The Liberty Ship SS Samuel Heintzelman

I began my research with the official War Dept Certificate stating the name of the ship. I looked for the name of the ship in the index of US Navy vessels lost during the war. I could find no evidence of a ship named the Samuel Heintzelman. Finally I realized that the Heintzelman was actually a merchant vessel and as such not listed among the US Navy combatant vessels lost. The Heintzelman was in fact a "Liberty ship."

The real breakthrough came when I discovered a reference to the sinking of the Heintzelman at the US Navy History web site. The historical index had only recently been revised to include merchant vessels lost in the war instead of just official combatant vessels like destroyers, cruisers, and battleships.

"U.S. freighter Samuel Heintzelman, en route from Fremantle, Australia, to Colombo, Ceylon, is torpedoed and sunk by German submarine U-511 at 09°00'S, 81°00'E. There are no survivors from the 42-man merchant complement, the 27-man Armed Guard and six passengers."

The SS Samuel Heintzelman was a standard class Z-EC2-S-C1 design. The ship was built by the California Shipbuilding Corporation in Long Beach, designated with hull number 0651, and launched on September 30, 1942.

I also found out that a liberty ship that looks like the SS Samuel Heintzelman, is tied up in San Francisco. Out of the original 2,500 Liberty ships that were built the SS JEREMIAH O'BRIEN is one of only two Liberty ships that have survived to this day!

 

  

  

  

  

Hull No. 0651
launched September 30, 1942

     

The SS JEREMIAH O'BRIEN, is tied up in San Francisco at Pier 45. 
The ship has become a historical attraction and 
has been used in the filming of 
many motion pictures.  
          
     

The Last Voyage

The SS Samuel Heintzelman was steaming somewhere in the Indian Ocean when it was torpedoed by a submarine, on July 9, 1943. Actually there is some disagreement about the date. One source says July 7th and another says July 9th. For the moment though, I consider the July 9th source to be the more reliable one.

The reference to U-511 was the real surprise. I had always assumed that the attacking submarine was Japanese and not German. I asked myself what was a German submarine doing in the middle of the Indian Ocean half a world away from the battlefield's of Europe? I will come back to address this question a little later.

The reported site of the ship's sinking is shown plotted on the map below. The water at this location is quite deep and oceanographic maps indicate a depth of somewhere around 5400 ft. This is deep, but only half as deep as the water the infamous Titanic rests in.

The location itself is somewhat of a mystery. The actual location is farther west and south than I would expect for a ship that was headed to Colombo, Ceylon from Fremantle, Australia. Of course I am not a navigator, so I could be wrong. There may have been other considerations such as the ship deliberately altering course to avoid trouble spots or the suspected location of enemy submarines. More likely, the ship was steering well clear of Japanese held Indonesia in an effort to avoid any possible threats.

If you take a global perspective, the ship was sunk in a spot as near to the center of the Indian Ocean as you could imagine. This would be an unfortunate location for any would be survivors who found themselves clinging to floating debris and hoping for a rescue. There is hardly any site that could be farther from land and farther from anyone who might be able or inclined to launch a rescue effort.

What was a  German  submarine  doing in the  middle of 
 the Indian  Ocean?

    

 

          
     

The map shows the plot of the coordinates where the SS Samuel Heintzelman lies at 09°00'S, 81°00'E

The  Heintzelman was about 4 days sailing time or about 1000 miles from the safety of the destination port of Colombo, Ceylon.

          
     
The official correspondence from the war Dept stated the SS Samuel Heintzelman sailed alone from Fremantle, Australia and was not part of a convoy. The convoy was common practice for merchant ships in the North Atlantic, and it was very effective in protecting merchant ships and getting them to their final destination.

Before she went down the Heintzelman never sent out an SOS. (Interestingly, it would have been my Uncle Stewart who would have called for help since he was the Radioman.)

The letter from the War Department stated there were no known survivors. This seems quite unusual. Surely out of a crew of some 70 men, someone would have succeeded in escaping from the ship before she went down. But even if they had, they would have likely perished before help could arrive. Help could have been as long as a week or more in coming if no message made it to the outside world.

Since the Heintzelman was sailing alone and did not send out an SOS after being hit, the fate of any survivors would have been sealed. Without anyone in the outside world knowing of their fate the survivors would be doomed.

Had the Heintzelman been part of a convoy, other ships would have been able to render aid and to pick up survivors. At the very least, the other ships would have been able to get the word out quickly that the Heintzelman was hit and help would soon be on the way. Surely in this scenario there would be at least a few survivors.

Several days past before the Heintzelman was missed. The ship was first missed when it did not show up at its destination in Ceylon. Considering the position of the sunken vessel, the Heintzelman was about 4 days away from arriving at her destination in Ceylon.

The manner in which the ship was sunk goes to the heart of the mystery. If something was known for certain about the ships loss, if even one eyewitness had survived, then my family would surely have been able to better recover from this disaster. Instead, the Heintzelman went down in utter silence, with no surviving witnesses to tell the story and with no evidence left to comfort distraught family members.

 

  Surely 
out of a 
crew of 
 some 70  men,  someone  would have  succeeded  in  escaping. 

 

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

if 
even one  eyewitness  had 
survived... 

          

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The Heintzelman || The Sinking || The U-511 Fleet || The Debris || The Cargo || The Crew