This Day in History: SS Fort Lee torpedoed

On this day in 1944, American tanker SS Fort Lee is torpedoed by Germans. Our military took risks during World War II, and we often hear their stories. We hear much less about the Merchant Marines.


What a pity. Many of their stories are becoming lost.

World War II recruiting poster for the Merchant Marines.

“[W]e should have written about all these stories 60 years ago when everybody was still alive,” U.S. Merchant Marine Veteran Captain Arthur R. Moore wrote. He was then working to keep the story of SS Fort Lee alive.


Fort Lee’s final mission came as she traveled across the Indian Ocean—an ocean that has been called the “forgotten battlefield” of World War II. The trip could be dangerous. Nevertheless, Fort Lee traveled without an escort. She had 49 Merchant Mariners aboard and 26 U.S. Navy Reserve Armed Guard assigned to guard her cargo of fuel.


Late on November 1, the crew of German submarine U-181 spotted her. The Germans decided to race ahead of Fort Lee, enabling U-181 to lie in wait for a direct frontal attack. That attack came late the next day, at exactly 8:00 p.m. U-181’s torpedo ripped through Fort Lee, hitting near the boilers.


“All of a sudden there was this terrific explosion that jarred the ship vi