S.S. Henry Bergh

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S.S. Henry Bergh aground at the Farallon Islands, 1944
S.S. Henry Bergh aground at the Farallon Islands, 1944

S.S. Henry Bergh (#) (1943-1944), steel-hulled American transport cargo Liberty ship owned by the War Shipping Administration, operated by the Norton Lilly Company and chartered to the U.S. Navy for use as a transport. The Henry Bergh was built at the Kaiser shipyards at Richmond, California in June of 1943 and became one of a only thirty-three liberty ships converted to carry troops. Her capacity was listed at 564 passengers.

On May 31, 1944 under the command of Captain Joseph C. Chambers, the S.S. Henry Bergh was bound to San Francisco from the South Pacific and Pearl Harbor, overloaded with 1,300 sailors returning from the war, as well as a crew of nearly 100. Navigating a wrong course, she was heading straight for South Farallon Island at 11 knots. A faint whistle was heard twice and almost immediately land was spied dead ahead. She ran hard aground on jagged rocks, 200 yards offshore. Passengers were shuttled ashore 25 at a time in each of the vessel's eight lifeboats.

Note: the whistle was 'faint' mainly because the soldiers were very noisy and celebrating their return, perhaps the reason why the rocks are called 'Drunk Uncle Islets'.

Hours spent in lifeboat drills paid immense dividends. In the first three hours after grounding nearly 600 troops safely made it to shore - twenty-five at a time in eight lifeboats and by a breeches buoy set up between the ship and the cliffs of the island. Many arrived on shore after swimming through the frigid water. Rescue ships from San Francisco began arriving later in the morning and by early afternoon the entire company of passengers and crew had been rescued. Despite freezing cold water, treacherous surf and currents every one of the 1400 aboard was saved.

The ship broke into three pieces and sank within a few days. The captain was found to have made errors in plotting the course, failing to take soundings and allowing the passengers to be so loud that they prevented the lookouts from hearing the fog signals. Despite his achievement at seeing to the disciplined evacuation of the ship he was demoted to the rank of first mate.

Last Voyage of the Henry Bergh in Ships and Sea, Summer 1957, p. 24

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View from Maintop over Maintop Island north shore, with the Drunk Uncle Islets and the wreck of the SS Henry Bergh, South Farallones