SS fort Camosun & Japanese submarine I-25

The late ex Manchester pilot, John Law whose obituary appears here was on board the SS Fort Camosun when it was torpedoed of the NW Coast USA by the Japanese submarine I-25. The following is his first hand account of the action.

“We got off in Vancouver then made the short journey across the straits to Victoria, where the SS Fort Camosun was being built. We stayed in a hotel until we joined the ship on a day-to-day basis before taking up permanent residence aboard.  In June 1942, we loaded a full cargo of timber, stacked up on deck as well as in the holds and, after bunkering in New West Minster, started on the long haul home. It had been a tiring period preparing the ship for sea, so I turned in early to be awakened two hours later by a crunching noise and being rolled out of my bunk when the ship took a 20/30 degree list.  Our ship had been torpedoed just eleven hours out on her maiden voyage.
I quickly threw my bridge coat over my pyjamas, donned a pair of shoes and made my way to my lifeboat station. It was 11pm and very dark because all the lights had gone out. When I arrived at my mustering point I was stunned to see what I can only describe as a heap of firewood where my lifeboat should have been. The torpedo had struck in number two hold, on the port side and what I was looking at was the remains of No. 1 lifeboat, which had been blown clear over the ship to land on my lifeboat. That was the cause of the crunching noise I had heard, because it was directly above my cabin.
Initially, I experienced a weird sensation that the crew had abandoned ship, leaving me alone, but gradually the noise of people filtered through, so I made my way to the starboard boat, situated on the bridge structure. The Captain, Chief Engineer and other crew members had assembled there and the decision to abandon ship had already been made because of the damage sustained. The torpedo had hit on the port side, shifted 50,000 cubic feet of timber which caused a split in the hull on the opposite side and also lifted the decks.
The hole made by the strike was some fifty feet diameter and there was the very real danger of the vessel breaking in half.

We all took up positions in the lifeboat and, after being joined by the remaining boat, pulled away into the dark night. The sea was quite calm and although excited, I didn’t feel we were in any real danger.

J law lifeboat jpg


Then I saw a flash followed by a thud and a shower of sparks from the ship.  The submarine had surfaced and was attempting to sink our ship by firing shells from its deck gun. I saw another flash, followed by a ripping noise through the air, which was the missile passing close. The submarine was obviously trying to find us and I must admit that I was terrified. The Japanese weren’t noted for their leniency to prisoners – if they took them! The shelling stopped but then the sinister noise of his exhaust could be heard as he cruised around, trying to locate us.

It was truly terrifying and I even toyed with the idea of slipping over the side and hanging on to the boat. The reality is that I would not have lasted long because the water is bitterly cold, the result of an Arctic current sweeping south. So we just sat quiet and prayed.  Eventually, the exhaust note faded and we breathed a sigh of relief. We presumed the submarine had abandoned the search, but a few minutes later it returned.  He had gone up the other side of the ship which had blanketed the sound but was now back sweeping the area for survivors. Once again the noise of his engine faded away and after a short time it was agreed that he had left the scene, so we settled down for the night.

When the two lifeboats had joined up, some observant soul pointed out that the two navy gunners were missing. The Captain asked for two volunteers to go back board to investigate. I instantly put up my hand, and the 3rd officer, Mr Coles, said he would accompany me.

We pulled alongside the stricken ship, climbed aboard and began the search. Mr Coles went to the bridge area whilst I went aft to their cabin. To my amazement I found them both asleep. I woke them and explained what had occurred and that we had abandoned ship but I was told, in fluent Navy language, to “go away”. They had slept through the incident because their cabin was directly opposite the steering flat where the steering engine which pulled the rudder over was located. They had become accustomed to the noise and vibration. Once I had convinced them, it was back to the boat and away into the night. There was no point in rowing around so we just drifted. I tried to sleep but the cold and cramped conditions made it near impossible. The next morning we sent out a distress call on a portable radio operated by a hand driven generator.

A few hours later an American Flying Fortress located us, wagged its wings to indicate he had spotted us then dropped a marker flare. We now knew it was only a matter of time before rescue came and sure enough, in the late afternoon, a Canadian Corvette came over the horizon.

J law fortress jpg

During the night, the Captain had valiantly given his uniform jacket to a crew member called McCarthy, a big Liverpool/Irish stoker. When the torpedo struck, he had dashed up from the engine room clad only in a singlet and jeans. Having been torpedoed before he knew the score. After circling the ship and dropping depth charges, the Corvette came to pick us up and who should be first to board her but our friend McCarthy. The officer on duty saluted him and welcomed “the Captain”  aboard and McCarthy played it up to the hilt returning the officer’s salute whilst the Captain sat in the lifeboat trying to attract the attention of the Navy Officer. However, McCarthy backed off when the Officer said he would take him up to the bridge to meet the Commander.

The ship had to be prepared for towing so a volunteer skeleton crew, including myself were put aboard to set up the towing ropes. Once completed we patched up the hole in the hull using a mattress and some timber from the cargo.  No more could be accomplished so we re-boarded the Corvette which took us back to Victoria from whence we had commenced the voyage. The good people of Victoria made a great fuss over us. We were invited to take our pick of clothes from the shops and we were treated to dinner at the Mayor’s residence and even got to sign the visitor’s book in the town hall.

FORT CAMOSUN under tow

The ship was towed into dry dock in Esquimo where a huge wooden patch was put over the hole made by the torpedo. I was included in the skeleton crew assigned to take her to Seattle for permanent repairs in the naval dockyard there.

Fort Camosun torpedo damage

The Torpedo damage. Picture. Veterans Affairs Canada: www.acc-vac.gc.ca/remembers/sub.cfm?source=history/secondwar/atlantic/photohis#a03

The repair took almost two months, during which time we lived in a hotel On completion we took her back to Victoria where, once again, a full cargo of timber was loaded. We then set off for home once more via Guantanamo and New York. The passage was made with only two incidents; an attack on the convoy by a submarine in the Atlantic and a strange happening when we were passing through the North Channel, after the convoy had dispersed.  A German aircraft flew over, dropped one bomb which landed well clear of the ship and simply flew off; probably to a base in occupied Norway”.

The following information is from the history link website. Read the full entry here

SS Fort Camosun:

On June 20, 1942, The new coal-burning freighter SS Fort Camosun was on her maiden voyage from Victoria to England with zinc, lead, plywood, and other raw materials.  Just after midnight, in a position approximately 70 miles SW of Cape Flattery, the Japanese submarine I-25, under the command of Commander Meiji Tagami, launched a torpedo which severely damaged the hull after which the submarine surfaced and fired on the vessel with her deck gun causing further damage. The Officers and crew abandoned ship and were rescued later that day by the RCN corvettes Edmunston and Quesnel. Although the 1-25 had reported the Fort Camosun as sunk she actually remained afloat but semi submerged and disabled. The Edmunston, along with three US tugs took her in tow to Neah Bay for temporary repairs after which she was fully repaired at Seattle and returned to serve throughout the rest of the war, surviving another torpedo attack in the gulf of Aden.

The following information is edited from the Wikipedia entry for the I-25. To read the full wikipedia entry click here

Submarine I-25

The submarine I-25 is of interest because it carried a two-seater Yokosuka E14Y reconnaissance floatplane, known to the Allies as “Glen”. Made in specialist kit form it was stowed in the front of the conning tower and was assembled and disassembled by the crew.

submarine I-25

Sub I-25

www.subart.net/

On the same voyage as the attack on the SS Fort Camosun, the I-25′s “Glen” shelled a small coastal army installation. Damage was minimal and the only item of significance destroyed was a baseball backstop. However, on 9th September, 1942, the crew again deployed the Glen, which dropped incendiary bombs over the Oregon forest. This was the only time that the United States mainland was bombed from the air and the aim of the raid was to trigger wildfires across the coast. However, light winds, wet weather conditions and two quick acting Fire Lookouts kept the fires under control, indeed, had the winds been sufficiently brisk to stoke widespread forest fires, the lightweight Glen would have been unable to fly.

I-25 was subsequently sunk by US destroyer USS Paterson in 1943

We all took up positions in the lifeboat and, after being joined by the remaining boat, pulled away into the dark night. The sea was quite calm and although excited, I didn’t feel we were in any real danger.We got off in Vancouver then made the short journey across the straits to Victoria, where the SS Fort Camosun was being built. We stayed in a hotel until we joined the ship on a day-to-day basis before taking up permanent residence aboard.  In June 1942, we loaded a full cargo of timber, stacked up on deck as well as in the holds and, after bunkering in New West Minster, started on the long haul home. It had been a tiring period preparing the ship for sea, so I turned in early to be awakened two hours later by a crunching noise and being rolled out of my bunk when the ship took a 20/30 degree list.  Our ship had been torpedoed just eleven hours out on her maiden voyage.
I quickly threw my bridge coat over my pyjamas, donned a pair of shoes and made my way to my lifeboat station. It was 11pm and very dark because all the lights had gone out. When I arrived at my mustering point I was stunned to see what I can only describe as a heap of firewood where my lifeboat should have been. The torpedo had struck in number two hold, on the port side and what I was looking at was the remains of No. 1 lifeboat, which had been blown clear over the ship to land on my lifeboat. That was the cause of the crunching noise I had heard, because it was directly above my cabin.
Initially, I experienced a weird sensation that the crew had abandoned ship, leaving me alone, but gradually the noise of people filtered through, so I made my way to the starboard boat, situated on the bridge structure. The Captain, Chief Engineer and other crew members had assembled there and the decision to abandon ship had already been made because of the damage sustained. The torpedo had hit on the port side, shifted 50,000 cubic feet of timber which caused a split in the hull on the opposite side and also lifted the decks.
The hole made by the strike was some fifty feet diameter and there was the very real danger of the vessel breaking in half.
We all took up positions in the lifeboat and, after being joined by the remaining boat, pulled away into the dark night. The sea was quite calm and although excited, I didn’t feel we were in any real danger.We got off in Vancouver then made the short journey across the straits to Victoria, where the SS Fort Camosun was being built. We stayed in a hotel until we joined the ship on a day-to-day basis before taking up permanent residence aboard.  In June 1942, we loaded a full cargo of timber, stacked up on deck as well as in the holds and, after bunkering in New West Minster, started on the long haul home. It had been a tiring period preparing the ship for sea, so I turned in early to be awakened two hours later by a crunching noise and being rolled out of my bunk when the ship took a 20/30 degree list.  Our ship had been torpedoed just eleven hours out on her maiden voyage.
I quickly threw my bridge coat over my pyjamas, donned a pair of shoes and made my way to my lifeboat station. It was 11pm and very dark because all the lights had gone out. When I arrived at my mustering point I was stunned to see what I can only describe as a heap of firewood where my lifeboat should have been. The torpedo had struck in number two hold, on the port side and what I was looking at was the remains of No. 1 lifeboat, which had been blown clear over the ship to land on my lifeboat. That was the cause of the crunching noise I had heard, because it was directly above my cabin.
Initially, I experienced a weird sensation that the crew had abandoned ship, leaving me alone, but gradually the noise of people filtered through, so I made my way to the starboard boat, situated on the bridge structure. The Captain, Chief Engineer and other crew members had assembled there and the decision to abandon ship had already been made because of the damage sustained. The torpedo had hit on the port side, shifted 50,000 cubic feet of timber which caused a split in the hull on the opposite side and also lifted the decks.
The hole made by the strike was some fifty feet diameter and there was the very real danger of the vessel breaking in half.
We all took up positions in the lifeboat and, after being joined by the remaining boat, pulled away into the dark night. The sea was quite calm and although excited, I didn’t feel we were in any real dange

3 Responses to “SS fort Camosun & Japanese submarine I-25”

February 18th, 2010 at 13:34

Hi,

Thanks for this very informative and interesting account of the SS Fort Camosun.

My father, William John Morris (Bill) was aboard this ship on it’s maiden voyage, and never really talked about his experience other than joking, which he liked to do a lot, always looking on the lighter side of life.

I’ve been searching for information for many years now about the vessel and the crew that my dad served with, and so far this is the most detail I’ve uncovered. For anyone interested, I do know that my father was, at some time, a Lamptrimmer, I believe a member of the Stokers Messdeck (I believe known between them, as the bearpit!?).

I’d be grateful if anyone might have any further information that they may care to pass on to me, and my brother. Dad passed away in June 1979, and the only other seafaring friend of his I remember was a gentleman that I called ‘Uncle Harold’, who may have been Harbourmaster at Birkenhead Docks at some time? I’m the youngest of his children, my brother now being 69, and 15 years my senior.

Thanks again, and regards..

 
February 18th, 2010 at 13:45

Further to my comment, I also wanted to say a thanks to Mr John Law’s relatives, and it’s a shame that I never had the chance to meet him before his passing. My father lived in Moreton, Wallasey after retiring from the sea, not that far away from John, and I have lived in Chorley for over 30 years..

Thanks again, and regards..

 


Christine Coles
January 11th, 2014 at 05:35

Hi,

My father was the 3rd Officer James McKenzie Coles mentioned in the article. He unfortunately passed away in 1988, but he told me the story of this maiden voyage but he didn’t tell me the name of the ship. He said the hole in the side was the size of a double-decker bus. I recently found this article on the internet.

Thanks for this information.

 

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