- 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
“ OCTOBER 11TH . Good breeze until 9 A.M. , ran into rain squall, caught 1 gallon water. Becalmed. Something sent up a green rocket right over our mast from a very short distance. Apparently from a submarine. We answered with 2 flares from very pistol. All this at about 3:15 A.M. …
“ OCTOBER 12TH . George Gelogotes, fireman, died this morning.…
“ OCTOBER 16TH .… Wiper Demetrades died at 7 A.M. …
“ OCTOBER 17TH . Took in sea anchor 6 A.M. Steering northwest. Fill all water casks and empty ration tins with water.…
“ OCTOBER 19TH . High winds and seas, shipping lots of water, bailing all night, everybody wet from rain and spray. Most everyone has sores that won’t heal. Violent squalls. Steering northwest. Hove-to all night. High seas.…
“ OCTOBER 23RD . Poor breeze, just steering way. Sun hot, everyone kind of weak. Cut food ration in half 4 days ago. Now getting i oz. of pammicon [pemmican], 1 oz. of chocolate, ½ oz. of malted milk tablets, 1 type C ration biscuit per man per day, water ration 20 oz. per man per day due to rain water caught.…
“ OCTOBER 24TH . Been becalmed for 24 hours. Very hot, everyone very weak. Seen some kind of sediment floating in water. Saw a butterfly and 2 moths.… Very poor visibility.… Fair breeze at sunset. Steering west.
“ OCTOBER 25TH .… Seen a yellow moth. Makes us think we are near land.…
“ OCTOBER 27TH . Hurrah, sighted land 4 A.M. Landed at the small Brazilian village of Barra do Itabopoana.…
The survivors—fifteen men of the Hopkins ’ total complement of fifty-seven—were reported to be “in wonderful condition, considering what they’d gone through,” according to Lieutenant Joseph E. Rich, who travelled from Vitoria, Brazil, by taxi, Piper Cub, and locomotive to meet them.
One could not help but feel the deepest admiration for these men who had faced such odds and were never for one moment beaten. After thirty days of being battered together on a cramped lifeboat, they were still lavishing praise on one another, helping one another.
George Cronk modestly refused credit for his epic thirty-day voyage in an open boat. Instead he paid tribute to Ensign Willett and Cadet O’Hara.
Although the Stephen Hopkins ’ battle with the Stier and the Tannenfels was but a brief episode in a very big war, it was memorable in the annals of the Navy and the Merchant Marine. Not until the war’s end was it definitely known that the Stier followed the Stephen Hopkins to the bottom in the 2,200-fathom deep above which they had duelled. The Tannenfels , although damaged, made Bordeaux, carrying Kommandant Gerlach arid his officers, men, and prisoners who had abandoned the Stier .
Comparing their battle experiences, the survivors gradually determined the fate of each missing man on the Stephen Hopkins . Captain Buck had vanished on a doughnut raft in the rising sea. Chief Mate Moczhowski was last seen on the starboard side of the boat deck badly wounded. Cadet Midshipman O’Hara was killed by shrapnel after he left the gun tub. Ensign Willett, covered with blood, was last seen cutting life rafts loose for his naval armed guard and the merchant crew.
The nation bestowed a whole cluster of posthumous honors on the ship and her heroic company. The Stephen Hopkins herself was awarded a “Gallant Ship” citation, and two later Liberty Ships were christened the Stephen Hophins and the Paul Buck , A destroyer escort (DE-354) was named for Ensign Willett. On the campus of the United States Merchant Marine Academy a major building was named O’Hara Hall. For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous courage, Willen was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross. Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medals were posthumously bestowed on Captain Buck and Cadet Midshipman O’Hara.
Final, comprehensive tribute to all who served on the Stephen Hopkins during her great fight was paid in the words of a spokesman for the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations: The extraordinary heroism and outstanding devotion to duty of the officers and crew of the Armed Guard and the ship’s company were in keeping with the highest tradition of American seamanship. Their fearless determination to fight their ship, and perseverance to engage ihe enemy to the utmost until their ship was rendered useless, aflame and in a sinking condition, demonstrated conduct beyond the call of duty.