SS David H. Atwater

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Name: SS David H. Atwater
Owner: Atwacoal Transportation Co., Fall River, MA
Builder: Great Lakes Engineering Works, Ecorse, Michigan
Yard number: 505A
Launched: June 1919
Fate: Sunk by German submarine U-552, 2 April 1942, between Cape Charles and Cape Henlopen
General characteristics
Type: Steam cargo ship
Length: 253.33 ft (77.21 m)
Beam: 43.5 ft (13.3 m)
Depth: 25 ft (7.6 m)
Crew: 8 officers, 19 men

The SS David H. Atwater was a United States Merchant Marine coastal steamer which was sunk on 2 April 1942 by gunfire from German submarine U-552, commanded by the U-boat ace Erich Topp, during World War 2. The circumstances of the destruction of the vessel along with almost all of its crew fueled persistent rumours at the time of war crimes being perpetrated by the III Reich's U-boat fleets on the high seas against shipwrecked allied sailors.[1]


The ship began life as the Crabtree, constructed by the Great Lakes Engineering Works of Ecorse, Michigan for the United States Shipping Board,[2] and launched in June 1919. She was renamed W.J. Crosby in 1922, for the North Shore Transit Company of Port Huron, Michigan, and in 1929 was sold to the Canada Forwarding Company Ltd. of Port Arthur, Ontario. In 1935 she was renamed David H. Atwater for the Atwacoal Transportation Company of Fall River, Massachusetts, which became her home port.[3]


On the night of 2 April 1942, at the height of the U-boat offensive against US shipping known as the Second Happy Time, the David H. Atwater was en route from Norfolk, Virginia to Fall River, Massachusetts,[4] with a full load of 4,000 tons of coal. Her master, William K. Webster, had disregarded instructions and sailed from the Chesapeake in the afternoon, therefore could not make the run to the Delaware Capes before nightfall.[5]

Around 21:00, between Cape Charles and Cape Henlopen,[6] the ship was ambushed by U-552 , commanded by Erich Topp, which had followed her underwater. U-552 surfaced about 600 yd (550 m) from the freighter and opened fire with her 88mm deck gun and automatic weapons (possibly including the submarine's 20mm cannon) without warning, one of her first shells destroying the bridge and killing all of the officers. In all, 93 shots were fired from the deck gun, with 50 hits being recorded on the small freighter,[3] which rapidly began to sink. Many of Atwater's crewmen were hit as they tried to man the lifeboats.[7] When Captain Webster was shot, the crew abandoned attempts to launch the lifeboats and leapt into the sea.[8]


The first ship to arrive on the scene was the small Coast Guard Patrol Boat USS CG-218, which found a lifeboat holding three survivors and three bodies; the survivors reported that they had dived overboard and swam to the boat. Next on the scene was Coast Guard cutter USCGC Legare (WPC-144), which had heard the gunfire and arrived just fifteen minutes later. The Legare found a second lifeboat with a body aboard; the boat was discovered to have been riddled by gunfire, and lent strength to the widespread belief at the time that U-boats were deliberately murdering the survivors of ships they had sunk.[8] The Legare landed the three survivors and four bodies at Chincoteague Island Coastguard Station, then returned to sea to carry out further searching.[9] The destroyers USS Noa and USS Herbert were directed to the scene at 21:22 and arrived at 24:00,[9] but the U-552 had by then escaped the scene, going on to sink other vessels.[10]

Bodies, and lifeboats and liferafts from the Atwater recovered by the Coast Guard were landed at Ocean City, Maryland. It was commonly believed at the time that U-552 had deliberately machine-gunned the Atwater's crewmen in the boats and rafts.[11]

Liberty Ship William Cox[edit]

The Liberty Ship SS William Cox, launched on 30 December 1944, was named for one of David H. Atwater's firemen.[12][13]


  1. ^ Bridgland, Tony (2002). Waves of Hate: Naval Atrocities of the Second World War. Leo Cooper. p. 216. ISBN 0-85052-822-4.
  2. ^ "Great Lakes Engineering". Archived from the original on 16 February 2012. Retrieved 16 October 2008.
  3. ^ a b "Allied Ships hit by U-boats - David H. Atwater". Retrieved 16 October 2008.
  4. ^ Browning, Robert M.; Robert M. Browning Jr. (1996). U.S. Merchant Vessel War Casualties of World War II. Naval Institute Press. p. 133. ISBN 1-55750-087-8.
  5. ^ Morison, Samuel Eliot (2001). History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. University of Illinois Press. p. 133. ISBN 0-252-06963-3.
  6. ^ Roscoe, Theodore (1953). United States Destroyer Operations in World War II. United States Naval Institute. p. 73.
  7. ^ Herbert, Brian (2005). The Forgotten Heroes: The Heroic Story of the United States Merchant Marine. Tom Doherty Associates. p. 55. ISBN 0-7653-0707-3."The crew was not given any chance to abandon ship, and when they tried to do so, their lifeboats were riddled by machine gun fire."
  8. ^ a b Hickam, Homer H. (1996). Torpedo Junction: U-Boat War Off America's East Coast, 1942. Naval Institute Press. pp. 122–123. ISBN 1-55750-362-1.
  9. ^ a b "Eastern Sea Frontier - April 1942 - Appendix VIII". U-boat Archive. Archived from the original on 2012-08-23.
  10. ^ Cressman, Robert (2000). The Official Chronology of the U.S. Navy in World War II. Naval Institute Press. p. 85. ISBN 1-55750-149-1.
  11. ^ Davis, Arthur T. (2006). "Being a Teenager During World War II at Ocean City, Maryland". Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum.
  12. ^ Bunker, John (1972). Liberty Ships: The Ugly Ducklings of World War II. Naval Institute Press. p. 43.
  13. ^ "African-Americans in the U.S. Merchant Marine and U.S. Maritime Service". United States Merchant Marine. Retrieved 16 October 2008.


  • "Item Number: 003671". HCGL: Great Lakes Vessels DB. Bowling Green State University.(Search for vessel name Crabtree)
  • Moore, Arthur R. (1983). A Careless Word- a Needless Sinking: A History of the Staggering Losses Suffered by the U S Merchant Marine…During World War II. Kings Point NY: American Merchant Marine Museum. p. 70.

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