The USS Erie in WW II

Jeff Sherry, Museum Educator

Friday Jan 27th, 2023

The USS Erie had interesting history during WW II and beyond.

USS Erie

The USS Erie, (PG-50) classified as a gunboat rather than a cruiser, (most US Navy ships named for cities were cruisers) launched at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1936. The ship was christened by Mrs. Ida Knoll of Erie, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Knoll was the mother of future Rear Admiral, Denys Knoll, United States Navy. The new ship had a displacement of 2,000 tons, 328 feet in length, 41’3” wide and carried 234 sailors and Marines. She was armed with four 6” guns, two quad machine guns and two 3-pounders. The ship also carried a floatplane used for reconnaissance.

Erie spent the late 1930’s “showing the flag” in South America and the Caribbean. At the outbreak of World War II in December 1941, Erie was assigned to the Caribbean to protect allied shipping from the threat of German submarines or U-boats (the German word for submarine is unterseeboot, meaning under sea boat). U-boats roamed the Atlantic and Caribbean and were the German Navy’s greatest threat to shipping in those waters, sinking over 14 million tons of allied military and civilian shipping during the war.

During the first months of the war, Erie patrolled the Pacific side of the Panama Canal Zone and then transferred to the Caribbean. On November 12, 1942, under the command of Captain Andrew R. Mack, Erie was part of a flotilla of ships protecting a convoy heading to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Four miles southwest of Curacao, then a Dutch possession off the north coast of Venezuela, Erie was hit by a torpedo fired by a German submarine, U-163, commanded by Korvettenkapitan Eduard Engelmann. The officer of the watch had spotted the wakes of the approaching torpedoes and the ship was beginning to turn “hard right” to lessen the danger of being hit. The maneuver was not completed soon enough, and one torpedo slammed into Erie’s side and exploded. The time was 16:33 hours (4:33 PM.)

The torpedo had ripped through Erie’s unarmored starboard side and exploded. The detonation quickly caused fuel oil and aviation gasoline to also explode, soon followed by secondary explosions of aviation bombs and the ship’s ammunition. Fires from the fuel oil and aviation gas quickly spread through the aft part of the ship. The explosions and fires killed 6 men and wounded 13.

A Dutch ship, HNLMS Van Kinsbergen, picked American sailors out of the sea who had been blown from the ship. The USS Spry pulled alongside Erie, trying to fight the fires with her hoses. Captain Mack, fearing the ship might founder, steered for Willemstad harbor Curacao.

USS Erie after torpedo.
USS Erie burning on the sandbar off Willemstad.

At about 5:25 PM, Erie ran aground on a sandbar, and the captain ordered to abandon the burning ship and the crew swam the shallow waters to the shore. While the stranded ship burned, oil fires all around her, four bombs stored topside exploded. The fires were finally extinguished two days later November 14, 1942. Salvage operations began as water and any unburned fuels and wreckage were removed from Erie. On November 28, a salvage vessel and two tugs towed the ship off the sandbar. She was pulled into the harbor at Willemstad to decide if it was feasible to salvage the ship. After two days of inspection in early December, U.S. Navy officials decided it was, and Erie was towed to a dry dock on Curacao.

Unfortunately, as the fuel tanks were being emptied, the ship began to list. Counterflooding caused the ship to roll to starboard against an oil barge being used as a work platform in the salvage operation. Further counter flooding caused the ship to move upright then roll to port and sink. It was decided that further efforts would be pointless, and the ship was left in the harbor in Willemstad. The USS Erie was stricken from the Naval Register on July 28, 1943.

In 1952, the hulk was raised and towed to a spot in 300 fathoms of water and sunk. Today, a monument on the island of Curacao honors the memory of Erie and those who gave their lives in 1942.

Monument to the USS Erie on the island of Curacao