A Cold War exercise turned tragic after poor signaling led two U.S. Navy warships to collide in the South China Sea, slicing off the bow of the destroyer USS Floyd B. Parks.
The night of Sunday 11 March 1956 was moonless with the sky partly overcast. Shortly before 0400, a U.S. Seventh Fleet task force of two aircraft carriers, two cruisers, and four destroyers, steaming at 18 knots on a heading of 260 degrees, prepared to engage in night air defense maneuvers in the South China Sea. The eight ships steamed in darkness with their radios and radars secured, observing electronic silence and darken ship procedures. In the opening minutes of this Cold War training exercise code-named ADEX-10, the 13,600-ton Baltimore-class heavy cruiser USS Columbus (CA-74) collided with and sheared off the bow of the 2,425-ton Gearing-class destroyer USS Floyd B. Parks (DD-884).
"A Roaring Cacophony of Steel"
I was an 18-year-old deck division seaman berthed aft in the Columbus, on the second deck. A light sleeper, I awakened suddenly to the cruiser shuddering in its forward motion. The stern was shaking, though not as it did when the screws were being backed against the ship's speed. This was almost a bucking motion. As I stood in the darkness groping for the bunk chain and my dungarees, an astounding jolt jarred the Columbus sideways. Loud banging noises boomed from a forward passageway.
A warning from the bridge over the ship's loudspeaker system declared a collision and summoned, "All hands topside." Sans my dungarees, I scrambled up a nearby starboard hatch ladder. As I was spinning open the scuttle's locking dogs someone began turning on lights in the compartment. I pushed the scuttle open and poked my head and shoulders topside. The noise was so loud it was shocking, a thunderous, roaring cacophony of steel being ripped and twisted. I feared we had collided with a carrier. On other ships, signalmen unable to read the entire message had not requested repeats.
The Columbus was the designated guide ship for the task force. After receiving the tactical order on a requested repeat and catching the delayed signal to execute the order, the officer of the deck on the Columbus ordered his ship's speed increased to 20 knots and called for right standard rudder, taking the cruiser into a starboard turn.
The Parks and the carrier USS Kearsarge (CVA-33), both off to the Columbus' starboard quarter, had missed signals from the flagship. The Parks had not seen the tactical signal nor the delayed signal to execute, while the Kearsarge, to the Parks' starboard, after having received the tactical message by directional light on a requested repeat, missed seeing the signal to execute. Both ships remained steaming on their established courses after the Columbus, as the task force guide, had increased speed and engaged in a turn to starboard. Initially, lookouts on the Columbus, Parks, and Kearsarge failed to observe the cruiser's closing movement. The Kearsarge OOD was first to see her approaching and, moments before the Columbus struck the Parks, ordered right full rudder to the carrier's helm.
Commander Joseph F. Gustaferro, captain of the Parks, had been on the bridge for nearly 30 minutes before the accident. His signalman, a quartermaster striker of limited experience, was watching for signals from the flagship, while the port lookout had been alerted by the captain to keep watch on the Columbus. The captain had been eyeing the cruiser himself, but was focusing much of his attention on the carrier steaming off the Parks' starboard quarter. Commander Gustaferro also directed his OOD to pay close attention to the movements of the Kearsarge, watching the carrier for a likely turn to starboard.
Seconds before the collision, records note that the captain of the Parks entered the pilothouse from the starboard wing of the bridge in response to warnings that the Columbus was bearing down from port. Seeing that collision was imminent, the captain immediately took the conn. He ordered the destroyer's engines backed full, called for right hard rudder from the helmsman, and sounded three blasts on the ship's whistle.
Aboard the Columbus, Captain George C. Seay had been awakened nearly 25 minutes past his 0330 call time, a failure attributed to the OOD. Captain Seay told investigators that when he arrived on the bridge, just minutes before the collision, he noted the Parks at about 1,000 yards distance and about three points forward of the Columbus' starboard beam. Informed of the status of his ship by his officer of the deck, Captain Seay thought the Parks was also turning, so that when his OOD reported that the bearing on the Parks was steady, the captain replied, "The bearing's not suppose to change." The OOD then stated he did not believe the Parks was turning and ordered, "Steady as you go" to the helm. Watching the Parks from the starboard bridge wing, Captain Seay then called for left full rudder, an order the OOD immediately passed to the helmsman. The captain later stated he did not order the ship's engines backed in order to avoid striking the Parks amidships. The deck log for the Columbus holds that the collision occurred at 0359 and the ship's engines were ordered stopped at 0400.
The court's opinion was that "the operational uncertainty resulting from the improper drafting, faulty and delayed transmission, and uncertain execution of the turn signal, which was not received by some of the ships, received by others at various times, and executed at different times by various ships of the formation, set in motion a series of events leading to the collision between USS Columbus (CA-74) and USS Floyd B. Parks (DD-884)." Helena (CA-75), had already turned based on the time noted.
But Admiral Felix B. Stump, the commander in chief, United States Pacific Fleet, was unable to mask his ire over the accident.
CINCPACFLT disagrees most strongly with this inverted concept of responsibility. It is indicative of the type of loose control—the type of negligent
reliance upon subordinates—which helped to bring about the disaster under investigation. The loose control is epitomized by the fact that the senior
signalman on duty on the tactical flagship was a third class petty officer. Never in my entire service at sea as officer of the deck, navigator, executive officer, captain, and flag officer, have I known a task force to be maneuvered at night by visual signals without the best available talent being present on the signal bridge. . . . in the search for the equities involved in specific cases, it becomes apparent that there exists an interlocking relationship in an entire series of actions throughout the task force. Equity demands one of two approaches in this instance. Either start afresh and reassess the conduct of all concerned with a broader approach, or, in the light of all the circumstances, determine now that error in varying degrees is so widespread that specific disciplinary action will serve no useful purpose.
He was troubled about resting any blame for the signaling fiasco upon the enlisted quartermasters carrying out signaling from the task force flagship. In his review of the court of inquiry's recommendations for discipline, he wrote: Ultimate responsibility for the collision was placed on the OOD of the Columbus, an able mariner who in a timely manner had his ship where it was supposed to be, coming right under standard rudder to a new course into the wind. Though the court of inquiry questioned the performances of officers on three ships and named a number of interested parties (an individual whose conduct is subject to review), none of its disciplinary recommendations was followed. Even today the Navy's JAG office shrouds the board's recommendations in secrecy, citing, in addition to privacy rights, the December 1956 decision of Admiral Stump, which in part states: Following this Cold War mishap came recommendations for changes in visual signaling among Navy ships. Senior naval planners concluded that, regardless of advances in electronic and radio-telephone communications, there remained a need aboard Navy ships for personnel exclusively trained and highly versed in visual signaling. Responding to this, on 27 April 1956, six weeks after the Columbus-Parks collision, the Chief of Naval Personnel issued BUPERS Notice 1223, noting the secretary of the Navy's decision to eliminate the combined rating of Quartermaster /S/ (Signalman) and establish the general service rating of Signalman dedicated exclusively to visual signaling at sea.
Mr. Joy enlisted in the Navy in 1954. Along with serving in the Columbus, he also served in the cruisers USS Roanoke (CL-145), USS Springfield (CLG-7), and USS Little Rock (CLG-4) as a rated photographer's mate. He retired from the Navy in 1973 as a chief photographer's mate. Sources:
Read more on this issue:
Finding of Facts, and the Opinions of the Court of Inquiry.
The court of inquiry's 463 page record of testimony.
The deck logs of the USS Columbus, USS Floyd B. Parks, USS John R. Craig, and USS Kearsarge.
The following endorsements to the court of inquiry's proceedings into the collision: Fifth Endorsement by CINCPACFLT, dated 1 December 1956, and Sixth Endorsement by JAG, dated 10 July 1957. (Endorsements by COMSEVENTHFLT, COMCRUDESPAC, and COMAIRPAC are no longer readily available in records held by JAG or other commands. Also, there appears to be missing an earlier endorsement by CINCPACFLT which may have called for COMAIRPAC's separate inquiry into certain aspects of the collision not explored by the court of inquiry conducted at Subic Bay. Findings of a later inquiry conducted by COMAIRPAC, once included as an attachment to CINCPACFLT'S Fifth Endorsement, is also missing.)