200 Plus

Running Afoul of Barnegat Shoals

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Mar 28, 2018

On the night of Dec. 11, 1916. U.S. Army Transport Sumner was heading north, parallel to the beaches of LBI, bound for New York City from the Panama Canal. The official Coast Guard report sets the scene.

“She carried a crew of 142 and 190 passengers, a number of the latter being women and children. … The Sumner struck the shoals at 10:40 p.m. Her whistle, calling for assistance, was heard shortly after midnight by the patrol from station 113, but as the fog prevented him seeing the vessel, he could not tell where she lay, and her position was not determined until the station keeper, summoned by the service telephone, joined him on the beach.”

The Sumner’s captain was Bruno Webber; this was his first cruise in command.

“At about 10 o’clock, it began to get heavy again, and at 10:30, it set in thick fog. I immediately set the automatic fog whistle going, rung my engines to stand by, and immediately afterward to half speed. We were giving the fog signals described by Log. … At 10:40, I went in the chart room, leaving the 4th Officer, Mr. Crockett, for the time being in charge of the bridge, holding a lookout in the crow’s nest. … I went to look up my position on the chart, and at the same time to listen in at the submarine bell apparatus for signals from the gas whistling and bell buoy situated about 5 miles to the eastward of Barnegat Light. … At 10:50, the ship grounded without any perceptible shock. I immediately stopped the engines and rung for full speed astern, in an endeavor to back the ship off, if possible. … I was within one half mile from Barnegat Light. Even at that time it was not possible to distinguish the light, which has strength of 80,000 candle power.”

According to the New York Herald of Dec. 13, “There was not the slightest hint of panic or fright among the women and children who were on board the vessel (when) she grounded. The majority of them, wives and children of officers of the United States Army. … Mrs. George W. Polhemus, wife of the Lieutenant … said that when the Sumner ran aground she felt the jar, but did not attach any special importance to it. ‘We were awakened by the bump,’ she said, ‘but somehow we had an idea that it was something in the ordinary routine of a voyage.’”

Dominic Griffin was the chief engineer on board. He later testified, “She slipped up very easy; it must have been a level bottom; she didn’t make no motion at all, she just slid up – she had a little bit of list, and when she struck she straightened up. The next bell was to back her off – we went full speed astern and then the bell came to stop; then I said I will go on the bridge. I got to the bridge and said ‘Captain, what is the trouble’; he said we went ashore. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘let us try to get her off; I am going to the engine room, and while I am down there, ring for full speed astern; I will give her every bit of pressure we got.’ We are allowed 90 lbs. of steam, we had about 87 on the gauge, so I told the 1st assistant ‘Put a man of each guide, we will run her or burn the guides up or else get her off’; I spent 11 years on that ship, so I knew every inch of her … you could hear the surf because the surd was close by – might be 200 feet away.’”

Meanwhile, the Herald was monitoring radio transmissions.

“The first wireless ‘S.O.S.’ calls indicated that the vessel and her passengers were in great danger, but at one o’clock this morning Captain Webber, her commander, sent the following wireless message: ‘Weather calm, smooth sea. Ship on sandy bottom. Tide going out, Barometer 29.75. Wind light westerly. Thick fog.’

“It was difficult to reconcile that, with earlier messages telling of seas breaking against the transport, of the urgent calls for immediate assistance, and for a later message by the operator of the Sumner, in which he stated that Captain Webber refused to say the lives of his passengers were in danger.

“The first wireless message from the Sumner was picked up at the Herald Wireless Station, at the Battery, at seventeen minutes after eleven o’clock. It read:- ‘S.O.S. S.O.S. S.O.S. Sumner.

“‘Sumner aground; believed to be off Barnegat. Exact position unknown. Heavy fog.”

The confusion was caused when one of the first messages sent by the Sumner was picked up by a nearby liner. “Are your passengers in danger?” To that the wireless operator on board the Sumner replied, “Waves are hitting us hard. We need assistance at once. Our Captain would not have sent an S.O.S if we did not.”

The Navy was having its own problems.

“The Navy Yard’s wireless then ‘picked up’ the more powerful coast guard cutter Seneca, on patrol duty off the coast.

“The Seneca was ordered to proceed under forced draught to the relief of the transport and at ten minutes after midnight reported she was on the way. The Navy Yard sent a message to the Sumner, stating that the Seneca should reach her about three o’clock this morning in the morning if the weather was at all favorable.

“Apparently the Navy Yard discovered at two o’clock this morning that it had made a mistake in estimating that the Seneca could reach the Sumner by three o’clock this morning, for at that hour the yard sent a message to the Sumner asking, ‘Can you wait for assistance until noon?’

“‘Owing to the weather conditions the sooner aid comes, the better.’”

Meanwhile, on the LBI beach were the local men of the newly formed Coast Guard, which had taken over the duties of the former U.S. Life Saving Service.

“Upon ascertaining the location of the steamer, the keeper hastened back to his station. Notified the two adjacent stations and sent out a call for a cutter. When the crew from station 114 appeared, he picked a boat’s crew from the men of the two stations and put out in his powerful surf boat. The boat went alongside that transport at 4 a.m. of the 12th and offered assistance, but was requested to stand by, the master stating that he desired to wait instructions from his superiors. The boat remained near the steamer until daylight.”

It was decided that the women and children should be rescued by the local boats before the cutters arrived. Mrs. G.L.R. Irwin was a passenger.

“‘When we came on deck at 8 o’clock this morning,’ she said, ‘we could see the shore barely 300 yards away. It was raining hard and was very cold, and the heavy surf made the ship roll uncomfortably. I felt a shock at 11:10 on Monday night when I was lying in my berth but it did not disturb me in any way, because I thought the ship had anchored to wait for the fog to lift. The Sumner pounded at intervals during the night and rolled, but I had no idea she was on the sand.

“Every one on board was calm, and there was no excitement even when the women and children had to go down a rope ladder to the lifeboats. The ladder was not quite long enough and we all had to jump six feet to the Coast Guard crew standing in the boats. The sea was calm at the time and everything was done without any difficulty whatever.”

Mrs. Charles Mann said, “About ten o’clock when the motor lifeboats came to take us ashore, there was considerable perplexity as to how the babies were to be transferred in the heavy sea that was running. Finally an officer hit upon the idea of lowering the babies in washtubs. Two washtubs were accordingly brought up from the laundry and the operation of lowering the babies one at a time fastened in these tubs was performed successfully. … We women had more trouble getting to lifeboats. It was hard to keep the ladders in position long enough to enable us to climb down. I was almost shaken off, and when I did reach the lifeboat I was soaked through.”

The Atlantic City Press told of what happened once those rescued were ashore.

“John M. Barber, proprietor of the Sunset Inn, Barnegat City, learned of the plight of the Sumner shortly after she grounded and while he could be of no immediate assistance in getting the passengers ashore, immediately prepared steaming hot food and warm clothing. When the first boat load came ashore, he was ready, and the chilled women and children were taken to the Inn and revived. Sunset Inn is closed during the winter, Barber making his home there until the regular summer hotel season opens.”

The New York Times overlooked the heroism of the rescuers and the hospitality of the locals when it summed up the event saying, “Apart from the women getting their dresses a little wet climbing down the rope ladder to the lifeboats, the incident might be correctly described as a shipwreck without thrills.”

The passengers were saved; the question now was could the crew save what was known as the most elegant ship in the Army?

Next Week: Save our ship!


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