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USS Atik

(AK-101: displacement 6,610; length 382'2"; beam 46'1"; draft 21'6"; speed 9 knots; complement 141; armament four 4-inch guns, four .50-caliber machine guns, four .30-caliber Lewis machine guns, six depth charge projectors)

Carolyn--a steel-hulled, single-screw steamer--was laid down on 15 March 1912 at Newport News, Va., by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co., for the A. K. Bull Steamship Lines; launched on 3 July 1912; sponsored by Miss Carolyn Bull (for whom the ship was probably named), a granddaughter of the shipping firm's owner, Archibald Hilton Bull (1847-1920); and delivered on 20 July 1912.

For the next 30 years, Carolyn carried freight and passengers between the West Indies and ports on the eastern seaboard of the United States. During World War 1, she received a main battery of a 3-inch and a 5-inch gun, and a Navy armed guard detachment served in the ship from 28 June 1917 to 11 November 1918. During that time, too, the Navy gave her the identification number (Id. No. 1608), but did not take her over for naval service.

Carolyn pursued her prosaic calling under the house flag of the Bull Line through the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. However, soon after that tragic action, events transpired which had a fateful effect upon the ship.

By 12 January 1942, the British Admiralty's intelligence community had noted a "heavy concentration" of U-boats off the "... North American seaboard from New York to Cape Race"
and passed along this fact to the American Navy. That day, U-113 under Kapitanleutnant Reinhard Hardegen, torpedoed and sank the British steamship Cyclops, inaugurating Operation
"Paukenschlag," (literally, "roll on the kettledrum") and commencing a veritable "blitz" against Allied coastal shipping between New York harbor and the Outer Banks. U-boat commanders found peacetime conditions prevailing along the coast: towns and cities were not blacked-out and navigational buoys remained lighted; shipping followed normal routines and "carried the normal lights." "Paukenschlag" had caught the United States unawares.

Committed to fighting the rampaging Japanese in the Pacific and to assuring the safe arrival of vital convoys to Great Britain in the Atlantic, the American Navy could spare few ships to deal
with this new threat close to our shores. As a result of the crisis, it launched a new, imaginative, and daring program. Because of the secret nature of the project, its inception is shrouded in mystery. It appears that President Franklin Roosevelt, well known for his affinity for things novel and naval, desired that the Navy establish a "Q-ship" program similar to that which had been used by the British with some success in the first World War.

Acquired by the Navy from the Maritime Commission, Carolyn steamed to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where she was turned over to the Navy under a bareboat charter at 1530 on 12 February 1942. This followed within two weeks of a dispatch from the Chief of Naval Operations dated 31 January 1942 which had stated his desire that Evelyn and Carolyn "be given a preliminary conversion to AK (cargo ship) in the shortest possible time." A letter from the Chief of the Bureau of Ships elaborated on the "shortest possible time," when it stated on 12 February that the conversion and outfitting of the vessels was desired "by 1 March 1942."

As could be expected, the process of converting two venerable tramp steamers into men-of-war was by no means complete; but, over the next few weeks, the two erstwhile "tramps" were given
their main and secondary batteries and sound gear. Nevertheless, they appeared to be mere cargo ships. Carolyn became Atik, and was given a cargo ship hull number, AK-101; Evelyn became Asterion (AK-100).

Atik (AK-101) was placed in commission at 1645 on 5 March 1942 at the Portsmouth (N.H.) Navy Yard, Lt. Comdr. Harry Lynnwood Hicks, USN, in command. Following fitting out and
brief sea trials, she and Asterion got underway on 23 March 1942. Soon after leaving port, Atik and Asterion went their separate ways.

At the outset, all connected with the program apparently harbored the view that neither ship "was expected to last longer than a month after commencement of [her] assigned duty." Atik's holds were packed with pulpwood, a somewhat mercurial material. If dry, "an explosive condition might well develop and, if wet, "rot, with resultant fire might well take place." Despite these disadvantages, pulpwood was selected as the best obtainable material to assure "floatability."

Atik's mission was to lure some unsuspecting U-boat into making a torpedo attack. According to the projected scenario, the submarine, having deemed the venerable tramp unworthy of the expenditure of more torpedoes, would surface to sink the crippled foe with gunfire.

The plan presupposed a "backup" which was to come to the rescue whenever a "Q-ship" ran into difficulties. In March, 1942, though, there was no such "safety net." "The commanding officers of the two ships (Atik and Asterion) were told [that] they could expect little help if they got into trouble as the situation was critical. Every available combatant ship and plane were [sic] being employed to the maximum for convoy and patrol duties."

In the gathering darkness, three days after Atik had sailed from Portsmouth, she attracted the attention of the German submarine, U-123, on her second war patrol off the eastern seaboard. The U-boat, on the surface, began stalking Atik at 2200, and at 0037 on 27 March fired one torpedo from 700 yards away which struck the ship on her port side, under the bridge. Fire broke out immediately, and the ship began to assume a slight list; an SOS went out from the crippled "freighter": "S.S. Carolyn, torpedo attack, burning forward, not bad." As U-123 proceeded around under her victim's stern, her captain, Kapitanleutnant Hardegen, duly noted one boat being lowered on the starboard side and men abandoning ship.

"Carolyn" was not dead--yet. After U-123 turned to starboard, Atik gathered steerage way, paralleling her course by turning to starboard as well, and dropped her concealment, commencing fire from her main and secondary batteries. The first shell dropped short of the U-boat, as she made off presenting a small target; the others were off in deflection. A veritable hail of .50-caliber machine gun fire, though, ricocheted around the U-boat's decks as she bent on speed to escape the trap into which Hardegen had fallen. One bullet mortally wounded a midshipman standing watch on U-123's bridge.

Gradually, the U-boat pulled out of range behind the cover of a smoke screen emitted by her straining diesels, and her captain assessed the damage. As he later recorded, "We had been incredibly lucky."

Not so, Atik. U-123 submerged and again approached her daring opponent. At 0229, the U-boat loosed a torpedo into Atik's machinery spaces. Satisfied that this blow would prove to be the coup de grace, U-123 stood off to await developments as Atik settled by the bow, her single screw now out of the water.

Once again, Atik's crew could be seen embarking in her boats, as their ship clung stubbornly to life. U-123 surfaced at 0327, perhaps to finish off the feisty Q-ship once and for all. Suddenly, at 0350, a cataclysmic explosion blew Atik to pieces. Ten minutes later, U-123 buried her only casualty--the midshipmen killed by Atik's machine gun fire. Atik's entire crew perished--either in the blast or during the severe gale that lashed the sea soon after the ship disintegrated.

The next morning, an Army bomber was dispatched to Atik's last reported location but found nothing. The destroyer Noa (DD-343) and the tug Sagamore (AT-20)
USS Atik (AK-101)

Related Resource: History of Q-ships

30 July 2001
Published: Mon Jan 13 10:19:41 EST 2014