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Stephen Hopkins file photo [30891]

Stephen Hopkins

CountryUnited States
Ship ClassLiberty-class Merchant Vessel
Hull Number247
BuilderKaiser Richmond Shipyards
Laid Down2 Jan 1942
Launched14 Apr 1942
Sunk27 Sep 1942
Displacement7,181 tons standard
Length442 feet
Beam57 feet
Draft28 feet
MachineryTriple expansion
Power Output2,500 shaft horsepower
Speed11 knots
Armament1x4in gun, 2x37mm guns, 6 machine guns


ww2dbaseSS Stephen Hopkins was one of the first Liberty Ships launched by the United States. Designed to fill a critical need for cargo ships during the war, the Liberty Ships were hastily built using a streamlined process that substituted welding for riveting in the hull construction. Like most Liberty Ships, the Stephen Hopkins was lightly armed to provide some protection against enemy vessels and aircraft. Her normal crew was supplemented by a few Naval Guard sailors who would help man the weapons in a combat situation.

ww2dbaseThe Stephen Hopkins was notable among Liberty Ships for fighting one of fiercest ship versus ship battles of World War II and being the only merchant ship to singlehandedly sink an enemy commerce raider. While ship versus ship duels had been a common feature of naval warfare during the age of fighting sail, by the twentieth century they were quite rare. The ship’s short tour of service began on 25 May 1942. Under the command of Captain Paul Buck, the Stephen Hopkins set out from Los Angeles, California, to Australia. There, she took on a cargo of wheat which she delivered to South Africa. Enroute, Buck insisted on training his crew in combat and emergency procedures with the help of the Naval Guard. Surviving crew remembered that the captain stated repeatedly that he would never surrender his ship without a fight. On 19 September, the Stephen Hopkins departed Cape Town in ballast (without cargo) for Dutch Guiana. From there she planned to take on a load of bauxite and sail through the Panama Canal and back home to California.

ww2dbaseOn 27 September, the Stephen Hopkins was nearing the coast of Guiana. The weather was overcast with periodic rain squalls and poor visibility. At around 0900 hours she emerged from a squall in view of two ships less than two miles away. In a stoke of terrible luck, the ship had run right into the German commerce raider Stier and her consort, the supply ship Tannenfels. The Stier (originally the Cairo and known to Allied intelligence as “Raider J”) was a converted merchantman designed to destroy Allied merchant vessels. German commerce raiders were heavily armed, comparable to destroyers, and the Stier was no exception. She carried a pair of torpedo tubes, six 5.9-inch (15-centimeter) guns, one 7.5-centimeter gun, two 3.7-centimeter guns, along with machine guns and two float planes, all cleverly concealed behind false panels.

ww2dbaseThe raider raised the swastika flag, dropped the panels concealing her armament, and pursued the fleeing merchant ship. Despite being outgunned and unable to escape her faster adversary, the Stephen Hopkins - true to her captain’s pledge - refused the Stier’s order to surrender. The Stier’s commander, Fregattenkapitän Horst Gerlach, was an experienced and aggressive officer and ordered his vessel to close within 1000 yards of the Stephen Hopkins before opening fire. One of the first shots from the Stier hit the stern of the American ship. Lieutenant (jg) Kenneth Willett, leader of the marine guard, was badly wounded in abdomen by shrapnel but remained at his post commanding the 4 inch gun which began to return fire.

ww2dbaseWith Captain Buck at helm, Chief Mate Richard Moczkowski directed the crew on deck, shouting course corrections to the bridge in order to keep the Stephen Hopkins’ stern pointed toward the enemy to present the smallest possible target and allow the stern mounted 4-inch gun the maximum field of fire. In a few minutes, Moczkowski was hit by shell fragments in the arm and chest. Bleeding profusely, he remained on deck to give course corrections and direct the crew. Even when loss of blood forced him to lie prone on the deck he continued to rally his crew in the unequal fight. The Stier’s heavy shells wreaked havoc on the Liberty Ship, with shell fragments and machine gun bullets raking the deck. A 5.9-inch shell hit the engine room, blowing the boiler, and killing most of the engine room crew instantly as the Stephen Hopkins went dead in the water.

ww2dbaseThe smaller guns of the Stephen Hopkins, however, were causing serious damage to the German ship. The first round from 4-inch gun jammed the Stier’s rudder, making her unable to bring her torpedo tubes to bear. American fire damaged the engine room, hit the bridge and the radio room, and disabled one of the 5.9-inch guns. The Stephen Hopkins’ 4-inch gun fired at least 40 rounds, scoring repeated hits at the raider’s waterline. Second Mate Joseph Lehman commanding one the 37mm guns raked the superstructure of the enemy ship with round after round until a direct hit destroyed his gun platform and killed his crew. Finally, another German shell hit the magazine for the 4-inch gun killing Willett and most of the crew.

ww2dbaseAfter half an hour of combat, with the Stephen Hopkins on fire and sinking, Captain Buck gave the order to abandon ship and the mortally wounded Moczkowski and Lehman were carried to the lifeboats. The Germans now turned their guns on the lifeboats, hitting one of the boats, killing all aboard. Engine Cadet Edwin O’Hara ran back to the 4-inch gun and finding five shells remaining in the ready locker, fired all of them, hitting the Stier with all five shots. The German vessels redirected their fire back to the burning Liberty Ship and away from the lifeboats. O’Hara was killed on deck moments later by machine gun fire.

ww2dbaseAs the remaining American crew made their escape, the Stier was also in desperate straits. Fires had broken out on deck, the helm was shattered, and the ship was taking on water. Unable to control the damage with many of his crew dead or wounded, Gerlach gave the order to abandon ship and had the Stier scuttled to avoid capture. Gerlach and the survivors were taken on board the Tannenfels and eventually made it back to Germany where he reported his encounter with “a heavily armed cruiser.”

ww2dbaseFor the next month, the American crew drifted in their lifeboats. Most of the remaining crew, including the wounded and Captain Buck, died at sea. Only 15 men survived to be rescued by a friendly vessel. Lieutenant Willet was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross and later a destroyer was named in his honor. Captain Buck and Cadet O’Hara were posthumously awarded the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal. Other Liberty Ships were named after Buck, O’Hara, and Moczkowski.

Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, vol. 1, The Battle of the Atlantic, September 1939-May 1943 (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1975), p. 398-99.

Last Major Revision: Feb 2021

Merchant Vessel Stephen Hopkins (247) Interactive Map

Stephen Hopkins Operational Timeline

2 Jan 1942 The keel of Stephen Hopkins was laid down by the Kaiser Richmond Shipyards in Yard No. 2, Way #3 in Richmond, California, United States.
14 Apr 1942 Stephen Hopkins was launched at the Kaiser Richmond Shipyards at Yard No. 2 in Richmond, California, United States.
19 Sep 1942 Stephen Hopkins departed Cape Town, South Africa in ballast for Dutch Guiana.
27 Sep 1942 German auxiliary cruiser Stier and supply ship Tannenfels came across US liberty ship Stephen Hopkins off of Dutch Guiana. Exchanging gunfire at the distance of 2 miles starting at about 0900 hours, Stephen Hopkins sank about an hour later; only 15 men survived, and they drifted for a month before reaching the Brazilian coast. Stier, fatally damaged, was scuttled by her crew at 1140 hours; 2 men were lost.

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