SS PRESIDENT WILSON
For actions on February 3, 1964
Gallant Ship Award citation:
“Responding to a distress call from the Liberian Vessel Agia Erini L., foundering and breaking up in heavy seas, the President Wilson changed course and raced to her aid. Early in the morning of February 3, 1964, rendezvous was made with the stricken vessel. The Master of the President Wilson, acting as an On-Scene Commander, placed other arriving vessels in strategic positions about the distressed ship. As the condition of the Agia Erini L. worsened, her Master signaled his decision to abandon ship and unable to launch a lifeboat, was forced to order his men into the sea. The President Wilson immediately launched a lifeboat with the chief mate in command of a crew of thirteen. Despite the heavy weather, with twenty foot swells and gale force winds, the Chief Mate handled his boat with such skill that within an hour, eighteen survivors had been picked up and safely transferred to the President Wilson.
The courage, resourcefulness, expert seamanship and splendid teamwork of her Master, officers and crew in successfully completing the rescue operation have caused the name of the President Wilson to be perpetuated as a Gallant Ship.”
SS President Wilson was a U.S. flag passenger ship (design type P2-SE2-R3), constructed by the Bethlehem Steel Company in Alameda, California and completed on April 27, 1948. Originally intended to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II as the Admiral F.B. Upham, the U.S. Maritime Commission cancelled its order for the vessel as the war was ending. In 1948, the ship was bareboat chartered to American President Line (APL) and renamed SS President Wilson. The shipping line bought the vessel outright on August 27, 1954.
During its service with APL, President Wilson operated on a Pacific Ocean route, traveling from San Francisco to Los Angeles, Hawaii, the Philippines, China, and Japan before returning on the reverse itinerary. By the late 1950s, passenger liners were being eclipsed by jet airplanes as the preferred mode of trans-oceanic travel, but APL redirected its marketing efforts to pleasure travelers and continued its liner service well past the retirement of many of President Wilson’s contemporaries.
On February 1, 1964, while underway about 600 miles southeast of Tokyo, Greek cargo ship Agia Erini L. (formerly the liberty ship Richard J. Hopkins) transmitted a general message notifying all ships in the vicinity that there were cracks in the ship’s hull and requested that all ships indicate their positions. The following day, the ship’s crew sent another message stating that its condition was critical and requested that President Wilson, the closest vessel, come to its aid. The captain of President Wilson, J. D. Cox, immediately altered course and steamed toward the ship. Four other vessels in the area also changed course to assist the stricken ship.
When President Wilson arrived, the crew found that Agia Erini L.’s condition had deteriorated and feared that the crew would soon have to abandon ship; in the early morning hours of February 3 the crew of the Green ship began to abandon their vessel. Earlier, two ships, SS Stolt Victor and SS Rolv-Jarl, had arrived on scene and Captain Cox directed the ships’ crews to position their vessels downwind of Agia Erini L. in the case escaping crew members were swept away.
Several crew members were able to escape the sinking ship via motor life boat, but the remaining began to jump over the side and into the sea. In response, President Wilson launched its #3 motor boat with a 13-man crew with Chief Officer Carl Larkin in command. Later, Larkin explained that his greatest concern was to avoid hitting any of the men with the boat’s propeller. Just 45 minutes after Larkin and crew set out, they returned to President Wilson with 18 survivors. The master of Rolv-Jarl also joined the rescue effort and maneuvered his ship close to the lifeboat to create a wind-break. Rolv-Jarl also rescued the final eight Agia Erini L. survivors from the water.
According to Captain Cox “the success of the operation rested entirely on Chief Officer Larkin and his crew.” He also stated the operation was the most dangerous operation he had witnessed in more than 40 years at sea.
President Wilson continued to serve as a passenger vessel for American President Line until it was sold to Oceanic Cruise Development, Inc. in April of 1973 and renamed Oriental Empress. In 1976, Oriental Empress was laid up in Hong Kong. In 1984 the ship was sold in Taiwan for scrap.