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On December 7, 1941, even as Japanese carrier-launched aircraft flew toward Pearl Harbor, a small American cargo ship chartered by the Army reported that it was under attack by a submarine halfway between Seattle and Honolulu. After that one cryptic message, the humble lumber carrier Cynthia Olson and her crew vanished without a trace, their disappearance all but forgotten as the mighty warships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet burned.
The story of the Cynthia Olson‘s mid-ocean encounter with the Japanese submarine I-26 is both a classic high-seas drama and one of the most enduring mysteries of World War II. Did I-26‘s commander, Minoru Yokota, sink the freighter before the attack on Pearl Harbor began? Did the cargo ship’s 35-man crew survive in lifeboats that drifted away into the vast Pacific, or were they machine-gunned to death? Was the Cynthia Olson the first American casualty of the Pacific War, and could her SOS have changed the course of history?
Based on years of research, Dawn of Infamy explores both the military and human aspects of the Cynthia Olson story, bringing to life a complex tale of courage, tenacity, hubris, and arrogance in the opening hours of America’s war in the Pacific.
A SHIP FINE AND STURDY
THE VESSEL BERTHEL CARLSEN AND his ill-fated crew took to sea that day in early December 1941 had started life a continent away, and by the time she set out on her last voyage, she’d already spent some two decades plying both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It hadn’t been an easy life, and she was starting to show her age.
A product of Wisconsin’s Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company, the vessel was laid down in the late summer of 1918 as Coquina, one of some 331 oceangoing freighters built for the U.S. Shipping Board (USSB)1 by firms throughout the Great Lakes. Of essentially identical design, these steel-hulled ships came to be known as Laker-class vessels, both because of where they were built and because many initially bore names beginning with the word “Lake.” The ships were similar in layout to the medium-sized, oceangoing “Fredrickstad”2 freighter design developed early in World War I by neutral Scandinavian shipbuilders, an economical type that was well-suited to prefabrication and mass production. Both attributes were particularly important, given that the first ninety-one Lakers3 had been contracted for by British companies planning to put them into service in support of the United Kingdom’s war effort. When America entered the conflict in April 1917, the U.S. government abrogated the British contracts, and the following month he USSB requisitioned the vessels for wartime cargo duty on behalf of the United States and her allies.4
The USSB and, after September 1917, a subordinate agency called the Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC), ultimately awarded contracts for the construction of 3465 Laker-class ships. When this number is added to the requisitioned British-ordered vessels, it renders the Laker program the largest standard-type shipbuilding effort undertaken by the United States during World War I.6 The ships were of six variants, which differed slightly in gross tonnage and overall length. Each variant was given a type number, with the thirty-three examples ultimately manufactured by Manitowoc Shipbuilding being designated Design 1044.
These solidly built and dependable craft had an overall length of 251 feet, a beam of 43 feet 6 inches, and a loaded draft of 23 feet. Each ship weighed in at 3,400 deadweight, 2,800 gross, and approximately 1,280 net tons.7 Though they differed in small structural details, all featured the standard Laker “three-island” silhouette—raised foc’sle and poop deck, and a large amidships deckhouse with a single funnel set just aft of the bridge. The vessels had two large cargo holds, one forward and one aft of the deckhouse, each of which was accessed through two hatches, one directly behind the other. Each hold was served by two sets of twin booms. Two of the booms for each hold were fixed to kingposts, one set of which was attached to the forward part of the deckhouse and one set to the aft. The other two booms for each hold were attached to taller masts: one set into the foc’sle and one into the poop. Each boom had its own dedicated winch.
The Design 1044 Lakers were built with cellular double bottoms,8 single-width side-hull plates, and four deck levels. The upper, or main, deck stretched from stem to stern and was the structure upon which the hatch covers rested and from which the amidships deckhouse rose. The bridge deck—the house’s first habitable level up from the main deck—contained the main saloon, the engineers’ mess, the galley, a small pantry, the radio room, single cabins for the chief engineer and chief steward, and double cabins for the ship’s deck and engineering officers.9 The aft two-thirds of the boat deck, one level higher, were open to the elements and housed two twenty-four-foot wooden lifeboats (each capable of embarking thirty-six people), a sixteen-foot workboat, and davits for each. The forward part of the boat deck was taken up by the structure housing the staterooms for the captain and first officer, each of whom had direct access to the boat deck. Directly above these two cabins was the Laker’s wheelhouse, which incorporated two bridge wings, a chart room, and the captain’s small day cabin.
Descending through the center portion of the Laker’s boat, bridge, and upper decks—all the way to the keel—was a roughly forty-foot-high and twenty-foot-wide space that housed the lower half of the ship’s funnel and, just aft of that, the engine-room trunk. The space at the funnel’s base was taken up by two Scotch boilers (oil-fired in Coquina and her eight sister ships). These fed a single 1,250-hp triple-expansion reciprocating steam engine, just aft of the boilers, that gave the Manitowoc-built Lakers a service speed of about ten knots (roughly 11.5 mph).10
The keel of the ship that was to become Coquina11 and, ultimately, Cynthia Olson, was laid down in Manitowoc Shipbuilding’s extensive works a mile up the Manitowoc River from Lake Michigan. Bearing the company yard number 100, she was one of nine vessels ordered under EFC contract 180227. Like virtually all Lakers, she was assembled from prefabricated sections, a method that greatly speeded her construction. Her hull was launched—sideways—without fanfare on November 30, and within days she was moved downriver to the Manitowoc Boiler Works12 for installation of her Scotch boilers and further fitting-out. Over the next five months, she was equipped with all those things needed to turn her into a vital part of the United States’ massive wartime trans-Atlantic shipping effort.
Over the course of the nineteen months the United States participated in the war, that Herculean effort used Army, Navy, and USSB-owned and requisitioned civilian ships—both American and foreign13—to transport more than two million American service members and some 7.5 million tons of materiel to Europe.14 Yet, ironically, the military need for vessels like Coquina had begun winding down literally weeks before the freighter’s launching. The November 11, 1918, armistice that ended the fighting had also effectively reversed the flow of shipping; rather than carrying troops and cargo to Europe, vessels had begun returning men and goods to the United States. Given that much of the war materiel carried to the Old World had been used in the ferocious, final battles of the conflict or been passed on to various European governments to aid in their reconstruction, ships already in service were more than capable of handling the tonnage of cargo being returned to North America. And given that even the most homesick Doughboy would draw the line at returning to America huddled in the vast reaches of an unheated cargo hold, most troops were repatriated on dedicated troopships or requisitioned passenger vessels.
As a result, by the time Coquina was completed in mid-April 1919 the EFC had determined that she and many of her sister ships were no longer needed on the trans-Atlantic military cargo runs for which they’d been built. Rather than attempt to sell the vessels at a loss on the already glutted secondhand market, the EFC determined that they should be laid up in suitable anchorages until they could either be gainfully employed or sold for a reasonable price. On April 25, Coquina was titled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as belonging to the USSB,15 granted the radio call letters WVAA, and, as far as can be determined from surviving records, was laid up in Lake Michigan the following day within sight of where she was built.16 It was the first of several periods of enforced idleness the freighter would endure over the course of her life.
It is unclear how long Coquina sat quietly anchored in the Lake Michigan shallows, but by the end of December 1919 the USSB had chartered her to the Philadelphia-based Earn Line Steamship Company. The firm specialized in hauling goods of all sorts between the U.S. East Coast, the West Indies, Panama, and the east coast of South America, and during the last days of December 1919 the company’s directors were finalizing a deal to ship a valuable, and hugely intoxicating, cargo.
That cargo was whiskey, and lots of it. The U.S. Congress’s October 1919 passage of the Volstead Act initiating prohibition had caught U.S. distillers with inventories totaling some sixty million gallons of bonded whiskey,17 none of which could legally be sold in the United States or exported after the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect on January 17, 1920. In an effort to unload their collective backlog of thirty-five million gallons, a consortium of Kentucky distilleries quickly put together a deal to export some thirty thousand barrels of the spirit, primarily to Cuba and other islands in the Caribbean. Two shipping lines received contracts for the first five thousand barrels—the Earn Line would send one thousand to Havana aboard Coquina, while International Freighting Corporation’s Western Comet and Shamrock would each load two thousand barrels for the West Indies. All three were to load in, and sail from, Philadelphia, which was the destination of the thirty-car train bearing the first consignment of booze from Kentucky. Given the tenor of the time, the train also carried armed guards to ward off thirsty potential thieves.18
All went well with the shipment of the bourbon to Pennsylvania, but once the train pulled onto a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad siding near the Philadelphia docks on January 1, things began to go sour. Six days earlier, the Harbor Boatmen’s Union representing the masters, mates, and crewmembers operating the port’s harbor and river tugboats had threatened to strike for higher wages and better working conditions, and on the first day of 1920 the union made good its threat. The tug sailors’ early morning walkout brought vessel movements at the port and on the Delaware River to a standstill, though longshoremen had finished loading Coquina before walking out in a gesture of sympathy for the tug men. For several days it looked as if her cargo of whiskey might have to be offloaded and shipped to another port for onward movement to Havana. However, an interim agreement between the union and Philadelphia’s Tugboat Owners Association sent the tug men back to work within days, and Coquina and the other “whiskey ships” were able to leave port before the January 17 deadline.
Having successfully offloaded her intoxicating cargo in Cuba, Coquina remained on charter to the Earn Line throughout the remainder of 1920, operating on a Philadelphia–Havana–New York–Philadelphia cargo service. On December 1, 1920, her homeport19 was changed from Milwaukee to Philadelphia, and she soldiered on without interruption well into the summer of 1921. But while the doughty freighter more than earned her keep during this period, the Earn Line’s fortunes continued a decline that had been in progress for some time. Indeed, the firm had been doing so poorly as early as October 1913 that a judged placed it in receivership,20 and only a series of wartime contracts kept the company afloat. By the end of 1921 the Earn Line was in dire financial straits, and in an attempt to trim operating costs the firm terminated its charter agreement for Coquina following her mid-December arrival in New York from Havana.
While the Merchant Marine Act of 192021 required, among other things, that all goods transported between U.S. ports must be carried on U.S.-built, U.S.-owned, and U.S.-crewed ships, and authorized the USSB to sell government-owned vessels to private firms at extremely advantageous prices, the continuing postwar glut of idle merchant hulls meant that the market for such ships remained decidedly soft. The EFC therefore recommended that Coquina join the hundreds of other USSB-owned vessels relegated to lay-up22 until better times arrived. The Laker subsequently sat idle in New York for nearly four years, tied alongside a Manitowoc-built sister ship, Corsicana, which had been constructed under the same EFC contract.
By the fall of 1925 the market for used merchant ships had improved to the point that the EFC’s chairman, Elmer E. Crowley, determined that the time was ripe to begin selling off USSB-owned vessels as quickly as possible. Prices for surplus ships were reduced even more to further stimulate sales, and lay-up anchorages around the country began buzzing with activity as newly sold ships were again made ready for sea. In New York, Coquina and Corsicana joined the parade of departing vessels, both having been sold on November 2 to the noted San Francisco shipbrokers Pillsbury & Curtis.23 In its bid for the two freighters, the company stated that both would be converted for the West Coast lumber trade and then chartered to coastwise shipping firms. The EFC approved the sale at the bargain-basement price of just $25,000 per ship, and even allowed Pillsbury & Curtis to defer part of the cash payment when the company agreed to take out surety bonds to guarantee completion of proposed alterations to the vessels. Those alterations included the replacement of each ship’s two short fore-and-aft kingposts with taller boom-carrying masts intended to facilitate the on- and off-loading of sawn timber.
Having purchased Coquina and her sister ship, Pillsbury & Curtis then had to get the vessels to California. The first step was a cursory overhaul for both freighters, conducted over a four-week period at a New York–area shipyard. The vessels were not dry-docked—that could wait until they reached their destination—but they did get a mechanical once-over. Both were in relatively good condition despite four years of enforced idleness, and by early January 1926 they were judged ready for the voyage to California. Always the canny businessmen, the ships’ new owners ensured that each vessel departed for the Golden State with a load of miscellaneous cargo.
While no logs of the voyage survive,24 we can assume that Coquina and Corsicana made the passage by the usual route: south from New York to Panama, through the Panama Canal, and then north to California. At a steady ten knots, the roughly five-thousand-mile voyage would have taken each ship about twenty days, allowing for the vicissitudes of weather and the waiting period before transiting the canal. We don’t know whether the vessels made the trip in company or separately, but both were present in San Pedro—the port of Los Angeles—by the end of February.
At this point, Coquina’s life story takes another of its many detours. While Pillsbury & Curtis had intended to put her and Corsicana into service hauling lumber under charter, by the time the vessels reached California that plan had gone into abeyance. The most likely reason for Pillsbury & Curtis’ change of heart was that the Laker’s twenty-three-foot loaded design draft was based on the carriage of cargo in her holds; potential operators may have considered her to be too “drafty” to call at many of the smaller timber ports in California and the Pacific Northwest when burdened with both hold cargo and towering stacks of sawn timber atop both well decks. Whatever the reason for their corporate change of heart, Pillsbury & Curtis decided to lay up both Coquina and Corsicana until they could find gainful employment for them. The vessels were moved to a quiet spot in San Pedro Bay, and Coquina entered another period of hibernation.
Surviving records do not give exact dates for the freighter’s first California lay-up, but we do know that Coquina arrived in San Francisco on April 24, 1930. She may have been completing a charter voyage or Pillsbury & Curtis may have been repositioning her to what they believed to be a better market. If the latter was the case, her owners were misinformed, because the ship does not appear to have found gainful employment for some time. She apparently sat idle in the upper reaches of San Francisco Bay well into 1931 (and was joined there by Corsicana on March 29 of that year) before another ship’s bad luck presented her with the opportunity to join one of the West Coast’s best-known cargo and passenger lines, the Los Angeles Steamship Company.25
Founded in 1920 to provide service between Los Angeles and San Francisco, LASSCO, as it was universally known, had later added a Hawaii service. This put the firm in direct competition with the established power on the trans-Pacific routes, the San Francisco–based Matson Navigation Company, and LASSCO was initially able to hold its own. However, the Great Depression and a series of vessel mishaps—including a disastrous fire in May 1930 aboard the 10,680-ton City of Honolulu (II), one of two German-built liners26 upon which the line’s U.S.-Hawaii passenger service was based—ultimately forced the October 31, 1930, merger of LASSCO with archcompetitor Matson. While both companies retained their individual identities, they gradually blended their Hawaiian services and LASSCO ultimately was primarily relegated to operating the merged companies’ California coastal service.
Built around the pre–World War I passenger-cargo steamers Yale and Harvard,27 LASSCO’s coastwise passenger-freight service operated in direct competition with the Pacific Steamship Company. The two firms engaged in a series of rate wars in which LASSCO was able to hold its own, until Harvard ran aground at Point Arguello, some sixty miles northwest of Santa Barbara, California, on May 30, 1931. There were no fatalities, but the ship had to be abandoned. Her loss put LASSCO at a distinct commercial disadvantage. In an effort to quickly restart the two-ship service, LASSCO chartered the 6,209-GRT Iroquois, a passenger-cargo steamer launched in 1926. The ship went into partnership with Yale on June 30, 1931, but proved so uneconomical to operate that LASSCO withdrew her from service in early December and canceled her charter agreement.28
It was Iroquois’s inability to meet LASSCO’s needs that ultimately led to the possibility of Coquina’s parole from her lay-up in San Francisco. LASSCO needed to quickly acquire several smaller and more economical vessels to maintain its coastwise freight service following Iroquois’s withdrawal, and the company settled on Coquina and two of her sister ships, Corsicana and Corrales. The sturdy Lakers were a known quantity—in 1928 LASSCO had chartered Corrales for three cargo-only round-trip voyages to Hawaii—and had much to recommend them for the task. They were extremely fuel-efficient in comparison to Iroquois, for example, and the replacement of the short fore-and-aft kingposts by two taller, boom-carrying masts fitted to them by Pillsbury & Curtis in 1926 in anticipation of work in the timber trade would prove just as useful in general cargo service. Equally important, however, was the fact that Pillsbury & Curtis was, like LASSCO, a Matson subsidiary. This meant that the financially struggling LASSCO could take advantage of some fancy corporate accounting to acquire the three Lakers at better than bargain-basement prices. Indeed, while it is unclear how much LASSCO “officially” paid for the three ships, Coquina’s record of title shows that when she was conveyed from Pillsbury & Curtis to LASSCO on December 1, 1931, the total mortgage amount transferred was $10—by bill of sale, no less.29
Unfortunately, even such a sweetheart deal couldn’t get Coquina back to sea. Though she and Corsicana were moved from lay-up and underwent cursory refurbishment in preparation for their new tasking, the nation’s worsening economic depression and LASSCO’s falling revenues prompted the company to return both ships to inactive status pending an improvement in both the corporate and national economies. The firm’s directors chose to employ only the already-proven Corrales on a severely pared-down coastwise freight service, and on December 8, she departed from the port of Wilmington30 on the first of several round-trip voyages to San Francisco and points north.
For Coquina and Timberman, as LASSCO had renamed Corsicana, the period of forced inactivity in San Francisco lasted just over a year and ended as the result of what seems, in retrospect, to have been a fairly poor business decision on the part of Matson Navigation Company. Despite the failure of LASSCO’s limited coastwise cargo-only service—Corrales had been withdrawn and laid up alongside her two sisters after just four months—Matson’s directors seem to have believed with an almost mystic fervor in the commercial potential of a California coastwise freight operation. Their belief persisted despite increasing evidence that the Golden State’s highways and railroads were the transportation modes of choice for cost-conscious shippers, and on August 17, 1933, Matson incorporated the California Steamship Company31 specifically to address a market segment that had already defeated LASSCO.
While the creation of the new coastwise freight firm struck many industry observers as commercial lunacy, Matson’s directors were not wholly detached from reality. Realizing that the venture was a gamble, they chose not to increase their downside risk by procuring costly new vessels in the midst of a worldwide depression. Instead, they would base the new service on used vessels that had already proven themselves to be dependable, suited to the task, and relatively economical to operate. And, by happy coincidence, Matson had immediate access to three ideal ships through LASSCO—Coquina, Timberman, and Corrales. Not only did the Lakers meet the performance parameters for the job, they could be had for a song—like both Pillsbury & Curtis and LASSCO, the California Steamship Company was a Matson subsidiary. And as happened when Coquina was “sold” into LASSCO service two years earlier, the mortgage amount listed on the bill of sale to her newest employer was $10.32 The price was likely no higher for her companions.
Coquina’s record of title indicates that the California Steamship Company assumed ownership on December 29, 1933, a date that marks the beginning of a somewhat murky period in the Laker’s history. While several published sources33 indicate that she was immediately placed in coastwise service with Timberman and Corrales, official documents generated by the Collectors of Customs in both San Francisco and San Pedro state that the vessel remained laid up in the former city until late 1934 or early 1935. There is no doubt, however, about the outcome of Matson’s ill-fated foray into the coastwise freight trade—the venture failed. By early December 1935 the California Steamship Company was ready to admit defeat, and on December 30, Coquina and her two sisters were “sold” directly to Matson Navigation, most likely in an attempt to ameliorate year-end tax complications for the failing subsidiary. As with her two previous transfers of title, Coquina’s official sale price was $10.
Though it’s unclear whether Coquina actually stirred from her lay-up berth while “owned” by the California Steamship Company, we do know that she, Timberman, and Corrales had all been shifted to San Pedro by the time of their “sale” to Matson. On February 5, 1936, the homeport of all three vessels was changed to Los Angeles. At this point, it seems that Matson decided to employ the vessels in the manner to which they were best suited, for over the next year all three were chartered out to California-based lumber companies for coastwise lumber-transport work. While Timberman was sold out of Matson service in December 1937,34 Coquina and Corrales were kept on the company’s fleet list through the end of the decade, both apparently working infrequent charters interspaced with periods of lay-up in San Pedro.
Chartering Coquina and her sisters out for lumber hauling never constituted a major revenue stream for Matson Navigation Company, and the three vessels certainly spent more time laid up than they did underway. But the scarcity of gainful employment for the Lakers while in the service of Matson and the firm’s various subsidiaries hardly mattered in the larger corporate scheme of things. Though Matson had entered the 1930s burdened by debt, reduced passenger loads, and all the other ills that grew out of the Great Depression, by the end of the decade the steamship company was in fine shape and poised to do even better.
This progress was the result of several factors. The acquisition of LASSCO, for example, had eliminated Matson’s main competitor in the U.S.-Hawaii passenger and cargo trade, and the subsequent rationalization of the combined fleet allowed the parent company to cut costs and improve efficiency. Moreover, the increase in passenger numbers and cargo tonnages that resulted from the steadily improving world economy during the middle of the decade was further enhanced by international events that were not quite as positive. Japanese expansionism in the Far East and the gathering clouds of war in Europe both helped increase Matson’s passenger and cargo numbers on its Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Pacific routes as people and companies sought to escape conflict or the threat thereof.35 The increase in world tension during the years 1936 to 1939 also prompted the U.S. government to begin ramping up military construction in both the continental United States and overseas, and Matson’s bottom line benefited from increasingly frequent government transportation contracts, particularly those concerned with the nation’s Pacific outposts.
Given all that was happening for Matson as the 1930s came to a close, the continued ownership of two small, aging, and frequently nonprofitable Laker freighters that had been optimized for carrying lumber was not seen as either sensible or desirable. As a result, the company’s directors added Coquina and Corrales to the list of vessels to be disposed of as part of the firm’s ongoing fleet rationalization. Again laid up in San Pedro, both ships were officially put up for sale on January 1, 1940, with Matson asking $85,000 per vessel. It was a fairly steep price for World War I–vintage ships with what most shipping companies would consider fairly limited cargo capacities, but the cost did not deter the interest of one firm that knew the Lakers to be ideal for hauling a very specialized form of freight.
The cargo was lumber, and the interested party was the Oliver J. Olson Company.
Library Journal, 9/15/16
Harding's thorough research reconstructs the Cynthia Olson's last days While the story of the Cynthia Olson often appears as a side note in other histories about Pearl Harbor, this harrowing account brings it to the fore, telling how a Japanese submarine was able to sail close to the U.S. mainland and sink an unarmed ship in the hours before America entered World War II Will appeal to nautical and military historians alike.”
Kirkus Reviews, 10/15/16
A detailed, well-researched book presented in a logical fashionwill appeal most to Pearl Harbor scholars and those interested in submarine warfare.”
"An account of a little known incident that might have seen the opening shots of the Japanese war against the United States...Their story needed to be told."
—New York Journal of Books
"Harding takes a minor incident that could be reduced to a single sentence and, despite the lack of hard information about many aspects of the event, turns it into a fast-paced piece of historical detective work with very human dimensions and consequences...An engaging and satisfying book."
—Stone & Stone
"Based on years of research, Dawn of Infamy explores both the military and human aspects of the Cynthia Olson story, bringing to life a complex tale of courage, tenacity, hubris and arrogance in the opening hours of America's war in the Pacific."
"Stephen Harding researched a small part of World War II military history...with the amazing details typical of a good journalist."
—Seattle Book Review
"Harding brings his expert skills as a researcher and writer to this little known subject...An excellent look at a long-forgotten story that occurred at the beginning of American involvement in World War II in the Pacific."
- "Rich in detail...A well-written and convincing book about an interesting historical sidelight...The author has done a good job of weaving together a mass of disparate evidence and technical information."—Warship International
"The book's engaging storyline will appeal to both nonspecialists and military historians with an interest in the early years of the Pacific War. Its narrative style and subject matter evoke nautical adventure books like Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm and Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea...Gripping."
—Michigan War Studies Review
- On Sale
- Nov 22, 2016
- Page Count
- 280 pages
- Da Capo Press