The USS Memphis (originally the Tennessee [CA-10]) was a forerunner of World War I battle cruisers. She and her three sisters—the Washington (CA-11), North Carolina (CA-12), and Montana (CA-13)—were the biggest pre-dreadnought cruisers our Navy ever had. Armored like a battleship, though more lightly, capable of 23 knots on 16 boilers, and with engines equivalent to those built into the later dreadnoughts New York (BB-34), Texas (BB-35), and Oklahoma (BB-37), the Memphis mounted four 10-inch guns in two heavily armored turrets. (Battleships of those days carried four 12-inchers but were five knots slower and were, in fact, smaller ships.) In fighting trim this “armored cruiser” displaced 2,000 tons more than battleships of the time. Her crew numbered 1,000; my father was her skipper.
The Memphis was a coal burner, with four smokestacks that reached 75 feet above her waterline. Dad always said she was the fastest, most responsive ship he had ever commanded. An emergency one-day transit of the Straits of Magellan in April 1916 had proved her speed. Boosted by a 7-knot current, she logged 30 knots over the ground. She completed the passage in less than 24 hours, the first time it had ever been done so fast, and without anchoring. If ever a man could be in love with a ship, Dad was in love with the Memphis.
On the afternoon-of 29 August 1916 she was riding quietly at anchor in Santo Domingo Harbor in the Dominican Republic. Some of her crew were ashore playing baseball, and a motor launch had just been sent to the recreation field to return them to the ship. At that moment, somewhere on the floor of the Caribbean Sea, there occurred a far-distant earthquake. Without the slightest warning, a tsunami rose abruptly from the peaceful sea. Heavy rollers began heading shoreward.
As the first wave entered Santo Domingo Harbor, it crested in excess of 100 feet and sucked out the water. The Memphis struck bottom at her anchorage. Then the wave formed a huge breaker that broke over the warship, submerging her so that only her masts were visible. There had been no time to muster sufficient steam to get under way. Anchored in 15 fathoms, the Memphis struck bottom numerous times as the gigantic seas broke over her; rolled to her beam ends (crushing her bottom in the process); took water into her four tall funnels (thus extinguishing the fires in her boilers); and was finally cast ashore a total wreck. She came to rest upright in 12 feet of water alongside a rock-strewn bluff bordering the city. From start to finish, the elapsed time of the disaster was little more than one hour.
The loss of his ship and 43 members of his crew was intensely personal to Dad. He had simply been unable to get up enough steam to get out of Santo Domingo Harbor. A week earlier, when a tropical storm blew up, he had got extra boilers on the line, and the ship under way, in 45 minutes—excellent time from a standing start for a coal-burning warship. But on 29 August he did not have 45 minutes; nor was it a tropical storm.
We know much more about shifts in the ocean floor now: how tension builds up along the edges of adjacent continental plates until a cataclysmic release occurs. At sea, even a small change in the level of the bottom causes an equal change in the level of the sea above, with consequent displacement of water that usually results in huge waves racing hundreds of miles at great speed. Unnoticeable at sea (ships simply ride over the few feet of elevation or depression of hundreds of square miles of ocean), when this sudden change in water level strikes the shore, tremendous breakers form, and they sweep everything before them. (I wrote all about this in The Wreck of the Memphis, published by Holt, Rinehart in August 1966, the 50th anniversary of the disaster.)
On 29 August 1991, the 75th anniversary, a heartwarming restoration took place. Because Memphis, Tennessee, has long been the repository of the ship’s artifacts and memorabilia, the Memphis Naval Air Technical Training Center set up a Memphis Museum. All of the Memphis memorabilia is now being collected and displayed in a single place.
How this came about is a story in itself. When a sailor attains the rank of chief petty officer, sometimes the other chiefs in the organization he is about to enter put him through an initiation ceremony. Often this is nonsensical, akin to crossing-the-line ceremonies, fraternity initiations, and the like. But sometimes a more serious-minded officer will demand research into some bit of naval lore. So it was that First Class Aviation Electrician’s Mate Barry Palmer was directed to learn “who had been in charge of the Memphis’ port engine room.” First, he had to discover which Memphis was involved, for more than one ship has borne the name. Then he found out that Chief Machinist’s Mate George W. Rudd had been in charge of the port engine room, had died at his post, and had been posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
In due course, Palmer reported his findings, successfully passed his initiation, and is now wearing the uniform of a Chief Petty Officer, U.S. Navy. This was no longer enough, however, for he had become interested in the story of the Memphis, and how she had come to her untimely end. He continued his investigation, thought the graduation and display hall of the new training building that was nearing completion could use a historical theme, and began to seek support for naming the hall for the Memphis. In the process, this newly “hatted” chief petty officer has, one after the other, successfully influenced his superiors— from Captain Thomas W. Finta, commanding the Naval Air Station, all the way to the chief of the Naval Air Technical Training Command and the director of naval history, not to mention the Chief of Naval Operations himself, Admiral Frank B. Kelso II, whose approval was ultimately necessary.
In my opinion, this young CPO will go far in the Navy, if we can manage to retain him, for it was entirely because of him that this sequence of events has taken place. Because of his study, I bought tickets to Tennessee and attended the commemoration ceremonies in Memphis on 29 August 1991.
Only a few days before my trip, I learned—to my surprise and delight— that in addition to housing the Memphis Museum, the new building was to be named for my father, the cruiser’s last skipper. I had been invited to participate in the dedication ceremony, and brought with me Dad’s naval dress sword, which I have treasured ever since he gave it to me. This sword was with him in the Memphis and was, in fact, the only thing he had been able to salvage—damaged at that—from his own quarters, which had not been properly secured and had been devastated by in- coming seas. I had the sword repaired and wore it at the Naval Academy and afterward, whenever swords were required. It had hung in my home, and now it’s where it should be, at Memphis, in memory of my father and his ship.
The display case where the sword is now housed also has the Memphis flag, surreptitiously preserved by a member of the ship’s company. In 1960, when the nuclear submarine Triton (SSR[N]-586) was preparing for her around-the-world submerged circumnavigation, I borrowed the flag and took it with us. It flew from our highest periscope, as high as we could get it, on our return. That flag and that sword are together again.
Among the other memorabilia are photographs of some of the crew members, a few artifacts from the ship, and a large framed photograph of the Santo Domingo native Emeterio Sanchez, who dived into the raging sea and rescued a number of seamen from the ship who were either washed overboard or were in the returning baseball party, most of whom died when their boat was swamped in the roadstead. He has been revered ever since by members of the ship’s company, and it is proper that he also be here recognized. Someone later told him, or his wife, that the U.S. Navy would recognize his selfless action by awarding him a pension of $40.00 a month. It was, of course, not an authorized statement, but so far as the crew of the Memphis are concerned, it should have been awarded, somehow.
Accompanying me for the dedication was Rear Admiral Frank C. Jones, U.S. Navy (Retired), whose father was Engineer Officer of the Memphis when she was lost. Lieutenant Claud A. Jones was severely injured by inhaling steam from ruptured steam lines during the calamity. He was carried off the ship in a heavy canvas bag normally used for coaling ship, and was hospitalized for about a year. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Herbert Hoover in 1933.
With everyone present standing at attention, Frank Jones and I, for our respective fathers, alternated in reading the names of the men who lost their lives in the disaster. After all of the names had been read, a bugler sounded Taps, and another sounded the Echo Taps. In addition to the invited audience were a color guard and a guard of honor consisting of platoons of sailors and Marines.
The whole affair in Tennessee was but a small moment in the broad sweep of naval memories, but enshrined there as an example of the traditions to which we all adhere is all that remains of a ship of our old navy and the memories of her loyal crew members who have preserved the Memphis in their hearts for three-quarters of a century.