When wars are won, sentimentalists like to credit brave troops, skillful generals or even moral superiority. Traditionally, though, technology has been our edge.
In 1942, part of that edge was the Texaco tanker S.S. Ohio, built in Delaware County. Commandeered by the British, the Ohio survived a gauntlet of Axis torpedoes and bombs to deliver 11,500 tons of kerosene and fuel oil to British-held Malta in the Mediterranean. And because the Ohio got through, British forces on Malta continued to destroy convoys supplying German Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrikakorps in its sweep across North Africa in a quest for Middle East oil.
Short of supplies, Rommel’s forces were defeated in Egypt. They were eventually compelled to surrender.
“Before Alamein, we never had a victory,” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote following the war. “After Alamein, we never had a defeat.”
And all because of the little oil tanker historian Sam Moses called the “lynchpin of the campaign.”
Built by Sun Shipbuilding and launched at Chester in April 1940, the Ohio was named in deference to Florence Rogers, mother of W.S.S. Rogers, the president of Texaco. At her son’s request, Mrs. Rogers came east from her home in Columbus, Ohio, to smash a bottle of champagne on its bow.
Designed to move crude oil between the Texas oil fields and East Coast refineries, the Ohio—with a carrying capacity of 14,150 tons—was the largest tanker ever built at the time. Tiny compared to modern versions, the Ohio nevertheless pioneered features that are now standard.
The ship was almost entirely welded —which, back then, was a new technique. Only the Ohio’s side shell, framing and part of its superstructure were riveted. There were nine oil tanks down the middle and above the keel, plus 24 smaller ones on each side. All were served by a sophisticated pumping system.
Multiple tanks allowed the ship to carry a mixed cargo. More important, the girders, bulkheads and beefed-up framing required to separate and mount the tanks added strength. “She was built like a battleship,” said Moses.
Inside, the S.S. Ohio was downright luxurious. Officers’ cabins were paneled in mahogany, and all seamen had private cabins. There was a smoking room on the upper deck, separate messes for officers and seamen, and full pantries and large coolers. Meals included everything from grapefruit to ice cream.
The Ohio was powered by the latest Westinghouse steam turbines, which churned out 9,000 horsepower, spinning a bronze propeller 20 feet across. During sea trials between Cape May and Cape Henlopen, the ship hit a top speed of 19.23 knots (about 22 mph) in a measured mile.
“To the steel-cutters, shipwrights, welders, riveters and myriad craftsmen at Sun Shipbuilding, she was a ‘classy’ ship,” wrote historian Michael Pearson. “She was also a beautiful ship, from the elegant sweep of her schooner bow, along the graceful lines of her hull to the cruiser stern.”
Delivered to Texaco in June 1940, the S.S. Ohio headed to Port Arthur, Texas, for its first commercial cargo. It performed flawlessly.
Also in June, Britain evacuated its defeated army from Dunkirk, and France surrendered to the onrushing Germans. In the Mediterranean, it meant that the French fleet, based in Algeria, was lost, and might even become hostile.
Suddenly, Malta was more isolated. Two efforts to resupply the island—one from Gibraltar and one from Egypt—failed to deliver any additional fuel. Rather than serving as a refueling base for the subs and surface ships attacking Rommel’s supply lines, the island and its residents were staring at the end of their ability to generate electricity and cook food.
Another relief mission was planned for August, but the British merchant fleet had no large tankers fast enough to keep up with the rest of the 16-knot convoy. Only the Ohio—just then bound from Houston for the United Kingdom with a load of gasoline—would do. Churchill himself raised the issue with President Roosevelt during a mid-June meeting at FDR’s home in Hyde Park, N.Y.
There was opposition; some American military leaders wanted to reserve the ship for the country’s own use. But planning was also underway for the invasion of North Africa, so the Americans recognized the importance of saving Malta.
A few weeks later, the Ohio was at Glasgow, bobbing at anchor in the River Clyde, with a new British crew and the Union Jack on its mast. More anti-aircraft guns were added fore and aft. The engines were remounted on rubber bushings to absorb the blow of near-miss bombs. Steam lines were reinforced and cushioned with springs. A second generator was installed for back-up power. The Ohio’s air compressors were reconfigured to pump air into the hold—a life-support system to keep the ship afloat if torpedoes or bombs pierced the hull.
On Aug. 2, 13 freighters and the Ohio left the Clyde, escorted by a few destroyers. At Gibraltar, the convoy was joined by about 50 more warships, plus four oilers, two tugboats and 11 fast mine-sweepers and motor launches. The effort was dubbed Operation Pedestal. “With its vast escort, the convoy was 10 miles across,” wrote Norman Smart, a reporter for London’s Daily Express. “Almost to the blue bowl of the horizon stretched this armada, hurrying to succor Malta.”
The convoy passed the Strait of Gibraltar on Aug. 10, and the Axis forces wasted little time. On Aug. 11, the German submarine U-73 pumped four torpedoes into the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle, which sank 70 miles south of Majorca with 25 percent of the convoy’s fighters. Hitler personally pinned an Iron Cross on U-73’s captain. “It was a very, very sad and pathetic sight to see the sailors and planes all sliding off the deck as she rolled over and went under,” recalled Lonnie Dales, a gunner aboard the Ohio, which was about 1.5 miles away. “There wasn’t even enough time to lower the lifeboats.”
All the while, the convoy was getting closer to enemy bases on Sicily and Sardinia. Attacks could only strengthen and increase. The Ohio took its first torpedo on Aug. 12. Others—all from the same Italian submarine—hit the cruisers HMS Cairo, which sank, and HMS Nigeria, which was knocked out of action. The Ohio caught fire and lost steering. “Whilst we were fighting the fires, enemy planes commenced attack at masthead height,” remembered Dudley Mason, the Ohio’s British captain. “Near-misses were many and frequent, throwing deluges of water over the vessel.”
Eventually, though, the planes went away—probably because there were other ships to sink. The Ohio’s crew put out the fires, regained steering and proceeded after the convoy, though now well behind.
During the night, the freighter Empire Hope and the destroyer HMS Foresight were sunk. Passing through minefields between Sicily and Africa about midnight, the convoy met eight Italian and seven German torpedo boats, which made 15 separate attacks. Three more freighters went down.
Next came 72 Junkers and Stuka dive-bombers, which concentrated on the Ohio. The hull buckled, a forward tank filled with water and an attacker crashed on the deck. Another bomber hit the water nearby, bounced and crashed into the ship.
The Ohio avoided some mines and was missed by torpedoes, but was straddled by bombs that ruptured its boilers, leaving it dead in the water. Still, the crew felt lucky. “That’s a welded hull for you,” said chief engineer Jimmy Wyld. “Rivets would never have stood it.”
The engines were patched again. But the Ohio was listing and speed was only seven knots. The compass and steering lines were gone, so a course was reckoned by observing the stars and instructions relayed by telephone to an improvised steering system on the poop deck. “Thank God for an American ship with telephones,” said Mason.
Another aerial attack again knocked out the Ohio’s engines and broke the ship’s back. As the ship listed, Mason ordered the crew to abandon ship. Yet the Ohio did not sink. On Aug. 14, volunteers returned to man the guns while another ship took Ohio under tow. When the heavy tanker repeatedly snapped its towlines, destroyers HMS Penn and HMS Ledbury strapped themselves to each side. Its deck nearly awash, the Ohio was literally carried into Malta’s Grand Harbour, where it discharged its cargo into two tankers and then settled to the bottom.
Operation Pedestal resulted in the loss of nine freighters, one aircraft carrier, two cruisers and a destroyer. Some 400 Allied sailors lost their lives. Even so, the Ohio and four freighters got through with enough to return the forces on Malta to the offensive. As a result, the Nazis never got their hands on Middle East oil
King George VI praised Mason’s “skill and courage of the highest order,” but never mentioned the Ohio—which was, after all, a foreign vessel. But when Malta’s governor, Lord Gort, took the convoy captains to lunch, he conceded that, if Ohio hadn’t made it, the island would’ve been just two weeks from surrender.
The Ohio was later raised and, in 1946, towed 10 miles out of Malta, where it was dispatched with armor-piercing shells. Back in Chester, Sun Ship was sold in 1982 and closed in 1989.
Today, gamblers at Harrah’s Chester casino throw craps where the Ohio was launched.