from the chapter titled “Captain Ferrini’s Amazing Hat Trick.” The dynamic reading was well received; kind compliments afterward made the long trip worthwhile. And I sold nearly every book that had been shipped there to sell. I really enjoy signing books for people, talking and listening to them—especially this book, because many of them are WW2 vets with stories of their own. Here’s the excerpt from “At All Costs” about the SS Ohio that went over so well. It begins on June 23, 1942, with her reaching the River Clyde, Britain’s busiest seaport during the war.
The arrival of the SS Ohio at the Clyde was celebrated. She was the first American tanker to bring fuel across the Atlantic since the war began. She had come from Port Arthur, Texas, with a quick stop at Key West, where she had picked up an escort from the Navy base there, a single destroyer that had followed her for twenty-four hours. After that she had been insanely all alone, out on an ocean full of U-boats, carrying 107,000 barrels of 104-octane Texas Company gas for the RAF bombers on Malta.
The Ohio was big, fast, and sweet. She could carry more fuel than any other tanker on the water. Long and lean, at 514 feet and 9,264 gross tons, she had the bow of a schooner and the stern of a cruiser, with an elegant sheer and bold prow. She was fitted with the latest Westinghouse steam turbine engines that churned out 9,000 shaft horsepower, spinning a single screw of solid bronze whose four blades spanned 20 feet. During her standardization trials off the Delaware Capes, four days before she was delivered to the Texas Company, she had hit a fantastic top speed of 19.23 knots in the measured mile, fully loaded with seawater ballast.
When she was launched by Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Company of Chester, Pennsylvania, there was no ship like her. She was built like a battleship. Her sisters, the Oklahoma and Kentucky, had come along since then, but they had been sunk; so now she was again the only tanker on the high seas with a welded hull. Neat wide seams bonded her bulkheads and hull, where hundreds of thousands of rivets were used on lesser ships. Two thick bulkheads made up her backbone, and twenty-three transverse bulkheads, strengthened by girders, sectioned her into thirty-three honeycombed cargo tanks. There were nine fat tanks down the middle and twenty-four smaller wing tanks, with a sophisticated pumping system that discharged oils from each tank quickly and cleanly.
I jumped the story to August 12, with the Operation Pedestal convoy at the mouth of the Sicilian Narrows in the Mediterranean Sea. Although Captain Dudley Mason had only been master of the Ohio for twenty-eight days, he had established a reputation with the crew for carrying himself with a great deal of equilibrium, even in stormy seas. “He didn’t have a great lot to say,” said the ordinary seaman Allan Shaw, who was then nineteen and is now eighty-three, living in Blyth on the North Sea and nearly as nimble as he was back then. So far, Captain Mason hadn’t appeared to be very excited by the day’s activity. In fact, he didn’t have much to say about it.
From his log:
wednesday, august 12th. The day passed fairly uneventfully. One or two isolated planes got through the outer screen and kept the gunners in action, and some bombs were dropped. Continuous salvoes of depth charges and emergency turns to port and starboard every few minutes. Several vessels reported submarines, and I believe two were accounted for this afternoon. The signal had been given that a concentration of submarines were expected inside a given area (approximately our position for dusk). We were then 75 miles north of Cape Bon, on the edge of the 100-fathom line. But when Nigeria and Cairo were torpedoed, Captain Mason’s “uneventful” day suddenly ended, and the long night in the narrows began. Lieutenant Barton, the Ohio’s young liaison officer, was on the bridge with Mason when the two cruisers were hit. “I saw great bits of Cairo flying for 400 yards,” he said. “Then, while we were still looking at Cairo, there was a tremendous sheet of flames just about on the bridge, and we too had been hit.”Captain Ferrini of the Axum had scored an amazing hat trick: four torpedoes fired, three ships hit. Force X had lost two of its four cruisers—its heavily armed flagship Nigeria and antiaircraft specialist Cairo—and the crux of the convoy, its raison d’être, the SS Ohio, was aflame. One sweet salvo of Italian torpedoes was all it took to radically tilt the balance of Operation Pedestal.
“There was a bright flash, and a column of water was thrown up to masthead height. There were two seconds of absolute quiet, and then flames shot into the air,” said Mason, who was blown to the deck by the blast. He crawled toward the chart room, where he bumped heads with the third mate, who was crawling out. “The vessel heeled over and shook violently. We were struck amidships in the pump room on the port side, halfway between the bow and stern.” “Some of us were standing on the poop deck when the torpedo hit,” said Allan Shaw. “We all thought this was it—when a tanker goes afire, you haven’t got a great lot of chance. There was the flames, and there was an awful big goosher, which seemed to put some of the flames out. A lot of water, it went up like a big geyser. Then someone shouted, ‘Get the fire extinguishers.’ ” Because the ships were in the middle of their formation change, the Ohio was close off the port bow of the Santa Elisa and moving nearly twice as fast.
The Santa Elisa had slowed to 8 knots, to allow Ohio to move to starboard and slip in ahead of her, in the change from four columns to two. If the torpedo had missed the Ohio, it would have hit the Santa Elisa. At their battle stations on the port bridge wings of the Santa Elisa, Larsen and Dales got a face full of flaming Ohio. “A tremendous black cloud rose on our port beam,” said Dales, watching from his gun. “The tanker Ohio, with its cargo so vital to Malta’s exis-tence, had just been torpedoed! We could feel the heat. I saw men dragging fire hoses across her deck. The black smoke swallowed them up.” Shaw, who’s a wee five feet, six inches and the same 147 pounds he was back then, continues. “We grabbed some big fire extinguishers at the after end, and ran along the flying bridge and lowered them down to some lads who were fighting the fire. It’s good the sea was washing in and out; thatwas helping keep the fire down.”
“The Ohio did not list,” said Mason, “but the deck on the port side was torn up and laid right back inboard, nearly to the centerline. There was a hole in the hull on the port side twenty-four feet by twenty-seven feet, reaching from the main deck to well below the waterline. The large Samson derrick post fell over to an angle of forty-five degrees, the flying bridgewas damaged, and the pump room was ablaze and completely open to the sea. Four kerosene tanks were opened up to the sea on the port side; theirlids were blown off, and flames were coming up through the hatches. The
steering gear telemotor pipes were carried away by the explosion, also the electric cable and all steam pipes in the vicinity of the pump room.
“I had the crew mustered on the deck at boat stations provisionally, but engines had been kept running. I had previously told the chief engineer that he was not to stop the engines whatever happened, until I gave him the order to do so, but now I rang, ‘Finish with engines.’ I gave the order
now, in order to get the men out of the engine room for the time being. I had been forced to stop, not only to fight the fire, but because our steering was out of order and we were turning in circles, making us a danger to the other ships which were lying stopped near us, including the Nigeria and
Mason joined the firefight, facing the searing heat, directing the hoses, and shouting for more fire extinguishers.“It was then a case of fighting the pump room fire,” he continued. “I
thought it was a forlorn hope, but we set to work with foam extinguishers and managed to put out the flames much more easily than I expected. We also put out the flames in the kerosene tanks and replaced the tank lids, although these could not be screwed down as they were badly buckled.” The destroyer Pathfinder circled Ohio, dropping depth charges, as the rest of the convoy left the burning tanker behind, dead in the water at dusk. And this was just the first hit of the Ohio. The German and Italian dive-bombers hadn’t even gotten there yet.