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History's Headlines: The saga of the S.S. Lehigh

VIDEO: History's Headlines: S.S. Lehigh

The morning of May 30, 1919 was one full of promise in the Lehigh Valley, but it was a promise tempered with sadness.  It was the first Memorial Day since the end of World War I and it brought deep emotions. “The day perhaps never in all the history of its observance, held no great a significance as it did yesterday,” said one local newspaper the next morning. The nation, it noted, had just completed “a great war for liberty and truth over autocracy,” and yet “the memory of the departed dead,” was “fresh in the minds of all who remembered the vivid picture of daily casualty lists.”

But as the doughboys marched home, for some there was still unfinished business in the war’s wake. That morning in Catasauqua a group of community notables was gathering for a long automobile ride down to the shipyards at Hog Island in Philadelphia. They were going to witness an event that had supposedly never been seen before: the launching of five freighters, one after the other, all Liberty Loan ships named in honor of communities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Minnesota that had raised money for the war effort. One of them was named the S.S. Lehigh.

Heading the party of local notables were Mr. and Mrs. William R. Thomas of the Catasauqua iron making family. With them were their sons Billie and Milson. William Thomas was president of the Wahnetah Silk Mill. His wife carried a bouquet of red roses given by the mill’s workers.

Among the Allentown people present were Mr. and Mrs. John Greenall and their son Charles, just returned from overseas, and Mr. and Mrs. Joe Hart. Hart was head of the Allentown Flag Day Association and the city’s leading booster. With them, to cover the event for the Allentown Democrat was reporter John Y. Kohl. As a rare exception, the paper permitted him to bring along his wife of one year, Helen Wittman Kohl.

Promptly at 7:30 a.m. the automobile caravan left for the long ride to the Quaker City for the event that was scheduled to start at 1 p.m. Kohl did not leave behind any description of the trip but as paved roads were still few and far between, and cars were open and roads dusty, it must have been a bumpy journey. The next day’s newspapers estimated the crowd gathered at Hog Island that day as 50,000, including Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.  The secretary gave a few remarks, which were not recorded in the local press and the event began. At exactly 1:35 a Miss R. Erme of Reading sent the Maiden Creek down the ways. Exactly 20 minutes later the Nedmac  (Camden spelled backwards) was launched by Mrs. Mary Baird Fox of Camden N. J. Then it was Mrs. Thomas’s turn to send the Lehigh to sea. Kohl described the scene this way:

“At the very instant when the last plank had been knocked away, and when the massive hulk was just beginning to tremble with the sudden freedom, Mrs. Thomas, with a true and sturdy little arm shattered the bottle over the bow and in doing, proclaimed, ‘I christen thee Lehigh.’ “

Two more ships slid down the ways and the event was over. Staff photographers did not exist at Lehigh Valley newspapers at the time and Kohl had been asked by his boss to see if he could get a copy of a photo from one of the Philadelphia newspapers of the launching. Fortunately, a photo engraver at the Philadelphia Press was nice enough to do so.

Remembering it in a column he wrote 50 years later Kohl recalled they then stopped at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for an “innocuously alcoholic” drink called a Virginia Dare spritzer before taking the elevated train to the 69th St. Station and home on the Liberty Bell Trolley. Kohl’s story ran on the Allentown Democrat’s front page the next morning.

The Lehigh went to have a 22 year useful life at sea, a steady part of the U.S. Merchant Marine. But one moment of fame came in 1938. That year a young American flier Douglas Corrigan filed a flight plan in New York to take him to Long Beach, California. Instead, he said due to bad weather, he flew the opposite direction to Ireland. The press of the day nicknamed him “WRONG WAY” Corrigan and the name was his ever after. While he sailed back to New York aboard the liner Manhattan, his plane was carried back to America on the S.S. Lehigh.

The next and last act in the S.S. Lehigh ‘s life was a tragic one. On October 19, 1941 she was sailing in the South Atlantic, not far from the coast of Africa. World War II had broken out in Europe in 1939 and  the waters of the Atlantic were filled with German submarine “wolf packs” in search of prey from their ports in occupied France. It was U-boat 126 Captain Ernst Bauer that spotted the Lehigh through his periscope. The fact that it had two large American flags painted on its hull of the still neutral U.S. was no protection. When the torpedo struck, the Lehigh’s radio operator Sam Hakam recalled, it was without warning except for a huge explosion. “My first reaction was ‘This is just like you see in the movies.’ But this was not in the movies This was for real.”

The 39 member crew got off safely in lifeboats. It was Hakam’s camera that caught the last minutes of the Lehigh. It rolled slightly and slid to one side. Then it started to go down stern first.

“The ship went down finally with a rumbling roar leaving some debris behind,” recalled Hakam. The bow on which Mrs. Thomas had once showered champagne was the last seen of the Lehigh.  “The Captain waved his hat shouting, “’Goodbye old girl.’”

The readers of Life magazine got to see Hakam’s pictures on December 8, 1941, the day America entered World War II.                        


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