The Persian Gulf

                          THE PERSIAN GULF

By the winter of 1942, the Allied powers were faced with an
overwhelming logistical problem, that of supplying Russian forces
with the munitions needed to resist German attack along a vast
front. The situation was complicated by bitter weather conditions in
the North Atlantic and limited port facilities in northern Russia.
There was urgent need for an alternative or supplement to the
Murmansk-Archangel supply line with better weather conditions and
a reduction in the intense air, surface, and submarine harassment
that was decimating the North Russian convoys. New supply routes by
way of the Persian Gulf provided a possible solution to the problem,
but they offered primitive port facilities and the lack of good
transportation from the Gulf to the Russian border.

Except for the British-built port of Basra in Iraq, shipping
facilities were archaic. The Shah of Persia had built a railroad to
the Russian border but, not trusting his neighbors, had purposely
made it of different gauge than connecting lines in Russia and Iraq.

American engineers sent out to the Persian Gulf to survey the
available facilities were quickly followed by construction crews
that built docks, roads, railroads, and terminals for handling a
vast flow of supplies for the hard-pressed Russians. Soon after port
improvements started, the United States began to send a fleet of
ships on the long run to the Gulf. They carried every conceivable
kind of war and industrial equipment, vital supplies without which
the Russians would have collapsed and World War II would have had an
entirely different ending.

The Mediterranean at that time was still closed to Allied shipping,
so ships had to take the long way around, as they did in the days of
the Portuguese and Spanish trade to the Far East several centuries
earlier. Three routes were followed. Ships from U. S. East Coast
and Gulf ports sailed to Trinidad, then crossed the South Atlantic,
rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and sailed up the east coast of
Africa through the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. The second
route was from Panama down the Pacific coast of South America,
eastward around Cape Horn and across the South Atlantic to the Cape
of Good Hope, then across the Indian Ocean as before. The third
route was from Panama across the South Pacific and around South
Australia to Fremantle, then across the Indian Ocean to the Bay of
Bengal and the Arabian Sea. It was impossible to convoy ships over
such a long route, so they proceeded individually.

Ships sailing to the Persian Gulf used the once-primitive Iranian
ports of Khorramshahr, Bandar Shapur, Bushire, and Ahwaz, which had
been modernized with quays, rail spurs, and truck-marshalling yards.
Big over-the-road convoys ran from the Shatt-Al-Arab area to the
Russian border where American drivers, who were not allowed to cross
the border, were relieved by Russians. Basra was used mainly by
British vessels.

In 1942 and through part of 1943, the Iranian ports were unable to
handle the vast flood of incoming supplies from the American
arsenal. During the period October, 1942, to February, 1943, the
average turnaround for ships there was 55 days. During the first
five months of 1943, 59 ships stayed 40 days or more; 46 stayed 50
or more days; 33 were there at least 60 days; 22 ships waited 70
days or more; and nine ships languished in the Gulf area for 80 long
days. Three unfortunate freighters waited three months for cargo
discharge, and one forgotten crew totaled up 124 days before they
slipped their lines and headed down the Gulf toward home.

The supply routes to the British in North Africa and to the Russians
in the Persian Gulf were harassed by both German and Japanese
submarines. Many ships were sunk in the Arabian Sea, the Indian
Ocean, and especially in the Mozambique Channel, a favorite hunting
ground for submarines.

An indication of both increased cargo traffic and submarine activity
in that theatre is shown by the fact that in 1941 only 20 Allied
merchant vessels of all kinds, totaling 73,155 tons, were sunk by
enemy action in the entire Indian Ocean. In 1942 the score leaped to
205 ships, a total of 724,485 tons. It dropped to 82 ships in 1943,
50 in 1944, and to only three in 1945.

Among the first American Liberty ships to make the Persian Gulf run
were the Francis L. Lee, Ralph Izzard, Jonathan Grout, and Abraham
Lincoln. The Izzard had sailed from Philadelphia in October, 1942,
and had been waiting to unload for three months when the Grout

The Francis L. Lee sailed from the East Coast in August, 1942, and
took the Cape Horn route by way of the Panama Canal. Luckier than
most ships at that stage of the war, she laid at anchor only two
weeks in the Shatt-Al-Arab before proceeding to Khorramshahr for
discharge. Then came a long trip to Rio de Janeiro for orders,
thence to British Guinea for bauxite. She returned home almost a
year after starting her initial loading in June of 1942.

The Jonathan Grout reached the Shatt-Al-Arab in March, 1943, 80 days
out of New York. From Panama on, she sailed without escort and had
sighted but one other vessel between Panama and Fremantle.

In the Indian Ocean, British naval forces warned the Jonathan Grout
to be alert for enemy surface raiders and submarines. The next night
lookouts saw a bluish flare, too bright to be a falling star. It was
assumed to be a signal from a German or Japanese submarine, and the
guns were manned. The next day, Captain Foster called his crew
together for a talk that began with "We are in dangerous waters,"
and ended with "If we meet the enemy between here and our desti-
nation we will man our guns until the last shell is fired."

But the Jonathan Grout, more fortunate than other ships, sighted no
enemy vessels as she plodded on toward the Shatt-Al-Arab, where the
Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet and the fabled garden of Eden once
grew. The crew, with imagination working overtime, could almost
smell beer, wine, and exotic perfumes, hear the sharp tinkle of
glasses, and see the dark-eyed belly dancers that made things lively
"east of Suez," according to the movies.

Finally, the afternoon of 3 March, they saw what appeared to be
treetops on the distant horizon; but the trees turned out to be the
masts of anchored ships, and there was no port or city to be seen.
The Jonathan Grout anchored, far from the Persian shore, among three
other American Libertys, several British ships, and a Norwegian. One
vessel signalled the discouraging news that she had been there since
19 January and added, "Hope you have cigarettes." But the Jonathan
Grout had a high priority cargo of aviation supplies and ammunition
and two days later went up to Abadan, where for two weeks cargo was
discharged by barefooted laborers who knocked off work to rummage
through the slop buckets when they were carried out on deck after
each meal. At Abadan, the crew of the Jonathan Grout watched other
Liberty ships come and go; the Benjamin Goodhugh, Will Rogers,
William Patterson, and Timothy Pickering, which met a tragic end
during the invasion of Sicily. Later, the Jonathan Grout steamed a
few miles farther upstream to the American-built port of
Khorramshahr, where she completed off-loading, then moved to Basra
in Iraq and loaded thousands of aerial bombs for Suez. The bombs, of
course, had merely been stockpiled in Iraq. There was a saying among
old hands sailing to that part of the world that the Persian Gulf
exported only three things: dates, oil, and syphilis.

The Abraham Lincoln left New Orleans on her maiden voyage on 14
January 1943, transitted the Panama Canal, and reached Fremantle,
Australia, on 28 February. She stopped only long enough for fuel and
freshwater and a brief run ashore for the crew. One man, full of
Australian beer, jumped overboard and I tried to swim back and
rejoin the Fremantle "sheilas" as the ship got under way. "Manned a
lifeboat," said the ship's log, "rescued the man, hoisted the boat
aboard, and proceeded out to sea."

The Lincoln reached the Shatt-A1-Arab on 22 March, proceeded to
Abadan, and began discharging cargo four days later. By 15 April,
the cargo was discharged and the vessel was chartered by the
British Ministry of War Transport to haul stockpiled war materials
from Basra to Suez.

Some ships didn't make it to the Gulf. The ammunition-laden American
steamer La Salle was one of those routed across the South Atlantic
and around the Cape of Good Hope, but she never arrived at her
destination, becoming one of the mystery ships of World War II. La
SaUe was probably the victim of a submarine that also failed to
return, for no clue to the vessel's fate was obtained from German
submarine records after the war. The Armed Guard officer, Lieutenant
(junior grade) Carl F. Zeidler, had resigned as mayor of Milwaukee
in order to enter the Navy.

The George Gipp's second voyage took her from Philadelphia and
Norfolk to the Persian Gulf in November of 1943. With the
Mediterranean open then, she had a much shorter voyage by way of
Suez. She left Norfolk on 14 November and was back on 8 March,
steaming 9,491 miles at an average speed of 11.5 knots.

The Anne Hutchinson was en route home from the Middle East when she
was torpedoed near Port Elizabeth on 26 October 1942. The torpedo
broke the ship's back, and the crew abandoned her. A South African
minesweeper and a tug tried to salvage the wreck but, like two ants
trying to lug off a cube of sugar, they found the job too much for
them, so they dynamited the half-severed sections apart. The after
section sank, but they towed the forward part to Port Elizabeth.

The Pierce Butler was off Durban on 20 November, headed toward Suez
with 9,787 tons of military cargo, when a U-boat put two torpedoes
into her. She sank within 30 minutes. After abandoning ship and
being questioned by the submarine's officers, the crew spent some
hours in the boats before being picked up by HMS Fortuna and taken
to Durban.

The enemy was not the only danger ships faced on the Persian Gulf
run, as the crew of the Richard Stockton could well testify. En
route from the Persian Gulf to Capetown, this ship ran into a storm
during which 125-mile-an-hour winds "pushed the ship around like a
toy," blew the paint off the deckhouses, poured water down the
stack, and produced a good many prayers. Said an officer, not
irreverently: "Every one of us who believed in God was praying
during those hours for our deliverance and salvation. Our ship," he
added, "miraculously came through."

Liberty ships met many strange experiences on their trips to far
corners of the world, but one of the most unique had a touch of the
Arabian Nights about it for it involved a man who went for a ride on
a magic carpet. The man was Second Cook Helmar Schmidt of the
Richard D. Spaight, which, on 10 March 1943, was in the Mozambique
Channel between Madagascar and Africa.

Early in the evening Sehmidt was relaxing on a mattress he had
placed atop a forward hatch and was talking to Messman William J.
O'Brien when a torpedo hit the ship right beneath them. The blast
blew the hatches off the ship and threw the two men higher than the
masts. O'Brien was never seen again but Schmidt and his mattress
were hurled over the ship and into the sea. The mattress landed
still right side up and Schmidt was still on top of it. One of the
lifeboats picked him up later, unhurt.

The Spaight was struck by another torpedo, but the submarine had to
surface and put more than two dozen shells into the ship before she
finally went down. All hands were saved except for the unfortunate
messman, and after a four day voyage the lifeboats landed safely on
the coast of Africa.

The Mozambique Channel and the approaches to Durban were favorite
hunting grounds for U-boats. The Harvey Scott was only a few hours
out of Durban on 3 March 1943 en route to the Persian Gulf in an
11-ship convoy, when a submarine got her. There were no fatalities.
Just two days later, the James Stephens was torpedoed in
approximately the same area, broke in two, and sank. Survivors were
picked up by the British ships Norwich City and Nigeria. One man was
lost. The ship carried a strangely assorted cargo of empty beer
bottles, empty ammunition cases, and damaged propellers.

The next loss was the William King, en route from Bahrein with
18,000 barrels of oil. She was torpedoed by the U51 on 6 June
1943. Captain Owen H. Reed was taken aboard the submarine, which
later delivered him to a prisoner-of-war camp in Java. Six men were
lost; the survivors were picked up after three days by a British
patrol ship and landed in Africa.

The Alice F. Palmer was torpedoed and shelled on 10 July, but all
hands were saved. The William EUery was hit 20 days later but made
port under her own power. The Lyman Stewart was torpedoed on 7
September but not badly damaged. She managed to get off 15 rounds
from the 4-inch stern gun, firing in the general direction from
which the torpedoes had come, without seeing the submarine. No
more attacks were made, and the ship continued on her way.

A more determined submarine got the Robert Bacon in the Mozambique
Channel on the night of 13-14 July 1943. At about 2330 a torpedo
just missed, but a second hit the port side, forward. After the crew
abandoned ship, the submarine made another hit. Shortly after
midnight a third torpedo blasted the vessel. She sank in ten
minutes, taking five of the crew with her.

An unwary U-boat almost ended its career when it sent a torpedo into
the Cornelia Spencer on 21 September and then surfaced at the
indiscreet distance of only 100 yards, probably intending to finish
the job with shells. But the Spencer's gunners were eager for action
and forced the U-boat to crash-dive almost as soon as it broke the
surface. An hour later the discomfited raider put another torpedo
into the Spencer. The after magazine exploded, killed two of the
gunners, and destroyed the rudder and propeller. The Spencer floated
until a third torpedo sent her to the bottom.

Crewmen lost no time in abandoning the Elias Howe after she was
torpedoed and set on fire on 24 September. The ship was carrying
explosives, and 15 minutes after being hit she blew
up--"disappeared before the flash and smoke of the explosion had
cleared away." Two men were killed in the engine room.

The Henry Knox was sunk by a Japanese submarine as she headed up
across the Indian Ocean, en route from Fremantle to the Persian
Gulf, with 8,200 tons of supplies for the Russians, including tanks,
P-39 fighter planes, and a thousand tons of gunpowder. The night of
19 June 1943 a torpedo hit in number three hold, the gunpowder blew
up, and the entire ship shook from the concussion.

The forward holds erupted with balls of fire that shot higher than
the masts. A rain of blazing debris killed and wounded men trying to
release the boats. The flaming cordite fell all over the ship,
ignited the deck cargo, blistered paint, and set the boat falls on
fire. The boats fell into the sea as the falls burned through. Main
engine controls jammed and the ship gradually stopped, sinking
slowly by the bow. Men jumped over the sides and boarded life rafts
or the three boats that drifted free.

The submarine circled, then approached, and survivors were
questioned by a young officer who spoke good English. The
submarine's crew was dressed in clean khaki shorts, V-necked
blouses, and sandals and appeared quite excited about sinking a
valuable ship and cargo.

The Japanese wanted to know the name of the ship, the port from
which it had sailed, whether it had stopped in Australia, how many
airplanes were in the cargo, and whether the crew had seen any
battleships in New York. The Americans tried to be as evasive as
possible in their answers. The Japanese then inspected one of the
boats, took the charts, mast, and sail, and left. The men were not
harmed. All 41 survivors out of the crew of 67 men eventually rowed
their boats to the Maldives, from which the last group reached
Colombo on 27 July.

The Jose Navarro was torpedoed between Aden and Colombo on the night
after Christmas of 1943. The torpedo blasted a big hole in the bow,
and the Navarro settled almost to the level of the main deck,
forward. All hands, including 83 American soldiers, got off. But
there was a touch of pathos to the scene, because the ship had a
deckload of mules that had to be left behind. Early the next morn-
ing, the captain, chief engineer, and 28 volunteers reboarded the
vessel to see if she could proceed under her own power, but they
judged her too unseaworthy for this and left her again. All 166 men
were picked up by the Rajputana of the Indian Navy and landed at
Cochin. A plane searched the area two days later to find only pieces
of flotsam where the ship went down. That same day, the Robert F.
Hoke was torpedoed off Somalia but remained afloat and was towed to

Many a lonely soldier in the Persian Gulf Command never received his
1943 Christmas mail because some 500 bags of it went down when the
Albert Gallatin, en route from Aden to Bandar Shapur, was sunk by a
submarine on 1 January 1944. After the ship had been abandoned,
there was a violent explosion, then she broke in two forward of the
mainmast and sank. Moments later, survivors were amazed to see the
bow pop back to the surface, float for a while, and go down again.
About 15 minutes after the ship had sunk, there was an exceptionally
violent explosion in the water that was heard aboard the HMS
Britannia six miles away. There was speculation that the tremendous
delayed blast was caused by some unusually powerful explosive in the
cargo of which captain and crew were unaware. All 71 of the men
aboard survived.

The crew of the Walter Camp was also lucky as she steamed from Aden
toward Colombo on 25 January 1944. A submarine torpedo sent her down
in 15 minutes, with a cargo of barges, steel, truck bodies, cranes,
and earth-moving machinery. All hands were picked up by HMS Danae
and landed at Aden.

A Liberty ship operated by the government of China, the Chung Cheng,
was the victim of a German submarine just before midnight on 3
February 1944, while bound from Chochin, India, to Aden with 8,350
tons of ilmenite. Besides a merchant crew of 29 Chinese and an Armed
Guard contingent of 27 Americans, the Chung Cheng was carrying
eleven U. S. and four Chinese merchant marine officers. Like many
other ships that were torpedoed while carrying cargoes of heavy ore,
the Chung Cheng sank so quickly that all of the boats could not be
launched. Twenty men were lost.

Japanese submarines were active in the Indian Ocean area in 1944,
and one of them got the Richard Hovey, homeward bound from India, on
29 March. After the crew abandoned ship, the Japanese pursued their
accustomed practice of shooting at the survivors and running down
the lifeboats. Either their aim was bad or their heart was no longer
in their work, for only four crewmen were lost in this sadistic

Many more men would have been lost, however, if John Drechsler, a
junior assistant engineer, had not been able to fashion a primitive
still and make 60 gallons of fresh water for the 38 men who spent 16
days in a life boat under a torrid equatorial sun before being
rescued by the British Liberty ship Samuta. The other boat, with 25
men, was picked up after only three days by another British Liberty,
the Samcalia.

The Liberty lean Nicolet also met a Japanese submarine, but with
much more tragic results. She was homeward bound down the Arabian
Sea on 2 July 1944 with a merchant crew of 41, an Armed Guard
contingent of 28, and an Army and civilian passenger list of 30,
many of them men returning home after two or more years in the
Persian Gulf.

The first torpedo hit in number two hold and the second in number
four. The vessel took a heavy starboard list. All hands abandoned
ship safely in four lifeboats and two rafts.

The submarine soon surfaced and began shelling the deserted hulk.
After firing ten or twelve rounds at the ship, the raider circled
around the wreck to the rafts and lifeboats, and an officer on the
conning tower shouted to them through a megaphone:

"All come here!"

The first boat to approach the submarine contained about 25 merchant
seamen, Navy gunners, civilians, and soldiers. As they climbed
aboard their life preservers were snatched from them. Japanese
sailors also took their watches, wallets, and shirts and shoes.

The survivors were then prodded with bayonets onto the forward deck,
where they were ordered to kneel and their hands were tied behind
them with wire, lines, and strips of clothing. William Musser, a
messboy who did not kneel fast enough, was shot in the back and
thrown over the side. So began a night-long orgy of torture and

One by one, the boats and rafts were ordered to the submarine. A
machine gun was trained on each boat as it came alongside. Men were
clubbed with lengths of pipe and cut with knives and bayonets.

When Lieutenant Deale, the Navy Armed Guard officer and five of his
gunners tried to paddle away on a tiny doughnut raft, the Japanese
turned on a searchlight and then opened fire. A man was hit and
fell over the side, but the others flattened themselves on the raft,
and the searchlight was soon cut off, the Japanese evidently
assuming they had been killed.

The men lay as still as they could while the submarine circled the
slowly sinking ship and listened to the screams and cries of their
comrades. As the night wore on, men succumbed to wounds and beatings
and were shoved off the submarine into the sea. Others were forced
to run a gauntlet of clubs, pistols, knives, and pieces of pipe.
When Charles Pyle, the first assistant engineer, hesitated, a 
sailor hit him on the head with the butt of a pistol. Another kicked
him in the back and sent him reeling through the line of yelling,
flailing seamen, until he stumbled over the side into the sea. The
cold water revived him and he paddled away, struggling to free his
hands. He was about to give up when Able Seaman Stuart Vanderhurst
hoisted him head first onto a floating hatchboard.

Vanderhurst had slid off the bow of the submarine and swam away
unnoticed earlier in the night. His wrists had not been tightly
fastened and he freed them with a clasp knife the Japanese had

By then the submarine was almost indistinct, marked by the glow from
its hatches and lights carried by crewmen as they moved up and down
the deck. The cries of the captives gradually diminished as they
were beaten unconscious, one by one, or kicked overboard.

About dawn, when a distant aircraft was heard, the submarine
hurriedly submerged, leaving several survivors still on its deck
to flounder in the sea and drown but for a Navy gunner who, like
Vanderhurst, had secreted a knife in his trousers, cut his own
bonds, and then freed the others who were still afloat.

Minutes later, a Catalina patrol plane flew overhead, made a few
lazy circles and left. It returned several hours later to drop life
preservers and food. Some 30 hours later the frigate Huxac of the
Indian Navy picked up the 23 survivors of the 99 men on the lean

As prosaic merchant ships plodded up the trade routes where a
"quinquireme of Ninevah" once carried "ivory, apes and peacocks," it
would have been only fitting that one of them carried something more
exotic than jeeps, mules, and C-rations. Such a ship was the John
Barry, a most unlikely looking treasure ship as she steamed across
the Arabian Sea in August of 1944. But securely crated and locked in
her holds was a fortune more fabulous than even Ali Babi and his
forty thieves could have hoped for--S26 million in silver bullion.

On 28 August a submarine put two torpedoes into the John Barry. The
sea flooded two holds, the ship's back broke, and she went down in
1,000 fathoms of water. All but two of her crew were rescued by the
Dutch tanker Sunetta and another Liberty, the Benjamin Bourn.
Somewhere in the Arabian Sea one of the richest treasures of all
time waits, well protected by a mile of saltwater, for the future
technique that may enable salvage crews to bring it up.

Even more intriguing than the treasure in the John Barry was the
mystery in her. What need could there have been, among all the
military supplies sent to the Russians, for $26 million in silver?
Why was such a fortune shipped in an unescorted, 10-knot Liberty
ship? The answers will probably remain hidden among other
unexplained mysteries of World War II.

By the time World War II ended, the little-known Persian Gulf run
had become a vast shipping operation. More than 30,000 American
service troops were stationed in the various Gulf ports to handle
the food, ammunition, and military equipment bound for Russia.
Hundreds of American engineers and workmen had modernized Persian
Gulf ports with docks, roads, and other facilities.

Shipping losses in the Persian Gulf run were lumped together with
all other parts of the Indian Ocean, so the number of Liberty ships
sunk while on definite runs to the Gulf is not easily ascertained.
In the first three years of the war, only 45 ships were sunk in the
entire theatre. But in 1942, the year Liberty ships started on the
Persian Gulf run, 205 ships were sunk. All together, 385 ships were
sunk in the Indian Ocean. More than a few of them were the
hard-working Libertys.

Click to return to Ship Logs and Reports

Click to return to Home Page