The Cargo of the SS Samuel Heintzelman

It turns out the cargo explains much about the mysterious circumstances of the ship's disappearance. Records from the Naval Institute indicate the cargo of the Heintzelman was loaded with up to 5,644 tons of ammunition. 

The mystery of why nothing was found from the ship and why there were no survivors is now very clear. The SS Samuel Heintzelman was full of high explosives when she was hit by the torpedo from U-511 and she must have completely disintegrated in the resulting blast. In the merchant service there were two kinds of cargos ships that were extremely dangerous. Ships loaded with fuel and ships loaded with ammunitions.

This is consistent with the testimony of the German submariner from U-511 who said that after the torpedo was fired, he heard an explosion, and then when the submarine surfaced, found the sea was littered with floating debris from a massive explosion.

Having said this, the answer to other questions now becomes immediately clear. The SS Samuel Heintzelman would not have ever had time to send out a message and there would certainly be no survivors. I believe the fact that the SS Samuel Heintzelman was steaming alone and unescorted with such a volatile cargo also tends to confirm my suspicions that the Indian Ocean was not considered a war zone on the scale of the Pacific or the North Atlantic. Uncle Stewart did not die clinging to floating debris. Instead, he along with his shipmates, died instantly in a catastrophic explosion caused by the detonation of over 5,644 tons of high explosives!

Does 5,644 tons of ammunition seem like a volatile and dangerous cargo to you? You don't have to take my word for it. The war record contains numerous examples of what happens to merchant ships that are loaded with high explosives when something goes wrong.

Consider the following excerpt from the essay "War in the Pacific" found on the Armed Guard website.

Explosions were not uncommon when ships were handling ammunition. The Juan Cabrillo was at the Nickle Dock, Noumea, on 1 November 1943, when ammunition exploded on the pier. Two of her Armed Guard were killed and three seriously wounded. Lieutenant (junior grade) Glen L. Davis, the Armed Guard officer, suffered a broken hip and other injuries.

Another ammunition explosion, far more spectacular and costly, rocked the San Francisco Bay area the night of 17 July 1944, as the Liberty ship E. A. Bryan and the Victory ship Quinault Victory loaded ammunition at the Port Chicago Annex of the Mare Island Navy Yard. There was an estimated 10,000 tons of ammunition in the ships or on the docks when a blinding flash filled the sky and two blasts shook buildings from Sacramento to San Jose. A plane flying 7,000 feet above Port Chicago was peppered by flying debris and made an emergency landing at Fairfield. Windows were knocked out 50 miles away. The town of Port Chicago, a mile away, was almost eradicated. In ten seconds the two ships, the dock, an ammunition train, a locomotive, and two Coast Guard boats vanished, and with them went 327 men. Only 25 bodies were ever recovered.

And here is another excerpt: 

A convoy that left Leyte on 27 December for Mindoro had two especially tragic and spectacular losses. A dive-bomber hit the ammunition-laden John Burke, and the ship disappeared in a blast so devastating that when the smoke cleared away there was not even a handful of floating debris to mark where the ship and her 68 men had been. The Lewis Dyche, also loaded with ammunition, was hit by a kamikaze at Magrin Bay on 4 January. The ship and her crew of 71 were completely disintegrated.

The explosion of the Heintzelman must have been a truly phenomenal event. It seems the explosion was not actually witnessed by a single living soul. The crew of U-511 heard the explosion, but did not actually see it take place. After surfacing, the submariners could see no evidence of the ship or the survivors. No doubt they were surprised by the ferocity of the explosion and the fact that after firing perhaps a single torpedo there was absolutely nothing left of the ship.

After hearing this story, I can only stand in silent awe of the men who were assigned to the SS Samuel Heintzelman. I have to ask, "does it take more courage to fight a war aboard a well armed battleship like the USS Missouri than it does to haul 11 million pounds of high explosive on a freighter armed with only 3 small guns and without an escort?" These courageous men, all of them volunteers, did their part to fight the war and they did it with absolute excellence! After finally hearing the whole story, I am more proud of my Uncle Stewart than ever before.

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