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Ian Ferguson's Homepage, Part One:


SS Albertolite

SS Albertolite
Photo Source: Robert G. Halford's The Unknown Navy: Canada's WWII Merchant Navy.

The SS Albertolite was an oceangoing steam-powered 9,600-DWT tanker built in 1912 as the Adorna (Click for details). She survived the First World War and was renamed Caddo after the war. In 1929 she was purchased by Imperial Oil Limited, the Canadian subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey. Imperial Oil christened her Albertolite, and she was the second of the company's ships to bear that name. Albertolite serviced Imperial Oil's Pacific routes, bringing crude oil from various ports in South America and California to the company's terminus at Ioco, British Columbia. By time the Second World War broke out in September 1939, Albertolite was the oldest vessel in the company's fleet of ten oceangoing tankers, and she was ready for retirement, but the war and the slaughter of Allied merchant shipping, put an end to those plans.

During World War Two the Imperial Oil fleet, which included lake and coastal tankers as well as the ocean-going ships, played a vital part in the war effort. The price in men and ships was costly and by time the war ended Imperial Oil's oceangoing fleet had been nearly halved by enemy action: MV Candolite and her whole crew were captured by the German raider Kormoran on 25 March 1941 -- the men spent the rest of the war in the German POW (Prisoner of War) camp at Marag und Milag Nord; MV Montrolite
Canadian Merchant Navy Badge
Canadian Merchant Navy Badge
was torpedoed by U-109 en route to Halifax from Venezuela on 4 February 1942 with the loss of 28 lives; MV Victolite was torpedoed by U-564 on 10 February 1942 with the loss of her entire crew of 47; and MV Calgarolite was torpedoed by U-125 on 4 February 1942 -- all her crew members managed to reach shore safely in the ship's lifeboats. Before the USA entered the war Imperial Oil also managed seventeen American-owned, but Panamanian-flagged tankers. One of them, the MV Joseph Seep , was mined in Le Havre, France on May 25th, 1940, and another, the MV James McGee was mined in the Bristol Channel on June 20th, 1940. Although no one was killed on either ship, three men aboard James McGee were injured. As the war progressed Imperial Oil also took over the management of thirteen of the Canadian-built "Park" tankers. One of them, the SS Nipiwan Park , was torpedoed off Halifax on January 4th, 1945 with the loss of two lives.

Ian Ferguson, WWII
Ian Ferguson, WWII
The following pictures on this page are from the collection of former British Merchant Sailor Ian Ferguson. Ian's first ship was the British cargo vessel SS Shaftesbury which he joined at Leith, Scotland, in May 1941, when he was just 16 years of age. On 12 July 1942 SS Shaftesbury was attacked in the Atlantic Ocean, off the Azores, by the German "pig boat" U-116, one of the eight large Type XB Minelayer U-boats in service during the war. Fortunately for Ian, by the summer of 1942 he had already left the Shaftesbury and signed aboard the Albertolite at her home port of Vancouver, British Columbia. Under the command of her master Captain Mosher, Albertolite was continuing her usual service but, by December 1941, the waters which the tanker frequented had become very dangerous.

SS Shaftesbury

SS Shaftesbury
Photo Source: Courtesy of Billy McGee of the British Merchant Navy at War website.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, nine of their submarines which had which had patrolled a line 120 miles north of Oahu during the attack, quickly moved east to target merchant ships off the coasts of California and Oregon. On December 20th, 25 miles from Cape Mendocino, California, I-17 (Nishino) torpedoed and sank the American tanker SS Emidio, with the loss of five lives.
Map of NW Coast
The next day I-23 (Shibata) attacked the American tanker SS Agwiworld south of Monterey Bay, but she got away. On December 22nd, the American tanker SS H.M. Storey, had a lucky escape when she was attacked by I-19 (Narahara) only 2 miles off Point Arguello, California -- she was saved by the timely arrival of a Navy plane which dropped depth charges and forced the submarine to dive. Unfortunately, the tanker would not be so lucky in the future. On December 23rd I-17 struck again off northern California, but her intended victim, the American tanker SS Larry Doheny, got away -- like H.M. Storey, she would not be so lucky the next time. Also on December 23rd, the submarine I-21 (Matsumura) torpedoed the tanker SS Montebello, off the coast of northern California, and then proceeded to machine-gun the survivors in the water. Miraculously, all of Montebello's 38 crew members survived the murderous atrocity. A short time later that same day I-21 attacked the American tanker SS Idaho, but, luckily for all aboard, Idaho escaped her vicious attacker. The following day, December 24th, I-19 (Narahara), succeeded in torpedoing the American freighter SS Absaroka, about 26 miles off San Pedro, California. Although Absaroka survived the attack, one of her crew members was killed. On Christmas Day, Agwiworld's earlier attacker, I-23, was again unsuccessful when she shelled the American freighter SS Dorothy Philips in Monterey Bay. The last Japanese attack in the area took place on the 28th of December when I-25, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Meiji Tagami, attempted to torpedo the American tanker SS Connecticut, only 10 nautical miles off the mouth of the Columbia River, Oregon. Fortunately, Connecticut, although damaged, managed to escape -- she ended up running aground at the mouth of the Columbia River -- but her reprieve was only temporary. On April 23rd, 1942 in the South Atlantic, Connecticut was sunk in a horrific attack by torpedo boat LS-4 from the German raider Michel. 35 men died at the scene; 1 more died aboard the raider; and of the 18 survivors, 2 more died under the barbaric conditions inflicted upon them as POW's of the Japanese. After their December 1941 attacks off the coast of California and Oregon, the Japanese submarines withdrew from the northwest coast waters, but it would not be long before they would return.

Japanese Submarine I-26


On the same day as Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941, American freighter SS Cynthia Olson, en route from Tacoma, Washington to Honolulu, was torpedoed 1,000 miles northeast of Diamond Head by I-26 (Yokota). Although her Radio Operator managed to send out a distress call, all 35 men aboard the ship were lost. Cynthia Olson was the first American-flagged merchantman to be sunk by a Japanese submarine in WWII.

PHOTO SOURCE: Keepers of the Light: A History of British Columbia's Lighthouses and Their Keepers, by Donald Graham. Madeira Park, B.C., Harbour Publishing Co. Ltd., c1985.

By June of 1942, Japanese submarines were once again prowling the waters off the west coast of Canada and the United States. Far to the north, off Alaska, (Click for Map), Japanese forces attacked the outpost of Dutch Harbor on the Aleutian island of Unalaska, and three days later went on to occupy the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska. On July 14th, the unarmed American freighter SS Arcata, en route alone from Bethel, Alaska, to Seattle, Washington, was shelled in the Gulf of Alaska by I-7 (Koizumi). Seven lost their lives at the time of the attack and one more man died when the submarine machine-gunned the survivors in the water. The ship sank the next day, and although Arcata's courageous Radio Operator had managed to send a distress signal at the time of the attack, the first 11 survivors were not rescued until July 17th when they were found by the American destroyer USS Kane. The other 13 survivors were at sea for eight days before they were rescued by the fishing vessel Yukon.

Meanwhile, farther down the northwest coast, on June 2nd, one of the new Canadian-built "Fort" ships destined for Britain, Fort Camosun, was torpedoed off Cape Flattery, located on the northern tip of Washington state. Fort Camosun's attacker was the Japanese submarine I-25, which earlier under the same commander, Lieutenant Commander Meiji Tagami, had damaged the SS Connecticut off Oregon. After that attack I-25 had returned to Kwajalein Atoll to stock up on fuel, provisions and fuel, before returning to the West Coast. Luckily for Fort Camosun's crew, when the freighter was torpedoed, her load of lumber kept her afloat and she reached port safely. A few days later on June 7th, an American cargo ship, the SS Coast Trader was torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese submarine I-26 35 miles southwest of Cape Flattery. Survivors were rescued by the HMCS Edmunston and fishing vessel Virginia I, but one life was lost. (Click for more on I-26). These new attacks so near to the province of British Columbia and the state of Washington were very worrying to both the Canadian and American governments. Since January 1942 German U-boats had been decimating merchant shipping off the eastern seaboard of North America, and that crisis was not brought under control until convoys were finally organised in mid-1942. There was no convoy system set up on the west coast of North America and in the early years of the war when the Royal Canadian Navy was tiny in size, the only naval vessels available to patrol British Columbia's shores were the little boats of the Fisherman's Reserve. Although by mid-1942 merchant vessels like Albertolite were lightly armed and carried DEMS or Naval Guard Gunners they continued to travel the coast alone, and were extremely vulnerable to attack.

Storm off San Francisco
Along with the danger from their human enemy, the westcoast mariners always had to deal with sea and weather conditions which could be just as deadly. Ian encountered his first bad storm in the summer of 1942 when Albertolite was just off San Francisco, California. This photo was taken looking aft (to the rear) from amidships (middle) and it shows Albertolite during the storm with her docks awash and her lifeboat nearly covered by the waves.
View of Bridge and Monkey Island
One of the crew members, Seaman McCauley is also just visible in the back top left of the picture -- a tiny figure hunched over against the wind. Ian's next photo was taken facing the opposite way towards the bow (front) of the Albertolite, and it shows the ship's Bridge and above that the Monkey Island where one of the crew members has been stationed to keep a sharp lookout. The smaller photo below is a close-up of the Monkey Island showing the crew member more clearly.
Close-up of Monkey Island

Here is another dramatic photo of the storm's fury again looking aft.

Another view of the storm

The storm was still at full strength when Ian retired that night to his bunk in the crew's quarters in the stern of the ship. At 2:00 a.m. the next morning the sleeping area was suddenly innundated by a huge wave which swamped the deck through the skylight. Ian and his mates awoke to find that they were knee-deep in water and in the eerie blue light they all thought that the Albertolite had been torpedoed. As Ian later put it, "There was no time to think -- we were too busy getting out!" Everyone was very relieved when they arrived up on deck and realized what had happened.

In early October 1942 Albertolite made a visit to the tiny community of Avila (now Avila Beach), California, in order to fill up with crude oil which was stored there in tanks. While they were at Avila, Ian managed to write a very quick postcard to his mother back in England. The first photo below shows Avila, California, and is the front of Ian's postcard. It is followed by the back of Ian's postcard with the reassuring words "Doing O.K., Ian".

Front of Avila postcard

Back of Avila postcard

However, on October 6th, 1942, the day that Ian mailed his postcard, Captain Mosher suddenly ordered everyone back to the ship. They were to sail at once for their home port of Vancouver because there were enemy submarines off the coast of Oregon. Two American tankers had just been sunk by the Japanese submarine I-25, the same sub which had torpedoed the SS Fort Camosun in June 1942.
SS Camden on fire
SS Camden
On October 4th, just two days before Captain Mosher's announcement, I-25 torpedoed and sank the SS Camden. The tanker, en route from San Pedro, California, to Portland, Oregon with diesel fuel had been stopped for engine repairs at the time of the attack. Camden caught on fire and had to be abandoned, although she remained afloat. Six days later on October 10th she sank while being towed to port by the tug Kenai. Meanwhile her crew had been rescued by the Swedish merchant ship MV Kookaburra, but in the process one crew member was lost. Late on the night of October 5th, I-25 torpedoed the SS Larry Doheny which was on her way to Portland from Long Beach, California. Although the tanker had escaped an earlier attack on 24 December 1941, by I-17, off Cape Mendocino, California, this time her luck had ran out. Larry Doheny burst into flames so fierce that her radio operator was unable to send out a distress call. Two boatloads of survivors were found the next day, October 6th, by the USS Coos Bay, but, out of Larry Doheny's complement of forty-four, six were lost.

Headed back to sea
Headed back to sea.
Albertolite's crew were all very aware of the danger they faced as the tanker made her way up the coast towards Vancouver -- ominously Albertolite was on the same route that Montebello had been following back in December 1941 when she was sunk and her survivors machine-gunned in the water by I-21. One windy, moonlit night Ian was on duty when Albertolite's alarm bells started ringing and her engines were brought to a slow speed. Ian and the DEMS gunners quickly manned the gun on their ship's stern. With clouds scudding across the moon, the tanker was in shadow, but out on the moonlit water the gun crew could see a strange, low outline on the water and even hear voices -- everyone was sure that they had the Japanese submarine which had sunk Camden and Larry Doheny in their sights. The gun crew waited impatiently for Captain Mosher on the bridge to give the order to fire. But, no order came, and much to everyone's frustration after a half-hour stand-off both the submarine and the tanker went their own ways. However it was accomplished, Albertolite had been very fortunate to escape the same fate as the other vessels which were attacked by I-25. Ian wondered later if both skippers had held off firing in case they "both might have come unstuck" and he always wished that he could have read I-25's log book just to see what tale it would tell.

The I-25 was indeed a formidable enemy to a merchant ship. Not only was the submarine equipped with the usual torpedoes and deck guns, but she also carried a small Yokosuka E14Y reconnaissance floatplane known as a "Glen". The floatplane was launched from a forward catapult and when not in use, it was disassembled and stowed in a watertight hangar. The I-25's plane was flown by Warrant Flying Officer Nobuo Fujita
Warrant Flying Officer Fujita
Warrant Flying Officer Fujita
who had previously flown his plane over both Sydney and Melbourne, Australia -- Japanese subs and planes had moved into Australian waters and begun targeting shipping in May 1942. When I-25 arrived off the coast of Oregon in September 1942, Fujita flew over the coastal forests and dropped bombs which set small fires ablaze. Although there were no human casualties, the attacks marked the first time that the American mainland was bombed. I-25 also took part in the attacks by firing seventeen shells at the Oregon coast, although again there were no deaths or injuries. On October 11th, 1942, a few days after her attack on Larry Doheny, I-25 mistakenly sunk the Russian submarine, L-16 . Russia and Japan were not at war at the time, but Tagami had thought that the Russian submarine was American. On May 18th, 1943, off the New Hebrides, I-25 sank one more Allied vessel, the American tanker H.M. Storey. The tanker had earlier escaped the attack off Point Arguello, California by I-19, but this time she could not get away. Two of H.M. Storey's crew were killed and three others were injured in the attack. On September 3rd, 1943, just under a year since her terrorization of North America's northwest coast, I-25 met her fate when she was sunk with all hands by the American destroyer USS Patterson. By that time neither I-25's former commander, Tagami, nor Flying Warrant Officer Fujita, were aboard the submarine. Fujita survived the war and he later visited the United States as a tourist. (Click here for Statistics on I-Boats).

Throughout the rest of the war Albertolite and her gallant men continued servicing her regular routes, and fortunately, did not experience any other encounters with the enemy. After their 1942 attacks on merchant shipping off the North American west coast, the Japanese I-boats withdrew back to the South Pacific where they concentrated their efforts against American warships. Although merchant ships continued to be sunk throughout the Pacific Ocean, the submarines did not return to the coastal waters off California, Oregon, and British Columbia. (Click to view other NW Pacific losses). Albertolite survived the war and when Imperial Oil finally replaced the faithful tanker in 1946 she had reached the venerable age of 34 years. When her long career at sea was over, Albertolite continued to provide useful service as part of the floating breakwater at Powell River, British Columbia.

Ian Ferguson's Homepage is continued in Part Two: Hedgehog


The main sources used for this page are Axis Submarine Successes of World War Two: German, Italian and Japanese Successes, 1939-1945, by Jürgen Rohwer and A Careless Word...A Needless Sinking: A History of the Staggering Losses Suffered by the U.S. Merchant Marine, Both in Ships and Personnel, During World War Two, by Captain Arthur R. Moore.

This page is maintained by Maureen Venzi and it is part of the Allied Merchant Navy of WWII website.