cover of Dawn of Infamy

A Sunken Ship, A Vanished Crew,
and the Final Mystery of Pearl Harbor

by Stephen Harding

Da Capo Press
$24.99 / $32.50
ISBN 13: 9780306825033

Where to buy Last to Die

Excerpt from Dawn of Infamy

by Stephen Harding


On the afternoon of Monday, December 1, 1941, Captain Berthel Carlsen leaned over the bridge wing of the steamship Cynthia Olson and ordered deckhands to let go the mooring lines holding the small freighter to a pier in Seattle, Washington. Carlsen, a sixty-four-year-old master mariner, then ordered “slow ahead” on the engine-order telegraph. Minutes later, her single screw churning the waters of Elliot Bay, the twenty-two-year-old ship set out on the 135-mile passage up Puget Sound, bound for the Pacific Ocean.

It was a familiar route for both Carlsen and his vessel. Though the ship had sailed the Atlantic and Caribbean in her youth, for the first seven months of 1941, Cynthia Olson had plied the waters of the West Coast as a lumber carrier. Homeported in San Francisco, she made regular calls at Olympia, Tacoma, and other Pacific Northwest ports, often with Carlsen in command. Once her decks were covered with stacks of freshly sawn timber and her holds filled with massive rolls of newsprint, she’d sail for Oakland, Los Angeles, or San Diego. It was a fairly mundane routine, but one that had proven dependably profitable for her owner, San Francisco’s Oliver J. Olson Steamship Company.

But that routine changed abruptly in early August, when the Olson Company signed a contract with the U.S. Army. That service had launched a hurried military construction effort in Hawaii in response to the increasing threat of war in the Pacific, and Cynthia Olson and ships like her were needed to haul the timber that would become the barracks, warehouses, and aircraft hangars of what the War Department hoped would be a newly invigorated Hawaii-defense force.

Cynthia Olson had embarked on her first timber-hauling passage to Pearl Harbor on August 22, completing each leg of the trip in nine and a half days under the command of Captain P. C. Johnson. A second trip, in late September and early October, worked out equally well, and on November 18, the Army chartered the vessel outright. Now, on the first day of December, she was setting out again, with Carlsen as a last-minute substitute for an ailing Johnson. Sharing the bridge was First Mate William Buchtele, himself a last-minute replacement, and together the two men hoped to better the previous total passage time by at least a day.

What neither mariner could know was that their ship and the thirty-five men aboard her were embarking on their final voyage. Even as Cynthia Olson chugged slowly toward the sea, events were unfolding that would pit the ship and her crew against a deadly foe, mark the beginning of a new front in a global conflict, and spark one of the most enduring nautical mysteries of World War II.



Japanese submarine commander Minoru Yokota’s concerns that Cynthia Olson’s distress signal might have been heard by someone other than Petty Officer Osawa were well-founded, for radioman Sam Ziskind’s auto alarm caught the immediate attention of a radio operator aboard the biggest ship at sea that day between Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast. The radio operator was Leslie Grogan, and the ship was Lurline.

Grogan later recalled that he had been on the 8:00 a.m. to noon radio watch “but a little while” and was busy taking down weather reports from other vessels for onward high-frequency transmittal to a commercial receiving station in San Francisco. Then, at approximately 9:12 a.m., ship’s time (the determination of which will be of special interest in the following chapters), Grogan heard what he recorded as a “strong” transmission on 500 Kcs “making the ‘SSS’ signal, meaning in the International Code that a submarine has been sighted or ‘we are being attacked by a submarine.’” He immediately asked for the freighter’s position. Ziskind replied in what Grogan called a “steady hand,” reporting that his vessel was being attacked by a surfaced sub and, a few minutes later, giving Cynthia Olson’s position as 33°42′ N by 145°29′ W, or about 1,120 miles northeast of Honolulu’s Diamond Head and some 320 miles due north of Lurline. Immediately after giving the position data Ziskind abruptly went off the air, prompting Grogan to record that the freighter’s transmitter had “sparked out like if a power failure took place.”

After waiting a few seconds to see if Ziskind would come back on the air, Grogan acknowledged the position report and said he would immediately notify the Navy. He hoped to hear a response, but when none was forthcoming, even from Cynthia Olson’s emergency transmitter, he assumed the ship had been torpedoed. Grogan and his supervisor, Chief Radio Operator Rudy Asplund, then tried to contact the Navy radio stations at both Pearl Harbor and San Francisco. When they got no response—which Grogan thought was “mighty strange”—they tried a different tack….

Grogan passed the distress message to KTK, the Globe Wireless Company’s commercial station at Mussel Rock, south of San Francisco. The duty operator at KTK, Ray Ferrill, immediately answered and took down the details of Cynthia Olson’s message.

After telling Grogan he’d get back to him, Ferrill quickly got on the telephone and tried to reach the Navy radio station at Mare Island, just north of San Francisco. When he got no answer, he decided to go right to the top, calling the Office of Naval Communications in San Francisco’s Federal Building. This time someone answered the phone immediately, and Ferrill passed on Cynthia Olson’s position and the gist of her message.

Unknown to Ferrill or the radio operators aboard Lurline, Ziskind’s medium-frequency distress call also caught the attention of …another Army vessel, USAT Will H. Point, which overheard the messages while still taking on cargo at Fort Mason. Though not required to monitor the 500 Kcs frequency while in port, one of the ship’s radio operators was performing routine maintenance when his auto-alarm receiver activated. The radioman quickly copied down the details as Ziskind gave them to Grogan and then reported the exchange to Will H. Point’s captain. He, in turn, sent the news to Colonel Mellon, the ATS superintendent, by messenger. After scanning the message, Mellon rushed across the hall to the office of his commander Colonel Frederick Gilbreath, who had only been in the job two weeks and was in his office that Sunday morning to stay ahead of his already prodigious workload.

“The Cynthia Olson has been torpedoed by a Jap sub!” Mellon exclaimed as he burst into Gilbreath’s office. “We’ve just picked up her distress signal on the wireless of the ship down at Fort Mason Dock 3.”

A shocked Gilbreath picked up the telephone directly connecting him with the Washington, DC, office of Major General Brehon B. Somervell, the Army’s assistant chief of staff for logistics. As the two men were discussing the ramifications of the attack on Cynthia Olson, Mellon burst back in to inform Gilbreath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

And at that precise moment the plight of a small, civilian-crewed lumber freighter ceased to be of immediate concern….