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, the American Petroleum Transport Corporation operated the ship under a general agency agreement.
On Thanksgiving day 1942, Cedar Mills and the Dutch-flag cargo ship SS Java, departed Freemantle, Australia, escorted by the French destroyer Le Triomphant bound for Karachi, then part of British India. Le Triomphant was running low on fuel and had intended to take on fuel from Cedar Mills while underway, but the weather quickly deteriorated. After several failed attempts, during which Java steamed ahead on its own, Cedar Mills was able to transfer enough fuel for Le Triomphant to steam slowly to the small island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
On December 2, however, the weather deteriorated further and the two ships had entered the path of a strong cyclone, which drove them apart. Over the next two days, 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, which indicates winds of over 74 miles-per-hour and waves reaching over 46 feet high.
Around dawn, Cedar Mills received an SOS from Le Triomphant. The destroyer was listing at 45-degrees and had lost power. Dead in the water, it was drifting with the storm. Cedar Mills steamed back toward the cyclone to find the destroyer; after they located the vessel late that afternoon, the tanker stationed itself on the weather side of the foundering ship and dumped oil on the water to prevent waves from washing over Le Triomphant‘s decks.
The next day, volunteers from Cedar Mills’ crew manned motorboats to begin to evacuate the sick and wounded from Le Triomphant. Seas were still too rough for the boats to maneuver alongside the destroyer, so the French sailors jumped from their ship’s deck and swam to the motorboats. The sailors then had to climb ropes or nets to get onboard Cedar Mills. Volunteers from Cedar Mills’ crew and its Naval Armed Guard jumped into the rolling seas with life rings to rescue those who were too weak or injured to climb the lines up to the ship.
Over the course of two days, as the severe weather continued, 91 officers and crewmen from Le Triomphant made it safely to Cedar Mills. As the last of the crew made it to the ship, Cedar Mills’ crew had to fire their machine guns into the water to chase off a school of barracudas.
After the weather improved, Cedar Mills towed the damaged destroyer toward safety. The tanker was relieved by HMS Frosbisher on December 10; after transferring all of the rescued French sailors to that vessel, Cedar Mills proceeded to Karachi, where it arrived and delivered its cargo on December 17, 1943.
On November 19, 1945, Cedar Mills was departing the harbor at Ancona, Italy when it struck a mine. The explosion killed one crewman, while all other hands abandoned ship, either on lifeboats or onto harbor tugs that rushed to assist the crippled ship. The War Shipping Administration declared Cedar Mills a constructive total loss that same day. The hulk was later sold to Italian salvage company Venturi Salvataggi Recuperi e Imprese Marittime Societa in February 1948.