This article is adapted from “Wreck of torpedoed WWII merchant vessel found” by Lea Edgar in BC Shipping News (vol. 6, no. 6) link: https://issuu.com/janemci/docs/bcsn-jul-aug16
On June 7, 1942, merchant vessel Coast Trader left Port Angeles, Washington with a crew of 31 men and a cargo of 1250 tons of newsprint. The ship had just exited the Strait of Juan de Fuca and set course to San Francisco when its stern was hit. It was calm and sunny at 2:20 p.m. when Japanese submarine I-26 torpedoed the ship’s stern, drastically changing life for Captain Lyle G. Havens and his crew.
When the torpedo hit, Sergeant Beauford McElroy was thrown 50 feet in the air; Oiler Vern Wikert was sent headfirst into a steel bulkhead; First Assistant Engineer C.R. Beathe became trapped under his mattress and a fallen metal locker; and Captain Havens and several other crew members were flung from their bunks. In an attempt to reach assistance, D.D. Tuggle sent an SOS message. Though he doubted it would reach anyone as the explosion had destroyed the radio antenna. Ordered to abandon ship, the crew piled into the one of the two lifeboats that had not been destroyed by the blast. Two rafts were attached to the lifeboat, and the crew watched Coast Trader sink within 40 minutes.
As the crew watched the vessel sink into the Pacific Ocean, they spotted the top of a submarine 1700 yards away. At the same time, they saw a plane on the horizon and shot off two parachute flares in attempt to attract the plane and deter the submarine. The crew also readied the .30 caliber Lewis machine gun which First Officer E.W. Nystrom had taken from the bridge, just in case.
The crew was alone as the day turned into the night. Around midnight the two rafts broke loose and detached from the lifeboat. Captain Havens rigged a makeshift sail, forcing the lifeboat toward a nearby fishing area. Captain Knut Petersen and schooner Virginia picked up the survivors and took them to Neah Bay. The 56-year-old second cook, Stephen Augustus Chance, was the only lifeboat causality. It is presumed he died from exposure.
With the help of the navy and two planes, the two rafts were spotted 30 hours after being separated from their fellow crewman. Canadian vessel HMCS Edmunston picked up the 25 survivors. Stephen Malone who had been severely crushed in his bunk and Vern Wikert who had suffered from mechanical pneumonia from inhaling oil and water were taken to a hospital in Port Angeles.
Despite eye witness and crew reports, the navy determined the blast was caused by an internal explosion and not from a submarine attack. Investigators concluded that because the sound of the explosion was quiet and the captain had not physically seen the submarine beforehand, the crew had been mistaken.
After WWII, a Japanese naval file was made public confirming a torpedo hit had been made on an unidentified ship on the date and location where the Coast Trader had been hit. The ship’s final resting place was found in 2010 by the Canadian Hydrographic Service. The stories of shipwrecks and the truth of each one’s events can often go untold, given the depths of the sea and the lack of witnesses and survivors. A lot of information that can be found when a wreck is recovered.
What wrecks are you interested in?