Flying the flag of the world's largest oil cartel was no guarantee of security, longevity or smooth sailing by : Robert McLaren
The year 1911 was not a good year for Standard oil Company. The Supreme Court ordered the giant company to dissolve. One of the separate companies that emerged was the Standard oil Company of New Jersey (incorporated in Delaware). For a time it was known as Jersey Standard, the Delaware Company and after 1923, ESSO from the word ESS meaning the let-ter S and O for oil.
The company started its new life with a shortage of tankers. It mainly relied on chartered vessels and those of the Deutshch
Amerikaniache PetroleumGesellschafi (DAPG), a German affiliate to transport the company's crude and refined products. During 1913, the company's first tankers were built, named the SS William Rockefeller and SS John D. Archbold, and joined the fleet in 1914.
At the outbreak of WWI, the company's Foreign Shipping Department, which managed all marine operations, gained control of DAPG vessels interned in neutral American ports. In a very short time, the company tanker fleet expanded from two to 28 tankers. Additional tanker tonnage was constructed to meet subsequent war time needs and by 1917 Jersey Standard own-ed 41 tankers. That was more than a quarter of all American registered tankers afloat.
By 1919, half of the company's tankers sailing under the Jersey flag were lees than three-years old. The combined fleet of 71 ships was the second largest privately owned fleet only surpassed by the Royal Dutch- Shell fleet. During the war, the two original tankers were lost to enemy action.
At the end of WWI, a shipping boom was under way and many companies were placing shipyard orders for new ships, in-cluding Jersey Standard. In early 1920, the boom went into a depression and by the fall of the same year the company was forced to lay-up twelve tankers.
The ships were used as floating storage to offset losses.
In 1923, the dire situation reversed; the idle tankers were emptied and sailed to California to participate in the oil rush. By Oc-tober 1927, the Jersey fleet and its affiliates consisted of 92 tankers of the following registry:
Jersey Standard Shipping flying the American flag - 38
Imperial, British registry - 15
Battisch-Amerikanische (BAPICO) based inthe free city of Danzig, Germany - 13
Eight European Continent affiliates - 22
Peruvian, Argentine and Dutch registry- 4
The Jersey Company provided policy guidance and the affiliates were left to manage their own shipping affairs. Jersey Stan-dard had good years from 1920 to 1928 lifting crude oil and products for its affiliates between ports on the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Coast of the United States. It also carried crude oil to Jersey refineries from Humble and Baytown, Texas, terminals to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to sell to its markets. However in 1930, Jersey Standard had to tie-up 22 US-flag and five foreign-flag ships in response to market fluctuations. During 1931, about a quarter of the world's tankers were idle.
In May 1932, Jersey Standard purchased the Pan American Foreign Corporation's capital stock which added reserves of crude oil in Venezuela and Mexico. This large purchase also included 27 ocean going tankers and 25 smaller tankers that were used to lift crude oil from Lake Maracaibo wells in Venezuela to the Aruba refinery, all this when 25 tankers were tiedup. Again more ships were added to the growing fleet with the purchase of Hnastera Petroleum Company, Anglo-American Oil Company, Ltd. and Largo Shipping Company, Ltd. In 1933, seven new tankers were added to the fleet and the idle tankers were reduced to 17.
Demand for petroleum products remained high during 1934. Standard's tankers in reasonable condition were kept busy as shipments of fuel oil from California to North Atlantic ports continued. In 1935, the concern of an aging tanker fleet and the need for a construction program was being considered. Under existing National Maritime Policy, the coast wide shipping fleet was restricted to vessels constructed in American shipyards and flying the American flag. American built and registered ships did, in fact, have a greater expense than the foreign built and flag tankers used by Jersey's affiliates.
On 31 May 1935, with growing concern over Nazi intentions in Europe, the entire BAPICO fleet was transferred from Danzig, Germany, to Panamanian registry, creating the Panama Transportation Company (PTC) as affiliate. In December of the sa-me year Standard Shipping Company and the Marine Properties of Pan American Foreign Corporation merged with Jersey Standard Marine Department. By the end of 1936, the Jersey fleet consisted of 191 tankers. All serviceable vessels were in operation by the middle of 1937, as freight rates reached the highest level since 1930.
As the world tensions increased, the company agreed to participate in a "National Defense Tanker Program" sponsored by the US Maritime Commission. Jersey agreed to construct twelve new tankers with special features to speed conversion into Naval Auxiliaries, with the Maritime Commission funding the special features. The oil industry suffered again in 1938, due to decreased production and increased costs. Lower freight rates also came into effect. While ESSO added six oceangoing tankers to its fleet, it agreed to a Maritime request to sell four of the new "National Defense Tankers" to other operators.
The outbreak of war in Europe on 1 September 1939, stimulated the company to charter and place all serviceable tankers in-to operation.
ESSO received delivery of four new tankers, two from the "National Defense Tanker Program." Foreign affiliates lost four ships to submarines and mines. The company planned to scrap several older, less efficient ships, some of which were laid-up, but, repaired and transferred them to foreign registry.
At this time in the narrative it may be of interest to mention the changing out of the German crews on the PTC ships. The procedure of crew change was easy when the ships were in American ports. By 31 August 1939, the German crews on 16 of the 27 ships had been replaced. However, for vessels held in foreign ports the procedure was completed with some dif-ficulty. In 1946, the company published a book, Ships of the ESSO Fleet in World War II, which tells of the history of their 136 tankers. Three of the difficult crew changes will be mentioned.
The 1923 German-built MS Phoebus arrived in Hamburg, Germany, on 16 August 1939, for a two-month repair period. The ship was in a precarious position at the inception of the war. As work on the ship continued she also took on about 150-tons of general cargo consisting of spare parts for other PTC ships. Along with the parts were two launches and a small tow boat to be discharged on her return trip to Aruba. On 16 October 1939, the day before the Phoebus departed from Hamburg, her German crew was replaced by Danes. The shipment of parts was one of the last to come out of Nazi-dominated Germany. The Phoebus made 52 voyages from 1939 to 1945.
On 3 September 1939, when Great Britain and France declared war on Germany, the 1930-built F.H. Bedford, Jr. was under-way from Buenos Aires in ballast to Aruba. The ship arrived on 15 September, and a problem with the crew change began. It was decided to send American officers with a cook and steward from New York, on the ESSO New Orleans, and the rest of the unlicensed crew on the Grace Line ship Santa Paula. The Netherlands government authorities at Aruba refused to permit the German crew who had been relieved to land there without a guarantee from the owners to arrange for their prompt de-parture. As a result, the Germans were kept on the tanker, while the Americans stayed on shore. A solution that was satis-factory to all concerned was finally arrived at when the local representative of the United States Department of State received authority to issue transit visas to the Germans. On 22 November 1939, they were repatriated, via the Grace Line Santa Rosa to New York. At New York the German crew boarded the 1928-built, 601-ft, Italian interned ship Vulcania and sailed to Lisbon, under War Shipping Agency (WSA) orders. In 1947, the ship was returned to Italy.
The last German crew to be relieved was on the MS Prometheus, (sister ship of the Phoebus,) by an American crew at Saint Vincent, Cape Verde Islands. The Promeiheus arrived at Saint Vincent on 29 August 1939. and completed discharging her cargo on 2 September, the day after Germany invaded Poland. As soon as Great Britain and France declared war on Germany it was felt a ship with a German crew had a slim chance to escape capture. The company decided not to send sailing orders to the ship. With their enforced internment at Saint Vincent the crew was kept busy scrubbing, polishing, and painting until the supplies ran out. Company representatives inspected the ship in late February 1940. and reported that the ship was in very good condition. Following an exchange of cables between St. Vincent and New York, the company loaded the tanker ESSO Trenton with her American crew and all the supplies necessary to store the Prometheus. The Trenton de-parted New York on 16 March 1940, for Saint Vincent, arriving on 30 March 1940. On 1 April 1940, Capt. Adolf Mertens turned his vessel over to Capt. Jens G. Olsen.
Special orders were given to the American Captain of the Prometheus prior to departure, that read in part: "The words Re-publica de Panama are to be painted on each side of your vessel amidships, in white letters 6ft high, properly spaced over a section 110-ft long - words about 30-in apart - between the water Une and rail. A Panama flag having dimensions of about eight by twelve also is to be painted at each end of the lettering on both sides of the ship. Two Panama flags, painted on can-vas, will be supplied to you. One of the flags is to be displayed in a horizontal position over the chartroom mid ships and the other in a horizontal position at some suitable location aft. The Panama ensign is to be flown at the staff aft continuously, day and night. This flag is to be illuminated by means of a cluster of lights with suitable reflectors during the hours of darkness - except when your vessel is operating in territorial or inland waters, when only your navigation lights are to be displayed."
Both the ESSO Trenton and the Prometheus sailed for Aruba on 3 April 1940. The Prometheus sailed with her American crew until 25 May 1942, when at Galveston, Texas, she was turned over to the WSA and re-crewed with a Danish crew until the end of the war, she made 57 cargo deliveries.
Between 1939 and 1940, the Maritime Commission authorized ESSO to transfer 15 old tankers to the Panama Transporta-tion Company.
The transfer to neutral registry permitted continuous delivery of petroleum products to Great Britain and France. This was of great importance after the proclamation of neutrality act was signed on 1 November 1939, putting restrictions on American flag ships operating in Europe.
By the middle of 1940, the French and Norwegian markets were closed by the German occupation and Italy entered the war as a belligerent.
By September, 34 tankers were idle. Domestic demands soon took up the slack due to the winter season and the quicken-ing pace of industrial activity. At the same time, foreign affiliates had lost 18 tankers due to the war and five were seriously damaged. ESSO was forced to start extensive repairs to some of the company's older vessels that were laid-up.
ESSO's major lay-up site was located in the Patuxent River at Solomons Island, Maryland. The site had been used by the Shipping Board and the Maritime Commission since 1927, (see Sea Classics August 2003, Volume 36, Number 8, "Grave-yard of the German Liners").
The Maritime Commission kept a maximum of six ships at the Point Patience Site on the river, just north of the fishing com-munity. ESSO's needs were far greater in terms of both physical space and local labor requirements to work on the idle tankers. The site was located just inside of the mouth of the Patuxent River, close to where the Patuxent River Naval Air Sta-tion is now located. Although isolated, the area was near Baltimore for repair facilities, ship supplies and for the transfer of personnel. The number of tankers laid-up varied between 20 and 40 over the years. That was in response to fluctuating de-mands for crude oil and freight rates changes. When more than 20 ships were present, they were divided into two groups. The tankers were not docked or secured to the shore, but in the stream held by anchor and cabled together bow to stern.
The small SS Ethyl was stripped to the hull and became a floating boat house, to serve as "Mother Ship" with galley, mess hall and bunk room for about 265 men. The "Mother Ship" maintained four engineers and three firemen to keep up steam. In the early days of lay-up at the site close to 100 workers were employed. They were fleet sailors who were retained as an al-ternative to lay-off. They also provided an element of security. The fleet employees were supplemented by a crew of ship-yard workers from Baltimore who did the burning and welding in the installation of the Butterworth system for cleaning the ships tanks. Engine and pump repairs work beyond the capability of the fleet crew were trucked to Baltimore for repair.
The locals employed at the site became the bulk of the force in later years. Each ship was manned by four mates as watch-men and three engineers. The site was also used for the training base for the ESSO crew in the training for the annual Inter-national Lifeboat Race. The history of ESSO fleet's participation in WWII states that nine tankers were laid-up at various ti-mes during 1939, and all had left by the end of October. After the fall of France in May 1940, more than 20 ships were tied-up until late of 1940. The tankers SS Dean Emery and SS Elisha Walter departed 4 November and 6 November 1940, respec-tively. Merle T. Cole's Offprint Scorn The American Neptune, Winter 1987, states that the last tanker to sail from the site was the 1918-built SS Paul H. Harwoodm June 1941, thus ending the ESSO presence at Patuxent River.