Updated: 2:45 p.m.
In its final moments trapped in a storm south of Isle Royale, the freighter Henry Steinbrenner listed then surrendered, tossing the crew members still left on deck into the unforgiving grip of Lake Superior.
Adrift amid mountainous and frigid waves, the men who managed to escape the sinking freighter clung to lifeboats — clung to life itself — as the spring storm raged around them.
“My mouth got full of water. I was getting numb. Just then the ship started to go down and the awful suction started pulling me down with it,” a survivor, Bernard Oberoski, told a Duluth Herald reporter the next day. “The water closed over me. I wondered how my mother and father would take the news that I had been lost at sea.”
Oberoski fought his way to the surface and spotted a lifeboat the men had set loose just before the ship went under. As he struggled to make headway in the freezing water, “a giant wave just seemed to push the boat toward me,” he recounted. “It was really a miracle.”
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For 17 of his shipmates, however, the miracle never came. Despite heroic efforts from the crews of ships who’d heard the Steinbrenner’s distress call and rushed to help, maneuvering their mammoth steel vessels with remarkable precision to find and pluck the half-frozen survivors from amid the waves, only 14 of 31 of the men aboard the Steinbrenner survived.
The story of the Steinbrenner — a tale of tragedy, survival and heroism on the big lake 70 years ago — was largely lost to time and fading memories. Until now.
The wreck of the Henry Steinbrenner was found earlier this month in 750 feet of water by a pair of Minnesota shipwreck-hunters, shedding new light on the story of the ship, its crew and those who came to save them.
“It’s important to remember these wrecks and the people that worked on the ships,” said Ken Merryman, who along with Jerry Eliason located the Steinbrenner. “When we find the wrecks, it’s a way of keeping the memories alive.”
The last voyage of the Steinbrenner
It was a beautiful, warm spring weekend when the 427-foot Henry Steinbrenner took on a load of iron ore in Superior, Wis., and left the Twin Ports with its crew of 31 on May 10, 1953.
The ship had been launched in 1901 for the Kinsman Marine Transit Co. and named after the head of the company — the great-grandfather of the late longtime New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
The ship was old, but maritime author and historian Fred Stonehouse, who wrote about the Henry Steinbrenner in his book “Steel on the Bottom,” said other vessels plying the Great Lakes at that time were older and there were no particular concerns raised.
As the ship left port in calm conditions, there were warnings about winds increasing to gale force as a cold front approached later in the day but nothing that seemed especially dangerous for a typically unpleasant May blow, University of Minnesota Duluth professor Julius Wolff wrote in his book “Lake Superior Shipwrecks.”
“Unfortunately,” Wolff continued, “this was an exception.”
Later that day the cold front sparked severe thunderstorms that produced deadly tornadoes across the central United States, including one that claimed six lives in southern Minnesota. As it approached Lake Superior, the front kicked up winds near hurricane force.
As the winds and waves increased, Captain Albert Stiglin may have regretted a choice made in port. The Steinbrenner’s 12 hatches had telescoping covers held in place by dozens of clamps. Those telescoping covers weren’t particularly watertight in heavy seas, so if a storm was in the forecast, heavy canvas tarpaulins could be put in place over the hatches for added protection.
The Steinbrenner did not have those tarps in place on its final voyage.
With the hatch covers exposed to the elements, the building waves crashing onto the deck “began to work one of the hatches loose,” Stonehouse told MPR News, recounting his research. Other hatches succumbed and the ship’s pumps “can’t keep up with the water that’s flooding in.”
‘It looks like we’re done for’
By dawn on May 11, water was crashing and seeping into the ship not just through multiple cargo hatches but through other doors as well, Stonehouse wrote in “Steel on the Bottom.” Stiglin tried to maneuver the ship to minimize the flooding or give the crew a better chance to secure the hatches. It didn’t work.
The captain ordered life jackets on and radioed for help, according to an inquiry into the wreck. About 30 minutes later, after more hatch covers gave way, the captain ordered the engines stopped and radioed a final distress call.
David Kinnear, first mate on the freighter Wilfred Sykes — out amid the same storm on Lake Superior, 35 miles from the Steinbrenner — heard one of those calls and recounted it to a Duluth News-Tribune reporter later that same day.
“We’re all awash, I think I’m going to founder,” Stiglin had radioed. “All our hatch covers are gone. It looks like we’re done for.”
Within minutes the captain sounded the signal to abandon ship. Stonehouse said the men were able to launch rafts and lifeboats but otherwise had little time to respond before the ship started going under, stern-first.
Amid the chaos, the 10 men at the front of the ship got on a life raft described by Stonehouse as a wood frame atop metal tanks. It capsized. Only six made it back aboard.
At the stern, the rest of the crew struggled with the two lifeboats. One was launched prematurely with only seven men aboard and with a rope still attached to the railing of the sinking ship. Survivors recounted watching third assistant engineer Arthur Morse — still aboard the ship — release the line, saving their lives. Morse did not survive.
The other lifeboat couldn’t be properly launched, so the crew unhooked it from its lines and it floated free as the Steinbrenner went under. Two men, including Bernard Oberoski, managed to swim to it and get inside. They — and the rest of the crew who managed to escape the ship — hoped and waited for help to arrive. Some succumbed to hypothermia before it did.
‘An act of God’
At least a half-dozen ships battling the same storm heard the Steinbrenner’s distress calls, and responded. They reached the scene in about four hours.
Oiler Allen Augsburger, in an interview with Stonehouse 25 years after the wreck, remembered the sight of the D.M. Clemson nearing his lifeboat. “When I saw that big tin stack coming through the water it was beautiful,” he recalled.
While the Clemson brought aboard those survivors, the Joseph H. Thompson picked up the survivors on the life raft. The Wilfred Sykes spotted the other lifeboat, the one carrying a half-frozen Oberoski, and had to launch its own lifeboat to reach him and bring him to safety.
“It is extraordinarily difficult to move a very large vessel in heavy sea conditions, especially to try and make a rescue of men that might be in a very small lifeboat,” Stonehouse said. “And it speaks great credit to these captains that they were able to maneuver their vessels such that they often were able to provide a lee (from the wind and waves) ... and they were able then to get the boat close enough to get the survivors onto the big ship.”
Stiglin, the captain, was among the 14 survivors. Most went to Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., while two ended up in Duluth.
News accounts at the time listed six men from northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin among the 17 dead or missing, including Duluthians Leo Thomas, Earl Hemmingson and Henry Drinkwitz; Kenneth Reynolds and George Wiseman of South Range, Wis.; and Paul Mattson of Aurora, Minn.
Stonehouse wrote that 10 bodies were recovered the day of the sinking, or in the weeks that followed. Seven crew members were never found.
Within a few days of the wreck, nearly all the survivors testified at a Coast Guard inquiry into the sinking. The inquiry concluded that installing tarpaulins over the cargo hatches could have prevented the wreck and urged more widespread, regular use of those tarps.
Investigators did not hold the Steinbrenner’s captain responsible for failure to use them, saying “any reasonably prudent master could have used the same judgment under the same conditions.” They labeled the wreck “an act of God.”
It wasn’t a unanimously held opinion. The U.S. Coast Guard commandant dissented with the board’s findings and said he held Stiglin responsible.
After the wreck of the Steinbrenner, there was a move to replace telescoping hatch covers with solid, more-watertight covers, Stonehouse said.
‘Maybe we should go check that out’
Shipwreck hunters had been seeking the Steinbrenner for years. It should have been relatively easy to find. Survivors’ accounts and historical documents gave a fairly specific location: 15 miles south of Isle Royale Light.
But the sunken freighter eluded many search efforts, including prior attempts by Eliason and Merryman, who have a long history of significant shipwreck discoveries on the Great Lakes. Eliason is from Cloquet, Minn.; Merryman is from Fridley.
For this latest attempt, Eliason said, “the conclusion that I think Ken and I came up with, is that the one place it can’t be is 15 miles due south of Isle Royale.”
They adjusted their search based on a fresh reading and reinterpretation of the historical accounts.
After one more unsuccessful search day in August, an “amazing” window of calm weather opened. They headed back out from Eagle Harbor, Mich., on Merryman’s boat, the Heyboy, late on Sept. 8.
They spent about 10 hours on Sept. 9 towing Eliason's sonar unit, Deep Diver, passing through the search area before bringing it up to analyze the data.
Some wrecks, Eliason said, “jump out at you” if they’re relatively intact and sitting on a hard lake bed. But where the Steinbrenner sank, “there’s a lot of undulations and divots so you’re seeing things that you’re ... ‘Is this something or not?’ And I saw something that I believed was showing a 800-foot diameter pile of scattered iron ore on the bottom, and in the midst of that was a deeply impacted-into-the-bottom wreck.”
“We’ve learned you don’t know what you’re hunting for till you find it, because shipwrecks come in all different sizes and shapes,” Merryman said. “And so it was like — ‘yeah, maybe we should go check that out. What the heck, let’s go.’”
After another sonar check confirmed a target of interest, Eliason said they “decided to put the camera down and Ken skillfully manipulated the boat to the position and we started seeing it right away.”
“Now it’s not one of those beautiful wrecks,” Eliason said — wrecks that are intact and recognizable, when a ship sank in shallower waters or was carrying a lighter cargo like grain.
In the case of the Steinbrenner, he said, “a heavily laden ship with iron ore, plunging 750 feet down to the bottom — it’s speared in significantly.”
The large field of iron ore indicates the ship broke apart as it sank, spilling its cargo across that wide area.
Merryman and Eliason also captured video showing part of the ship’s name on the stern — not easy, given that operating the camera at a depth of 750 feet is kind of like dangling a camera on a cable from atop a skyscraper and trying to control it enough to read license plates on the street below.
And about 12 days after Eliason and Merryman found the Steinbrenner, another pair of shipwreck hunters — Tom Crossmon and Dave Phillips — independently located the wreck and acquired additional footage showing even more of the ship’s name.
While Eliason and Merryman found the wreck, “we’ve only seen about the back 200 feet," Merryman said. “We’ve got a lot more to explore. Next year, we hope to get out and see if we can see the bow, or what happened to the bow.”
Stonehouse, whose research on the Steinbrenner extends back decades, said the discovery offers a chance to learn about that era of Great Lakes shipbuilding, and a chance to bring renewed attention to the heroism shown by so many on that terrible morning so long ago.
And, he said, “it solves a mystery. Folks have been looking for the Steinbrenner for some time. So now at least you have an answer of where it is. And to the extent that that can be a closure point for some family members several generations later, is a good thing.”