a wartime mystery:
search for the SS Chester Sun
During World War II,
German U-boats prowled the waters off the North Carolina coast,
sinking Allied ships – about 30 of them in just one month –
March of 1942
According to such sources as
the respected Outer Banks historian David Stick and the National
Geographic Society, the SS Chester Sun was one of them.
According to U.S. government
and ship-owner records, the Chester Sun survived the war and
went on to ply the oceans for another decade.
This is a story with an
accidental beginning that led to a fascinating journey through
Navy, Merchant Marine, and North Carolina history and to an
By HAL SHELTON
I have been vacationing on the Outer Banks for about 20 years
and now own a beach cottage in Avon. At a local art
gallery, I noticed a framed map of the Atlantic coastline from
Cape Henry to Cape Lookout—the very popular 1969 National
Geographic magazine map of the “Ghost Fleet of the Outer Banks.”
I became interested, then intensely absorbed by this map and the
more than 500 shipwrecks it revealed. On even closer inspection,
I noticed the SS Chester Sun, an oil tanker, shown sunk off Avon
This reference was both startling and immediately personal,
because early in my career I worked for Sun Oil Company at its
shipbuilding operation, Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Co. I knew
from company history that the Chester Sun was the first ship
built at Sun Ship. It was a tanker to bring crude oil from the
newly discovered Texas oil fields to Sun’s Marcus Hook, Pa.,
I was hooked. My past association with the Chester Sun was now
linked with the apparent fact that the ship was apparently sunk
right in front of my beach cottage. My mind was flooded with
dozens of questions. What were the exact coordinates of the
sunken Chester Sun? Was its barnacled hull really offshore as I
looked out from our beach cottage? How did it sink? Was it from
a storm? Did it run aground? Was it torpedoed by a German
I love a mystery, and so began my search for the answers to the
destiny of the Chester Sun.
From National Geographic, I obtained a copy of the September,
1969 issue, only to find there was no story about the Chester
Sun, merely the tantalizing symbol for the sunken ship on the
map. I inquired if there had been any updates since 1969, and
there had not. An Internet search yielded a number of leads,
adding to the mystery of this “who done it.” And in the best
tradition of a well-done mystery, there were contradictions in
the facts. For example, while the National Geographic has a
death notice for the Chester Sun in 1942, the U.S. Navy and
Coast Guard reported on the SS Chester Sun after its reported
1942 sinking. The mystery deepened.
At the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, I was introduced to the
bible on North Carolina shipwrecks, David Stick’s book,
“Graveyard of the Atlantic, Shipwrecks of the North Carolina
Coast,” published in 1952. It was there I believed I had found
the answer. In a table on “Vessels Totally Lost” is the clear
death notice of the Chester Sun -- sunk on March 10, 1942, just
off Big Kinnakeet Coast Guard Station in Avon.
There were now two sources saying that the ship sank, as well as
other references to its continued existence. Given my previous
connection to the ship’s owner, I went directly to Sun Oil, now
called Sunoco. The company contacted its library and the Hagley
Museum and Library in Wilmington, Del.
From these sources, I found there were two SS Chester Suns. The
first was built in 1918 and sold in 1929 (and renamed), and the
second was built in 1930 and sold in 1954. Now I had a case of
twins. A 1952 Sun employee magazine showed both Chester Suns in
service--one at Sun and the other elsewhere.
The first ship was named Chester Sun in honor of the town in
which the shipyard was located—Chester, Pa. The Sun Company was
involved in the community, so after the ship was sold and
renamed by its new owners, another ship was built and named
Chester Sun to continue the association.
The Hagley Museum curator provided copies of letters relating to
the sale of the first Chester Sun. These 1928 letters are
each two to three sentences long. A broker inquired if Sun would
dispose of the Chester Sun or another ship of about 10,000 tons.
The company responded that it might or might not and invited an
offer. An offer was made, and within a few months the ship was
sold. The sale process was in stark contrast with the elaborate
business transaction requirements so common today.
The Hagley Museum curator directed me to the Independence
Seaport Museum in Philadelphia. Two authoritative reference
books emerged as vital to my search – “Lloyd’s Register,” which
contains ship insurance information, and the U.S. government’s
annual book, “Steam Merchant Vessels of the United States.”
To my surprise, the 1942 edition of “Steam Merchant Vessels” was
missing, and the 1942 edition of Lloyd’s was marked
Could the Chester Sun have been carrying secret materials that
warranted establishing a deliberate confusion about its status?
This was not a far-fetched idea since the Sun company was
involved in another secret venture. In 1973, it built the Glomar
Explorer deep-sea mining ship for Howard Hughes. This was a
cover story for Project Jennifer, a now well-known CIA program
to recover a Soviet ballistic missile submarine that sank in
17,000 feet of water, 750 miles northwest of Hawaii.
While I have emphasized the methodical search through dusty
records, I had much pleasure in the many personal interactions
this adventure afforded me. For example, Mike Martin of the
National Park Service was especially helpful. He found a book
that mentions an Ocracoke Island resident who served on the
Chester Sun in the late 1930s. Mike made contact with this
family and cleared the way for a visit.
Theodore Mutro of Ocracoke has a good memory of the 1930s and
‘40s. He told me about his experiences growing up in Chester,
Pa., during the depression. At that time a young man felt
privileged to get a job on a Sun tanker--three meals a day, a
daily hot shower, and $2 a day pay. He said it took seven days
to make the trip from Marcus Hook, Pa., (Sun’s refinery) to
Texas. There was about one day for loading/unloading at each
end, so the Chester Sun made about two round trips per month.
The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va., provided
valuable confirmation of my findings. The people there reviewed
the “Record of the American Bureau of Shipping” and “Lloyd’s War
Losses, the Second World War,” which confirmed the Chester Sun
did not sink in 1942 or at any other time during World War II.
They also reviewed local newspapers for March and April of 1942
and found no mention of the Chester Sun. In addition, they
reviewed several books related to German submarine activity and
did not find any mention of sinking the Chester Sun.
A museum researcher said, paraphrasing the famous Mark Twain
remark, “Reports of the death of the Chester Sun were greatly
I was now convinced there was sufficient documentation to
question the sinking of the Chester Sun, so what explains the
perplexing information—sunk or not sunk?
There were about 30 ships sunk in March, 1942 off the North
Carolina coast. With all of this activity it is possible that
ship names were confused. Was this a case of mistaken identity?
There were two reported sinkings on March 10, 1942. The first
was the tanker Gulf Trade, but its location was off Barnegat
Light, N.J., and the other was the Norwegian cargo ship Hvoslef,
sunk off Ocean City, Md. During March, 1942, two U-boats were
very active off the North Carolina coast. U-124, commanded by
Johann Mohr, sank six vessels, and U-158, commanded by Erich
Rosten, sank four. German U-boat radio communications from that
time make no mention of the sinking of the Chester Sun.
There were four other Sun Oil-owned tankers, with “Sun” in their
name, sunk during the war, but at different times and places.
The Big Kinnakeet Coast Guard Station was in operation during
this time. It was located just south of Avon village, around
where Hatteras Realty and the Avon Post Office now stand. While
its activities were mostly assisting ships, mail boats, and
residents in Pamlico Sound, it would have assisted with any ship
in trouble. Big Kinnakeet was damaged by a 1944 hurricane and
demolished thereafter. In the station’s records, now kept at the
National Park Service headquarters in Manteo, is a piece of
paper with a notation of the Chester Sun and March 10, 1942.
However, there is no indication if this is a date of sinking or
any other event or when this information was added to the file.
From a National Archives search of Coast Guard records there is
a January 25, 1942 boarding report from the Fourth Naval
District in Philadelphia. It states that two days earlier,
the Chester Sun off Cape Lookout altered course to pass 45 miles
off Diamond Shoals, having received a message that the Venore
had been torpedoed. Also noted is “The crew on this vessel have
enjoyed a satisfactory reputation thus far. As the officers on
the bridge are all in the Reserve there is a close eye kept on
the crew and its actions.” There are additional Coast
Guard reports dated after March 10, 1942.
The Coast Guard Intelligence Division kept track of all ship
entries and departures at U.S. ports, and their logs for 1942
show the Chester Sun was in its home port of Chester, Pa., on
March 10, 1942.
Even though the Chester Sun was not torpedoed by a German
U-Boat, it had several U-boat encounters; all dated after March
10, 1942, according to the logs of the Eastern Sea Frontier,
U.S. Atlantic Fleet, U.S. Navy.
In this Internet age, with an overload of data
immediately available, we might forget about paper-based
information processing of 60 years ago. Also, as evidenced by
the 1942 issue of “Lloyds Register” being stamped classified,
information during war time is often restricted for national
security purposes. The information logs noted above from the
Eastern Sea Frontier were not declassified until Nov. 20, 1959,
and probably did not become publicly available until much
later--well after David Stick wrote his book on the Graveyard of
Staff members at the Outer Banks History Center, which
contains much of David Stick’s records and information,
suggested that a conversation with the historian might shed some
light on the mystery.
David Stick graciously agreed to meet me, and for many hours we
sat in his living room with its fabulous views of Kitty Hawk
Bay. We discussed Stick’s sources for listing vessels lost at
sea. He commented that at a time with no Internet and World War
II information still classified, it was very difficult to obtain
the information. He has a card file with the sources of his
information. For the Chester Sun the card reads, “Chester Sun,
Hydrography Office, 35-20, 75-00, A.S.W. unit, Eastern Sea
His source for the Chester Sun was the card file at the Navy
Hydrography Office. ASW stands for Anti Submarine Warfare, and
the Hydrography Office received the information from the Eastern
Sea Frontier, whose daily logs I reviewed earlier and were not
declassified until 1959. The location of the alleged sinking is
about 27 miles due east of Avon, placing it about 15 miles
southeast of the March 19, 1942, sighting mentioned in the
Eastern Sea Frontier logs.
The National Archives conducted a search of the Hydrography
Office records that were originally located at Suitland, Md.,
and are now at the National Archives headquarters in Washington,
D.C., and could not find any reference to the Chester Sun. So
this important original information source will remain a
To complete my research, I visited Theodore Mutro again. I asked
him how he learned of the Chester Sun’s “sinking.”
Was it through newspaper reports?
“No,” he answered.
Was there a memorial service? He said no. Was any wreckage
washed up on the beach? He said no.
He said many years later he was visiting a friend and saw a
framed map on the wall of the many sunken ships off the Outer
I have come full circle, but with much additional and often
conflicting information. The fate of the Chester Sun perhaps has
little historical impact and its destiny probably is of no
concern to most people. But to me it was an opportunity to learn
about Outer Banks history, meet interesting people, “discover”
fabulous museums and libraries, and, in a small way, better
understand the interaction of man and the sea.
What by accident sparked my interest led to an adventure of
search and research. I have learned a journey is often not so
much about the destination, but about the journey itself.
shares his time between Maryland and Avon and has been coming to
Hatteras Island for more than 20 years. When he retired from the
energy industry and considered buying a beach cottage, he knew
the ideal place for his family and his passion for fishing.
Investigating the Chester Sun story gave him the opportunity to
meet many interesting Outer Banks folks, including David Stick,
who provided valuable insights and the encouragement to write
|Below is the email exchange Hal
and I had about his story:
----- Original Message -----
From: Hal shelton
To: 'Minor W. Kates, Jr.'
Sent: Sunday, November 04, 2007 9:20 AM
Subject: RE: Chester Sun
As I mentioned in the article I had the opportunity to visit with
Theodore Mutro who sailed on the Chester Sun (II) in the late 1930’s. He
had very fond memories of that experience and how as a son of emigrant
parents during the depression it was a dream come true to get a job on a
Sun tanker. Not all of my research could be shown in the article and
following is the full paragraph about Mutro:
Theodore Mutro has a good memory of the 1930’s and 40’s. He told me
about his experiences growing up in Chester, PA during the depression.
At that time a young man felt privileged to get a job on a Sun Ship
tanker--3 meals a day, a daily hot shower, and $2 a day pay. This was
heaven. It took 7 days to make the trip from Marcus Hook, PA (Sun’s
refinery) to Texas (about 3 days to Diamond Shoals and 4 days for the
rest of the trip). There was about one day for loading/unloading at each
end, so the Chester Sun made about two round trips per month. The
Chester Sun operated and kept to a schedule that would make any
transportation company proud. You could set your watch to its schedule,
he told me. It was down and back with no stops, side trips or other
diversions. The ship sailed just outside sight of land. After his
Chester Sun duties and during the war, Mr. Mutro served in the Coast
Guard on Ocracoke patrolling the beaches looking for ships in distress,
and ensuring the local residents used black-out shades and did not play
loud music at night.
In addition to the Hagley Museum I can recommend the Independence
Seaport Museum in Phila.
This is the information I was able to get about Sun tankers sunk
Ship Name Date Sunk Area Sunk
Crude Oil Capacity (bbls)
J.N. Pew 2/21/42
Mercury Sun 5/18/42
Atlantic Sun 4/5/43
North Atlantic 127,000
The Coast Guard had good comments about the crew of the Chester Sun with
the following comments:
The US Life-Savings Service merged with the Revenue Cutter Service in
1915 to form the present US Coast Guard. From a National Archives search
of Coast Guard records there is a January 25, 1942 “Boarding Report”
from the Fourth Naval District in Philadelphia which reports that two
days earlier the Chester Sun off Cape Lookout altered course to pass 45
miles off Diamond Shoals having received message of torpedoing of the
Venore. Also noted is “The crew on this vessel have enjoyed a
satisfactory reputation thus far. As the officers on the bridge are all
in the Reserve there is a close eye kept on the crew and its actions.”
The Chester Sun’s captain was Malcolm Hammer.
From: Minor W. Kates, Jr.
Sent: Wednesday, October 31, 2007 8:22 PM
To: Hal shelton
Subject: Re: Chester Sun
I enjoy Dave's Sunship website very much but we are not affiliated. When
I first started my site, I used the sunship site often for information.
I have tried to not cross the line towards the sun shipbuilding side of
history gathering other than the connection to where most of these
vessels were built.
I am the son of a son of a sun of Sun oil mariners. I stopped sailing
for Sun Transport in '95, just before Sun got out of the marine
transportation business. Spent many a day up in Chester at Sun Ship,
watching a launching as a child or having the vessel I was sailing on
get repaired. I know many fine people that worked at Sun Ship and they
have the same desire to keep the connection as I do with the Sun Marine
I really enjoyed your story and the frustration it relayed. I sit her
many times looking at little blurb on the internet about the "Atlantic
Sun" and have to determine which of the 5 Atlantic's they are talking
about. Dave told me to head to Hagely for information but I have not
yet. I may create a page on the website with a small section about the
combined losses of all the Sun ships during WWII.
Again, enjoyed the story and check out my website. I plan on putting a
link to your story somewhere on the site, but haven't decide where yet
(I did reference it on the fleetsheet user group) .
----- Original Message -----
From: Hal shelton
Sent: Wednesday, October 31, 2007 7:08 PM
Subject: Chester Sun
Dear Mr. Kates,
The editor of the Island Free Press sent me you kind words about the
Chester Sun article. I am Hal Shelton, the author, and I was at Sun Ship
1979-1982 in the Finance Group. When I started my research I
corresponded with Dave Kavanagh and just recently sent him the finished
article. Are your and his efforts related?
|Back to the
M.S. Chester Sun