Sunday, March 26, 2017

"A Spirited Encounter"

THU 26 MAR 1942
Admiral Ernest J. King relieves Admiral Harold R. Stark as Chief of Naval Operations and thus becomes Commander in Chief U.S. Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations; Vice Admiral Frederick J. Horne (Vice Chief of Naval Operations) and Vice Admiral Russell Willson (COMINCH Chief of Staff) are his principal assistants.

TF 39 (Rear Admiral John W. Wilcox), including battleship Washington (BB 56), carrier Wasp (CV-7), heavy cruisers Wichita (CA-45) and Tuscaloosa (CA-37), and eight destroyers, sails from Portland, Maine, for Scapa Flow, to reinforce the British Home Fleet (see 27 March). [Wait for it! — M.B.]

Commander Eastern Sea Frontier is given operational control of certain USAAF units for antisubmarine patrol duty in the Atlantic. Unity of command over Navy and USAAF units operating over water to protect shipping and conduct antisubmarine warfare is thus vested in the Navy.

Antisubmarine vessel Atik (AK-101) is torpedoed and sunk with all hands by German submarine U-123 in the North Atlantic, 36°00'N, 70°00'W, after the "Q-ship's" gunfire damages the U-boat in a spirited encounter. Atik is the only U.S. Navy warship disguised as a merchantman that is lost to enemy action during World War II. Sistership Asterion (AK-100) will conduct a fruitless search for survivors (see 30 March).*

Unarmed U.S. tanker Dixie Arrow, bound for Paulsboro, New Jersey, is torpedoed and sunk by German submarine U-71 about 12 miles off the Diamond Shoals Lighted Buoy, off the coast of North Carolina, 34°59'N, 75°33'W. The ship breaks in half and sinks. Destroyer Tarbell (DD-142), directed to the scene by a Coast Guard plane, rescues 22 survivors; 11 merchant sailors either drown or burn to death, however, as the torpedo explosions set the ship's cargo of 86,136 barrels of crude oil afire.

Panamanian freighter Equipoise is torpedoed and sunk by German submarine U-160 at 36°36'N, 74°45'W (see 27 March).

*Bait Boats:
Atik (AK-101) was placed in commission at 16:45 on 5 March 1942, at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, Lieutenant Commander Harry Lynnwood Hicks, USN, in command.

At the outset, all connected with the program apparently harbored the view that neither ship "was expected to last longer than a month after commencement of [her] assigned duty." Atik's holds were packed with pulpwood, a somewhat mercurial material. If dry, "an explosive condition might well develop and, if wet, "rot, with resultant fire, might well take place." Despite these disadvantages, pulpwood was selected as the best obtainable material to assure "floatability."

Atik's mission was to lure an unsuspecting U-boat into making a torpedo attack. According to the projected scenario, the submarine, having deemed the tramp unworthy of the expenditure of more torpedoes, would surface to sink the crippled foe with gunfire.

The plan presupposed that supporting forces would come to the rescue whenever a Q-ship ran into difficulties. In March 1942, though, there was no such reserve available. The commanding officers of the two ships were told that they could expect little help if they got into trouble. Every available combatant ship and plane was employed in convoy and patrol duties.

Following fitting out and brief sea trials, she and Asterion got underway on 23 March 1942. Soon after leaving port, Atik and Asterion went their separate ways. On the night of 26–27 March, she was cruising about 300 mi (480 km) east of Norfolk, Virginia and Asterion was cruising some 240 mi (390& km) to the south of this area.

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