A shipwreck largely forgotten by history was discovered this summer by a team of divers dedicated to telling its story.
Found in 300 feet of water, the SS William H. Machen sank on July 7, 1942, off the coast east of New Hampshire and Maine after a collision with cargo freighter Maid of Stirling owned by Stirling Shipping Company.
This past summer, a team of New England divers located and explored the wreck of the Machen, 75 years after she sank.
The Stirling was not seriously damaged in the collision and continued on to port, but the mortally-wounded Machen foundered and few details ever emerged about her final location. The Machen was lost among 44 other U.S. merchant vessels during the height of World War II, resulting in the sinking of the Machen as a single line entry in a Coast Guard report.
Ryan King, of Brentwood, New Hampshire, is a member of the diving team that discovered the Machen. King started diving when he was 12, and a love for underwater photography made the hobby more serious.
“We’d been looking on and off for Machen for the last three years,” King said. “About four years ago, we were up in Portland looking for the wreck of Eagle 56. Then a friend of mine had mentioned (Machen) had not been found off the coast of New Hampshire. We went and did some research, scavenged about 20 square miles, and we found out where it wasn’t. Then we talked to some local captains. This spring we happened to get another set of numbers where somebody said ‘This might be what you’re looking for.’”
They found the Machen about 15 miles off the coast of Portsmouth.
The diving team has been able to piece together a great deal about Machen and her owner – the Pocahontas Steamship Company of Boston – but they are still searching for more specifics about the sinking and the ship’s crew.
“We spent a lot of time doing some internet research and obviously there isn’t a whole lot that will help you out from 1942,” King said.
The team looked in the National Archives in Baltimore and Washington D.C., as well as Portsmouth Herald archives.
“At the time we first dove it, we didn’t know when it had gone down,” King said. “We were able to piece together that the ship sunk at 12:20 a.m. on July 7.” The ship was running coal from Norfolk, Virginia to Portland, Maine.
Newspaper articles and documents from the National Archives confirm that all 34 members of the crew, 17 of whom were New England natives, safely abandoned ship in lifeboats and were rescued by the Coast Guard.
“The history of it has been interesting because it feels like it was forgotten,” King said. “This was basically two ships that ran into each other and everybody got off, so it wasn’t as big a story (during World War II). For me, I like the photography piece of it. It takes the history, photography and diving I love and puts it all together.”
Describing the dive itself, King said past 250 feet, divers are completely in the dark aside from the lights they bring down with them. During their first dive to the Machen, the team looked down and saw their lights reflecting back at them. “That was actually the curve of the hull,” King said.
The Machen is laying on her side, with much of it buried in mud. King and the team discovered artifacts with the Pocahontas Steamship Company logo. One diver found a clock with a serial number on it, which they were able to trace back to a Chelsea, Massachusetts clockmaker, who confirmed the sale to Pocahontas.
Due to the limited information in the historical record, the diving team is still searching for crew members, Coast Guardsmen, or their relatives, who served on the Machen or were involved in the rescue.
“We’d like to get a little bit more about the actual sinking, that doesn’t seem to be recorded well anywhere other than it happened,” King said. “We’re getting into the quieter diving season so we’re hoping to have some time this winter to find some relatives and share some of those family stories that have been lost.”
The rest of the diving team, Danny Allan, Mike Barnett, Mark Bowers, Josh Cummings, Bob Foster, Nate Garrett, Jeff Goodreau, and Scott Morency, hail from all over New England, including New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts.
“I would love if anybody knows anybody who was on the ship or worked for her at any point in time, I would be interested in talking to them and put this all together,” King said.
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