Remember the SS Stephen Hopkins
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