued on her zigzag course toward Diamond Shoals Buoy, elated at the performance of the gun crew, grateful to have escaped the doom expected from the "submarine".

They were completely unaware that the "dark object", identified as a "submarine", was in reality the USS Dickerson, on which they had fired with disastrous results.  The freighter had been picked up by the radar gear on the Dickerson, 3600 to 4000 yards off the starboard bow of the destroyer.  Both vessels proceeding on the same course, the Dickerson at 15 knots, and gradually the range narrowed.  No recognition was attempted as it was believed the on the bridge of the destroyer that the unidentified merchantman was friendly, and the use of the blinker light would have disclosed the ship's position in the darkness.  When the Dickerson was approximately 2000 yards astern off the port quarter of the Liberator, a shrapnel shell suddenly struck the starboard side of the Dickerson's bridge, passing through the railing on the wing of the bridge, the chart room, and finally exploding in the radio shack.  Three men on the Dickerson were killed outright, and seven others were injured, including Lieutenant Commander J. K. Reybold, Commanding Officer, who later died, ten minutes before the ship docked at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia, at 1235.  The Liberator's fire was not returned as it was believed by Lieutenant F. E. Wilson, Executive Officer, that the unidentified freighter was a friendly vessel.

Tragedy still stalked the Liberator as the dawn of March 19 found the ship approaching the area of Cape Hatteras.  A moderate wind, force 3, from the north northwest fanned a moderate sea, and daylight brought good visibility.  All morning long, a base course of 085 true was followed as the speed of 9.5 knots moved the vessel toward her destination.  Captain Johnson continued to zigzag.  At 1015, the Diamond Shoals Buoy was passed three miles abeam to starboard, and two other ships were identified in the general vicinity; an unidentified freighter, and the loaded SS Esso Baltimore, both moving northward, and at this time, cutting across the bow of the Liberator.  Captain Johnson was on the bridge with his first and fourth mate.  A lookout was also stationed on the bridge with the officers, and Camillo with his gun crew continued to provide the stern lookouts.

There was no intimation that the tragic sequel of the early morning hours was to take place at this time, and Captain Johnson felt more secure in the presence of the other ships ahead of him.  The Liberator had just changed her course as the buoy was passed, when a violent explosion about twenty feet below the water-line rocked the ship.  Occurring on the port side in the after spaces of the engine room, the detonation completely destroyed the engine room and the deck above, demolishing the No. 4 lifeboat on the port side aft.  Without power, the ship gradually came to a stop.  Immediately, Captain Johnson, sizing up the situation, ordered the crew to prepare to abandon ship, as two lifeboats were launched.  A hurried muster of the crew disclosed that five members, on watch in the engine room, were missing, and had apparently been killed instantly by the explosion.  The captain then placed all his confidential papers except Radio Instructions 937 into a weighted canvass bag and threw them overside;  the thirty-five survivors quickly and without panic abandoned ship in two lifeboats.

In the water, the thirty-five survivors recovered their composure from the suddenness of the attack and the events of the preceding night, as the two lifeboats drifted aimlessly in the vicinity of the stricken vessel.  Before leaving the ship, the radio operator had transmitted an SOS on one of the ship's RCA transmitters, but he had not waited for an acknowledgement.  Twenty-five minutes after the attack, the survivors saw their ship settle peacefully beneath the green surface of the Atlantic in position latitude 35-07 N, longitude 75-19 W, where the derelict is now believed to lay.  Rescue was not long in coming, and at 1125, scarcely one hour after disaster had overtaken the Liberator, the USS Umpqua (an ocean going Navy tug) arrived on the scene and recovered the survivors from the lifeboats.  All were taken promptly to Morehead City, North Carolina.

The story of the Liberator will always present a certain amount of speculation and the word "if" cannot help but inauspiciously weave throughout the tragedy.  Unfortunately, the Commanding Officer and men of the Dickerson died in vain, and despite every human effort to safely bring his ship into New York, Captain Johnson lost the battle.  But why did the U-Boat spare the newer and larger Esso Baltimore, which was only 300 feet ahead of the Liberator when attacked?  The tanker was heavily laden with cargo.  The answer will never be known, but there is a clue.  On March 4, the fishing trawler Edith L. Hudgins, fishing in the vicinity of the attack snagged an underwater object which broke part of the nets.  The trawler's captain suggested the possibility of a mine, since in seven years of fishing, he had never experienced the same type of damage.  Also The U-boat was never seen, either before, during, or after the attack, despite the excellent visibility of the day.  Perhaps destiny, in retribution, had guided the Liberator over the one vital spot, and had spared the Esso Baltimore.


 1. Summary Report of Sinking of SS Liberator, 1015 EWT, March 19, 1942.

 2. Interrogation statements by members of the merchant crew of SS Liberator, most of these dated March 23, 1942.  (B-5 file).

 3. Questionnaires filled out by survivors of Liberator sinking.  Another form from above (NNI 142, March 23, 1942).  Confidential. (B-5 file).

 4. Regular Navy Intelligence Report, NNI 142, March 23, 1942. Confidential. (B-5 file).

 5. Memorandum dated March 21, 1942, from Coastal Information Section, 5th Naval District, to D.I.O., subject; The possible sinking of SS LIberator through contact with a mine.  Confidential. (B-5 file).

6. Confidential memorandum for D.I.O., 5th Naval District, relating to attack on USS Dickerson, dated March 21, 1942, and signed by Lieutenant Leslie E. Riggins, USNR, with attached signed statements by members of Navy gun crew aboard the SS Liberator.  (B-5 file).  



(This ends the transcript of the Naval War Record.)

Post Script

Actually, the Liberator had been the victim of a German U-boat.  The U-332 (Liebe) had fired a single torpedo, which struck the port side aft.  It is possible the torpedo was meant for the Esso Baltimore, a much more valuable target, and the Liberator a victim of unlucky timing and bad aim.  The U-boat Commander, Johannes Liebe, was also responsible for sinking the Tanker Australia three days earlier.  The U-332 was later attacked by aerial bombardment from RAF Squadron 461 on May 2, 1943 near Cape Finisterre, Spain, and sunk with the loss of all hands.  The U-332 was under command of Oberleutenat zur See Eberhard Huttemann at the time of it's sinking.


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