Real Name: Unrevealed
Case: Lost Families
Date: March 22, 1942
Location: Atlantic Ocean
Details: In 1941, William Wright Betts, a thirty-nine-year-old father of two boys, was the captain of the S.S. Muskogee, an oil tanker that transported crude oil up and down the Atlantic Coast. The oil was vital for the war effort. Because he had no time to go home to visit his family, his wife Ellen would go to him. On February 2, 1942, she visited him at the tanker's home port in Wilmington. That day, the S.S. Muskogee left. Ellen returned home and waited to hear from her husband. Sadly, a few weeks later, she received a telegram that said that her husband's ship had probably been lost on its way north; all thirty-four crewmen were believed to have perished. One year later, their older son George was drafted. As the years passed, he remained haunted about the unknown fate of his father.
Thirteen years later in 1955, a friend of George's showed him a book about German submarines called the "Sea Wolves". It told of the U123 which had come upon the Muskogee while in their battle zones; the U123 sunk the Muskogee. Ellen confirmed that this was William's ship. It was one of 413 ships sunk by German U-boats in 1942. 29,000 merchant sailors lost their lives as a result. George also found photographs that a crew member aboard the U123 had taken the day that the Muskogee was sunk. One of the photographs showed seven men who had survived the sinking. Unfortunately, those men would drown before being rescued.
George did not recognize his father as being one of the men in the photograph. This made sense to him because one of the rules of the sea is that the captain should not leave his vessel until all able-bodied men are off of it. As a result, he assumes that his father went down with his ship.
In 1979, George contacted the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and obtained a microfilm copy of German war records. It included the captain's war logs for the U123. The war logs mentioned the Muskogee and its sinking. Captain Reinhard Hardegen had commanded the U123 and had sunk more than twenty U.S. ships. He was personally congratulated by Adolf Hitler. After the war, he was elected to the West German parliament and served for thirty-two years. George began writing to Reinhard, and the two agreed to meet in Canada. He held no animosity towards Reinhard.
In October 1987, George and Reinhard met; Reinhard gave George a chilling eyewitness account of the last moments of the S.S. Muskogee. He said that on the morning of March 22, 1942, they saw the Muskogee and torpedoed it. The ship sunk quite quickly, and unfortunately, many of the crewmen were unable to escape. The crewmen that did escape boarded life rafts, and he gave several of the men food, water, and cigarettes. He believed that a U.S. ship would soon arrive to pick the men up; however, the men were never picked up and were lost at sea.
Now that George knew the truth of what happened to the S.S. Muskogee, he was determined to let the families of the other crewmen know what happened to their loved ones. Within a few months, he was able to contact eight families. In September 1988, he drove over two-hundred miles to meet with the family of twenty-six-year-old Clifford Chesley. He was the radioman for the Muskogee. The Chesley family were happy to learn the truth; for years, they did not know what happened, believing that the ship was either lost in the storm or the crew members were taken prisoner.
Of the seven survivors in the photograph, three were identified as Third Mate Nathaniel Foster, Chief Mate Morgan Finucane, and Able-Bodied Seaman Anthony Sousa. George hopes to identify the remaining men in the photograph and get in contact with the remaining S.S. Muskogee crew member families so that they can learn their loved ones' fates.
Extra Notes: This case first aired on the April 26, 1989 episode.
Results: Solved. After the broadcast, at least twelve families of the lost crewmen were able to get in contact with George and learned about his discovery. A documentary film based on the Muskogee story and George's search was produced for National Geographic. The film led several other families to contact George.
The other men in the photograph were identified as Valentine Vincent Baker, Second Mate Claude D. Blanchette, Ordinary Seaman Thomas V. Donnellan, and Wiper Robert C. Osken.
Reinhard passed away in 2018; he was 105. George has also since passed away.
- Reinhard Hardegen on Wikipedia
- War Photo Inspires Merchant Marine Tribute
- Reinhard Hardegan, George Betts and the Sinking of the SS Muskogee
- The Photo That Inspired NYC’s Merchant Mariners’ Memorial
- The Last of the Drummers
- Guide to the George Betts Collection
- S.S. Muskogee on Uboat.net
- S.S. Muskogee Crew Members on Find a Grave