The Strange Tale of the Emmy Friederich
By Steven Danforth Singer
Though the United States was still neutral, war between some of our future allies and Germany had already begun on September 1, 1939. British, Canadian, and other allied warships were soon cruising the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding areas to intercept any German ships which had been loading fuel and other supplies in Texas and other Gulf ports. Some of these became casualties off Florida even before the United States had entered the war.
Just before the war started with our allies in 1939, the German tanker Emmy Friederich had loaded 40,000 barrels of oil at Port Arthur, Texas (Note: Most all newspaper reports spelled it Emmy Friedrich). She then sailed for Hamburg on August 27, 1939, but hearing that war had just broke out, and fearing she would be intercepted in the Gulf by allied warships, she quickly made haste for Tampico, Mexico to seek refuge. The Emmy Friederich was built in 1904 at Port Glasgow by Russel & Co. She was 4,327 gross tons, and measured 374.5’ x 48.9’ x 27.2’. Originally named the Borderer and equipped as a cargo ship, she was later converted to a tanker in 1930, renamed, and sold to German interests.
She lay in Tampico for a time, taking on more cargo and waiting to make a break for the Atlantic hoping to slip through the Gulf blockade. She left Tampico on Oct. 20th, and her papers said she was headed for Malmo, Sweden, though the allies thought otherwise. Some reports said she was going to rendezvous with the German cruiser Admiral Graf Spee, which was now in the South Atlantic destroying allied shipping. She reportedly also carried the refrigerant used to cool the magazines for the Graf Spee. It was also reported she planned to rendezvous with Nazi U-boats to re-supply those too, and there was no doubt her captain was in communication with the Nazi command, so it was imperative that allied warships be on the lookout for the Emmy Friederich to prevent its supplying any of those enemy vessels.
She was soon seen by a pair of British and Canadian warships, and on October 24th, was intercepted by the HMS Caradoc in the Yucatan Straight, Gulf of Mexico. She was running without lights and was boarded, finding her crew standing by the lifeboats. Not wanting to be captured, the German crew had already opened the sea cocks and destroyed their levers, preventing them from being closed, which began the scuttling process. With no way to close the valves, the crew were then taken prisoner and the tanker was left to her fate.
Now what gets interesting is that on November 3rd, 1939, the first signs of the remains of a shipwreck began washing ashore along the beaches of Jupiter, Florida and the surrounding area around 2 am that morning. Local residents complained of a strong odor of fuel oil in the area, and a large oil slick about 400 yards wide and which stretched over six miles long, lay just offshore. Much of the beach in the area was soon blackened with oil, and strong winds sprayed oil onto many buildings, trees, etc. for about 150 yards inland from the shoreline. One witness said he saw a piece of a ship the size of a house drift by.
The oil was determined to be high grade and unburned. Wood planks from a ship washed ashore. All were painted grey and looked to be just recently torn away. No distress calls were noted from any vessel at this time. Other items found were dozens of vibration proof light bulbs usually found in a ship’s engine room, two doors which appeared ripped off their frames and had the numbers “19” and “49” on them. A life preserver, broken oar, porthole covers, pieces of ship’s railing, and some personal items including hair brushes and a shaving brush with the swatstika imprinted on them (though noted they were made in the USA.) A ship’s binnacle also washed ashore with decking still attached from where it tore loose. The compass was missing, but the gyroscope was still there indicating a more modern equipped vessel. The binnacle’s Mfg. plate was also attached and read: P.P. Perry & Co., West Hartlepool, England. (I did find a P.F. Perry & Co. in Hartlepool so likely a misprint in the paper). Another piece of the wreck had the letters “AW4S” which was thought to be from a hatch cover. A lifeboat also came ashore on the 3rd with words in German that translated to “Sea Trade Union.” A copper plate on it had the # 14998 and the legend 4.57 CHm.
Other communities along Florida’s east coast were also reporting items washed ashore. On Nov. 15th, reports from Volusia County said that for the last ten days, items were washed onto the beaches there. A drum of gasoline was found on New Smyrna Beach with no markings, but some drums of oil were labeled “Havoline.” An oil drum was also reported ashore on Daytona Beach and a diesel fuel drum at Ft. Lauderdale. Some beer cans with a foreign name were found and determined they were manufactured in the USA but not sold here. Other reports had other food items such as butter made in Mexico, lard, olive oil etc. being found. On Nov. 12th, the side wall of a radio cabin with some radio terms in German inscribed on some small aluminum plates, some oil drums, and six 5-gallon tins of lard washed ashore near Titusville.
By November 22, customs agents, who had seen some of the flotsam washed ashore, were fairly confident that they were from the Emmy Friederich, scuttled in the Gulf of Mexico ten days prior. Did the whole vessel drift in the Gulf Stream to the east coast of Florida? I’d think that with the large oil slick, and large pieces of a wreck washing ashore near Jupiter, that much of the vessel must have finally sunk near there. Did she break up in pieces, or sink in one piece? No other vessels were reported in distress off Florida at this time, and wreckage was found all along the east coast of Florida. I’ve documented other vessels that were abandoned off Florida’s Panhandle, only to drift with the currents to the east coast of Florida, so it’s a good possibility she lay somewhere off Florida’s east coast, or at least part of her, and likely near Jupiter.
Florida was seeing some of the results of WWII more than two years before Germany declared war against the United States on Dec. 11, 1941. In December of 1939, another German freighter, the Arauca, was intercepted off Miami by the HMS Orion. A shot was fired over her bow by the Orion which she was later reprimanded for doing so in the neutral waters of the United States. Ironically, the German ship then entered Port Everglades to find sanctuary. Thankfully it never left, and was later assigned to the U.S. Navy as the refrigerated storage ship Saturn (AF-40). As for the supposed recipient of the Emmy Friederich’s cargo, the fate of the Admiral Graf Spee was also doomed. It had been sent to the South Atlantic sea lanes in preparation for the war to begin, and sank nine ships between September and December 1939. She was soon damaged in the Battle of the River Plate on Dec. 13, and then sought refuge in the port of Montevideo. Believing false reports that a large British force was closing in, the Captain had her scuttled, and some of her remains are still visible today. Her captain later committed suicide.
Over a year later, another German transport ship, the Rhein, tried to break out of the Gulf to escape into the Atlantic. Dutch and Canadian warships intercepted her off the Tortugas December 11, 1940. She was then set fire to and scuttled by her crew. The HMS Caradoc finished her off and sunk her with her guns, the same Caradoc that intercepted the Emmy Friederich the year before.
Once the U.S. had entered the war, Florida soon felt the full brunt of the U-boat’s assault along our east and gulf coasts, sinking many a ship and causing a great loss of life. One U-boat landed spies and explosives near Ponte Vedra Beach, and I’ve heard that a supposedly unoccupied house in Boca Raton served as a hideout for a German spy signaling U-boats offshore. There’s the story of a captured U-boat sailor found with a movie ticket from a Palm Beach theatre in his pocket and a there’s a number of other stories I’ve heard but not substantiated. Right after war broke out in the U.S., my dad, who was in the Coast Guard, was put on a converted sailing yacht to look for U-boats off our east coast, but was soon transferred to a Navy ship in the Pacific Fleet. Two of his brothers also served in the Navy with the Pacific Fleet and a third with the Army in Europe.
Though there’s no proof that the Emmy Friederich sank off Florida’s east coast, all evidence appears to say that it did, likely having drifted partially submerged in the Gulf Stream for ten days until finally breaking apart or sinking somewhere near Jupiter. We did a magnetometer survey in the late 1990’s looking for any remnants of a centuries older wreck south of the inlet in the vicinity of Jupiter & Juno Beach. We identified a good-sized trail of what appeared to be some sort of wreckage in that area, though all was buried under deep sand. We hope to visit the area in the near future to determine if anything there may indicate the final resting place of the Emmy Friederich.