A photo of local resident and retired shipbuilder George Dudeck showed up on my desk recently. In it, he displayed a miniature commemorative anchor on which appeared the words “S.S. Sparrows Point, Sparrows Point, Maryland, 12/29/42, sunk in WW II.”
Sensing there might be a story concerning World War II, Sparrows Point and sinking, I swung into action. I called Mr. Dudeck, who proved to be an invaluable source but only for part of the story. He actually helped build the S.S. Sparrows Point, a T3 tanker.
The ship was known as a “60-day wonder,” Mr. Dudeck recalled, because builders managed to complete the ship in only two months. The replica anchor Mr. Dudeck had was a memento from the launching of that ship. His son painted the anchor based on information from company records.
So far, so good. But what is the rest of the story? Days and two trips to the National Archives II in College Park later, and I finally had my answer.
To start with, Mr. Dudeck’s anchor is indeed correct: The ship was launched Dec. 19, 1942. It was paid for and owned by the United States during that great period when the Sparrows Point shipyards were the center for worldwide tanker manufacture.
She immediately entered service. On Jan. 2, 1943, the Department of the Navy issued written orders for the ship’s master F. Ellison, instructing him to scuttle his ship rather than allow it to fall into enemy hands.
The Sparrows Point’s rush into service continued when she received her armament and naval armed guard personnel at Norfolk on Jan. 4, 1943. The ship received two cannons, a five-inch .38-caliber and a three-inch .50-caliber. The navy also installed eight 20 mm Oerlikons antiaircraft guns.
The Sparrows Point begins its career hauling fuel from the oil fields of Texas to the Navy yards in New York. But it was not destined to remain on coastal runs. I sat in the National Archives holding in my hands the actual typewritten logs of R.L. Arrington, USNR, Lt. (JG), the commander of the armed guard for most of the ship’s wartime career, and learned the history of the S.S. Sparrows Point.
In minimalist, professional language, the log tells a story that takes the Sparrows Point to Liverpool, England; Casablanca, Morocco; Dakar, Senegal; Abadan, Iran; Capetown, South Africa; Brisbane, Australia; the Philippines and the Marshall Islands. The ship carried crude oil, gasoline, “special aviation fuel,” mail, deck cargo and, in one instance, 26 P-40 Warhawk fighter airplanes from New York City to Australia in late 1943.
The log included the petty and the momentous. On April 4, 1945, coxswain’s mate James Fitzgerald was found asleep on watch. On March 1, 1945, the ship, while in port at Leyte Gulf, fired on air-raiding Zeroes. On April 5 the crew spotted what was believed to be a periscope and spent the rest of the day and night in zigzag evasive maneuvers after firing the ship’s guns.
But the ship was not sunk. Contrary to Mr. Dudeck’s account, the SS Sparrows Point was disarmed on May 2, 1946, in San Pedro, Calif. That’s where the log ended, but the folks at the excellent Web site for the history of the merchant marine at war, www.usmm.org, filled in the rest. The ship was sold to Richmond Oil Co. and renamed the Frank A. Morgan in 1950. In 1966, the name changed again to the Vantage Venture. The ship was scrapped in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, in 1971.
Oddly (and maddeningly confusing to my research) another SS Sparrows Point, a Great Lakes ore hauler, was built at the shipyards in 1952. In 1991, Ogleby Norton Co. bought the ship from Bethlehem Steel and changed the name to the Buckeye. It is, apparently, still afloat, but the name is gone. So I guess it’s time for a new one.