Lieutenant Junior Grade Kenneth Martin Willett, D-V(G), was born in Overland, Missouri, on 9 April 1919. He had attended Sacramento Junior College, majoring in business and geology, and had enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve on 9 July 1940. He accepted an appointment as midshipman, USNR, on 10 August and ensign, D-V(G)—the Naval Reserve designation for dental officers qualified for general detail afloat or ashore—on 14 November. He subsequently received instruction onboard the miscellaneous auxiliary (ex-battleship) Illinois, being detached on the same day to his first ship, the battleship California (BB-44), reporting on board on 1 December 1940. Detached on 24 November 1941, Willett left Honolulu on board the liner Lurline on 5 December, just two days before the Japanese attack upon Oahu. Following instruction at the Armed Guard Center at Treasure Island, he received assignment as Armed Guard Officer; he accepted an appointment as lieutenant junior grade on 16 July 1942.
On the morning of Sunday, 27 September 1942, Willett was serving onboard Stephen Hopkins, a 7,181-ton Liberty ship, a freighter indistinguishable from hundreds of her mass-produced sisters, as she steamed at 12 knots through a smooth sea in the South Atlantic. She sailed in ballast, bound from Capetown, South Africa, to Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana, with a crew of 42 merchant mariners and one passenger.
With visibility poor, five lookouts peered into the mist, three from the bridge, one at the bow of the ship, and one on the platform aft that contained Stephen Hopkins’s main battery, a 4-inch gun. The rest of her armament consisted of two 37-millimeter anti-aircraft guns, four .50-caliber and two .30-caliber machine guns. This battery was the responsibility of the 15-man U.S. Navy Armed Guard under Lieutenant (j.g.) Willett’s command.
Although the area was one “through which no ship ever passed,” Stephen Hopkins encountered two: the German auxiliary cruiser Stier (Schiff 23) and the blockade runner Tannefels lying-to and engaged in a transfer of supplies. The Stier’s main battery consisted of four 5.9-inch guns, two 37-millimeter and four 20-millimeter guns, in addition to two 21-inch torpedo tubes. Tannenfels mounted one 5.9-inch gun and several smaller-caliber weapons. The Americans and the Germans sighted each other almost simultaneously, but the Germans, who got underway soon thereafter, opened the battle at 0856 at a range of about two miles.
Willett emerged on deck just as the first German 5.9-inch shell exploded. Suffering severe abdominal wounds at the outset of the action, the 23-year old officer continued aft to the freighter’s 4-inch gun. Stephen Hopkins began bravely answering the attack at 0900 at a range of 1,000 yards as she maneuvered to enable her after gun to bear upon the enemy.
For almost 20 minutes, Stephen Hopkins exchanged fire with her more heavily armed adversary and her consort, taking a heavy beating from the enemy’s heavier caliber guns and more numerous automatic weapons. Willett’s gunners, however, scored 15 hits of the 35 shells fired, disabling Stier’s rudder and setting her fuel oil bunkers afire. Damage to the Stier’s electrical system prevented her from employing her torpedo battery.
Stephen Hopkins, her speed reduced to barely steerageway by a hit on her main boiler, her topsides raked by machine-gun fire and shell fragments, her sides and deck houses holed, nevertheless kept up the fight until the overwhelming firepower of the enemy silenced her. When a German shell exploded the magazine, Willett finally abandoned his gun and, although covered with blood, descended to the main deck. Although “obviously weakened and suffering,” he was last seen “helping to cast loose the life rafts in a desperate effort to save the lives of others….”
Stephen Hopkins’s gallant gunners, however, both naval and merchant marine, had inflicted mortal damage on Stier. Holed and ablaze throughout her length, the German auxiliary cruiser began listing to port, down by the stern, having suffered three dead and 33 wounded. The fires consuming her fuel and ammunition rendered the ship beyond saving, and her survivors transferred to Tannenfels.
Stephen Hopkins sank at 1000. Her drifting survivors saw the Stier abandoned and later heard an explosion in the distance some time later, signaling the enemy’s destruction. Of the 58 souls on board the Stephen Hopkins—42 merchant sailors, the one passenger, and 15-man Armed Guard—only 15 (10 merchant seamen, 5 Armed Guard Sailors) survived the harrowing 31-day, 2,200-mile voyage to the Brazilian coast. Lieutenant Willett was, sadly, not among them.
“The extraordinary heroism and outstanding devotion to duty of the officers and crew of the Armed Guard and the ship’s company,” one chronicler has written of Stephen Hopkins’s battle, “were in keeping with the highest tradition of American seamanship. Their fearless devotion to fight for their ship, and perseverance to engage the enemy to the utmost until their ship was rendered useless, aflame and in a sinking condition, demonstrated conduct beyond the call of duty.”
Lieutenant Junior Grade Willett was awarded the Navy Cross (posthumously). Stephen Hopkins had fought like a man-of-war, and her adversaries believed her to be a “camouflaged enemy auxiliary cruiser.” The Navy commemorated Willett’s “extraordinary heroism and conspicuous courage” in naming the destroyer escort Kenneth M. Willett (DE-354) in his honor.
—Robert J. Cressman, Naval History and Heritage Command, September 2008