Military Wiki
SS John Burke
SS John Burke.jpg
SS John Burke on May 10th 1944 north west of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.
Career (United States)
Name: SS John Burke
Namesake: John Burke (February 25, 1859 – May 14, 1937), the 10th Governor of North Dakota.
Builder: Oregon Shipbuilding Company, Portland, OR
Laid down: 20 November 1942[1]
Launched: 15 December 1942[1]
Acquired: 23 December 1942[1]
Fate: Lost 28 December 1944 off Mindoro, P.I. due to Kamikaze strike
General characteristics
Type: Liberty ship
Displacement: 14,245 long tons (14,474 t)[2]
Length: 422 ft 10 in (128.88 m)[2]
Beam: 57 ft 0 in (17.37 m)[2]
Draft: 27 ft 10 in (8.48 m)[2]
Depth of hold: 34 ft 10 in (10.62 m)[2]
Propulsion: Two oil-fired boilers, triple-expansion steam engine, single screw, 2,500 hp (1,864 kW)[2]
Speed: 11 knots (20 km/h; 13 mph)[2]
Complement: 40 crew, 28 Armed Guard, 68 total
Armament: 2 X 3", 8 X 20mm guns [3]

SS John Burke (MC hull number 609) was an American Liberty Ship built during World War II, one of the 2,710 type 'EC2-S-C1' ships that carried all kinds and types of dry cargo during the war.[4] The ship was named for John Burke (February 25, 1859 – May 14, 1937), the 10th Governor of North Dakota. Burke was built at Kaiser Shipbuilding Company's Oregon Shipbuilding yard in Portland, Oregon. Burke's keel was laid November 20, 1942[4] and 33 days later, on December 13,[4] the hull was launched. After fitting-out over the following ten days, Burke was delivered to the US Navy December 23.[4] The Navy placed Burke under charter to Northland Transportation Company in early 1944.[1]

On December 28, 1944, while transporting ammunition to Mindoro, Philippines, Burke was hit by a Japanese kamikaze aircraft, and disintegrated in a tremendous explosion.[5][6] John Burke was one of three Liberty Ships[7] and one of forty-seven ships sunk by kamikaze attack during World War II.[8]

Construction and design

A color-coded diagram of compartments on a ship

A color-coded diagram of compartments on a Liberty ship, from the starboard side, bow to the right

John Burke was powered by two oil-fired boilers and a single 2,500 hp (1,864 kW) vertical type, triple-expansion reciprocating steam engine. The machinery space (dark blue in the picture) was located at the middle of the ship (see the color-coded image at the left). The single propeller was driven through a long propeller shaft that ran through a tunnel (lower green area in the picture) under the aft cargo holds. The propeller rotated at 76 rpm, giving a speed of about 11 knots (20 km/h; 13 mph).[9] There were two decks running the full length of the ship, with seven watertight bulkheads dividing the machinery space and five cargo holds (light blue in the picture), three ahead of the machinery space and two aft. Crew accommodations were provided in a large three-deck structure located in the middle of the ship (medium blue in the picture) directly above the machinery space, and in a small structure (medium blue in the picture) located at the stern. The bridge, radio room and Captain's quarters were located on the top deck (yellow in the picture) of the three-deck structure. The fuel for the boiler was carried in several tanks (red in the picture) located throughout the ship. Ship's storage (light green in the picture) was located at the bow and above the machinery space. Gun crew quarters and the ship's hospital were located in the stern structure. When the ship was armed, the gun 'tubs' (white in the picture) were located at the bow, stern and above the bridge. These could be any mixture of 5 inches (130 mm), 4 inches (101.60 mm), 3 inches (76 mm), 40 millimetres (1.57 in), 20 millimetres (0.79 in) and/or .5 inches (12.70 mm) caliber guns.

The ship's steering was by a contrabalanced rudder (black, at left in the picture), with its associated steering gear located in a compartment (green in the picture) above the rudder and below the aft structure. Steam-powered generators provided electric power for radios, navigation equipment, refrigeration compressors, pumps, lighting, and degaussing. An evaporator produced fresh water for the boilers and for the crew. Large hatches above the cargo holds allowed steam winches and booms rigged to three centerline masts to quickly load or unload cargo.[10]


Liberty ships were an expedient solution to a pressing problem, and it was never intended that they last more than five years.[11] It is remarkable that two (SS John W. Brown and SS Jeremiah O'Brien) have not only survived seventy plus years of service, but that they are in 'like-new' condition, and are open to the public as museums. The British needed a way to replace the ships lost to German U-boats, but did not have the resources to build them.[2] In 1939 they asked the United States to help solve the problem, bringing a ship design that they wanted built. The design was modified to fit American production methods, and five new shipyards were built to give the shipbuilding industry capacity. These ships were called Ocean ships with each ship's name starting with Ocean.[2]

The United States needed more ships as war approached. The 'Ocean' design was revised and simplified to allow mass production. This new design was the basis for the Liberty ship.[2] On December 7, 1941 Japan attacked the military bases at Hawaii, Guam, and a few days later, the Philippines. Liberty ships carried weapons, ammunition, food, tools, hardware, vehicles, and other things for the war effort. They could also be equipped to carry a large number[12] of troops by rigging bunks in the holds similar to those used by the armed guard.[13] Liberty ships began taking troops and materials wherever they were needed, crossing both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.[2] Like other Liberty Ships, John Burke transported war materials between the United States and the rear areas of the Pacific War, often calling at Pearl Harbor, Australia, Guadalcanal, Hollandia and Manaus.

On what would be her final trip, Burke departed Seattle, Washington for Guam, where she spent several days loading munitions for the invasion force on the island of Mindoro.[14] Burke then departed with the 100-ship "Uncle Plus 13" convoy, bound for Leyte in the Philippines. The convoy arrived at Leyte the night of December 27.[15]

Japanese forces were alerted to the convoy's arrival shortly before daybreak on December 28. A flight of six Japanese kamikaze fighter/bombers was sent up from Cebu Island shortly after dawn.[15] If the convoy was destroyed, the U.S. forces on Mindoro would be cut off from their supply line.

That morning Burke and the other ships in the Mindoro-bound TG 77.11 (under the command of Captain George F. Mentz[16]) were at general quarters shortly after receiving the dawn weather report that reported that air cover would not launch until the poor weather cleared. The crews began their wait for the inevitable arrival of Japanese aircraft.

The attack

At about 0815 hrs, the first kamikaze appeared on the American ship's radar, and orders were immediately given for the convoy to begin evasive maneuvering.[17] Through holes in the clouds, the Japanese pilots sighted the large American force as it steamed through calm seas South of Cebu and Bohol Islands. Finding the convoy without air cover, a group of six Japanese planes began their attack. One of the pilots, flying an Aichi D3A "Val",[3] chose John Burke as his target. Diving through heavy anti-aircraft fire, the Japanese pilot had no intention of pulling out of his steep dive. At 1020, despite the damage to his aircraft, he crashed between Burke's #2 and #3 cargo holds.[14]

A brief flash of fire was visible to most of the ships in the convoy, and for several seconds, only smoke could be seen bellowing from her hold. A few seconds later, a huge pillar of fire shot out of Burke's cargo hold, followed by an immense cloud of white smoke.[17] Within seconds all eyes were drawn to Burke where an enormous fireball erupted as her entire cargo of munitions detonated, instantly disintegrating the ship and her crew of 40 Merchant Marine sailors and 28[18] or 29[19] armed guards. For several seconds, Burke was not visible under an enormous mushroom cloud of smoke, fire and explosions. Several ships nearby were damaged by the force of the blast and flying fragments.[17] The shock wave rocked the entire convoy, and several ships reported that they had been torpedoed. A US Army "FS" type ship just aft of Burke was severely damaged by the blast, sinking before it could be identified.[3] As the cloud of smoke cleared, nearby ships closed on Burke's former position to search for survivors. It was soon clear that Burke, and all 68 men aboard her, were gone.

The Combat Air Patrol arrived at 1213 after the weather cleared, providing air cover for the next three hours.[20]

The Japanese attack that morning was just the beginning of a two-day series of attacks on the convoy, costing several more ships and hundreds of lives. In spite of the near-constant attacks, the force reached its destination at 0648 December 30 with much-needed material for the Mindoro invasion.[21]

Today, SS John Burke's fragments lie 1,500 feet (457 m) below the surface, in the vicinity of 9°1'11"N 123°26'50"E,[22] the location the ship was last seen, in the strait between Negros, Siquijor Islands and Dapitan, Zamboanga del Norte, Mindanao, Philippines.[15]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "US Maritime Commission". 
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 "Liberty cargo ship briefing". Retrieved 11 November 2012.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ww2ships" defined multiple times with different content
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Rieley pp 152, 153
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 "Oregon Shipbuilding". 
  5. Cressman, pp 597-599
  6. "Eyewitness account". 
  7. "William S. Ladd, 10 Dec 1944; John Burke, 28 Dec 1944; Lewis L. Dyche, 5 Jan 1945". 
  8. "47 Ships Sunk by Kamikaze Aircraft". 
  9. "Liberty ship engineroom". 
  10. "Hoist, masts and rigging". 
  11. "Liberty ship facts (6th paragraph)". National Park Service. 
  12. "Liberty Ship design and construction". 
  13. "Virtual tour of a Liberty ship's hold". 
  14. 14.0 14.1 Browning, p 470
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 "Wreck of SS John Burke". 
  16. "Captain Mentz' Navy Cross". 
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 "USS Bush (DD 529)'s deck log for Thursday 28 December, 1944 8-12 watch". 
  18. "Chronological List of U.S. Ships Sunk or Damaged during 1944". 
  19. "Merchant sailors and armed guard losses". 
  20. "USS Bush (DD 529)'s deck log for Thursdav 28 December, 1944 12-16 watch". 
  21. "USS Bush (DD 529)'s deck log for Saturday 30 December, 1944 4-8 watch". 
  22. Location on Google Maps

Liberty Ship Resources

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