SS CEDAR MILLS
For actions on December 1, 1943.
Gallant Ship Award Citation:
“In December 1943, SS Cedar Mills and her French destroyer escort were caught in a violent cyclone and became widely separated. The destroyer, short of fuel and unable to maneuver, was in a sinking condition with a forty-five degree list when the Cedar Mills picked up her distress call. Against strong winds and mountainous seas, she fought through to the other ship’s assistance, succeeded in transferring most of her crew, and towed the destroyer for five days until rendezvous was made with a British Man-of-War which relieved her.
The stark courage of her gallant crew in this heroic rescue caused her name to be perpetuated as a Gallant Ship.”
A T2 tanker, SS Cedar Mills was built by Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company in Mobile. Delivered to the War Shipping Administration on July 15, 1943, it was operated by the American Petroleum Transport Corporation under a general agency agreement.
On Thanksgiving, 1942, SS Cedar Mills and the Dutch-flag cargo ship SS Java, departed Freemantle, Australia with the French destroyer Le Triomphant acting as escort. The small convoy was bound for Karachi, then part of British India. Le Triomphant was running low on fuel and had intended to take on fuel from SS Cedar Mills while underway, but the weather quickly deteriorated. After several failed attempts, during which Java steamed ahead on its own, SS Cedar Mills was able to transfer enough fuel for Le Triomphant to steam slowly to the small island of Diego Garcia, located in the Indian Ocean .
On December 2, however, the weather deteriorated further. The two ships had entered the path of a strong cyclone, which drove them apart. Over the next two days, SS Cedar Mills was battered by powerful winds. Around midnight on December 3, at the peak of the storm, the vessel reported winds at gale force 12; this is the highest rating on the Beaufort wind force scale, and denotes winds over 74 miles per hour and wave heights over 46 feet.
Around dawn on the morning of the 3rd, SS Cedar Mills received an SOS call from Le Triomphant. The destroyer was listing at 45-degrees and had no steam. Dead in the water, it was drifting with the storm. SS Cedar Mills sailed back into the cyclone to find the destroyer; when it was discovered late that afternoon, the tanker stationed itself on the weather side of the foundering warship and dumped oil on the water in order to prevent waves from washing over Le Triomphant’s decks.
The next day, volunteers from SS Cedar Mills‘s crew manned motorboats to begin the evacuation of the sick and wounded from Le Triomphant. Seas were still too rough for the boats to be put alongside the destroyer, so the French sailors resorted to jumping from the deck of their ship and swimming to the motorboats. Back at the tanker, evacuees were forced to climb ropes or nets to get onboard. Volunteers from SS Cedar Mills‘s crew and Naval Armed Guards leapt into the rolling seas with life rings to rescue those who were too weak or injured to climb lines onto the ship.
Over the course of two days in continuously inclement weather, 91 officers and crewmen from Le Triomphant evacuated to SS Cedar Mills. On the final evacuation, the captain of SS Cedar Mills reported that it was necessary to fire machine guns into the water to chase off a school of waiting barracudas.
As the weather improved, SS Cedar Mills was able to tow the damaged destroyer toward safety. The tanker was relieved by HMS Frosbisher on December 10; after transferring all of the evacuated French sailors to that vessel, SS Cedar Mills proceeded to Karachi, where it arrived and delivered its cargo on December 17, 1943.
On November 19, 1945, SS Cedar Mills was departing the harbor at Ancona, Italy when it struck a mine. The explosion killed one crewman, while all other hands were able to escape, either on lifeboats or onto harbor tugs that rushed to assist the crippled ship. The War Shipping Administration declared SS Cedar Mills a constructive total loss on the same day. The hulk was later sold to Italian salvage company Venturi Salvataggi Recuperi e Imprese Marittime Societa in February, 1948.