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City proud of namesake ship SS McKeesport

| Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
The exhibit at McKeesport Regional History and Heritage Center includes a model of the ship and memorabilia from past ceremonies.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
The exhibit at McKeesport Regional History and Heritage Center includes a model of the ship and memorabilia from past ceremonies.
The real SS McKeesport, which transported medical relief supplies to refugees before being torpedoed by a German sub in 1943.
The real SS McKeesport, which transported medical relief supplies to refugees before being torpedoed by a German sub in 1943.

On April 29, as it has since 2000, a city again will remember the demise of its namesake in World War II.

“The SS McKeesport was named after a great city,” then-Mayor James Brewster said in 2008. “And great people were on that ship.”

It was built in part with steel made in McKeesport. It was launched into United States government service in 1919 from a New Jersey shipyard.

It served in World War II under the command of Capt. Oscar John Lohr.

On April 29, 1943, at 5:30 a.m., on its way back to New York from Liverpool, England, the 6,198-ton steel vessel was torpedoed by a German U-boat, the U-258, 500 miles off the coast of Newfoundland.

The sinking was described by Icelandic researcher Gudmundur Helgason on his website:

“The torpedo struck on the starboard side at the collision bulkhead and the No. 1 hold.

The explosion blew out all beams, hatches and ballast, put the steering gear out of order and opened a large hole.

The ship continued at full speed for 45 minutes, but developed a list of 20 degrees to port and began to sink further by the head.”

The ship had one 4-inch and nine 20-millimeter guns and four lifeboats.

Despite problems getting the lifeboats away from the listing ship, all hands on board, 12 officers, 31 crewmen and 25 armed guards, were rescued by a British trawler.

The HMS Northern Gem transported the survivors to St. John's, Newfoundland. One man, Merchant Marine Seaman John A. Anderson, succumbed from exposure.

Naval Armed Guard veteran Paul Baran was on another ship in the convoy where the SS McKeesport met its end.

At a 2010 remembrance of the sinking, Baran recalled a shipmate giving him the news.

“He said, ‘Hey Paul, your hometown just sunk,'” Baran said.

“He thought it was funny but I didn't.”

The SS McKeesport remembrances recall the ill-fated ship and 43 officers and crew who came from Merchant Marine ranks – ranks not recognized as being part of the military until four decades later.

“We were civilians at that time and we did not realize it,” said Gerard Driscoll of Forward Township, president of the Mon Valley chapter of the American Merchant Marine Veterans. “The government put up training camps and people went there to be trained and were given uniforms.”

Driscoll, 86, enlisted at the age of 17 and served for 12 years in the Merchant Marine, including roles in both Atlantic and Pacific theaters of war operations. He also was regarded as a military veteran, but until 1988 that was only for his service from 1948-52 in the Army.

That's even though Merchant Marines were involved “on every invasion in Europe and the Pacific,” Driscoll said. “I was on quite a few myself.”

In 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed a bill granting veteran status to the Merchant Marine.

The sinking of the SS McKeesport was part of a terrible day for a 45-ship convoy. In a 2005 “Bygone Days” column, former Daily News librarian Gerry Jurann wrote that it was one of 32 vessels sunk by German submarines.

“No one on board had spotted the sub, but one Marine said he saw the black torpedo, approximately 18 inches in diameter, shortly before it struck,” Jurann wrote. “The ship's officer commended his crew for bravery as no man left his station for even an instant until the abandon ship order was given.”

The McKeesport was the only kill for the U-258 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm von Mässenhausen. Less than a month later, Helgason wrote, the U-258 and its crew of 35 were sent to a watery grave by a British Liberator aircraft in the North Atlantic between Ireland and Greenland.

The SS McKeesport had an active life long before its ill-fated service in the Battle of the Atlantic, the struggle from 1939 to 1945 to keep Great Britain and later the Soviet Union supplied with arms and other materiel in the face of German naval activity.

Until late in 1941 British and Canadian forces protected the convoys crossing the North Atlantic. Beginning in September 1941, less than three months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, United States forces joined the effort to defend the convoys.

Other needs also were being met across the Atlantic. Jurann recalled how in 1940 the SS McKeesport became a mercy ship with a huge red cross under her name.

“The ‘McKeesport' carried food, clothing and medical supplies, including ambulances intended to alleviate the suffering of more than 5 million war victims of France, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg,” Jurann wrote. In 1942, the McKeesport became part of the effort to aid Britain.

The McKeesport was among 30 merchant ships built for the U.S. government by U.S. Steel's Federal Shipbuilding Co. subsidiary in Kearny's Meadow, N.J. It was among the ships named for towns where U.S. Steel had plants. A month before the March 9, 1919, launch of the McKeesport, the SS Duquesne was launched. The SS Homestead and SS Braddock also were launched ahead of the 410-foot-long namesake of the old Tube City.

The ship was christened by Eleanor Roberts Cornelius, 11, daughter of W.A. Cornelius, a U.S. Steel manager in McKeesport. It had a 55-foot beam and 27-foot draft and turbine engines capable of carrying 9,600 tons at a rate of 12 knots per hour. As Jurann noted, the SS McKeesport then began its career as a Merchant Marine freighter in April 1919.

In 2011, Brewster's successor as mayor, Regis T. McLaughlin, highlighted contributions of the doomed SS McKeesport's siblings, the SS Homestead, SS Braddock, SS Duquesne, SS Clairton and SS Donora.

“All these proud ships and men plowed through dangerous U-boat infested waters of the North Atlantic to provide our troops and allies with much needed supplies to ensure our liberty,” McLaughlin said. “Some of these men and ships paid the ultimate sacrifice doing so.”

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967.

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