Armored Cruiser’s Other Tragedy
Captain Bill Heard, U.S. Naval Reserve (Retired)
The wreck of the armored cruiser USS Memphis (ACR-10) in the Santo Domingo roadstead on 29 August 1916, as recounted by Andrew C. A. Jampoler (“The Short Life and Hard Times of an Armored Cruiser,” August, pp. 42–48), was not the first time the unfortunate ship had sustained loss of life under catastrophic circumstances. In the 1916 tragedy, 43 sailors drowned and more than 200 were injured when tsunami-like waves drove the Memphis onto the rocky shore.
Eight years earlier, on 5 June 1908, seven sailors were killed and seven were severely injured in a boiler explosion. The accident occurred while the ship—then designated the USS Tennessee—was conducting a high-speed trial run in Pacific waters off Santa Barbara. It was a tragedy that may have foreshadowed the loss of the Memphis.
The Tennessee was serving as the flagship of Rear Admiral Uriel Sebree when she led four other armored cruisers of the Pacific Fleet’s Second Division out to sea that morning. At 1100 Sebree gave the command, and the five cruisers surged ahead. Their goal: 22 knots.
As the Tennessee’s speed increased, Sebree decided to visit the engine rooms. Accompanied by the chief engineer, Lieutenant Commander Ashley Robertson, the admiral spoke first with the men in Fireroom No. 1, then those in No. 3. He had just stepped into Fireroom No. 5 when a weakened 4-inch water-circulating tube deep within the No. 3 boiler burst, blowing off its six furnace doors. Steam, glowing cinders, and white-hot firebrick erupted from the boiler. Scalding water flooded the passageway. Coal gas spewed from the furnace, choking sailors. Four men died instantly, three were fatally injured, and seven were badly scalded. Luck and heroic shipmates, who braved the smoke, steam, and boiling water, saved the survivors.
The Tennessee limped back to port, arriving the next day in San Pedro Harbor, where she was greeted by local residents shocked by the sailors’ deaths. At 1300 Admiral Sebree convened a Board of Inquiry to investigate the explosion. President Theodore Roosevelt telegraphed: “Am greatly concerned over accident on Tennessee. I hope the wounded are doing well.” At 1500 boatloads of officers, sailors, and Marines formed a funeral party, which marched past lines of silent mourners who dropped bouquets of flowers on the coffins.
Today in San Pedro’s Harbor View Memorial Cemetery, a six-foot granite monument, featuring a fouled anchor and bearing a bronze scroll listing seven names, stands in tribute to the men who died in a long-ago tragedy on board the Tennessee.
DASH Vets Speak Out
With great interest, I read Commander Armstrong’s DASH (drone antisubmarine helicopter) article in the June issue (“Armaments & Innovations: Dash, Snoopy, and the Night Panther,” pp. 10–11). I was assigned to the FRAM II destroyer USS Buck (DD-761) as DASH officer in 1964. The Buck was one of the first DASH-equipped ships on the West Coast.
The article is consistent with what I knew then and have heard since. We participated in a series of live ASW exercises dropping exercise torpedoes from both the DASH and manned helicopters. Successes for both methods were always equal. The DASH could carry two Mk 44 torpedoes or a single Mk 46. While it was capable of carrying and deploying a nuclear depth charge, this payload was only for ASROC-equipped FRAM I ships, which had the necessary storage, training, and security.
In April 1964, the Buck made a fleet visit to San Francisco. The media had been informed about the new DASH system, and we hosted TV and newspaper reporters. Pictures in the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco News-Call Bulletin showed me at the control station with a DASH flying in the background. I had launched the drone and flown it near the ship. In a briefing beforehand, I had described the DASH capabilities. They wanted me to fly the DASH around Alcatraz, which, technically, we could easily have done. Of course, I did no such demo.
As it was, things got a bit controversial when word of our demo got out, and the Navy came down hard on us. Seems there were very specific directives forbidding the flying of drone vehicles in the vicinity of public areas. We got off the hook, though, as destroyers had not been placed on the distribution list for this directive from, and for, the aviation community.
As another interesting example of how innovative our people can be, in 1965 off the coast of Vietnam, we used DASH to easily transfer vitally needed parts between DASH-capable ships. Commander Armstrong is right about the non-support of DASH by the naval aviation community, despite its approval by President John F. Kennedy. But an additional reason for its demise is the fact that it was an ASW weapon and had a low priority during the time of an expensive war in which ASW was not a factor.
There is an interesting update to the issue of drones on board Navy ships. In 2014 The San Diego Union-Tribune printed a long story based on interviews with naval aviators flying ASW helicopters on board Navy surface combatants. Erroneously stating that the Navy was a latecomer to drones, the article noted that these fully trained and skilled helicopter pilots were spending half their time flying manned helicopters, and half their time controlling drones. When these pilots earned their prized golden wings, I can’t believe they could imagine that they would be assigned someday to a small surface ship controlling drones, a task that our young sailors, having grown up with computer games and toys, could easily be trained to perform.
Captain James Thur, U.S. Naval Reserve (Retired)
Being one of the earlier trained DASH controllers (June 1964) and perhaps one of the longest tenured (two and a half years), I always read articles about DASH with great interest and a bit of nostalgia. I had the privilege and challenge of serving as a DASH controller on board the USS Holder (DD-819) from mid-1964 until late 1966. Until our deployment to WESTPAC, the Holder was a part of Destroyer Squadron 32 out of Norfolk. As the mid-Atlantic ASW squadron, we ventured out to track Soviet submarines in all kinds of weather. Having both a commodore and a CO who wanted to have all weapons ready for deployment, we repeatedly flew DASH under extreme weather conditions and occasionally at night. As the letter from Commander Sacks in your August issue demonstrates (“Adventures with DASH,” p. 9), there is no substitute for training and always being prepared to launch. Because of our training, I do believe that our DASH could have successfully launched a torpedo against an adversary if asked to do so.
During our assignment to the “gun line” along the coast of Vietnam in 1966, our commodore tried to obtain one of the telemetry systems referenced in Commander Armstrong’s article. While we waited to get one, we practiced vectoring a DASH along the coastline. Unfortunately, we never were able to obtain a “Snoopy,” but we still did a pretty darn good job of gunfire support. The USS Holder also had the somewhat unusual experience of sailing around the world. Consequently, I successfully launched, controlled, and recovered DASH in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans; the Mediterranean Sea; and the Gulf of Tonkin.
As has been referenced elsewhere, DASH was the first military drone equipped and deployed to carry a fully operational weapon. Perhaps it was ahead of its time, but it sure was a terrific experience and would have carried out its mission if called on to do so.
Permanent Olympia Solution?
Commander Wayne L. Johnson, JAGC, U.S. Navy (Retired)
In the August issue you had an article that discussed the lack of funds for the upkeep of the USS Olympia (C-6), Commodore George Dewey’s flagship from the Spanish-American War (“Olympian Effort to Save the Olympia,” pp. 22–25). The ship is the world’s oldest steel warship still afloat.
I have a permanent solution that does not require the hull to be fixed and may be cheaper. At the Yokosuka Naval Base sits the Japanese battleship Mikasa with her hull resting in concrete. I visited her in 1989 while serving in the Navy. She played a pivotal role in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.
The Mikasa weighs more than 15,000 tons, nearly three times the Olympia’s weight. The Mikasa was placed in concrete after World War II not only to preserve her but to comply with the surrender agreement that Japan could not have any operational battleships. After 60-plus years the Mikasa and her concrete base are still doing fine.
My recommendation is to have the Olympia, and the submarine Becuna (SS-319) that is displayed with her, set in concrete. I believe this would be cheaper than repairing and maintaining their hulls, definitely over the long term and hopefully the short term as well.
Why the Ships Were Hard to Sink
Byron A. Nilsson
The article about the German battlecruiser Lützow in the June edition (“The Lützow’s Trial by Fire,” pp. 24–29), was very interesting. However, when it described the ship’s design it did not mention the unique interior features that made these German warships so hard to sink. German naval ship designers knew that the primary purpose of a warship is to be a gun platform, and that this platform had to be level and steady. This led to a study of the effects of flooding on this gun platform and a search for a means to control these effects.
One of the problems with flooding is the athwartship, or side-to-side, free-surface effect of water. To minimize this effect, Germans began designing their warships with long narrow compartments and watertight bulkheads. A flooded compartment will cause a ship to list. The Germans posted instructions showing which compartment to flood in order to offset the list. This is called counterflooding.
At the Battle of Jutland, British officers reported seeing German ships listing to one side and then, as if by magic, righting themselves. After the battle, some German ships returned to port considerably deeper in the water but on an even keel. The U.S. Navy adopted these design concepts before World War II, and they were in place when I served in the Navy.