WWII Hero Edwin O’Hara: The Honor, But Not the Medal

(Edwin O'Hara, loading the 4 inch gun on the SS Stephen Hopkins. By W.M. Wilson, on display at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.)

For them there are no big parades, 
No heroes' welcome gay,
No uniforms, and no applause 
To cheer them on their way.
But they are heroes, too, these men 
Who sail the seven seas,
Our hats are off to their valiant crews,
For unsung victories.
They are the men who go down to the sea in ships,
With courage and faith serene, 
"God Speed You All" is the prayer on our lips,
For the Men of the Merchant Marine.

-- By Eleanor L. Neal (Wife of a Merchant Officer) - From
Polaris Magazine, U. S. Merchant Marine Academy, August 1942 

Eighteen-year-old Merchant Marine Cadet Edwin Joseph O'Hara (left), having heard the captain’s command to “ABANDON SHIP!” had made his way up onto the deck of the “Liberty ship,” S.S. Stephen Hopkins. He was greeted with a scene of carnage and destruction. Smoke filled the air as flames engulfed part of the ship. The dead and wounded were strewn across the deck with the moans of the wounded mingling with exploding shells and the buzzing of machine gun rounds.

Edwin spotted his good friend, Navy Lt. j.g. Kenneth M. Willett, trying to help launch one of the ship’s life rafts. His hand was over a shrapnel wound in his abdomen so severe that blood was streaming over his thighs and his intestines were visible between his fingers. The fire from the German merchant raider Stier had stopped, and the men were desperately trying to launch a lifeboat and life rafts as the doomed ship sank deeper into the South Atlantic.

As he reached his friend, Edwin was shocked to see how critically wounded he was. Suddenly, the Stier opened fire again. One of the lifeboats was hit, killing nearly everyone in it. If this continued, it was unlikely anyone loading into the one remaining undamaged lifeboat would survive. O’Hara looked toward the now unmanned 4 inch stern gun, the ship’s only large-caliber gun. The crew had been commanded by Willett, but now they were all dead, or like Willett, severely wounded.

O’Hara believed he knew enough about how to operate the gun to fire it. If it were to resume firing, the Stier would likely redirect their fire to the gun, giving the survivors a fighting chance to load and launch their last lifeboat and some life rafts. He must have also known he was unlikely to survive if the six 5.9 inch guns of the Stier began to concentrate on silencing this lone heavy gun. There was some chance of survival if he simply dove into the sea and hoped to get into the lifeboat or a raft, but O’Hara did not do that -- instead, he ran to the stern gun.

Seeing there were five shells remaining, the teenager began the process of loading the first and soon fired the gun. The men attempting to load the boats looked up and cheered as the round scored a hit on the Stier, then quickly got to work using the respite O’Hara was providing to get the boats launched.

What was happening to the men of the sinking Stephen Hopkins on September 27, 1942 had become, unfortunately, all too familiar to the men for the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II. Part of the outcome of their desperate struggle for survival that day, however, would include an event that was unique to that action.

O’Hara was born November 27, 1923, in Lindsay, Calif. He was the youngest son of Joseph C. and Elma Fugle O’Hara and grew up on their family farm (right). Though he was a member of “Future Farmers of America,” his then 12-year-old sister, Dorothy, recalled that he had the sort of desire to “see the world” that has often led young men to go “down to the sea in ships.” She says Edwin was interested in the Navy submarine service, but decided to join the Merchant Marines. The Maritime Commission had a Cadet program that included a Basic School he attended at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay.

Edwin turned 18 just 10 days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and at that point, said Dorothy, “You couldn’t hold him back; he just had to go.” The wartime course of the Merchant Marines was reduced to 8 weeks of basic training followed by 6 months at sea, and then 9 more months of class work. In March 1942, following his basic training, Edwin was assigned to the SS Mariposa, an ocean liner converted to a troop transport. However, a knee injury caused him to sign off the Mariposa before it sailed. In May he was reassigned to the newly launched “Liberty Ship” SS Stephen Hopkins in San Francisco. Liberty Ships were mass-produced merchant ships that played a huge role in winning World War II. It would be an ill-fated injury, as the Mariposa would go on to have an uneventful wartime career, unlike the Steven Hopkins.

On May 25th the Steven Hopkins departed under the command of Captain Paul Buck, of Merrimacport, Massachusetts. They loaded cargo in Los Angeles, then headed across the Pacific. They were destined for New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and then back to the United States. His sister said he wanted to “see the world,” and in his first voyage he was going to go around the world. How excited Edwin must have been at the prospect.

Just a few days before the Stephen Hopkins weighed anchor, another ship set to sea several thousand miles away. After one failed attempt, the German merchant raider Stier (Bull) made its way past the British blockade of the English Channel and into the Atlantic. Merchant raiders were cargo ships that were converted into armed cruisers and disguised, designed to be used only against allied merchant ships traveling alone or in small unescorted groups.

The Stier began life in 1936 as the freighter Cairo. By May 1942, she had been converted to a raider with six 5.9-inch guns, one 3-inch gun, two 37-mm anti-aircraft guns hidden by false walls, along with two torpedo tubes below the surface of the hull. She had a top speed of about 14.5 knots, which was faster than many, but not all, allied merchant ships, but much faster than the Liberty Ships' top speed of about 11 knots. She sailed into the South Atlantic looking for unsuspecting enemy merchant ships, under the command of Captain Horst Gerlach. By September, they had sunk just 3 enemy ships. This was probably disappointing to Captain Gerlach and may have made him more aggressive in the coming action with the Stephen Hopkins.

(Above: Stier: the elongated structure amidship are a false wall that hid its 5.9-inch guns.)

The Stephen Hopkins made an uneventful crossing of the Pacific, stopping first at Bora Bora, where the crew got some shore leave. They reached New Zealand in early July, and then sailed on to Melbourne, Australia. They were in port for 11 days, so the crew got to visit the city. How happy Edwin must have been as he explored first the exotic Bora Bora and then this foreign city with his friends. The teenager’s dream of seeing the world was coming true.

In August, loaded with Australian wheat, they departed for South Africa, and ran into fierce storms on the trip across the Indian Ocean. Edwin may have been reconsidering his career choice as the ship was tossed about. One of the ways construction was sped for the Liberty Ships was by welding the plates together rather than riveting them. It made for fast construction, but a far-weaker hull. A few would break in half in heavy seas. The Stephen Hopkins (below) sprung some leaks in her forward hold that must have scared the hell out of Edwin and the rest of the crew, but she held together to get repaired in Durban on September 13th. They had cheated fate in the storm, but only temporarily. The delay caused by the storm damage would put them in the wrong place at the wrong time.

On September 19, the now empty Stephen Hopkins (above) departed Cape Town bound for Paramaribo in Dutch Guiana. There they would load up with bauxite, to be brought through the Panama Canal and home to sunny California. An unlucky civilian soldier of fortune named George Townsend, anxious to return to the United States, was taken on as a passenger. How Edwin must have longed to get home and tell his little sister Dorothy about all the wonderful places he had seen on his journey around the world.

(Below: Captain Horst Gerlach)

Just after they departed, the German blockade runner Tannefels met the merchant raider Michel to resupply them. The Stephen Hopkins was steaming to the exact location, 24.44°S, 21.50°, of the rendezvous of the other two German vessels. On the 24th, the Michel was done resupplying and sailed away as the Steven Hopkins closed on their position. But the Tannefels did not leave the location. The Stier was also scheduled to resupply there and arrived the next day. With luck they would have been done with the resupply and gone before the Stephen Hopkins arrived, but the fates intervened again. The weather took a turn for the worse, slowing down the transfer of supplies. As a rainy Sunday, the 27th, dawned the visibility was very poor. The South Atlantic is a vast expanse of sea, but against all odds of probability, the Stephen Hopkins was on a virtual collision course with the two stationary German ships as the sun came up.

Just before 9 am, one of the lookouts on the Stier saw the Stephen Hopkins through the mist and rain squalls less than two miles away. Third Mate Walter Nyberg, standing watch on Stephen Hopkins’ bridge, saw the two German ships around the same time. Captain Gerlach, knowing any ship he encountered was almost certainly an enemy ship, immediately gave the order to go to battle stations and go to full speed ahead. His well-trained crew would quickly have their guns ready to go into action.

On the Stephen Hopkins, Captain Buck shortly sounded “general quarters,” though he was hopeful they had encountered friendly vessels. Those hopes were soon dashed as he peered through is binoculars and saw the swastika in the middle of the blood red German Kriegsmarine flag (left) rising up on the Stier, like an 18th century pirate ship running up the Jolly Roger. Then the false walls were pulled away from her guns. As he saw heavy guns come into view, he knew that his Liberty ship was totally outgunned by German merchant surface raider. He also saw the Stier raise a signal flag ordering the SS Stephen Hopkins to halt.

Many allied merchant ships did surrender when confronted by a German raider, but the Stephen Hopkins did not. Buck had already informed his crew that if they met a raider they would fight. They would follow U.S. naval tradition: “Don’t Give up the Ship!” Buck had drilled his Navy gun crews constantly during the voyage, and one of the keenest observers of the drills on the 4-inch stern gun, though he was assigned to the engine room, was Cadet Edwin O’Hara. Down in that engine room now the command was received for “full speed.” Buck steered hard to port to put his stern toward the Stier, giving them a smaller target and giving his one heavy gun a clear shot at the enemy. If the Stephen Hopkins was going down, and Buck must have known it was, it was going to go down fighting.

Lt. Kenneth Willett, O’Hara’s friend and fellow Californian, the commander of the 4-inch gun, was below when the battle stations alert was sounded. As he was running to the gun with his crew, the Stier opened fire. One of the first rounds to the ship tore a piece of shrapnel into his abdomen before he reached the gun, but the 22-year-old sailor staggered back to his gun and commanded it. As he and crew manned the gun, the Stier had closed the distance to 1,000 yards. This was like two boxers in a clinch, but in fire power the Stephen Hopkins was like a fly-weight clinching with a heavy-weight. Still, Captain Gerlach, with the superior firepower, may have been overly aggressive in getting that close rather than standing further off with his larger guns.

(Above: Diagram of the Stier, showing the location of her guns.)

Still, the Stephen Hopkins was being raked with not just 5.9 inch guns, but also the smaller 37 mm guns and even their machine guns at this close range. The drills were paying off for Willet and his crew, however -- they were loading and firing quickly, and the Stier was feeling their sting. Shortly, a round from the Stier penetrated Hopkins' engine room, however, putting the engines out of action and killing some of the crew. Edwin O’Hara barely escaped and began a struggle to get to the deck through the choking smoke-filled compartment. They were about to be dead in the water, but Captain Buck remained in the wheelhouse, using their remaining forward momentum to keep the stern gun toward the Stier.

Willett and his gun crew and the men on the 37 mm bow guns had not allowed the Stier to inflict this close-range damage on the Stephen Hopkins with impunity. One of Willett’s rounds disabled the Stier’s rudder, and then another one hit their engine room. Both ships were now dead in the water and less than 1,000 yards apart, so close that nearly every round was hitting their target.

The uneven contest appeared to come to its inevitable end when the crews of both the bow 37 mm guns and the stern 4 inch gun were killed or disabled. Before they were silenced, however, Willett and his intrepid crew had fired 35 rounds, with perhaps close to half of them slamming into the Stier. But the Stier had also hit the Stephen Hopkins over and over. The superstructure and bridge were heavily damaged and burning and the ship was clearly sinking. Captain Buck finally gave the order to abandon ship.

(Right: A 4 inch naval gun.)

When Edwin O’Hara got to the 4 inch stern gun, his first duty was an extremely traumatic one for him. He had to clear away from the gun the dead bodies of men who had become his friends during their months at sea. It’s hard to conceive of the courage it took for an 18-year-old to drag his dead comrades’ bodies away from the gun with the ship burning around him, shells slamming into the ship and the machine gun rounds of both the Stier and Tannefels buzzing over head and pinging off the deck. Somehow, he got it done, and then one by one he muscled the five 91-pound rounds into the breach of the gun and aimed and fired them by himself. The gunners on the Stier immediately concentrated their fire on the vexatious enemy gun they thought they had already destroyed.

The survivors later said that all five rounds O’Hara fired hit the Stier. That certainly seems as if it might be their admiration of this teenager’s amazing valor causing a selective memory, but it’s really irrelevant to the heroism of this incredible young man, whether true or not. What is true is that in the moment of extreme crisis, with his own life hanging in the balance, his selfless actions in defense of his country and his comrades were in the finest tradition of the U.S. military, though the government insisted the Merchant Marines were “civilians.”

(Left: The location of the battle.)

With the firing of that fifth round, Edwin had done all he could do to help his friends to survive and could now try to save himself, but it was not to be. Some said he was killed by a shell from the Stier at the gun immediately after firing the last round. Others that he was killed by machine fire while attempting to help some of the wounded into the one undamaged lifeboat shortly after that. What is known for sure is that his body went down with the ship.

A life raft with Captain Buck and several others on it was spotted by someone at one point, but that was the last time he was seen. One of the Navy armed guards who survived the sinking, Seaman Wallace Breck, was the sole survivor of the forward 37 mm gun crew when it took a direct hit. He was then in a lifeboat that took a direct hit from the Stier shortly after they began to abandon ship, once again killing everyone but him. He was picked up by 2nd Engineer George Cronk (right), who got the one surviving lifeboat launched and commanded it.

In the end, only 19 members of the crew survived the sinking in the one undamaged life boat. The story of the men in that boat would be an epic tale of its own, as they spent 31 days in that boat before landing on the shore of Brazil. Fifteen of them, gaunt and barely alive, survived that harrowing journey; all that was left of the crew of 57. How many of the crew may have died horrible deaths or starvation or thirst stranded on one of the life rafts we'll never know. Cronk lost 41 pounds while surviving the ordeal on the lifeboat. It is only because those few survived that we know of the heroism of O’Hara, Willett and others on the ship. 

As the men in the lifeboat looked back at their slowly sinking ship, they could take solace in the fact that the Stier was barely in better condition. The battle had only lasted about a half hour, but at such close range the gunners of the Stephen Hopkins had hit the Stier at least 15 times with rounds from the 4 inch gun and numerous time from the 37 mm gun. As Captain Gerlach observed the crew of his sinking opponent in the water and manning their one lifeboat, he ordered him men to cease fire. Now, taking stock of the condition of his own ship, he realized they had achieved a Pyrrhic victory. Looking around he saw fires burning and smoke billowing below decks. After receiving the damage reports from his crew, he realized the ship was not salvageable.

Luckily for Captain Gerlach and his men, the Tannefels was there to save them from the fate of the crew of the Stephen Hopkins. Gerlach had scuttling charges set and the crew transferred. As the men in the lifeboat and any others who may have been living in the water or on life rafts saw those explosions, they knew their sacrifice had not been vain.

(Left: A photo taken from the Tannefels of the scuttling charges going off on the Stier.)

One of the Tannenfels' crewmen, Hans Grunert, later claimed that they searched for American survivors in the rough seas, but the time it took to transfer the Stier crew would have scattered the American survivors. They did not find any of them. "With our flag at half-mast, we made a full circle around the spot where the Liberty ship had sunk, thus rendering the last honors to our brave adversary,'' Grunet said. When Gerlach got back to Germany he claimed in his report that, based on the high rate of fire directed on his ship, he had been sunk by a light cruiser, not a merchant ship with just one large caliber gun.

(Below: A group of survivors in a Liberty Ship lifeboat.)

The Stier would sink no more Allied ships because of the valiant crew of the SS Stephen Hopkins. What crewmen didn’t know at the time was just how unique and incredible their achievement would be. Though they were sunk, in trading their one merchant ship for a heavily armed German raider, they had certainly been victorious in the battle. And it was one of the unique victories of the war. The Stier would be the only German surface vessel sunk by  an American ship during the war. The U.S. Maritime Commission awarded the Stephen Hopkins and its crew the Gallant Ship Award after the war for their great courage and behavior under fire. They were one of only 9 ships so honored during the war.

Few Americans today realize just how dangerous and important the service of the members of the Merchant Marine was during the war, but they were the red-headed step-child of our military. Technically, the government did not even consider them a “military” branch. They were not allowed into Red Cross and USO clubs during the war, and were even denied the benefits of the GI Bill after the war -- in spite of their courageous wartime service. Especially in the early years of the war, when German U-boats were sinking ships at a prodigious rate, it took immense courage to sail out of port on any merchant vessel. By the end of the war, more than 1,500 U.S. merchant ships had been lost. One out of every 26 members of this service was lost during the war, the highest percentage of killed of any branch of the American services. These men were well aware of their odds of dying on each voyage.

General Dwight Eisenhower later said, “When final victory is ours, there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine.” During the war, President Franklin Roosevelt said, “The Mariners have delivered the goods when and where needed in every theater of operations and across every ocean in the biggest, the most difficult and most dangerous job ever taken. As time goes on, there will be greater public understanding of our merchant fleet's record during this war.” This last hope of FDR has not been realized, nor was his promise that the Merchant Marines would be treated like veterans of other services, which was not acted on after his death. There may have been sinister factors involved in this disrespect of the Merchant Mariners, as well. About 20 percent of them were black, and another 20% were Jewish.

Captain Buck and cadet-midshipman O’Hara were posthumously awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal, the highest medal available in that service. Lt. j.g. Willett was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross. Later, a destroyer escort was named after Willett, while cargo ships were named after Buck and O’Hara. An athletic building at the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y., was also named for O'Hara. 

The actions of Edwin Joseph O’Hara, had he been eligible for it, were certainly worthy of consideration for the Medal of Honor. For many years, the “Battle of the Atlantic Historical Society,” under their Executive Director, Benjamin Hammer of Brooklyn, N.Y,, and the men of the “Edwin J. O’Hara Chapter of the American Merchant Marine,” led efforts to have a Medal of Honor awarded to Edwin O’Hara. Those efforts have not been successful.

(Right: Mariners Monument at Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y. The figure at the top is Edwin O'Hara loading a shell.)

O’Hara’s family were not notified of the loss of the Stephen Hopkins until November, and then were only informed that Edwin was missing. “My parents were very numb,” said Dorothy, “their loss was so great.” O’Hara may never be awarded the Medal of Honor, but that does not in any way diminish his courage in defense of his ship. Edwin, though still a teenager, had truly given his “last full measure of devotion,” to both his comrades and his country, fighting to his last breath to save them. His actions had been as much “above and beyond the call of duty” as any American soldier or sailor in any war and deserving of the highest medal for valor that our nation bestows upon its heroes.


"The Gallant Ship 'Stephen Hopkins'" by R.J. Witt & P. M. Heaton

"Merchant Marine Survivors of World War II: Oral Histories of Cargo Carrying Under Fire" by Michael Gillen

The Forgotten Heroes: The Heroic Story of the United States Merchant Marine” by Brian Herbert

S.S. Stephen Hopkins (video)

How A Cargo Ship Helped Win WW2: The Liberty Ship Story (video)

The Auxiliary Cruisers of the Kriegsmarine

The American Merchant Mariner's Memorial

The Liberty Ship

A Heroic Captain (Paul Buck) None Remember

U.S. Merchant Marine Casualties during World War II

Mariners' Struggle for Veteran Status

Merchant Marine Poems

Views: 4955

Tags: Edwin O'Hara, Heroism, Memorials, Merchant Marine, United States, War, World War 2

Comment by The Wild Geese on September 30, 2018 at 9:51am

Hidden away in the water off Battery Park in New York City is one of the most moving memorials you are ever likely to see. The American Merchant Mariner’s memorial, sculpted by Marisol Escobar in 1991, takes the form of three merchant seamen stranded on a sinking ship, terrified, calling for help and trying to reach the desperate hand of one of their shipmates floundering in the water below. As the tide comes in, the figure reaching up for help slowly sinks under the water, then is fully revealed again as it goes out. Note the Statue of Liberty in the background. 

Comment by Joe Gannon on September 30, 2018 at 7:28pm

The SS Stephen Hopkins was named for a Rhode Island politician and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Stephen Hopkins (March 7, 1707 – July 13, 1785) was a governor of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, a Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was from a prominent Rhode Island family, the grandson of William Hopkins who served the colony for 40 years as Deputy, Assistant, Speaker of the House of Deputies, and Major. His great grandfather Thomas Hopkins was an original settler of Providence Plantation, sailing from England in 1635 with his cousin Benedict Arnold who became the first governor of the Rhode Island colony under the Royal Charter of 1663.

Read the rest of his history here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Hopkins_(politician)

Comment by Charles L Fields on October 7, 2018 at 7:53pm

Hello Joe,

Thanks for the story. As a '70 graduate of USMMA, I remember the story well. It was good to read again.

My wife and I spend a few months each year in Louisburgh, Ireland. I'll be heading there in Nov.

Thanks again for remembering a young hero.

Charles Fields

Tolland CT

Comment by Joe Gannon on October 7, 2018 at 10:25pm

Glad you enjoyed it Charles. Gerry Regan read an article about O'Hara in the Irish Echo, I believe, and suggested I research it. I've read a lot of WWII history, but had never heard of this remarkable battle. I suppose it's a very minor one compared to various large naval battles between large fleets, but it was certainly a very intriguing one. 

My wife and I have been in and through Louisburgh many times while staying in Mayo. We ate lunch there a couple of times and visited the Grace O'Malley museum there once. We also went to the horse races on the beach in Carrowniskey two years ago, just west of there.


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