A few more things on this issue:

1. I installed FreeBSD on another system, just on the off-chance that
my problem might be caused by testing with an old machine (c. 2005).
This machine is a relatively new HP desktop and it exhibits exactly
the same symptoms w.r.t. the USB drives as I described earlier.

2. I booted the system with one of the drives connected and spinning,
so I could get the device description with usbconfig:

ugen1.2: <USB to Serial-ATA bridge Sunplus Technology Inc.> at usbus1,
cfg=0 md=HOST spd=HIGH (480Mbps) pwr=ON

  bLength = 0x0012
  bDescriptorType = 0x0001
  bcdUSB = 0x0200
  bDeviceClass = 0x0000
  bDeviceSubClass = 0x0000
  bDeviceProtocol = 0x0000
  bMaxPacketSize0 = 0x0040
  idVendor = 0x04fc
  idProduct = 0x0c15
  bcdDevice = 0xc683
  iManufacturer = 0x0002  <Sunplus Technology Inc.>
  iProduct = 0x0003  <USB to Serial-ATA bridge>
  iSerialNumber = 0x0001  <ST3320620N            5QF2ZMV8>
  bNumConfigurations = 0x0001

If you dump_device_quirks, you find this entry, matching my hardware:

VID=0x04fc PID=0x0c15 REVLO=0x0000 REVHI=0xffff QUIRK=UQ_MSC_NO_SYNC_CACHE

So this device is known to the FreeBSD USB world. Unfortunately, the
built-in quirks in the kernel don't completely do the job. If you
google for 'freebsd sunplus', you turn up other people complaining
about the same issues I have. One guy even discovered, as I did, that
the drive works if it's present at boot-time.

3. Plugging the drive into a self-powered USB hub and then
hot-plugging the hub into the computer doesn't help.

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