- Historic Sites
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
With their target almost dead in the water, Gerlach’s gun crews sent salvo after salvo into the Stephen Hopkins, turning the stern into twisted, burning wreckage. Still the 4-inch gun fired back. One by one, the armed guard crew were killed or wounded, until Willett manned the gun alone. He was struggling to load again when a shell hit the magazine below the gun tub.
The harried German captain, seeing the explosion, must have assumed that the gun was out of action and that he could at last finish off his adversary. His own ship was settling at the stern, and a telephone talker relayed a story of fires fore and aft, one dangerously near a magazine. Moreover, the sea was rising, a light, intermittent rain was falling, and visibility was deteriorating. Gerlach ordered his gun crews to hurry and sink the merchantman. But he had barely turned his attention to saving his ship when the Hopkins ’ 4-inch gun fired again.
It must have seemed impossible. The Germans had seen the gun tub explode. But through the mist the 4-inch gun on the Stephen Hopkins now fired a second time. Aboard the shattered Liberty Ship, the concussion of the magazine explosion had hurled Willett to the deck of the gun tub, wounding him again. He was struggling to his feet when the youngest member of the Stephen Hopkins ’ crew, eighteen-year-old Engineering Cadet Midshipman Edwin J. O’Hara, took over the gun.
O’Hara, who had escaped the blazing engine room, had learned the basics of naval gunnery at the United States Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York, and from his friend Willett. Quickly examining the gun, he found it damaged but in firing condition. In the ready magazine lay five live rounds. O’Hara shoved one into the breech, pointed the gun, and yanked the firing lanyard. The barrel jumped and a 4-inch shell hit the Stier.
With the magazine below the gun tub in flames, O’Hara manned the gun alone, loading and firing the four remaining rounds at 900 yards’ range, and scoring hits on the Tannenfels and the Stier. Only when the shells in the ready magazine were expended and no others were to be found did he leave the gun tub and help his wounded friend look for a lifeboat.
The fight had lasted twenty minutes. On the Stephen Hopkins ’ bridge Paul Buck surveyed the blazing wreck. Besides exploding the starboard boiler and demolishing the radio shack and the mast, the Stier ’s shells had wrecked the engine steering room and shattered the deckhouse and hull. With the superstructure afire and his command sinking beneath him, he reluctantly gave orders to abandon ship.
Buck, now joined by George Cronk, found only one lifeboat still serviceable. Together they struggled to lower it into the water as shellfire continued to demolish the Stephen Hopkins. They then separated and, except for a fleeting glimpse of him on a life raft, no more is known of Paul Buck, the freighter captain who had fought a warship to the death.
The rest of the story falls to Engineer George Cronk as senior American survivor and commander of the only Stephen Hopkins lifeboat to make land.
“The raider was using shrapnel and incendiary shells,” he reported. “I lowered the after fall of boat Number One, which was about five feet from a roaring inferno of flames. A shell burst along the boat on the way down, killing two and wounding four men. The remaining crew was putting over rafts when I jumped overboard. I was later picked up by this boat, and with all the able men in it we got out the oars, and among the dying we got several men from the water and from rafts.
“Then the wind started rising and the sea running high, the visibility becoming very bad. All sighted the Third Mate in one of the smashed lifeboats that had been blown off the Stephen Hopkins by shellfire. He had it bolstered up at one end by a doughnut raft, but row as hard as we could, we could not get to him on account of the wind and seas.
“A doughnut raft went by with at least five men on it. We rowed for two hours until our hands were blistered, and still we could not pick up the men. The wind and seas were getting higher all the time, and at last poor visibility blotted out everything.”
Cronk, hoping to rescue more survivors, put out his sea anchor and drifted in the vicinity until noon the next day, but he found only floating wreckage. He was in command of a lifeboat 1,000 miles from the nearest land. Ordering his able-bodied men to rig a sail, he headed northwest.
It was a brave decision. He and the eighteen other survivors faced the open Atlantic. In the lifeboat’s lockers were twenty-four gallons of water, plus enough malted milk tablets, C rations, and chocolate to last perhaps a month. That morning Cronk made the first entry in a terse log, from which the following are extracts: