ST. SIMONS ISLAND, GA. | During the annual observance of Maritime Day Friday, George Yarborough and Jim Royal rang a bell that once was silenced by war.

 

It is the brass bell of the Esso Baton Rouge, a merchant tanker that German U-Boat 123 sent to the bottom off St. Simons Island with a torpedo April 6, 1942. That same night, U123 also torpedoed the S.S. Oklahoma, killing three on the Esso Baton Rouge and 19 on the Oklahoma.


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The bell belongs to Olaf Olsen Jr., 91, and it is taken from a museum each year, which has it on loan, and brought to the ceremony.

“It was given to me by the captain,” Olsen said. “I took them [the captain and some crew] out each morning before school.”

Olsen says before school because he was 15 at the time. He took them in one of his father’s boats to the last buoy in the Brunswick shipping channel where a British trawler took them the rest of the way to the sunken ship 13 miles out. A tugboat eventually raised the Esso Baton Rouge. It was towed to Brunswick for temporary repairs and then put back in service after it was fully repaired at another shipyard.

On the night of the sinking, Civil Air Patrol pilot Robert Ferguson flew over Jekyll Island, where the elder Olaf Olsen ran a charter boat, and dropped a note attached to a wrench telling him there were survivors that needed to be rescued. Olsen got into his speedy boat and began ferrying survivors to shore.

Olsen Jr. sat watching the ceremony Friday from a motorized mobility chair on the pier.

It was a brief ceremony with Pat Stokes, president of the Golden Isles Maritime Club, reminding those in attendance that National Maritime Day is observed May 22 each year, the date the steamship Savannah left its namesake port in 1819 to make the first ever transoceanic voyage under steam.

Congress created the holiday on May 20, 1933, about five years before the Esso Baton Rouge was launched.

Monsignor John Kenneally of St. William Catholic Church on St. Simons blessed a wreath that Robert and Chris Franklin dropped from the pier.

Piper Danny Shepard closed the ceremony with the playing of taps.

Terry Dickson: (912) 264-0405