The Wreck of the Phyllis S: Anatomy of a Shipwreck Narrative

by Mike Burwell

[Note: bolded text in brackets refers to PowerPoint slides]

The Story:

[New Shuyak Picture] On the afternoon of December 17th, 1942, the Kodiak mail boat Phyllis S. had just departed Chadrick Bay on Raspberry Island after stops at Ouzinkie, Afognak, and Iron Creek on it's second mail run of the month. The 60-foot, 46-ton ex-seiner had been built in Poulsbo, Washington in 1927 and was named after Phyllis Sholl Zehe whose father was the machinist for the Ouzinkie Packing Company; the boat’s journey was to take it next to Port Bailey, then Uganik, Uyak, Larson Bay, Karluk, Carmel, Alitak, Aiaktalik, Kaguyak, Old Harbor, Port Hobron, McCord, Shearwater Bay, and finally back to Kodiak. It was the boat's first run before Christmas and the vessel was full of mail and freight for the holiday season, including two crated pigs that passenger George Scroggs was taking to his home on Harvester Island in Uyak Bay; some of the crew and men at the Chadrick sawmill had cut Christmas trees for the Phyllis S. to give to the people at the remaining stops around the Island. Robert von Scheele, of the Afognak von Scheele clan, was skipper and had gone below for his lunch; [New Map] his brother Tom had the wheel and motored the Phyllis S. at 7 1/2 knots across Kupreanof Strait toward Polar Bear Rock Light at the west end of Dry Spruce Island and then to the Port Bailey Cannery. The weather was clear and the seas calm.

Fifteen people were aboard, 11 passengers and two other crewmen [Passengers & Crew]. When Bob von Scheele had finished his lunch, he stood up to return to the bridge, but in that same moment he was slammed against the bulkhead and knocked out. A woman passenger screamed. Coming to, Von Scheele believed they had hit a Japanese mine and told everyone to get out quick. He related later: "I was knocked around like a cork there for a second or two." Up top, in the pilot house, Tom von Scheele had the wheel torn from his hands. He said at a later Naval hearing: "When she hit, it threw me down, and when I got up, the wheel was spinning to beat the band." His first thought was the same as his brother’s--that they'd hit a mine…until he turned to see the huge gray form of a Navy vessel looming above. They’d been hit amidships on the port side and cut completely in two by a US Navy destroyer--the USS Hulbert [Hulbert Picture]. The Hulbert was making 15 knots through Whale Passage, approaching Kupreanof Strait enroute from the US Naval Operating Base, Kodiak to the US Naval Section Base at Sand Point.

Tom von Scheele said later "The cut looked perfectly straight like we had been cut with a knife." The pilot house was quite noisy and no one on board had seen the Hulbert approaching, including George Scroggs and Charlie Aga, the two other men in the pilot house with Tom von Scheele. Bob von Scheele said at the Navy inquiry that the windows in the wheelhouse were so located that you couldn't look back. You could not see aft of the beam. "Only ahead and abeam." About the destroyer he said: "You can't see a vessel that is painted gray with a gray background until it is right up on you." Engineer, Monroe Rongvid, testified later that he had indeed heard the four warning blasts from the Hulbert 1 minute before impact and had actually made in onto the deck and almost to the hatch to warn those below when the Hulbert hit. At the inquiry they asked Rongvid: "When you heard the whistle and came out, what did you see? He answered: "I seen a big nose of a boat coming right for me, so I beat it."

The aft portion of the bow section immediately began to sink, and Tom heard Bob below telling everyone to get out. Tom started for the pilot house door but it was jammed, and he had to break the skylight to escape. Tom, remembered seeing the 16-foot dory full of Christmas trees going bottom up and the stern half of the Phyllis S. floating away. John Reft remembers having fun and spinning a top and laughing with Danny Valli, his friend. John remembers their mothers in the bunks and the cabin full of Christmas presents. Then all hell broke loose. There was lots of screaming and hollering and he remembers being handed through the broken skylight and then the adults scrambling through. One of the women passengers, John Reft’s step-mother Tina Katelnikoff, had problems getting out the opening because she was pregnant. Once Johnny was through, he went to the bow and sat on the anchor, screaming "Get her out!" He recalls someone saying they’d give it one more try even if it "pops her arms off." Finally, they managed to pull and twist her through. Everyone struggled to the bow's deck except Mary Paakhanen and her grandaughter Helen Agik, who had both been napping in their bunks after lunch. No one could hear them below and it was believed they had been knocked out or killed outright in the collision.

It took only a few minutes for the bow to almost completely submerge. By this time Lieutenant JG, Richard B. Redmayne, officer of the deck on the Hulbert at the time of the collision, had put a couple of rafts in the water and Lieutenant Robert B. Crowell, Captain of the Hulbert, personally manned a life boat to effect the rescue; the destroyer also ran a cable from the boat davit to keep the bow of the Phyllis S. from sinking [Reft Slide] During the rescue, Tom von Scheele remembers 4-year old John Reft crying about losing his boots when Moses Naumoff plucked him off the boat. John said later he caught the left red rubber boot on the anchor fluke as Naumoff passed him to the rescue craft. He was afraid his dad would find out he'd lost one of his new boots and "raise Cain." Reft said in a Kadiak Times interview 40 years later that he begged Moses to fetch the boots as they floated away down Whale Passage. Reft related: "All those years that Moses saw me in town, he'd say, "Hey, did you ever find your boots?'"

For a while, the cable from the Hulbert kept the bow from going down; the Navy chopped a hole through the deck and sent Lieutenant Robert L. Eichorn and Apprentice Seaman, Theodore Stouder into the submerged bow to search for the two missing women; the men were not prepared for the cold water and could not explore for long but were convinced they had done a thorough search. They found no one. With the hole in the deck letting in water, the crane could no longer keep the bow afloat and with an approaching snow squall and visibility reduced to zero, the Hulbert cut it loose and let it sink in 30 fathoms. The bodies of the two women were never recovered. Bob von Scheele related later when asked if anyone inside could have still been alive considering the time involved and the frigid water said. "I doubt it." [Corner's Inquest] A Corner's inquest in February 1943 found that Mary Pakkanen and Helen Agik "came to their deaths through the failure of the man in charge on the bridge of the destroyer AVD-6 to give any or proper signal to the Phyllis S."

The thirteen survivors were taken aboard the Hulbert, given warm clothes and had their cuts and bruises treated. The Christmas trees and freight—liquor, provisions, and freight for stores around the island, lumber, fruit, and a stove for a school--had all been lost along with 10 sacks of mail for Uganik and Port Bailey and the two pigs--drowned when their crate floated off the deck. Tom von Scheele related later that the destroyer eventually picked the pigs up and "probably had fresh pork for dinner." A surviving member of the Hulbert crew, Machinist Mate Bill Rankin, now 83 and retired in Florida remembers the collision even though he was in the engine room at the time. He came on deck during the incident and remembers seeing crates of oranges and George Scroggs' crate of pigs floating around. That night, the Navy put the Phyllis S. crew and passengers ashore at Port Bailey. The next day the stern section of the boat was found on Whale Island with the remaining 15 sacks of mail--wet but intact. The stern remained on Whale Island until washed away by the 1964 tidal wave. The mail was dried and eventually sent on. A couple of days later the Navy boat YP-155 arrived and took everyone to Kodiak. [Anchorage Times] News of the event did not appear in the Anchorage Daily Times until December 21st--the day after the Phyllis S. survivors arrived there. In describing the event, the paper did not identify the Hulbert, calling it simply "a larger vessel."

Captain Bob von Scheele had lost two boats in two months—a month before his mail boat the Charlotte B. had gone down in a storm near Alitak. [Grimes Packing] It was the Phyllis S. that had come to the rescue of the Charlotte B. The Phyllis S. replaced the Charlotte B. as mailboat after Bob von Scheele's chartered it from Ouzinkie cannery owner, O.L. Grimes.

[Navy Hearing] The Navy convened a hearing into the sinking of the Phyllis S. in Kodiak on January 28, 1943. The Navy believed at one point that Charlie Aga might have been steering the Phyllis S., based on a comment he made to mess attendant second class, Daniel H. Knight, but the claim was never substantiated. Lieutenant Crowell and others stated that the Phyllis S. had made a radical course change to port at the last second, taking her into the path of the Hulbert, but after extensive interrogation of the crewman of the Hulbert and the Phyllis S., the Court of Inquiry determined that the Hulbert, as the overtaking vessel, was the burdened vessel. The Hulbert had four lookouts posted and they had reported sighting the Phyllis S. to the officer on deck at least 20 minutes before the collision. According to navigation rules, as the burdened vessel, it was the Hulbert's duty to keep clear of the Phyllis S. or to obtain the consent to pass by giving warning or passing signals. A warning signal was given but it was given too late and was never heard by those on the Phyllis S. Serious blame was put on Captain Crowell and Lieutenant Redmayne for failing to take appropriate action to prevent the collision. The Court of Inquiry recommended that Lieutenant Crowell and Lieutenant Redmayne be brought to trial before a general court martial on charges of "culpable inefficiency in the performance of their duties." Rear Admiral T.C. Kinkaid later concluded that a letter of reprimand was more suitable for Lieutenant Redmayne.

Another casualty of the hearings and possibly the collision was passenger George Scroggs who, after giving his testimony, fell ill and died of a ruptured appendix after returning to Uyak Bay. Passengers and crew of the Phyllis S brought to Kodiak for the naval hearing did not receive passage back to their villages from the Navy, and many were stranded for a long time in Kodiak. The Navy made no reparations to Von Scheele for the loss of his mail boat, to the injured passengers, or to the families of the two lost women, Mary Paakhanen and Helen Agik. To this day, people in Kodiak cannot forget the appalling way they were treated by the U.S. Navy over the Phyllis S incident.

[Hulbert and Phyllis S] For the USS Hulbert, this incident was the nadir of its career--after distinguishing itself during the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor by shooting down one Japanese torpedo plane and damaging several others and assisting in the recapture of Attu in 1943. It blew ashore on Attu in the late summer of 1943 but was pulled off and repaired. It was decommissioned in 1945 and scrapped in Philadelphia in 1946.

[Other Shuyak] Bob von Scheele had better luck with the boat he got to replace the Phyllis S.—the Shuyak. A much luckier boat than the Phyllis S., it operated up until the mid-1960's.

[John Reft and Mike Burwell]

After my October 2005 presentation at the Alaska Historical Society Meeting here in Kodiak, I realized that the event still troubled a number of people here on the island.

[Navy Hearing]

I resolved to find out how the Navy had punished Commander Crowell and Lieutenant Redmayne. Through a long and very slow process and with the expert help of the National Archives in Seattle, I was able to run down some of their Navy personnel records.

[Redmayne]

Lieutenant Redmayne, Officer of the Deck at the time of the sinking, received only a reprimand and went on to be a career Navy man. I managed to track him down to the Seattle area only to find out that he had recently passed away.

There’s an interesting historical note to Redmayne’s Navy career: When the Hulbert returned to San Francisco for repairs after grounding on Attu in 1943, Redmayne was assigned to the USS Indianapolis. When it was later sunk by the Japanese in the Pacific, he was one of only 300 survivors out of a crew of 1,200.

Redmayne later received the Purple Heart.

[Crowell]

The Naval Board of Investigation recommended that commanding officer Lieut. Robert Crowell be brought to trial before a general court martial.

Records cannot be found for Crowell’s court martial or for his punishment for the Phyllis S incident.

Less than a year after the Phyllis S, Crowell was court martialed again for grounding the Hulbert on Attu. For his negligence is this event, he lost "fifty numbers in his grade."

Passengers and crew of the Phyllis S brought to Kodiak for the naval hearing did not receive passage back to their villages from the Navy, and many were stranded for a long time in Kodiak.

No reparations of any kind were ever made to Von Scheele for the loss of his mailboat, to the injured passengers, or to the families of the two lost women, Mary Paakhanen and Helen Agik.