SS Irish Willow
Irish Willow

Oil painting by Kenneth King: from the deck of U-753, signalling to Irish Willow "send master and ships papers" (National Maritime Museum of Ireland)

(United States)
Name: Lake Sunapee
Owner: United States Shipping Board (1918–23)
Operator: United States Army (1918–1919)
Out of service: 1920–23
(United States)
Name: Frank Lynch
Owner: W.J. Gray, San Francisco (1923–37)
Name: Nestor
Owner: George D. Gratsos and Co Ltd. (1937–38)
Name: Otto
Owner: K. Jurnas (1938–1946)
Name: Irish Willow
Owner: K. Jurnas; M/s Egon Jurgenson (1938–1946)
Operator: Irish Shipping Limited (1942–46)
Route: Saint John, New Brunswick to Ireland(1942–45)
Fate: Returned to owners 6 May 1946, then sold
Name: Veraguas
Owner: Cia de Vapores (1946–60)
Fate: 26 July 1960 Broken up by J Boel et fils
General characteristics
Class and type: Lake freighter (1)
Tonnage: 2,009 GRT 1,197 NRT 3,000 DWT (2)
Length: 252 ft (76.8 m)
Beam: 43 ft 5 in (13.2 m)
Depth: 18 ft 9 in (5.7 m)
Decks: 1
Propulsion: Triple-expansion steam engine, replaced in 1923 with a six cyl 4 S.C.S.A. Werkspoor diesel engine by Pacific Diesel Engine Co, Oakland, California. Replaced 1938 with a T 3-cyl by John Lewis and Son, Aberdeen
Capacity: 130,000 cubic feet (3,681 m3)

An earlier version of this article has been donated to Wikipedia

This is the story of a ship called Irish Willow. She was one of the few ships which maintained Irish trade during World War II.

At the outbreak of World War II, known as "The Emergency", (3) (4) Ireland declared neutrality and became isolated as never before. (5) Although Ireland had a substantial food surplus, measured in calories, there were shortages of specific foods such as fruits, wheat, and tea. There were very few Irish ships as shipping had been neglected (6) since independence. Foreign ships which had transported Irish cargoes, before the war, were soon unavailable.

No country had ever been more effectively blockaded because of the activities of belligerents and our lack of ships... — Taoiseach Éamon de Valera in his Saint Patrick's Day address on 17 March 1940

There were Estonian and Lativan ships in Irish ports when Soviet Russia invaded and suppressed the Baltic states. Their captains ignored instructions to go to a soviet port. Russia took legal action. John McEvoy, who had been appointed as honorary consul by the previous Estonian government, was dismissed by the communist regime. Still, he succesfully opposed the Soviet claim. Acting as trustee for the absent owners, he then leased the ships to Irish Shipping. “Otto”, was in the Cobh of Cork. She was renamed Irish Willow, (7) She exported food to Britain and imported coal. She made 18 voyages to Saint John, New Brunswick, returning with wheat.

Like other Irish ships, initially she sailed in British convoys. In the light of experience Irish ships Other than Everojachose to sail alone, relying on their neutral markings. German respect for that neutrality varied from friendly to tragic.


The ship was built for the United States Shipping Board in Toledo, Ohio (Yard Number:143) by the Toledo Shipbuilding Company.[lugnote]later incorporated into the American Ship Building Company[/lugnote] A Standard WWI cargo ship, (8) she was laid down as War Flag, but named Lake Sunapee. (1A) She was launched on 28 December 1917, (9) (10) while World War I was still in progress. (11) She was a single deck vessel with a grain capacity of 130,000 cubic feet (3,681 m3) and bunker capacity of 2,009 GRT. She was 252 ft (76.81 m) long, 43 ft 5 in (13.2 m) wide and 18 ft 9 in (5.7 m) deep. (1B)

Early history

As a Laker she was designed to navigate the canal locks bypassing Niagara Falls. (1C) Lake Sunapee served as a U.S. Army transport, based in Cardiff, Glamorgan, United Kingdom, bringing coal to France. (11A) She departed from Cardiff for New York City on 7 June 1919, (12) arrived 25 June and was decommissioned at Hoboken, New Jersey 3 July 1919. (11B)

Little is known of her service in the years immediately following WWI, although it is recorded that she arrived at New York from Pará, Brazil on 29 May 1920. (13) She was laid up until 1923 when she was sold to W.J. Gray Jnr. of San Francisco and renamed Frank Lynch.

She was built as a coal-fired steamship with a triple-expansion steam engine. In 1923 this was replaced with a Werkspoor diesel engine. (14) On 29 August 1929, the passenger ship San Juan collided with the tanker S.C.T. Dodd and sank with the loss of many lives. Frank Lynch, Munami and S.C.T. Dodd rescued the survivors. (15) In 1937, she was sold to the Greek company George D. Gratsos' Sons,[lugnote 2] later changed to George D. Gratsos and Co. Ltd.[/lugnote] who renamed her Nestor. (16) In 1938 she suffered a total engine failure and was towed to Rotterdam, (17) where she was converted back to a steamer. In 1939 she was sold to K. Jurnas of Estonia and renamed Otto. (14A)

World War II


The Irish government had pursued a policy of self-sufficiency, (18) so international trade was discouraged and the mercantile marine[lugnote] In Ireland it is the "Mercantile Marine"; in the United Kingdom, it is the "Merchant Navy"; in the USA, it is the "Merchant Marine".[/lugnote] ignored. At independence in 1923 there were 127 Irish ships, but by September 1939 there were only 56, including 7 which did not carry cargo. (19) Irish imports such as wheat, maize, timber and fertilizer were carried on foreign, mainly British, ships. (20) With the outbreak of hostilities, they were unavailable.[lugnote 4]Petroleum was imported in British flagged tankers (0)[/lugnote] Churchill explained "we need this tonnage for our own supply". (22) In November 1939, American ships were excluded from Irish waters by the neutrality act. (23) By the end of 1940, nine Irish ships[lugnote] Nine Irish Ships

  1. 2 February 1940 Munster struck a mine as she approached Liverpool and sank. (0)
  2. 9 March 1940: Leukos sunk by gunfire from U-38 All eleven crew lost (0)
  3. 15 July 1940: City of Limerick bombed and sunk by the Luftwaffe in the Bay of Biscay. Two died. (0)
  4. 16 August 1940: Meath struck a mine in the Irish Sea and sank. (0)
  5. 4 September 1940: Luimneacht sunk by gunfire from U-46 (0)
  6. 22 October 1940: Kerry Head bombed and sunk by the Luftwaffe off Cape Clear. Twelve died. (0)
  7. 11 November 1940: Ardmore struck a mine approaching the Bristol channel and sank. 24 died. (0)
  8. 19 December 1940: Isolda, lighthouse tender bombed and sunk by the Luftwaffe. six died. (0)
  9. 21 December 1940: Innisfallen struck a mine approaching Liverpool and sank. four died
[/lugnote] as well as ten neutral foreign ships carrying Irish cargoes, some of which had been chartered by Irish companies, had been sunk by U-boats, the Luftwaffe or mines. (32) (33) [lugnote 6]ten foreign ships:
  1. 15 December 1939: Germaine of Greece with 7,400 tons of maize for Cork was stopped and scuttled by U-48 (0)
  2. 27 May 1940: Uruguay of Argentina, with wheat and maize for Limerick, was stopped by U-37. She was sunk with scuttling charges, leaving the crew in two lifeboats, one was rescued by Spanish fishermen; the other, with fifteen men was never found. (0)
  3. 11 June 1940: Violando N Goulandris of Greece, with wheat for Waterford, was torpedoed and sunk, with the loss of six lives by U-48.
  4. 19 June 1940: Adamandios Georgandis of Greece with a cargo of wheat for Cork was torpedoed by U-28. One died.
  5. 29 June 1940: Frangoula B Goulandris of Greece Outward Cork to St Thomas in ballast to collect a cargo of sugar, was torpedoed and sunk by U-26.
  6. 10 July 1940: Petsamo of Finland with 4477 tons of maize and 1523 tons of grain (0) for Cork was torpedoed and sunk by U-34, within sight of the Irish coast, off Baltimore, County Cork. Four died.
  7. 11 July 1940: Ia of Greece with a cargo of wheat for Cork was torpedoed and sunk by U-99. Three died.
  8. 14 July 1940: Thetis A of Greece with grain for Limerick was torpedoed and sunk by U-52. Nine died.
  9. 17 September 1940: Tanker Kalliopi S of Greece bound for Limerick was bombed and sunk by Luftwaffe in Sheephaven Bay.
  10. 8 October 1940: Delphin of Greece with wheat and maize for Cork was torpedoed and sunk by U-103. All survived
  11. 8 December 1940: Sailing ship Penang of Finland with 3,193 tons of wheat (0) for Cobh was torpedoed by U-140. All 18 crew lost. (0)
[/lugnote] Against this background, the government founded Irish Shipping (39) and sought ships which it could charter or purchase. (40) (41) The Irish Willow was one of those ships.

Soviet claim

In June 1940 the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic states and on 6 August 1940 Estonia was annexed as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. Industry was nationalised and Estonian ships were instructed to go a Soviet port. There were several ships from the Baltic states in, or heading to, Irish ports. All ignored that instruction. Peter Kolts, a crewman of the Pirer, another Estonian ship at Dublin south quays, hoisted the hammer and sickle and prevented Captain Joseph Juriska from removing it. The Garda Síochána were called. Following a court appearance before Justice Michael Lennon the sailor spent a week in jail. (42)

Ivan Maisky, the Soviet Union's ambassador to the United Kingdom, applied to the High Court in Dublin for possession of the ships Their owners could not be contacted. The Soviet case was supported by a letter from John Whelan Dulanty, the Irish High Commissioner in London, who explained that when the ships had been instructed to go immediately to the USSR three had been carrying cargoes destined for Ireland, that he had asked if they could first deliver their Irish cargo, and that Maisky had agreed on behalf of the Soviet Union, provided that the Irish government guaranteed that after discharging their cargo they would be given bunkerage sufficient for the journey to a Soviet port. A. K. Overend K.C., acting for Maisky, said that this established that his client was recognised by Ireland as "the proper person to give instruction to the ships", (43) and that his client was the only claimant.

John McEvoy

John McEvoy who challenged Stalin

John McEvoy was the honorary consul[lugnote 7]In the high court record John McEvoy is described as "vice consul", the speech by the current President of Estonia used the title "honourary consul".[/lugnote] of the Republic of Estonia in Dublin. (44) He opposed the Soviet claim along with Estonian representatives in Switzerland. Even though they lacked diplomatic status, the court recognised the right of Herbert Martinson, described as "an Estonian national, resident in Switzerland" to join with John McEvoy in vindicating the rights of the absent owners. (45) The court recognised John McEvoy and Herbert Martinson as trustees for the owners. The High Court considered five ships: three from Estonia, Otto, Piret and Mall, and two from Latvia: Ramava and Everoja. McEvoy acted for the unidentified owners of the Estonian ships. On 16 May 1941 the High Court rejected the Soviet claim. The Soviet authorities appealed against the decision to the five-judge Supreme Court. On 3 July 1941 this appeal was unanimously dismissed with costs. (45A) The Soviet Union made a 'most emphatic' protest. (46)

Martinson and McEvoy leased the three Estonian vessels to Irish Shipping for the duration of the war plus three months. The two Latvian ships transferred to the British registry and sailed under the Red Ensign. Ramava moved to Britain, and carried British cargos. While Everoja remained in Ireland, transporting Irish goods (47). Unlike Irish flagged vessels, Everoja sailed in British convoys. She was torpedoed and sunk on 3 November 1941 by U-203 (48) while in convoy SC-52 on passage from Canada to Dublin with 6,400 tons of wheat. (49)

John McEvoy was acting at his own expense. There was no Estonian government to fund him. If he lost the case, the Soviets could have pursued him for their costs, probably bankrupting him. Fortunately,the Soviets lost and had to pay his legal expenses. The court further directed that he was to be reimbursed for his other expenses from the income earned by the Otto (Irish Willow). (17A) McEvoy's role was acknowledged by Estonia following its independence (the Singing Revolution), when the President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves said:

"... ... we are thankful that Ireland never recognised the illegal annexation of Estonia by the Soviet Union after the Second World War. We will never forget John McEvoy, Estonia’s honorary consul in Dublin from 1938 to 1960. Among other things, one of his good deeds was helping to protect the interests of the Estonian shipowners ..." (50)

Irish Willow

On October 1941, in Cobh, the Otto was chartered by Irish Shipping. She was brought to Dublin for extensive repairs. On 5 December 1941, she made her first voyage as the Irish Willow: She went from Cobh to Dublin under Captain G.R. Bryan, from Rathfarnham, previously captain of the City of Dublin. H. Cullen, previously of the Irish Elm, was first officer. H. Jurgenson was chief engineer; he was an Estonian national, and had been the chief engineer when she was the Otto (51). As some engine components were not available in Ireland, the repairs had to be completed in Canada. On 5 December she went on her first commercial voyage, under Captain R Shanks of Belfast, as the Irish Willow. She went to Troon for fuel and then joined convoy ON-47. The convoy departed on 15 December 1941. (52) Around this time, Irish crews were refusing to travel in convoy. The Irish Willow "lost" her convoy. (17B) She arrived in St John on 12 January 1942 and on 22 January loaded her cargo of wheat. Repairs delayed her a further two weeks. She was scheduled to return in convoy SC-68.[lugnote 9]According to this: she was in the convoy. Cleare p. 62,63 and Higgins p. 7 say she was alone. Since she saw a submarine on 3 February 1942 and there is no mention of the convoy seeing it, we can assume that she was out of convoy[/lugnote] Returning alone, a submarine was spotted on 3 February. (0) There was no contact. She unloaded her cargo of wheat in Waterford on 2 March and then went again for a further wheat cargo from St John for Waterford. (54) During the war, she completed 18 such voyages.

Encounter with U-753

Irish Willow

Oil painting by Kenneth King: from the deck of U-753, signaling to Irish Willow "send master and ships papers" (National Maritime Museum of Ireland)

On the morning of 16 March 1942, U-753 sighted a lone ship, south-west of the Rockall Bank (the Irish Willow), and prepared to sink her until they saw her neutral markings (the Irish tricolour and the word EIRE) At 2 pm U-753 (55) surfaced and signaled "send master and ship's papers". As Captain Shanks was born in Belfast and could be regarded as British, this was considered unwise. (56) Chief Officer Henry Cullen, with four crew as oarsmen went instead. (17C) In the conning tower he explained that his captain was too elderly[lugnote 10]Captain Shanks was 39 years old.[/lugnote] for the small boat. He spoke about Ireland's neutrality. He reminded them that the next day would be Saint Patrick's Day. He sensed that he was making progress when tumblers of schnapps were produced in honour of Saint Patrick. (57) But then the Germans, who seemed embarrassed and apologetic, said that they were awaiting instructions whether or not to sink the ship; they would, however, fire a red flare five minutes beforehand if they were to sink the Irish Willow. Cullen and the oarsmen returned to their ship. They were given a bottle of cognac, to take back "for the crew". (57A) There was an anxious wait until eventually the U-boat fired a green flare.

Rescuing the crew of Empire Breeze

Convoy ON 122 [lugnote 11]ON means “Outward” to “North” America[/lugnote] left Liverpool on 15 August 1942. Ten days later, on 25 August 1942, when they were in the mid-Atlantic, the convoy was attacked by Wolfpack Lohs. (58) Four ships were torpedoed and sunk.[lugnote 12]Trolla (6 dead and 16 survivors), rescued by Norwegian corvette HNoMS Potentilla(K 214) (see cite 59) Sheaf Mount (31 dead and 20 survivors), rescued by rescue ship Stockport (see cite 60)] Empire Breeze (1 dead and 47 survivors)[/lugnote] (0) (0) The convoy retreated into a fogbank, with visibility less than 300 meters, probably saving further loss. The fog continued to thicken. (61) U-176 had hit the 7,457 ton Empire Breeze with two torpedoes. (62)[lugnote 13]U-438 had fired a torpedo at the same time and mistakenly believed that their torpedo hit the Empire Breeze. (63) Some sites, (0) still credit U-438.[/lugnote] An SOS was transmitted and acknowledged. The 47[lugnote 14]some sources say 48 says: Complement 49 (1 dead and 48 survivors).; and also: Irish Willow found the wreck in the fog and picked up the master, 41 crew members and six gunners says: Empire Breeze was torpedoed by U-176 and U-438 on 25 Aug with the loss of 1 man, 48 survived.[/lugnote] surviving crew abandoned ship and took to their three lifeboats. (63A) A fourth lifeboat was destroyed during launch. (63B) One crewman died[lugnote 15]Yusuf Doalay, on duty as a fireman, died when the torpedoes hit. This was his first voyage on the Empire Breeze. His previous ship had been sunk.[/lugnote] The Empire Breeze remained afloat. The rescue ship Stockport was detailed to rescue them. The Irish Willow was 45 miles to the west, too far away to help. 24 hours after the attack the crew of the Empire Breeze were still in their lifeboats. Stockport had failed to locate them in the fog, so she left to rejoin the convoy. There were three radio officers. They had a portable radio transmitter in a lifeboat. Repeated SOS messages were not acknowledged. The Empire Breeze was still afloat. Captain Thomson and some of the crew re-boarded. The cook prepared hot meals. Joseph Brown, a radio officer, connected their portable radio with the ship's aerial and rebroadcast the SOS. This was heard and acknowledged by Belle Isle radio station in Canada. (66) The rescue tug HMS Frisky and the corvette HMCS Rosthern were sent to rescue the crew and salvage the Empire Breeze. They failed to locate her or the survivors. (67) A serious problem was that there had been fog for the previous few days, astronomical observations had not been taken, so no ship in the area knew their exact location. The various accounts of this event give different locations: (from the convoy report) (68) has 58°56'30 N 25°17'30 W. (69) Frank Forde's book (from the log of the Irish Willow) quotes 59°22'N 25°52'W. (70)


Nurse Mary Davis of the Red Cross

36 hours after the attack they sent another SOS. The Irish Willow heard this SOS, she responded and headed towards the scene. (71) The Irish Willow replied, asking how long they could hold out. Captain Thomson of the Empire Breeze estimated six hours. Captain Shanks of the Irish Willow replied “Coming to you – with you in about five hours”. The fog became denser and visibility reduced to zero. Rather than plotting locations, (dead reckoning) the Irish Willow was using direction finding equipment; (70A) she was travelling towards the SOS signal: It was dangerous for the Irish Willow. They knew the direction to take, but did not know the distance. Travelling in fog, they could collide with the Empire Breeze, or endanger survivors in the water. Extra look-outs were posted along her bow and whistles were sounded every two minutes. The repeating SOS messages could attract U-boats, seeking to “finish the job”, (72) and if such a U-boat found the Irish Willow at the scene, its attitude could be quite different to that encountered on 16 March.

In dense fog (73) the survivors were located and rescued. The Irish Willow resumed her voyage to Waterford. As they rounded Hook Lighthouse they were met by the RNLI lifeboat Annie-Blanche-Smith from Dunmore East (73A) with an advance party of three doctors (O’Callaghan, Shipsey and O’Sullivan), and two Red Cross volunteers: (R.J. Gallaher and Arthur Westcom-Pitt), and W.E. Jacob of the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society, aboard. Dunmore East Parish Hall had been converted into a reception center. A full team of Red Cross volunteers, led by Nurse Mary Davis, had arrived from Waterford. Hot meals and medical facilities were awaiting the survivors. It was decided to land the survivors at Dunmore East, while the Irish Willow continued to Waterford. Two were taken by ambulance to Waterford Infirmary with fever. (74) On 4 September 1942, the Munster Express newspaper published an interview with Captain Thomson "We are very pleased to land in Eire, and we certainly could not have found a better landing".


Lucky Duo

James Brown and Laurence Burke photographed after signing-on the ''Irish Willow'' in 1943 (photo from 'Signal'

There were some fortunate or “lucky” crewmen on the ''Irish Willow''.

James Brown of Arklow was "lucky". He served on the City of Waterford . She was on the “Lisbon run”.[lugnote]This route arose from the American neutrality act. American ships would not go to Ireland. Irish cargoes, such as: fertiliser, machinery and tobacco, were brought to Lisbon. it was up to the Irish to collect.[/lugnote] City of Waterford was in convoy OG-74. It collided with the tug Thames and sunk. The collision threw James into the water. He had been on the companion way with Captain Thomas Aplin and Edward Kearney. They both died. When the ship sank, those on board were sucked down with it, but James Brown had been thrown clear was in the sea. He was rescued by HMS Deptford and then transferred him to the convoy rescue ship Walmer Castle. Then the Walmer Castle was bombed and it also sank, 31 died including 5 survivors from the City of Waterford. Yet again, James Brown survived. Back in Dublin, he was assigned to the Kyleclare, which was also on the Lisbon run. He made eight “Lisbon runs”. The Kyleclare was lost with all aboard. Yet again James Brown escaped death. He missed that tragic voyage because he had fallen off a ladder and fractured bones in his hand, so he was not aboard when U-456 fired three torpedoes sinking the Kyleclare and killing all 18 aboard. Kapitanleutnant Max Teichert claimed that he did not see Kyleclare’s neutrality markings until it was too late as she was so low in the water, listing to starboard and his periscope was awash. James Brown was regarded as "lucky". Other "lucky" sailors include Guy Travers Lee and Laurence Burke.

Lawrence Burke was a regular member of the crew of the Irish Pine but he was not on her final fatal voyage. He was then a regular member of the crew of the Kyleclare, but again he was absent from her last tragic voyage.

Guy Travers Lee, Chief Officer on the Willow, had been chief officer on the Pine. He also missed that final voyage. He had been sitting exams to obtain his Master's ticket.

Post war service

In May 1946 the Irish Willow was returned to Egon Jurgenson. She was sold to Cia. de Vapores Veraguas and renamed Veraguas with a Panamanian registry. She continued to trade for a further 14 years. At the end of her 42 year career she was scrapped at Tamise, Belgium in July 1960. (75)


The Irish Willow rescued the 47 survivors from the Empire Breeze. Throughout the war, Irish ships answered SOS calls and stopped to rescue, irrespective of nationality, and frequently – as in this instance – at risk to themselves. Ships in convoy were, usually, forbidden from stopping to rescue, lest they then became a target. (76) (77) The Empire Breeze crew were in their lifeboats when the Athelprince, with the convoy commodore aboard, had to alter course to avoid collision with the abandoned Empire Breeze, (78) but did not stop to rescue the crew. Irish ships rescued, at least, 534 seafarers during the war.[lugnote]There is list of rescues, with a total of 521 in Frank Forde’s book. It omits, the 13 survivors from the Roxby rescued by the Irish Beech on 7 November 1942. There could be others.[/lugnote] Before the war, Irish Shipping Ltd did not exist. Its 15 ships were not under the Irish Flag. During the war, they imported more than a million tons of essential supplies: 712,000 tons of wheat; 178,000 tons of coal; 63,000 tons of phosphate (fertilizer); 24,000 tons of tobacco; 19,000 tons of newsprint; 10,000 tons of lumber; and over 100,000 tons of more than 500 types of other goods. (79) (This is in addition to the imports carried by other Irish ships) On 16 May 1945, a week after VE Day Éamon de Valera addressed the nation:[lugnote]This speech is better known for de Valera's response to Churchill's VE-Day broadcast which condemned de Valera's policy of neutrality[/lugnote]

To the men of our Mercantile Marine who faced all the perils of the ocean to bring us essential supplies, the nation is profoundly grateful ... — Taoiseach Éamon de Valera, radio speech to the nation 16 May 1945
In June 1946 a contract was signed with John Redhead and Sons, shipbuilders of South Shields to construct a new Irish Willow. (80)



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  • 74^^McShane, page:263.
  • 75^^Cleare, page:65.
  • 76A^^ Gleichauf, Justin, (2002) Bluejacket Books page:115. isbn:978-1-55750-420-3.
  • 77^^Sinclair, Andrew, (2001) Sinclair-Stevenson page:561. isbn:978-0-9540476-3-4. ... or we’re sitting ducks. So we sail past all these drowning sailors, and they call up to us, and we must sail on. I remember one crying, “Taxi! Taxi! ”. We didn’t stop
  • 78^^McShane, page:256.
  • 79^^Andy Bielenberg; Raymond Ryan, An Economic History of Ireland Since Independence ( 20 May 2013) page:125.
  • 80^^Cleare, page:101.
  • Cleare, page:101.

End of citations End