Monday, January 03, 2005


Ship sinks after torpedoes strike


Houma Today
By C.J. Christ
January 01, 2005

SS R.M. Parker Jr., as she appeared before World War II,
no artillery pieces are mounted as yet.

Whew! It seems as though 2004 sure went by quickly. Confucius says, "Life is like a roll of toilet paper, as it gets towards the end, it unrolls faster." Think about it.

This article will be really easy to write because it involves a local shipwreck, discovered by local people and visited many times by local scuba divers, myself included.

About two weeks ago, Allan Salters, a well-known marine archaeologist, called me for information on the wreck of the R.M. Parker Jr. sunk in August of 1942. He is working with the Department of Interior and Minerals Management Service to document some close-in wrecks in the Gulf.

As I dug through my files and dive logbook, the whole story came back to me. I told it to him and sent my file-box full of "stuff" to him, so it is easy to share it again. It will be especially easy because this column has lately been featuring World War II ships sunk off the Gulf coast. Rather than try to paraphrase the military report, I’ll quote directly from the Office of Naval Intelligence’s report of the incident.

"The Steam Tanker R.M. Parker Jr., owned by Hartol Steamship Company and chartered by Continental Steamship Company of Wilmington, Delaware was en route from Baltimore to Port Arthur, Texas. She was built in 1919 in Oakland, Calif., and measured 425 x 57 x 33. She was in salt-water ballast drawing 10 feet forward and 20 feet aft.

She was a U.S. Registered tanker of 6,779 gross tons. At 0448 CWT while at position 28 degrees 37’ north, 90 degrees 48’ west (about 25 miles south of Last Island) she was torpedoed by a two-spread shot from directly astern approximately 25 yards.

The two lookouts on the ship’s stern saw two points of light in the water moving toward the ship, but the torpedoes hit before the warning could be given." "Two torpedoes struck almost simultaneously on the port side approximately amidship causing immediate flooding of tanks five and six, wrecking the runway (an elevated walkway amidship running from the bridge/midship house to the bow) and buckling the foredeck."

"Exact dimensions and extent of damage is unknown due to heavy list of ship. The ship was not maneuvered after the torpedoes struck, except to shut off the engines by means of the deck valve aft, and the wheel was turned to starboard in order to cut down the ship’s way and facilitate the launching of lifeboats.

No distress message could be sent since the main mast fell at the original explosion, carrying away both main and auxiliary antennae. Although armed, no counter offensive could be undertaken due to the heavy list of the vessel and complete darkness.

After ship was abandoned the sub surfaced off the starboard quarter and from 200-500 yards fired five shells into the ship. The first apparently struck the ready box on aft gun platform, exploding the magazine; the others hit the bridge and boat deck mid-ship, and the ship went down by the stern shortly afterward."

"The conduct of the crew of 44 was excellent, and the ship was abandoned, on master orders, in 3 lifeboats; were picked up at 0910 CWT by the shrimp lugger PIONEER, and landed at 2020 CWT, August 13th, 1942, at Morgan City.

All hands were saved and the only injuries were incurred in launching the lifeboats." The crew consisted of 38 and an armed guard of 6 U.S. Navy men.

"No identifying details of the sub could be observed due to complete darkness." When the ship was last seen, at 0910 CWT the next morning, the stern was resting on the bottom, the forward half of the ship rising above the water with a 25 degree list to port (see accompanying photograph).

Occasionally, I get lucky. This time I can share my good luck with the readers of this column.

In February 1997, Thomas W. Loftin of San Antonio, Texas, saw my appeal for information about World War II in the Gulf and sent me some beautiful, original photographs taken from his airplane. He was a pilot in the 128th Observation Squadron, USAAF, flying submarine patrol from what is now Lakefront Airport in New Orleans.

The photos were taken between daylight on Aug. 13, 1942, and the time the ship was sank, which is not recorded. Since her length was 425 feet and the water was (is) only 60 feet deep, the ship did not sink completely out of sight.

Another record shows that the U.S. Coast Guard, Geodetic Survey, and the U.S. Corps of Engineers cooperated to dynamite the wreck several times to attempt to reduce the hazard to navigation in this heavily traveled area.

Several interesting facts about this particular shipwreck will take many words and photographs. I have been personally diving on this wreck six times. The only crewman from a German U-Boat ever interviewed about their experiences in the Gulf were aboard U-171 when they sank this ship; I have more photos of this ship not only when it was sinking, but some underwater video of my head protruding through a port hold in 60 feet of water.

We’ll just have to cover all of this in another article. Besides, tomorrow, the real world begins again -- the holidays are over.

WORLD WAR II ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION GROUPOn Jan. 18, the Roundtable group will feature Marvin Perrett of Metairie with his excellent presentation of his U.S. Coast Guard service in World War II.

He was an LCVP Coxswain at Normandy, Southern France, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He recently addressed the U.S. Coast Guard in Houma and Morgan City.

It is a well organized presentation. The displays go up at 5 p.m. at the Terrebonne Parish Main Library and the lectures start at 6 p.m. All are invited to the free lecture. C.J. Christ is an historian specializing in the Naval War in the Gulf of Mexico during World War II.

His study is sponsored in part by the Bollinger family of Lockport. Anyone having information on the subject can call him at 872-2843.

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