Seatrain Texas to the Rescue
A lone American ship delivers a vital cargo of American tanks to Egypt
BY DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN - JULY 29, 2012
Seatrain Texas Postwar A postwar view of the Seatrain Texas. In the summer of 1942, with Gen. Erwin Rommel pushing the British Eighth Army back toward the crucial Suez Canal, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army Gen. George C. Marshall offered the British the use of the 2nd Armored Division’s Sherman tanks. In desperate need of replacements, the British asked that the Americans ship them to Egypt via the Cape of Good Hope to avoid German aircraft and U-boats in the contested Mediterranean Sea. National Archives photo
Seatrain Texas in a wartime convoy. National Archives photo
On the evening of June 20, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt was handed a pink message slip. After reading it he wordlessly passed the note to his guest, Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It read: “Tobruk has surrendered, with 25,000 men taken prisoner.” Confirmation of that announcement revealed the plight of the British Eighth Army in Egypt was dire – almost all its tanks, and much of its artillery, had been lost as well. With spontaneous generosity, President Roosevelt asked, “What can we do to help?”
“Give us as many Sherman tanks as you can spare, and ship them to the Middle East as quickly as possible,” Churchill responded.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall went a step further, offering to send Maj. Gen. George Patton’s 2nd Armored Division. When it was determined that sending the division would take longer than sending its weapons, he decided to strip the 1st and 2nd Armored divisions of the 300 M-4 Sherman tanks and 100 self-propelled 105 mm howitzers that they had just received and send them to Egypt. Chief of the Imperial General Staff Gen. Alan Brooke was deeply touched by this decision and wrote about it at length in his diary, stating in part, “Anybody knowing what it entails withdrawing long-expected weapons from fighting troops just after they have received them will understand the depth of kindness that lay behind this gesture.”
“Roosevelt is issuing the orders on this one himself.”
—U.S. Navy admiral in his briefing to Seatrain Texas Capt. Kenneth G. Towne
Time was of the essence. Because there would be a delay bringing all the tanks to the port of Brooklyn, the decision was made to send an initial convoy carrying the howitzers, munitions, and 83 Shermans. On Monday, July 13 1942, Convoy AS-4 composed of the freighters Fairport, Zaandam, Exhibitor, Tarn, Empire Oriole, and Hawaiian Shipper departed from the Brooklyn Navy Yard with three destroyers as escort. Three days later, about 270 miles south of Bermuda, U-161 torpedoed the Fairport. Though the entire crew was rescued and the rest of the convoy was able to continue its voyage, all of the convoy’s tanks were now at the bottom of the Atlantic.
On July 29, 1942, the SS Seatrain Texas, carrying 250 Sherman tanks, left Brooklyn for Egypt.
Sherman Tanks At El Alamein Sherman tanks of the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers, 1st Armoured Division, during the Battle of El Alamein, Nov. 5, 1942. The Sherman tanks that the Seatrain Texas convoyed to the British Eighth Army were an important factor in the battle. © Crown copyright. IWM
The brainchild of shipping executive Graham M. Brush of Seatrain Lines, the Seatrain cargo ship was designed to transport loaded freight cars between U.S. ports and to various ports in the Caribbean, thus reducing loading and unloading downtime. The decks were designed so that railroad cars or locomotives could be rolled directly onto the decks and then secured in place. In essence they were the precursor to today’s container ships. They were big and fast: 483 feet long, with a 64-foot beam, and could carry more than 8,000 tons at 16.5 knots.
The nerve-wracking trip from Brooklyn to Capetown took 18 days. Though Towne heard radio reports of other ships being attacked by U-boats, Seatrain Texas arrived at the South African port without incident.
Four days later and now operating under the British codename of “Treasure Ship,” Seatrain Texas headed north up the east coast of Africa. At Durban it rendezvoused with a Free French corvette assigned to escort it through the Mozambique Channel as far as Somalia. When Seatrain Texas, now alone, approached Socatra Island off the Horn of Africa the radio operator began receiving messages from British headquarters
in Egypt. But static interference made its content indecipherable. Towne decided to maintain his course and radio silence until after he had entered the Gulf of Aden
It turned out to be a fortunate decision. Seatrain Texas’s route called for it to pass through the channel between the Horn of Africa and Socatra Island. The British message contained instructions to change course and veer around the far side of the island as an Italian submarine had been spotted in the channel. Instead, it was the Italian submarine that changed course. Had Towne done so as well, Seatrain Texas might well have been intercepted and sunk.
CHARLES C. ABERNATHY WAS ONBOARD THE SEATRAIN TEXAS AT THE TIME THE ABOVE PHOTO WAS TAKEN, SERVING WITH THE NAVY ARMED GUARD.
On Oct. 16, 1951, The Cavalcade of America, an anthology drama radio series, broadcast a half-hour episode about the Seatrain Texas. The Cavalcade of America, a popular program that ran from 1935 to 1953 on the radio, and on television from 1952 to 1957, offered “dramatizations of the human spirit’s triumph against all odds.” The Seatrain Texas episode was titled “The Ship the Nazis Had to Get” and starred Ray Milland as Towne. The program began with Milland making the dramatic announcement, “My name’s Capt. Kenneth Towne. I reckon if I go to sea for a hundred years, I’ll never have another trip like we had when I was skipper of the Seatrain Texas, the ship the Nazis had to get.” The episode can be heard at:
www.myoldradio.com/old-radio-episodes/cavalcade-of-america-the-ship-and-the-nazis-had-to-get/60.23, 1942, the Shermans rolled into action in the Battle of El Alamein.
FY 1943. In 1940 the Seatrain Lines took delivery of its second pair of specially designed ships, following the success of its first pair, SEATRAIN NEW YORK and SEATRAIN HAVANA (see APV 1-2) on the New York-Havana route. The new ships, SEATRAIN NEW JERSEY and SEATRAIN TEXAS, were built for a new route between New York and Texas City, Texas. Somewhat larger than their predecessors, the two new ships had an extra deck for freight cars for a total of five cargo decks.
The Navy acquired the earlier pair during 1941 for use as aircraft transports. The later two were soon configured for a different purpose, to carry Army armored vehicles. One of them, SEATRAIN TEXAS, earned a niche in history in July 1942 when she loaded a full load of military cargo including 250 Sherman tanks (the first Allied tanks that could stand up to the German Mark IV Panzers), sailed alone to Capetown and then up to the southern end of the Suez Canal, and delivered her cargo in time for her tanks to play a decisive role in the crucial battle of El Alamein. In October 1942 her sister, SEATRAIN NEW JERSEY, was undergoing conversion by the War Department to carry about 200 tanks by the Atlantic Basin Iron Works, Brooklyn, N.Y. when the Army and Navy together decided that the nature of her proposed employment in connection with the invasion of North Africa required that she be manned with a naval crew. Acting on a 2 Oct 42 letter from CominCh, the Auxiliary Vessels Board recommended her acquisition on 3 Oct 42, and the War Shipping Administration agreed to the assignment of the ship to the Navy with the condition that, after completion of the mission requiring a naval crew, the vessel would revert to her previous status (assigned to the Army under bareboat charter).
The two ships were returned to Seatrain Lines after the end of World War II, and their postwar service extended into the Vietnam War. SEATRAIN TEXAS was damaged by a "floating explosive device" while anchored at Nha Be near Saigon in December 1967, and SEATRAIN NEW JERSEY was, according to Internet accounts, "notorious for being shot up more than any other U.S. merchant ship" and "had many symbols of rockets and mortar bombs painted on her bridge wing, each denoting an attack." Like their earlier half-sisters these specialized ships were retired when Seatrain shifted from railroad equipment transport to containerized transport in the late 1960s and were scrapped in 1973.
The Merchant Marine Act of 1936 identified mariners aboard United States flagged merchant ships as military personnel in time of war. Neutrality Acts prevented arming of United States flagged merchant ships until 17 November 1941, although American-owned ships under Panamanian registry had been armed earlier. Guns were manned by United States Navy Armed Guard. United States began equipping ships of other nations with guns and United States Navy Armed Guard on 24 January 1942; and approximately 145,000 USN armed guards ultimately sailed aboard 6,236 merchant ships. United States policy was stated by the Vice Chief of Naval Operations on 19 August 1942: "Ships sailing independently should be armed. Ships sailing in regularly made-up convoys, other than ships bound to North Russia or tankers en route to the United Kingdom, may sail unarmed if the urgency of delivery of their cargo warrants it."
The United States followed the British practice of a single large gun aft. Early United States installations included low-angle 4"/50 calibre guns (Mark 9) removed from old Wickes-class destroyers and Clemson-class destroyers. The first installations of dual-purpose 5"/38 calibre guns began in September, 1942, on new ships over 10,000 tons. Victory ships carried a 3-inch gun on the bow, 20 mm machine gun tubs port and starboard between the first and second holds; a second pair of 20 mm guns on the bridge wings, a third pair on the after edge of the superstructure, and a fourth pair between the after (Number 5) hatch and the 5"/38 calibre gun on the stern.