Re­mem­ber the SS Stephen Hop­kins

Maryland Independent - - Community Forum -

As Vet­er­ans Day ap­proaches, some folks might still re­mem­ber that to­day, Sept. 27, marks the 75th an­niver­sary of one of the most un­usual and heroic sea bat­tles in the his­tory of World War II.

The bat­tle took place in the South At­lantic on that date in 1942, when the new U.S. Mer­chant Marine Lib­erty ship SS Stephen Hop­kins, on its maiden voy­age, hap­pened upon two Nazi ships drift­ing to­gether in the midst of a re­fuel and re­sup­ply op­er­a­tion. One of the two ships was the heav­ily armed Nazi raider Stier (dis­guised as a mer­chant ship) and the other its sup­ply ship, the Tan­nen­fels. Able to get close to un­sus­pect­ing Al­lied mer­chant ves­sels, the Stier had sent thou­sands of tons of ship­ping to the bot­tom.

When these ships sighted each other some two miles dis­tant, the Nazi ships sep­a­rated and the Stier be­gan to fire her four 5.9-inch guns and other smaller cal­iber weapons at the Amer­i­can ship. The Hop­kins was armed with one 4-inch can­non mounted on her stern. In most cases like this, the mer­chant ship would sur­ren­der, but Hop­kins was helmed by Capt. Paul Buck, who chose to fight.

Over the course of just 20 min­utes, Buck and his crew ma­neu­vered their ship to avoid many of the Nazi shells. The Hop­kins’ 4-inch can­non man­aged to fire 40 shells at the Nazis, with many hit­ting their mark. The raider’s steer­ing and elec­tric­ity were knocked out, and the Hop­kins’ naval gun crew even man­aged to hit the Stier’s ar­mored magazine, thus striking a fa­tal blow.

But dur­ing this short bat­tle, the Nazi raider’s many guns had hit the Hop­kins time and again, wound­ing and killing many of the crew, and fi­nally knock­ing out her engine and caus­ing the Hop­kins to be­gin to sink.

As the shoot­ing stopped with the Hop­kins now sink­ing, the crew man­aged to launch the one un­dam­aged lifeboat and that car­ried 15 sur­vivors (from a crew of 57) more than 1,100 miles over the next 30 days all the way to the coast of Brazil. As the Stier sank, her sur­viv­ing crew was picked up by the Tan­nen­fels and re­turned to Ger­many.

The SS Stephen Hop­kins and her bat­tle with the Stier is a foot­note in the vast his­tory of World War II. She is not the U.S. Navy’s USS Ari­zona, USS In­di­anapo­lis or USS Mis­souri, whose names stand out and are re­mem­bered and rec­og­nized. But we need to re­mem­ber this ship and her valiant crew for their courage and brav­ery. The Hop­kins was the only U.S. mer­chant ves­sel to sink a Ger­man sur­face combatant in all of World War II. It is easy to for­get that with­out the hun­dreds of mer­chant ships that sailed in dan­ger­ous wa­ters de­liv­er­ing vi­tal war cargo, the war could have been lost. What a dif­fer­ent world that would have made.

We are for­tu­nate in this area to have Bal­ti­more’s liv­ing his­tory Lib­erty ship, the SS John W. Brown. The vol­un­teer crew who sail her to­day help to keep the mem­ory of the SS Stephen Hop­kins and other gal­lant mer­chant ships alive and hon­ored.

Herbert But­ler, Lusby

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