The SS Robin Moor was a merchant steamship that sailed under the American flag from 1919 until May 1941. A German submarine, U-69, sank the ship on 21 May, 1941, before the United States had entered World War II. This sinking of a neutral nation's ship in an area considered until then to be relatively safe from U-boats, and the plight of her crew and passengers, created an international uproar.
Construction, prior names and owners
The ship was completed in 1919 by the emergency shipbuilding works of American International Shipbuilding Corp. at Hog Island
, just outside Philadelphia
. She was a "Hog Islander
," the name for the class of ugly but sturdy merchant vessels built at the works during that period. She was laid down as the SS Shetucket
, and completed as the SS Nobles.
In 1928 she was renamed the SS Exmoor
for American Export Lines Inc
, of New York. In 1940 she was sold to Seas Shipping Co Inc., of New York, and renamed the SS Robin Moor.
In May 1941 the Robin Moor
was carrying nine officers, 29 crewmen, seven or eight passengers, and a commercial cargo from New York to Mozambique via South Africa, without a protective convoy. On 21 May, the ship was stopped by U-69
in the tropical Atlantic 750 miles west of the British-controlled port of Freetown, Sierra Leone
. Although the Robin Moor
was flying the flag of a neutral country, her mate was told by the U-boat crew that they had decided to "let us have it." After a brief period for the ship's crew and passengers to board her four lifeboats, the U-boat fired a torpedo and then shelled the vacated ship. Once the ship sank beneath the waves, the submarine's crew pulled up to Captain W.E. Myers' lifeboat, left him with four tins of ersatz bread and two tins of butter, and explained that the ship had been sunk because she was carrying supplies to Germany's enemy.
When the Robin Moor
was stopped, the Germans had forbidden the ship's crew to touch their wireless, but after the sinking U-69's captain Jost Metzler
reportedly promised the ship's crew to radio their position. Yet nearly two weeks passed before any of her four lifeboats of survivors were discovered. As President Roosevelt would later state in a message to Congress regarding the sinking, the survivors were "accidentally discovered and rescued by friendly vessels." The lifeboat containing the captain and ten others was rescued on 8 June
after eighteen days, and taken to Brazil
. The occupants of that boat presumed that the remaining crew and passengers were lost, but they later learned that the three lifeboats containing the others had been discovered by chance on June 2
, thirteen days after the sinking, and taken to South Africa. Remarkably, all of the crew and passengers were rescued. One rescued crew member, however, later jumped overboard apparently due to the lingering effects of the ordeal, and drowned.
The political, diplomatic and legal aftermath
While President Franklin D Roosevelt
responded to the episode with strong words, the strength of his administration's actions was disputed. His message to Congress described Germany's decision to sink the ship as "a disclosure of policy as well as an example of method." His message concluded:
In brief, we must take the sinking of the Robin Moor as a warning to the United States not to resist the Nazi movement of world conquest. It is a warning that the United States may use the high seas of the world only with Nazi consent.
Were we to yield on this we would inevitably submit to world domination at the hands of the present leaders of the German Reich.
We are not yielding and we do not propose to yield.
The State Department then required Germany and Italy to close all of their consulates in the United States except for their embassies, prompting Germany to issue the same directive to the United States in return. The US also demanded damages and reparations from Germany, without success. In Congress, isolationist Senator Burton K. Wheeler
claimed that 70 percent of the ship's cargo constituted the kind of materials meeting the German and British standards for contraband, defended the legality of Germany's right to destroy her, and characterized Roosevelt's message as an effort to bring the United States into the war. Others, such as Senator Claude Pepper
, urged their colleagues to require the arming of merchant vessels.
In October 1941, federal prosecutors in the espionage case against of a group of 33 defendants known as the "Duquesne Spy Ring" adduced testimony that Leo Waalen, one of the fourteen accused men who had pled not guilty, had submitted the sailing date of the Robin Moor for radio transmission to Germany, five days before the ship began her final voyage. Waalen and the others were found guilty on December 13, 1941.
- "Robin Moor," at Uboat.net
- Stewart Atkins, Robin Moor Survivor, on Visit in County, tells a Vivid Story of Incident, Gastonia (N.C.) Daily Gazette, 1941-08-01, a 1, reprinted at , and available at NewspaperArchive.com
- President Franklin Delano Roosevelt Message to the Congress on the Sinking of the Robin Moor, June 20, 1941, available at
- United Press, Reparations held unlikely, Oakland Tribune, 1941-06-22, at 1, available at NewspaperArchive.com.
- United Press, Roosevelt Supporters Urge Arming of U.S. Merchant Vessels, Oakland Tribune, 1941-06-22 at 4.
- Associated Press, Alleged Spy Accused of Tip on Robin Moor, Salamanca Republican Press, 1941-10-18, at 10, available at NewspaperArchive.com.