A Heroic Captain None Remember

by Captain George Duffy

October 27, 1998, Daily News, Newburyport, Massachusetts

Fifty-six years ago this month, a ship's lifeboat carrying 15 survivors of a sunken American freighter came ashore on the jungle-clad coast of Brazil. It had been a voyage of 31 days under sail, during which four men died and were buried in the ocean. With the boat and her bearded, sun-blackened sailors came a World War II story unparalleled in the history of men at sea.

As I was on the fringes of this tale, I have spent considerable time researching the details and piecing together what happened. It began with the sinking of my ship, the American Leader, by the German auxiliary cruiser Michel on Sept. 10, 1942. This occurred way down in the South Atlantic in the latitude of Capetown. Eleven of our crew were killed, and 47 taken prisoner. In August in Colombo, we read newspaper accounts of a German "raider" operating in the South Atlantic, and in Capetown, our last port of call, the subject was casually discussed with the Royal Navy authorities. Little did we or they know that there were two such German warships on the loose.

The second German warship was named Stier. She had been at sea considerably fewer days than the Michel and with far less success. So the admirals in Berlin, thinking that the Stier's commander might learn a few tricks from the vastly more experienced Michel skipper, ordained that the two ships should operate together. It wasn't a "close" togetherness, but rather a series of meetings at pre-arranged positions punctuating periods of searching. In fact, one of these took place while we were aboard the Michel, and the Stier's captain was taken down to our quarters to casually inspect us.

On Sunday, Sept. 27, 1942, the Stier and one of two German supply ships also in the area were drifting about 125 miles from the Michel. Rain was falling; visibility was two miles or less. Suddenly, a large ship materialized out of the gloom. The Stier's crew was ordered to battle stations and the intruder was signalled to stop. Within minutes, the Stier opened fire with the three or four of its six 15cm (5.9-inch) guns that could be trained on the target ship, which had disregarded the stop order and turned away, soon replying with salvoes from its own 4 inch gun. In an action lasting barely 20 minutes both adversaries scored victories: they sank each other!

An American Liberty ship, the Stephen Hopkins, on its very first voyage, had done the unbelievable. A civilian crew of 40 and 15 teenage U.S. Navy gunners had taken on a professional, fully manned German warship, and sent it to the bottom. It was not without cost - 42 Americans died.

The Stier lost three men, with everyone else being rescued by the supply ship which immediately departed the scene. Naturally, we prisoners aboard the Michel knew nothing of this event, but I have since learned that the Stier managed to transmit a brief radio message to the Michel. Her commander, fearing a trap, ran off in the opposite direction.

In early 1943, Boston newspapers began publishing Merchant Marine casualty lists. One such list entitled "Missing In Action" carried the name "Buck, Paul, Master. Merrimacport." Directly below that was "Duffy, George W., Third Officer. Newburyport." Paul Buck was the captain of the Stephen Hopkins and never made it to the lifeboat.

The Stephen Hopkins/Stier saga is well known to German naval veterans of World War II. Therefore, when former Kapitanleutnant Konrad Hoppe of the Michel was here in early September, we made a pilgrimage of sorts to Merrimacport where he took a photograph of the house that I believe was Captain Buck's. We also visited Patricia True, Merrimac's town clerk, who knew of Captain Buck because a writer had called at the Town Hall some years ago seeking information on him. On the other hand, when I showed my copy of the 1943 casualty list to the president of the bank in the square, I received a negative shrug of the shoulders. How many others in Merrimac would offer the same reply?

Paul Buck was honored in 1944 with the posthumous award of the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal, he being one of only 141 such recipients. In 1985, the American Ship Building Company of Tampa, Fla., delivered to the Military Sea Lift Command a 30,000-ton tanker named Paul Buck.

Before it is too late, I wonder if the town of Merrimac could formally memorialize this man who, to quote from his medal citation, "unselfishly and heroically remained on the bridge and went down with his battered ship."

A similar version of this story appeared in The Daily News of Newburyport, Massachusetts

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