SS Robin Moor
|Operator:||Seas Shipping Co Inc, New York|
|Builder:||American International Shipbuilding Corp., Hog Island|
|Fate:||scuttled on 21 May 1941|
SS Robin Moor was a Hog Islander steamship that sailed under the American flag from 1919 until being sunk by German submarine U-69 on 21 May 1941, before the United States had entered World War II, after allowing the passengers and crew to disembark. This sinking of a neutral nation's ship in an area considered until then to be relatively safe from U-boats, and the plight of her crew and passengers, caused a political incident in the United States.
Construction, prior names and owners
The ship was completed in 1919 by the emergency shipbuilding works of American International Shipbuilding Corp. at Hog Island, just outside Philadelphia. She was a "Hog Islander," the name for the class of ugly but sturdy merchant vessels built at the works during that period. She was laid down as Shetucket, and completed as Nobles. In 1928 she was renamed Exmoor for American Export Lines Inc, of New York. In 1940 she was sold to Seas Shipping Co Inc., of New York, and renamed Robin Moor.
In May 1941 Robin Moor was carrying nine officers, 29 crewmen, seven or eight passengers, and a commercial cargo from New York to Mozambique via South Africa, without a protective convoy. On 21 May, the ship was stopped by German submarine U-69 in the tropical Atlantic 750 miles west of the British-controlled port of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Although Robin Moor was flying the flag of a neutral country, her mate was told by the U-boat crew that they had decided to "let us have it." After a brief period for the ship's crew and passengers to board her four lifeboats, the U-boat fired a torpedo at the rudder and then shelled the vacated ship at the bridge. Once the ship was scuttled beneath the waves, the submarine's crew pulled up to Captain W.E. Myers' lifeboat, left him with four tins of ersatz bread and two tins of butter, and explained that the ship had been sunk by her own crew because she was carrying supplies to Germany's enemy.
When Robin Moor was stopped, the Germans had forbidden the ship's crew to touch their wireless, but after the sinking U-69's captain Jost Metzler reportedly promised the ship's crew to radio their position. Yet nearly two weeks passed before any of her four lifeboats of survivors were discovered. As President Roosevelt would later state in a message to Congress regarding the sinking, the survivors were "accidentally discovered and rescued by friendly vessels." The lifeboat containing the captain and 10 others was rescued on 8 June after 18 days, and taken to Brazil. The occupants of that boat presumed that the remaining crew and passengers were lost, but they later learned that the three lifeboats containing the others had been discovered by chance on 13 June, two days after the sinking, and taken to South Africa. Remarkably, all of the crew and passengers were rescued. One rescued crew member, however, later jumped overboard apparently due to the lingering effects of the ordeal, and drowned.
The political, diplomatic and legal aftermath
While President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded to the episode with strong words, the strength of his administration's actions was disputed. His message to Congress described Germany's decision to sink the ship as "a disclosure of policy as well as an example of method." His message concluded:
|“||In brief, we must take the sinking of the Robin Moor as a warning to the United States not to resist the Nazi movement of world conquest. It is a warning that the United States may use the high seas of the world only with Nazi consent. Were we to yield on this we would inevitably submit to world domination at the hands of the present leaders of the German Reich. We are not yielding and we do not propose to yield.||”|
—Franklin D. Roosevelt
The State Department then required Germany and Italy to close all of their consulates in the United States except for their embassies, prompting Germany to issue the same directive to the United States in return. The US also demanded damages and reparations from Germany, without success. In Congress, isolationist Senator Burton K. Wheeler claimed that 70 percent of the ship's cargo constituted the kind of materials meeting the German and British standards for contraband, defended the legality of Germany's right to destroy her, and characterised Roosevelt's message as an effort to bring the United States into the war. Others, such as Senator Claude Pepper, urged their colleagues to require the arming of merchant vessels.
In October 1941, federal prosecutors in the espionage case against a group of 33 defendants known as the "Duquesne Spy Ring" adduced testimony that Leo Waalen, one of the 14 accused men who had pled not guilty, had submitted the sailing date of Robin Moor for radio transmission to Germany, five days before the ship began her final voyage. Waalen and the others were found guilty on 13 December 1941.
John J. Banigan, the Third Officer of Robin Moor, went on to write How to Abandon Ship (ISBN 0870333887), which details his experience and serves as a survival guide for sailors serving in a wartime environment.
- "Robin Moor," at Uboat.net
- Stewart Atkins, Robin Moor Survivor, on Visit in County, tells a Vivid Story of Incident Gastonia (N.C.) Daily Gazette, 1941-08-01, a 1, available at NewspaperArchive.com
- President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Message to the Congress on the Sinking of the Robin Moor' 20 June 1941.
- United Press, Reparations held unlikely, Oakland Tribune, 1941-06-22, at 1, available at NewspaperArchive.com.
- United Press, Roosevelt Supporters Urge Arming of US Merchant Vessels, Oakland Tribune, 1941-06-22 at 4.
- Associated Press, Alleged Spy Accused of Tip on Robin Moor, Salamanca Republican Press, 1941-10-18, at 10, available at NewspaperArchive.com.