On the evening of June 20, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt was handed a pink message slip. After reading it he wordlessly passed the note to his guest, Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It read: “Tobruk has surrendered, with 25,000 men taken prisoner.” Confirmation of that announcement revealed the plight of the British Eighth Army in Egypt was dire – almost all its tanks, and much of its artillery, had been lost as well. With spontaneous generosity, President Roosevelt asked, “What can we do to help?”
“Give us as many Sherman tanks as you can spare, and ship them to the Middle East as quickly as possible,” Churchill responded.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall went a step further, offering to send Maj. Gen. George Patton’s 2nd Armored Division. When it was determined that sending the division would take longer than sending its weapons, he decided to strip the 1st and 2nd Armored divisions of the 300 M-4 Sherman tanks and 100 self-propelled 105 mm howitzers that they had just received and send them to Egypt. Chief of the Imperial General Staff Gen. Alan Brooke was deeply touched by this decision and wrote about it at length in his diary, stating in part, “Anybody knowing what it entails withdrawing long-expected weapons from fighting troops just after they have received them will understand the depth of kindness that lay behind this gesture.”
“Roosevelt is issuing the orders on this one himself.”
—U.S. Navy admiral in his briefing to Seatrain Texas Capt. Kenneth G. Towne
Time was of the essence. Because there would be a delay bringing all the tanks to the port of Brooklyn, the decision was made to send an initial convoy carrying the howitzers, munitions, and 83 Shermans. On Monday, July 13 1942, Convoy AS-4 composed of the freighters Fairport, Zaandam, Exhibitor, Tarn, Empire Oriole, and Hawaiian Shipper departed from the Brooklyn Navy Yard with three destroyers as escort. Three days later, about 270 miles south of Bermuda, U-161 torpedoed the Fairport. Though the entire crew was rescued and the rest of the convoy was able to continue its voyage, all of the convoy’s tanks were now at the bottom of the Atlantic.
On July 29, 1942, the SS Seatrain Texas, carrying 250 Sherman tanks, left Brooklyn for Egypt.
The brainchild of shipping executive Graham M. Brush of Seatrain Lines, the Seatrain cargo ship was designed to transport loaded freight cars between U.S. ports and to various ports in the Caribbean, thus reducing loading and unloading downtime. The decks were designed so that railroad cars or locomotives could be rolled directly onto the decks and then secured in place. In essence they were the precursor to today’s container ships. They were big and fast: 483 feet long, with a 64-foot beam, and could carry more than 8,000 tons at 16.5 knots.
The nerve-wracking trip from Brooklyn to Capetown took 18 days. Though Towne heard radio reports of other ships being attacked by U-boats, Seatrain Texas arrived at the South African port without incident.
Four days later and now operating under the British codename of “Treasure Ship,” Seatrain Texas headed north up the east coast of Africa. At Durban it rendezvoused with a Free French corvette assigned to escort it through the Mozambique Channel as far as Somalia. When Seatrain Texas, now alone, approached Socatra Island off the Horn of Africa the radio operator began receiving messages from British headquarters in Egypt. But static interference made its content indecipherable. Towne decided to maintain his course and radio silence until after he had entered the Gulf of Aden.
It turned out to be a fortunate decision. Seatrain Texas’s route called for it to pass through the channel between the Horn of Africa and Socatra Island. The British message contained instructions to change course and veer around the far side of the island as an Italian submarine had been spotted in the channel. Instead, it was the Italian submarine that changed course. Had Towne done so as well, Seatrain Texas might well have been intercepted and sunk.
Seatrain Texas arrived at Port Taufiq on the southern end of the Suez Canal on September 2 where its tanks were promptly unloaded. One month later, on Oct. 23, 1942, the Shermans rolled into action in the Battle of El Alamein.
On Oct. 16, 1951, The Cavalcade of America, an anthology drama radio series, broadcast a half-hour episode about the Seatrain Texas. The Cavalcade of America, a popular program that ran from 1935 to 1953 on the radio, and on television from 1952 to 1957, offered “dramatizations of the human spirit’s triumph against all odds.” The Seatrain Texas episode was titled “The Ship the Nazis Had to Get” and starred Ray Milland as Towne. The program began with Milland making the dramatic announcement, “My name’s Capt. Kenneth Towne. I reckon if I go to sea for a hundred years, I’ll never have another trip like we had when I was skipper of the Seatrain Texas, the ship the Nazis had to get.” The episode can be heard at: