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From: The Commanding Officer
To  : The Major General Commandant
Via : The Commandant, 13th Naval District
Subject: Beaching of the S.S. NORTHWESTERN.

   1.         For several days we were aware of a severe storm to the west and southwest. Indications wore that it would pass to the south of Dutch Harbor but that this locality would be in the edge as the storm passed and receive high northeast winds. Therefore, additional precautions were taken for the safety of the ship and personnel.

   2.         At this time the S.S. Northwestern was moored to the Dutch Harbor dock as follows:

                1 - 90 fathoms 1 7/8" anchor chain to 5 ton crankshaft anchor.
 2 - 1 1/2" cable to deadman on beach.
 3 - 1 1/2" cable to deadman on beach.
 4 - 1 1/2" cable to deadman on beach.
 5 - Double l" wire cables to reinforced dock pilings.
 6 - Double 1" wire cables to reinforced dock pilings.
 7 - Five 6" Manila lines to reinforced mooring bit.
 8 - 1 7/8" anchor chain secured in series to pilings under dock.
 9 - Five 6" manila lines to reinforced mooring bit.
10 - Five 6" manila lines to reinforced mooring bit.
11 - Three 6" manila lines to two mooring bits.
12 - One 8" manila line to cable and chain secured tinder dock.
13 - 1 1/2" cable; 35 fathoms secured to 4200 lb. patented anchor.
14 - 1 1/2" cable, 40 fathoms attached to 15 fathoms of chain secured to 4500 lb. wood-stock anchor.
15 - 105 fathoms 1 7/8" anchor chain to 4500 lb. steel stock anchcor.




Subject:   Beaching of the S.S. NORTHWESTERN (continued)
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      NOTE:   Two additional 1 3/8" cables had been ordered to be run from forward part of ship, one on each side, to anchors on opposite side of dock approach.

   3.         About 2:00 a.m. on Friday, December 13, 1940 heavy north northeast winds started. During the day the intensity of the wind increased. Some of the gusts reached hurricane proportions. The evening weather map indicated no change in condition. However, the surge of the sea continued to build up due to contintued heavy northerly winds. About l0:00 p.m. the strain began to tell on the ship; the mooring bits located on the starboard promenade deck aft (#10) gave 1 1/2 inches but held in that position due to one of the mooring lines snapping; the forward mooring bits in the windless room aft (#9) also gave about one inch and the plate holding the chock bulged slightly. However, all other lines and bits appeared in good condition.

   4.         About 1:00 a.m, the forward inside spring line (#11) due to non-holding by the starboard anchors (#13 and 14), was put to too much strain and pulled the bits out of their casting. At this time the undersigned issued orders to assemble the personnel in the mess room so that all hands could be informed of the condition and be prepared to abandon the ship if necessary. This assembly was executed in a quiet orderly manner by having the officers and senior non-commissioned officers awake the remainder. Each person made a small roll of blankets and one change of clothing (Marines included their rifles). Life boats were lowered to a ready position and five days food supply was stacked handy for transfer ashore.

   5.         Due to the contour of the beach where the ship would ground and to the flatness of the ship's bottom no real danger was felt or was anticipated although it appeared evident that the ship would break away from its mooring.

   6.         From 1:00 a.m. until the final hold to the dock gave way, about 3:00 a.m. one line after another broke. About 2:00 a.m. the outer forward spring line (#12) snapped. With the bow anchors falling to hold the bow soon moved into shallow water and grounded. This caused additional surging of the after part of the ship. It was not long after this that all lines aft started breaking under the strain. About 2:30 a.m. the chock through which the anchor chain (#8) led to the dock broke into several pieces. This permitted the chain to eat its way through the side plates and stanchions a distance of about five feet until the anchor chain made a straight line from its mooring bits on the ship to the dock. These mooring bits could not take the strain and were broken off, however, before they could be pulled through the side of the ship the anchor chain parted and the ship, about 3:00 a.m., drifted onto the beach.

   7.         The actual beaching was so gentle that those assembled in the mess room did not distinguish it from the surges and noises that had been in progress for the past several hours. When it was realized that the ship had actually beached the mental relief was very noticeable. The men were returned to their rooms for a much needed rest.


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Subject:   Beaching of the S.S. NORTHWESTERN (continued)
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   8.         During the day an attempt was made to take in the slack in the after mooring cable (#4). This cable was secured to the capstan in the anchor windlass room aft. A surge caught the line when taut and pulled the capstan out by the roots in a manner similar to that of extracting a tooth.

   9.         Due to a reported possible shifting of the wind direction to the northwest and to the concrete evidence that the ship's structure could not stand up under the strains of being secured to the beach the undersigned decided to abandon ship. It was felt that the best plan would be to have the maximum number of personnel off the ship and thus avoid a possible last minute attempt to abandon ship in case the ship did start to break up. A line was worked to the beach and there handled by a group of Siems Drake Puget Sound contractor party under charge of Mr. Leonard Clark, the General Superintendent. This line was secured to the power drum of a bull-dozer on the beach and through a sheave on the ship. One of the life boats of the S.S. Northwestern was secured to this line. The running end on the ship was handled by man power.

  10.         This rigging was completed by 3:40 p.m. and the first boat load of 22 Marines (truck and tractor drivers, searchlight operators, cooks, etc) and one commissioned officer was ferried ashore. The last boat load was completed at 6:50 p.m. After dark, about 4:20 p.m., illumination was furnished by truck lights, one of the anti-aircraft searchlights and a flood light rigged on the beach. In this manner 129 persons with a few personal articles and clothing each were transferred ashore. Six civilians, the mate, purser and four engineers, volunteered to remain aboard so as to maintain the cold storage plant. As it was felt that the ship was in no immediate danger these men were permitted to remain. However, a watch was established on the beach so that an immediate rescue could be effected in case of necessity.

  11.         The transfer ashore was greatly assisted by the use of two SCR-195 radio sets, one on the ship and one on the beach. By means of these voice radios, the signals for handling the lines were executed in a quiet manner. The entire transfer was completed with such ease that it reminded me of the handling of ships through the Panama Canal.

  12.         The personnel moved ashore were quartered la the 95% completed marine barracks.

  13.         Work of removing food, personal effects, and other property, in order named, was resumed Sunday morning. Due to another threatened shift of the wind to the northwest, this work was continued until 11:30 p.m., at which time all personal effects and about three weeks of food supply had been transferred ashore. The transfer of the food supply was considered imperative as no local food supply was available. The manager of the Northern Commercial Company informed me that with the additional 135 persons from the S.S. NORTHWESTERN there would be only food enough to last for ten days. This shortage of food in Unalaska was due to the non-arrival of the S.S. CORDOVA.

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Subject:   Beaching of the S.S. NORTHWESTERN (continued)
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  14.         The storm, however, continued from the north and northeast, so work was resumed Monday morning of the removal of supplies. This work was completed about 4:OO p.m. Monday afternoon. The main amount of cold storage supplies were left on the ship as no cold storage facilities are available ashore. The material for cold storage plant for the marine barracks was on the S.S. CORDOVA which arrived Tuesday evening after having been hove-to for five days off the entrance of Unalaska Bay.

  15.         Too high praise cannot be given to the officers and men of the Noy contract party and to the junior officers and enlisted men of this detachment for their conduct during the long tedious hours spent in a driving rain, sleet and snow storm which reached velocities of over eight knots.



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Copies to:   CG, FMF
CO, Alaska Sector
CO, Marine Defense Force
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More on the Steam Ship Northwestern:

  • SteamShips in trouble - SS Northwestern aground at Eagle River, 1933
  • More on Colonel A. W. Cockrell:
  • THE RIGHT TO FIGHT: African-American Marines in World War II: The 52d Defense Battalion
  • Blacks in the Marine Corps (Scroll to "CHAPTER 3 - THE 52D DEFENSE BATTALION")
    National Archives & Records Administration, Seattle Branch
    Record Group 181, Commandant of Naval Shipyard Correspondance Files

    Transcribed by RESEARCHER @ LARGE. Formatting & Comments Copyright R@L.

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