The steamship California, later renamed Oliver J. Olson, was launched on 18 August 1917 at Newport News, Va., by the Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co., for the Southern Pacific Steamship Co.. Renamed El Capitan and completed under the aegis of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, the ship -- slated for possible employment as a service collier if converted to a coal-burner -- was acquired by the U.S. Shipping Board (USSB) under a bare boat charter for the War Department [U.S. Army] Account. Given the identification number (Id. No.) 1407, El Capitan was transferred from the USSB to the U.S. Navy at Philadelphia, Pa., on 21 March 1918, and commissioned the same day, Lt. Cmdr. Jay H. Halsey, USNRF, in command.
Refitted for service with the Naval Overseas Transportation Service (NOTS), El Capitan loaded 5,621 tons of oil and general supplies allocated to the U.S. Army, then joined a convoy off Tompkinsville, N.Y., of 30 March 1918. She sailed on 1 April for France, reaching Brest a little over a fortnight later, on 16 April, but congestion of pier-side space resulted in El Capitan being shifted to Quiberon Bay, thence to La Pallice on the 19th. After discharging part of her cargo there, she steamed to Paulliac, on the Gironde River, to finish emptying her holds, on 27 April. Standing down the Gironde on 5 May to Verdon, she fueled and underwent minor repairs before sailing for the United States on 13 May.
Reaching Philadelphia on 29 May 1918, El Capitan loaded a cargo of ammunition at Fort Mifflin, in addition to 2,100 tons of food, 1,700 of steel, 500 of forage, and 230 of material for ice plants. Clearing Philadelphia on 7 June, she reached New York later the same day, then sailed for France on 10 June in convoy HN-72. Standing in to Brest on 25 June, she proceeded to Bordeaux on the 29th, at which port she unloaded her entire cargo. Completing that work on 10 July, she steamed thence to Verdon on the 13th, then sailed in convoy for the United States on the 16th. One day from landfall on the east coast, on 30 July, El Capitan sighted what appeared to be a surfaced submarine abreast of her. Going to general quarters, the cargo ship opened fire with her number one gun. The boat attempted to dive but porpoised, giving El Capitan’s number two gun the opportunity to get off one shot before the range opened, thus ending the inconclusive encounter.
Arriving at Philadelphia on 31 July 1918, El Capitan underwent minor repairs at the Cramp shipyard, after which she loaded 4,837 tons of general cargo. She cleared Philadelphia for New York on 15 August, and reached her destination the following day. Joining convoy HB-10 for her third transatlantic passage, she sailed for Le Havre on 17 August. El Capitan reached her destination on 3 September, then steamed to Bordeaux, where she discharged her cargo at the Bassens Dock. Shifted to Verdon, the ship anchored to await the formation of a convoy, at which point she sailed for the United States on 13 September.
El Capitan arrived at Philadelphia a little over a fortnight [28 September 1918] after she had cleared French waters, then again returned to the Cramp yard for minor repairs, upon completion of which she took on board 4,392 tons of general cargo, in addition to trucks and steel rails. Proceeding to New York on 7 October, the ship joined convoy HN-87 and set course for Brest the following day [8 October]. Reaching her destination on 25 October, she steamed to Cherbourg the next day, then to Le Havre on the 27th to complete discharging what she had transported from the United States. El Capitan proceeded then from Le Havre to Plymouth, England (3-4 November), fueling and taking on potable water there, as well as transferring a sick sailor to Hannibal for medical treatment. Receiving orders at Plymouth, she shifted to Devonport, England, whence she sailed, in ballast, on 8 November.
During El Capitan’s return passage to the United States, the Armistice stilled the guns of the First World War (11 November 1918). The ship reached Philadelphia on 23 November, then discharged ballast (27 November-2 December), and returned to Cramps’ yard for a period in dry dock (7 December 1918-2 January 1919), during which time (17 December 1918) she was transferred from the War Department to the Shipping Board account and earmarked for demobilization.
Departing Philadelphia on 31 January 1919, El Capitan reached New York later the same day, where she was decommissioned on 1 February 1919 to be returned to her pre-war owners. She was stricken from the Navy list the same day.
Ultimately, El Capitan, owned by the United States Lines from June 1941 and chartered to the U.S. Maritime Commission (formerly the USSB), was placed under Panamanian registry on 1 October 1941.
On 13 April 1942, a 10-man naval armed guard reported on board, commanded by Lt. (j.g.) Louis D. Marks, D-V(G), USNR, who held a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Tennessee and whose underway naval reserve training had included stints in the heavy cruiser Tuscaloosa (CA-37) and the light cruiser Nashville (CL-43). Departing New York two days later, John E. Thevik, master, with a 35-man merchant crew and the 11-man armed guard, the merchantman reached Halifax on 18 April.
Departing on 23 April 1942 for Gourock, Scotland, El Capitan reached her destination on 10 May 1942. She got underway for Loch Ewe, Scotland, on the 18th, and arrived on the following day. El Capitan then sailed for Iceland on 20 May, and reached Hvalfjordur five days later. There she remained for a little over a month, eventually sailing as part of convoy PQ-17, “our destination,” Lt. (j.g.) Marks recorded later, “being to such port in the White Sea as directed by the Russians.”
El Capitan put to sea on 27 June 1942 with machinery, food, metal, leather and ammunition in her holds, and tanks and planes as deck cargo. She set course to proceed from Reykjavik around the western and northern shores of Iceland, steaming toward Jan Mayen Island, thence proceeding north of Bear Island into the Barents Sea, heading for the White Sea.
A little after mid-day on 1 July 1942, lookouts spotted the first German reconnaissance plane, a Blohm and Voss Bv 138 flying boat. A little over a day later, the Germans launched the first attack on PQ-17, involving torpedo-carrying Heinkels. On 4 July, more low-level torpedo attacks ensued, many of the merchantmen employing their 4-inch/50 caliber single-purpose guns against the hedge-hopping attackers. At 2020, the convoy commodore, in response to orders from the British Admiralty, signaled for the convoy to scatter. Twenty minutes later, as the convoy left Bear Island on its starboard quarter, another signal told each ship to proceed independently to their destination.
El Capitan set course for the north-northeast, “taking every opportunity,” Marks wrote, “to conceal our ship in the fog.” Ominously, radio reports told of the proximity of ships being bombed or torpedoed, such intelligence informing those on board El Capitan of the numbers of planes or submarines involved. Thus warned, Capt. Thevik set course for Novaya Zemlya, where the ship would enter a small inlet and “wait a week before attempting to cross the entrance of the White Sea.”
On 7 July 1942, El Capitan stood in to Matochkin Strait where she found other vessels from the scattered PQ-17 – a rescue ship and six other merchantmen. The assemblage of refugees set out at 1800 that day, setting course for Iokanka Point, and began encountering dense fog the next afternoon [8 July]. The lead ship “plowed into thick ice,” and while some vessels proved “unable to budge for a while,” El Capitan managed to extricate herself from her predicament with little difficulty. The clearing fog, however, revealed that only she and the U.S. freighter Hoosier were the only merchantmen in the vicinity. Two British antiaircraft ships, two corvettes, three trawlers, and a rescue ship, however, steamed in proximity. That same afternoon, El Capitan rescued Ens. Rudolph H. Kroetz, D-V(G), USNR, Cox. Arthur L. Farmer, and another enlisted man from the 10-man armed guard of the U.S. freighter John Witherspoon, along with 16 men from the merchantman’s crew, from the sunken Liberty Ship’s number four lifeboat. They had endured 53 hours in the open boat, sometimes stuck in the ice, after the German submarine U-255 (Kapitänleutnant Reinhart Reche) had sent their ship to the bottom on 6 July.
At 1845 on 9 July 1942, a German submarine surfaced astern of what remained of PQ-17, but drew no fire. Two German reconnaissance planes then circled, like vultures, after which time (2200) five Junkers Ju 88s from the II and III Staffeln of Kampfgeschwader (KG.) 30, set upon them about 60 miles from the ships’ destination. El Capitan sighted more German planes – identified as Junkers Ju 88s and Heinkel He 115s – at 2300 (GMT) on 9 July. Over the next six hours, the enemy’s relentless onslaught, conducted chiefly from out of the sun, continued against the freighter and her consorts as they attempted to escape from Matochin Strait, extending PQ-17’s ordeal.
Changing course constantly, plowing through the smooth seas at 10 knots, El Capitan managed to escape direct hits while her gunners employed two .50-caliber Browning machine guns (one of which, at Lt. (j.g.) Marks’s request, was manned by Ens. Kroetz and Cox. Farmer, from John Witherspoon), two .30 caliber Lewis guns, and twin Marlin machine guns at ranges under 1,000 feet, scoring frequent hits and sending two planes retiring toward Petsamo, Finland, “losing altitude rapidly.”
At 0150 on 10 July 1942, a Ju 88 dropped three bombs, two to port and one to starboard, that fell 40 feet astern, opening seams in the after peak tank and in the gun crew’s quarters, but, as Marks noted at that time “the situation was not fatal.” Another trio of bombs, however, dropped by a Ju-88 from II/KG.30 exploded close aboard at 0530, some of which “as close as 5 feet” from El Capitan’s starboard side. The concussion blew in the sea valves, burst the fuel and water pipes to the main engines, blew in the bulkhead in no. 4 hold, and wrecked the starboard side of the engine room. As holds no. 4 and no. 5 began flooding, the freighter began to settle aft. With the ship obviously doomed, Capt. Thevik destroyed all classified material and gave the order for all hands to prepare to abandon ship.
The British armed trawler HMS Lord Austin embarked El Capitan’s entire complement, in addition to the 19 survivors from John Witherspoon, then shelled the irreparably damaged freighter at 0600 about 65 miles northeast of Iokanski. Their rescuers told El Capitan’s armed guard sailors that one of the planes fired upon by the freighter’s guns had “turned away from its attack on us and had begun smoking, as if on fire, as it attempted to get greater altitude, astern of the convoy. Two large parachutes were seen shortly after in the direction of this plane; these may have been the pilot and the gunner bailing out of their plane.” Lord Austin then transferred the U.S. survivors to a corvette on 12 July, and thence up the Dvina River to Archangel. Ultimately, El Capitan’s survivors reached Boston in the liner Queen Mary on 15 October 1942.
Lord Austin’s attempt to sink the crippled freighter apparently failed to inflict the coup de grâce to the tough Newport News-built ship, for U-251 (Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Timm) torpedoed and sank El Capitan later that day.
Lt. (j.g.) Marks later received the Silver Star that lauded his contribution to the “aggressive fighting spirit” of El Capitan’s armed guard detachment that enabled them “to maintain timely and efficient fire against overwhelming odds and to abandon the stricken [El Capitan] without personal injury or loss of life.” Coxswain Gemmer also received a Silver Star (as well as the Soviet Order of [the] Patriotic War, Second Degree), as did SM1c Floyd E. Richards and RM2c Joseph D. Leahy.
Robert J. Cressman
5 July 2016