By Edward J. Gillespie
The genesis of the cargo ship, the SS Conshohocken, began when the United States Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, under the leadership of President Woodrow Wilson. Eight months later, the U.S. declared war on Germany’s ally, Austria-Hungary.
The war in Europe had started three years earlier (1914) leading to an ever-expanding conflict between Germany/Austria-Hungary and Britain, France, and Russia.
Under congressional mandate and in concert with the U.S. Shipping Board, ten days after declaring war on Germany (April 16, 1917), the U.S. created the Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC) to acquire/build and operate cargo ships needed to transport American troops and supplies to France. This was necessary because ships, workers and shipyards were in short supply to fill the anticipated orders to jump-start America’s war effort.
Initial EFC purchase orders were for 431 American-built ships. To accomplish this, the EFC built three national steel shipyards and engaged the services of private shipbuilders throughout the country. The Sun Shipbuilding Company (SSC) of Chester, Pennsylvania, was one of the firms the EFC selected to help meet their needs.
Between 1919 and 1920, SSC delivered four design number 1018 cargo ships to the EFC: the SS Dryden and SS Hanover in 1919 and the SS Cajacet and SS Conshohocken in 1920.
EFC’s aggressive growth program eventually resulted in orders for 3,116 ships, of which only a fraction (12 percent-378 ships) were delivered before the war ended in November of 1918. Despite the EFC’s heroic efforts, British ships carried the bulk of U.S. troops and supplies throughout World War I.
The contract for the ship that was to become the SS Conshohocken was inked with SSC in June of 1916. Because the EFC was not established until April of 1917, the assumption can be made that the U.S. government purchased the contract for the ship while it was under construction for another owner.
While the future Conshohocken’s contract was signed in 1916, the ship’s keel was not laid until September of 1919. Four months later (January 31, 1919), the uncompleted Conshohocken was christened and launched into the Delaware River at Chester.
A February 1, 1920, article in the Philadelphia Inquirer noted that despite the launch taking place on a very frigid day, several hundred guests were on hand to participate in the event. Mrs. Geoffrey Creyke, wife of the assistant to the vice-president of the EFC, smashed the wine bottle across the ship’s prow proclaiming, “I christen thee Conshohocken.”
The article included the following specifics about the ship: “The Conshohocken is a single-screw vessel of the oil-burner type, 435 feet long with a beam of 57 feet. She has a carrying capacity of 11,000 tons and a speed of 11 knots an hour.”
After its launching, the Conshohocken remained at Sun’s wet dock (pier) for just under two months. During that time, the ship’s engine room, holding tanks, quarters, and mechanical/navigation systems were completed and tested before the Conshohocken was deemed seaworthy and officially delivered to the EFC on March of 1920 (one year and four months after World War I ended).
While there is no definitive record why the ship was named the Conshohocken, the most accepted explanation is that the U.S. government chose the name to recognize the borough for its distinction of having more men and women serve in World War I, per capita, than any other community in America.
When the war ended, a ‘ton’ of U.S.-owned ships were either completed or under construction—without assignable missions. The government realized it had to liquidate most of its ships as quickly as possible.
In 1921, the Conshohocken and the Cajacet were sold to the Williams Steamship Corporation of Wilmington, Delaware. They renamed the Conshohocken the Willhilo and the Cajacet the Willsolo. The EFC maintained ownership of the Hanover and the Dryden until 1933.
On March 5, 1921, under the command of Captain Soren Willeson, the Willhilo left New York with a crew of 37 on its initial voyage to the west coast (San Francisco) via the Panama Canal. Its payload included 500 tons of steel and other cargo.
Following stops in Philadelphia and Wilmington, the ship headed south for the canal.
Shortly before the Willhilo reached Panama, one of its firemen (furnace tender), whose name was Sadio, refused to work complaining of the extremely hot work conditions. So, in Captain Willeson’s own words, “We put him in irons.”
No additional issues arose until the Willhilo neared the coast of Balboa, Panama, on March 20, 1921, one of the canal’s last western ports before reaching the Pacific Ocean. A crew of seven firemen refused to work until Sadio was released from irons and the on-deck crew followed suit. With no one tending the boiler, the ship lost steam a few miles offshore and began to dangerously drift.
Somehow the Willhilo’s boiler was fed enough to make its way to La Union, a Pacific port in El Salvador. While walking in La Union’s Plaza the night of arrival, Captain Willeson and several other visiting ship officers were attacked by angry Willhilo firemen wielding knives and other weapons. However, they disbanded quickly once they heard the discharge of Captain Willeson’s revolver.
It was at that point that Captain Willeson wired American authorities who immediately dispatched the Navy’s Denver-class light cruiser, the USS Tacoma, to La Union. The Tacoma was assigned to patrol Central American waters to mitigate maritime issues relating to U.S. vessels. Upon arrival of the Tacoma, the accused firemen were released from the La Union jail and transferred to the cruiser’s brig.
While docked in La Union, Tacoma’s Captain conducted a formal hearing where he determined that Captain Willeson had never lost control of his ship and that because the firemen’s violence had taken place on land, their actions required disciplinary measures, but did not constitute a mutiny.
Following the formal inquiry, the Willhilo continued to Los Angeles where it unloaded 500 tons of steel prior to sailing to its final destination, the Port of San Pedro, San Francisco, where it arrived nine days late on April 10, 1921.
Any questions about the Willhilo being the former Conshohocken can be dismissed based on an article that appeared in Long Beach, California’s Press-Telegram newspaper on April 11, 1921, a day after the ship arrived in San Francisco. “…the story of the affair was made public yesterday after the Willhilo, still bearing her former name, Conshohocken, tied up at her dock.”
It’s worth sharing the over-zealous, creative words the Press-Telegram’s reporter employed to describe the Willhilo incident. “It is a colorful tale of boiler room barratry, of grit-covered Spaniards, men in irons, shadowy figures creeping silently, dagger in teeth, toward the captain’s quarters, shots fired at night, and finally the arrival of white-jacketed marines in the little Central American harbor in answer to wireless calls for help.”
Shortly after, the Willhilo returned to its home port in Wilmington where Captain Willeson was relieved of his duties as was his crew. A new crew was assigned to the ship and it sailed off into the night heading for Puget Sound, Washington, to pick up a load of lumber for delivery to numerous European ports.
In 1929, the Williams Steamship Company renamed the Willhilo the Arizonan and it continued to sail under that name after the ship was sold to the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company of New York in 1934.
In 1946, the ship was sold and renamed the Nortuna by its new owner the Nortuna Sg. Company headquartered in Panama. It sailed under that name for the rest of its useful life. The Norbergen Sg. Company owned the Nortuna until 1953 at which point ownership was consecutively sold to two Liberian (West African) companies: the Oceanwide Steamship Company 1953-1956 and the Ocean Transport Lines 1956-1959.
The Conshohocken’s, Willhilo’s, Arizonan’s and Nortuna’s final voyage was to Japan in 1959 where ‘they’ were salvaged.
Author’s Thought: One must believe that the Willhilo’s first major voyage would have gone so much smoother if Captain Willeson had confined his frustrated fireman to his quarters rather than putting him in irons.