The Wreck of S.S. Henry Bergh
May 31st, 1944
In the early morning hours of May 31st, 1944 the liberty ship Henry Bergh was 30 miles from the Golden Gate, intending to steam into San Francisco Bay on a voyage from Pearl Harbor. The ship, one of 33 fitted to carry soldiers, had a listed capacity of 564 passengers, but was seriously overloaded, carrying more than twice it’s intended complement: 1300 US Navy sailors as passengers returning from the Pacific theater, and a full civilian crew of 95. Not unusually for that region of the Northern California coast, she had been sailing through a pea-soup fog for the past 36 hours.
Although it was nearly 5 am, the crew and passengers were engaged in a loud and raucous party to celebrate their imminent arrival home. Some of the sailors aboard had not been back to the mainland for years. A navigation error made by Captain Joseph C. Chambers, incorrectly calculating the allowances for wind and currents, meant they were 10 miles further north than intended. At 4:55 a lookout thought they may have heard a whistle from a passing ship, and again a faint whistle was heard at 5:00; these were fog whistles warning of the fast approaching danger. Unfortunately these whistles were drowned out by the party in progress. At 5:05 several lookouts saw jagged rocks loom out of the fog straight ahead, and an alarm was raised and an attempt at an evasive maneuver was made, but too late.
Twenty seconds after sighting the rocks and at the instant of the third toll of the emergency bell, Henry Bergh, making 11 knots, ran aground at the Drunk Uncle Islets, a part of the Farallon Islands: inhospitable rocky and surf battered rocks. The ship began to break up almost immediately.
Liberty Ships were built for use in World War II. These ships were mass produced cargo ships built with extraordinary speed in unrivaled numbers throughout the war. Between 1941 - 1945 there were 2,710 built and launched from 18 shipyards. They took on average 42 days to build and in 1943 three Liberty Ships were launched each day.
Built specially to carry troops, S.S. Henry Bergh was launched from the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, CA on June 1st, 1943.
The Farallones are an archipelago of jagged rocks that have never had permanent inhabitants, and are also known as The Devil’s Teeth, because of a well earned reputation for sinking ships. The Coast Miwok called them Islands of the Dead, and are not believed to have visited them, because the islands were thought to be inhabited by spirits or ghosts. Not only are the islands a hazard, there are also many submerged shoals that are shallow enough to destroy ships that strike them, while being difficult or impossible to spot. 400 or more ships have sunk in the waters around the Farallones.
Drunk Uncle Islets, site at which Henry Bergh ran aground
Great White Sharks
Additionally, the Farallones are well known as a major feeding ground for larger than average Great White sharks, which eat the seals and sea lions that live on the islands. Fun Fact: the islands are within the city limits of San Francisco, and they belong to Supervisor District 1, but they are also part of a National Marine Sanctuary that is closed to the public, and only wildlife researchers are permitted to land there today. Another fun fact, during the gold rush era the islands were the battlefield of a farcical war fought over eggs that could be harvested there.
When Henry Bergh crashed into the islands, the radio operator immediately began broadcasting an S.O.S. and the decision to abandon ship was made within 15 minutes, at that point the ship had “swung from stern to starboard” and was beginning to break in half. It's hard to overstate what a precarious situation this was, and how badly this event could have turned out. Ships have been lost on the shoals with all hands and not a trace. Had the Henry Bergh been lost with all hands (admittedly very unlikely) it would have been nearly as deadly as the Titanic because of how many sailors were packed onto the ship.
From Party to Escape
This is point in the story which turns from awful disaster to transcendent escape. The passengers and crew had been partying all night, but for that reason they were already awake and many above decks when the ship ran aground. Despite their party-hard attitude they had been diligently drilling evacuations during the entire journey from Hawaii. From the moment of the call to abandon ship, the crew began to execute an evacuation “more perfect than any drill” and although there were only 8 lifeboats that could carry just 25 sailors at a time, they ferried the survivors from the ship to the very tricky landing on the rocky shore with incredible efficiency.
By 8 am 600 sailors had already landed on the island, and more had swum ashore. The Navy responded extremely quickly, dispatching many ships from the Treasure Island Naval base and tasking other ships already in the area immediately upon receiving the S.O.S. This meant that the first rescue ships arrived within an hour and a half, and began pulling freezing cold sailors out of the shark infested waters. Red Cross units were mobilized and ready by the time the first rescued sailors arrived at the Naval base around 11:00, all the survivors were safely and off the ship by the afternoon
Though errors and poor visibility contributed to the wreck (the excessive homecoming enthusiasm that reminds me of cyclists crashing out of the lead at the finish line due to premature celebration) competency, practice, and quick action were the story from that point on. Sheer luck also played a part: Henry Bergh had struck an island and not one of the submerged shoals, and the sea was unusually calm at the time.
Every person aboard the Henry Bergh survived, and perhaps more remarkably, only two were injured, a fractured hip and a broken arm. 35 survivors had to be treated for hypothermia after more than an hour in the water, but all recovered fully. Almost all personal possessions were lost, because none of the sailors tried to retrieve them before evacuating. I found several accounts of sailors complaining of lost memorabilia and money in the aftermath. Some of these sailors had been away from the continental US for 4 years, and still immediately jumped in the ocean leaving everything of value behind. Incredibly, a water soaked purse was found on the beach in Bolinas weeks later and returned to the rightful owner, Coxswain Roudet Turner, including the $1000 in cash it contained.
Captain Chambers was charged with incompetence and negligence in the days that followed and demoted to First Mate, because he was found to have failed to navigate correctly, for failure to take soundings, and failing to keep proper order on the ship.
Henry Bergh broke up into three large sections and sank completely within three days. The wreck occurred 40 miles from where Henry Bergh was built, the Kaiser Shipyards, and exactly one day shy of one year from the day she was launched.
A story of this kind can’t help but end with a satirical bill assessed by someone or another, and in the case of the Henry Bergh it was the 27 people who were on the South Farallon at the time of the wreck blaming the rescued sailors for “using up all the coffee, food, and clothing on the islands” in the few hours they spent there.
Survivors arriving at Treasure Island
Most of the story I related above I pieced together from contemporaneous newspaper accounts, largely the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Oakland Tribune. Another significant source is the poem "Liberty Ship" by Charles Hobson, and his website which first made me aware of the story. More references, including some images, are from Islapedia.
Each Breath a Golden Piece to Treasure
This story and other stories of this kind are deeply moving to me. There is a comfort in knowing that sometimes, even when something horrible might have happened, it didn't. I'm collecting these sorts of stories as a kind of antidote to the widely remembered losses. I've written my own poem about this event. Thanks for reading.
Now and again
the mathematics of disaster
and the formula of luck
each variable of horror
neatly cancelled by
a multiple of happenstance.
a miscalculation of current and wind
smashed liberty ship Henry Bergh
and her fourteen hundreds souls
aground amid the Devil’s Teeth.
Some shoals harbor less remorse
and would have dragged all hands under
in a freezing panic of pouring seawater,
waking them, drowning them.
If every lifeboat launched
that was enough for one in seven sailors.
Yet by the transitive property of dumb luck
Henry Bergh broke against Drunk Uncle Islets
with her crew and passengers already above decks
because they were determined
for the duration of their passage
through the Golden Gate.
Every man was saved,
every soul, if shaken and shivering, ashore–
not one subtraction from the rolls of the living.
Not one addition to the ocean depths.
On Farallon shipwrecked sailors used up all the coffee,
then at last were born through the iron gates,
home from war–
each breath a golden piece to treasure.