The Eastern Knight was part of a four ship order to the Osaka Iron Works in 1918 from the US Shipping Board (USSB) as part of the US Emergency Fleet programme during World War 1. The four ships were Eastern Knight -Yard No.953, Eastern Mariner – Yard No.954, Eastern Admiral – Yard No. 955 and Eastern Sailor Yard No.956. All 4 ships were built identical utilising the EMC Ship No 1127 design, which is shown below.
The Eastern Knight was completed in November 1919 and retained by the USSB until 1922 when she was leased to the Columbia Pacific Steamship Company working mainly on oriental routes across the Pacific. She was sold to the Pacific and Atlantic Steamship Company in 1930 and renamed San Lucas. In 1940 she was again sold to a British firm, the Atlantic Transportation Company and renamed R J Cullen and remained in their ownership until loss.
At the beginning of World War 2 the R J Cullen was requisitioned for convoy duty, working mainly between west coast UK ports and the eastern seaboard of Canada visiting ports such as Sydney, Dalhousie and Halifax. On the 2 December 1941 she was outward bound to Halifax, Nova Scotia as part of convoy ON. 039 when, following a collision with some debris, her propellor fell off. Disabled she was left behind and later picked up by a tug and towed into Loch Foyle on 6 December, and there after towed to Liverpool for repair. Her spare propellor was fitted and she joined the next west bound convoy ON. 057 which sailed from Liverpool on 14 January 1942. This convoy was joined by smaller groups of vessels from the Clyde and a few from Loch Ewe. As they sailed out of the North Channel they were met by a storm of exceptional violence.
On the 15 January Kyle Coastguard received word that a vessel was ashore 2 miles WNW of Barra Head. Barra lifeboat crew were mustered but were stood down when a further message was received that the vessel had managed to get off and had continued on their voyage. By evening a full storm was blowing from the south east, it was pitch black with showers of sleet and rain sweeping in across the island. The lifeboat Lloyds was on her mooring in the middle of Castlebay however conditions were such that the crew were unable to get to their boat due to the weather conditions until there was some lull in the wind strength.
Around 11:00pm a message was received from the Barra Coastguard at Leanish Point, that a large steamer was ashore off the point. Three of the lifeboat crew drove out to Leanish and were able to see the steamer aground on a flat reef with seas breaking over her decks. Unable to launch the lifeboat they signalled the crew to stay aboard and not attempt to abandon ship. This ship turned out to be the R J Cullen.
Shortly after midnight another distress message was received by Kyle Coastguard from the SS Empire Homer, aground on the east side of Mingulay and breaking up. The lifeboat crew stood by unable to launch in the weather, the Coastguard also advised the lifeboat to leave the R J Cullen, and head round to Mingulay when conditions permitted. Around daybreak the wind moderated enough to allow the lifeboat crew to launch their shore boat and row out to their main vessel the Lloyds. On leaving the bay there was still a gale blowing and heavy sea running, they passed the R J Cullen and checked on her position and headed south for Mingulay. After circling the island they could find no trace of the Empire Homer and returned to the RJ Cullen but found they could not approach her due to reefs around the casualty and returned to base. By now it was 03:30pm on 16 January, the crew had been on duty for 18 hours.
The crew remained in touch with the Coastguard over night and by 8:00am on the 17 January the lifeboat put out again, to search for the Empire Homer. Meanwhile the crew of the R J Cullen were still aboard their vessel, and desperate to be rescued. Ashore the secretary of the lifeboat, unsure when the lifeboat would return was keen to take advantage of the weather window and evacuate the crew of the R J Cullen. The skipper of the fishing vessel St Margaret was asked to try and effect a rescue and with the help of a local lobster fisherman they managed to steer her into the lea side of the R J Cullen and safely evacuate all 47 crew aboard.
Convoy ON. 057 was hit by a huge storm as it headed out into the Western Approaches, vessels were unable to stay in formation, and a number were lost. Of the 38 merchant vessels that formed the convoy, only 15 continued on and made their destinations of east coast ports in USA and Canada. A further 18 returned to the Clyde or other ports of Loch Ewe and Oban. This left 5 vessels stranded on offshore islands of the Inner and Outer Hebrides in addition to the R J Cullen. On the Isle of Tiree, the cargo steamers Ingrid and Laristan were both aground although the Laristan was later refloated. On the Isle of Barra, the steamer RJ Cullen was joined a few days later by the large cargo steamer Eugenie S Embericos and to the south the Empire Homer was ashore on the Isle of Sandray. Stories of these shipwrecks can be found by following the links highlighted. The Barra lifeboat had a particularly challenging period of service between the 16-26 January 1942, and we reproduce the full story from the Lifeboat Magazine below, as it gives more detail of the rescue and an insight to the skill and gallantry of the lifeboat crew in what must have been frightening conditions.
The R J Cullen is reported to lie in position 56° 57.385’N, 007° 25.219’W by the UK Hydrographic Office (UK HO), which is on the south east side of a reef called Sager A Charach on the east side of the Isle of Barra. The site has been dived by a number of groups over the last 30 years and sparse diving information has been submitted and included in UK HO data sheet for this wreck. The wreckage is noted as lying between 2 and 10 metres, and is well broken up although a few large sections are visible. The reports are from many years ago and it is likely the wreck is nothing more than a scrapyard.
We would like to thank Lloyd’s Register Foundation – Heritage & Education Centre for allowing us to reproduce documents from their archive in this article.