Sunk Merchant Ship May Reveal Secrets That Changes History


On Jan 9, 1942, a steamship with 17 crew members left port in Galveston, Texas.

The Octavian was a Norwegian freighter transporting sulfur and wood resin to Saint John, New Brunswick, as World War II raged. The ship never made it, and almost for a century now, Norwegian historians considered the fate of the Octavian a mystery. One theory was pulled from the pages of a German submarine log, which said that a U-203 torpedoed and sank an unidentified ship near Newfoundland about eight days after the Octavian set sail.

Rediscovery on Cape May

About 70 miles to the south of Cape May, a few divers changed 80 years worth of history.

The local expedition team RV Explorer dove 227 feet to a previously marked wreck. “We didn’t know what to expect when we got there,” said Rustin Cassway, one of the team’s leaders. “We went there, and we found a steamship.”

As they explored the wreckage, one diver spotted large pieces of sulfur sprinkled along the hull of the vessel, while another diver pulled off the bronzed boilerplate and swam to the surface.

“We were not the first people there,” Cassway said. “But we had the good fortune of finding the plaque.”

Cassway shopped that boiler number across the web and the world. After connecting with several experts, and paging through Nazi deck logs and World War II maps, he found a match.

History changes course

It was found that the Octavian was probably sunk by a German U-boat by the U-123, and not by the U-203. The U-123 log books describe torpedoing an unidentified ship in that area on Jan. 17, 1942, in the early days of an eight-month onslaught against ships along the East Coast.

Jørgen Johannessen, marine archaeologist at the Norwegian Maritime Museum, verified the ship’s authenticity to a Norwegian news site.

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