In Memoriam

Stephen Hopkins vs. the Germans

A forgotten story that America's friends -- and enemies -- would do well to remember.

By 6.10.08

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This is the story of a forgotten ship with a prosaic name. But when I came across it accidentally in the course of some other research I thought it a story that it would be good for America to be reminded of. And, possibly, good for America's enemies to be reminded of, too.

The Stephen Hopkins was a Liberty Ship built during the Second World War to carry cargo, mainly across the Atlantic. It was armed with a single 4-inch gun, firing shells weighting about 32 pounds, mounted aft and meant to discourage pursuing submarines, a smaller gun forward, and some machine-guns.

These were meant to be manned by an "armed guard" of 15 men, and it had a merchant crew of about 40. Commanded by Captain Paul Buck, the Stephen Hopkins made its first voyage in September 1942.

The Stier was a German auxiliary cruiser, converted for commerce-raiding. It was armed with six 150-mm guns, firing shells of about 100 lbs., two torpedo-tubes and heavy and light anti-aircraft weapons. Thus its main guns fired shells about 20 times the weight of the Stephen Hopkins's gun, with a shattering effect a multiple of that.

It had modern gun-directors and fire-control. A similarly-armed raider had sunk a battle-hardened cruiser with all hands in a point-blank gun duel a few months before. It carried a crew of 324.

ON SEPTEMBER 27, 1942, the Stier was taking on supplies from the German armed support-ship Tannenfels in the South Atlantic when she spotted the Stephen Hopkins. Because of rain-squalls and poor visibility, the ships were very close together before they sighted one another.

Instead of surrendering to its overwhelmingly more powerful enemy when the first German shells arrived, the Stephen Hopkins turned its stern to the Stier to bring its 4-inch gun to bear and started shooting back.

The smaller forward gun, which would not bear on the Steir, was firing at the Tannenfels. With the distance down to about 1,000 yards, every machine-gun on the three ships was also firing, the Stier and the Tannenfels sweeping the Stephen Hopkins's decks and the exposed gun-positions.

The Stier concentrated its fire on the freighter's stern gun. As one gun-crew was mown down or blown to pieces, another took its place, the merchant seamen replacing the "armed guard" men as they died, until there was no one left, and the gun fell silent.

Cadet Edwin O'Hara saw the 4-inch gun deserted and its crews dead and dismembered on the deck around it. O'Hara loaded and fired all 5 shells left in the ready box. A few moments later he too was killed by a shell-burst.

With all the ammunition gone, and the Stephen Hopkins on fire from end to end, the last 19 men somehow got away in the only surviving lifeboat.

FINALLY THE STIER stopped firing. The Stephen Hopkins was a burning, sinking wreck -- but so was the Stier. Estimates of how many of the Stephen Hopkins's shells hit vary between 15 and 35.

According to some survivors' accounts, all the last five shells O'Hara fired hit. However many hits there were, they were enough. The Stier's rudder was smashed, its engine-room was ablaze, and the fuel-oil pipes to the furnaces were wrecked, the spilt oil feeding the fires. Its store of torpedoes was about to explode.

The Stephen Hopkins's scratch and amateur gun-crews, working the gun in fire and flying steel that turned men into instant anatomist's diagrams, without even a rudimentary gun-shield, and with no central fire-control or direction, had fired with astonishing coolness and accuracy, hitting the raider again and again at the waterline.

The burning Stier was dead in the water. It was flooding and its pumps were gone.

The Tannenfels, also badly damaged, took off the Stier's crew as it sank and headed for home. The Stephen Hopkins had cost the German navy not only a raider but also, and perhaps almost equally importantly, a supply-ship.

As far as I can discover, the Stephen Hopkins was the only U.S. ship, naval or merchant, to sink a German surface warship in World War II. The Stier's captain reported that he had fought a "heavily armed cruiser."

FOR THE STEPHEN HOPKINS's 19 survivors, another ordeal was just beginning. The Tannenfels apparently searched for them but missed them in the rain-squalls. With little food and water in an open lifeboat, they sailed 2,200 miles to Brazil. It took 31 days. Fifteen of them survived the voyage.

Somehow, the story of the Stephen Hopkins was largely lost among the many other stories of wartime heroism.

Several other Liberty Ships were named after members of the crew, and there was a Stephen Hopkins II, but they are all broken up and forgotten now. The survivors received some awards, and a painting of Cadet O'Hara firing the gun to the end is on display at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

Captain Buck, who went down with the ship, received a posthumous Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal, one of 141 such recipients. In 1985 the Military Sea Lift Command took delivery of a 30,000-ton tanker named Paul Buck. But it does not seem enough.

I am not an expert on U.S. decorations, but it seems to me that at least the Naval personnel who originally manned the Stephen Hopkins's guns, or one to represent them, would be eligible for, and deserving of, a Medal of Honor, even if the merchant seaman were not eligible. (Hasn't the Medal of Honor has been awarded to civilians in some circumstances?)

However, as far as I can discover, none was awarded here. Is it too late for this? And if a Medal of Honor is out of the question, surely, at least, the story is worth re-telling? Could not a great film be made celebrating such valor?

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About the Author
Hal G.P. Colebatch's "Immram," Counterstrike, is being published by Australian publisher Imaginites.