• Sat. Apr 20th, 2024


…bringing our past into the future

U.S.S. Conestoga

Excerpt from: From The Devil’s Triangle to the Devil’s Jaw by Richard Winer, Bantam Books, Inc., New York, 1977. pp. 210-12

There is a little town in southeastern Pennsylvania named Conestoga. It has a population of around three thousand. The old-timers in Conestoga will tell you that their town’s claim to fame derives from the fact that it was there, in Lancaster County, that the famous Conestoga covered wagons were developed and built back in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The Conestoga wagons were noted for their broad-rimmed wheels, which enabled them to go through soft sand and mud. The wagons figured quite prominently in the development of the American West. That is their town’s claim to fame, the people will tell you. Very few, if any, citizens of Conestoga realize that their little community also figures, even if indirectly, in one of the many continuing mysteries of the sea. For a ship was named after the little town.

The U.S.S. Conestoga was built in 1904 by the Maryland Steel Company at Sparrows Point, Maryland. She was used privately as a seagoing tug and salvage vessel until November 10,1917, when the United States Navy took her over. The ship was initially assigned to the submarine force. Her duties were along the Atlantic coast. She also transported supplies and escorted convoys to Bermuda and the Azores. During much of her wartime career, she worked out of the Azores, escorting or towing disabled ships into safe harbors. After the war, the Conestoga was based in the Fifth Naval District at Norfolk. There she served for several years in the navy yard as a harbor tug.

The men of the navy claim that there are two types of seagoing navies- the fighting navy and the working navy. The Conestoga belonged to the latter. Duty aboard a navy tug can get rather rugged at times. You are out on the water in all weather, working with heavy towlines solidly frozen with ice, continuously being around dirt and grime, and you are based near a liberty port but serving aboard a ship there that is kept so busy that you rarely get ashore. Added to these drawbacks is the fact that tugboats are far from being the most comfortable vessels in any kind of a rough sea. In 1920, therefore, when the Conestoga received orders to travel to the United States Navy Base at Tutuila, Samoa, where she was to serve as station ship, the crew was quite elated. For weeks afterwards, the main topics of discussion aboard the vessel were hula girls and swaying palm trees.

The Conestoga was readied for the passage and put out from Hampton Roads, Virginia, on November 18,1920, for the Pacific. After the ship cleared the Panama Canal, it was decided that she would need some alterations before heading out across the open Pacific. So her destination was changed to San Diego, where she arrived on January 7, 1921. On February 17, she steamed for Mare Island Navy Yard up the coast, where she underwent further repairs and modifications.

After a picture-taking session, the Conestoga put to sea from Mare Island on March 25. Finally she was under way for the lands of hula dancers and swaying palm trees. There were fifty-six officers and men in her crew. Nothing was ever heard from the U.S.S. Conestoga after she sailed from that California port, for she never reached the islands of hula girls and swaying palm trees.

On May 17, the S.S. Senator was steaming at latitude 18 degrees 15′ north and longitude 115 degrees 42′ west when her lookout sighted the wreckage of a lifeboat. Closer inspection revealed a bronze letter C on the boat’s bow. The Senator’s crew removed the letter and sent it to the Navy Department. However, no determination could be made as to whether or not the C came from a boat belonging to the Conestoga.

During the search for the missing tug in an area southeast of the Hawaiian Islands, one of the search vessels, the United States submarine R-14, for some reason that no one could explain, lost every source of power- both electrical and diesel. The submarine lay dead in the water. Without any of its communications systems working, the crew was virtually helpless. All attempts at repairs failed. The navy announced that one of its submarines was overdue. When everything seemed hopeless, an obscure seaman got the wild idea of sails. Actually, the idea wasn’t so wild after all. With her periscope for a mast and deck canvas for sails, the R-14 sailed into Hilo, Hawaii, on May 15, after five days under sail. Thus ended what was probably the longest, if not the only, voyage ever made by a submarine under sail.

On June 30, 1921, after an extensive search, the navy declared the Conestoga and her crew as having been lost without a trace.

If you ever drive through Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, stop off at Conestoga and ask any of the townsfolk what their town is famous for. They will tell you “Covered wagons.”

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