SS Irish Pine was a 5,621 GRT cargo ship which was built in 1919 for the United States Maritime Commission (USMC). She was chartered in 1941 by Irish Shipping Ltd. On 16 November 1942, Irish Pine was torpedoed and sunk by U-608.
The ship was built to Design 1013 as West Hematite by J. F. Duthie & Company, Seattle, Washington. Yard number 23, she was launched on 26 April 1919 and completed in June. The ship was 409 feet 7 inches (124.84 m) long, with a beam of 54 feet 2 inches (16.51 m) and a depth of 27 feet 2 inches (8.28 m). She was propelled by a triple expansion steam engine which had cylinders of 24.5 inches (62 cm), 41.5 inches (105 cm) and 72 inches (180 cm) bore and 48 inches (120 cm) stroke. It was built by the Llewellyn Iron Works, Los Angeles. She could make 10.5 knots (19.4 km/h).
Irish Pine was recorded in Lloyd’s Register as being 410 feet 4 inches (125.07 m) long, with a beam of 54 feet (16.46 m) and a depth of 30 feet 2 inches (9.19 m).
West Hematite was built for the USMC. She was initially chartered to Cosmo Shipping Co and was used on the Bordeaux – Rotterdam – Le Havre – New York route. On 16 February 1923, she ran aground in the Weser. The American cargo ship Schroon went to her assistance and also ran aground. By 1933, she had passed to the United States Shipping Board (USSB). She was later withdrawn from service and placed in the reserve fleet.
World War II
On 26 September 1941, West Hematite was chartered from the USSB by Irish Shipping Ltd and renamed Irish Pine. Irish Oak was also chartered from the USSB.
The log-book of the Irish Pine (Captain Matthew O’NeiI J), on passage from Halifax to Limerick records rescue in August. At 5.30 a.m. (Ship Time) on 13 August 1942 a lookout sighted a lifeboat, and one hour later its occupants, nineteen very weak and exhausted men, were taken on board and received medical treatment. They were survivors from the Richmond Castle. torpedoed and sunk nine days earlier by U-176 (Korvettenkapitan Reiner Dierksen), when sailing out of convoy and unescorted. Two of her crew of sixty-nine were killed in the explosion. Their ordeal is recorded in Union Castle Chronicle, the history of the Union Castle Line; Second Officer F. Pye described the scene: ‘The lifeboat lay with the sea and swell on the starboard bow, shipping water continuously, the crew bailing, almost all exhausted; men dying from exposure, others from drinking sea-water. An able seaman became demented and violent and had to be lashed down for his own safety. When all hope had almost been given up, SS Irish Pine was sighted. Soon friendly hands were helping them on board. Captain O’Neill recorded in his log-book: ‘All weak and exhausted, majority suffering from water blisters and swollen feet. Radio Officer James Gillespie very weak. One man unconscious, he died one hour after being rescued. Name C. J. Patterson, Ship’s Clerk, age fifty. At 3.35 p.m. Irish Pine Slopped for a few minutes to bury him. Four days later the ship reached the mouth of the Shannon; the survivors were landed at Kilrush and taken to Limerick Hospital. They did not forget their rescuer, and before returning to England presented a silver salver to Captain O’Neill.
The most tragic loss in their short history was suffered by Irish Shipping Ltd in the last months of 1942 when the IrIsh Pine was reported missing with all hands in the North Atlantic. Still commanded by Captain O’Ncill, she had signed on a crew of thirty-three on 26 October 1942 for a voyage to Tampa, Florida, where she was to load a cargo of phosphates for Dublin. However she was first to call at Boston for dry-docking and to have repairs effected to her fuel tanks. The passage westward was normal for a North Atlantic winter, short days, gales, snowstorms and bitterly cold weather.
On 14 November she was in radio contact with the Irish Fir, commanded by Captain Eric Jones, which was about to dock in Boston, and gave her time of arrival there as noon, 1 7 November. Several days later she had not arrived and there began a daily exchange of telegrams between Furness Whity, the Boston agents, and the Limerick Steamship Company, managers of the Irish Pine. Wartime secrecy forbade the use of the ship’s name and instead the master was referred to in the terse messages. For example on 24 November, Boston cabled, ‘Anxiously awaiting news of O’Neill’; and again five days later, ‘Jones already away day mentioned, nothing further O’Neill’; on 1 December the Limerick office cabled, ‘We are extremely anxious regarding O’Neill’. Hopes were raised on 3 December when an Allied ship arrived in Belfast with a lifeboat from the Irish Pine which she had picked up in the Atlantic, 400 miles west of Ireland, on 23 November. However a former second officer identified it as the lifeboat that was lost after the visit to U-620 on 14 October. Then with all hope gone the sad announcement was issued to the national papers on the evening of 4 December for publication next day: ‘Irish Shipping Ltd regrets to announce that the Irish Pine is now considerably overdue at her trans-Atlantic port of call and must be presumed lost. The Company particularly regrets that as yet there is no news of the crew. Next-of·kin have been notified and will be advised further as soon as any definite news is forthcoming. Captain John O’Neill, General Superintendent, although numbed with grief at the loss of his brother Matthew, master of the missing ship, traveled to Wexford. It is a measure of the stature of the man that at this time of his own distress he thought of others: he personally visited the homes of Carpenter Patrick Bent, Fisher’s Row; Engineer Patrick Clery, St John’s Road and Boatswain Stephen Smith at Wcllington Place to break the sad news. The last was particularly painful, as he had to tell the mother of three children, aged from two to seven, that she was now a widow.
It was not until 1977, when most seafarers considered that the loss of the Irish Pine would remain a mystery forever, that the author learnt from the Naval Historical Branch, Ministry of Defence, London, of her fate. The answer lay in the U-boat War Diaries captured at the end of the War and brought to England. They disclosed that Irish Pine was sunk at 0.14 a.m. Central European Time on 16 November 1942, by U-608 commanded by Kapitanleutnant Rolf Struckmeier, at 42°45′ north, 58°00′ west. (Zone time would place her sinking at 7.14 p.m. on Sunday 15 November 1942, almost seven bells in the evening watch.) The War Diary of U-60S on 16 November 1942 recorded the last eight hours of the Irish Pine, from Struckmeier’s first sighting of her at 3.10 p.m. Central European Time when she appeared out of a snow squall, making big ziglzags at a very slow speed and steering south-west. Weather was north-west wind, force 6, very rough sea, hail showers. Irish Pine was frequently lost in the rain squalls. Struckmeier maintained contact all day but made no reference to seeing neutrality markings. At 10.30 p.m. Central European Time he made his attack, working across the bows of Irish Pine – now almost stopped – to get to windward of her. It was now dark and he noticed she had two red lights on her fore topmast (the international signal for a ship ‘Not Under Command’, meaning she had some engine or steering malfunction). On deck he noticed four bright lights; on the boat-deck one red and one green light. He assumed she had engine trouble and was awaiting the assistance of a patrol vessel. Again there is no reference to neutrality markings. From a distance of 800 metres he fired one torpedo; it missed, passing under Irish Pine as she pitched and rolled in the heavy sea. At 0.14 a.m. he attacked again, this time with complete success: Range 800 metres, torpedo depth 2 metres, running time 80 seconds. Target stopped. The torpedo hit the after part of the ship and she began to settle immediately by the stern. A lifeboat with a very bright light is lowered. Ship becomes perpendicular and sinks stern first at 0017. Wind north-west force six, very rough sea, barometer 1,014 millibars, temperature 12° Centigrade. So ended the Irish Pine. sinking in just three minutes. No wreckage or bodies were ever found. U-608 did not survive the War, being sunk in the Bay of Biscay on 9 August 1944 by HMS Wren and a Liberator aircraft of 53 Squadron, Royal Air Force. However Struckmeier was not on board, having relinquished command on 12 January 1944; it is not known if he survived the War.