DAN­GER­OUS AT­LANTIC CROSS­ING

Ship went aground on western shore of Point Ed­ward

Cape Breton Post - - FRONT PAGE - Ran­nie Gil­lis Celtic Ex­pe­ri­ence

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 ran­niegillis@ns.sym­pa­tico.ca

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTOS

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.

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