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The Gallantry of An “Ugly Duckling”

June 2024
14min read

Outgunned by the Nazi raider, the Stephen Hopkins could have struck her colors. Instead she elected to fight

Whenever an unescorted American freighter encountered strange ships in the South Atlantic in 1942, her master knew that within minutes he might face a bitter decision: to surrender and have his vessel captured—probably scuttled—or to fight and be sunk. This was the quandary of Paul Buck, captain of the Liberty Ship Stephen Hopkins , when two unidentified vessels appeared out of the morning mist at 9:35 on September 27 of that year. A smaller object, possibly a small boat, seemed to be moving in the water between them.

Within minutes, any hope that the two ships might be American or British vanished. German colors were raised on both, and gun flashes broke from the bow of the smaller, appearing simultaneously, as if aimed by a central gun director.

Buck quietly ordered the general alarm sounded and called for hard left rudder to bring his ship from her heading of 310° true to 260°, directly away from the danger. If he had to fight, he wanted to offer the smallest possible target, his stern.

Unluckily, Buck and the Hopkins had encountered the German auxiliary cruiser Stier and her escort, the blockade runner Tannenfels. Built as the Atlas Levante Line’s 4,778-ton Cairo, the Stier had been fitted out in December, 1941, as an armed commerce raider and placed under the command of Fregatten Kapitän Horst Gerlach. At the time of her encounter with the Stephen Hopkins she was known to American and British naval intelligence only as Raider “J.”

Outwardly the Stier was a dirty-gray freighter, somewhat lighter than standard war color, with a clipper bow and cruiser stern. Red-lead splotches dotted the superstructure and sides of her 322-foot length. In the words of one of the Hopkins ’ crew, “She appeared like a converted fruit ship which runs from the West Coast of the U.S.A. to Europe.” But underneath the disguise lay a modern arsenal. The central gun director controlled six 5.9-inch guns located behind shields just forward of the bridge structure and in the after well deck. Her firepower also included smaller directorfired guns, a twin 37-mm. mount, and 20-mm. anti-aircraft guns. She carried two torpedoes.

The second German ship, the Tannenfels, was a former Hansa Line freighter now operating out of occupied France through the Allied cordon to deliver supplies and take off prisoners from surface raiders in the South Atlantic. At 7,840 tons she was larger than the Stier, but she was armed only with 20-mm. anti-aircraft guns. The Tannenfels had evidently been keeping a scheduled rendezvous with the raider when they were surprised by the Stephen Hopkins. When the equally surprised Liberty Ship was recognized, both Germans turned to pursue her.

The Stephen Hopkins was one of the war’s first mass-produced U.S. Emergency Cargo vessels, or EC-2’s, popularly known as Liberty Ships. She was strictly a work horse with a work-horse ancestry, for the Maritime Commission designers had patterned her, with few significant alterations, on a prewar British freighter type, the “Sunclerland tramp.” They had replaced the traditional coal-burning plant with oil-burning boiler furnaces. Steam from these drove already obsolescent triple-expansion “up-and-down” engines, since the demand for more modern turbine and diesel equipment had already strained war production capacity to the limit. Further, in the race to launch cargo ships faster than Axis submarines could torpedo them, American yards had substituted welded for riveted hull construction.

Almost identical with each of her 2,700 sister ships, the Stephen Hopkins had a displacement of 7,181 tons; her 441-foot hull resembled, one critic said, “half a watermelon.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt, announcing the emergency shipbuilding program in January, 1941, had dubbed the standard ship “a dreadful-looking object,” and Time magazine had reported it under the heading “Ugly Duckling.”

The Stephen Hopkins was now sailing in ballast on a northwesterly course, en route from Capetown, South Africa, to Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana, to load a vital war cargo of bauxite. She carried a crew of forty, one passenger, and a fifteen-man naval armed guard. High on her stern, ringed by a waist-high circle of gray-painted steel plate, sat her main firepower, one 4-inch gun. Perched on the bow was a dual 37-mm. mount, while two .30-caliber and four .50-caliber machine guns were scattered about her superstructure. She was hardly a match for the heavily armed German raider and her escort. These guns, predicted the naval authorities who had them installed, might protect a merchantman from a German U-boat in the Atlantic, perhaps from a Stuka dive bomber along the freezing wartime lanes to Murmansk. Realistically, however, the greatest value of even the 4-inch gun was psychological: at least, if attacked, the naval armed guard and the crew could shoot back.

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."

He [Moczhowski] had gotten to his feet with the aid of one of the ordinary seamen, Piercy, and had turned [to] the opposite passage where he was again struck, this time in the leg by a fragment. All this time shells had been riddling the superstructure.…

The fire that the Stier and the Tannenfels were pouring into the Stephen Hopkins was now intense, but instead of producing the panic that Kommandant Gerlach presumably intended, it jarred the merchant seamen and armed guard into action. Second Mate Joseph Layman’s 37-mm. guns on the bow fired first, their shells thumping into the Stier. Amidships a .50-caliber machine gun joined the battle. One by one, five other machine-gun crews fired their weapons, the scattered bursts growing into a steady roar as tracer bullets guided the aim of the inexperienced gunners. Soon a storm of machine-gun bullets was raking the Slier and the Tannenfels .


On the Stephen Hopkins ’ stern Ensign Willett had reached his battle station at the 4-inch gun. With one hand clutched to his stomach wound, he rallied his young armed guard crew. His orders were short and crisp. Reacting, one seaman grabbed a shell from the ready magazine and shoved it into the breech. Another relayed the range, one thousand yards. Willett ordered his gunners to fire at the raider’s waterline. The 4-inch gun roared. Seconds later the shell exploded inside the Stier.

Again and again the gun crew loaded and fired. A fourth, then a fifth shell hit the Stier. Very soon white smoke was pouring from holes near her waterline. Willett, straining to see his target through the smoke, yelled for the pointer and trainer to keep aiming at the hull.

Engineer Cronk no longer needed his headphones to hear the battle. Explosions echoed down the funnel into the engine room. Like every other man there, Cronk dreaded the shell that might explode a boiler. Then the deck shuddered and the lights went out. Cronk stood rigid, watching the boiler fires, until dim emergency lights flickered on, casting eerie shadows.

Topside, a high-explosive shell hit the freighter’s bow. As the smoke drifted away, Captain Buck could see the 37mm. gun platform wrecked and burning, the gun handlers killed or wounded. Another shell wrecked the radio room, ending the radioman’s frantic SOS signals. Lifeboats along the port side dangled, splintered and torn, from their davits. The accurate German gunnery continued to rip gaping holes in the hull, and incendiaries started new fires.

But Buck still commanded a fighting ship. His machine-gun fire peppered both the Stier and the Tannenfels . When the raider tried to maneuver into position for a six-gun broadside, Buck saw to it that the helmsman kept his ship stern on. At regular intervals, above the din, he could hear the 4-inch gun crack.

At 1,000 yards’ range Ensign Willett’s crew furiously loaded and fired. In less than twenty minutes they had fired thirty-five 4-inch rounds, most of which had hit the Stier near the waterline. Between shots Willett praised his men or leaned down the ammunition hoist and shouted encouragement to the seamen passing powder and shells up from the magazine. Through the smoke he could clearly see the effects of his gunnery. The raider was listing slightly to port and settling by the stern. Fires burned from her bow to her stern.

On Gerlach’s bridge, the hope of a quick, easy victory had vanished. A shell from the merchantman’s lone gun had disabled his torpedo tubes, and a fire was threatening his magazine. Below decks his men struggled in waist-deep water to plug holes below the waterline. The Stier was fighting to stay afloat, but with his vastly superior firepower Gerlach had no intention of breaking off the battle. He ordered his gun director to silence the enemy’s 4-inch gun.

Exploding shells seeking the gun tub immediately began to rock the Stephen Hopkins ’ stern. One that missed its target smashed into the engine room. The starboard boiler burst. Steam billowed into every crevice of the darkened engine room, rolling up ladders, scalding men.

Her power plant crippled, the Stephen Hopkins lost headway until she was finally lumbering along at one knot. All Buck’s signals for more speed remained unanswered. Instead, out of passageways and escape tunnels the burned and choking survivors of the engineroom inferno began to stumble onto the open decks. Among them was George Cronk.

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:

“Attacked by enemy raiders … approx. lat. 31, long. 16, at 9:38 A.M. September 27th. Shelled by two armed merchant ships for about 29 minutes.… Ship went down in flames.…

SEPTEMBER 28TH. Found two abandoned rafts but no sign of men on them. Took stores and water breaker… from two rafts and set sail for the coast of South America.…

OCTOBER 1ST.… Cut water ration to 6 ounces per day per man, so as to give more to wounded men.

OCTOBER 2ND. Strong winds from southeast. Sailing due west. Have no idea of position of ocean currents or prevailing winds as there is no South Atlantic chart in boat.…

OCTOBER 6TH.… Rain water caught has bad taste due to chemical in sail cloth.

OCTOBER 7TH .… McDaniels, and cook, died at 6:30 P.M. Stopped ship for 5 minutes and buried him.…

OCTOBER 8TH.… Gun crewman Brock has infected shoulder from shrapnel.… [Messman] Romero died at 2:30. Buried at sunset.…

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 1 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 and 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."

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