The sinking of the S.S. Jacksonville

During World War II, U.S. fuel tankers were prime targets for German submarines in the North Atlantic.

"Oh hear us when we cry to Thee,

For those in peril on the sea."

Final words

Anticipating the need for adequate petroleum reserves and their timely transfer to Europe, the United States began an emergency ship-building program in 1942. More than 480 oil tankers would be built from standardized plans in four shipyards scattered across the country.

The Jacksonville was the 45th of 153 tankers built at the Kaiser Shipyard on Swan Island.

Marcellus Wegs was an Armed Guard, a Navy sailor who manned the guns on merchant ships. He died in Mount Sterling, Ill., in 1998 at age 81. Frank Hodges had served on two other ships that had been sunk. He died in Tampa, Fla., in 2009 at age 87.

In December of 1944, depth charges from a British frigate sank U-482 west of the Shetland Islands in the North Atlantic. The entire crew of 48 was lost.

— The Navy Hymn

The second torpedo struck amidships, exploding gasoline into a 300-foot fireball with flames from stem to stern.

"The fire was everywhere," said Seaman Marcellus Wegs. "I ran through the flames, my buddy was right behind me."

Racing to his quarters, Wegs grabbed a life jacket.

"My buddy went inside," Wegs said. "The fire got him. He never had a chance. I never saw him or any of the others since."

As the Merchant Marine tanker S.S. Jacksonville began to split in two, 141,000 barrels of aviation fuel gushed out and ignited on the rough sea.

Wegs ran to the rail and dove in, with only one arm through his life jacket.

"If I had put it on I would have burned on top of the water," he said.

Civilian crew member Frank Hodges, coffee in hand, also was desperate to escape, but he couldn't find a life jacket.

"I ran out of the mess room," Hodges said, "and found our vessel enveloped in flames and smoke. I tried to reach the boat deck to get my life jacket, but flames and smoke soon engulfed me."

There was nothing to do but jump.

"I was in a dazed condition," he said, "but when I sank beneath the flames I revived somewhat."

Eight months earlier, on Dec. 23, 1943, the Jacksonville had slid down the launch ways at the Kaiser Swan Island Shipyard in Portland and set sail for the European theater of World War II.

Because the ship was named for the Jackson County town, Claire Hanley, secretary of the Jackson County Pioneer Society and daughter of one of the earliest settlers in the area, was selected to see the tanker off to battle.

On Aug. 30, 1944, German submarine U-482 was submerged at the entrance to the Irish Sea, 50 miles north of Ireland. Her captain watched as the Jacksonville, last in line, began to turn. Two torpedoes in the starboard side and the Jacksonville was done for.

Wegs came to the surface in a sea of fire, barely able to breathe in the flames and smoke.

"Preferring to drown rather than burn," he said, "I swam beneath the flames, underwater, until I could go no further."

When he came up, his body was burned, but he was free of the flames.

In the bodies that floated everywhere on the surface, he saw a man trying to swim back to the flaming ship. It was Hodges.

"I saw many of the crew floating on the water," Hodges said, "but I could not recognize their faces because they were all charred. ... I saw quite a few life jackets in their hands."

He took a life jacket and put it on. Delirious and with a broken leg, Hodges lost consciousness. Wegs held him as they waited 90 minutes in the cold water for rescue.

Floating in two pieces, the S.S. Jacksonville refused to die. With depth charges and guns, the convoy escorts finally managed to sink the rear section, but the forward section continued to float for another 15 hours.

"Total ship's complement, 78," reads the Navy's contemporary report. "No lifeboats or life rafts were launched. ... There are only two survivors."

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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