HMS Bounty Replica Falls Victim to Hurricane Sandy
She had a long career in motion pictures and was still enjoying an active life at sea, but the 180-foot replica of the sailing ship HMS Bounty came to a tragic end when she sailed into the wrath of Hurricane Sandy on 29 October.
The U.S. Coast Guard succeeded in rescuing 14 Bounty crew members in 40-mph winds and 18-foot seas, but the captain and another crew member were killed.
The stately three-master, which was used for everything from goodwill tours to educational programs, had departed the previous week from New London, Connecticut, bound for St. Petersburg, Florida. While en route the ship was maintaining contact with the National Hurricane Center, and it is believed the captain was trying to head her east around the storm when she began taking on water. After issuing a distress signal, the crew piled into life rafts and, thanks largely to cold-water survival suits that kept hypothermia at bay, managed to survive in the maelstrom until the following morning’s rescue.
One sailor, however, Claudene Christian, was pulled from the water and later pronounced dead. (In a strange twist of fate, Christian had claimed to be a lineal descendant of Fletcher Christian, the famous leader of the original mutiny on the Bounty in 1789.) The search for Captain Robin Walbridge continued for days until he was presumed dead as well.
Performing a dramatic feat about 90 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, Coast Guardsmen managed to hoist the survivors into a pair of MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters. “It’s one of the biggest seas I’ve ever been in,” Coast Guard rescue swimmer Randy Haba told the Associated Press. “It was huge out there.”
The Bounty was built for the 1962 production of Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian. MGM Studios had the ship built fully seaworthy and from scratch according to the original Bounty’s drawings still on file at the British Admiralty archives. (The replica’s dimensions, however, were scaled up by about a third so as to appear better on 70-mm widescreen film.)
Toward the end of the production, the ship was to be burnt, just as the original had been in 1790 by the mutineers who had fled to Pitcairn Island. But Brando fiercely protested against the destruction of the meticulously crafted vessel and threatened to walk off the film. A model was burned instead, and the replica Bounty was spared. For years she was an MGM tourist attraction in Florida. In the 1980s, media mogul Ted Turner purchased her (as part of his acquisition of the MGM film library) and later used her in his made-for-TV remake of Treasure Island starring Charlton Heston. The ship appeared in various other documentaries and movies as well, including 2006’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.
Many questions remain about the ship’s sinking. Foremost on the minds of many is why the captain would have risked venturing out into the teeth of such perilous weather in the first place. (Others offer the counterargument that to have stayed anchored at Connecticut in the storm’s path would have been even more dangerous.) Rear Admiral Steven Ratti, commander of the Coast Guard 5th District, announced that he has ordered a formal investigation of the accident. The process can take several months to complete.
Hellcat Discovered off Florida Coast
They weren’t looking for underwater wrecks, just trying to study artificial reefs. But when crew members of the research submersible Antipodes caught a 3-D sonar blip on the sea floor off Miami Beach last June, they soon realized they were onto something.
Encrusted with undersea growth, surrounded by darting, otherworldly-looking lionfish, it appeared to be a shipwreck about 100 feet long, lying there 240 feet beneath the surface. The Antipodes crew got to work shooting video and taking high-def photos, which they sent to the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Navy. And the discovery turned out to be not a sunken ship, but a naval find of another kind—a World War II–era Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter plane.
Why the discrepancy between what initially appeared to be a 100-foot shipwreck and a 28-foot plane? A silt berm that the Gulf Stream had piled up against the Hellcat’s remains over time.
The positive ID came courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC), and in November OceanGate, the company that owns and operates the Antipodes, announced the Hellcat find. In honor of Veterans Day, OceanGate also announced it would be donating its collection of photographs, videos, and technical scans of the Hellcat to the NHHC. Since the first dive, the OceanGate team has returned for additional observation and data collection on eight missions, including a recent long-duration dive of eight hours. The files will be used in the preservation of the federally protected site and in possible future research on the plane.
“Sunken U.S. Navy ships and aircraft are protected from unauthorized disturbance under the Sunken Military Craft Act,” said Robert Neyland, head of the NHHC’s Underwater Archaeology Branch. “It is important to preserve and document Navy and Marine Corps wreck sites as an outstanding part of our nation’s heritage. It is critical to remember that many of these wreck sites are also graves.”
During World War II, the Grumman Hellcat was flown by both the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps and was a mainstay of the air war in the Pacific. The state of Florida was an active training center for military fighter pilots during World War II, and NHHC records indicate that 79 Hellcats were lost off of Florida’s Atlantic coast between 1943 and 1952, with only 8 of those losses occurring after 1945. Not all of the losses involved fatalities; NHHC has documentation of many successful water landings and bailouts.
“In the course of its production run, 12,275 Hellcats were delivered to the Navy,” said Bob Rasmussen, director of the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida. “During peak production, one each hour, 24 hours per day, rolled off the Grumman line. Of these only a handful exist today, and the discovery of one more, even under 240 feet of Atlantic Ocean, is important to naval aviation history.”
Mac Showers, Midway Code-Breaker, Passes Away
Rear Admiral Donald “Mac” Showers, one of the legendary code-breakers of World War II, died on 19 October in Arlington, Virginia.
“Mac was a one-of-a-kind legend who served as an inspiration to generations of Naval Intelligence officers,” noted Rear Admiral Samuel J. Cox, director of Intelligence (J2), U.S. Cyber Command, in a tribute posted by the Naval Intelligence Professionals organization.
On 12 September 1941, less than a year before the Battle of Midway, Showers had been commissioned as an ensign. Soon after his commission, he received orders to join Pearl Harbor’s code-breakers. He was assigned to Station Hypo under the command of Commander James Rochefort. By the spring of 1942, Rochefort’s staff was making positive strides toward deciphering what the Imperial Japanese Navy’s crucial next move would be.
About that time, Japanese intercepts began to make references to a pending operation in which the objective was designated as “AF,” but not everyone was convinced. Showers was a key witness to the history—in fact the conversation regarding the significance of “AF” between Rochefort and Commander Jasper Holmes took place at Showers’ desk.
Both Rochefort and Holmes knew they needed to convince Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester Nimitz and officials in Washington that the Japanese might be targeting Midway. Both men believed “AF” signified Midway, based on the code-breaking team’s earlier deductions that the “A” designators were assigned to locations in the Hawaiian Islands.
The code breakers verified their belief with a ruse, drafting a naval message indicating that Midway’s water-distillation plant had suffered serious damage and that fresh water was needed. Shortly after the transmission, an intercepted Japanese intelligence report indicated that “AF” was short of water—proving that “AF,” indeed, meant Midway.
The cryptologic achievements of Showers and the rest of Rochefort’s staff enabled Nimitz to know when the attack on Midway would commence. Armed with this crucial information, he was able to get his severely outgunned but determined force into position in time.
“Lucid and spry until the end, Mac was a guest of honor at multiple commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, where he enthralled younger members with tales of his exploits,” Rear Admiral Cox recalled. “Many of us who had the opportunity to know Mac well knew and dreaded that this day would come, for Mac is truly the end of an era. He will be greatly missed.”