Sunday, September 1, 2013

Repairs to torpedo damaged SS W.S. Rheem

On today's date in 1943, crews from Dad's ship, Vestal, began emergency repair work on the tanker, SS W.S. Rheem. W.S. Rheem was near Espiritu Santo when it was hit by a torpedo the previous day, fired from the Japanese sub, I-20. Thankfully, there were no casualties to the 40-man merchant crew or the 25-man Armed Guard aboard. The tanker was able to reach port at Espiritu Santo on its own power. I don't know for sure that Dad worked on the Rheem, but it required extensive welding, just the sort of work that matched Dad's expertise. Vestal will work on repairing the massive hole on W.S. Rheem's port side until the 15th while completing simultaneous repairs to several other vessels.

The infamous submarine I-20 was commissioned by the Japanese Imperial Navy in 1940. By November 1941, the sub was conducting operations around Hawaii in connection with the planned Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I-20 was fitted with a top secret 46-ton 2-man midget submarine for a coordinated attack at Pearl with 5 other "mother" subs.

SS W.S. Rheem moored alongside another ship, perhaps SS Matthew Lyon.
Both ships were repaired by Vestal in Espirito Santo Harbor.
Torpedo damage received from the Japanese sub I-20

In early 1942, the I-20 patrolled the Pacific. Then for the rest of the year the sub operated in the Indian Ocean and the East Coast of Africa, launching midget subs and harassing British naval forces. She returned to the Western Pacific in August for the Invasion of Guadalcanal, then operated in the Solomons for the rest of that year where she again launched midgets against Allied ships.

I-20 continued to operate throughout the Solomons in 1943, covering operations and delivering supplies and ammunition in overnight runs down "The Slot" through the islands. Later, she patrolled the New Hebrides. On the last day of August, 10 miles north of Bougainville Strait, the I-20 torpedoed and damaged the W. S. Rheem. Her report was the last signal the Japanese command received from the I-20. The sub was about to have a run-in with the US destroyer, Wadsworth.

On August 31, the USS Wadsworth was sent out to hunt for the sub responsible for torpedoing the W.S. RheemWadsworth was not able to make contact with any submarines in the first area searched, but then it teamed with amphibious patrol planes to scour the seas to the south of Espiritu Santo and west of Nalekula Island. On today's date in 1943, Wadsworth picked up an underwater sound contact and dropped 7 patterns of depth charges, claiming unconfirmed damage to the sub. It's possible that I-20 survived that onslaught, but it never returned home. Records list her as "missing" as of October 10, 1943.

It is also possible that another destroyer, the USS Ellet sank the I-20. On September 3, Ellet was ordered to hunt for a reported submarine in the area. That night, the destroyer picked up a radar contact and challenged the unseen contact. Receiving no reply, Ellet dropped 20 depth charges in an attempt to hit her target. The next day Ellet discovered a long oil slick but could not confirm a kill of the submarine.

To make matters even less certain, the I-20 and another Japanese sub, the I-182, were both operating in the New Hebrides at this time. Neither submarine returned from its mission, so perhaps both destroyers may be credited with kills. The final result is that the enemy's loss of 2 submarines is great news for American and Allied sailors on the New Hebridean waters.

Sources: USS Vestal War Diary, August & September 1943; War Diaries for USS Ellet, and Wardsworth, September 1943; The Official Chronology of the U.S. Navy in World War II, Robert Cressman; Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships; Imperial Japanese Navy Page

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