Thursday, August 23, 2012

William O'Brien

William O'Brien, April 18, 1920.

The William O'Brien was a 2,850-ton (sources disagree) steamer of the France and Canada Steamship Company that sailed from New York for Rotterdam on April 14, 1920. The next day she put back into New York. The captain reported he had had trouble with the crew.

She sailed again on April 16. Whether the unruly crew had been disciplined or replaced is not known. (Group, pp. 35.) Simpson reports the captain replaced the chief engineer. (Simpson, p. 120.)

On or about April 18, the steamer Baltic received a radio message from the O'Brien that the latter was 500 miles east of the Delaware River and required assistance. (Spencer, p. 107.) She had been hit by raging storms and lost a hatch cover. The message or the manner it was sent aroused suspicion that it had been altered. (Group, p. 35.) When the rescuers got there, the O'Brien was gone.

Spencer claims she was a wooden-hulled ship, although new. (Spencer, p. 107.) Even if she had not lost a hatch cover, wooden hulls and steam engines do not mix in oceangoing vessels. Given the vibrations and stresses, she may easily have sprung a leak without further provocation if she had a wooden hull.

It doesn't look like she really was a wooden ship, though: She was a modern steel-hulled oil burner launched in 1915 at New York Shipbuilding. That's probably a misunderstanding due to the fact that she was at a time intended as a lumber carrier (though at the time of her sinking she was carrying coal). Somebody apparently mistook a ship built for carrying lumber for one built out of lumber.

While we're at it, here's the full article I just linked.

NEW YORK, April 19. — The steamer William O'Brien, which reported yesterday she was in distress 500 miles east of Philadelphia, is taking water rapidly, according to a radio message received here today. The message was relayed by the liner Baltic, which left here Saturday for Liverpool, but there was nothing to indicate the Baltic was nearby. 

The O'Brien, operated by the France and Canadian Steamship corporation, is an oil burner of 3,143 tons and carries a crew of 40. She left here last Thursday with 6,500 tons of coal for Rotterdam. ("Ocean Liner Is Sinking," The Miami News, April 19, 1920.)

Either way, three months later, the mother of a crewman got a postcard from France, allegedly in her son's handwriting, that said he had been on a ship with Edsel Ford. When it was found that Ford had been in Detroit at that time, the matter was judged a hoax. (Spencer, p. 107.)

During the Carroll A. Deering investigation, the NYPD claimed they had uncovered a plot by the United Russian Workers of the United States and Canada to ship out on steamers, mutiny, and sail them to soviet ports. (Kusche, Bermuda Triangle Mystery, p. 70.)

By itself, this case is not mysterious. The O'Brien probably really lost a hatch cover and was swamped in a storm. That tended to happen back when hatch covers were from wood and canvas.

What makes it interesting is the claims about the trouble with the crew, the "altered" radio message, communists, and the postcard, which lend themselves well to conspiracy theories. Yet that's what it is — only claims.

For now, the facts look like this:

LONDON, April 27. The White Star liner Baltic has arrived at Liverpool. She reported that in mid-Atlantic during a gale she received a wireless summons from the steamer William O'Brien, reporting that the hatch covers had gone, and that she was making water rapidly. The Baltic immediately steamed to her assistance, but the wireless messages became undecipherable, except for the word "sinking," repeated several times. Other vessels also searched the spot, but found no trace of the vessel or her crew. ("An Ocean Tragedy," The Mercury (Hobart, Tasmania), May 1, 1920.)

Not one hatch was gone, but the plural. The O'Brien was making water rapidly. And she radioed she was sinking.

Once I find an article on what was supposed to be fishy about that message, I'll post it here. Stay tuned. 

No comments: