Auke Visser's Famous T - Tankers Pages     |   home
Four Lakes
SS V.A. Fogg ( ex. Four Lakes ) - ( From WW II Working-class Hero to Artificial Reef )
Thanks to : From World War II Working-class Hero to Artificial Reef
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

Unlike most of the other ships included in this project, the Four Lakes was a T-2 tanker.

She is included because her wreck is a popular site for sport divers and anglers, and because like the Liberty Ships, she was built under a wartime emergency construction program.
The Four Lakes was built by the Alabama Drydock and Shipping Co. of Mobile, Alabama, and was completed on January 26, 1944. As she neared completion, the tanker was fitted with her armament: a 5"/38 caliber dual-purpose gun on the stern for use against both aerial and surface targets, a 3"/50 caliber dual-purpose gun at the bow, and eight 20-mm antiaircraft guns positioned around her amidships and stern superstructures. To work the guns, the Four Lakes was assigned a Naval Armed Guard of 29 men. This number included an officer housed on the star-board side of the forward superstructure near the bridge, 25 gunners with bunk space divided between the super-structures, and three Navy signalmen, assigned a small cabin just aft of the tanker’s bridge.

The Four Lakes was chartered to War Emergency Tankers, Inc., which in turn operated the tanker through the Atlan-tic Refining Company. She sailed from Mobile on the late afternoon of January 29, 1944, under the command of Elmer O. Wolfe, and arrived at Galveston, Texas just before midnight on the following day. She passed through Bolivar Roads and steamed up Galveston Bay to Baytown, where she took on a load of kerosene. She sailed from Baytown on the afternoon of February 3, and arrived without incident at New York at noon on February 9.
The Four Lakes offloaded her cargo of kerosene and on St. Valentine’s Day 1944, sailed independently from New York for Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
On the afternoon of February 16, while the tanker was about 320 statute miles east-southeast of Savannah, Georgia, the lookouts spotted what they believed to be a periscope. The crew went to General Quarters, and the Armed Guard fired two rounds from the 5-inch gun on the bow. The supposed periscope disappeared, and the remainder
of the voyage passed without incident. The Four Lakes arrived at Baton Rouge late in the afternoon of February 21, and took on a cargo of gasoline.
The tanker passed the mouth of the Mississippi on February 24, and continued on without escort to New York, arri-ving there before dawn on February 29.

At New York she joined a convoy of 28 other merchantmen and, on the afternoon of March 1, sailed in convoy for Liverpool. Six destroyer escorts accompanied the convoy. The tanker’s first transatlantic crossing was mostly un-eventful, although on the evening of March 9 the Four Lakes’ lookouts reported tracers and heavy gunfire in the distance.
The convoy continued on, and the Four Lakes passed the Liverpool Lightship on the morning of March 12, 1944.

The Four Lakes sailed in ballast from Liverpool on March 16. The orders given her master were that she would sail for some port in the United States.
The convoy of 23 merchantmen and six escorts made the westbound crossing without incident.
While en route, the Four Lakes was ordered to proceed to Philadelphia, and arrived there on the morning of March 28.
From Philadelphia the tanker was moved to New York. With a cargo of 80-octane gasoline, the Four Lakes joined an eastbound convoy of 26 merchantmen and sailed from New York on April 6, 1944.
Early on the afternoon of April 16, at 53 degrees 10' N, 18 degrees 37' W, the convoy escorts depth-charged a suspected subma-rine contact. Forty-five minutes later, the escorts made a second contact and depth-charged it.
That evening at about 2,000 hours, another escort sighted a possible periscope and made more depthcharge
runs over the contact. The convoy commodore passed the word that the escorts were prosecuting several U-boat contacts, and that Armed Guard crews were to keep a careful watch. The convoy continued on, however, and the Four Lakes passed in the Liverpool Lightship without further incident on the afternoon of April 18, 1944.

After offloading her cargo, the Four Lakes crossed the Irish Sea to Belfast, from which port she sailed on April 23 with 22 other merchantmen and six escorts for New York. On the evening of April 30, the escorts depth-charged a possible submarine contact, but otherwise there was no contact with the enemy. The Four Lakes arrived at New York on the evening of May 3.

The Four Lakes sailed again in convoy on May 12, carrying gasoline, kerosene and a load of aircraft on deck. Early the next morning, the 36 merchantmen and nine escorts which had sailed from New York were joined by a smaller contingent from Boston, bringing the combined convoy to a strength of 45 merchantmen and 13 escorts.
On the afternoon of May 16, the convoy sounded a general alarm and an escort vessel steamed quickly down be-tween the columns of merchantmen flying a black signal pennant. A few minutes later, the convoy commodore raised a flag hoist ordering all ships in the convoy to make a simultaneous 30 degrees turn to port. Once all ships in the
convoy had acknowledged the signal, the hoist was hauled down and the convoy began its turn. The escorts were unable to make a firm contact, and after 20 minutes or so on the new course the convoy secured from General Quarters.
A similar incident occurred three days later.
Shortly after noon on May 19, the convoy commodore ordered two turns to port, one of 30 degrees and a second turn of 20 degrees. Lookouts aboard the Four Lakes reported the escorts dropping depth charges on the starboard bow of the convoy. The escorts attacked another contact on the following day, May 20, on the starboard quarter of the convoy. The Four Lakes arrived at the Bar Lightship, at the entrance to the Mersey River, on the afternoon of May 23 and took on a pilot. The tanker arrived at her anchorage in the Mersey off Liverpool that same evening.

The Four Lakes sailed in ballast from Liverpool on May 28, 1944, as part of an unescorted convoy.
The following morning, in the North Channel, the Liverpool group was joined by additional escorted vessels from Belfast and Glasgow, making a combined westbound convoy of 50 merchantmen and six escorts. Early that eve-ning, as the convoy entered the Atlantic, the lookouts reported hearing depth charges. The lookouts reported more gunfire and depth charges over the next half hour.
The next several days passed without incident. On June 4, the convoy was joined by a smaller escort carrier group. Three days later, just before 1:00 p.m., the lookout reported depth charges and one of the escorts ahead was seen to be flying a black signal pennant. The suspected submarine contact must have been very close ahead of the convoy, for only four minutes after the first depth charges exploded, the convoy commodore ordered a 45 degrees emergency turn to starboard, followed by another 45? turn to starboard two minutes later. The convoy turned back to its original course a few minutes later and stood down from General Quarters, but throughout the rest of the
after-noon there were more alerts, depth charge attacks and emergency course changes. The escorts’ attacks were inconclusive.
The Four Lakes passed the Ambrose Lightship off New York just after midnight on June 9, 1944. She later dropped down the coast to Norfolk, Virginia, where she took on a cargo of gasoline, diesel fuel and aircraft.

She sailed on July 1 in a convoy of 24 merchantmen and 10 escorts. The convoy steamed eastward for the Mediter-ranean without incident until the evening of July 9, when lookouts reported seeing two white flares ahead of the convoy. This was the signal that a ship had been torpedoed, and the Armed Guard of the Four Lakes went to Gene-ral Quarters. There were no depth charges heard, though, and when no report of the supposed torpedoing came from the commodore, the Armed Guard dismissed after several tense minutes of waiting (both literally and figuratively) “in the dark.”

The Four Lakes was routed to Casablanca, on the Moroccan coast, and with three other merchantmen departed the convoy late in the afternoon of July 11. The ships were escorted by three Free French warships. The tanker anchored at Casablanca early on July 12 and began discharging her part of her cargo. Two days later she was moved to a dock, where cranes were used to offload the aircraft she had carried as deck cargo. That evening, July 14, she sail-ed with one British and one Free French escort for Gibraltar. She arrived there shortly after noon the following day, and was tied up at the coaling wharf, where she discharged the remaining fuel cargo in her tanks. Port officials ca-me aboard at 2:00 and immediately placed the ship under a 10- day quarantine, keeping the crew from going as-hore because their last port of call, Casablanca, was suspected to have active cases of bubonic plague.

The Four Lakes sailed alone on the evening of July 24, with water ballast in her tanks. In the Straits of Gibraltar she sighted her assigned westbound convoy. She joined up with the convoy shortly before midnight, bringing the strength of the convoy up to 16 merchantmen and eight escorts.
The passage across the Atlantic was without incident, and on August 2 the convoy split into two sections bound for different ports. The Four Lakes was assigned to the New York section, and anchored in the harbor there on August 3, 1944.

The Four Lakes sailed again on August 11 for Great Britain. She was part of a convoy of 52 merchantmen and 14 escorts. She again carried diesel oil in her tanks and military aircraft on deck.
The convoy was routed close to the Azores, and so was under Allied air protection for most of the way across the Atlantic. The escorts depth-charged several suspected submarine contacts, but without clear results. The convoy arrived at Swansea, in Wales, on August 22, 1944.

The Four Lakes returned to New York, and sailed again for Britain on September 12. She carried gasoline and miscellaneous deck cargo. The convoy of 44 merchantmen and 16 escorts steamed east at an average speed of 14 knots. On the afternoon of September 21, as the convoy neared the entrance to the Irish Sea, about a third of the
merchantmen and half the escorts detached themselves from the convoy, reformed, and continued eastward for Cherbourg. The remaining vessels turned northward and continued on to Avonmouth, England, a small seaport near Bristol, arriving on September 22, 1944.

On September 26, she sailed in ballast to Milford Haven, where the routine briefing for the upcoming eastbound con-voy was held the following day. The briefing customarily included both the masters and Armed Guard Officers of the merchantmen in the convoy. The notice for this particular conference, however, had been delivered with the line in-structing Armed Guard Officers to attend marked through in red pencil. The officer commanding the Armed Guard aboard the Four Lakes, Lieutenant Joseph H. Elcock, Jr., USNR, went to the meeting anyway. Elcock was told that while Armed Guard officers were always welcome, they had not been asked to come since the conference dealt
primarily with navigation, not gunnery, and also because the additional officers attending would put too much strain on the transportation available to take them from their ships to the conference and back. In his report of the incident, Elcock noted dryly that it was “rather late for an Armed Guard officer to have to establish his right to attend the
masters’ sailing conference.”

The convoy passed without incident, and the Four Lakes arrived at New York on October 8. With the U-boat threat in the Atlantic decreasing steadily, an increasing amount of the Armed Guards’ time was taken up in drills and training. But neither the Navy nor the shipping companies chartering the vessels provided the necessary resources to made
this training effective. Lt. Elcock, for example, found that aboard the Four Lakes there was no quiet compartment available where he could conduct classes or give his men a place to study for examinations required for promotion to the next rate. He had to share his own cabin with another officer, and recommended that in the future Armed Guard officers be assigned their own cabins, which could double as classrooms for the gunners. Later Elcock
complained about the lack of live-firing practice available for his men. On several Atlantic crossings in a row, the Four Lakes was assigned a position near the center of the convoy (standard practice with tankers and munitions vessels), and as a result her gunners were not allowed to fire their weapons for fear of striking another ship. Even when the Armed Guard could safely discharge its weapons, the Navy’s ammunition allowance did not provide enough ammunition for regular, realistic practice. A full year’s ammunition allowance for a 20-mm antiaircraft gun, Elcock pointed out, would be fired away in just 48 seconds.

At New York the Four Lakes took on a load of gasoline and deck cargo, and sailed in convoy for Naples, Italy, on October 14. The 16 merchantmen  from New York were joined the next day by four from Norfolk and one from Ber-muda. The combined convoy, escorted by six warships, continued on the Straits of Gibraltar, after which it began shrinking steadily as merchantmen and escorts broke off to proceed to various ports. Four merchantmen continued
on to Naples, arriving there on October 28. While in Naples, Armed Guard gunners received mail forwarded from the United States, the first time the ship had a “mail call” while in a foreign port.

She sailed again for New York on November 3, 1944, with five other merchantmen and three escorts. Off Gibraltar, the convoy was joined by 14 other merchantmen and four additional escorts.
Three days out from Gibraltar, however, the Four Lakes began to lag behind the rest of the convoy. On at least two occasions the convoy had to reduce speed by several knots to allow the Four Lakes to regain her position. Lt. Elcock, in an attempt to give his gunners suitable spotting and sight-setting drill without having to fire actual ammu-nition, set up a miniature “shooting range” on a tabletop using a sheet of canvas and a model U-boat. The gunner in
training would sight the U-boat through an inverted pair of binoculars, call out a range, spot simulated shell splashes, and gradually correct the range until he “sank” the target.
The Four Lakes arrived in New York on November 17, 1944.

On November 23, 1944, under the command of C. E. Cather, she sailed in a convoy of 26 merchantmen and 10 es-corts for Swansea, in Wales. She carried a cargo of high-octane aviation fuel. The convoy encountered heavy weather throughout the crossing, which made visual signaling between ships difficult and, on occasion, made it necessary for the Armed Guard gunners to abandon the 5-inch gun due to waves breaking over the bow. The convoy
escorts made one possible contact with a U-boat during the forenoon watch on December 3, but were unable to maintain the contact. The convoy arrived safely at Swansea the following day.
She discharged her aviation fuel at Swansea, and sailed independently for Liverpool on December 5. That evening, just after midnight, a British Sunderland flying boat on patrol flew low over the ship, dropping red parachute flares as a recognition signal. At the time, the Four Lakes was taking on seawater ballast in her empty tanks, and as a result,
a large volume of gasoline vapor was escaping from the tanks. In addition, several of the tanks which were being fil-led had already overflowed, spilling a quantity of residual gasoline on the deck. The flares from the Sunderland straddled the tanker, and two narrowly missed falling on the deck. The signalmen on the bridge tried to warn the air-men of the danger using a blinker light, but the Sunderland did not reply. At 2:00 a.m. the Sunderland appeared
again, and began to make another low pass over the tanker dropping flares. This time the signalmen aimed the 12-inch blinker light, shutters open, directly on the plane. This time the flying boat veered off and, though it made several more passes over the tanker, did not drop any more flares.

The Four Lakes sailed from Liverpool in convoy on December 9, 1944, with 33 other merchantmen and eight es-corts. The voyage passed uneventfully, and she arrived at Baltimore, Maryland on December 23.
After a refit and once again under the command of Elmer O. Wolfe, the Four Lakes sailed independently from New York on January 19, 1945 for Madras, India by way of the Suez Canal. She carried a cargo of 100-octane fuel and 12 military airplanes on deck. The voyage passed without serious incident, although the tanker suffered a seven-hour breakdown on January 25 after some of her fuel oil became contaminated with water. After entering the Indian Ocean, the Four Lakes received two “SSS” warnings of enemy submarine along her projected course. 3
In both cases the Four Lakes set a higher watch condition and altered her course to avoid the area. The Four Lakes arrived at Madras on February 20, 1945.

The Four Lakes discharged her cargo at Madras and on February 23 sailed for Calcutta, arriving on February 27. She sailed from Calcutta on March 4 for Abadan, Iran, at the northern end of the Persian Gulf.
She arrived there on March 15, 1945, and took on a cargo of 80-octane gasoline. She sailed from Abadan on March 21, passed northward through the Suez Canal, and arrived at Naples, Italy on April 7. En route, the Armed Guard Commander, Lt. Elcock, used kites as simulated targets for his antiaircraft gunners.
After a two-day stopover in Naples, the Four Lakes sailed independently in ballast for Gibraltar, where she would receive further orders routing her to Aruba in the Caribbean. Off Gibraltar, Capt. Wolfe signaled the port authorities of his orders and asked for his routing instructions to Aruba. The port authorities complied willingly, but also revealed that they had not been notified to expect the arrival of the tanker. The Four Lakes continued on, but on April 15 recei-ved new orders to proceed to New York. On that same day, the ship held a brief memorial service for President Roosevelt, who had died at Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12. On the morning of April 21, the Four Lakes encountered the Canadian corvette HMCS Douvan, which inquired as to the tanker’s name. In keeping with security precautions, Capt. Wolfe politely refused but offered to reply to the current naval recognition challenge. No challenge was forthcoming, and after several interchanges the master had the Four Lakes’ international call sign flashed to the corvette. The remainder of the voyage passed uneventfully, and the tanker arrived at New York on April 23, 1945.
Immediately upon her arrival, the Four Lakes was loaded with 80-octane gasoline and assigned to a convoy sailing the following day, April 24. The speed of the ship’s turnaround was remarkable, but it created a potentially far more serious problem.
The ship’s civilian crew had been away from the United States for more than three months, and when they learned that they would have no liberty at all in New York, over 90% of them collected their pay and signed off the ship. As a result, the Four Lakes sailed with a new crew who had only been aboard a few hours. On the second day at sea, the tanker suffered a mechanical breakdown which officers traced directly back to a new crewman inexperienced on the ship’s turboelectric drive.
The incident also pointed up the differences between the civilian seamen who ran the ship and the naval personnel who manned the guns. Merchant seamen signed on by the voyage; the Navy gunners were in for the duration of the war, with little opportunity even for transfer to another branch of the service. The gunners did not have the option of
“signing off” their ship, and this, combined with the inequities of pay, working hours and benefits, often strained rela-tions between civilian seamen and naval gunners.

The 50 merchantmen and 10 escorts crossed the Atlantic without difficulty, but upon entering the English Channel the convoy encountered poor visibility. Between 8:30 a.m. on May 3 and 10:18 p.m. the following day, the convoy made 26 emergency turns to port and starboard as the escorts reported submarine contacts and gunfire flashes. The con-voy finally anchored in the Thames below London on May 5, 1945. Two days later, the Germans surrendered uncon-ditionally to the Allies.

The Four Lakes sailed from Southend, London, on May 8 in ballast. She was part of a 38-ship convoy, with a escort of eight warships. While passing south and west through the English Channel, the convoy encountered floating min-es and more suspicious underwater contacts. Though the end of hostilities in Europe had been officially announced, the convoy maintained its normal wartime routine. The convoy arrived in New York safely on May 19, 1945.

After a long-overdue refit, the Four Lakes sailed again on June 4, 1945, with a cargo of 100-octane gasoline and P-51 fighters as deck cargo, for Madras, India. Her new master was James R. McWilliams, 4 and Lieutenant (jg) Paul L. O’Toole, USNR had assumed command of the Armed Guard.
She sailed independently without zigzagging and burned running lights at night. Lt. O’Toole got permission to test-fire his guns, shooting off five rounds each from the 3-inch and 5-inch guns, and 60 rounds from each of the 20-mm antiaircraft guns. The Four Lakes arrived at Madras, India, on the Fourth of July, 1945.

The Four Lakes then steamed west and north into the Persian Gulf, taking on a load of diesel oil at Abadan, Iran. She sailed from Iran on July 24, 1945, and proceeded independently to Darwin, Australia. At Darwin she joined two other merchantmen, and escorted by three warships, steamed north to the Philippines. She arrived at Manila on
August 22, 1945.
In September, the Four Lakes steamed eastward across the Pacific. In late October, the Four Lakes carried a load of diesel fuel from the Panama Canal Zone to San Pedro, California. She departed Los Angeles on November 2, 1945 in ballast, passed through the Panama Canal, and continued on to Houston, Texas, arriving on November 19. In December, she carried a cargo of bulk oil from Hamburg, Germany to an undetermined destination.
In February 1946, the Four Lakes was rechartered to the American Petroleum Transport Corporation.
In July 1946, she carried a cargo of bulk oil from Texas City, Texas to Baltimore, Maryland.
Shortly thereafter, she was placed in the Reserve Fleet at Mobile, Alabama. She was chartered again to the Ameri-can Petroleum Transport Corp. in 1947, and in 1948 was sold to a new company, Tanker Four Lakes, Inc. In 1959, the ship was enlarged, adding 50 feet to her length.

The Four Lakes was renamed V.A. Fogg on August 11, 1971. About this same time, the vessel was sold to Texas City Tankers, Inc. On February 1, 1972, the Fogg sailed from Freeport, Texas, into the Gulf of Mexico. She had re-cently offloaded a cargo of benzene, a highly volatile hydrocarbon, and was heading to a point 50 miles offshore to clean the tanks. She also carried a load of xylene. Something touched off a spark which ignited benzene fumes and then the volatile cargo. Sixteen of 18 wing tanks and at least two of nine center tanks blew. Steaming ahead at full speed, the ship sank like a rock. The explosion ripped apart the ship’s hull plating midway between the midships and after superstructures, almost completely splitting the vessel in two (Figure 3). All 39 men aboard were killed. The tanker quickly settled in 100 feet of water at 28 Degrees 35' N, 94 Degrees 48' W (NTSB 1974).

There was no time for the ship to send a distress call, and for several days the disappearance of the tanker was a mystery. A search team found one of the vessel’s life rafts on February 8, but noted that there was no evidence that anyone had been in it. Investigators theorized that the raft was released automatically when the ship sank. The wreck was located soon after, and on February 13 divers positively identified what remained of the vessel. Five bodies, in-cluding that of Capt. John E. Christy, were recovered (Galveston Daily News 1972).

The sudden, violent end of the Fogg, and the mystery surrounding her disappearance, have given the wreck a cer-tain notoriety. The wreck lies relatively close to shore, and in shallow enough water that it has become a popular site for sport divers. Fittings and other objects found drifting after the disaster along with those removed from the wreck itself by divers can be found in many shops, restaurants and private homes along the Upper Texas Coast. The Wil-liam H. Allen and the B.F. Shaw later joined the Fogg as the site became part of the Artificial Reef Program (Archeological Site No. 41GV136).

SS V.A. Fogg (ex-SS Four Lakes)

Departure Port
Arrival Port
Departure Date
Arrival Dale
Mobile, AL (maiden voyage)
Galvcston, TX
Galveslon & Bay Town
New York
New York
Baton Rouge, LA
Baton Rouge
New York
New York
Liverpool, England
Philadelphia, PA
New York
Belfast, Ireland
New York
New York
New York
Norfolk, VA
New York
New York
Swansea, Wales
New York
Avonmouth, England
New York
New York
Naples, Italy
New York
New York
Baltimore, MD
New York
Madras, India
New York
New York
Souihend, England
New York
New York
Abadan, Iran
Manila, PI
Canal Zone
San Pedro, CA
Los Angeles, CA
Houston, TX
Hamburg, Germany
Texas City, TX

 3 Several simple wireless codes were introduced during the war to alert Allied shipping to enemy action. In addition to the traditional “SOS,” there was “SSS” to report an attack by enemy submarine, “RRR” to report an enemy surface raider, and “QQQ” to report a “Q-ship,” a surface raider disguised as a merchant vessel (van der Vat, 1988).

 4 The first reference to McWilliams, in the Armed Guard Commander’s report of July 4, 1945, refers to him as John C. McWilliams.