Originally created 07/24/02

Divers plunder sunken vessels



Take an artifact from a national battlefield such as Gettysburg or Antietam, and you could go to jail.

But divers who take items from 165 World War II cargo ships sunk by enemy fire end up with a nice brass bell, porthole covers or other keepsakes.

A Georgia man is pushing for a federal law to protect the ships, and he has the support of former merchant mariners, survivors of those who died, and divers, including some who salvaged artifacts.

Michael P. Higgins, of McIntosh County, who worked as a merchant mariner until he suffered a back injury, says those who died aboard the vessels should be left alone.

"There were people who defended America on that little patch of steel," Mr. Higgins said. "The Navy Armed Guard and merchant seamen who went down on these vessels don't have a cemetery. This is hallowed ground."

About 660 of the merchant ships sunk in the war have protection because they were the property of the federal War Ship Administration. But before May 1, 1942, 165 ships were sunk by enemy fire. Because those were never federal property, they haven't received the accompanying legal protection.

Those ships have been fair game to deep-water divers, and some have carried off ships' bells, brass equipment, porthole covers, identifying letters and, in one case where dynamite was used, a huge propeller.

Among those plundered are the tanker Gulfamerica, sunk off Jacksonville, Fla., on April 10, 1942, with the loss of 17 crew and two armed guards; and the Cities Service Empire, torpedoed off Cape Canaveral, Fla., Feb. 22, 1942, with the loss of 11 crew and three armed guards.

One of the survivors of the Gulfamerica asked a diver to get into his cabin to retrieve his dog tags and wallet, only to learn the ship had been badly damaged after it sank.

"They couldn't even get in the thing. Salvagers had dynamited the stern to get the propeller off for the brass," he said.

That didn't sit well with Mr. Higgins.

"For brass and copper? Come on ... You wouldn't treat the Arizona that way."

Jeanne Revels, a longtime Jacksonville resident, said she doesn't want her father's ship treated that way. Her father, Anders M. Johanson, was the 53-year-old master of the Dixie Arrow, a Standard Oil Co. tanker, when it was torpedoed and shelled March 26, 1942, off Cape Hatteras, N.C. When the ship sank after burning for two days, 11 had died.

"That is his grave," she said. "It seems there's nothing sacred anymore."

Diving partners Mike Potter, of Cocoa, and Mark Zurl have collected artifacts from ships, including the bell from the Cities Service Empire.

Mr. Zurl wants to hand the bell over to what he considers a "proper home."

"A home to me is a place where it would stand proudly as a symbol of American sacrifice," Mr. Zurl said.