The MS Rhein was a 439-foot long freighter, built in Hamburg, Germany, by the Hamburg-America Line in 1926. The latter half of 1940 found the freighter in the neutral port of Tampico, Mexico, separated from the safety of German waters by the expanse of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, both filled with prowling Allied warships. November 29, 1940, also found a U.S. Neutrality Patrol consisting of the destroyers USS Simpson (DD-221), USS Broome (DD-210), and USS McCormick (DD-223) on station off Tampico. At 8:35 a.m., the Rhein and Idarwald, another German merchant ship, were observed leaving port and steaming south, staying within Mexican territorial waters. The USS Broome pulled anchor and slowly shadowed the German freighters. On December 7, 1940, the USS McCormick was ordered to relieve the Broome and keep the Rhein under surveillance as she steamed east towards the Florida Straits and the open Atlantic. As the Rhein steadily approached Florida, the USS MacLeish (DD-220) was given emergency orders and hastily sailed from Key West at 2:05 p.m. to rendezvous with the McCormick in the Gulf of Mexico. At 3:50 p.m., the Dutch man-of-war Van Kinsbergen, sailing under the British flag, was sighted by the MacLeish and informed of the approaching German freighter. The two warships sped westward to rendezvous with the McCormick and intercept the Rhein. Nearing the Dry Tortugas, the 6,050 ton Rhein was finally intercepted by the Van Kinsbergen on the morning of December 11. As the U.S. warships moved off, the Van Kinsbergen turned on her spotlights and fired a warning shot across the bow of the Rhein. With no escape possible, the crew of the Rhein attempted to scuttle their vessel and set fire to the ship. A boarding party from the Van Kinsbergen attempted to salvage the freighter but abandoned efforts due to the fire that raged out of control, as well as armed resistance from the German crew. After the skirmish, the MacLeish reported observing an empty lifeboat riddled with bullet holes and stained with blood. That afternoon, the HMS Caradoc arrived to receive the German prisoners from the Van Kinsbergen. The Caradoc then proceeded to fire 22 six-inch projectiles at the still-burning freighter, eventually sending her to the bottom at 3:56 p.m.
The wreck was not visited by divers until 1991 when she was found upright and intact in 250 feet of water, her main deck encountered at a depth of approximately 200 feet. Her kingposts and forward mast still proudly pointed skyward, reaching to within 140 feet of the surface. Unfortunately, the forward mast has since fallen to the deck and lies dangling off the portside of the wreck. On the first few dives, Billy Deans and Frank Benoit located the ships bell still standing on the bow and returned with an underwater cutting torch to recover the brass prize. The forepeak of the wreck presents several rooms for exploration, many filled with miscellaneous hardware and extra fittings to investigate.
-Michael C. Barnette