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MV WEISSENBURG

For actions on May 7, 1965
Gallant Ship Award Citation:

On May 7, 1965, while transiting the Straits of Mackinac in Lake Huron, the German ship Weissenburg responded to an SOS from the American ship SS Cedarville, sinking rapidly after a collision in heavy fog. Her lifeboats in readiness, the Weissenburg felt her way through the fog to a position close to the stricken ship which soon thereafter capsized and sank without warning. Spurred by cries for help from the men struggling in the water, the lifeboats of the Weissenburg were quickly launched and maneuvered in search of survivors who could not expect to live long in the 36 degree water. In the space of a half hour twenty-six men were located, plucked from the icy water and brought safely aboard the rescue ship.

The courage, resourcefulness, sound seamanship, and teamwork of her master, officers and crew in successfully effecting the rescue from the water under extremely hazardous circumstances of survivors of a ship disaster, have caused the name of the MV Weissenburg to be perpetuated as a Gallant Ship by the United States of America

MV Weissenburg was a West German-built break bulk cargo ship owned and operated by Hamburg America Line (HAPAG).  Part of a HAPAG’s first class of cargo ships built after World War II, Weissenburg was delivered in 1953.

On the morning of May 7, 1965, Weissenburg was traveling, in heavy fog, eastbound through the Straits of Mackinac, en route to Detroit.  At that same time, SS Cedarville, a U.S.-flag “Laker” (a very long dry bulk-carrying cargo ship that typically only plies the Great Lakes) was also traversing the straits, traveling westbound en route to Gary, Indiana, with a load of limestone.

As the vessels approached each other near the Mackinac Bridge, the captain of Cedarville radioed with the German vessel to coordinate their passage through the straits. The two vessels agreed on a passing plan; however, as Weissenburg passed under the bridge, it sent a report of another ship (a “Norwegian vessel”) that was running ahead of Weissenburg and was to Cedarville’s immediate west.

Cedarville  made several attempts to establish radio contact with the Norwegian vessel, MV Topdalsfjord, but was ultimately unsuccessful.  Unable to establish contact, the ships acted independently to avoid each other: the captain of Cedarville set a course with the intention to cross the bow of Topdalsfjord; the master of the Norwegian vessel set a course that would lead to the vessels passing on their starboard sides.  The cumulative effect of these maneuvers was to place Topdalsfjord at “right angles” to Cedarville’s approach; the heavy fog meant that the vessels were invisible to each other until they were inside of 1000 feet.   Unable to avoid each other, Topdalsfjordcollided with Cedarville amidships; the Norwegian vessel’s hull, specially reinforced for ice-breaking, tore a large hole below the waterline in Cedarville’s holds seven and eight.

Immediately after the collision, Captain Werner May of Weissenburg altered course and asked if help was needed. Master Martin Joppich of Cedarville replied that he would attempt to beach the freighter in the vicinity of Mackinaw City, which was two miles away. In the meantime, Topdalsfjord launched two lifeboats in search of survivors. However, with the dense fog the lifeboats returned without locating any personnel from Cedarville.

As Weissenburg, navigating by radar, was closing in on the foundering ship, Cedarville continued to lose freeboard until it capsized without warning and quickly sank, nearly a mile from shore. Closing in on the capsized vessel, a lookout on Weissenburg reported he saw people in the water. In response, the German vessel launched lifeboats. Six survivors were pulled from the 37-degree water, seven more were found clinging to a life raft, and 14 were in a lifeboat that had been cut loose from the capsized and sinking vessel; the remaining ten crewmembers were trapped within the vessel as it sank. All but one body was recovered. One of the survivors died shortly before being taken aboard Weissenburg and another died on board shortly thereafter.

Once onboard, the survivors were cared for until they could be transferred to U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw.  After transferring the survivors, Weissenburg proceeded to Detroit.   The German vessel had a long career, operating for HAPAG until1971, when it was sold to a Somalian shipping company and renamed Jade Phoenix.  It was sold several more times through the 1970s and 1980s before it was scrapped in Asia in 1986.

Today the wreck of Cedarville lies within the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Preserve. It is nearly split in half and rests on its starboard side nearly upside down but can be visited by experienced divers.

Updated: Monday, October 29, 2018