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The Gallantry of An “Ugly Duckling”
Outgunned by the Nazi raider, the Stephen Hopkins could have struck her colors. Instead she elected to fight
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
Sighting the unmistakable profile of a Liberty Ship must have elated the raider captain. The capture of a new American ship, at a time when German battleships were bottled tip in Norwegian fiords by the British navy, was an opportunity not given many Nazi officers. The Stier ’s battletrained crew were at their gun stations as the Stephen Hopkins put lier rudder over. To prevent his victim from radioing for help, Gerlach ordered his gunnery officer to fire at the bridge and wireless room. At this point, Paul Buck could have chosen to strike his colors, but with the German shells on their way he had already made his decision. He would fight. Thus began an engagement that at least one naval historian has found reminiscent of the ship-to-ship battles of the War of 1812. Not every captain would have made Buck’s unhesitating choice. No stigma of cowardice could attach to any merchant shipmaster who surrendered to Kommandant Gerlach. In only lour months since he had left Germany and audaciously moved south through the English Channel under the noses of the British, Gerlach had terrorized merchantmen in the South Atlantic, sinking or capturing almost 50,000 tons of British and American shipping.
Relying on his vessel’s innocent appearance, Gerlacli would approach a lightly armed merchantman closely enough to order her to heave to before revealing his identity. One of these, the 10,169-ton American tanker Stanvac Calcutta , ignored the command, and he ordered her decks swept clear with his 37- and 20-mm. guns. When she continued to fight, she was promptly sunk with a loss of fourteen of lier merchant crew, including the captain, and two members of her naval armed guard. When her survivors were picked up by the Stier , they learned that though the raider had met and sunk nineteen other merchant vessels of various Allied nationalities, there had been no casualties: none of the other ships had put up the slightest resistance.
The Stier ’s 5.9-inch guns could sink even a cruiser. Months earlier, a sister ship, the Kormoran (“Raider ’G’ ” to naval intelligence), had deceived the Australian cruiser Sydney by apparently consenting to come alongside to be boarded and searched. Then at point-blank range the Kormoran opened fire, and she and the Sydney shot each other out of the water. Not a man of the Australian crew of seven hundred survived.
Such was the adversary Captain Buck had decided to duel.
The first 5.9-inch salvo slammed into the Stephen Hopkins ’ superstructure. Shrapnel whistled. Jagged holes opened in thin, unarmored bulkheads. Shorted electrical wiring started fires. Shells from both German vessels churned the water alongside, seeking the range; then they hammered the ship herself.
As on any vessel under fire, individual crewmen knew only what was happening in their immediate vicinity. In the engine room Second Assistant Engineer George Cronk had donned a telephone headset to communicate with the bridge. His only knowledge of the shelling came over the headphones.
On the boat deck Ensign Kenneth M. Willett, U.S.N.R., commander of the naval armed guard, was running to his battle station at the stern gun when a high-explosive shell burst. He gasped in pain, struck in the stomach by a shell fragment.
On the bridge Captain Buck impatiently waited for his gun crews to shoot back. But down on the decks he saw only confusion. The bow 37-mm.’s were unmanned. Sailors milled about amidships, and he had to send Third Mate Walter Nyberg down to order men to put on their steel helmets and life jackets.
The small raider was now only 1,000 yards astern. A solitary rainsquall off the starboard bow offered no shelter for Buck’s ship. Determined not to surrender, he continued to give the helmsman orders to keep the stern toward the Germans. On the other side of the wheelhouse Chief Mate Richard Moczhowski stationed himself where he could watch the enemy ships and shout information to the captain.
Chief Steward Ford Stilson was in his room making out a menu when the first shots struck. He later wrote:
"At the end of this first minute or so word was passed to me that the Chief Mate had been wounded. I went back to my room, secured bandages and antiseptics and proceeded to the bridge deck, where I found the Chief Mate reclining on the deck in the thwartship passageway adjacent to the wheelhouse but very active in shouting orders and advising the Captain to keep her turning with her stern bearing on the enemy. The Mate was shot high in the chest and in the left forearm. I applied a tourniquet and bandaged both wounds. I started below to get more material ready for the next casualty, but returned up the ladder at the sound of severe groans."