SS Cedarville steams proudly after its refitting by the Defoe Shipbuilding Co. in 1957.
Survivor Challenges Book on Sinking of Freighter Cedarville 40 Years Ago
Great Lakes Disasters Create Media Explosion; Now Called "Little Titanics"
August 27, 2005
By: Dave Rogers
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Reporter D. Laurence Rogers and photographer the late Dick Hardy covered the sinking of the SS Cedarville for the Bay City Times and the national Associated Press. They were flown north by Bay City physician Dr. James C. Cooper, who was forced to land in Pellston because of heavy fog. The newsmen rented a fishing boat to reach the sinking scene, where a buoy and bubbles rising ominously from below were the only sign that 10 men were entombed below.)
The drama and poignancy of Great Lakes shipwrecks has created a media phenomenon being called "little Titanics."
Latest historical event to boil over is a 40-year-old disaster caused when two ships collided in heavy fog in the Straits of Mackinac on May 7, 1965. I know a little bit about it because I was at the scene the following day with photographer Dick Hardy.
The new book "The Cedarville Conspiracy: Indicting U.S. Steel" is called by the publisher, the University of Michigan Press, a well-documented "gripping page turner."
However, one of the 25 survivors, watchman and relief wheelsman Edward Brewster, of Cheboygan, says he found many parts of the book untrue.
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The 603-foot long Cedarville was rammed by the sharp-prowed 423-foot long Norwegian freighter Topdalsfjord as peasoup fog shrouded the Straits of Mackinac.
The Cedarville was steaming from Port Calcite, near Rogers City, Michigan, bound for Gary, Indiana, with a cargo of open hearth limestone.
The captain of the Cedarville attempted to run for shore to ground the ship but she rolled and sank in 110 feet of water. "She now lies partially upside down, with her hatch covers off and her last cargo spread along the bottom," writes diver David Swayze (www.David Swayze's Wrecklist) who saw the ship in June, 1999.
Ten men were trapped in the ship and two crewmen died from exposure after being rescued by the German freighter Weissenburg.
A Coast Guard Board of Investigation, convened in at the U.S. District Court in Bay City, later ruled that the master of the Cedarville, Capt. Martin E. Joppich, violated the rules of the road by steaming too fast through fog and taking incorrect actions causing deaths following the collision.
Capt. Joppich has refused to talk about his actions on that fateful day. His error, according to the Coast Guard, was heading the ship thewrong way when trying to beach the vessel.
Undocumented, and gruesome reports from divers who entered the vessel years later were that the men had desperately chipped at the doors and bulkheads with pocket knives in futile attempts to escapetheir steel tomb. The divers found ten skeletons.
The gruesome aspects of the entombing take on a new and more horrific tone with the publication of accusations in the book.
"As the mortally wounded Cedarville began to list and sink, U.S. Steel refused to allow the crew to escape to safety, while the captain secretly donned his life jacket and abandoned the sinking ship. Ten seamen died in the frigid waters that morning as the captain and survivors swam to safety."
However, Edward Brewster, of Cheboygan, Michigan, one of 25 survivors of the May 7, 1965 shipwreck says many parts of the book are untrue.
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"The ship was seaworthy; it did not have a leaky bulkhead; it was not rat infested; to my knowledge it was never over-loaded (in fact I personally checked the draft the morning of May 7th when we finished loading); we did not have to adjust the cargo in order to close the hatches."
Another reviewer of the book, attorney Mary E. Akin, writes: "I find it difficult to understand the petty nature of the criticisms. The events described in this book occurred almost 40 years ago, meaning the details surrounding the collision have naturally been forgotten even by those who experienced the event. Mr. Cox's account is in fact based on the most reliable of all possible sources of information -- i.e., the court record of the trial that occurred immediately after the collision which contains the verbatim testimony of all the witnesses."
The controversy seems certain to ignite even more sales for the book that in about four months has quickly reached more than respectable status on the Amazon.com sales list. It is listed as 126,727 on the list, not bad for a non-fiction book competing with millions of titles.
Author Cox is described by the publisher, the University of Michigan Press, as "an attorney and former naval officer."The U-M Press publicity material states:
"Researching the story, author L. Stephen Cox interviewed the surviving crew and their rescuers and attorneys, examined more than 20,000 pages of Coast Guard reports, and discovered desposition transcripts and other documentary evidence that detailed the deterioration of the ship, the captain's disregard of Great Lakes navigational rules, the company's participation in the decision to confine the men aboard the sinking vessel, and the subsequent effortsby U.S. Steel to manipulate the evidence."
"It is also the first Great Lakes history to expose the heroism, villainy, courage and confusion surrounding the Cedarville disaster," the publicity material continues.
Mr. Brewster and five fellow survivors met with their savior, Peter Hahn, key rescuer aboard the Weissenburg, six years ago at Port Huron. The Weissenburg heard the distress call and Hahn and shipmates lowered lifeboats hauled the survivors aboard, though one man went down and another could not be resuscitated.
Hahn and his crewmates were given a heroes welcome at their next port, Cleveland, and were offered jobs. Hahn accepted a post at the Cleveland Port Authority, worked there 39 years and now is general manager of a marine terminal operated by NYK Logistics.
The Great Lakes Lore Maritime Museum in Rogers City, formerly in Sebewaing, honored 46 sailors Aug. 19 at it annual induction ceremony. A panel discussion included Frank Mays, the only living survivor of the Carl D. Bradley sinking, Dennis Hale, lone survivor of the 1966 sinking of the Bay City built Daniel J. Morrell, Dave Erickson, a Cedarville survivor, and Hahn.
Videos about the Cedarville and other sinkings have created a fantastic new market. "Deep Six" by Ric Mixter is easily the Great Lakes best selling maritime documentary. Millions of viewers saw the original show on PBS, produced in 1997 by Mixter. It chronicles the sinking of the Cedarville, Moreland, Carruthers andBradley, using survivor interviews to tell stories long forgotten by the public. (See www.boatnerd.com/books/deepsix.htm)
Deep Six remains as the gold-standard for Great Lakes documentaries. Directed by Kevin Leitz, the program was originally created for Imageworks LTD in Midland, Michigan. A DVD version has also been produced.
Southport Video (www.edmundfitzgerald.com/videos) also has produced a 50-minute video recreating the Cedarville story from its building in 1927 in River Rouge, its refitting in 1957 at Defoe in Bay City and its eventual demise in the fog three miles east of the Mackinac Bridge.###
Columns Article 869
Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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