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MV Mathilde Bolten

For actions on December 20, 1964

Gallant Ship Award Citation:

Responding to a distress call on December 20, 1964, from the SS SMITH VOYAGER, foundering and breaking up in heavy seas fifteen miles away, the MATHILDE BOLTEN changed course and raced to her aid. Rendezvous was made with the stricken ship, but additional search was required before a lifeboat, completely swamped and loaded with survivors, was spotted a mile away.  The MATHILDE BOLTEN approached the boat with cargo nets and ladders in position.  Then a huge wave capsized the lifeboat throwing the men into the water and killing four of them.  The living struggled back into the boat completely exhausted. Unhesitatingly, four crew members of the MATHILDE BOLTEN- Horst Wolf, Albert Suhr, Gabriel Ciesillski and Ernest Linke- scrambled down the nets and ladders into the wave swept lifeboat, and with great bravery and deftness assisted thirty-four survivors safely aboard the MATHILDE BOLTEN.

The courage, resourcefulness, expert seamanship, and teamwork of her master, officers and crew in successfully completing an extraordinary rescue operation under extremely hazardous circumstances have caused the name of the MATHILDE BOLTEN to be perpetuated as a Gallant Ship by the United States of America.

Mathilde Bolten was an auto carrier owned by the August Bolten Company in Hamburg, West Germany. On December 20, 1964, the ship was en route from Hamburg to Los Angeles, California, with a cargo of automobiles when it received an SOS from the American vessel Smith Voyager.

Smith Voyager was a break-bulk cargo ship originally built as Brainerd Victory. Launched on October 24, 1945, this was the last Victory ship built by the U.S. Maritime Commission. In December 1964, Smith Voyager was temporarily fitted to carry grain and took on a load in Houston, Texas, for delivery to Calcutta, India.

Smith Voyager headed for Freeport on Grand Bahama Island, where it took on additional fuel before steaming to Ceuta in Spanish Morocco on December 15, 1964, to refuel. While underway, the ship suffered mechanical problems and began to list. Smith Voyager continued to list in the heavy seas for several days. By mid-day on December 20, its list worsened 30 degrees to starboard after the crew shut down the main engine to repair its steam line. Making the already dangerous situation worse, grain stored in one of the ship’s holds shifted heavily to starboard and buckled the hold’s hatch. The captain sounded a general alarm and preemptively launched one of the ship’s lifeboats out of concern that it might become damaged; shortly thereafter, 38 of the 42-man crew abandoned ship; only the captain, a third mate, and two seamen remained onboard.

About 15 nautical miles away, Mathilde Bolten’s captain, K. H. Braun, altered course to assist the distressed vessel. Once on scene, he saw that Smith Voyager was listing heavily with its overcrowded lifeboat nearby and swamped by the 20-foot seas to the point that it was difficult to see it above the water.

As Mathilde Bolten approached, a wave capsized the lifeboat tossing the men into the sea, three of which later drowned. Mathilde Bolten’s crew threw ladders and cargo nets over the side of their vessel and four crewmen swam into the churning water to rescue the exhausted survivors. One sailor, Eckart Linke (a German-American junior member of the steward’s department), is credited by Smith Voyager’s crew for saving 12 lives.

As the survivors climbed Mathilde Bolten’s ladder, a wave swept the capsized lifeboat against the ship’s hull, crushing and killing Smith Voyager’s chief engineer. Soon after, the Norwegian shipHoegh Fular arrived to safeguard the foundering Smith Voyager while Mathilde Bolten continued its voyage. Hoegh Fular stayed with the slowly sinking vessel until the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Rockaway (WAVP-377) relieved it. Coastguardsmen from Rockaway rescued the four crewmen who had remained with the ship when they were forced to abandon it a week later.

The 34 survivors and the bodies of the four deceased sailors remained onboard Mathilde Boltenuntil the Coast Guard Cutter Aurora (WPC-103) arrived near San Juan, Puerto Rico, to relieve the ship. The Coast Guard transferred the rescued crewmen and four bodies to their cutter, allowing Mathilda Bolten to continue its original course toward the Panama Canal and Los Angeles.

Updated: Monday, October 29, 2018