The Disappearance of the S.S. Poet

Question: How can you lose a 500 foot steam freighter? Answer: Get lost while passing through the Bermuda Triangle. Not ss poet memorialexciting enough? How about it was taken hostage by South Jersey mobsters and sailed to Iran to buy heroin. Still needs more spice? OK, it was hijacked by Ronald Regan’s political operatives, loaded with weapons, taken to Iran and exchanged for the future release of the American Embassy hostages.

I am not a big fan of the Bermuda Triangle folklore. Nor do I buy into the various conspiracy theories involving the mafia or criminal politics. Those stories play well on the Discovery Channel but whither when exposed to reality. But there is a fascinating story to be told about the S S Poet that deserves a closer look.

First, the facts. The Poet was built in 1944 as a C-4 class military troop carrier in Richmond, CA. It was 522 feet long, 11,421 gross tons and named General Omar Bundy, AP-152. It served the military until its sale in 1965. It was refitted to be a bulk cargo freighter and had other names including Portmar and Port. It was finally bought by Hawaiian Eugenie Corp. in 1979, renamed Poet and put to work hauling grain.

Poet departed Philadelphia on October 24, 1980 with 13,500 tons of yellow corn bound for Port Said, Egypt. Once clear of Delaware Bay and the pilot relieved, Capt. Leroy Warren and his crew of 33 set a course for Gibraltar. At 8:30 pm, Poet radioed its position off Cape Henlopen, DE, its course, speed and that all was in order.

Poet was never seen or heard again. Not a trace. No life boats. No debris. Nothing.

So what happened? The Coast Guard casualty report suggests it was lost in a significant storm which swept through Poet’s path with high winds and 30 foot waves. However, other ships in the area reported the storm as severe but not a killer. Some think that water flooded the forward hold, caused the corn to expand, split the ship wide open and quickly sent her down. Perhaps. But the holds were certified water tight. And the US Dept of Agriculture had closed and sealed all grain hatches before departure.

A more fun theory is that South Jersey mobsters from the Gambino family hijacked the ship, sailed to Iran and traded the corn and ship for heroin. Maybe. But the voyage around the southern tip of Africa, through the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman is a long way to go and not be seen. It is also a long trip to buy heroin from a country not known as a big heroin producer.

But the best theory is that political operatives for the Ronald Regan presidential campaign hijacked the ship, loaded it with weapons and sailed to Iran. In exchange for the weapons, Iran agreed it would not release the American Embassy hostages until after Ronald Regan became president. It is true that the American hostages were released during Regan’s inauguration. But Poet left Philadelphia 11 days before Regan won the election. That is a long reach even when observed through the insanity of modern US politics.

Regardless of how the Poet met its demise, the one simple sad truth is that 34 sailors perished when the ship disappeared. In Philadelphia, a bronze memorial plaque honors the crew of Poet. And family and friends of the 34 men still mourn their loss. Amusing conspiracies aside, it ranks as a major American maritime tragedy.

Blog contribution by Dave Swope

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Showing 17 comments
  • robert frump

    Another theory, as The Philadelphia Inquirer documented, is that the ship ought never have been at sea, and was a part of the Rust Bucket Fleet left over from World War II. The owner of the ship was notorious for loading up old ships with corn under Food for Peace programs, and the sister ship, the SS Penny, was such a rust bucket it eventually needed to be towed to the scrap yard. The conspiracy theories are all very interesting, but the bigger “conspiracy” is that the Coast Guard of that time and the American Bureau of Shipping negligently let dozens of vessels sail that ought to have been scrapped when the war ended. Bob Frump

  • Rainy McGinnis

    My father, a Bosun and friend of a ill gated crew member, would back Bob Frump’s theory.

  • Bill O'Dowd

    Every one knows about the Edmund Fitzgerald—thanks to a Canadian singer–sadly, very few knows of this ship. Only because I was a mariner in 1983 that I heard. The news was still fresh in the industry.

  • Nicole Bourbonnais

    My father was one of the 34 men on the SS Poet. I was 7 years old. I’m now 44. A lifetime without answers cannot be measured. There has to be an answer.

    • Caitlin Grossman

      My grandfather was William King the second mate. My mother was pregnant with me at the time. I know it’s nothing like losing a father but there has always been this hole my life that I could never fill. I’ve always wanted answers too for my mothers sake. Hopefully in her life time.

  • Donnie W Collins II

    I saw this ship loading grain in New Orleans when I was a kid. My father did an emergency relief for the steward aboard and sailed it to Philadelphia where he got off. Then I heard what happened. This story never got the attention it deserved!

  • Stanley Myers

    My brother was on that ship I want to know what happened to that ship

  • James carter

    I was at the union hall in New Orleans when a job for an ordinary seaman came up. The ship was the Poet. My card was eighty days old, I needed a job, and I was going to take it. A bosun I had sailed with before told me not to take it. Told him I was broke, needed the job. He forked over twenty dollars, said another job will come in on Monday. I didn’t take it. Henry saved my life. I was on the Sealand producer when the word came on the radio that the poet went down.
    A year later, I took an AB job on the sister ship penny. I was in the forward hold during loading. I looked up at the hatch cover. I could see stars through the holes. I should have gotten off, but I stayed aboard for a trip to Sierra Leone. I was scarred the whole time. Especially on the return trip in August with a following sea. I ended my career at sea the following year. I felt I was pushing my luck.

    • Deb

      Thank you James for sharing your experience. I have received other comments on this article also questioning whether Poet was seaworthy. Glad you took your friends advice.

  • Dennis logan

    My uncle was EARL K WHATLEY from mobile al a sad story, had not been to sea in years my father JOE LOGAN from mobile al made two Far East run back to back and paid all his back dues to catch his book back up with SIU and this was his first ship back out to sea my father tried to get on this ship with him as first class oiler and wiper but could not get on no one was getting off.

    • Deb

      Thank you Dennis. We have gotten several responses from relatives of the lost souls on SS Poet. It was a tragic story. I wish we had a shipwreck discovery or an explanation that gave some closure to those who grieve.

  • Jayne Cambria

    I spent summers on Cranberry Lake, Byram, Nj and knew one of the sailors, Christopher Carrino. He was a summer staple for my family and we loved him. This mystery has haunted me all these years. Although we all grew up and left the Lake, I remember Chris fondly. I can’t imagine how the families feel. Prayers for peace of heart and soul.

    • Deb

      Thank you Jayne. We have gotten several responses from friends and relatives of the lost souls on SS Poet. It was a tragic story. I wish we had a shipwreck discovery or an explanation that gave some closure to those who grieve.

  • Kenneth m schoff

    I sailed on the poet ,but got off before another trip because i did not want to go back to egypt . It was a boring trip and i always follow my intuition. I am always thinking about the ship but mostly the souls and the pain the loved ones constantly endure. I know are loving God has each one of them in his heart may we pray for the loved ones who need peace. But i must say before i close. I do not put anything past our government

    • Deb

      Thank you for your message. There have been several comments about the Poet from friends and relatives of crew members. Perhaps you knew Christopher Carrino or Earl Wheatley. I wish we had a shipwreck discovery or an explanation that gave some closure to those who grieve.

  • Bernard Griffin

    Christopher Carrino was my childhood friend.
    I was with him the night before he sailed.
    He decided to take the Poet vs.a ship a week later so he could be home for Christmas.
    Never saw him again.
    So painful for all who knew him.
    Spent many a day water skiing on Cranberry Lake.
    We use to cut high school and drive to the lake.

    • Deb

      Thank you for your message. There have been several comments about the Poet from friends and relatives of crew members. You are the second person who knew Christopher Carrino. The other is Jayne Cambria. I wish we had a shipwreck discovery or an explanation that gave some closure to those who grieve.

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