The Papoose was built in 1921 at San Pedro, California, for the Petroleum Navigation Company of Houston, Texas, and was originally named the Silvaus. The tanker was 412′ long and 5,939 tons (3,636 net tons). In mid-March of 1942, the vessel departed Providence, Rhode Island, and headed south to New York. After a brief stop, the Papoose proceeded down the Eastern Seaboard on her way to Port Arthur, Texas, to pick up another load of oil. Late in the evening of March 18, 1942, the Papoose was about 18 miles south of Cape Lookout when suddenly a torpedo from U-124 struck her port side amidships, flooding the engine and fire rooms and killing 2 crewmen. With the Papoose dead in the water, the Captain radioed for help and gave the order to abandon ship. Lifeboats #2 and #4 on the port side had been destroyed in the blast, so lifeboats #1 and #3 on the starboard side were lowered and the crew began to evacuate the sinking ship. Finding Papoose immobilized, the U-124 moved around the starboard side of the target for the final blow. Fifteen minutes after the first torpedo struck the U-124 fired a second into the starboard side of the crippled and unarmed ship. As they rowed toward shore, the survivors found their way lit by another of the U-124‘s victims, the W.E. Hutton, a fully laden oil tanker attacked an hour after the Papoose had been torpedoed.
Attack Report from a US Navy memorandum:
The Papoose was torpedoed without warning at approximately 2230 EWT on March 18, 1942 about 15 miles southwest of Cape Lookout while en route from Providence, Rhode Island, via New York for Corpus Christi, Texas. The ship in ballast was sailing a course 236 true, speed 11.4 knots, not zigzagging, completely blacked out. Radio had not been used since sailing from New York. The weather was clear, sea moderately rough, a fresh northwest breeze, and visibility good.
The third mate and a quartermaster were on the bridge, one lookout on the forecastle head and another on the bridge. The first torpedo struck the port side at break of poop and entered the fuel compartment. The engine room and fire room were flooded with oil and water to height of top of cylinder heads stopping the engines immediately. The wheel was put hard to right following the first hit but headway was lost after the ship headed two points to starboard. An SOS was repeated three times and acknowledged by WSC. The first lifeboat got away five minutes after the first hit. A second torpedo fifteen minutes after the first barely missed the lifeboat and struck the Papoose on the starboard side stated by some to be directly opposite the first hit and by some slightly aft of amidships. This hit tore a hole near the waterline which showed eight feet above the waterline. Wooden awnings over the midship’s deckhouse and the radio shack were demolished causing some to believe a shell had struck simultaneously.
A second lifeboat got away five minutes after the second hit. A weak yellow or amber light was seen some distance astern of the ship and was believed to be the submarine. Survivors were picked up at 0730 EMT on March 19, 1942 by the USS Stringham and taken to Norfolk. The Papoose was still afloat at the time of rescue. All codes were turned over to the C.O. of the USS Stringham. Thirty-two of the crew of 34 were rescued.
The wreck of the Papoose was long thought to be resting upside down in 130 feet of water off Morehead City. However, recent research has definitively proven the tanker drifted for several days before sinking in 200 feet of water off Oregon Inlet. The wreck previously thought to be the Papoose is actually the tanker W.E. Hutton, while the wreck found at the Hutton site is the tanker Ario.
The recovery of a steam gauge produced by Southwestern Shipbuilding Company, which had constructed six tankers. Only one Southwestern-built tanker was lost in the Atlantic during World War II. That vessel was the SS Papoose.
At 4:45 pm on March 20, the minesweeper USS Hamilton received a report of a disabled tanker at 34° 59’N latitude and 75° 04’W. The USS Hamilton proceeded to the area and reported ﬁnding the “American tanker Papoose a derelict with evidence of torpedo hit aft, shell hit on bridge. No sign of life and (sic) but one life boat apparently missing. Down by stern to deck awash but on even keel.”
Furthermore, a March 21 report ﬁled by the US Coast Guard Air Station in Elizabeth City indicated an aircraft observed the Papoose drifting at roughly 35° 23’N latitude and 75° 07’W longitude, or roughly 30 nm southeast of Oregon Inlet. An aerial search covering a large area the following day was unable to locate the Papoose. The failure to ﬁnd the drifting tanker was likely due to the vessel’s sinking some time late on March 21.
A helm stand recovered off the stern of the wreck by Gene Peterson in 1997 was manufactured by MacTaggart Scott and Company of Edinburgh, Scotland, and was embossed with the serial number ST2098. On July 11, an e-mail from the company stated the steering telemotor, “serial no. ST2098, left our works on 14 February 1927, name of ship, Sillanus (sic) Papoose.”