The $148 Million Cargo

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Gold! Now that’s a word that gets attention, especially when you have tons of the stuff. It certainly got mine 60-plus years ago when I was a young sailor on the heavy cruiser USS Louisville .

Scuttlebutt had it that we were homeward bound when we weighed anchor at Bahia (now Salvador), Brazil, on the day after Christmas, 1939. The crew was more than ready to get back to the U.S.A., but we were in for a surprise.

“Now hear this, now hear this.” Capt. H. J. Nelson’s voice boomed over the ship’s loudspeakers after we were well under way. He told us that we were not headed home at all. We were on our way to Simonstown, South Africa, to pick up $148 million in gold for delivery to the United States. My astonishment at the captain’s bombshell still remains sharp in my mind.

I wasn’t exactly an old salt, having been in the Navy for only eight months. After boot camp in Norfolk, I reported to an old World War I destroyer, the USS Chew , at San Diego, where my main duty was scraping rust. Had I stayed on that ship, I’d have a different brush with history to relate; the Chew achieved fame by firing some of the first American shots in World War II during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But in the late summer of 1939 I left her rusty hull without regrets.

A whaleboat delivered me to the Louisville at San Pedro, California, on the night of September 10, and the next day we weighed anchor. With war in Europe heating up, the Louisville ’s assignment was to show the flag in Central and South America and make goodwill calls in that part of the world. We visited Colon, Panama; Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande, and Santos, Brazil; Montevideo, Uruguay; Buenos Aires, Argentina; then back to Rio de Janeiro and thence to Bahia, Brazil.

The ship and crew looked their best for the crowds gathered on the docks to greet us in every port. Our Marines put on a good show during colors, and we held Open House for the citizens. Thousands toured the ship’s decks, passageways, and compartments. It was a fine time to be a young sailor, and the war in Europe seemed far away.

As the “Lady Lou” eased up to the dock in Simonstown, our eyes bugged at a stack of gold bars ricked up like cordwood. I don’t recall any special security measures around the gold when we arrived, but our ship’s Marines quickly took up guard duty. Before starting to load, we rigged a net under the gangway in case of a slip.

All hands started work at 10:30 A.M. on Sunday, January 7, 1940. A man could carry only one of the heavy bars at a time. Each bar had a serial number that an officer at the gangway recorded as the sailor brought it aboard.

The job took 13 hours. By rough calculation, based on a value of $34 per troy ounce in those days, I figure we moved 220 tons of gold bars at the rate of approximately 17 tons per hour. By 11:30 P.M. the $148 million had been secured in our ammunition magazines, and a Marine guard posted at each magazine hatch. The following day we were splitting the waves for New York at 25 knots, alone except for a large albatross that had started tailing us as soon as we cleared False Bay.

One definition of albatross in the dictionary is “something that causes deep concern or anxiety.” With worsening weather, a cargo of gold, and an awareness that we were sailing into waters infested with German submarines, our bird fitted that description very well.

We all knew that the U-boats were plentiful, wicked, and successful, especially in the Atlantic. America was neutral at the time, but Captain Nelson didn’t want to take any chances on misidentification. He had our sailmakers stitch up three huge American flags. We displayed two of them on the flat starboard and port sides of the ship. The third was stretched between the after stack and after mast and illuminated by floodlights at night.

After 17 days at sea the Louisville docked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We were met by a mass of uniformed guards with armored cars, totally different from the scene in Simonstown, where we had found the gold almost unattended. We heard then that this was the largest shipment of gold ever made by sea. Our mission to pick it up made us part of the fast-moving history of that time. Today I have no doubt that the hoard was paying for the United Kingdom’s tools of war.