This is a very interesting story and is followed up with some email correspondence below.

Solving a wartime mystery:
The 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 unexpected ending.


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 in 1942.

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., refinery.

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 U-boat? 

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 “classified.”

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 exaggerated.”

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 the Atlantic.

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 Frontier, W.F.” 

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 mystery.

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 Banks.

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. 

(Hal Shelton 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 this article.)



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 during WWII:
Ship Name      Date Sunk   Area Sunk       Crude Oil Capacity (bbls)
J.N. Pew         2/21/42       Caribbean        102,186
Mercury Sun   5/18/42       Caribbean         117,714
Atlantic Sun    4/5/43          North Atlantic   127,000
Sunoil             4/5/43          North Atlantic   116,447

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.

Best regards,
Hal Shelton

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 fleet.

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) .

Butch Kates

----- Original Message -----
From: Hal shelton
To: mwkates
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?

Best regards,
Hal Shelton

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