USS Somers and Its Wartime Encounters with Exploding Ships
From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
It was early in the morning, 72 years ago today, when the crew of USS Somers (DD 381) got word about a suspicious freighter within its area of operation. The Somers-class destroyer was patrolling the South Atlantic on Nov. 21, 1942, always on the lookout for German blockade runners.
Since taking over the French community of Bordeaux in June 1940, the Germans used the port as a base for its 12th U Boat Flotilla. It was also where blockade runners would load up with supplies for Japan, such as rubber, tin, hemp, high-grade specialized machinery, ball bearings, special chemicals, and prototypes of purchased military materials.
Allied air patrols had spotted a suspicious freighter earlier in the month, so USS Somers was on alert as they closed in on the ship. But as they got to within 1,900 yards, fires broke out onboard the freighter and the crew began lowering boats into the water. As the boarding party neared the freighter, the ship was racked by a series of three explosions. Despite flooding on the ship and the obvious danger of the fire, the boarding party salvaged the ship and determined it was the German blockade runner Anneliese Essberger. After the ship sank, survivors were rescued by light cruiser USS Milwaukee (CL-5).
It was not the first time USS Somers had outwitted a German blockade runner. Since the spring of 1941, the destroyer had been doing neutrality patrols from Trinidad to Recife, Brazil. On Nov. 6, 1941, just weeks before Pearl Harbor brought the United States fully into the war, Somers was patrolling near the Cape Verde Islands when she chanced upon a merchantman flying an American flag. On her hull, she was purported to be Willmoto out of Philadelphia.
But the freighter took evasive action when approached by Somers and USS Omaha (CL 4). Failing to stop, the merchantman signaled it was on fire and began lowering life boats. The Omaha sent a boarding party and soon heard explosions. Further investigation revealed the merchantman’s crew was attempting to scuttle the ship, which turned out to be the German blockade runner Odenwald.
Omaha’s boarding party saved the ship and the captured blockade runner was sailed to Puerto Rico. Six years later, the crews from Omaha and Somers were awarded salvage money for their “prize.” Because the ship had falsely claimed American nationality and the crew had “abandoned” ship by trying to scuttle her, it was determined the crew of Omaha and Somers could split the value of the ship, coming to around $3,000 for members of the boarding party and two months’ pay for the rest of the crew on both ships. It was the last prize taken by the U.S. Navy. Somers remained in the South Atlantic after the United States formally entered the war in December 1941.
Following the sinking of Anneliese Essenberger, USS Somers escorted the French battleship Richelieu from Africa to the U.S. during Jan.-Feb. 1943. A third German blockade runner, the Westerland, was intercepted at the beginning of 1944, with Somers‘ gunfire being partially responsible for sinking the enemy ship.
It was a particularly fitting career for the destroyer, named for Master Commandant Richard Somers. A former commander of the schooner Nautilus, he and his crew sailed with Commodore Edward Preble, the commanding officer of the Constitution and his squadron in action against Barbary pirates.
Somers was commanding the bomb ketch Intrepid for a special mission on Sept. 4, 1804. The ship had been fitted out as a “floating volcano” to be sailed into Tripoli Harbor and blown up in the midst of the corsair fleet under the walls of the city. But once underway in the harbor, Intrepid exploded prematurely, killing Somers and his volunteer crew. Their names are immortalized on what is known as the Tripoli Monument that was on display at the Washington Navy Yard during its burning in 1814, then, after a short tenure on the Capitol grounds, was moved to its current location at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. It is the oldest military monument in the United States.