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2007 Papahanaumokuakea Expedition
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Liberty Ship SS Quartette

At 7:10 AM on the morning of December 21st, 1952, the 7,198 ton ship SS Quartette struck Pearl and Hermes Atoll on the eastern reef crest while underway at 10.5 knots.  Heavy seas and 35-mph winds drove the ship onto the coral, stoving in the bow and heavily damaging two forward holds, but (with the ship firmly aground) the vessel was in no immediate danger of sinking.  Navigation fixes (erroneous) had placed the ship some nine to ten miles further away from the reef at the time.  The lookout had reported a line of white breakers to the chief mate shortly after 7:00 AM, but allegedly no action to avoid the approaching obstacle was taken.  Attempts to back the vessel off from the reef with the engines failed.  Soon, though, a navy PBY Catalina flying boat and 170-foot patrol craft (PC 1145) were dispatched from Midway.  Thirty-six crewmen were rescued from the ship by the SS Frontenac Victory on the following day, thirty-three of them being taken to Midway Island.  The ship’s captain and two others (the chief engineer and radio operator) remained standing by on the patrol craft, awaiting the arrival of the Isleway Ltd. salvage tug Ono. 

A fairlead from the 422-foot long Liberty ship SS Quartette wrecked at Pearl and Hermes Atoll  (Credit: Tane Casserley/NOAA)
A fairlead from the 422-foot long Liberty ship SS Quartette wrecked at Pearl and Hermes Atoll (Credit: Tane Casserley/NOAA)
The Ono arrived on December 25th and, putting a towing line on the Quartette, dropped both anchors in an effort to stabilize the stranded vessel.  Seas were expected to increase as a storm passed to the northwest, raising concerns that salvage efforts would be postponed.  On January 3rd, the tug’s anchors parted at the shank, and the Quartette was blown broadside onto the reef.  She was deemed unsalvageable, a total loss.  Weeks later the ship broke her back (keel) and snapped in two, the bow portion forward of the superstructure finally being pushed into the shallow lagoon, and the stern and midships (engine section) remaining in deeper water to seaward.

NOAA maritime heritage team members document one of the masts at 
the site of the Quartette at Pearl and Hermes Atoll 
  (Credit: Tane Casserley/NOAA)
NOAA maritime heritage team members document one of the masts at the site of the Quartette at Pearl and Hermes Atoll (Credit: Tane Casserley/NOAA)
The Quartette had originally been launched in Savannah, Georgia as the navy ship USS James Swan in 1944.  Named after the Boston Tea-Party patriot, the ship was built for the U.S. Maritime Commission by the Southeastern Ship Building Corporation.  By 1952 she had been placed in commercial service.

Owned by Standard Steamship Company of Wilmington Delaware, the Quartette was chartered by the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) and en route from Galveston Texas to Pusan, South Korea (via an interim stop at Honolulu) with a load of 9,000 tons of milo yellow grain, consigned to the U.S. Army.

This EC2-S-C1 type Liberty ship is similar to the Quartette, wrecked 
at Pearl and Hermes Atoll (Photo Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center)
This EC2-S-C1 type Liberty ship is similar to the Quartette, wrecked at Pearl and Hermes Atoll (Photo Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center)
The Quartette, an EC2-S-C1 type Liberty ship (official number 246279), was one of the 2,751 Liberty ships which maintained the sometimes tenuous lines of communication and logistical supply overseas during World War II.  The Quartette was a three-masted single-screw triple-expansion steam engine vessel, 422-feet long, 57-feet in beam, and with a draft 35 feet deep.  Her two water-tube boilers and triple expansion engine were capable of 2,500 horse power.  She had three cargo holds forward and two aft.  Liberty ships were products of early prefabricated mass production, in large part an industrial response to wartime needs and a definite response to the threat of submarine attacks against merchant vessels.  They were relatively simple in design and operation, reducing both construction time and time needed to train engineers.  The Liberty ships and their crews of merchant seamen served very bravely during World War II, many facing (and falling victim to) surprise attacks from unseen enemy submarines. 

Elements of the Quartette s superstructure at Pearl and Hermes Atoll 
that have become habitat for marine life (Credit: Tane Casserley/NOAA)
Elements of the Quartette's superstructure at Pearl and Hermes Atoll that have become habitat for marine life (Credit: Tane Casserley/NOAA)
The 2007 maritime heritage team initiated a systematic survey of the Quartette’s bow section within the reef crest using hand held GPS units to map the site boundary, and a combination of GPS, tape measurements, and digital images to begin locating the major features of the wreck site.  These features included forward masts, deck fairleads, superstructure elements, cargo gear and rigging, bridge features, and inner tank and hull structures.  Twenty five major features were recorded within an area of over 45,000 square meters.  This was a swimming/snorkeling survey in the back reef zone.  At times the sea entering the atoll, rolling over the eastern reef crest, appeared to be a river of whitewater, capable of sweeping divers off their feet and “downstream” past the wreckage.  The boundary of the wreckage nearer to the crest can only be estimated, as water movement there made all access hazardous.  During 2007, the high breaking surf to seaward of the reef crest prohibited all activity at the Quartette’s stern’s reported 20-foot depth location.   Some of the images from previous dives to the ship’s components outside the reef (by NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service divers and others) add to the evolving analysis of the entire site. 

Ulua cruising the hull structure of the Quartette at Pearl and Hermes Atoll (Credit: Tane Casserley/NOAA)
Ulua cruising the hull structure of the Quartette at Pearl and Hermes Atoll (Credit: Tane Casserley/NOAA)
The Quartette is now, also, an “artificial” reef.  The site’s environmental interaction is of particular interest for two reasons: 1) a brown algae occurs in small bumps over the ship’s steel and on the coralline substrate in the area of the scatter site, possibly due to the increased iron in the immediate environment; and 2) the spaces underneath hull sections, inside superstructure components, and between steel frames etc., provide a very wide variety of fish species a wealth of habitats in which to shelter.  The abundance of fish of many different types is immediately striking and is an immediate reminder that these sites can be natural as well as maritime heritage resources.  The wreck of the Liberty ship SS Quartette is quite extensive in size. Understanding the site’s interaction with the ecological environment begins with mapping the major features and boundaries of the wreckage. 

LINKS:

US Naval Historical Center

US Naval Historical Center-Underwater Archaeology Branch

National Park Service-Liberty Ships and Victory Ships, America's Lifeline in War

American Merchant Marine at War-Liberty Ships in WWII

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