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John Worthington - (1920-1943)
SS John Worthington : From WW II Working-class Heroe to Artificial Reef
Thanks to : From World War II Working-class Heroes to Artificial Reefs
J. Barto Arnold III, Jennifer L. Goloboy, Andrew W. Hall, Rebecca A. Hall Texas Historical Commission and J. Dale Shively Texas Parks and Wildlife
Bulletin No. 99-1

The John Worthington began her career in the far Pacific Northwest. She was a tanker launched in 1920 by the G. M. Standifer Construction Corporation of Vancouver, Washington (Lloyd’s Register, 1940). She had four sisters: the W. H. Libby, Livingston Roe, Christy Payne, and Chester O. Swain. She measured 463 feet 3 inches long between
perpendiculars (477 feet 10 inches overall), had a beam of 60 feet, and a cargo capacity of 89,851 barrels. With a fourcylinder, quadruple-expansion engine rated at 2,800 horsepower, the John Worthington had a certified speed of 9.9 knots. In a pinch, she could do more.

The Worthington was part of the growing fleet of tankers operated by the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. She operated for Standard Oil – the “Esso Fleet” – for nearly 20 years, often carrying oil from ports on the Gulf Coast to refineries and distributors on the Atlantic Coast. On September 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, the Worthington sailed from Baytown, Texas for New York with a full load of petroleum products.
Before the end of the year, she had made six wartime voyages, carrying some 533,786 barrels of oil products.

The Worthington continued to operate as part of the Esso Fleet during the early part of World War II. In 1940 she made 20 voyages, carrying 1,703,648 barrels of oil. She made 21 voyages in 1941, safely delivering 1,777,731 barrels to their destinations.

By early 1942, the Worthington had been equipped with a Naval Armed Guard and weapons for self-defense. She carried an Armed Guard of eight, led by a naval reservist coxswain. The tanker carried a 3"/23 caliber dual-purpose gun mounted on the bow, a 4"/50 caliber dual purpose gun on the stern, and four 0.50-caliber Browning machine
guns divided between the midships and aft superstructures.

In the spring of 1942, the Worthington took on a cargo of petroleum products at Baytown, Texas, bound for Bermuda. During this same period, the US convoy system was just getting organized, and German U-boats were causing heavy losses along the Eastern seaboard, particularly off Florida and the Virginia Capes. Many Allied convoys during this period were forced to make coastwise passages without escort of any kind; the Worthington’s voyage to Bermuda may have been one of these.
The Worthington rounded the tip of Florida safely, though, and continued on to Bermuda without incident. After un-loading her cargo at St. George’s, the tanker was shifted to a nearby anchorage to wait for the next US-bound con-voy. After two-and-ahalf weeks, the John Worthington was assigned the best escort available – the US Navy fleet tug Owl – and weighed anchor for New York. The trip north passed without serious incident, and the Worthington arrived safely in New York at 2:00 a.m. on May 13, 1942.

By autumn the US convoy situation had improved considerably. On the morning of November 15, 1942, under the command of Master Gunnar Gjertsen, she left New York in ballast for Galveston, Texas. Gjertsen had nearly 20 years’ experience in the Esso Fleet, having joined the company in 1925 as third mate on the Worthington. Gjertsen was all too familiar with the war against merchantmen at sea, having served as a mine warfare officer in his native Norway throughout World War I and, more recently, having served as master of the tanker Arriaga when she was torpedoed and sunk in June 1942.

The Naval Armed Guard had been expanded with the addition of more gunners and four naval communications ratings, all under the direction of Lt. (jg) Charles C. Dalton, USNR. The Worthington sailed in a slow, eight-knot convoy of 27 merchantmen and five small escorts. The first few days passed without incident. Late on the afternoon of No-vember 19, while the convoy was abreast of the Georgia coast, one of the escorts dropped two depth charges over a suspected submarine contact. The convoy commodore ordered emergency turns to avoid the area. The following day, in the forenoon watch, lookouts aboard the Worthington spotted what looked like a ditched plane off on the horizon. Two of the convoy’s escorts approached and appeared to rescue the airplane’s crew. The convoy arrived safely at Galveston in the mid-afternoon of November 25, 1942, the day before Thanksgiving.
The Worthington was routed into the Galveston Ship Channel and tied up at Todd Shipyard on Pelican Island. A Todd repair crew came aboard that evening and worked through the night repairing a leaky hull plate on the starboard bow.

The Worthington sailed at noon on Thanksgiving Day and proceeded independently down the coast to Corpus Christi. She entered Aransas Pass during the night of November 26-27, and arrived at Corpus Christi in the early morning hours of November 27. Later that morning the Worthington was shifted to the Humble Oil Docks at Ingleside, Texas on the northern shore of Corpus Christi Bay, where she took on a load of petroleum products.
She sailed from Ingleside at noon that same day and proceeded independently to Harbor Island Dock, Texas, arriving there early on November 28. The Worthington sailed from Harbor Island later that morning in convoy with five other merchantmen and six escorts. At 10:00 a.m. on the 29th, the Worthington anchored in Bolivar Roads between Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.

The Worthington sailed in convoy from Galveston later that afternoon in a convoy of 29 merchantmen and five es-corts for New York. On December 4, 1942, and again on December 5, the convoy escorts depth-charged possible submerged contacts and the convoy made emergency turns to clear the area. The convoy anchored safely at the
buoy off Ambrose Light, New York on the afternoon of December 8. After taking on her pilot and making a brief stop at Quarantine, the John Worthington made fast at Pier 5, Constable Hook in Bayonne, New Jersey, on the morning of December 9, 1942.

The Worthington sailed from New York again on December 16, 1942 in a convoy of 21 merchantmen and five escorts. A Navy blimp patrolled overhead during daylight. The convoy steamed south along the U.S. Atlantic seaboard. The following day, as the convoy passed Norfolk, nine more ships joined the group. On the morning of December 23, the convoy reached a point near Key West, Florida, and the convoy broke up into separate segments routed to different destinations. The Worthington proceeded on to Galveston, anchoring again in Bolivar Roads at noon on the day after Christmas, 1942.

After a brief layover in dry dock at Todd Shipyards, the Worthington sailed again on December 28 for the Standard Oil Docks on the Houston Ship channel, arriving in the Bayou City that afternoon. After filling her bunkers with 87,000 bbls of Navy diesel oil, she left the dock late on the afternoon of December 29, but ran aground on Hog Island, near the head of Galveston Bay. There appeared to be no damage, but a hawser became entangled in the ship’s screw. She was refloated successfully the next morning and continued slowly on to her anchorage in Bolivar Roads, where salvage divers removed the fouled hawser. She sailed from Galveston that same afternoon, December 30, 1942,
and steamed alone to Key West and then New York, arriving at Stapleton Anchorage, New York, on January 8, 1943. The Worthington had made 11 voyages in 1942, delivering nearly a million barrels of oil.

The Worthington sailed again from the Federal Anchorage in New York Harbor before dawn on January 15, 1943. Three of her tanks were filled with seawater for ballast, but she also carried 27 sacks of mail. In a convoy of 22 mer-chantmen and five escorts, she steamed first to Guantanamo Bay and then to Aruba, Netherlands West Indies, arriving there at 2:00 a.m. on January 25, 1943. At the oil docks there she took on a cargo of 30,230 bbls of diesel oil and 1,897 bbls of fuel oil, all bound for Cristobal, Panama, and 18,141 bbls of aviation fuel and 36,662 bbls of die-sel fuel consigned to the US submarine base at Coco Solo, Panama. She arrived at Cristobal on January 30, 1943, and continued on to Coco Solo the following day. She sailed from Panama without escort, returning to Aruba on February 7. On February 10, 1943, she sailed in convoy for New York with 33 other merchantmen
and four escorts. At 6:50 a.m. on St. Valentine’s Day, at 21 degrees 2' N, 72 degrees 43' W, one of the escorts ma-de contact with a suspected submarine. The corvette dropped a quick series of eight depth charges about two mi-les off the convoy’s starboard beam. Two other escorts, a corvette and submarine chaser, quickly closed the scene as the convoy commodore ordered emergency turns away from the area. The escorts continued to depth-charge the site for half an hour after the original attack, but were unable to report positive results.

On February 18, the Worthington was forced to heave-to when a link pin on one of the engine’s four main cylinders broke. The Esso tanker got underway again on three cylinders, but could not regain the convoy. The Worthington proceeded on alone, zigzagging, and reached New York on the evening of February 20, 1943.

On March 14, 1943, the Worthington sailed from New York in ballast in convoy for Aruba. The convoy consisted of 28 merchantmen and five escorts. She arrived in Aruba on March 24. There she took on 11,000 bbls of gasoline and 20,355 bbls of naval diesel fuel, destined for Pernambuco in Brazil. She loaded 8,377 bbls of gasoline, 5,630 bbls of naval diesel fuel, and 11,000 bbls of kerosene consigned to the Atlantic Oil Company office in Rio de Janeiro. Finally, she loaded 7,600 bbls of kerosene consigned to the Standard Oil Company of Brazil in Rio.

The Worthington sailed from Aruba on March 26, 1943, and proceeded in convoy with one other merchantman and a single escort. After a short stop at Cura?ao, she continued on to Port-of- Spain, Trinidad, in a convoy of 14 ships and five escorts. She sailed from Port-of-Spain on April 2, 1943, in convoy for Recife, Brazil.

Recife, formerly called Pernambuco, was a key Allied base by that time. Brazil had maintained close relations with the United States for many years, and the US Navy had taken a particular interest in developing Brazil’s own naval capabilities. While several countries in South America remained sympathetic to Nazi Germany, Brazil remained loyal to the US. When Germany and Italy declared war on the US just following Pearl Harbor, Brazil immediately broke off diplomatic relations with those nations. Brazil allowed US patrol aircraft to operate from airfields on its soil, and opened its harbors to US warships. Recife was the most important of these, for though it was isolated and only
moderately well- equipped, it was located near Cabo de Sáo Roque, the easternmost point on the Brazilian coast. After Brazil declared war on the Axis in August 1942, Recife quickly developed into a major naval installation, providing for the training, outfitting, and resupply of both Brazilian and American antisubmarine forces (Morison 1988).

The John Worthington sailed for Recife in convoy TB-7 (Trinidad-Brazil), along with 12 other merchantmen and seven escorts. It was a slow convoy – six-and-one-half knots – but it arrived safely at Recife on the evening of April 19, 1943. The Worthington sailed from Recife on April 28 in company with three other merchantmen and four escorts. The escorts left the merchantmen at La Bahia to continue on alone, and the Worthington arrived safely at Rio de Janiero on May 4, 1943.

After emptying her bunkers at Rio, the Worthington sailed again on May 14, 1943, under the command of Captain Gunnar Gjertsen. All tanks had been vented of oil fumes, and main tank nos. 3, 5 and 7 were filled with seawater as ballast. The Worthington continued up the coast to Sáo Salvador, Brazil, where she rendezvoused with a U.S.- bound convoy. The convoy sailed on Monday, May 24, and steamed slowly up the coast of Brazil.

The merchantmen of the convoy were arranged in five columns. The John Worthington took her assigned position as the second ship in the middle column. Five American warships, a destroyer and four corvettes patrolled ahead of the column and off to each side.

After sundown on May 27, the convoy came abreast of Cabo de S?o Roque. One after another, the merchantmen swung to port and settled on a northwesterly course for Trinidad. The weather was clear, with a moderate sea and a steady southeast breeze. Four minutes before midnight, a torpedo fired by U-154 racked the third ship in the column
just to starboard of the Worthington (Kelshall 1994:305). The stricken ship, the Texas Company (Texaco) tanker
Florida, immediately began to settle and fell out of formation. The officer of the watch on the Worthington, Third Mate Frederick Arfstrom, sounded general quarters. Captain Gjertsen was also on the bridge at the time of the explosion. 5
A minute or so after the Florida was hit, while the merchant crew and the Naval Armed Guard were rushing to their battle stations, a torpedo struck the John Worthington aft of the starboard side, sending up a sheet of water near the after superstructure. The force of the explosion skewed the stern of the vessel 30 degrees to port, putting her on a collision course with ships in the next column to starboard, but the tanker’s steering gear was undamaged and the
helmsman quickly got her back on course and in proper formation.

Gjertsen sent his chief mate, Frank Hooper, aft to inspected the damage. Hooper soon returned and reported that the torpedo had struck the no. 8 tank, and had seriously damaged the bulkhead separating that tank from those forward and aft. Nevertheless, he reported, the ship seemed to be structurally sound. It was fortunate that the Worthington was lightly ballasted, for she had enough reserve buoyancy to keep her afloat. The chief engineer, Walter Gilliam, telephoned the bridge and reported that, apart from some minor damage, all was well in the engine room. Gjertsen made his decision. He would stay with the convoy.

The John Worthington kept her station in the convoy and continued on to Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, a distance of over 1,900 nautical miles. Although she bore a hole in her starboard side the size of a small house, she averaged a speed of 9.14 knots over the course from Sáo Salvador, Brazil.

At Port-of-Spain, the tanker was examined by a surveyor from Lloyd’s and by Myles Bylsma, chief engineer for Standard Oil. The damage was more severe than first thought. The torpedo had blasted a hole that extended down the side of the ship from just below the main deck, around the turn of the bilge, and along the bottom to within 12 feet of the centerline bulkhead. Tanks 7, 8, and 9 were flooded.
But there had been no vibration or additional deterioration of the ship’s structure in the 1,900 miles the Worthington had traveled since the attack.
Since there were no suitable repair yards in Trinidad, the Lloyd’s surveyor certified the tanker as seaworthy enough to travel to a repair facility on the Gulf of Mexico (Figure 32).

The tanker sailed from Port-of-Spain on June 8, 1943, and arrived at Guantanamo, Cuba, five days later. She sailed again on June 14, and arrived at Galveston, Texas on the morning of June 21, 1943. She had covered the distance from Trinidad to Cuba at an average speed of 8.47 knots, and the distance from Cuba to Galveston at an average speed of 8.38 knots. In all, the John Worthington had steamed about 4,400 nautical miles since being torpedoed off
Brazil (Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, 1946: 447-51).

The Worthington was examined carefully at Todd Shipyards in Galveston. The damage was extensive, and would require considerable resources to repair. Instead of repairing the ship, the US Maritime Commission declared the John Worthington a constructive total loss (CTL). She would not be repaired.

The tanker’s guns were removed at Todd Shipyard. On July 21, 1943, Standard Oil transferred the title of the John Worthington to the War Shipping Administration. The WSA moved the ship down the Texas Coast to the Corpus Christi area. The John Worthington was abandoned in the Lydia Ann Channel, near Port Aransas, Texas.

In mid-November 1943, long after the John Worthington had been written off by the Maritime Commission, the War Shipping Administration issued a press release highlighting the tanker’s “epic 4,600-mile dash.” The press release, delayed to negate any intelligence value it might have for enemy agents, gave a brief summary of the torpedoing
and subsequent voyage to the US. Though the article did not provide much detail – again, to deny valuable intelli-gence to the enemy – the information it did contain about the incident was accurate. No mention was made of the fact that the ship would never sail again. The press release concluded by listing the names and home addresses of several of the Worthington’s merchant officers and crew, including Captain Gjertsen.

The vessel was later stripped and the hull left to fall apart until she disappeared beneath the waters of the channel between Port Aransas and Aransas Bay. The wreck is marked by a lighted buoy (Archeological Site No. 41AS88).

Departure Port
Arrival Port
Departure Date
Arrival Date
Bay Town, TX
New York
Lynnli;iven Roads, VA
Wilmin^on, NC
New York
Galveston, TX
Corpus Christi, TX
Corpus Christ i
New York
New York
Galveston (repairs at Todd Shipyard)
Houston, TX
New York
New York
Cristobal, Panama
New York
New York
Recife, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro
Rio dc Janeiro
Bahia, Brazil
Bahia (torpedoed 5/27/43)
Port of Spain, Trinidad
Port of Spain

 5 The Florida did not sink. Escorted by the corvette USS Saucy, she struggled into Fortaleza, Brazil, where she was beached and examined. Although her keel was broken, her owners salvaged the vessel and towed her to Puerto Rico, where she underwent temporary repairs. She later received permanent repairs at Chester, Pennsylvania, and re-turned to war service.