Today marks the seventieth anniversary of the sinking of the SS McKeesport by a German U-boat (April 29 1943). Like they have for many years, aging veterans and their families come to the shores of the Youghiogheny at a place called the Palisades to remember the proud little cargo ship that served its country well from 1919 to 1943 before falling victim to a torpedo and finally gunshots that sent her to her grave.
The McKeesport was a steamship built by the Federal Shipbuilding and Drydock Co., Kearny New Jersey. She was a single screw ship with a top speed of around 11 knots and armed during the World War 2 years with a four inch cannon and nine 20mm guns. The crew was a mixture of Merchant Marines and Armed Guards and had done good service in the early days of the war bringing relief supplies to Europe when they were desperately needed.
The ship was built in part with steel supplied by the National Tube Works in McKeesport and at her launching, members of that company and their families participated in the program. Built as a part of the war effort, she was launched too late to play any significant role. She would more than make up for that at the onset of World War 2. She was one of thirty ships built by US Steels plant in Kearny and was named like all the others in honor of the towns where US Steel had a plant to make steel.
The McKeesport had an active life well before the night it was struck by the German torpedo. One of her most remembered voyages was when she carried relief supplies including clothing, food, medical supplies and ambulances to help relive the suffering of the millions of French Belgium and the Netherlands during the chaotic period of 1940 when the Germans were attacking. Afterwards, she joined the convoys that helped to keep Britain and Russia afloat until America finally entered the war with purpose and numbers.
The sinking of the SS McKeesport was part of a very bad day for the 45 ship convoy. America and Britain still had not closed the U boat gap in the mid Atlantic and not enough escort ships and planes were available to fight the German Navy’s wolf pack tactics. April of 1943 was still a dangerous time for merchant shipping and this convoy was no exception. Over thirty two vessels from the convoy of 45 ships were sunk or damaged.
At 09.24 hours on 29 Apr, 1943, U-258 fired torpedoes at the convoy ONS-5 and reported hits on three ships. However, only one torpedo hit the McKeesport (Master Oscar John Lohr), the other torpedoes detonated away from the convoy after missing the ship, which had been in station #42 but had fallen slightly astern. The torpedo struck on the starboard side at the collision bulkhead and the #1 hold. The explosion blew out all beams, hatches and ballast, put the steering gear out of order and opened a large hole.
The ship continued at full speed for 45 minutes, but developed a list of 20° to port and began to sink further by the head. Then the twelve officers, 31 crewmen and 25 armed guards (the ship was armed with one 4in and nine 20mm guns) abandoned ship in four lifeboats. Due to the list, they had difficulties to launch the boats, some of them became tangled in the lifenets. The survivors were picked up within 30 minutes by the British armed trawler HMS Northern Gem (FY 194) and landed on 8 May at St.Johns, but one men died of exposure on the vessel. The HMS Tay (K 232) was ordered to sink the ship by gunfire, but apparently the vessel stayed afloat and was sunk at 14.55 hours by two coups de grâce from U-258.
April ended with a smaller U boat presence but by May, the Allies were using the advantage of technology and weaponry to turn the tide. May of 1943 was known as Black May as the Allies started pouring resources into the protection of the convoys. In the air and on the sea, the German fleet experienced their first real defeats.
May 1943 saw the U-boat strength reach its peak, with 240 operational U-boats of which 118 were at sea, yet the sinking of allied ships continued to decline. May 1943 also saw the greatest losses suffered by U-boats up to that time, with 41 being destroyed in May 1943 — 25% of the operational U-boats.
On 24 May 1943, Karl Dönitz — shocked at the defeat suffered by the U-boats — ordered a temporary halt to the U-boat campaign; most were withdrawn from operational service.
May had seen a drop in allied losses coupled with a disastrous rise in U-boat losses; 18 boats were lost in convoy battles in the Atlantic in the month, 14 were lost to air patrols; six of these in the Bay of Biscay. With losses in other theatres, accident, or other causes, the total loss to the U-boat arm in May was 43 boats.
But the news for the McKeesport was a month too late. She remains in her watery grave near Greenland, a testimony to the strength and character of the men who sailed on her in one of history’s darkest hours. U-258 was sunk by British aircraft less than a month later in an area very close to the McKeesport. Ironically, the McKeesport was her only victim before she was sent to the bottom.
A special thanks to the Merchant Marines and to the Armed Guardsmen who protected the many ships that tipped the balance during the war. In 1988 President Reagan signed legislation granting veterans status to the Merchant Marine. Their service and sacrifices helped to ensure that Hitler’s war machine would be stopped and an entire continent was restored to freedom. God Bless them all.