200 Plus

Sumner Comes to Watery End

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Apr 04, 2018

On the foggy night of Dec. 11, 1916, the 351-foot Army transport Sumner, once described as the most elegant ship in the Army, ran aground in calm seas just beyond the breakers at Barnegat Light. The first concern of the local Coast Guard was to save the women and children aboard, and by mid-morning of the 12th this had been accomplished.

According to the official report, “About 10 a.m. the Mohawk dropped anchor 200 yards off the Sumner’s quarter. Two boats manned by men from the three shore stations now began the work of towing to the cutter the transport’s boats loaded with soldiers and their baggage, it having been decided to furnish the soldiers transportation to New York on the cutter. This work was performed in a snowstorm. The Seneca appearing about 2 p.m., the Mohawk got under way and departed. An officer of the Seneca, sent aboard the transport with tender of assistance, found her hard and fast throughout her length, but taking no water. At the master’s request, the cutter put a 10-inch hawser on board. Strain was kept upon the hawser.”

With the crew still on board, efforts began to lighten the ship of its cargo of scrap steel. The New York Herald of Dec. 14 reported, “The coast cutter Seneca made an attempt to pull the Sumner off yesterday afternoon, but the transport did not budge. The army transport the Kilpatrick has been ordered from Norfolk to the assistance of the Sumner and is due today. It is expected that the Kilpatrick and the Seneca possibly with help of a large wrecking tug, which arrived off Barnegat last night, will try again this morning to pull the Sumner into deep water.

“Capt. Webber and his crew have refused to leave the Sumner, but last night a wireless message indicated that they had made things ready to leave on short notice.”

Col. John M. Carson of the Quartermaster Corps sailed to the Sumner from New York to oversee the operation.

“When daybreak arrived I found that the Sumner was broadside on the beach of the sandy strip which runs along the eastern side of Barnegat inlet, about five hundred yards from the beach and about half a mile south of the Barnegat light. … Captain Webber had the day before reported to me by radiogram in response to instructions sent to him, to have the crew assist in jettisoning the cargo, that the crew had refused to do so, though they were willing to do the regular ship’s work.”

The life or death of the Sumner was hanging in the balance.

“In view of the reports made to me by Captain Webber of the conduct of the crew I directed, as soon as I reached the vessel, that the officers and crew be assembled in the Dining Saloon immediately – all that were not required at their stations. When this was done I informed the officers and crew that I was there as the representative of the War Department to take charge, and that it was evident to them that the ship was ashore; I told them I wanted them to assist in jettisoning the cargo with a view to lightening the ship so that she could be pulled off and saved (by) the Wrecking vessels sent there for the purpose. I also told them that those who did not want to render such assistance to step to one side and they would be sent to New York on the Kilpatrick. Sixty-four men stepped to one side and indicated their refusal to assist. All of the others including the ship’s officers indicated their willingness to remain. I then directed Captain Webber to have a list made of the names of those who would not remain, and to have them sent in the Sumner’s lifeboats, of which four were then lowered, to the Kilpatrick. … The others were told to proceed to their stations and be prepared to assist in jettisoning the cargo.”

With only a skeleton crew on board, it was a race against time as Carson left the ship.

“When I left the Sumner about 11:30 A.M. on the 15th, these operations had moved the vessel about sixty-five feet astern and about five degrees seaward from her original position. … The wrecking Crew’s representative informed me that unless unfavorable weather conditions occurred, such as easterly gale, he thought the vessel could be pulled off in a couple of days from that time or by the following Sunday night.”

Unfortunately for the Sumner, luck had run out.

“Just before leaving the Sumner a message was received from the Seneca to the effect that a storm warning had been sent out of approaching easterly or north-easterly gale with snow. … The gale reached this part of the Jersey coast sooner than we anticipated.”

The Asbury Park Press of Dec. 16 explained what happened next.

“The transport began to leak badly early in the evening and the engine room was flooded before midnight. At that hour the Sumner began to settle deeply into the sand, and it was believed there (was) slight probability the vessel could be saved. … The ship’s wireless could not be heard after 12:30, and apparently she had been flooded. The wireless had been gradually growing weaker for some time, and the last words caught were: ‘We are launching po…’ The last word was not finished, but it was supposed to mean power.”

The captain of the nearby cutter, Seneca, sent a radio message.

“Sumner heading northeast, one quarter north. Sumner listed fifteen degrees off shore. Full of water fore and aft. Rudder gone. Crew on Seneca and wrecking tug Rescue. Master of Sumner and wrecking crew of Sumner waiting for wind to moderate. Fresh water and stores under water. Vessel is sixteen feet least depth at high water. Chances of saving doubtful at this season of the year.”

The time had come to abandon ship. According to the Coast Guard report, “Sometime in the early morning of the 16th, … a radio from the Sumner advised the cutter that she was leaking badly, and asked that a boat be sent to take off the crew. The cutter’s lifeboat accordingly put off and brought back 12 men. It appears that about this time one of the Sumner’s boats had started off for the cutter with 27 men on board, but, unable to make headway in the gale that prevailed, had drifted to sea. Her load discharged, the cutter’s boat gave chase, and overhauled this boat, but found herself unable to face the blow with the other boat in tow.”

It now fell to the Barnegat Light crew to save the survivors of the Sumner. The report continued, “In the meantime the crew of station 113 had also gone off to the transport in their power life-boat. Seeing the Seneca’s searchlight playing upon the two helpless boats a mile or more offshore, the station crew went out after them. The lifeboat took both boats in tow and started back, but the towline soon parted. A second likewise failed to stand the strain put upon it. The line had just been made fast a third time when the wrecking tug Rescue appeared. The tug took on board 27 men in the transport’s boat and with the cutter’s boat in tow, returned to her anchorage. Wind and sea prevented further operations during the night. The next morning a lifeboat from the Sumner drifted down alongside the Seneca and was taken on board. … The vessel was entirely abandoned on the 17th.”

On the 17th, Carson wired Washington what would be a death warrant for the Sumner.

“… tide rising and falling in number three hold. Engine room and fire room and all bulkheads leaking listed off shore fifteen degrees heading northeast moving in bad high tide. … Rudder post and rudder broken and gone stern frame broken and opened up ship. … Merritt and Chapman Company’s office states that according to their judgment and because of the season of the year the age of the ship and all of the above conditions as outlined in the message it is not practicable to continue their efforts to save the ship period. … In view of preceding recommend that wrecking operations be called off.”

Over the next weeks as the storms of winter pounded the ship, the residents of Barnegat Light watched the Sumner’s death throes as it was transformed from elegant transport to a menace to navigation.

Next Week: The Sumner’s epilogue.


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