November 19th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY QUT discrimination case exposes Human Rights Commission failings

CANBERRA OBSERVED Triggs in the gun: loaded section 18C to get overhaul

EDITORIAL First Brexit, now Trump - it's the economy, stupid!

ANALYSIS What is possible to a Trump Whitehouse

MANUFACTURING Foreign ownership no sole reason for breakdown

ENVIRONMENT Billionaires bankroll U.S. anti-coal campaign

LIFE ISSUES Abortion trauma link to male suicides

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Commission's "Get Pell" campaign fails on facts

GENDER AND POLITICS Pronouns, ordinary folk, and the war over reality

NAVAL MILITARY HISTORY A WWII encounter that deserves remembrance

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS China builds Great Wall in the South China Sea

MUSIC Dylan's Nobel prize causes song and dance

CINEMA Humanity within inhumanity: Hacksaw Ridge

BOOK REVIEW Bill is $500 billion and counting

BOOK REVIEW Arguments and facts: the man who remade Russia

POETRY Sunset at the Perth War Cemetery

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encounter that deserves remembrance

by Hal G.P. Colebatch

News Weekly, November 19, 2016

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

The Stephen Hopkins was a 10,000-ton Liberty Ship built during World War II for the United States Navy to carry cargo. It was armed with a single four-inch (104-millimetre) gun firing 32-pound shells, mounted aft, 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. It had a merchant crew of about 40.

The Stephen Hopkins

Commanded by Captain Paul Buck, the Stephen Hopkins made its first voyage in September, 1942.

The Stier was a German auxiliary cruiser, a merchant ship converted for commerce raiding. It was armed with six 150-millimetre guns, firing shells of about 100 pounds, two torpedo tubes and anti-aircraft weapons. Thus its main guns fired about 20 times the weight of the Stephen Hopkins gun. A similarly armed raider, the Kormoran, had sunk HMAS Sydney, a battle-hardened cruiser, with all hands in a point-blank gun-duel a few months before.

On September 27, 1942, the Stier was taking on supplies from the German support-ship Tannenfels in the South Atlantic when she spotted the Stephen Hopkins. Because of rainsqualls 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 four-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 machinegun on the three ships was also firing, the Stier and the Tannenfels sweeping the Stephen Hopkins’ 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 four-inch gun deserted and its crews dead and dismembered on the deck around it. O’Hara loaded and fired all five shells left in the ready box. 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 it is doubtful that the Captain of the Stier was rejoicing overmuch. Up to 35 of the Stephen Hopkins shells had hit. According to survivors’ accounts all five shells O’Hara fired had been hits. However many hits there were, they were enough. The Stier’s rudder was smashed, its engine-room was ablaze, and the fuel pipes to the furnaces were wrecked, the spilt oil feeding the fires.

The Stephen Hopkins’ 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 survivors of the Steir’s crew as it sank and headed for home – the Steven Hopkins had cost the German navy not only a raider but also, and perhaps almost equally importantly, a supply ship – almost the only U.S. ship, naval or merchant, to sink a German surface warship in World War II (another raider was sunk by a submarine later). The Stier’s captain reported that he had fought a “heavily armed cruiser”.

For the Stephen Hopkins’ 19 survivors, another ordeal was beginning. The Tannenfels apparently searched for them but missed them in the rainsqualls. 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 stories of wartime valour. 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 US Merchant Marine Academy. Captain Buck, who went down with the ship, received a 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.

Another US Navy ship, reflecting the Zeitgeist of the Obama Administration, has just been named after a murdered homosexual child molester, Harvey Milk, apparently on grounds which include the fact that he was “wearing a navy belt buckle” when murdered.

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’ gun, or one to represent them, would be eligible for, and deserving of, a posthumous Medal of Honour, even if the merchant seaman were not. However, as far as I can discover, none was awarded here.

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