German U-Boat Attacks Off Florida Coast
Michael C. Barnette

The 465-foot long tanker Cities Service Empire was built as the Ampetco in 1918 at Sparrows Point, Maryland, by the Bethlehem Steel Shipbuilding Company.  Originally destined for the U.S. Shipping Board (Emergency Fleet Corporation), with the conclusion of World War I the Ampetco was sold to the distinguished Standard Oil Company (New Jersey) in 1920.

Originally established by John D. Rockefeller, Sr. in 1870, the Standard Oil Company grew to become the largest oil interest in the United States, controlling over 95% of the oil refining capacity by the close of the nineteenth century.  However, this growth did not go unnoticed.  The creation of the Standard Oil Trust in 1882 led to the passing of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.  This act, designed to prevent monopolies, was primarily aimed at the Standard Oil Trust.  In 1911, after a series of lawsuits, the Standard Oil Trust was found to be in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act by the U.S. Supreme Court.  The conglomerate was forced to dismantle its 34 affiliates, which included two of the larger companies, Standard Oil Company (New Jersey) and Standard Oil Company (New York), commonly referred to as Jersey Standard and Socony, respectively.  Over time, the breakup of the Standard Oil monopoly would result in the creation of Exxon (Jersey Standard), Esso, Chevron, American, and Mobil (Socony).  It is interesting to note that 88 years after one of the first big antitrust cases dissolved Standard Oil, Exxon and Mobil were scrutinized under the antitrust microscope when they announced plans for a merger in 1998.  When finalized in 1999, the Exxon-Mobil merger represented the creation of the largest private oil and gas company in the world, as well as the biggest global corporation by revenue.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Meanwhile, another conglomerate across the Atlantic also found itself in turmoil during the early twentieth century.  In 1891, the Dutch and Belgian-American Petroleum Companies joined their shipping activities to become the American Petroleum Company of Rotterdam, Holland.  At the outset of World War I, the company had nine ships in its fleet.  Although the American Petroleum Company ships steamed under the neutral Dutch flag, five of them were lost due to belligerent action during the war.  In an attempt to rebuild, the company was divided in 1920 to form the Dutch Petroleum Industrie Maatschappij N.V. and the Belgian-American Petroleum Company S.A. of Antwerp, Belgium. Following the split, the Dutch faction took possession of the remaining four ships, while the Belgian-American Petroleum Company was left without any vessels whatsoever.  However, to remedy the situation, the company successfully acquired the Ampetco from Jersey Standard in 1922.  After six years of service, the Belgian-American Petroleum Company sold the 8,103-ton tanker to the Cities Service Transportation Company of New York in 1928, whereupon she was renamed the Cities Service Empire.

At the outbreak of hostilities and the U-boat threat grew in late 1941, the Empire was outfitted with a five-inch deck gun that was mounted onto a round deck structure on the extreme stern of the tanker.  With Captain William F. Jerman at the helm, the Empire steamed from Port Arthur, Texas, to Philadelphia with a full load of petroleum products in mid- February 1942.  Onboard were a crew of 40 and an additional complement of nine Naval Armed Guards.  The Armed Guard Service was a branch of the U.S. Navy that was given the responsibility of defending the U.S. merchant fleet.  The November 17, 1941 repeal of Section Six of the Neutrality Act, which prevented arming of merchant ships, triggered a large-scale and fast-paced project of training personnel and acquiring weaponry.  Three Armed Guard schools were responsible for training men to proficiently shoot ships and aircraft, as well as learn basic navigational and fire fighting skills.  Out of 144,970 men that served on over 5,000 United States owned or flagged ships, the Naval Armed Guard suffered 1,810 fatalities.

On the morning of February 22, daybreak found the tanker approaching Cape Canaveral.  At the same time, Kapitänleutnant Ulrich Heyse of the U-128 was sitting quietly on the seabed.  Heyse had recently arrived to Florida and had sunk the tanker Pan Massachusetts just two days earlier; the Pan Massachusetts was the first merchant vessel sunk off Florida during World War II.  Upon hearing the approaching target, the U-128 quickly surfaced and attempted to plot a firing solution.  Hastily, three torpedoes were fired at the approaching tanker from over a 3,000 feet distance, which all missed, passing off the bow and stern.  Heyse recalculated the trajectory of the fully laden tanker and fired a fourth torpedo, which also went wide.  By this time, the tanker had passed the U-boat and continued north, apparently unaware of the impending danger.  The U-128 pursued and fired two more torpedoes from a range of almost two miles.  Approximately four minutes later, the two torpedoes connected with the starboard side of the tanker, instantly igniting a massive blaze that ran the length of the doomed vessel. 

Captain Jerman gave the order to abandon ship as the raging inferno that used to be the Cities Service Empire began to break up.  However, lifeboats on the starboard side of the ship were burned before the crew could launch them, as the deck of the tanker was awash in flames.  Fortunately, several of the crewmembers were able to launch a life raft off the portside, whereupon 23 survivors climbed into the tiny raft.  Describing their flight from the burning ship, oiler Frank Heap stated, “One of the fellows had a broken arm.  We were all wet and the sea was beginning to burn around us where the oil had leaked.  We waited for one guy who was swimming toward us and then tried to get away as fast as we could.” The U.S.S. Biddle (DD-151) was in close proximity to the attack and quickly steamed to the scene of the disaster.  Meanwhile, eight men trapped near the bow of the burning tanker found themselves clinging to a painter’s staging.  Unfortunately, two of them lost their strength and dropped into the flaming sea just as the U.S.S. Biddle arrived.  With the destroyer now on scene, a launch was deployed in an effort to rescue the men from the sinking tanker.  Herbert Goeler was one of the young Navy men onboard the rescue boat that tried in vain to reach the crippled Empire.  Goeler related how the intense flames kept them at bay, and they were forced to helplessly watch the tanker begin to sink quickly by the bow.  Many of the crewmembers who had sought refuge from the fire on the painter’s stage were now forced to jump for their lives.  The stern of the Cities Service Empire then raised clear of the surface and followed the bow towards the bottom.  Fifteen perished in the attack, including the 28-year old Captain Jerman, who was crushed by a lifeboat as he attempted to save one of his crewmen.

The wreck of the Cities Service Empire runs from southwest to the northeast, just askew of the generally north-northeast Florida Current, and sits bolt upright on a sandy bottom in approximately 240 feet of water.  The stern deck gun still points astern, adorned by a large thicket of white Oculina coral that has enveloped the breach of the gun.  All structure above the main deck has been flattened.  Only the scattered vertical bulkhead supports remain, presenting a ghostly scene.  Due to her current disposition, it is probable that the wreck was depth charged several times after her sinking, as every fixture and vertical structure appears to have been vibrated loose.  However, another explanation for her advanced deterioration might be the strong currents that commonly flow over the Empire.  On one particular dive, the current was so swift on the wreck that the vertical bulkhead supports were actually oscillating from the current’s influence. 

 

Portholes and other brass artifacts lie loose amongst the stern area.  Approximately 80 feet forward of the stern, one can witness the impact area from one of the torpedoes.  It appears as if someone took a bite out of the starboard side of the wreck as an entire tank section has been removed and flattened down to the sand.  The sheer drop-off extends around the perimeter of the tank and into the centerline of the ship.  The force of the explosion blew out the hull on the opposite (port) side, with one hull plate peeled outward and upward like aluminum foil. One can proceed forward, following the remains of the catwalk that ran along the center of the ship.  Debris familiar on a tanker, such as large brass valves, are strewn everywhere.

The entire forward superstructure and bridge have been lowered to the main deck level in a large debris area that extends the full width of the ship, further supporting evidence that the wreck was depth-charged.  On my first visit I quickly spotted the ship’s starboard telegraph amongst the debris, as well as the ship’s helm, the binnacle with the compass bowl and cover lying next to it, and the portside telegraph.  Brass lanterns were also found on the outside perimeter of the bridge area.  For those with the requisite experience, as well as the necessary perseverance needed to find a ride to the wreck, the Cities Service Empire can be a rewarding dive.