(Freighter: dp. 12,185; l. 423'9"; b. 54'; dph. 29'9"; dr. 24'1" (mean); s. 10.5 k.; cpl. 74; a. 1 5", l-6pdr.)
West Gate (Id. No. 3216)—a steel-hulled, single-screw freighter built at Portland, Oreg., by the Columbia River Shipbuilding Corp., for the Cunard Steamship Line—was launched on 27 January 1918; taken over by the Navy for duty with the Naval Overseas Transportation Service (NOTS) ; assigned Identification Number 3216; and commissioned at Norfolk, Va., on 29 May 1918, Lt. Comdr. Alexander Watson, USNRF, in command.
West Gate loaded 6,700 tons of cargo at New York— locomotives, steel rails, and general Army supplies— and sailed in convoy on 28 June for France. She had not gone far before she developed engine trouble—a frequent occurrence in ships of her type—and headed for Newfoundland, for temporary engine repairs.
While steaming toward St. John's, through moderate seas and beneath a cloudy sky, West Gate came under attack by two German submarines at 1915 on 3 July. One U-boat broached dead ahead and crossed the cargo ship's bow to starboard, while the second Unterseeboot showed her conning tower one point to starboard as West Gate turned to port to evade the first enemy submersible.
Sending out a quick "SOS" on her wireless, the armed freighter unlimbered her main battery and opened fire. The speed and accuracy of the doughty cargo vessel's salvoes surprised the Germans—who perhaps had not anticipated such a hot and accurate reception. As the cargo ship's six-pounder and five-inch gun thundered and barked out shells which bracketed the pair of U-boats, the Germans wisely beat a hasty retreat and submerged, choosing to leave the fighting West Gate alone. Unmolested for the remainder of the passage, West Gate made port at St. John's at 1800 on 7 July.
Concluding her repairs by the 11th, the cargo ship again got underway for France and arrived at the Gironde estuary on the 22d. Three days later, she moved to St. Nazaire, discharged her cargo, and sailed on 21 August for Newport News, Va. Arriving off the Virginia capes on 10 September, West Gate shifted north to New York City to undergo major engine repairs later in the month. West Gate then loaded 7,187 tons of general Army supplies and got underway in convoy for Bordeaux on 4 October.
Escorted by Denver (Cruiser No. 14), the convoy ran into a particularly dark and rainy evening on the night of 6 October. West Gate steamed in the first column, to the starboard of guide ship Sagua (Id. No. 1627) with American (Id. No. 2292) astern off West Gate's port quarter. Flashing side lights in the nocturnal gloom helped the ships to stay on station as best they could, but the task proved difficult in the murk.
At 0228 on 7 October, the officer of the watch in West Gate reported that her steering gear engine had jammed at hard-a-port. Putting engines at half-speed ahead, West Gate attempted to drop out of the convoy to effect repairs, as her chief engineer and his assistant went aft to ascertain the damage. Men on the bridge, however, soon sighted the tell-tale red light of an oncoming ship, American, on the starboard beam at 0230.
The bridge watch rang down "full speed ahead," but West Gate could not respond quickly enough to escape. American's sharp stem cut deeply into the freighter's starboard side, aft, near her poop deck. Stopping engines and sounding "general quarters," West Gate settled and sounded "Abandon ship," as American backed away.
West Gate's crew now manned the boats while others voluntarily remained behind to insure that as many men as possible could get over the side. Wielding a flashlight, Seaman Bernard B. Sederquist, USNRF, led shipmates who had been asleep in an after berthing compartment to safety before he jumped to lifeboat number six. Belowdecks, Lt. Spencer, USNRF, the engineer officer, and Lt. (jg.) Hillery, USNRF, his assistant, remained in the machinery spaces until all others had left. The two men secured the boilers—putting out the fires and turning safety valves to prevent an explosion—before the bulkhead separating the after hold from the engine room gave way to the force of onrushing waters.
Spencer and Hillery both arrived on deck in time to enter lifeboat number two, which had been held until the last to accommodate its assigned occupants who manned the after gun and the engine rooms. Chief Gunner's Mate Wallrath stayed on deck as the last boat was lowered away, making sure that every boat had left the ship before he himself departed. Going over the side, he was pulled into boat number six, just as a wave capsized the craft and tossed its occupants into the water. Two men—one of them Seaman Sederquist— drowned before the remainder, including Wallrath, could be pulled from the sea by other boats. A later head count revealed that five more men perished in the tragedy—probably killed during the collision.
Meanwhile, as his men exhibited conspicuous heroism, the ship's commanding officer, Lt. Comdr. R. B. Vandervoort, USNRF, heroically remained on board until he felt assured that all men had gone over the side. He then climbed atop the amidships deckhouse to cut adrift a life raft and found six men huddled there. Vandervoort stayed with this group as the ship sank beneath them but was soon swept off by the vortex caused by the sinking ship and sucked under. Eventually struggling to the surface, Vandervoort, after clinging to floating wreckage for two hours, was picked up by the same raft from which he had been swept earlier. At 0600, the captain and the six men on the raft were rescued by a lifeboat from American.