Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Decades ago, oil spilled in Atlantic. Hundreds of tankers were among the thousands of ships that sank during WWII

By MOLLY MURRAY • The News Journal

This once-secret dispatch was sent to Navy headquarters in Washington, D.C., in February 1942.
The China Arrow, an oil tanker loaded with 81,773 barrels of fuel oil, sank southeast of the Delaware coast -- a victim of German U-Boat 103.
The first torpedo hit at 11:15 a.m. The explosion blew fuel oil 125 feet into the air and sent burning oil cascading over the side. A second torpedo hit and released more oil, split the tanker in two and sent it to the bottom.
Thousands of gallons spilled from this tanker and hundreds more ships that were torpedoed and sunk by German U-boats from January through August 1942. An estimated 3,002 ships, 452 of them oil tankers, were sunk in the North Atlantic during World War II.
No one is certain how much oil remains from these shipwrecks. Nor is there certainty about the condition or the fate of the oil.
It likely had an immediate impact, but more than six decades later, that impact is difficult to determine.
If ships off the Delaware coast begin leaking oil, the damage would not be as grave as what is being seen in the Gulf of Mexico because the leakage would be much more gradual.
The Deepwater Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico is leaking an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day since an explosion on the oil platform on April 20. That is compared with the 257,000-gallon spill of the Exxon Valdez in 1989, considered one of the worst in history.
Officials said last week that 264 birds, sea turtles and dolphins had been found dead or stranded on shore that may have been affected by the spill, though Roger Helm, chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's contaminants division, said the death toll is certain to rise as the oil moves deeper into the marshes.
In contrast, hundreds of thousands of birds, otters and other animals were killed after the Exxon Valdez spill. Helm said the biggest reason for the relatively low death toll from the Gulf spill is that until recently, most of the oil remained far out at sea. "But if the oil does really start fouling up the marshes, you can expect the numbers of oiled birds to go up significantly," he said.

On Barataria Bay on Monday, some brown pelicans coated in oil could do little more than hobble. Their usually brown and white feathers were jet black, and eggs were glazed with rust-colored gunk. The birds got spooked when wildlife officials tried to rescue one, and officials were not sure they would try again.

Oil has also reached a 1,150-acre oyster ground leased by Belle Chasse, La., fisherman Dave Cvitanovich. He said cleanup crews were stringing lines of absorbent boom along the surrounding marshes, but that still left large clumps of rust-colored oil floating over his oyster beds. Mature oysters might eventually filter out the crude and become fit for sale, but this year's crop of young oysters will perish.
"Those will die in the oil," Cvitanovich said. "It's inevitable."
War was main focus
During World War II, people were less concerned about the environment and more concerned about the war.
"We had tar on our beaches ... it was just something everyone got used to," said Corky Boyd, a retired businessman who lived in Cape May, N.J., for part of World War II and is now living in Sanibel Island, Fla.
Boyd, a blogger, recently posted his thoughts that amid this latest oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, it is important to keep an eye on events from the past.
"It's a bad thing," Boyd said. "No question about it. ... But this is not the end of the world."
Boyd pointed back to the oil that was lost during World War II -- much of it right in nearshore coastal waters.
In August 2001, the USS Mississinewa -- a U.S. Navy oiler sunk Nov. 20, 1944 -- leaked 5,000 gallons of oil into Ulithi Lagoon in the Yap State of Micronesia. Navy divers eventually plugged the leak.
At Pearl Harbor, oil still leaks from the remains of the USS Arizona, sunk in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Some describe the oil sheen as "the tears of the Arizona."
In Delaware during the war, gooey tar balls and a jar of kerosene to remove the tar were a way of life.
"If you talk to a lot of the old-timers, there was oil all over the place," said Bill Winkler, an Ocean View businessman.

But this was war, and the battleground wasn't on some far distant shore.

"The front lines were right here," said Gary Wray, a Lewes historian.
Wray said that when five German submarines left France on Christmas Day 1941, the officers and crew thought they were destined to meet their death.
Instead, he said, "they found the best of all worlds. We weren't ready."
Merchant ships weren't escorted by convoys, and rules requiring blackout lights and curtains didn't take effect until May 1942. The light silhouetted ships against the shoreline and made them easy targets, he said.
Cataloging wrecks
Work to catalog World War II shipwrecks in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Indian oceans is in the early stages.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has done some work with World War II shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of North Carolina. But the work has chronicled the shipwrecks as historic sites.
Winkler said he worries not just about oil from all of these ships but from a host of other relics from World War II.
"There's a lot of munitions, guns, ammunition, hand grenades, who knows what," he said. "I'm sure there's no money to assess all of these ships."
They carried a variety of cargo -- sugar bound from the Caribbean to Canada, lumber for Europe, bauxite headed for mills in the United States, where it was made into aluminum for aircraft.
Every ship that went down had a story, and most of them are chronicled in the records of the Navy's 10th Fleet.
•SS Alcoa, torpedoed, May 25, 1942, 78 miles southeast of Grand Cayman. Thirty-five survivors.
•Allan Jackson, attacked 50 miles east of Cape Hatteras, Jan. 18, 1942. No moon, two torpedoes. First hit starboard side, then a second. The ship broke in two at midship and sank in five minutes.
•W.L. Steed, 65,936 barrels of crude oil from Colombia. Torpedoed 90 miles off the entrance to Delaware Bay. Thirty-four dead. Four survivors. Many died from exposure because of cold and snow.
•Dixie Arrow, 88,369 barrels of oil bound from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Carteret, N.J., torpedoed off North Carolina. Twenty-six dead. Twelve survivors.

Wray said Germans named this Battle of the Atlantic Operation Drumbeat. The first sinking -- a steamer called the Cyclops -- was Jan. 12 -- 125 miles off Cape Sable, Nova Scotia. Eighty-seven died. There were 95 survivors.

And with that, the carnage started.
"The German U-boat captains couldn't believe it," Wray said.
Until May 1942, merchant ships traveled up the coast -- staying in the shallower inshore waters to avoid attack, Wray said.
In May, there were secret orders (now declassified) from the Navy's East Sea Frontier.
"In order to reduce possible submarine attack at sea route, every ship possible through the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal both north and south bound."
The U-boats shifted south to the coast of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.
By the fall and into 1943, the convoy system was in place with a goal of having four tankers arriving in England each day.
Ships were still sunk -- in January, February and March of 1943, 227 tankers were convoyed to England. Of those, eight sank. Dozens more cargo ships made it safely across the Atlantic.
But from January through August 1942, an estimated 6,000 sailors died and hundreds of merchant ships sank in the Battle of the Atlantic.
"They wreaked holy havoc," Wray said.

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