This article appeared in the Autumn 1996 newsletter.

The author generously allowed me to reproduce it.

Copyright© 1996 - 2003 Theron P. Snell

How to research the history of a World War II era ship


Theron P. Snell

If you have ever tried to put together a history of a specific ship, you have probably discovered the same problem I faced. Trying to track down the operational history of the S. S. SANTA MARGARITA, a World War II era freighter, I quickly found that little published material actually mentions specific ships unless those ships took part in a famous convoy, were sunk early in the war or were part of the battle for the North Atlantic before mid 1943. And few larger histories get specific enough to include details of any ships routine voyages or daily routine at sea. So, I turned to archives and the records the SANTA MARGARITA herself left or the records generated by the crews who sailed her. Despite some major gaps in available material, I managed to find quite a bit, and I am writing now to pass on what I found, how I found it and where you can go to duplicate the material for YOUR ship. The addresses will be listed at the end of this article.

I began my search looking only for information about the SANTA MARGARITA’s voyages. I found the most complete source to be the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Although vessel deck logs no longer exist, the Archives does hold voyage reports written by the C.O. of the Naval Armed Guard on board. The usefulness of the reports depends upon how detailed the writer wanted to be. Some of the reports on the SANTA MARGARITA are quite good and provide a detailed narrative for the voyage; Other reports are very sketchy. Still, the reports list sailing dates, ports of call, ownership/charterer of the ship, type of cargo and some account of each voyage itself. These reports are filed by ships name and are only part of the file. Each complete ship’s file usually contains these voyage reports, Armed Guard crew lists, data relating to armaments and supplies provided by the U. S. Navy, correspondence relating to recommendations for medals to Armed Guard crewmen, orders and miscellaneous correspondence. These files can be found in Records Group # 38, “Office of the chief of Naval Operations.”

A second source of information about each voyage, also at NARA, can be found in Records Group # 24, “Bureau of Naval Personnel.” These records include the so-called “Smooth Log” produced by the Armed Guard unit on board the ship, filed by ship name. The “Smooth Log” seems to a be a recopied (cleaned up?) version of the daily log kept by the Armed Guard Commander. Sketchy, these logs focus on the day to day routine of the Armed Guard, not the merchant crew. And, at least in the case of the SANTA MARGARITA, only a few months worth of the logs still exist. I also managed to find additional records in NARA that cover the cargoes carried on each trip, though not the trips themselves. Records Group # 178 “Maritime Commission Records,” contain “ Cargo Report and Vessel Performance Summary” reports. These reports list cargoes carried, tonnage’s and the ports where the cargo was either loaded or discharged and the respective tonnage’s. They can also note reasons for delays or problems encountered during the voyage if it affected cargo performance. These reports also vary in the amount of information provided. On some of them, the cargo is detailed; I found, for example, that on one voyage to Iran, the SANTA MARGARITA was carrying 513 tons of beer! Other reports, though, only note cargo as “secret” or “unknown.” These notations always corresponded to those trips on which the SANTA MARGARITA was carrying troops.

Update - Monday, 9 June 1997 - Begin

I have finally gotten all the logs for the SANTA MARGARITA. Although they are all listed as SECRET LOGS (from the name on the books) by the Archives, some of them are really the rough bridge logs, hand written. The others are recopied, shortened and "neatened up" and are really the "smooth logs." They vary in usefulness, with most of the information being speed (in rpm's that is), weather conditions, etc. Sightings are listed as are events. Some of the logs have additional convoy information and the rough logs list the tugs that assisted the MARGARITA in each port. The logs are VERY useful when combined with the Naval Armed Guard reports and other documents. The logs are pretty sketchy if taken alone.

End - Monday, 9 June 1997 - Update

I also went to the U. S. Navy Historical Center in my search for information on the SANTA MARGARITA. Knowing only that the SANTA MARGARITA had been in a convoy attacked by a submarine and the dates, I wrote to them looking for any details. They were able to identify the convoy (CU-36), the name of the tanker sunk (the S. S.Jacksonville) and even the submarine that attacked (U-482).. The Historical Center and it's Operational Archives Division provided me two sets of records, both of which are excellent sources of information. First, they sent me the “Ship Movement Card,” a document that has proven to be crucial in my search for further information. It lists all sailing’s of the ship (arrival and departure dates and ports of call) AND the convoys to which it was attached for that sailing, if any.

With the convoy designations from the “Ship Movement Card,” I was then able to take advantage of the other source of information: the 10th Fleet file of each convoy escorted by the U. S. Navy. Each file may contain the convoy escort commanders detailed report, messages to and from the convoy, various correspondence and even the merchant marine commodore’s report. These reports often provide detailed, day by day narratives of the voyage, including ship movements of both the escorts and any merchant ship that may have dropped back as well as actions taken by the escorts.

The biggest drawback to these records has been their very size; the Operational Archives Division is not set up to photocopy such records and asked that I visit them at the Washington Naval Yard. Currently, though, the Naval Historical Center is in process of transferring some files to the National Archives, and the Archives does indeed provide a mail-order photocopying service. Incidentally, NARA also holds the deck logs of all Navy vessels. Once you identify convoy escorts from the Convoy File, you can then obtain the deck logs of those escorts. Though they mainly record the activities on board the escort hour by hour, they ALSO provide details of the convoy, down to interaction with specific merchant ships. These logs are filed by ship name, though I no longer can recall the specific Records Group. And, the Archives also holds copies of the German submarine deck logs on microfilm, available for purchase. I was able to buy the log of U-482, the submarine that attacked the SANTA MARGARITA’s convoy.

Parenthetically and as many of you already know, with the home port of a ship and the pay-off dates of each voyage from the “Ship Movement Card,” you can obtain copies of the “ Merchant Vessel Logbook” or “Captain’s Log” through the U. S. Coast Guard and the regional National Archives near the ship’s home port. This log lists the merchant crew and ports of call for that particular voyage. The report is censored; so the character remarks and disciplinary issues recorded in the log are blocked out, and only the crew list itself is readable. This record provides the proof needed to claim veteran’s status as a merchant seaman. Because the directions are so complex and depend upon the home port, write to the Coast Guard for a copy of their “Reference Information Paper # 7” at the address given below.

Finally, my own interest took me from the details of the voyages taken by the SANTA MARGARITA to the ship itself. Because the SANTA MARGARITA was a standard designed C2-S-B1 -- 13k, 500 x 142 pixel, generic C2-S-B1 image -- and not a “Liberty” -- SS Jeremiah O'Brien -- SS John W. Brown -- or a “Victory” -- SS Lane Victory -- ship, I had to look hard to find details of her construction and history. I don’t have the space to list the various sources I have tried. Let me suggest the U. S. Maritime Administration as a good starting point. They can provide basic statistical data about the ship, including its description and the dates of its service. Most importantly, they can provide the Maritime Commission hull number, the builders hull number and the ship’s official number, identification needed to pursue research on the ship. Another good single source covering the standard design ships of the Maritime Commission can be found in L.A. Sawyer and W.H. Mitchell, FROM AMERICA TO UNITED STATES : THE HISTORY OF THE LONG-RANGE MERCHANT SHIPBUILDING PROGRAMME OF THE UNITED STATES MARITIME COMMISSION. PART IV. World Ship Society , 1986. This book provides the hull numbers for these ships as well.

Many archives throughout the United States hold maritime photographs. I have used only three.The National Archives (301-713-6625, X221 or 224) holds the largest files, and I found a 1944 photograph of the SANTA MARGARITA there. I located a 1942 photograph of the SANTA MARGARITA at The Mariners' Museum (100 Museum Drive; Newport News, VA 23606), and the San Francisco Maritime NHP Archives (Building E, 3rd Floor; San Francisco, CA 94123) holds a 1961 photograph of the SANTA MARGARITA as the SANTA ADELA. Each archive has different ordering information, so they should be contacted directly.

Digitized ship images
American Memory Collection Search
US Congressional Library

Description of NARA's records
War Shipping Administration
Record Group (RG) 248.

I am continuing my search for material covering the SANTA MARGARITA, both during World War II and post war as well. Her name was changed first to ALBONI and then to the SANTA ADELA in 1946. As the SANTA ADELA, she sailed with Grace Line until 1970, when she was scrapped. If anyone knows of her or sailed aboard her, I would very much like to hear from you. And I would always like to hear from anyone who may have other sources of information/records that I haven’t considered yet. In the meantime, I hope this has helped.

Update - Tuesday, 9 June 1998 - Begin

I spent two and one-half days at the National Archives last week, still tracking down records covering the SANTA MARGARITA. I also spent a day at MARAD, reading records they pulled for me. It took almost a year and a half to get those records, by the way. It seems that MARAD still holds some documents covering both construction and operation of WWII era vessels. The records are to go to NARA at some point.

Anyway, I read the 901 correspondence files for the ship as well as the 506-2-2 files dealing with the shipyard and ship construction. They were helpful, adding additional information about the rate of construction and some operational details.

At the Archives, I read convoy files (containing mostly ship lists, commodore reports and messages) and then spent a day and a half surveying the records of the War Shipping Administration (RG-248) and the Maritime Commission (RG-178) for files and material covering the operational history of the SANTA MARGARITA. I found a little bit...but also found that there are a lot of records in these two records groups. I need to go back now that I have an idea of what is there and how they are organized. I did manage to scan several entries within the Records Groups and am excited about a return visit.

End - Tuesday, 9 June 1998 - Update


National Archives and Records Service
Military Reference Branch
Washington, D. C. 20408
National Archives and Records Service
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park, MD 20740
Department of the Navy
Naval Historical Center
Operational Archives Branch
Washington Navy Yard
Washington, D. C. 20374
Commandant (G-MVP:1/12)
United States Coast Guard
2100 2nd Street S. W.
Washington, D. C. 20593-0001
U. S. Department of Transportation
Maritime Administration
Records Management (Room 8317)
400 Seventh Street S. W.
Washington, D. C. 20590
American Merchant Marine Veterans, Inc.
4720 SE 15th Avenue, Suite 202
Cape Coral, FL 33904-9600
Telephone (941) 549-1010
Fax (941) 549-1990

Note that both the National Archives and the Navy Historical Center are currently shifting records to the Archives new facility in College Park, MD. If you plan to go in person, either write or call the Archives in MD to determine if the records you want are available. Many ship records have been transferred. Use the general telephone number listed for the Still Picture Branch. The Archives Records Group # 178 may still be in Washington, D. C., but the other records groups I mentioned are now at College Park.

The Merchant Marine Act of 1936 was passed to revive the ailing American Merchant Marine.

Does this sound familiar?

The 10 year plan was to build five hundred cargo and passenger vessels, and several hundred tankers. The then Maritime Commission, today the MARitime ADministration, produced standardized designs based on a ships mission. In the period 1939 through 1945 United States shipyards produced over 5,000 ships, of 2,000 Gross Tons or larger. More than 54,000,000 deadweight tons worth of ships. The C2 cargo liner was in production when the war in Europe began. It was used, with modifications, for the "Ocean" class cargo ships built in the US for Britain. It was used, with modifications, as the basis for both the American "Liberty" and "Victory" ships. There were over 2,600 standard cargo Liberty's built, plus dozens of Liberty tankships, troop transports, colliers, hospital ships and other designs. There were 531 Victory ships built in the years 1943 through 1945. Two hundred and seventy-two AP2's, 141 AP3's, one AP4 - diesel, and the remainder AP5 troop transports.

Class Type LOAGrTNetTEngineSHPKnotsRange
EC2-S-C1Liberty441'6"7170 4380Recip25001110,000
VC2-S-AP3Victory455'3"76004600 Turb85001720,500

The need for larger, faster ships soon became evident.

Class TypeLOAGrTNetT EngineSHPKnotsRange
C4-S-B Cargo520'0"106807490 Turb600016.514,600
C4-S-ACgo/Troop522'10.5" 107807530Turb900018.0 14,500

Today we are sailing C11's.

05-04-2003Email Box LinkUsflag.gif - 1.9 K