California and the Second World War
The Attacks on the SS Barbara Olson and SS Absoroka

On Christmas day 1941, the Japanese submarine I-19, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Narahara Shogo, torpedoes and misses the lumber schooner BARBARA OLSON steaming toward San Diego.

Later that day, off Point Fermin near San Pedro, the I-19 torpedoes, hits and damages the McCormick Steamship Company's 5,695-ton American lumber carrier ABSOROKA, but the ship is towed and beached at Fort MacArthur. The subchaser USS AMETHYST (PYC-3), on patrol off the Los Angeles Harbor entrance, depth charges the I-19, but without effect.

The July 1998 issue of World War II Magazine printed a story titled, West Coast War Zone by Donald J. Young. The following is an extract of that article dealing with this attack:

As the lumber schooner Barbara Olson was quietly steaming toward San Diego on the morning of December 24, she was rocked by a violent blast 100 feet off its seaward side. Although no one on board saw what caused it, the explosion was from a torpedo fired by I-19, which had gone under Olson and blown up on the other side.

About four miles away, aboard the Navy subchaser USS Amethyst, on patrol off the Los Angeles Harbor entrance, lookouts were attracted by the blast, and the captain sounded general quarters one minute later. The note in the ship's log read: "At 0625 sighted an explosion that threw smoke and spray approximately 300 feet into the air. At 0626 sounded general quarters. At 0730 secured from general quarters and set condition Baker."

Amethyst went down for a "look-see" but did not locate the enemy sub. Although I-19 had missed Barbara Olson, four hours later she would have another chance at an American ship. By 10 a.m., I-19 had moved to new hunting grounds a few miles north off Point Fermin. Entering the Catalina Channel some five miles north of the waiting enemy sub was the McCormick Steamship Company's 5,700-ton freighter Absaroka, also on her way south with a load of lumber.

By 10:30, the freighter was off Point Fermin, whose famous 77-year-old lighthouse was clearly visible less than a mile away. Manning a coast artillery gun position on the point just below the lighthouse, Army Sergeant James Hedwood and his crew watched the ship as it passed. "We were looking at the lumber schooner when suddenly we saw a fountain of water spout 100 feet into the air at the stern," Hedwood recalled. The boat spun around some 220 degrees from the force of the blow, "ending up with its stern to sea and its bow facing toward land."

On board, Seaman Joseph Scott was the first to see the sub that got Absaroka. "It was midmorning and all hands were up, when I looked off to starboard and saw a whale," he recalled. "At least I was about to say 'look over yonder, a whale,' when I changed my mind and yelled, 'There's a Jap submarine!'

"She was coming head-on. Then her periscope went up and she shot a torpedo. I've seen torpedoes coming at me before. 'They've wasted that one,' says I. Sure enough it went wide, but right on its heels came another. 'Oh, oh, that's bad,' says I, because I could see this one was going to get us."

Scott's reference to previous experience with torpedoes was no exaggeration. At sea since his early 20s, the 48-year-old veteran had had four merchant ships torpedoed out from under him on four consecutive voyages during World War I.

"In those other torpedoings, as I recall 'em, there was always a bang or blast and a bump," Scott continued. "But this one was a sort of slow jar, with nothing but a rumble because she hit well below the waterline."

Four men--Harry Greenwald, Marshall Mansfield, Herbert Stevens and Joseph Ryan--were working on the starboard side of Absaroka, routinely checking the lashings on the particularly heavy deckload of lumber she was carrying, moments before the torpedo struck. One of them glanced up in time to see the wake. "Torpedo!" he yelled, pointing toward the stern of the ship. "I knew [it] was going to miss us and broke into a grin," said Greenwald. "But my grin froze, because the second fish followed the first one quicker than it takes to tell it."

The second torpedo struck with tremendous impact about 50 feet aft of the beam, knocking three of the four men into the sea. The fourth, Ryan, was able to ride out the blast, which, according to one observer, threw tons of lumber into the air "as if a man were throwing matchsticks around."

Amazingly, within a matter of seconds, Greenwald was back on deck after being thrown overboard. As he struggled to the surface after his sudden dunking, the rail over which he had just been hurled came close enough for him to grab. "The ship [rolled] over so far from the explosion that her deck went underwater," said Greenwald. "I grabbed the rail as the ship shuddered and righted herself [and] was carried up as she swung back." Mansfield pulled himself back on board by a rope.

The third man, Stevens, whose leg had been injured in the blast and his subsequent fall into the sea, began yelling for his shipmates to help. Ryan located him and dashed to the deck rail, picked up a coil of heavy mooring line and tossed it toward Stevens' bobbing head. Ryan had begun pulling Stevens toward the ship when the next disaster struck. The explosion had snapped the lashings anchoring the deckload of lumber behind Ryan. As he was leaning over the rail drawing his injured comrade toward the side of the ship, a 10-foot wall of lumber teetered and then fell, instantly killing Ryan and tumbling his body overboard along with hundreds of board feet of lumber.

Another man, oiler James O'Brien, who had been positioned a little farther forward when the torpedo hit, said that the blast "knocked me off my feet and made me goofy for a minute. Because the sub had the glare behind her, we couldn't have had a chance to escape. She had a perfect target."

Radio operator Walt Williams, in the communications shack on the aft end of the boat when the torpedo exploded, was thrown out of his chair onto the floor by the blast. Seconds later, Williams recalled, "Captain Louie Pringle notified me to send out the SOS signal and the message that we'd been torpedoed. Two messages I didn't have to be told to send."

Out on deck, crewmen had already lowered the lifeboats. There was no need to wait for the order to abandon ship. Within minutes, Absaroka had already settled up to her main deck.

Not long after Williams' distress call, planes showed up and dropped bombs near where the sub was last seen. On the heels of the bombing, Amethyst arrived on the scene and began dropping depth charges. Despite the effors to retaliate against I-19, neither bombs nor the pattern of 32 depth charges showed results.

As the day wore on, seven of the 33-man crew rescued from Absaroka, including Captain Pringle, had come back on board. Seeing that the old lumber ship was not in any immediate danger of sinking, Lt. Cmdr. Hans B. Olson tied on his U.S. Navy tug, and Absaroka was gingerly towed in and beached on a strip of sand below Fort MacArthur.

One month later, in the January 26, 1942, issue of LIFE magazine, movie actress Jane Russell was featured in the full-page "Picture of the Week," standing in the tremendous hole in Absaroka's hull created by the Japanese torpedo. In the picture she is holding a poster that warns: "A slip of the lip may sink a ship," with the words "may sink a ship" crossed out and the words "may have sunk this ship" written in.



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Updated 8 February 2016