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SS City of Rayville

WITH stars and stripes painted on both sides of its hull the SS City of Rayville entered the waters of Bass Strait on November 8, 1940 and at 7.47pm it hit a German mine. The force of the explosion ripped out the foremast. Water, planks, and hatch cover, and ingots of lead from the vessel’s cargo rained down on the Rayville’s superstructure.

The Cape Otway Lightkeeper was alerted to Rayville’s demise by a brilliant flash of light and a rumbling explosion. The keeper contacted Apollo Bay and three boats were dispatched immediately into rough seas to search for survivors.

It took 35 minutes for the vessel to sink, bow first. The crew of 38 safely abandoned ship in lifeboats, but one went back to rescue personal effects and was drowned. Ultimately, two lifeboats were found in the darkness, lines attached and the boats towed back to Apollo Bay. The cold and worn-out survivors stepped ashore at dawn on November 9, 1940.

SS City of Rayville, the US merchant vessel, became the first casualty of World War II for the US, and resulted in the first death of a US merchant seaman in World War II. The incident preceded the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941 by more than a year.

The City of Rayville was the second victim in 24 hours of a German minefield. The British steamer SS Cambridge was lost after hitting a mine off Wilsons Promontory. Both ships were destroyed by the Germans who had laid 100 mines in Bass Strait. They were laid by the German raider Pinguin and the pirated Norwegian freighter Storstad. The auxiliary cruiser Pinguin captured the steamship in the Indian Ocean on October 7, 1940, renamed the vessel Passat and converted it for mine laying.