On the morning of September 24, 1943, the Esso Little Rock, commanded by Captain Roland Whittom, with her engineroom in charge of Chief Engineer Ogden E. Power, left Espiritu Santo with orders to load at Curacao.
"At about 1 p.m., October 15, 1943," Captain Whittom stated, "a Navy seaplane flew over the ship at masthead height and dropped a message in a weighted canvas pouch. Whether by good aim or luck, the container tell on the bridge within a few feet of the officer on watch. Second Mate Ernest Johnson.
"The message, a pencil note, was as follows:
'Disabled plane on water 06°03' North, 86° 10' West, bearing 060° true from Cocos Island at distance of 65 miles. Proceed and give assistance. Ensign John D. Robinson, Patrol Plane Commander 206-P-13' "The distance to the reported position was about 158 miles. At full speed, the Esso Little Rock was able to reach the location that night and for some time we turned our searchlight on the low hanging clouds, but sighted no flare in response.
Drifting Plane Located
"The wind being about west northwest, I ran down the wind for about 18 miles, continuing to play the searchlight back and forth on the clouds at frequent intervals.
"Hope was waning when we sighted a red flare, at some distance, and almost dead ahead. The contact was made at 1:35 a.m., October 16. We steered in the direction of the brilliant light and at 3 a.m. came alongside a Navy Catalina patrol bomber. Our position was then between Nicaragua and the Galapagos Islands.
"A lifeboat was launched in command of Chief Mate Ralph E. Porter. Manning the rescue boat were five members of the crew of the Esso Little Rock - Junior Engineer Stig U. Mofelt, Bos'n Melvin L. Eades, and Able Seamen Robert R. Fagan, Nick Deftereos, and Sylvester Kacipenski. Also in the lifeboat was a member of the ship's armed guard. Signalman William Heapes, USN.
"Chief Mate Porter, working in the glare of the searchlight, performed with great skill the difficult task of maneuvering the boat, in a choppy sea with a long northeasterly swell, close to the lee side'of the drifting plane; he removed its entire crew of eight without injury to them or to his own men.
"To get the survivors off. Porter found it necessary to accept the hazard of placing the boat under the heavy wing of the bomber at moments when it was not swaying downward and threatening to crush the lifeboat and the men at the oars. The task called for sound judgment and cool seamanship.
"One of the rescued men said, I didn't know whether to get off the wing or not. The boat looked so damn small !'
"Fortunately, all of the plane's crew were in good physical condition, although they had been on the wings for 43 hours after their forced landing. However, they had had nothing to eat. Their food and water had been spoiled by leaking gasoline, but heavy rain squalls had provided plenty of drinking water.
"At the request of Lieutenant W. K. Aldridge, USNR, plane captain, the disabled craft was destroyed by gunfire before the Esso Little Rock proceeded on her voyage.
"When the eight rescued officers and men were taken on board at 4 a.m.. Chief Steward Albert S. Howald was ready to supply all their wants immediately. They were given shower baths and dry clothing and then sat down to a substantial hot meal, of which the main features were ham and eggs and coffee. After eating, they turned in for a much needed sleep on bunks placed at their disposal by the ship's officers and by the petty officers of the Navy armed guard.
"The plane was forced down in a way that imperiled the lives of its crew. There was extreme danger of fire or explosion. A rubber hose on the manifold that controlled the supply of gasoline to the engine suddenly split, with the result that more than 250 gallons of aviation gasoline were pumped into one of the hull compartments, compelling the men to abandon it and get on the wings as soon as the plane alighted on the water. The whole interior was filled with the dangerous fumes, and gasoline went all over the electrical equipment. Why it didn't explode, 'Ti^'^fflie "knows. That no disaster occurred seems miraculous.
"As soon as the rubber hose split, the commanding officer brought the seaplane down. It was then in sight of Cocos Island, but the radio could not be used because of the gas.
"It took 24 hours of constant effort to bail out the compartment, which was frequently flooded with sea water to bring the gasoline to the top. Officers and men took turns; each one, braving the gas fumes, worked for a minute or so, as long as he could hold his breath.
"When the compartment was finally cleaned out and gas-free, the radio transmitter could be operated safely and the com-mander sent a message to his base at Balboa, reporting his position. Within 20 minutes a PBY, which was searching for the missing bomber and had heard the distress call, located the plane and after circling it was further successful in finding the Esso Little Rock and dropping its message on board.
"Ten hours elapsed from the time we received the emergency order until we made the rescue. In those 10 hours we first covered 158 miles to the reported position and then 18 miles before we found the plane, or a total of about 176 miles."
When the ship arrived at Balboa, the naval officer who came aboard to take care of the rescued men delivered to Captain Whittom the following letter of commendation:
"Command Panama Sea Frontier sends his sincerest appreciation and thanks in recognition of the splendid performance of the Esso Little Rock in rescuing the Navy plane crew on October 16."
The MS Esso Little Rock was built in 1940 by the Sun Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company at Chester, Penna. Her sisterships were the Esso Augusta, Esso Williamsburg, Esso Philadelphia, and Esso Pittsburgh.
A single-screw vessel of 17,950 deadweight tons capacity on international summer draft of 30 feet, 4 1/2 inches, the Esso Little Rock has an overall length of 547 feet, 2 3/4 inches, and a length between perpendiculars of 521 feet. Her moulded breadth is 70 feet and her depth moulded, 40 feet. With a cargo carrying capacity of 153,704 barrels, she has an assigned pumping rate of 8,000 barrels an hour.
Her Sun-Doxford Diesel engine develops 8,250 brake horsepower and gives her a classification certified speed of 15.2 knots.
Delivered on January 7, 1941, the Esso Little Rock sailed that day from Chester, Penna., bound for Baton Rouge, La., under the command of Captain Lester S. McKenzie, with her engineroom in charge of Chief Engineer Thomas J. Bov. At Baton Rouge the new motor tanker loaded her first cargo, 130,089 barrels - mainly kerosene with a small proportion of Varsol - which she discharged at New York.
In 1941 the Esso Little Rock made a total of 25 voyages, running from Texas to east coast ports, except for one loading each at Caripito and Las Piedras and three at Cartagena.
During the first three months of 1942 the tanker was chiefly in coastwise service until she was time chartered to the War Shipping Administration on March 30, - at New York. Thereafter she began a schedule of foreign voyages, first in the Atlantic and then in the Pacific. Leaving Aruba on May 2, commanded by Captain Whittom, with Chief Engineer Bov still in charge of her engineroom, the Esso Little Rock took a cargo of 109,742 barrels of special Navy fuel to Sydney, Australia, where she arrived June 1. By December 19, 1942, she completed four more fueling missions in the Pacific, delivering one cargo each at San Francisco and at Suva in the Fiji Islands, and two at Noumea in New Caledonia.
In 1943 the Esso Little Rock continued her service in the Pacific until September, transporting one cargo of special Navy fuel for distribution to Noumea, Auckland, and Havannah Harbor, and four others which were delivered, respectively, at Pago Pago, Suva, Wellington, and Espiritu Santo.
At Noumea, New Caledonia, on February 3, toward the end of the Guadalcanal campaign, the Esso tanker discharged her cargo of fuel to the Navy oilers USS Cimarron and USS Pasig, and at Havannah Harbor, Efate Island, on February 15, to the USS Platte and the USS Neches. The Cimarron and the Platte were National Defense Features tankers.
Nine Voyages - Five Times Around the Earth
On a total of nine voyages to distant Navy supply bases in the Pacific, in 1942 and 1943, the Esso Little Rock covered a total of 114,172 sea miles or 131,476 statute miles - more than five times the earth's .circumference at the Equator - and delivered 956,707 barrels or 40,181,694 gallons of fuel oil.
Ordered to the Atlantic, the vessel left Espiritu Santo on September 24, 1943, went through the Panama Canal, and loaded at Curacao for Halifax. Before the end of the year she went twice to New York, twice to Trinidad, and once each to Caripito and Aruba.
Throughout 1944 the Esso Little Rock's ports of call were in the Atlantic. She discharged cargoes at Halifax, New York, Cristobal, Boston, Glasgow, Trinidad, and Freetown. During the year she made 20 voyages.
In 1945, from January 1 to V-J Day, she completed nine voyages, loading mainly at Trinidad and discharging at Atlantic ports, which included Freetown and Glasgow.
The transportation record of the Esso Little Rock, from January 7, 1941 to September 2, 1945, was in summary as follows:
The wartime masters of the Esso Little Rock were Captains Lester S. McKenzie, Adolv Larson, Andrew B. Jakobsen, Roland Whittom, August Bosch, and Aage Petersen.
During the same period her engineroom was in charge of Chief Engineers Thomas J. Bov, John F. Cordes, Ogden E. Power, Seth T. Miller, Laurence T. Moore, Harold A. Morris, and Gordon R. Bennett.
Stories of the Esso Little Rock's experience and adventures in the Pacific were related for this history by Captain Whittom and Chief Mate Michael Danko.
"The Esso Little Rock left San Pedro on July 13, 1942," Captain Whittom stated, "with a cargo of special Navy fuel and more than 900 drums of 100 octane aviation gasoline. We were bound for Noumea, New Caledonia, but received orders at sea diverting us to Efate in the New Hebrides. On the morning of August 4, at about 2 o'clock, when we were not far from the New Hebrides, the lookout reported a vessel heading in our direction. The general alarm was sounded and all guns manned. Second Mate Fred N. Sigman called me. W'"hen I reached the bridge the strange craft blinkered 'Change your course to north:' We did this immediately, also taking the ship's secret documents to the bridge, ready to throw overboard. We could see the dark shape of a destroyer, which approached to within 50 feet, her guns trained on us. She gave no U.S. Navy signal. A northerly course would take us to the Gilberts, then held by the Japanese. I felt forced to give the name of our vessel when this was demanded."
To quote Chief Mate Danko's story of this incident:
"The moment the strange craft was reported. Captain Whittom directed me to go forward, where we had nearly 1,000 drums of high octane gasoline. He told me to open a number of them and have wood and paper on hand to start a fire. The Navy armed guard commander rigged up a machine gun in the engineroom with the intention of shooting out the intake to the condenser, and thus flooding the after part of the ship."
Captain Whittom, after discussion with his officers, decided to continue north until daylight. "In the morning," he said, "there was no vessel in sight. At noon we changed course and headed for the Fiji Islands. It then seemed possible that we had been ordered north by an American destroyer.
"When we arrived in Suva harbor, on the morning of August 5, they put the Esso Little Rock alongside the Navy oiler USS Platte to discharge cargo, as the commandant of the base said that fuel was badly needed in the Fijis. During our six days' stay at Suva we discharged partly into ships and partly ashore.
"I reported to the commandant about being challenged by the destroyer and ordered to go north. He asked me if I had seen a number on the destroyer and I said 'Yes, it was 408.' 'That was the USS Wil-son,' he replied. 'She directed you north to keep you out of lanes then being used by our fleet for an invasion.' A few days later he disclosed that on August 7, U. S. Marines landed on Guadalcanal."
Chief Mate Danko recalled that "On September 20, 1942, at Noumea, the Esso Little Rock supplied bunkers to the cruiser USS Atlanta. We also fueled a number of destroyers." (The Atlanta was then taking part in operations off the Solomons. Less than two months later, on November 13, the gallant ship fought her last engagement in a night action off Lunga Point which began the three-day Battle of Guadalcanal.)
Captain Whittom reported:
"While we were at Espiritu Santo, on September 15, 1943, an earthquake shook the ship. At the time the shock was felt, the Esso Little Rock was tied up to the Navy oiler USS Monongahela, of which my nephew. Lieutenant Nathan McKenzie, USNR, was first lieutenant. The earthquake caused the eruption of a volcano in the New Hebrides, 60 to 70 miles distant. We were shaken so severely that at first we thought the Esso Little Rock had been torpedoed."
Captain Roland Whittom joined the Company on March 13, 1919 and became a third mate on October 30 of the same year. He first served as master on July 22, 1922 and has had continuous service as a master since March 20, 1926.
On January 28, 1922, while chief officer of the Ampetco (first vessel so named), Captain Whittom was in charge of a lifeboat which rescued the crew of eight men of the Newfoundland schooner Optimist off the Grand Banks. Later he received a pair of inscribed binoculars from the Government of Newfoundland and a letter of commendation from Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes. With the other members of the Ampetco''s volunteer boat crew he was. presented by the British Government with a medal "For Gallantry and Humanity".
Chief Mate Ralph E. Porter, under whose leadership the Navy plane crew was saved on October 16, 1943, left the Esso Little Rock November 9 for his. vacation. As War Emergency Tankers, Inc., was in need of officers at that time, he was granted a special service leave of absence on December 31, 1943 and appointed master of the tanker Malvern Hill.
On March 11, 1945, he was assigned to command the new tanker Saint Mihiel, and on the following April 9 he lost his life when the Saint Mihiel was in collision while bound for England in convoy. Also-lost were Chief Mate Leo M. Corkum and twenty-nine other members of the crew, or a total of thirty-one.
Chief Mate Porter joined the Company on May 10, 1927. In continuous service as a licensed officer from September 24, 1931, he was promoted to chief mate on October 4, 1940.
Medals and Citations
In 1945 the War Shipping Administration awarded the Merchant Marine Meritorious Service Medal to Chief Mate Porter and two members of his lifeboat crew which rescued the Navy fliers in the Pacific-Junior Engineer Stig Uno Mofelt and Boatswain Melvin Louis Eades. The citations were the same except for the reference to each individual.
Subsequently in 1946 the same award with a similar citation accompanying it was made to Able Seaman Robert R. Fagan.
Junior Engineer Mofelt entered the Company's employ on November 6, 1942 and was assigned that day to the Esso Little Rock, on which he served until November 16, 1943.
Boatswain Eades joined the Company on March 4, 1943 and was on the Esso Little Rock from then until November 4, 1943.
Robert R. Fagan was employed as able seaman on April 10, 1943. He served continuously on the Esso Little Rock until November 4, 1943.
The medal awarded to Chief Mate Porter was received by Mrs. Ralph E. Porter at a ceremony in the Boston office of the War Shipping Administration on August 2, 1945. The presentation was made by Irving T. Sorge, Special Assistant to the Atlantic Coast Director, W. S. A.
The following citation accompanied the award:
The ADMINISTRATOR, WAR SHIPPING ADMINISTRATION, takes pleasure in commending
RALPH EVERETT PORTER, CHIEF MATE for MERITORIOUS SERVICE as set forth in the following
His ship, MS Esso Little Rock, received a message in the nature of a weighted canvas pouch dropped to the ship's bridge from a Navy PBY flying boat, giving the position of a Catalina bomber forced down in a heavy sea with a crew of eight. The master reached the reported position at 158 miles distance at full speed. There being no trace of the airmen, the vessel cruised for eighteen miles in the vicinity, playing her searchlight. Just as all hope was waning a flare was sighted dead ahead, and the tanker reached the spot in one hour and a half. Chief Mate Porter with six of his crew manned a lifeboat andy at great personal risk and by skillful maneuvering in the heavy sea, brought the lifeboat under the heavy wing of the drifting bomber as the wing swayed upward and one by one rescued the eight marooned fliers, who otherwise would have perished.
A copy of this commendation for MERITORIOUS SERVICE has been made a part of Chief Mate Porter's official record.
Chief Engineer Ralph B. Jamieson, who survived the Saint Mihiel disaster in which Chief Mate Ralph E. Porter lost his life, was awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal on November 13, 1945 by Captain Hewlett R. Bishop, Atlantic Coast Director of the War Shipping Administration, in the captain's office at 45 Broadway, New York.
The citation accompanying Mr. Jamieson's medal, signed by Vice Admiral Emory S. Land, War Shipping Administrator, on behalf of the President, reads as follows:
With a capacity cargo of high octane gasoline, the SS Saint Mihiel was rammed, in convoy, at night by another tanker, and immediately became a raging inferno. Although orders had been given to abandon ship, Jamieson remained in the engineroom for several hours afterwards and secured all equipment in such a skillful manner that it greatly facilitated later operations. He left the vessel only under orders of the Coast Guard escort. At daybreak, while the ship was still on fire, he volunteered, together with fourteen other hands, to reboard her. He succeeded in raising steam, and, by his expert handling of the machinery plant, assisted materially in bringing the badly damaged ship to port, where the smouldering fires were finally extinguished.
His devotion to duty and complete disregard of personal safety were mainly responsible for saving the ship and her valuable cargo and are in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Merchant Marine.
Chief Engineer Jamieson first joined the Company as a wiper on April 20, 1928, and he has had continuous service as a licensed officer since July 31, 1937. He raised his license to the grade of chief engineer on November 27, 1943 and on March 6, 1945, he was loaned by the Company to War Emergency Tankers, Inc., and assigned to the Saint Mihiel as chief engineer. He returned to Company service on December 26, 1945.