SS Keshena
Sunk July 19th, 1942


132 Gross Tons

142 Feet Length, 27 feet Beam, 15 feet Deep

Owner: Southern Transportation Co, Philadelphia, PA

Builder: Whitney Brothers Company, Superior, WI

Built: September, 1919

Depth 90 feet

Location;  10 NM South of Hatteras Inlet

Tug SS Keshena alongside a barge, photo from the Mariners Museum collection, Newport News, VA

Keshena alongside a barge

Photo from Mariners Museum collection, Newport News, VA

History of the Shipwreck

The ocean going tug Keshena was built for the Superior Transportation Company of Philadelphia, PA, in 1919 at Superior Wisconsin by Whitney Brothers Company, which produced nine tugs similar to the Keshena the year she was built.  The tug had two steam boilers that provided power to drive the 142' long tug's single propeller.  The steel hull of the Keshena was designed in the style of an older tug, with a fair and high bow, a low waist and the typical low round stern of a tug.  A small pilot house was perched on the forward quarter of a deck house that covered the majority of her length with  a large single smokestack dominating her profile.  She was equipped with stout bits, winches and a large capstan on the foredeck.  The tug also carried spare salvage anchors on the foredeck, where they are still found today.

On July 15th, 1942,  a Southbound convoy of nineteen merchant vessels (convoy KS 520) was spotted by the U-576 off the coast of Hatteras.  The U-boat had been badly damaged by aircraft bombardment the previous days and was actually limping towards home when they came across this opportunity.  The commander, Hans-Dieter Heinicke, decided to make an attack in spite of the crippled state of the boat and fired a salvo of torpedoes.  Two ships, the tanker M/V J. A. Mowinkel and the freighter M/V Chilore, were struck by torpedoes but both vessels were able to continue under their own power toward more protected waters.  A third ship, the Nicaraguan freighter SS Bluefields, was not so fortunate and sunk within four minutes after being hit by the U-boat.  

Tug Humrick, sister ship to Keshena, photo from Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University

Tug Humrick was also built in the Whitney Brothers yard in August, 1919,

she is a sister ship of the Keshena.

Photo is from the Bowling Green State University Historical Collections

After the torpedo attack the U-576 broached to the surface directly behind the merchant vessel SS Unicoi and the armed guard gun crew aboard Unicoi immediately opened fire with the 5" stern gun.  The gun crew claimed direct hits upon the conning tower of the U-boat and at about the same time two Navy patrol planes arrived at the battle.  Both aircraft attacked by dropping Mark XVII depth charges that straddled the U-boat, which immediately sank with all hands in deep water.

Unfortunately for the two surviving ships, in their efforts to seek safety they inadvertently entered the Hatteras minefield which had been set to provide relief from the attacking U-boats.  Both ships detonated mines and being further damaged, had to be left at anchor to await assistance.  The crew of M/V J. A. Mowinkel abandoned the ship thinking that the U-boat had returned and would finish them off shortly.  They were able to safely land at Ocrakoke along with the crew from the M/V Chilore.

Enter the salvage tug Keshena.  During this time of the war, the Keshena found herself being called out by the U. S. Navy for coastal salvage work, though she was still a privately owned vessel manned by Merchant Mariners.  She had been called to the area off Hatteras Island to assist the two ships that had become damaged.  She arrived on the scene July 19th, after several mine sweepers sent down from Little Creek, Virginia, had cleared the area around the damaged vessels of any further mines.   However, when the Keshena was maneuvering under the stern of the tanker  J. A. Mowinkel, an explosion occurred in the after part of the engine room.  It was now very apparent that the mine sweeping operation was not fully successful.  

Port side boiler of the Keshena, Dive Hatteras photoJohn Hampton, the engine room oiler, was killed by the blast.  Oscar Johnson, the Master of the Keshena, ordered the crew to abandon ship and a crewman, Fred Taylor, drowned while trying to abandon the sinking Tug, which went down in under ten minutes.  The remaining 15 men of the crew were picked up by a small launch and taken to Ocrakoke Coast Guard Station, arriving there at 1700 hours on the 19th.

After the sinking, Keshena's mast and stack stood clear of the water marking her position.  Like the F. W. Abrams which lays nearby, this attracted the attention of pilots in training from nearby Cherry Point Station who used her as  practice bombing  target.  She was also depth charged and dragged for clearance.

Tugs, due to their intended use, are typically designed as solid vessels and the Keshena is no exception.  The small vessel has endured the ravages of exploding mines, practice bombing runs, depth charging and over 70 years under the sea.  That her bow section still stands almost 30' proud of the sand is testimony to both her design and her builder.  

The Tanker J. A. Mowinkel was towed to port and eventually returned to service.  The Freighter M/V Chilore foundered  in the approaches to the Chesapeake Bay while under tow to the repair yard.  Chilore sits in appx 60 feet of water and was wire dragged for clearance. The wreck is occasionally visited by sport divers.

 

 

Foredeck with the winch, anchors and capstan.  Dive Hatteras photo

Foredeck of Keshena with large winch and spare anchors.  Dive Hatteras Photo.

Diving The Keshena

Divers will find the Keshena to be a delightful dive site and in spite of the violence of her death she is still fairly intact.  The entire wreck remains organized and contiguous bow to stern sitting on her keel and upright except for the stern which has a heavy starboard list.  The bow and stern sections are the most visually interesting as they are the most intact and easy to recognize for what they are.  The bow is very much still together, even though large holes have rusted through the plating at the sand level.  This is due to the heavy framing of the vessel which is clearly visible to divers at the first bulkhead aft of the stem.  This framing and the still intact hull sides of the bow hold up the entire foredeck with all of the fittings and machinery still in place.  Though an abandoned trawl net covers some of the bow, it is still easy to view the two spare salvage anchors and heavy windlass on the foredeck (visible in the photo to the left).  

Stern of the Keshena is very recognizable.  Dive Hatteras photo.

Port side of stern section of Keshena.

Photo by Capt. Dave Sommers, Dive Hatteras

Divers can swim beyond the framing and pillars holding up the foredeck into the bow section and look into the forepeak.  Here, they may encounter large fish such as Goliath Groupers and the like which enter this section thru the rust holes in the forefoot.  

Moving aft divers will easily follow the hull sides of the wreck and encounter the twin boilers.  Continuing aft, you enter into the engine room area which is somewhat disheveled and the lowest relief of the wreck site.  The stern section is very intact and lists heavily to the starboard side.  The prop and rudder are visible to various extents depending upon the sand level near the scour at the stern.

The entire wreck can be viewed on a single dive, due to the compact size of the wreck site.  With a depth of only 80fsw, bottom times are reasonable.

 

Lettering recovered from the stern of the Keshena by Captian Dave Sommers, Dive Hatteras

Brass and Lead lettering recovered from the stern of Keshena by Captain Dave Sommers, Dive Hatteras

 

This Jackknife fish was found near the Keshena's stern. Dive Hatteras photo

Jackknife fish found at the Keshena stern.

Photo by Ann Sommers, Dive Hatteras

 

Large Anemone inhabits the Stb Boiler tubes, DIve Hatteras photo

Anemones are found at the Keshena site in a variety of sizes and colors.  Photo by Ann Sommers, Dive Hatteras.

The sea life at the Keshena is always varied and interesting, sometimes in great numbers as well.  In past seasons there have been resident octopus and large numbers of anemones.  The fish life ranges from the small creatures such as the Jackknife fish pictured here to very large snapper, groupers and sea turtles.  Shark can be present, but the wreck is not known for large schools of them. 

This wreck site was studied by NOAA in 2010 as part of their efforts to expand the Monitor Marine Sanctuary to include all of the wreck sites off the Hatteras coast.  The photo mosaic of the Keshena site was produced by NOAA as part of this effort.  They also produced a short video of their efforts which is posted here.  

Photo Mosaic of the Keshena Wreck site produced by NOAA

When researching this shipwreck, conflicting information will be found about the Keshena's dimensions and builder.  This is due to the fact that there existed two tugboats, both named Keshena during this timeframe.  There is no doubt as to the identification and ownership of the Keshena sunken off Hatteras and discussed within this page.  

The "second Keshena" tug was built by Gulfport Boiler and Welding, Port Arthur, Texas,  in 1939 as the yard's hull #131.  This second Keshena was 93 feet in length and Diesel powered.  She was acquired by the Navy upon her completion and assigned number YN-37, serving as a net tender at Guantanamo, Cuba during WWII.  After several designation changes and years of service, the Navy sold her into commercial service in 1947.  She was named Mary L. McAllister (McAllister Towing), then later sold again and named the Seneca in 1981.  This "second Keshena" was reported to have sunk in Lake Superior in 2006.  Without careful examination of all the available information, confusion and dissemination of the wrong facts will continue to occur about this shipwreck site. 

For some other excellent photos of the Keshena visit the BFDC web page about this wreck site.

The information on this web page was developed from the following sources:

  • A Careless Word, A Needless Sinking, Capt Arthur Moore, Library of Congress card No. 82-73552
  • Hitler's U-Boat War, The Hunters, Clay Blair, ISBN 0-394-58839-8
  • 5th Naval District War Diary, US Naval Achieves
  • Shipwrecks of North Carolina, Hatteras South, Gary Gentile, ISBN 0-9621453-5-1
  • Bowling Green State University, Center for Archival Collections, Bowling Green, Ohio
  • www.ShipScribe.com, Register of Ships of the U.S. Navy
  • Personal dive experience of Captain Dave Sommers, Dive Hatteras
Tug Kiron built Oct, 1919, is a sistership of the Keshena.  Photo from Bowling Green State UIniversity, Center for Archival Collecitions

The Tug Kiron was built October, 1919, one month after the Keshena in the same yard

and is an exact sister ship to Keshena.

Photo is from the Bowling Green State University Historical Collections

The Hukey was also built by Whitney Brothers Company at their Superior, WI, yard and finished in June, 1919, two months prior to Keshena.  Built from the same plan she also looks just like Keshena.

Photo is from the Bowling Green State University Historical Collections


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