Thursday, February 11, 2021

On His Way Home . . . Again


You have to admit: seeing the name of a seaman listed on a form devoted to passengers seems a bit odd. One would expect to see a mariner's name on the manifest listing crew members, not passengers. But there he was, our Michael Melnitchenko, arriving in New York harbor on November 23, 1943, as a passenger, right in the midst of the second World War.

The port from which he had sailed shouldn't have been much of a surprise; judging from the many crew listings I had already located, Michael Melnitchenko had sailed from several ports across the Atlantic on his return trips back to New York City. But this one point of origin seemed a bit exotic: Bizerte in northern Africa, one of the oldest known Phoenician settlements in the region, dating back to 1100 B.C.

Despite its ancient history, Bizerte had recently seen action during the then-current World War, when the German and Italian forces which had occupied the port city were routed by the Allies on May 7, 1943.

That, of course, was only one point in a wide swath of unseen dangers lurking in the waters between the continents bordering the Atlantic. As early as December 11, 1941, when the Axis powers declared war on the United States, they re-instituted a policy which they had previously utilized in the North Sea—only this time, directed at the coastline of the United States. Called the "Second Happy Time" by the Germans, it became an open season for attacks on American vessels by German U-boats, sinking a total of 609 ships from January through August of 1942.

This, of course, led to the loss of thousands of lives, but what may not be realized is that many of the ships attacked were not specifically military vessels, but included merchant marine vessels.

Countering that move, from the lead of the British, American shipyards began a massive project to produce what they called Liberty Ships, built from 1941 through 1945. Because of a previous Act which the United States Congress had passed in 1936, many of those built were intended as commercial merchant vessels, which could be used in war times as "naval auxiliaries." 

The S.S. Richard Olney, launched in January, 1943, was one such Liberty Ship, but as we'll soon see, the ship only remained in service until September 22 of that same year. Depending on which account we consult, the Richard Olney was either damaged when it hit a mine, or when it was torpedoed. If you scroll down the listing to the "R" section at this link, you will see the note, "mined off Tunisia 1943." And yet, if you consult this other alphabetical listing of American Merchant Ships Sunk in WWII, it states the Richard Olney was torpedoed on September 22, 1943.

Because of one specific detail, I wanted to delve further into the fate of that Liberty ship: the written comments scrawled across the page holding Michael Melnitchenko's sole entry on the "Manifest of Alien Passengers" aboard the S.S. John Rutledge, returning from Bizerte on November 23, 1943.

According to the notes, Michael was a "repatriated seaman" and "Ex S.S. Richard Olney." Most alarming were the added caps, "T O R P." If this signified that the ship had been torpedoed, why were others stating it had hit a mine?

In a discussion forum called, someone six years ago had brought up that very topic. He posted a comment to the ongoing discussion: "The SS Richard Olney was piloted by my grandfather, Eric [sic] Richter, when it was hit by a torpedo. It didn't strike a mine." The writer went on to say that his mother had written a book about the captain, which included a chapter on that very incident, but he unfortunately neglected to name either the book or the author.

Thankfully, as the thread continued, another member mentioned two books in which the incident was described in detail. According to this second forum member, one of the books reported that the S.S. Richard Olney was 

torpedoed by an unknown submarine.  A torpedo struck on the starboard side and exploded in the engine room. The explosion blew a hole in the starboard side 36 feet in diameter and a smaller hole in the port side. She was towed to Bizerte by a British tug and declared a total loss. She was not abandoned at any time.

The other book described the incident as one in which the ship had struck a mine—though, as the commenter reflected, there was no explanation in the book of where the mine had been or how the ship would have strayed into that area.

Obviously, this was not simply a luxury liner filled with vacationing passengers. Being a Liberty Ship, it was likely co-opted for specific wartime reasons. Not surprisingly, another forum member mentioned,

My father was one of the 34th Infantry Division soldiers on-board the ship and was en route to Italy. He told me stories of the day of the attack. He always said it was one of the last remaining Italian submarines that fired the torpedo. He recounted that he was near one bulkhead, apparently just one compartment away from the blast and was thrown as far as the opposite door [of] the next compartment.
What was surprising, considering the extent of the damage to the S.S. Richard Olney, was that more lives weren't lost than the two crew members who didn't survive. According to a web page called "Merchant Marine Heroes," which provides a listing of all the Meritorious Service Medals awarded during World War II, Captain Erich Richter, mentioned in the first forum post above, was indeed recognized for his efforts during the ship's crisis.

According to the report accompanying a photograph of the Captain as he received his award, his leadership during that episode coordinated temporary repairs to keep the ship afloat long enough to contact a nearby naval escort ship, which towed the Olney into port at the recently-secured Bizerte.

Considering that, at least on the report at his return to New York, Michael Melnitchenko had been listed as the ship's Chief Officer, he was undoubtedly in the midst of the efforts to keep the Richard Olney afloat long enough to safely deliver all who were on board to land and attend to the injured. What an experience that must have been—hardly what I would have expected, believing Michael to have been a sailor on commercial vessels, certainly not any involved in military action.
How Michael got from that harrowing incident to the ship which provided his return to New York is one question for which I'll likely never find the full answer. Even so, embedded on the form listing his presence on the return voyage are several details which we still need to delve into more fully. We'll take a look at those tomorrow.

Image above: Excerpt from the form, "List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States," showing one entry for Michael Melnitchenko on the ship, the S.S. John Rutledge, sailing from Bizerte, Tunisia, to New York City, arriving November 23, 1943; image courtesy



  1. What an interesting find! I never expected WW2 action off the coast of Africa. February is an interesting month in your quest.

    1. Other than being aware of the Italy-Ethiopia connection, I hadn't been aware of much action in northern Africa, either, Miss Merry. Chasing the personal history of the Melnitchenkos has certainly led us to unexpected places.

  2. One of my Uncles was supposed to have been in Africa for awhile...interesting finds
    and bits of history!

    1. I'm beginning to think that must have been the forgotten part of that war. Interesting to hear about your uncle. Delving into our family's history does open up doors to connect with the broader picture of the macro history we snoozed through in high school...


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