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ASN Wikibase Occurrence # 81159
Last updated: 6 December 2019
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Date:02-JAN-1944
Time:21:47
Type:Silhouette image of generic B24 model; specific model in this crash may look slightly different
Consolidated PB4Y-1 Liberator
Owner/operator:VB-107, US Navy
Registration: 32065
C/n / msn:
Fatalities:Fatalities: 10 / Occupants: 10
Aircraft damage: Aircraft missing
Location:70-90 miles off Ascension Island -   Atlantic Ocean
Phase: En route
Nature:Military
Departure airport:
Destination airport:
Narrative:
At the start of January 1944, three German blockade runners coming from the Netherlands East Indies, the Rio Grande (6062 GRT, that departed Soerabaja around 29 October 1943), the Weserland (6528 GRT, that departed Batavia on 22 November) and the Burgenland (7230 GRT, that departed Batavia around 25 November) were in the South Atlantic and sailing north towards Europe.

The first of the German ships was the Weserland. Her coming was no particular surprise to the 4th US Fleet, since advance information had already been received to the effect that blockade runners would shortly have to be dealt with. This news had led to the establishment of an air blockade barrier. The barrier operations were designed to close to enemy ships practically the whole extent of the South Atlantic narrows between Africa and Brazil. The barrier proved effective. No unplotted northbound vessel passed through the Western South Atlantic during the time it was in effect.

On 1 January 1944, the eleven PB4Y-1 and fifteen crews of VB-107 were assigned to this patrol. Six planes and nine crews operated from Widewake Field, Ascension Island, while five planes and six crews worked out of Natal, Brazil. The unit had its sole mission the maintenance of a barrier patrol to intercept enemy blockade runners known to be traveling northward through the South Atlantic. They should then guide the ships of TF 41 (the light cruisers USS Omaha, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Marblehead and Memphis and several destroyers) towards the runners, or attack them with bombs.

The first of January brought the original sighting of the first doomed ship, at 1400 hrs by a VB-107 plane, “Baker 9” of Lt. Taylor that had taken off from Ascension at 0740 hrs. At that time the Weserland, as she ultimately proved to be, was in 09° 35' S, 23° 45' W, traveling on course 060° (T), at a 10 knot speed. The pilot at once realized that here was a ship not on the friendly plot for the day. He circled to investigate, challenging by blinker. The surface vessel hoisted a four letter call, then immediately hauled it down, before the plane crew could read it. The plane next closed in and made out the name Glenbank on a small bridge nameplate. A ship bearing this name had left Capetown on 24 December 1943 for Montevideo. Following this, the pilot challenged several times more, and the ship failed to hoist either a call or an authenticator. The plane opened fire, firing a few 12,7 mm rounds in front of the ship, and the ship replied, probably with 37mm AA guns, getting rather the better of the exchange. It scored three hits on the aircraft, disabling one engine and wounding a crew member engaged in taking photographs, AOM2c Robert E MacGregor. On this, the plane broke off the engagement at 1430 hrs and retired to base at Ascension, landing at 1845 hrs.

In the meantime at 1414 hrs, another VB-107 aircraft, “Baker 5”, reported another ship, 200 miles away at position 7°52N 21°40W, which seem to be the Seapool. The cruiser Marblehead and destroyer Winslow were detached to control the ship of “Baker 5”, the destroyer Somers to look for the ship of “Baker 9”, but due to communications difficulties the message was delayed in getting to her.

“Baker 12” of VB-107 was dispatched at 1558 hrs to renew contact with the "Glenbank" of “Baker 9”, reached the area at 1956 hrs and after an expanding square search with radar found it again at 2030 hrs, at a position 70 miles SE from the last reported and reported it to ships and base. The ship was then at 10° 19'S 22° 48'W heading 180° at 15 knots. In the night it was not definitely established that the ship was the correct one, as the suspected blockade runenr had been heading 60° and this one was on southerly course. However "Baker 12" started at 2100 hrs to home the Somers to the contact. The destroyer gave at his estimated time of arrival 0200 hrs on the 2nd and later corrected it to 0600 hrs. "Baker 12" reached prudent limit of endurance (PLE) and left the target at 2358 hrs, landing back at base at 0330 hrs.

At 2200 hrs the Marblehead and Winslow reached the Seapool and identified her positively. In the meantime two more ship were sighted, the Fort Wellington and the Wascana Park.

"Baker 1" had taken off at 2230 hrs to maintain the contact, renewed contact at 0445 hrs and continued homing Somers. "Baker 5" took off at 0230 hrs to replace it but never found the target. Contact was lost, both planes turning back at 0630 hrs and 1100 hrs. At 0930 hrs, “Baker 12” with Lt. R.T. Johnson and his crew started again on a regular barrier patrol. With "Baker 1" (that landed at 1100 and took off again at 1145 hrs) and "Baker 2" (that had left Ascencion Island at 0830 hrs on a regular patrol) they were ordered at 1315 hrs to search the presumed blocked runner.

At 1620 hrs Somers was controlling the Wascana Park, when at 1622 hrs “Baker 12” sighted another ship 60 miles away, by 14° 42' S 23° 27' W. Lt. Johnson called for assistance, but at 1725 hrs the ship – of course the Weserland – opened accurate AA-fire and damaged the aircraft. The PB4Y-1 (Buno 32065) was hit by enemy gunfire outboard of #4 engine causing a slight gas leak, which the pilot later reported had stopped. The damaged bomber continued to shadow the ships and was joined by "Baker 2" at 1800 hrs, but this aircraft was close to its PLE and could not relieve it for long. So the crew of "Baker 12" waited for the arrival of "Baker 1" at 1830 hrs, before starting the 600 miles-flight for Ascension. “Baker 2” escorted her and at 21.30 “Baker 12” lost height down to 1400 feet. The crew talked to "Baker 2" and said they were going down and dropping flares. The other crew replied it had seen them and will circle. The pilot of "Baker 12" reported two engine failures, and oil pressure fluctuating in both others and said ">Don't look like it will hold up". At 2145 hrs it says he was at 600 feet and had one engine OK. At 2147 hrs the signal of "Baker 12" stopped. She had gone down 70-90 miles off Ascension bearing true 215°. It was estimated that approximately 900 gallons of gasoline were lost during a period of more than four hours since the PB4Y-1 was hit.

"Baker 2", low on gas, had to continue to Ascension and landed at 2230 hrs. No trace of the crew of "Baker 12" was ever found despite long searches the following days.

Crew (all lost):
Lt Robert Theodore Johnson (pilot)
Ens James H. Wells
Ens John D. Cowan
Ens Eugene Bowers
Amm2c Russell Hamilton
Rm2c William B. Winter
Aom3c Edward J. Fisher
Amm3c Donald W. Carpenter
Rm3c Joslyn Simpson
Sea2c George E. Roper

The crew of "Baker 12" had displayed courage beyond the call of duty by remaining on station after their gasoline system was hit. Thanks to that contact had never been lost, and the planes were able to guide the Somers unerringly to the spot. At 2200 hrs Somers sighted the Weserland 12 miles away, illuminated by flares just dropped by "Baker 1", later relieved by "Baker 5". According to orders, Lt Hill, the pilot of "Baker 1" had flashed several times messages to the suspicious ship to alter course, but without result.

By the time of closing, the Somers knew the target to be an enemy, it already having fired on two planes. If a blockade runner, its armament would probably be light; if a raider, it might carry guns up to 5.9, torpedo tubes and motor torpedo boats; possibly radar. Since both planes fired on had been hit, the German crew must be well trained. The planes, moreover, had dropped flares, which would certainly let the enemy know that a surface vessel was in the vicinity and would probably put him on the alert. These factors taken together strongly indicated the need for caution. It being night, the Destroyer decided to use its superior speed to maneuver so as to place the target down moon, then close to hitting gun range and open fire, attempting surprise. Should the enemy appear armed and return fire, a torpedo attack would be pressed home. If not, the target would be sunk by gunfire.

Accordingly, the Somers, moving at a 25 knot speed narrowed the range to 7000 yards. At 0223 hrs on the 3rd the order was given to "commence firing", using a modified down ladder; first salvo to hit, second up 500 yards, third down 1000 yards. Survivors from the Weserland later said that the first salvo scored, one shell killing four men on the bridge. At that moment the order was given aboard the blockade runner to abandon ship. Meanwhile, the Somers closed the range to 6000 yards, where its gunnery proved highly effective. The destroyer continued firing until 50 flashes from hits and two explosions in the center of the ship had been observed. Then the order was given to cease, but since no flames were visible, and the ship did not appear to be sinking, firing resumed at 5000 yards. Every salvo struck, and produced what appeared to be from five to six explosive flashes. The target sank at 0300, by 14° 55' S 21° 39' W.

Having destroyed the enemy craft, the Somers immediately set about picking up survivors. After one boat had been rescued, it seemed wisest to move off for a time and return after daylight to take up the rest. This course was followed, and, beginning at dawn, a total of 7 lifeboats, and one life raft, containing 17 officers and 116 men, was collected by the Somers, which landed the prisoners in Recife on 6 January. [Other sources say there were 5 dead and 134 prisoners)

Personal papers and belongings taken from the survivors established the sunken ship's identity as the German Merchantman Weserland, en route from Japan to Germany. No one had any chance to observe the cargo, but survivors stated that it consisted of rubber, tin, and wolfram.

Sources:

Report of Destruction of German Blockade Runner, SS WESSERLAND, 1/2-3/44 (available online at https://www.fold3.com/image/1/270958405)
VB-107 war diary, January 1944 (available online at https://www.fold3.com/image/274210935)
http://www.vpnavy.org/vp107_mishap.html
http://www.vpnavy.org/misc_2016/vpb107mishap_01_24aug2016.jpg
https://www.feldgrau.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=2565
http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/Admin-Hist/146-SouthAtlantic/146-SoLant-2.html
https://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/ETO/Ultra/SRH-BA-Appendix/Appendix-10.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ascension_Island
http://wikimapia.org/#lang=en&lat=-7.933333&lon=-14.366667&z=8&m=w


Revision history:

Date/timeContributorUpdates
14-Nov-2010 11:55 ASN archive Added
05-Jan-2017 09:47 Laurent Rizzotti Updated [Time, Operator, Total fatalities, Total occupants, Location, Country, Phase, Source, Damage, Narrative]

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