In the 1970's, when I began conducting historical research for my Popular Dive Guide Series, I noticed certain aberrations with respect to the location and identification of World War Two shipwrecks.
One prime example is the Cayru. This large passenger-freighter was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. Wartime Naval documents provided coordinates of the site. In 1950, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey conducted a wire-drag survey of the wreck, and subsequently plotted its position on the charts. Despite this apparent authentication, no one has ever been able to locate the wreck.
I organized several search trips that came to naught. I also continued my archival research. Eventually I unearthed the original Descriptive Report of the 1950 survey. I was shocked to learn that the surveyors stated specifically that they had not located the wreck, and in fact recommended that the wreck symbol be deleted from the chart. For some reason, the symbol was never deleted, and still appears today on modern charts.
The Cayru has yet to be found. Probably it lies far offshore. Corroboration for this likelihood can be found in the deck log of the U-94, in which Oberleutnant zur See Otto Ites recorded coordinates that are farther off the coast than Allied documents indicated.
This was my introduction to the fact that neither the historical records nor the nautical charts were gospel. From that point onward I harbored suspicions.
I passed these suspicions on to my readers and fellow researchers whenever possible. In my 1993 publication of Shipwrecks of North Carolina: from the Diamond Shoals North, I posted a warning about the identification of the San Delfino. After this tanker was torpedoed by a German U-boat, she was "last seen afire from stem to stern, but afloat." No one actually witnessed the sinking of the vessel.
In 1943 and 1944, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Gentian conducted underwater surveys off the eastern seaboard, the purpose of which was to locate and identify the sunken fleet of U-boat casualties. Once a wreck was located, geologists from the Lamont Doherty Institute lowered a watertight drop camera to the bottom, and snapped pictures of the hull and superstructure.
One such photograph provided positive proof of the wreck's identity: captured on film were the bronze letters on the bow. They spelled COIMBRA. Other identifications were more tentative, even speculative. In fact, the Gentian misnamed a number of shipwrecks. Perhaps she misidentified more wrecks than she properly identified.
One wreck that she identified as the Ario turned out to be the Bedfordshire. The Gentian then claimed to have located the Ario in a different location, but when Navy divers recovered the bell in 1944, that wreck proved to be the Dixie Arrow. The Ario was ever elusive. . . .
On August 7, 1944, the Gentian surveyed a wreck that stood "80' high in 187' of water" east of Oregon Inlet, North Carolina. According to the survey report, a search of the records revealed "no previously reported positions of wrecks lie within many miles of this position, nor had any instrument contacts been obtained by ASW vessels operating in the area." Also, "only one vessel whose wreck cannot be located with reasonable certainty was sunk near this position. This is the . . . British tanker San Delfino."
The report noted, "The unburned lines and wooden planking would seem to make it unlikely that this is the wreck of the San Delfino." Nonetheless, a wreck symbol was placed on the chart, and it was annotated as the San Delfino.
In the chapter on the Ciltvaira in the same book, I noted these incongruities as well as the saga of the Ciltvaira's two-day drift. The wreck that local anglers and divers called the Ciltvaira lay only a few miles from shore. Yet the Ciltvaira was torpedoed 35 miles northeast of Cape Hatteras, and was seen to be drifting northward. In my mind, these items of information cast great doubt on the identifications of these two wrecks. Lacking any firm proof, I proposed that the wreck known locally as the Ciltvaira (alias the Green Buoy Wreck) might be the Mirlo: a tanker that was torpedoed close to shore in World War One, and whose remains had never been found. Based on the evidence that I had at the time, that was my best speculation.
I wrote, "It is possible that the wreck only tentatively identified by the Gentian as the San Delfino could prove to be the Ciltvaira. An open mind, a diligent search, and direct observation of that wreck or newly-acquired hang numbers will someday lead to its discovery." These prophetic words later bore fruit, but not the kind of fruit that I had envisioned.
It was good that I noted the inconclusive evidence of the naming of these wrecks, for my written suspicions alerted the wreck-diving community not to take any of the World War Two identifications for granted.
The first person to take my admonitions seriously was Robert Smith. In 1996, he wrote to me about his theory that the names of the Papoose and W.E. Hutton were reversed. What made this scenario attractive were the similarities between the two vessels: both were tankers, their dimensions were nearly the same, each was propelled by a triple expansion reciprocating steam engine, each consumed diesel for fuel, they were built one year apart, and – coincidental but irrelevant – both were constructed in California (but by different shipbuilders).
Smith asked for my assistance. I reviewed my files, but found nothing conclusive in my records that could either affirm or negate his hypothesis. The only help that I could offer was advice: recover some artifact that could be attributed to only one of the vessels. Smith and his cohorts worked assiduously in this vein for years, but were unable to find a smoking gun that pointed at either vessel. Yet their work did not go unnoticed. While some may have thought that Smith and his associates were barking up the wrong tree, other wreck-divers were recovering artifacts from different World War Two wrecks: artifacts that eventually led to sorting out the shuffled shipwrecks, albeit in unanticipated identifications.
By 2000, however, Smith had uncovered an important item of information. He learned that Johann Mohr, skipper of the U-124, claimed that the W.E. Hutton sank at a depth of 100 to 130 feet. The wreck that was being called the W.E. Hutton lay in 70 feet of water. This led Smith to speculate that perhaps this shallow-water wreck was instead the Ario, the tanker that had never been found (or identified). The Ario was identical to the W.E. Hutton with regard to tonnage, dimensions, and propulsion unit, and was constructed in the same year by the same shipbuilder (although at a different yard). They were essentially sister ships whose resemblances were not to be taken lightly.
One definite but minor difference between them was the number of masts: two on the W.E. Hutton, three on the Ario. After decades of collapse, these features could not be observed on the wrecks. There was also a slight difference in the forecastle construction, but again this was not discernible under water.
Several years later, Smith informed me that his friend Dale Hansen proved conclusively that the wreck that was called the W.E. Hutton was indeed the Ario, and that the wreck that was called the Papoose was instead the W.E. Hutton.
According to this scenario, the Papoose was the wreck that had never been found, and with good reason. Her sinking was not actually observed. She was last seen drifting northward.
In addition to Hansen's exhaustive research, the new evidence that led to this conclusion was the observation of battle damage. Perhaps even more telling was the recovery of a plaque with the name Socony-Vacuum stamped in bronze. Socony-Vacuum owned the Ario at the time of her loss. The Pure Oil Company owned the W.E. Hutton.
Elsewhere, in 1993, Roger Hunting recovered the aiming mechanism from the deck gun of the wreck that was called the Ciltvaira, but which I had proved conclusively in the 1980's could not possibly be the Ciltvaira. Aerial photographs of the Ciltvaira, low in the water after being torpedoed, clearly show that she was not equipped with a deck gun; archival records corroborated that she was unarmed. Because the Mirlo was armed, and was lost in the vicinity of the wreck that was called the Ciltvaira, I considered the possibility that – as noted above – the wreck might be the Mirlo.
The aiming mechanism had two disks: one for vertical positioning and one for horizontal positioning. The horizontal positioning disk was stamped 1917. The vertical positioning disk was reversible, depending upon the muzzle velocity of the charge. One side of the vertical positioning disk was stamped 1918; the other side was stamped 1940.
When Hunting told me this, I hoped (or prayed) that "1940" was a serial number, or a part number. But when he showed me the disk in person, there was little doubt in my mind that it looked like a date. This threw me into a quandary. I conceded that the wreck could not be the Mirlo, and must therefore be a World War Two wreck. So what wreck was it? And where was the Mirlo?
Elsewhere, also in 1993, Greg Masi recovered a helm from the wreck that was called the San Delfino. This helm was made by the Standard Brass and Manufacturing Company, in Port Arthur, Texas. What was an American-made helm doing on a tanker that was supposedly built in England?
In 1997, Gene Peterson recovered the hydraulic steering telemotor from the same wreck. Stamped on the hub of the helm was "MACTAGGART-SCOTT & CO. LTD EDINBURG." A plaque provided the patent number and a serial number. This was consistent with the fact that the San Delfino was constructed in England, adjacent to Scottish suppliers in Edinburgh.
Peterson's artifact seemed to confirm the wreck's identity as the San Delfino, while Masi's artifact seemed to contradict it. The plot thickened.
The puzzle pieces began to fit together in 2006. Until that time, the wreck that was known as the Ciltvaira, or the Green Buoy Wreck, had a nearly intact hull. By now the plates were peeling off so that the machinery spaces were exposed. This enabled Uwe Lovas to observe that the propulsion unit consisted of a pair of inline diesel engines that drove a single propeller.
Mike Barnette delved into these matters with some insightful historical research. The passages in my North Carolina book, regarding the Gentian survey and the doubt about the identity of the so-called San Delfino, now assumed primary importance. As also noted in my book, the Papoose was a phoenix that had arisen from the ashes of the Silvanus, which was destroyed by fire on the Mississippi River after colliding with the Thomas M Wheeler, in 1926.
The MacTaggart Scott Company was still in business. Barnette sent them an e-mail with the serial number from Peterson's helm. Company records confirmed that the helm was sold for installation on the Silvanus, which was being reconstructed and which was renamed Papoose. This was positive proof that the wreck that was called the San Delfino was in fact the Papoose at the end of her long drift.
This meant that the San Delfino was now among the missing, misidentified, or unidentified wrecks. Circumstantial evidence led Barnette to conclude that the wreck that was called the Ciltvaira, or the Green Buoy Wreck, was in reality the San Delfino.
As noted above, the Ciltvaira was unarmed, and the date on Hunting's disk precluded the wreck from being the Mirlo. More compelling than this negative evidence is the fact that the San Delfino was propelled by twin diesel engines: a rarity among propulsion units.
The way the identities stand now, the so-called Papoose is the W.E. Hutton; the so-called W.E. Hutton is the Ario; the so-called San Delfino is the Papoose; and the so-called Ciltvaira is the San Delfino. According to this new scenario, the Ciltvaira is the missing wreck, and the Mirlo has never been found.
The end. Or is it?
My faithful readers will be happy to note my publication of two more titles: The Shipwreck Research Handbook and A Different Continuum. Visit my website for details.
My next newsletter will investigate the startling news about the real discovery of the U-869. New evidence now proves conclusively that the wreck was first dived in 1989, three years prior to the so-called "discovery" that was given in the fictional book Shadow Divers. I interviewed three divers who were on the real discovery trip.
The first diver to see the wreck was Chuck Wine. He dived on the wreck from Bill Nagle's Seeker.
to subscribe to his informative newsletter