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W. L. Steed (Id.No. 3449)


The Navy retained the name carried by this ship at the time she was acquired.

(Id.No. 3449): displacement 13,000; length 431'10"; beam 56'0"; draft 25'6" (mean); speed 10.5 knots; complement 96; armament 1 6-inch, 1 3-inch)

W. L. Steed, a steel-hulled single-screw tanker built in 1918 at Quincy, Mass., by the Fore River Shipbuilding Co., under a United States Shipping Board (USSB) contract, was inspected by the Navy on 10 August 1918, assigned Identification Number (Id.No.) 3449, and was commissioned at Boston, Mass., on 18 September 1918, Lt. Cmdr. John Charlton, USNRF, in command.

Assigned to the Naval Overseas Transportation Service (NOTS), W. L. Steed departed Boston on 28 September 1918 and proceeded to Philadelphia, where she took on a cargo of oil. She sailed for New York on 8 October, whence she headed for Nova Scotia on the 17th. The tanker departed Sydney six days later, bound for Devonport, England, but developed a steering gear casualty en route and put into St. John’s, Newfoundland, for repairs, on 30 October.

She departed that port on 10 November 1918 and was at sea when the armistice, ending the Great War, was signed at Compiegne, France, on the 11th. W. L. Steed made port at New York on the 13th and entered dry dock for repairs which lasted through the remainder of November.

W. L. Steed got underway again on 1 December 1918, bound for France, and arrived at Le Havre three days before Christmas of 1918. Discharging her oil cargo in two days, the tanker subsequently departed Le Havre on 26 December, bound for the Gulf of Mexico.

After touching at Bermuda, she arrived at New Orleans on 18 January 1919; took on another cargo of oil; and left the Mississippi delta on 4 February 1919, bound again for France. She never completed the voyage, however, for she was damaged en route and put into New York on 18 February. After inventories of all equipment were taken and repairs completed, W. L. Steed was decommissioned, stricken from the Navy Register, and simultaneously returned to the USSB on 26 March 1919.

Acquired by the Pan-American Petroleum and Transport Co. in 1922, W. L. Steed was subsequently acquired by the Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey in 1937. Following some two years of operation with Standard Oil, the ship was in need of repairs and docked at Constable Hook, Bayonne, N.J., on 30 June 1939. She remained there through August and departed Bayonne shortly after the outbreak of war in Europe with orders to proceed to Mariner's Harbor, Staten Island, N.Y., for repairs at the Bethlehem Steel Co. yard there.

Upon completion of the necessary repairs and alterations, W. L. Steed departed New York on 4 October 1939, bound for Texas. Making port at Aransas Pass a short time later, the bulk oil tanker took on a cargo of 68,169 barrels of west Texas crude oil, the first of five such cargoes she would carry in 1939. Once the crude was safely aboard, W. L. Steed cast off for New York.

During 1940 and 1941, W. L. Steed performed primarily coastwise duties for Standard Oil of New Jersey, although she occasionally included Havana, Cuba; Aruba, Dutch West Indies; and Cartagena, Colombia, among her ports-of-call. She made 17 voyages in 1940 and 22 in 1941, carrying bulk oil cargoes of 1,053,261 and 1,396,278 barrels, respectively.

W. L. Steed departed Norfolk, Va., under the command of her master, 44-year old Capt. Harold G. McVenia, on 14 January 1942. She made port at Cartagena one week later and there loaded a cargo of 65,396 barrels of oil in two days, departing that port on 23 January. She subsequently called at Key West for Navy orders before transiting the Florida Straits.

The voyage proceeded uneventfully until early on the afternoon of 30 January 1942, when a lookout spotted what he thought was a small fishing craft on the port bow. Capt. McVenia, soon ascertaining the strange ship to be a submarine lying low on the surface, sounded the general alarm and radioed for help. All hands except the "black gang," below in the engine spaces, manned their boat stations, donned life preservers, and stood by for the worst.

The submarine soon disappeared, probably because of W. L. Steed’s radio message that brought a Navy patrol plane out to take a look. Over the next two days, though, the weather worsened, making protective aircraft operations particularly difficult. W. L. Steed plodded through the Atlantic swells, occasionally shipping heavy seas that damaged her decks.

By 2 February 1942, visibility had shrunk to about two miles, and snow was falling. Shortly after noon, when W. L. Steed was between 80 and 90 miles off the coast of New Jersey, U-103 (Korvettenkapitän Werner Winter, commanding) already a high scorer in the German U-boat arm with over 30 ships to her credit, poked up her periscope and tracked the plodding tanker. One torpedo soon leapt from the bow tubes, sped inexorably toward W. L. Steed, and hit the tanker on her starboard side, forward of the bridge, and in number 3 tank. The explosion touched off a fire in the oil drums stored there.

W. L. Steed sent out a hurried SOS and radioed her plight to any ship within hearing; the entire crew, 38 men, abandoned ship into the vessel's four life boats. U-103 surfaced soon thereafter and closed the burning tanker as she slowly sank by the bow. The Germans soon manned their deck gun and commenced firing, pumping 17 shells into the stern of the tanker to hasten her demise while her crew watched from the nearby boats. After W. L. Steed slipped beneath the chill waves of the North Atlantic, U-103 stood briefly toward the survivors before shaping a course away in a southwesterly direction.

The U-boat’s departure left the four boats alone in the frigid waters. They drifted apart and, one by one, the ill-clad merchant sailors began to succumb to the cold. W. L. Steed had been abandoned with such haste that hardly any of the men had had time to enter the boats prepared to face the bitter winter snowstorm and the biting northeasterly winds.

The British steamer Hartlepool rescued two men from a lifeboat on 4 February 1942, but one later died in hospital on 10 February; the Canadian armed merchant cruiser HMCS Alcantara (F.88) picked up three men from a second boat two days later, including the senior surviving officer, Second Mate Sydney Wayland. On 12 February, the British merchantman Raby Castle came across the last of W. L. Steed’s boats, containing four men, but of whom only one was alive, suffering much from exposure. Brought aboard Raby Castle, that man, Second Assistant Engineer Elmer E. Maihiot, Jr., died three days later, and was buried at sea. The Mexican tanker Poza Rica came across a lifeboat from the ship on 19 February off Cape Hatteras. It was empty.

Robert J. Cressman

18 September 2020

Published: Fri Sep 18 07:48:26 EDT 2020