Man overboard” is perhaps the most chilling phrase one can hear on board a ship. And when those words were heard on the morning of 27 March 1942, one of the most baffling incidents in U.S. naval history began. To this day it has never been satisfactorily resolved.
That morning, a U.S. Navy task force was zigzagging through the wintry North Atlantic, bound for a rendezvous with Royal Navy ships near Scapa Flow, off the north coast of Scotland. The 13-ship task force included the battleship Washington (BB-56), the aircraft carrier Wasp (CV-7), two heavy cruisers, and eight destroyers. In command was Rear Admiral John W. Wilcox Jr., on board the Washington. Almost four months after the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, this tiny armada was the strongest force the U.S. Navy could muster in the Atlantic.
On the Washington’s bridge, Lieutenant (junior grade) William Fargo, officer of the deck, tried to see through the snow and freezing spray, alert for any indication of an enemy assault—from the sea, under the sea, or the air. Forward of the bridge, the barrels of the 16-inch guns were glazed with ice. Waves slammed over the ship’s bow, drenching the deck with icy water.
On the fantail, a lookout shivered in his foul-weather gear. His eyes swept the gray waves and the battlewagon’s wake for anything out of the ordinary. According to the ship’s log, at 1031 came the heart-stopping cry: “Man overboard!” The fantail lookout could see a man in the water. The Washington and all other ships in the task force were under radio silence, so Captain H. H. J. Benson ordered the message to be relayed to the other ships by whistle and flags.
Two of the task-force destroyers closed toward the flagship’s wake. The cruiser Tuscaloosa (CA-37), in the murky light some distance behind, signaled that a man could be seen in the water, apparently swimming toward a life ring. But moments later, the destroyer Livermore (DD-429) reported sighting the man floating face down in the raging, heaving sea. Neither ship could recover him. The question on board the Washington, and all the other task-force ships, from skipper to seaman, was the same: Who was the man overboard?
A roll call of every officer and seaman was made, in all 2,000 men, and every man of the Washington’s crew was accounted for. Captain Benson ordered a recount, and this time he ordered officers to sight each man in his charge as his name was called. After all, there was no doubt that someone had fallen overboard—no fewer than six officers and men on three ships had seen the man struggling in the water.
The task force plowed through sea and weather, and the missing man was long-since lost now. But who was he? The second head count was the same as the first. All officers and men were accounted for. Benson still believed there was an error, but he nonetheless ordered that the report be submitted to Admiral Wilcox.
An officer took it to the admiral’s cabin. The Marine sentry on duty outside opened the door—and the cabin was empty. Where was the admiral? The ship was searched. He was not on board. The answer to the puzzle suddenly was clear. Only one man was not listed in the ship’s muster rolls—Admiral Wilcox—who had to be the missing man.
In a later board of inquiry, it was revealed that shortly before the admiral was spotted in the water, several men had seen him on deck. They reported that he looked pale, and a couple of men thought he acted confused while trying to get from one part of the ship to another.
The board of inquiry determined that “The loss at sea of Rear Admiral Wilcox was not caused in any manner by the intent, fault, negligence, or inefficiency of any person or persons in the naval service or connected therewith. . . . John W. Wilcox, Junior, late Rear Admiral, U. S. Navy, died on March 27, 1942, in the line of duty and not as the result of his own misconduct.”
Of course, many things could have precipitated that plunge into the icy Atlantic. Two popular notions were that Admiral Wilcox had been swept into the sea after suffering a heart attack or getting seasick. Whatever the cause of Admiral Wilcox’s accident, he is the only U.S. admiral ever to have been lost overboard at sea.