April 29, 2023 marks the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the SS McKeesport.
History is brought to us through stories. The remembrances and reminiscences of those who served are an important link to history especially when those stories are corroborated with official records . The author Stephen Ambrose brought us our American history through the stories and letters of those who served in war. Although, not mentioned in any major history books, the SS McKeesport and the men who served on her should be honored for their courage and sacrifice.
My Father was Augusto Villanueva. He was born in Pallasca, Peru on February 28, 1915. As a young man in his twenties, he came to the United States where he worked as a merchant seaman. Known as Gus, he was a Mess Man Cook. Gus was not to be one of those soldiers who had tales of derring-do during the war, rather he was a sailor who provided an important duty on every military vessel. That of providing the crew with nourishment that sustained them through their duties on the sea. This was a job of which he was proud and a vocation he continued for the rest of his life.
Gus entered service with the United States Coast Guard on March 3, 1943 and joined the crew of the SS (screw steamer) McKeesport.
The McKeesport was built in 1919 at Kearney’s Point, New Jersey, by the Federal Shipbuilding Company. The freighter was christened by Eleanor Cornelius, daughter of National Tube Works (U.S. Steel) general manager William A. Cornelius. It had a 55-foot beam and 27-foot draft and turbine engines capable of carrying 9,600 tons at a rate of 12 knots per hour. McKeesport began its career as a Merchant Marine freighter in April, 1919.
McKeesport was among 30 merchant ships built for the U.S. government by the Federal Shipbuilding Company and was among the ships named for towns where U.S. Steel had plants. A month before the March 9, 1919, launch of McKeesport, the SS Duquesne was launched. The SS Homestead and SS Braddock also were launched ahead of the 410-foot-long namesake of the old Tube City (McKeesport).
The McKeesport had an active life long before its ill-fated service in the Battle of the Atlantic, the struggle from 1939 to 1945 to keep Great Britain and later the Soviet Union supplied with arms and other materiel in the face of German naval activity. The ship, no doubt, was brought into convoy service to carry food, clothing and medical supplies, including ambulances intended to alleviate the suffering of more than 5 million war victims of France, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg.
In 1940, McKeesport was loaded with Red Cross $1 million in emergency food and supplies to France to aid refugees. It was the first of “Mercy Ships” to cross the Atlantic with medical supplies and sailed with a huge red cross under her name.
Until late in 1941 British and Canadian forces protected the convoys crossing the North Atlantic. Beginning in September 1941, less than three months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States joined the effort to defend the convoys. If you watch the 2020 film “Greyhound”, you will get the sense of how dangerous these convoy missions were.
Although I have not been able to locate a full ship’s roster, we know McKeesport was commanded by Captain Oscar John Lohr.
After making a trip across the Atlantic to Europe, the ship departed Liverpool on April 21 heading back to New York carrying 2000 tons of sand ballast. On Thursday April 29, 1943, at around 9:30 am, German U Boat U-258, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Wilhelm von Mässenhausen, fired a torpedo at the freighter. The torpedo from the U-boat struck McKeesport’s starboard side, destroying beams, hatches and the ballast.
The ship’s position was 60° 52’N, 34° 20’W, approximately 500 miles east of Newfoundland.
The ship continued at full speed for 45 minutes, but developed a list of 20° to port and began to sink further by the head. Captain Lohr ordered the 67 Merchant Marine and Naval Armed Guard crew members to abandon ship.
The 12 officers, 31 crewmen and 25 armed guards (the ship was armed with one 4 inch and nine 20mm guns) abandoned ship in four lifeboats. Due to the listing of the ship they had difficulties in launching the boats and some of them became tangled in the life nets. The survivors were picked up within 30 minutes by HMS Northern Gem (FY 194) commanded by Lt W.C. King, RNR and landed on 8 May at St. John’s, Newfoundland. One man (Seaman John A. Anderson from Baltimore, Maryland) died of exposure on the vessel. His body was not recovered.
Once the crew of McKeesport was headed for safety on Northern Gem, the HMS Tay was ordered to sink McKeesport by gunfire. The ship, was under water by noon.
The McKeesport was the only kill for the U-258 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Mässenhausen. Less than a month later, the U-258 and its crew of 35 were sent to a watery grave by a British Liberator aircraft in the North Atlantic between Ireland and Greenland.
Augusto Villanueva was serving on the ship and, more than likely, was attending to galley duties when the torpedo struck. Gus had been given $50 when he entered service and used the money to purchase clothes he would need for trips in the North Atlantic and also a trunk to store his clothes and possessions. When the order came to abandon ship, he grabbed his trunk and found the ship’s cat and put it in. According to Gus, he wound up in the water with the trunk and the cat. Fortunately it was not very long as the crew was rescued by the HMS Northern Gem. The water temperature must have been very cold as this was the same time of year and the same area where the RMS Titanic sank in 1912.
Augusto Villanueva would go on to serve on the Liberty Ships SS Joseph H Nicholson in September 1943, SS Ben F Dixon in February 1944, and the SS Cotton Mather in September 1944.
Gus mentioned that he was in New York City visiting Radio City Music Hall he saw a newsreel recounting the sinking of the McKeesport. He became angry when an officer in the newsreel said he was the one that saved the ship’s cat. Gus even made a complaint but it got nowhere.
He was honorably discharged from the United States Coast Guard on August 15, 1945.
Augusto Villanueva would remain a merchant seaman for the rest of his life. He was a chief cook on various merchant ships specializing in pastry creations. He became a Naturalized Citizen in 1950.
He met my Mother, Aino Annikki Rytkölä in Finland and three children were born there. The family came to the United States in 1956 first settling in New York and then in Baltimore where five more children were born.
Gus was a world traveler and became active in the Baltimore Hispanic community. He was a member of The National Maritime Union attending many meetings at the union hall in Baltimore. When not traveling the world he worked at locations in the States. One of them was working as the chief cook for a dredging company working in Wilmington North Carolina as they deepened the waterway into that port. I spend a summer with him in 1969 working as an apprentice on the dredge. He wanted me to become a Civil Engineer, even giving me information about the school in New York. But my passion was in music and I went into music education before I entered the United States Air Force in 1985. After I retired from the Air Force in 2008 I worked as the director of Military Funeral Honors for the State of Maryland for 10 years.
In 2001, following the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, he wrote to the Coast Guard to offer his services and request to be placed back on active duty.
He explained in the letter he had spent his life living and serving in the United States. He said he survived the sinking of a ship during WWII and felt he was strong enough to handle duties in a kitchen of a vessel. He mentioned two of his children were currently on active duty of which he was proud and he was ready to accept any duty that would be appropriate to his age. He wrote, “If you need me I am here.” Maybe unwittingly he was quoting Isaiah 6:8 “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” He was 86 years old at the time.
For a long time Merchant Mariners who served in the Merchant Marines did not receive benefits from Veterans Administration. He applied for years to receive health services. In 1988, President Reagan signed legislation making World War II Mariners eligible for Veterans Affairs benefits.
Augusto Villanueva passed on October 5, 2002. He is buried at Garrison Forest Maryland State Veterans Cemetery. I was honored to sound Taps for him and participate in the ceremony with members of the Maryland National Guard Honor Guard.
Each year the city of McKeesport observes the anniversary of the sinking of the SS McKeesport with a ceremony marking the sinking of their namesake ship. In 2001, a memorial was placed at the Marina at McKee’s Point in the city. The memorial is located along the Great Allegheny Passage trail in front of the Marina located at the confluence of the Youghiogheny and Monogahela Rivers. It was commissioned via the efforts of the late Frank Striffler of Striffler Family Funeral Homes, the late former Mayor Joe Bendel, and U. S. Army Veteran Tom Maglicco, who worked with area veterans in the 1990s to have the memorial approved and placed. Frank Striffler’s daughter, Sue Striffler Galaski, owns and operates Striffler Family Funeral Homes and attends the ceremony each year to honor the service of the ship and the Sailors who served on her.
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