|Abstract||In the years following World War Two, a wide variety of ships were laid up in the River Blackwater, looking forward to new future, or in many cases to the scrapyard. Merchant ship conversions rendered obsolete by the end of the war, ships with war damage that would not be worth repairing, ships that had come to the Allies as war reparations and were waiting for a new owner...
One ship came in two pieces, and that was the HELENA MODJESKA.
HELENA MODJESKA was a Liberty Ship - just one of 2,710 such ships built in
America during WW2 to make up for the enormous loss of Allied Merchant ships, particularly
in the Battle of the Atlantic. They were based on a British design, simple, cheap, relatively
large, and produced at an amazing rate in America using mass-production techniques. She was commissioned November 1944 and served in the Pacific War and the Far East. By 1946 the War had ended and the HELENA MODJESKA found herself on a voyage to Germany, heavily loaded with military transport, cars, trucks, tractors and reconstruction material for Germany.
On 12 September 1946, battered by a gale, she ran onto the Goodwin Sands in the English Channel. The Goodwins stuck out into the shipping lanes off the Kent Coast, were continually moving, and saw the end of many vessels over the centuries. Most vessels did not come off the sands.
Eight powerful tugs failed to refloat the ship and work began to lighten her. Some crew were
taken off, but 20 men remained, including two German stowaways who were hoping to get
back to their homeland. On 21st September, with freshening wind and a rising tide, the ship began to move badly, and the remaining crew were taken off. The ship split in front of the accommmodation and ended with the bow section a little distance from the stern.
Over the next few months, as much as possible of the valuable cargo was taken off the ship. The
cargo was taken off the after part into smaller craft, and then 24 October it was beached off Deal
so the cargo could be taken ashore by cable. The same process was repeated with the forepart,
beached nearby on 29 October.
On 10 January 1947 the forepart was was refloated and towed to the River Blackwater.
The afterpart followed in June that year and the two
parts were anchored alongside each other in the River.
A year later, the two halves were towed round to the Thames to be scrapped at Grays, the afterpart
8 June 1948 and the forepart leaving 10 June 1948.
To go back a little, May 1946 saw HELENA MODJESKA in Los Angeles. One of the crew who signed on
as an Able Seaman for the coming trip to Germany
was Laurence Heiner. His daughter, Judy Blount, tells us his story, helped by his seaman's papers.
When my father died in 1989, he left us as he lived, with most of his possessions being able to
fit in one suitcase. I did find reference to a safety deposit box in his address book, but
couldn't find a key. So we had it drilled open and the only thing in it was an envelope
containing his seaman's papers. They dated back to 1933 when he ran away from home at age 16
and signed on to a cargo ship carrying redwood lumber to Port Arthur, China. I have a photo of
him on the Great Wall taken when he was there. He came home to Redwood City, California and finished high school, then joined The Civilian Conservation Corps, [Note 1] and eventually married. When the United States entered WW2 he had two children, so didn't qualify for the military. He joined the Merchant Marine in 1943 or 1944 and sailed on war-effort cargo ships carrying munitions in the Pacific, but didn't readily speak of this. Early 1946 saw him on a tanker in Texas waters - Port Arthur, Texas City, Houston, before switching to a Liberty Ship.
Seaman's Discharge papers for Laurence Heiner
1. and 2. FORT MIFFLIN - a tanker. Port Arthur to Texas City and then Houston
3. and 4. HELENA MODJESKA - Los Angeles to the Goodwin Sands - but the discharge after leaving the
HELENA MODJESKA on the Goodwins was registered in New York City
5. and 6. OGLETHORPE VICTORY New York (actually it was London) to New York
Laurence Eugene Heiner, born Redwood City, California 15 April 1913
Permitted to land at Dover for discharge on condition that the holder embarks for the U.S.A. at
the earliest opportunity.
Immigration Officer Dover - 18 Sep 1946 - HELENA MODJESKA
Immigration Officer London - Embarked 27 Sep 1946
In later life, Judy asked her father about the HELENA MODJESKA:"
What my father told me was that they were transporting cargo to Germany to assist rebuilding the
country. He said he ship hit the Goodwin Sands and the crew immediately knew it was going
nowhere. The captain decided he was going to float it off, but the inevitable
happened, and it broke in two a few days later. The crew had been ordered to stay onboard to
guard the cargo and they were not in danger. But when it broke up they were taken off and
went to hotels in Ramsgate.
From the Thanet Advertiser 17 September 1946:
The broken-hearted skipper of the 7,000 tons American Liberty ship HELENA MODJESKA, which has
been abandoned a total wreck on the Goodwin Sands, was found lying dead in bed at a Ramsgate
hotel on Sunday. Grey-haired, 56-year-old Captain William Henry Curran, of Los Angeles,
California, was in tears when he said good-bye to his ship on Saturday afternoon. "I fought to
the last to save the ship," he said, "but it was hopeless. For myself I was not afraid to die
but it would have been unfair to my crew of younger men to keep them in peril any longer."
The mystery of Captain Curran's death was not cleared up until 1st October, when the inquest returned
a verdict of death by natural causes. Although two bottles of a barbiturate were found in
Captain Curran's room, the amount found in his stomach was exceedingly small, and the patholist
was of the opinion that death was due to heart degeneration. He was 56. [From East Kent Times
2 October 1946] [Note 2]
Captain William H. Curran was laid to rest in Ramsgate Cemetery, far from his native Los Angeles.
My Dad and the crew then did not have the proper passports to do anything but wait for another
cargo ship that was returning to the States. They eventually signed on to the OGLETHORPE VICTORY
in London and sailed home.
My father remained a Merchant Seaman for another year or so. He then became a San
Francisco fireman until retirement. In 1957 he renewed his Merchant Seaman membership as
he always threatened to ship out again, but didn't leave the Fire Department. He was a
wonderful, interesing, different sort of character. I was blessed by his presence in my life.
Mersea residents got a closeup view of a Liberty Ship in February 1958 when the MICHALAKIS
broke her cables and came ashore at the bottom of Empress Avenue. She had been
laid up in the River, and was refloated undamaged a few days later.
MICHALAKIS was just one of a number of Liberty Ships laid up in the River when trade
was slack in the late 1950s and 1960s.
KATINA, MARIA DE LARRINAGA, MARIA STATHATOS, NIKOLAS S, PEGASUS, SKIATHOS.
Mostly by then they were Greek owned. Years earlier, in the late 1940s, it was a different
story when a number were laid up in the River with war damage.
SAMLONG had been badly damaged in the D-Day
landings and was well remembered locally because there was a hole in the side of the engineroom
you could take a boat into. Most went for scrap, but some were loaded with obsolete ammunition
and taken to sea and scuttled.
The original Helena Modjeska ? Born in 1840, she was a well known Polich actress who
specialised in Shakespearean roles. In 1876 she emigrated to the United States and settled in
Anaheim, California. She returned to the stage, and died in 1909.
Her name is remembered in Anaheim and California in parks, roads, peaks, waterfalls -
and of course in WW2 she had a Liberty Ship named after her.
1. Civilian Conservation Corps was a voluntary public work relieve program in the U.S., part
of Roosevelt's New Deal to get America out of The Depression.
2. There are some reports that Captain Curran's death was suicide, but the inquest report in
East Kent Times 2 Oct 1946 clearly concludes that it was by natural causes.
- many interesting details from local newspapers. The title of the article ends "and the suicide
of her Captain" but the article does not give us the source of this. See Note 2 above.
Liberty ships wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberty_ship
Helena Modjeska 1840-1909 wikipedia.org/wiki/Helena_Modjeska
HELENA MODJESKA laid up in Blackwater
British Newspaper Archive