(Author’s note: This is a story of tragedy and loss. It is told in narrative form, the events are factual except those actually aboard CONESTOGA from the time of getting underway until her loss. The events aboard CONESTOGA described from her underway to loss are the author’s conjecture based on his twenty-nine years of service, most of which was at sea, including two tours of duty in towing ships (RECLAIMER ARS-42 & COUCAL ASR-8). The author’s towing experience is substantial, and includes being in-charge of the longest post-WWII casualty tow, that of USS NEW ORLEANS LPH-11 in 1976. NEW ORLEANS lost a blade from her propeller and RECLAIMER had to tow her 700 miles at about four knots to Pearl Harbor.)
By Glenn Smith
Lieutenant Commander, United States Navy (Retired)
Universal Ship Cancellation Society
In the 1800s, Conestoga wagons, built mostly in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, “sailed” west from frontier towns. Untold numbers of people lost their lives on these westward journeys. In March 1921, the Navy namesake of these wagons, USS CONESTOGA (AT-54), sailed west from San Francisco Bay. She was never heard from again, and all hands were lost.
May 17th, 1921. The venerable merchantman/passenger ship, SS SENATOR is underway about 200 miles south-southwest of Cabo San Lucas on the southern tip of Baja Sur California, Mexico. SENATOR has been plying the Pacific waters from Alaska to Central America for almost twenty-five years, carrying passengers and cargo. Today, the crew sights debris and stops to recover a damaged lifeboat. The master immediately recognizes it as being of the type used by naval vessels. The boat has a brass letter “C” on its bow.Earlier, at 0815, Friday, March 25th, 1921 – Mare Island, California. USS CONESTOGA (AT-54) backs gingerly away from her berth. Made up “Chinese” (bow to stern) on her outboard side is a heavily laden barge full of coal. CONESTOGA has been assigned as the station tug at Tutuila, Samoa, and she is on her way towing her load of coal to take up that station, with orders to stop at Pearl Harbor to refuel & replenish. The trip across San Pablo Bay and San Francisco Bay require her to keep her barge tow alongside for maneuvering in restricted waters. Once outside the Golden Gate (the famous red-orange bridge had not yet spanned the opening from San Francisco Bay to the Pacific), she would slow and stream her tow astern for ocean towing. Aboard CONESTOGA was a veteran crew, led by a wardroom of all “mustangs,” former enlisted men who had risen through the ranks. Commanding was LT Ernest L. Jones, r>who had enlisted in 1902 and was appointed as warrant officer (boatswain) in 1913. Within five years, Jones had become a Lieutenant, and in March 1920 assumed command of CONESTOGA. With him in his wardroom was Boatswain Harvey Reinbold (XO & Navigation), Boatswain Roy Hoffses (Ordnance), and Machinist Louis Lipscomb (Engineer). Enlisted leadership was provided by four chief petty officers (boatswain’s mate, carpenter’s mate, machinist’s mate, and water tender) and several first class petty officers, including a quartermaster.
Built in 1904 as a civilian tug, CONESTOGA entered naval service in 1917, and served mainly as a harbor tug at Norfolk until she was fitted out for open ocean service in 1920. She displaced 420 tons, was 170’ in length, normal draft was 16’, max speed was about 13 knots, and she mounted two 3” guns and a pair of machine guns. By modern standards, CONESTOGA would be considered to be too small for open-ocean towing. By comparison, today’s Military Sealift Command fleet ocean tugs of the POWHATTAN class have a displacement of about 2260 tons, about five times the size of CONESTOGA.
Towing any vessel in the open ocean is an inherently dangerous operation, arguably one of the most difficult of seamanship evolutions. Towing speeds vary based on the prevailing sea and wind conditions coupled with the power of the tug and size of the vessel towed. CONESTOGA was not a particularly powerful ship, but a barge is a relatively small vessel to tow. In ideal conditions, CONESTOGA might be expected to tow a barge laden with coal at about six to eight knots. Rough seas or high winds would reduce that speed to three or four knots or even lower.In late afternoon on March 25th, CONESTOGA approaches the Golden Gate. About two miles inside the Gate, Captain Jones orders the ship slowed in order to stream the coal barge astern in preparation for ocean towing. He keeps the barge at “short stay,” about 250 yards astern with tension on the towing line for control while passing through the Gate. At about 1800, with CONESTOGA two miles west of the Gate, the barge’s tow line is slacked until it has a sufficient catenary (a curve or slack in the line between the towing vessel and the barge) to act as a spring. Satisfied that the barge is riding well, Captain Jones directs the normal at-sea towing watch be set. CONESTOGA’S towing watch consisted of one of the warrant officers (or perhaps Chief Boatswain’s Mate Elias Zimmerman) as officer-of-the-deck (OOD), a helmsman, messenger, quartermaster, and a lookout on the bridge, two or three men in the engine room, and an experienced seaman on the fantail as a watch on the towed barge and towing equipment. The crew assumes the normal at-sea watch rotation of four hours on and eight hours off. Additionally, sailors off-watch during the day put in a normal work day. What this means, for example, is that if you have the 4-8 watch in the morning, you rise at 0330, stand your watch, work all day, have the “first dog watch” from 1600 to 1800, and after the evening meal you might be able to get 4 hours rest before being called for the mid-watch at 2330. As you might imagine, by 0200 on the mid-watch, one is likely to be very tired. Judgment clouded by fatigue will play an important role in this hypothetical scenario. Boatswain Reinbold sets a course for Pearl Harbor, aiming to take CONESTOGA south of Oahu and around Diamond Head. The planned projected track uses a speed of advance of seven knots, which means that the ship would travel about 168 nautical miles per day. The distance along normal shipping route from the Golden Gate to Pearl Harbor is about 2100 nautical miles, making CONESTOGA’S voyage one of about 12.5 days. Authorities in Pearl expect CONESTOGA and her tow on the morning of Thursday, April 7th.
Maritime radio communications in 1921 was in its infancy, and was highly unreliable. In fact, the Navy rating of Radioman had just been established in 1921; however, none were aboard CONESTOGA. Captain Jones, both boatswains, and Quartermaster 1/c Martin McKeigh all could manage the rudimentary Morse key that transmitted & received signals to & from distant land stations, one of which was KPH (originally located in the Palace Hotel, San Francisco). Station KPH started maritime commercial operations in 1917 from a transmitter in Bolinas, CA. Typically, one of these men would stop by the small radio set a couple times a day to send or check for radio transmissions. Many times, they could not send or receive signals because of distance or weather. This was considered normal, and not hearing from a particular vessel for days or even weeks did not raise any serious alarm at shore headquarters.
The 20-24 watch on Sunday March 27th was unremarkable. Boatswain Reinbold’s evening star sighting showed that CONESTOGA had traveled about 345 miles since passing between the Golden Gate. This put the ship in the California Current which is part of the North Pacific Gyre, and typically sets southward along the California coast. Captain Jones spent most of the evening working on administrative matters, but around taps (2200), he made a walk-through of the ship. Even though there had been a full-moon on March 23rd, it was now fast waning, with a ¾ moon rising at about midnight. Dark cumulus clouds were rolling in from the west, making the sky even darker than normal. Jones could barely make out his towing charge, now about 400 yards astern, riding at the end of his towing wire. He chatted briefly with the seaman on the fantail watch, satisfying himself that the seaman knew what to look for and that he moved the towing wire in and out from time-to-time to reduce chaffing of the wire. Returning to the bridge, Jones sat in his chair for a while, talking with the OOD until about 2300. Assuring himself that there were no other ships in sight (radar had not been introduced in ships), Jones retired to his cabin for the evening.
The mid-watch (00-04) took over at midnight on Monday, March 28th. Still in the cooler waters near San Francisco, the watch, particularly on the fantail, was unpleasant, at best. The fantail towing watch stepped inside the deck house to the galley fairly frequently for coffee, and to simply “warm his bones.” Even in these cooler temperatures, the engine room was extremely hot; ships in this era had no air conditioning. Because the seas were relatively calm, the deck house doors on the main deck remained open to provide some relief for the engineers and crew’s quarters.
At 0200, the fantail towing watch looked astern and could not see the barge, it was extremely dark by now, the barge had been riding low in the water because of its heavy load of coal, and the black coal pile did not reflect light well, so this was not unusual. It seemed quiet and normal, so the tired and bored seaman stepped into the galley for coffee. What he did not know was that a seam had ruptured on the barge, and even now it was sinking fast. As it sank, the sudden downward strain on the towing line brought the fantail of CONESTOGA down, and the sea surged over her aft gunwales. Like a wave at the beach it headed forward toward and through the open aft deckhouse doors and burst through them, the barge towing wire parted under the strain, sending the barge to the sea floor, but the sudden release of tension tossed the stern of CONESTOGA violently upward and her bow down, and all of the water that had accumulated in the fantail and in the deck house flooded into the engine room and crews quarters, trapping men in both places. As the fantail rose, the bow scooped in more sea water, adding to the already bad situation. In a matter of seconds, CONESTOGA was doomed. She went down like a rock. There was no time to launch her lifeboats, they were literally ripped from their davits, shattering them in the process. All hands on the main deck or below could not make their way against the on-rushing waters, only the bridge and fantail watch, and perhaps the officers and chiefs whose berthing was higher in the deck house, managed to make it into the sea alive. There was absolutely no chance to attempt a radio transmission.
The few men that managed to get off the sinking ship had only one chance for survival, a passing ship. They were not expected in Pearl for at least another ten days, so there would be no organized search effort until then. With the lifeboats shattered and being in relatively cool waters, they had about two or three days at most. No ships came.
When it finally became apparent that CONESTOGA was overdue, somewhere around April 8th, a search was launched and lasted until CONESTOGA was declared lost without a trace on June 30th, 1921.
The author recognizes that there could have been other causes for CONESTOGA’S loss. Among them might have been a collision at sea, but this is discounted because no other vessel was reported lost nor did any report a collision. A catastrophic fire in the engineering spaces is possible, but would not have likely resulting a sinking. A fire might have reached the ammunition storage area causing a fatal explosion, but it is not known if CONESTOGA had a below decks magazine that could have been flooded to mitigate that possibility, or simply deck ammo storage lockers. However, the ship had only three-inch and machine gun ammo, which would not normally cause an explosion of the magnitude necessary to sink even a small ship. Whatever happened had to be catastrophic, otherwise, the experience deck crew of CONESTOGA would certainly have had time to properly launch lifeboats and rafts, and the rescue of at least some of the crew would have been possible, if not likely.
When SS SENATOR found the drifting debris, including the boat bow with the letter “C,” the master of SENATOR sent that part to the Navy Department. The Navy was unable to conclusively confirm that it was from CONESTOGA. However, the location of the find is consistent with CONESTOGA having a catastrophic event and sinking between about 100 and 400 miles off the California coast on or about March 28th, with the debris drifting with the southward setting California Current until discovered by SENATOR on May 25th.
With the sole exception of SENATOR’S grim find, the search for CONESTOGA netted nothing. Navy, Coast Guard, and merchant ships scoured the ocean between California and Hawai’i, with no luck. There is one incident involved in the search that, were it not for the terrible tragedy of CONESTOGA’s loss, would be very amusing. With more than 86 years having passed, it is probably OK to smile at the story of the USS R-14’s search efforts. R-14 was an old submarine, and herself very small, 569 tons surface displacement, which made her close in size to CONESTOGA.
R-14 had a diesel fuel capacity of about 18,800 gallons, but had deployed from Pearl Harbor hurriedly on the vital search mission for CONESTOGA and had only about 10,000 gallons on sailing. About half of her fuel was in the R-14’s reserve fuel tank. On May 10th, her normal on-service fuel tank ran dry, so her commanding officer, LT A. D. Douglas, ordered a shift to the reserve fuel tank. That tank, for reasons still not known, had no fuel. R-14 was adrift, with only what “juice” she had in her battery (which was enough for only about two hours of propulsion). Again, the vagaries of maritime radio communications came into play. R-14 sent a message, which they believed was received by her sister, USS R-10. If it was, it was never relayed to the proper authorities in Pearl, and R-14 was also thought to be overdue. Submariners are noted for ingenuity, and R-14 bolstered this tradition by rigging sails from sheets and mattresses, attaching them to her periscope, and sailing for five days. Finally, on May 15th, she was off the breakwater at Hilo, Captain Douglas ordered the batteries brought on line, and R-14 came into port on her own power. Imagine Captain Douglas’ embarrassment on having to explain to the admiral that his reserve fuel tank was empty, and he did not know it. It is not known if LT Douglas’ naval career suffered from the “fuel shortage,” or prospered because of his ingenuity!
(1). The US Naval Observatory James Melville Gillis Library for on-line astrological observations of 1921 may be accessed at: www.usno.navy.mil/library/
(2). Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships at: www.history.navy.mil/danfs/index.html
(3). The Devil’s Triangle to the Devil’s Jaw by Richard Winer, Bantam Books, Inc., New York, 1977. pp. 210-12.
(4). Naval Historical Center (Now Naval History and Heritage Command) at: www.history.navy.mil/photos/pers-us/uspers-j/el-jones.htm and other related pages.
(5). US Navy Towing Manual, SL740-AA-MAN-010, Rev. 3, 2002, accessible on-line at: hnsa.org/doc/pdf/towman.pdf