Pedernales, the Phoenix of Aruba

In the early morning hours of February 16, 1942 war reached the shores of Aruba, delivered by the German U boat U-156. With the detonation of the first torpedo the idea that the war might leave Aruba undisturbed was literally blown to pieces. The first victim was the Lake tanker Pedernales and more tankers would follow that night. In total 52 people (including a German submariner and four Dutch marines) lost their lives and five tankers in the region were sunk or damaged by several U-boats. The Pedernales however, despite the fact she was heavily damaged, was repaired and eventually returned to service, she more or less rose from the ashes. So when you dive the mid-section of the Pedernales you actually dive the remnants of the Phoenix of Aruba.

          

(kapitanleutnant Werner Hartenstein)

The Neuland Group:

On January 19, 1942 the German type IX-C (long range) U-boat U-156 commanded by the 33-year old Kapitanleutnant (commander) Werner Hartenstein left the concrete bunkers of Lorient (France) for its second war patrol and set course for the Dutch Antilles. U-156 was part of a group of five U-boats (included were also U-67, U-129, U-161 and U-502) known as the “Neuland Gruppe”. Their objective was, according to Operational Order 51, No. 10 from German U-boat Command, to disrupt oil transport and oil refining roughly in the area around the Dutch Antilles (Aruba and Curacao), Maracaibo (Venezuela) and Trinidad by attacking the refineries and oil tankers in a coordinated attack. The Lago refinery in Aruba was a main supplier of fuel for allied aircraft and therefore considered by the Germans a target of strategic importance. U-156 was designated to attack this refinery and its tankers in and around Aruba (an area indicated by the codename “Bregenz”).

      

(positions U boats of the Neulandgruppe between February 15 and 18, 1942. ©Willemsubmerged) 

Reconnaisance and target selection: 

(ss Pedernales at her trial run - Italy 1938)

(ss Pedernales at her trial run – Italy 1938. http://www.aukevisser.nl)

According to it’s war log (also known as KTB, Kriegs Tage Buch) U-156  approached Aruba and started a reconnaissance on its potential targets on the Western side of the island. The location of the refinery was identified as well as several tankers, including one at the Eagle pier, North of Oranjestad. The following two days the crew of U-156 practiced manoeuvres and continued their observations.  In the late evening of February 15, 1942 the U-156 approached the Lago refinery and the captain selected the targets: two lake tankers in front of the refinery, the Pedernales and the Oranjestad. Ss. Pedernales (international code signal GNGN) was a 4317 tons, 355 ft steam tanker built in 1938 in Italy at Cantiere Riunti dell Adriatico and owned by Lago Shipping Co. Ltd. (Esso) in London and had a crew of 26. Her master was Herbert McCall. Ss. Oranjestad was a 2396 tons steam tanker Built in 1927 in Northern Ireland (Belfast) at Harland & Wolff Ltd. and also owned by Lago Shipping Co. Ltd. (Esso) in London, she had a crew of 25. Her master was Herbert Morgan. Both ships were so called “lake tankers” with a flat bottom hull specially designed to be able to enter Lake Maracaibo (Venezuela) where the crude oil was taken in. Pedernales would be the first victim.

        

(U-156 kriegs tagebuch (war log) 14 – 16 February 1942, Courtesy of Stan Norcom)(source: the National Archives and Records Administration)

Neuland Day, the attack at Lago:

Eagle Beach February 16, 1942 (Life Magazine March 2, 1942)

In the early morning of February 16, 1942 (Neuland Day) at 01.31 hrs (local time) the surfaced U-156 fired a single (G7-a)(air propelled) torpedo from one of the bow tubes at the Pedernales and hit her amidships. Pedernales was loaded with crude oil and caught fire immediately. Eight crew members died as a result of the explosion and the following inferno. Two minutes later, at 01.33 hrs a second (G7-e) (electric propelled) torpedo was fired by U-156 from one of the bow tubes and hit the Oranjestad amidships. She also caught fire and sank approximately an hour later in front of the refinery in 230 ft of water. 15 crew members died. After the initial attack the crew of U-156 was ordered to prepare the 105 mm deckgun to start shelling the refinery. The crew however, forgot the remove the watertight cap that was mounted on the barrel and as soon as the first shell was fired, the gun exploded. Gunnery officer Von dem Borne lost a foot but survived, sailor Businger died hours later as a result of his wounds. (note: this version of events was disputed in the years afterwards by gunnery officer Von dem Borne in a fruitless attempt to get rehabilitated by Navy Command. He claimed the cap had been removed from the barrel and a premature detonation of the grenade caused the barrel to explode). After firing a few rounds with the 37 mm deck gun commander Hartenstein decided to withdraw from his position and moved up North, leaving the refinery only slightly damaged.

      

(overview torpedo attack at Arkansas based on U156 schussmeldungen (firing reports). ©Willemsubmerged)

The attack at the ss Arkansas:

At 02.46 and 03.00 hrs the surfaced U-156 fired two torpedos from her bow tubes at the 6452 tons Texaco owned American tanker ss. Arkansas berthed at Eagle Pier. Both torpedoes missed their target which Hartenstein noted in his log as “inexplicable”. (note: a study of the firingreports of U-156 reveals the miss of the first torpedo was caused by a miscalculation in the firing solution, causing the torpedo to run up on the beach).

A third torpedo was then fired at 03.13 hrs from one of the stern tubes. Although Hartenstein initially assessed this one as a miss also, believing it had exploded on the beach, it did hit the the Arkansas at her starboardside causing a hole just ahead of midships. Because the Arkansas didn’t carry oil, the hit only caused a small fire and she stayed afloat.  After firing the third torpedo the U-156 broke off the attack due to an aircraft alarm and left the area in a northerly direction heading for the Island of Martinique. With approval from German Naval Command Gunnery officer Von dem Borne was handed over to the French (Vichy) Navy at Fort de France, Martinique on February 21, 1942. (note: The U.S. government soon after got wind of this transfer through observers, and a firm warning was issued by the U.S. government tot the French Vichy government not to aid or harbor any Axis warships. According to several newspapers the U.S. had actually been on the verge of seizing Martinique because of this incident). U-156 returned to Lorient on March 17, 1942.

        

(L. Warhead of the G7e torpedo with pistol, picture taken by Lt. Joosse shortly before the fatal explosion. It was retrieved from his heavily damaged camera. M. Tail section of the torpedo, picture taken by police inspector Van Driel after the incident, R. investigations at Eagle Beach, the beach is located on the right, “X” marks the location of the truck. Source: Dutch National Archives )

The torpedo accident at Eagle Beach:

 Lt. Pieter Joosse (photo: collection E. Jaeger)

Lt. Pieter Joosse (photo: collection E. Jaeger)

The first of the G7-e torpedoes ended up on the beach near the Eagle pier and was found by a marine patrol after the attack  on the morning of February 16.  After the find two navy demolition specialists ( a lieutenant and a sergeant major) arrived from Curacao. On the morning of February 17 a demolition attempt was made. According to eyewitness statements made to the military police, the men first separated the tail section of the torpedo  from the warhead and towed the tail section further up the beach. Then they tried to blow up the warhead with dynamite. Although the dynamite did explode, the warhead did not. The Lieutenant in charge then decided to remove the pistol (which is in the nose of the warhead and detonates it) from the warhead by pulling it out with a truck. They attached a metal wire and a long rope to the pistol of the torpedo but before they could take a safe distance from the warhead it unexpectedly exploded, killing Sergeant Major D.A.C. de Maagd and Marines 1st and 3rd class L. Kooijman and J. Vogelezang instantly. Lieutenant 2nd class P. Joosse died as a result of his injuries several hours later in hospital. Three bystanders got wounded.

(For a more detailed account of events see article “Alle Hens januari 2012” in Dutch)   

 

watermLoenenjoossse       watermLoenenvogelezang (1)      

 (Graves of the four men on the Dutch National War Cemetery in Loenen, The Netherlands. ©Willemsubmerged)

 

(Center: headstones of Joosse and De Maagd, Left in background:  headstones of Vogelezang and Kooijman. ©Willemsubmerged)

Salving ss Pedernales:

(ss Pedernales in front of Palm Beach - Aruba 1942)

(ss Pedernales in front of Palm Beach – Aruba 1942)

Despite the fact that Pedernales was heavily  damaged and burned fiercely she stayed afloat and drifted away from the location where she was hit. The following day she was located and tugboats towed her to shallow water where she was deliberately run aground to enable a salvage effort. The salvaging was abruptly halted after workers found, what looked like, an aerial bomb on the submerged center deck. A quick investigation learned that a US Army plane apparently had used the wrecked Pedernales as a target for bombing practice. The bomb on the center deck turned out to be a sand filled dummy bomb. The still intact front and aft section of Pedernales were separated from the damaged midsection and both were towed to the Lago drydocks where they were welded together. A make shift bridge was put on to the 124 ft. shorter hull and the ship left Aruba on July 30, 1942 for Curacao with final destination Baltimore for further repairs. It’s said that the midsection that was left was later on used as a target for shooting practice by the Dutch Navy. (note: there’s no confirmation for this. The wreck parts have been used by the US Army Air Force for bombing practice; the only munition parts found near the wreck were AN-MK43 aerial dummy bombs, used by the US military since 1942).

Newsreel British Pathe 1942, source: http://www.britishpathe.com – YouTube

 Aftermath:

U-156 did a total of five war patrols sinking 20 ships for a total of 97.504 tons. In September 1942 U-156 was involved in the “Laconia incident” (which led to the order by the German command not to assist castaways anymore). On March 8, 1943 U-156 was taken by surprise at the surface East of Barbados by a PBY-5 Catalina bomber commanded by LTJG Dryden. Four depth charges sunk the U-156. Despite the fact that eleven survivors were sighted from the plane no one was found by surface ships. All 53 crew members were lost.

       

(L. PBY pilot LTJG Dryden, R. five survivors of U-156 clinging to a raft dropped by the PBY crew)
(pictures courtesy of http://www.uboatarchive.net)

Operation Torch (1942) and the Normandy landing (1944):

Some sources say Pedernales returned to Aruba, other sources suggest she participated in the African campaign, more in particular Operation Torch which took place in November 1942 (even participation in the Normandy landings in 1944 has been mentioned). Indeed three Lake tankers were converted to Tank Landing Ships (TLS). Ss. Misoa, Ss. Tasajera and Ss. Bachaquero participated in the Allied landings in Africa (1942), Sicily (1943) and Normandy (1944).

Records on allied convoys in 1942 and 1943 and information from the British National Archives reveal that Pedernales was in Baltimore in 1942. Between August 1942 and January 1943 Pedernales was part of five convoys (to get to Baltimore and back to Aruba) and visited the ports of Curacao, Key West, Baltimore, New York and Guantanamo. On August 16, 1942 she arrived via Hampton Roads in Baltimore for repairs which took until January 4, 1943. Pedernales arrived in New York on January 10, 1943 and left one day later en route to Guantanamo. She arrived in Aruba on January 25, 1943 and resumed her transportactivities between Aruba and Venezuela for the remainder of the war.  After the war Pedernales was renamed Esso Pedernales (1957) and Katendrecht (1958). She was scrapped in October 1959 in Rotterdam, Holland. In October 2011 the Dutch Navy conducted a search for the torpedo that was missing after the attack on the ss. Arkansas but it was not located.

(More background information on other (WW II) wrecks in Aruba can be found at  https://willemsubmerged.wordpress.com/)

(The author has not been able to identify and/or contact the owners of some of the pictures used in this article. If you feel that the author is using data that should not belong in this article due to copyright violations please notify the author. The author of this article does not claim to be the owner of the information within and shall therefore remove all content that is copyrighted if the owner of the material requests so. Anybody who claims a copyright however should make it reasonably clear that such a copyright legally exists).  

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