SS Pennsylvania, en route from Seattle to Japan, sinks in the North Pacific on January 9, 1952.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 8/19/2019
  • Essay 20838
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On January 9, 1952, the States Steamship Company freighter SS Pennsylvania with 46 crew aboard sinks during a fierce storm in the North Pacific. The ship had departed Seattle on Saturday, January 5, en route to Yokohama, Japan, laden with grain and general cargo. Four days into the voyage, the ship encounters a storm in the North Pacific with gale-force winds, snow flurries, and heavy seas. Approximately 465 miles due west of the northern tip of Vancouver Island, a long crack develops on the port side of the Pennsylvania's hull. On Wednesday afternoon, January 9, Captain George P. Plover (1910-1952) transmits an SOS distress call before ordering the crew to abandon ship. No vessels are nearby, however, and the Pennsylvania founders before any assistance can be rendered. A massive search by sea and air is launched and will continue for eight days in extremely bad weather, but no trace of the vessel or her crew will be found.

War and Peace

The freighter SS Pennsylvania, originally named the Luxembourg Victory, was built in 1944 by the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation of Portland, Oregon, for the U.S. Merchant Marine fleet. She was one of 534 identical Victory-class merchant vessels built by the U.S. Maritime Commission to transport troops and vital military equipment overseas during World War II (1941-1945). The 7,200-ton, steel-hulled vessels were 455 feet in length, with a 22-foot beam and a 28-foot draft. Victory ships were powered by a single steam-turbine engine that delivered 8,500 shaft horsepower to their single screw, and could make up to 17 knots (approximately 19.5 mph). After service in both World War II and the Korean conflict, the Luxembourg Victory was acquired by the States Steamship Company (States Line) in 1951, renamed the SS Pennsylvania, and put to work as a commercial freighter.

On Saturday morning, January 5, 1952, the Pennsylvania departed Pier 37 in Seattle with a crew of 46, heading to Yokohama, Japan. She was laden with 5,875 tons of feed barley and 2,098 tons of general cargo for the U.S. Army, including two Army trucks and 18 trailers that were secured on deck. The master of vessel was Captain George P. Plover of Portland, Oregon, who had been a U.S. Merchant Marine ship captain during World War II, serving in both the European and Pacific theaters.

A Worsening Situation

On Wednesday morning, January 9, 1952, Captain Plover radioed the U.S. Coast Guard to report that the Pennsylvania was in heavy seas in the North Pacific and a 14-foot-long crack had developed down the port side of her hull. He stated that the ship was not in immediate distress and was returning to Seattle. At 10:40 a.m. a message was received that the engine room and Hold No. 1 were taking water, but the pumps were able to handle the emergency unless the problem worsened. Then, shortly before noon, Captain Plover radioed that the Pennsylvania was down by the bow and having trouble with steering. Mountainous waves breaking over the ship had washed the deck load of cargo overboard and ripped the tarpaulins off the forward hatch covers. If conditions didn't abate, the ship would need assistance.

The 254-foot Coast Guard cutter Klamath (WHEC-66) was immediately dispatched from Pier 91 in Seattle to locate the Pennsylvania and escort her to safe harbor. The voyage would take three to four days, depending on the weather, and a lot of bad things could happen during that time. The Coast Guard put the ship's reported position approximately 465 miles due west of the northern tip of Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

At 2:16 p.m. the Pennsylvania radioed that conditions were getting worse, the forward hatch covers had gone overboard, and the crew would probably have to abandon ship. By mid afternoon, the Pennsylvania was being swept by 45-foot seas, the ship's condition had deteriorated markedly, and it was apparent that she was doomed. The ship was down by the bow and her rudder was nearly out of the water. At 4:18 p.m., a message was sent by the Pennsylvania advising that the crew would have to abandon ship.

The last brief radio messages received from the ship were sent at 4:27 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. The first said: "45 persons aboard four boats." The final message said: "Leaving now" ("No Trace of Stricken Vessel ..."). Whether Captain Plover joined his 45 shipmates in the lifeboats or chose to remain aboard his ship was left unsaid, and since the lifeboats weren't equipped with emergency radios there was no way to determine if the crew had successfully abandoned ship.

The closest vessel to the scene was the American freighter SS Cignett III, which was 125 miles away from the stricken ship. In the storm, it would take 24 hours to reach the foundering Pennsylvania. Other ships in the vicinity were the American freighter SS Shooting Star, 150 miles distant, the Canadian Coast Guard weather vessel Stone Town (K-531), 180 miles distant, and the Japanese freighter Kamikawa Maru, 215 miles away.

Desperate Search

At 7:15 a.m. on Thursday, January 10, 1952, a Martin PBM Mariner amphibious aircraft from Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles reached the Pennsylvania's last reported position, approximately 600 miles west-northwest of the airfield. The pilot reported the weather was extremely bad and there was no sign of the vessel or lifeboats. The PBM began flying a search pattern downwind and dropping red flares, hoping for a reply signal.

Meanwhile, the vessels responding to the Pennsylvania's SOS began arriving in the area to begin looking for the four drifting lifeboats. Two Navy PBMs from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, two Air Force B-17 Flying Fortresses from McChord Air Force Base, and a Coast Guard B-17 soon joined the search efforts. Low visibility, strong winds, and icing conditions hampered the aerial search, and high seas made life difficult for the vessels scanning the water's surface for the lifeboats. After flying search patterns for several hours, the aircraft had to return to the mainland to refuel. The ships stayed in the area, however, and continued to search for survivors. By the end of the day, the sea-and-air rescue craft had covered a 7,000 square-mile area without finding any evidence of the lifeboats, or even flotsam that would indicate the Pennsylvania had sunk.

On Friday, January 11, 1952, the weather remained stormy with high seas, 40- to 45-mph winds, and snow flurries hindering rescue efforts. At daybreak the Coast Guard returned with 12 military aircraft under its command to expand the search area to 11,000 square miles. Other military planes were standing by to relieve those forced to return to base for fueling. Included were two British Lancaster bombers from the Canadian Air Force base at Sandspit in British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands. This allowed the operation to maintain constant air cover during daylight hours. That evening, the three commercial freighters, SS Shooting Star, SS Cignett III, and SS Kamikawa Maru, were released by the Coast Guard to proceed to their scheduled destinations. The American freighters SS Netherlands Victory and SS Bucyrus Victory and a Panamanian freighter, the SS Rio Mar, took their places.

On Saturday, January 12, 1952 the weather had moderated, replaced by thick fog blanketing the area yet to be searched. Since it was impossible for the airborne observers to see the water, the Coast Guard cutter Klamath, overseeing aerial operations, ordered all aircraft to return to base. Five surface vessels remained in the search area, using radar in an attempt to find the Pennsylvania's four metal lifeboats. A hatch cover, some lumber and other flotsam were found adrift in the ocean, some 35 miles south of the Pennsylvania's last reported position, but nothing could be conclusively linked to the missing ship.

Hope Fades

On Sunday, January 13, 1952, another bad storm moved into the North Pacific from Alaska, halting aerial operations for the entire day. The following day, better weather conditions allowed 12 aircraft to take off before dawn and continue the search. The winds had moderated considerably and the seas were running from 10 to 20 feet. A short while later, several additional military aircraft joined the hunt, expanding the area searched to 24,000 square miles. The hunt for Pennsylvania's crew had become the largest search-and-rescue operation conducted in the North Pacific up to that time.

On Tuesday, January 15, 1952, a capsized lifeboat was sighted separately by observers in two different aircraft, drifting approximately 125 miles south southeast of the Pennsylvania's last reported position. The Klamath and the Coast Guard cutter Yocona (WMEC-168) out of Astoria, Oregon, proceeded at once to the reported position. Both cutters searched for the overturned boat, but neither radar sweeps nor lookouts were able to find it in the dark. On Wednesday morning, a single Coast Guard PBM Mariner returned to assist the Klamath and Yocona in the search for the derelict, but it had disappeared.

The Search Ends

At 7:30 a.m. on Thursday, January 17, 1952, officer in charge of the air-sea rescue mission, Commander Albert E. Harned (1911-1993) of the 13th Coast Guard District in Seattle, officially ended the search for the Pennsylvania and her crew. On Saturday, January 19, the cutter Klamath returned to Seattle and moored at Pier 91, and the cutter Yocona returned to Astoria and moored at City Pier. During the eight-day operation not one scrap of evidence that could be positively linked to the Pennsylvania had been recovered.

Commander Ross P. Bullard (1914-1978), captain of the Klamath, described the weather conditions as the worst he had encountered in his entire career at sea. He described sailing through fog, sleet, and snow, buffeted by gale-force winds and lashed by 45- to 50-foot waves. Although the mission was unsuccessful, Commander Bullard was thankful that no equipment had been lost or search personnel seriously injured in the violent seas.

The Investigation

On Monday, February 4, 1952, Rear Admiral Norman H. Leslie (1898-1953), commandant of the 13th Coast Guard District, convened a marine board of investigation into the disappearance of the SS Pennsylvania. The inquiry determined the ship was in good condition on the day she sailed from Pier 37 in Seattle, and the cargo properly stored. Captain Stanley T. Lovejoy (1897-1967), the ship's Puget Sound pilot, testified that the Pennsylvania handled perfectly on the trip to Port Angeles, where he left the vessel. It was revealed that a crack had appeared in her starboard deck plates during her last voyage to Japan, but the damage had been successfully repaired at the Kaiser Shipyard in Portland, Oregon. No other difficulties had been reported.

The Coast Guard concluded that the large crack that developed down the port side of her hull was likely caused by metal fatigue, a problem which had plagued the hulls of numerous Liberty and Victory ships mass produced during the war years. The States Steamship Company was not held liable for the accident, which was triggered by the abnormal weather conditions. The question of whether Captain Plover and the crew of the Pennsylvania safely abandoned ship before she foundered was unresolved, and the only clue encountered during the long and dangerous search was the brief sighting of one overturned and unidentifiable lifeboat.

Remembering the Lost

On Thursday, February 24, 1952, joint memorial services were held by six maritime unions for the 46 merchant seamen who lost their lives in the sinking of the SS Pennsylvania. The unions were the Master, Mates and Pilots Association; Sailors Union of the Pacific; Marine Cooks and Stewards; Marine Firemen's Union; the American Radio Association; and the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association. The public ceremony was held at the Marine Firemen's Union building in Seattle.


Jim Gibbs, Disaster Logs of Ships (Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1971) 121; "Hull Split Off Coast," The Seattle Times, January 9, 1952, p. 1; "Ships  Search Pacific for 46 in Lifeboats," Ibid., January 10, 1952, p. 1; "13 Seattle-Area Men in Crew of Abandoned Ship," Ibid., January 10, 1952, p. 8; "Wife of Seattle Man on Stricken Ship Keeps Long, Difficult Vigil," Ibid., January 10, 1952, p. 8; "Ill-fated Trip Was Seaman's First in Years," Ibid., January 10, 1952, p. 16; "Weather 'Better' in Hunt for 46 Off Ship," Ibid., January 11, 1952, p. 1; "Wind Rises; Ships Seek 46 Seamen," Ibid., January 12, 1952, p. 1; "Giant Aerial Search Planned for 46 Off Ship," Ibid., January 14, 1952, p. 1; "Two Capsized Lifeboats Sighted in Pacific Search," Ibid., January 15, 1952, p. 1; "Officer Doubts Lifeboats Could Ride Out Storm," Ibid., January 15, 1952, p. 23; "Everything Possible Being Done in Search, Says Master," Ibid., January 15, 1952, p. 23; "Hope 'Slim' for 46 Off Ship, Say Searchers," Ibid., January 16, 1952, p. 12; "Aerial Search for 46 Off Freighter Ends," Ibid., January 17, 1952, p. 21; "C.G. Planes Continue Hunt for 46 Off Ship," Ibid., January 18, 1952, p. 27; Georg N. Meyers, "Cutter Returns After Battling Huge Seas in Search for 46 Seamen," Ibid., January 19, 1952, p. 7; "Board Named to Investigate Ship Disaster," Ibid., January 23, 1952, p. 25; "Line Asks to Be Freed of Liability," Ibid., January 24, 1952, p. 45; "Ship Loaded Properly, Probers Told," Ibid., February 4, 1952, p. 5; "Safe Loading of Ship Confirmed by Coast Guard," Ibid., February 5, 1952, p. 13.

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