The Navy retained the name of this vessel at the time of her transfer from the U.S. Shipping Board.
(Id. No. 3307: displacement 10,300; length 430'2"; beam 53'1"; draft 25' (mean); speed 16 knots; complement 112; armament 4 5-inch)
El Occidente – a steel-hulled, single screw cargo vessel completed in November 1910 at Newport News, Va., by the Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co., for the Southern Pacific Steamship Co. – carried supplies for the U.S. Army, operated by the U.S. Shipping Board (USSB), until the Commandant of the Third Naval District assumed custody of the ship for the U.S. Navy on 27 August 1918 at the Bush Terminal, Brooklyn, N.Y. Given the identification number (Id. No.) 3307, El Occidente was commissioned at Brooklyn the same day (27 August 1918), Lt. Cmdr. Ernest S. Campbell, USNRF, in command.
The firm of Rinelli & Guardini of New York converted El Occidente for service, part of her cargo space being configured to enable her to be employed as an animal transport, completing the work on 10 September 1918. After loading 3,061 tons of cargo, the ship cleared Brooklyn on 13 September for Newport News, Va., reaching her destination the next day. There, she took 585 horses and mules on board, then sailed for New York City on 18 September, joining convoy HB.14 and setting course for France later the same day. Steaming via Gibraltar (5 October), El Occidente stood in to Verdon-Sur-Mer Roads the following day. She proceeded to St. Nazaire on 8 October, where she discharged her entire cargo. Shifting to Brest on the 19th, she then set course for the United States on the 22nd.
Returning to Newport News on 1 November 1918, El Occidente then underwent minor voyage repairs at her building yard, during which time the Armistice stilled the guns of the World War [11 November 1918]. Loading 1,467 tons of cargo and 800 animals, the ship sailed on her second voyage to France on 17 November. Proceeding via Verdon-Sur-Mer (27 November), the ship reached Bordeaux on the 28th. There, she unloaded her entire cargo at the Bassens Docks. Sailing on 6 December to return to Newport News, El Occidente reached her destination on the 19th after a voyage of almost a fortnight. Sailing from Norfolk, Va., the day before Christmas of 1918, the ship put in to Baltimore, Md., later that same day to begin a period of repairs and alterations that encompassed the removal of all armament and ammunition, as well as animal stalls.
Laden with 3,384 long tons of cargo for the U.S. Army, El Occidente sailed for Brest on 15 January 1919. Unable to tie up upon her arrival on the 26th, the ship steamed thence to Bordeaux, arriving there on 4 February, where she discharged the material brought from Baltimore. Loading 984 tons of return cargo, and embarking 90 returning passengers, El Occidente set course to begin her return voyage to the United States on 21 February.
Reaching New York on 7 March 1919, the ship was placed in line for demobilization. Docked at Shewan’s Drydock, El Occidente was decommissioned at New York on 18 March 1919, and returned to the USSB the same day.
Turned over to the War Shipping Administration by the Southern Pacific Company at Galveston, Tex., at 2:00 p.m. on 7 July 1941, for operation by United States Lines Co., under a general agency agreement, El Occidente was placed under the Panamanian flag-of-convenience.
Sailing from Boston, Mass., on 30 January 1942, El Occidente reached Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 1 February. She proceeded thence on 7 February, steaming in convoy HX-174 to the River Clyde, thence to Reykjavik, Iceland. Assigned to convoy PQ-12, she reached Murmansk, U.S.S.R., on 13 March, and discharged her cargo there, ultimately sailing in convoy QP-10 on 10 April with a cargo of 210 tons of chrome ore, and water ballast. German planes attacked the convoy on 12-13 April, antiaircraft fire from the merchantmen and escorting vessels splashing three enemy aircraft.
Just less than an hour into the mid watch on 13 April 1942, the German submarine U-436 (Kapitänleutnant Günther Seibicke, commanding) torpedoed the Soviet merchantman Kiev without warning, indicating undetected enemy submarines in proximity. At 0130 on 13 April, one or two torpedoes (witnesses apparently differed on the number), fired by U-435 (Kapitänleutnant Siegfried Strelow), struck El Occidente in her engine room, nearly breaking the vessel in two. Heavy black smoke issued from the doomed ship, and unchecked massive flooding followed immediately. In less than three minutes, the freighter sank by the stern, Capt. Olaf Nannestad, her Norwegian master, handling the disposal of codes – dropping them in weighted bags into the sea – himself, before his ship had been able to transmit a message telling of an attack. No one topside – she had two lookouts each forward and aft – had seen torpedo tracks.
The British minelayer HMS Speedwell picked up 21 of El Occidente’s 41-man complement from the sea; the bodies of nine of the ship’s crew were retrieved from the sea and buried; 11 men were never found. The merchantman’s survivors witnessed Speedwell’s dropping depth charges in the area of the attacks, and erroneously believed that the barrage had sunk the U-boat (U-435 was not sunk until July 1943). The British warship then transported El Occidente’s 21 survivors to Reykjavik, Iceland, where she disembarked them for eventual return to the United States in the freighters Capulin and Artigas.
Robert J. Cressman and T. R. Hasson
13 February 2017