Tuesday, February 23, 2021

In the Suicide Corner


Out of the haze of my memories of high school history class I can still recall one documentary film which captured my attention. It was one clever researcher's attempt to piece together the literary descriptions embedded within Homer's Odyssey to discern the actual locations along that fantastical journey.

While some people may be able to do so, I've always found it difficult to trace descriptions of others' navigation reports. Unfortunately, after all these years, I am still no better equipped at guessing just where people have traveled, despite detailed descriptions.

So it is with the mariner's report embedded in the biography of Captain Erich Richter, master of the ill-fated S.S. Richard Olney, once the ship arrived from New York at the north African port of Oran. Granted, the stated mission was to arrive at Salerno, Italy, only days after the historic Salerno landings of the Allied invasion of Italy. But what had been decided at the start of the mission was not what was to unfold, once the Richard Olney left port.

According to the captain's notes written on September 19, 1943, the Richard Olney was carrying explosives, ammunition, cordite, aviation fuel, and other supplies. According to reports from other sources, apparently the Olney was also transporting a field artillery battalion of the 34th U.S. Infantry division. As a troopship—in other words, a commercial shipping vessel used during wartime to convey soldiers—the Richard Olney would not have been able to actually land at a seaport at their destination, but would have had to unload their cargo and troops onto other smaller vessels such as barges, once they arrived at Salerno.

The Richard Olney left Oran as part of a convoy, a formation employed to provide protection from enemy fire. Each ship in the convoy was assigned a specific position in one of two columns. The Olney was directed to take position number thirteen—last ship in the first column, dubbed the "suicide corner."

By September 21, the captain noted receipt of a message from the convoy commander that submarines had been spotted in their vicinity. Orders to each ship in the convoy required keeping a tight formation, but in the midst of the journey, the ship directly in front of the Olney's final position was losing contact with the convoy, and the Olney attempted to reconnect with the ships and escort vessels ahead.

Consulting with navigation tools, the captain determined that the ship needed to readjust its course, for fear they would not "clear Fratelli Rocks." This is where the report lost me in the navigation description. The only "Fratelli Rocks" reference I could find would have put the ship's route passing south of Sicily on their way to Salerno—if, of course, Richter's "Fratelli Rocks" referred to "Scoglio Due Fratelli" or "Two Brothers Rocks." 

That, however, was not the problem soon to face them, as subsequent convoy orders changed the course for about one hour, and then again, through the night, navigation directions adjusted according to signs of threats lurking in the water.

It was at 7:55 a.m. on September 22 when a sudden blast ripped through the Olney from starboard, continuing into the engine room, the force of which buckled the plates on the port side of the ship. The captain, assessing the damage, determined the ship would not sink, and signaled for assistance from nearby ships. A British escort ship provided a tow, and the Olney was brought to port at Bizerte.

While the troops aboard eventually were transported to their destination on the S.S. John Fiske along with the Olney's cargo, a skeleton crew remained with the Richard Olney in port at Bizerte until they could be "repatriated" for service on other vessels. That—and the fuller description I gleaned from the biography written by the captain's daughter, Ursula McCafferty—provided the rest of the story explaining why my godmother's father, Michael Melnitchenko, left New York a crew member on the S.S. Richard Olney, but returned to New York as a passenger on another vessel.


  1. Replies
    1. I'm sure there's far more to that story, Far Side, if I am willing to wade through government documents and any available merchant marine records.


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