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 39 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

    • Brian Catron

      The Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping (a not for profit org) knew these ships were dangerous to sail and let them go anyway? Did any others sink? Perhaps there were payoffs involved?

      • Mort

        Brian, thank you for your comments on the SS Poet. I have exchanged notes with some merchant marine historians about Poet. They told me that Poet had a sister ship named Penny. It was inoperable and rusting away in Tampa, FL. When the Coast Guard ordered the owner to remove it, he pumped it out, filled it with grain and had it towed to Africa. After selling the grain, the ship was scrapped in Africa. As for payoffs, there is nothing conclusive to indicate bribery. But if someone got paid off, it must have been the US Dept. of Agriculture. USDA certified that the grain holds on Poet were water tight before it was loaded and they sealed the holds once filled. The experts believe that the grain holds let water in which expanded the grain in the holds and caused hull damage. The ship flooded when the hull split and it sank. It sounds logical but is speculation. With the advances in ocean bottom sonar technology, it is possible that Poet may someday be found. I hope to be around when that chapter is written. Thanks again.

        • Thomas Nork

          I was third mate on the Penny in the summer of 1980. My classmate Bob Gove was third mate on the Poet. Heartbreaking loss. Years later as chief mate on a ship and while departing Mombasa in 1985 or so, I saw the stern of the Penny on the beach as the vessel was being scrapped.

          • Dave

            Thank you for your recollections of the Penny. This coincides with other stories I have heard. Another merchant mariner wrote in a few years ago saying the Penny was loaded and ready to depart when she was declared unfit to sail. The owners then registered her as a barge and towed Penny to its destination in Africa. Once the cargo was unloaded, Penny was sold for scrap on the site. Thanks again.

          • Jana Vyhnakova

            Dobrý den,jsem neteř Josef Vyhnak, byl to bratr mého otce a stále hledáme odpovědi prosím o nějaké informace a lidi co ho znali.Dekuji Jana Vyhnak(Boranek)

            Czech. When Translated:

            Hello, I am the niece of Josef Vyhnak, he was my father’s brother and we are still looking for answers, please give me some information and people who knew him. Thank you Jana Vyhnak (Boranek)

          • Dave

            Hello Jana. Thank you for your message. I wrote that article about the Poet 7 years ago and have gotten 35 comments like yours. Everyone wants an answer to why the Poet just disappeared. So far, I have not found anyone who has an answer. If I ever do find a rational explanation, I will certainly contact you with that information. In the meantime, I regret the loss of your uncle and the grief it has caused all of your family.

            Dobrý den Jano. Děkuji vám za vaši zprávu. Ten článek o Básníkovi jsem napsal před 7 lety a dostal jsem 35 komentářů, jako je ten váš. Každý chce odpověď na to, proč Básník právě zmizel. Zatím jsem nenašel nikoho, kdo by měl odpověď. Pokud někdy najdu racionální vysvětlení, určitě se na vás s touto informací obrátím. Mezitím lituji ztráty vašeho strýce a zármutku, který to způsobilo celé vaší rodině.

      • Douglas Muir

        I helped load cargo aboard the Poet at the port of Pensacola, Fl. during her fateful last voyage. I was alarmed by the loading plan allowing 50 lbs. bags of cornmeal placed on the loose bulk load of corn. The cornmeal cargo was loaded by hand and I remember walking on the loose corn was like walking in 2’ of snow. What alarmed me about loading the nagged cargo on the loose corn was the uneven load of loose corn which varied as much as 15’ in height from one side of the hold to the other side. We in loading the bagged cargo headed to Egypt a USDA cargo part of Food For Peace program concentrated on leveling the hold area by more cargo on the low side till we leveled up instead of leveling the loose corn before we added our cargo of bagged cornmeal. It was obvious that the density of bagged cargo of cornmeal unevenly loaded might effect the stability of a fully loaded ship. When I heard about the ships sinking so mysteriously I thought about the questionable uneven loading plan of our bagged cargo of cornmeal.

        • Mort

          Mr. Muir. Thank you for your comments on the S S Poet. Could the loading you describe have been on a Poet sailing prior to the one when it disappeared? The last journey of the Poet departed from Philadelphia, not Pensacola. Both the Poet and the sister ship – S S Penny – did several sailings from Gulf ports of New Orleans, Tampa and Pensacola. Many of them involved loading corn for the “Food for Peace” program since their owner had a contract with the USDA. Both were considered rust buckets by former crew members and disasters waiting to happen. Regardless, your description of the shoddy loading procedures is consistent with other accounts I have read. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Rainy McGinnis

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

    • Rainy McGinnis

      You are absolutely right. Both vessels were rust buckets. The crew of the Poet was at the mercy of the sea. Bob Frump’s theory is the most accurate. I continue to research the vessel. I hope and pray for the safety of our Merchant Marines because of the current political climate in the Middle East.

  • 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.

    • William Pietschman

      I found this in a Book: QTC: I Have a Message for You. I knew the Author, and I think that he would appreciate me passing the material along. There is also a photograph in his book of the Radio Operator, Joseph Vyhnak. His plaque is on the Battery Park (NYC) which honours radio operators lost at sea.
      JOSEPH VYHNAK (52) S.S.
      Poet, October 24, 1980.
      Vyhnak had sent the routine depar- ture message — course, speed, desti- nation, etc. Eleven days later, no more messages having been received, a search was started by 50 aircraft mis- sions. A month later, the USCG said that all crew were presumed dead.
      Vyhnak was a native Czechoslovakian — political prisoner in the USSR — emigrated to the USA and became a U.S. citizen. He got his license, flew to Port Said to relieve a sick RIO, and began his ill-fated voyage from there.
      He’d overcome great obstacles to become a radio operator. The Bat- tery Park Memorial is all that remains of him, his family, his whole story.

      • Mort

        William, thank you for sharing that information about Joseph Wyhnak. Does Ray Redwood’s book have any more information about SS Poet? If so, I could be tempted to buy the book. I continue to be fascinated by the loss of Poet and am always seeking additional clues. I have always wondered why 11 days passed before a search was initiated. I would think that the radio operator would be sending some additional status messages at least every two to three days. Wouldn’t the ships owners get concerned with no messages after three to four days? Regardless, I appreciate your adding this information to the S S Poet story. Thanks again.

  • 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.

  • Kenneth m schoff

    My name is Ken schoff I recently left a comment but left a few things out. I joined the poet in Baltimore md on the trip before she disappeared . I knew. Mr Claude berry and capt Warren. And two others which I also met and spent time with on vessels thru the years while sailing with the S.I.U. I remember the poet so clearly in my memory ,and it haunts me at times,I find myself in deep thought looking for answers and such. I can’t even bring myself to imagine how much the loved ones are hurting over this . I pray GOD holds each loved one who hurts so badly over this deep within his loving heart and provides peace and some comfort to each hurting soul , I’m so sorry for your loss and I know you will reunite in GODS kingdom. Peace !

    • Deb

      Ken, thank you for the additional information about your experience on SS Poet and its crew. I share your thoughts and concerns for the friends and family of the lost crew. I recently finished reading a book “Into the Raging Sea” by Rachel Slade. This is a detailed account of the loss of the container ship “El Faro” on October 1, 2015. There were many similarities to Poet. An obsolete deteriorating ship with minimal maintenance. The captain steered El Faro directly into a raging hurricane trying to stay on schedule. The ship lost power, was breached by waves and sank with the loss of all 33 souls on board. The difference was that El Faro was found and the “black box” recovered. This resolved most of the mystery about the sinking. The book provides frightening detail about the shipping company’s greed and disregard for safety. It also criticizes inspection agencies for shoddy work and use of less than well trained crew. I strongly suggest reading this book and count the similarities to the loss of Poet. Thanks again for your comments.

  • James B. Lumsden

    I remember seeing another rust bucket belonging to the owner of the Poet. She was a WW2 C-2 freighter renamed the “Penny” and she was laying alongside the dock in Tampa Shipyard for months at least, 1981 or so if I recall correctly. I think that the CIA conspiracy regarding the Poet has some truth to it. I remember reading in the local papers that the Penny sank alongside the dock due to wastage holes in the hull

    • Deb

      James, thank you for sharing this additional information about Penny. What you say about Penny is consistent with what I have read about the condition of Poet. Thanks again.

  • Bob Frump

    Correct on the Penny. It began sinking At dockside in Tampa. Coast Guard finally flagged it and the owner loaded it up with grain for one more run

    It was towed to Africa, unloaded, then scrapped.

    • Mort

      Bob, I just downloaded your articles “I cover the waterfront” on Kindle. You have quite a bit of information about Henry Bonnabel’s fleet. It doesn’t get me any closer to finding new information on Poet. But it does give me more background on the mentality of Poet’s owner. Thanks.

  • Roger Edward Gill

    I am so sorry for your loss…..I sailed on the last voyage of the SS Point Susan, a rust bucket….if anyone knows of a crew member from that time frame….pls let me know. Thank you, Roger

  • Roseanne Genuardi-Schultz

    I grew up in Clifton NJ, my grandparents lived next door to the Carrino family. I was friends with Christopher’s sisters, I think her name was Ann, it was over 40 years ago. Christopher was a great big brother and always spent time with us. I rememer the day his family received the news. My grandparents were close with the family, it was so devistating. All these years later out of no where I think of Christopher and his family. It’s so sad there was never any closure, for all of the families.

    • Dave Swope

      Roseanne, thank you for sharing your memories of Christopher Carrino. I have gotten several similar comments from readers who knew a member of the Poet crew. It has been a double tragedy, first by the loss of the 34 man crew and second that there has never been any clue as to how or where the ship was lost. I mourn with the families and friends of those brave souls.

  • Melissa Nugent

    What I find difficult to understand is the radio silence. If the Poet was taking on water, a seasoned Captain would notice something due to how the ship was (or was not) handling. Granted, they were in a storm, which makes deciphering lists much harder, but I would like to think that the ship could get at least one distress message out before sinking.

    • Dave

      The radio silence is the main reason for the creation of all the alternate conspiracy theories that the ship was somehow hijacked perhaps by some of the crew or stow-aways. A more reasonable theory is that the storm somehow knocked out the electric power to the ship including the radio room. Since there were no survivors and no debris found, we will probably never know what happened and why.

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