DANGEROUS ATLANTIC CROSSING
Ship went aground on western shore of Point Edward
Sydney harbour was important to the Allied war effort.
Aside from the steel and coal industries, how important was Sydney Harbour to the Allied war effort during the Second World War?
During that brutal conflict, which lasted for six years (1939 - 1945), a total of more than 7,500 merchant ships sailed in convoys from our sheltered harbour to various ports in the British Isles. Of that number, only 226 were lost, which is quite an amazing achievement, considering the numerous weather related obstacles that these convoys faced, alongside the everpresent danger of enemy submarines.
However, of all the wartime incidents that affected Sydney harbour, and there were many, by far the most unusual was the strange tale of one very large cargo ship from the United States, that ended up aground, and on fire, after being beached on the western shore of Point Edward, roughly across from the Seaview Golf and Country Club, in upper North Sydney.
This ship was a virtual floating ‘time-bomb,’ a fact that the military authorities went out of their way to hide from the local population. However, despite the very strict wartime security measures, it was not that easy to hide just exactly what was going on. What makes this incident even more interesting is the fact that this brand new ship did not sail from Sydney Harbour. Rather, she had sailed from Houston, Texas, on her maiden voyage, and later joined an American convoy which set sail from New York.
The SS J. Pinckney Henderson was one of a new type of American cargo ship called a “Liberty Ship.” With a length of 441 feet, and a width of 56 feet, she had been built in Baltimore, Maryland, and was named after a former governor of the State of Texas. The ship could carry more than 10,000 tons of mixed freight, in five cargo holds, and could maintain a speed of 11 - 12 knots.
In mid-August of 1943, while sailing in a thick fog shortly after midnight, the Henderson had the bad luck to collide with an American oil tanker in convoy off the south coast of Newfoundland. The tanker was loaded with high-octane aviation gasoline. In the ferocious fires that quickly overwhelmed both ships, the tanker lost 67 of her crew, with only five survivors.
On the night in question the Henderson was loaded with a highly combustible cargo of cotton, glycerine, resin, wax, and various types of ammunition. Just as dangerous were the large quantities of magnesium ingots stored in two of her five cargo holds. This silver-white metal is almost impossible to extinguish, once it catches fire, and can only really be put out be covering it with sand, or some other inert material. It seems that the magnesium was being shipped to England to make incendiary bombs, for use in aerial attacks against German cities and industrial sites.
Although the hull of the Henderson was not seriously damaged, a serious fire broke out in barrels of oil carried on deck. Soon, another fire was raging below decks. This resulted in several explosions and the release of poisonous gases that quickly killed 64 of the 67-crew members.
Still on fire six days later, the ship was towed to Cape Breton, where harbour pilots Milton MacKenzie and St. Clair Allen brought the burned-out Henderson into Sydney harbour. They were both awarded the Order of the British Empire Medal (MBE).
After passing through the anti-submarine net, the ship was run aground on the west side of Point Edward. It took 24 days for naval firefighting crews from Sydney and Halifax to extinguish the fires.
Of the 64-crew members who perished, only 32 bodies were recovered. These remains were buried in a mass grave in Hardwood Hill cemetery in Sydney. At the end of the war, the remains were exhumed, and returned to the United States for burial.
More than 2,700 of these huge “Liberty Ships” would be built during the war. Today, there are only two remaining, and both are floating museums. One is located in Baltimore, and one in San Francisco.
Next month: a visit to Baltimore, Maryland, to spend a day at sea in a sister ship of the SS J. Pinckney Henderson.
Rannie Gillis is a retired teacher and guidance counsellor who lives in North Sydney. An avid writer, photographer and moto-journalist, he is the author of several books and has written travel stories for various Canadian and American magazines. He specializes in the Celtic World. He can be reached at email@example.com
The SS J. Pinckney Henderson beached at Point Edward, after the fires had been extinguished.
A convoy with 37 ships leaves Sydney Harbour in 1942, on its way to the British Isles. In the background is northern Cape Breton and Cape North.