Sunday, February 11, 2018

Of naval accidents

Ongoing coverage of the U.S. Navy's plans to hold officers accountable for a two collisions last year in the far Pacific Ocean -- destroyers were rammed by merchant ships -- has been fascinating me. Seventeen sailors died in these accidents.
On Jan. 16, the U.S. Navy announced that it has charged five officers under the Uniform Code of Military Justice with negligent homicide, hazarding a vessel, and dereliction of duty in the deaths of 17 sailors who died as a result of the collisions of the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain with commercial ships in 2017. A chief petty officer from the USS John S. McCain has also been charged with dereliction of duty. 
Commentators have chewed over whether Navy procedures accord the charged officers a fair and transparent hearing; in the last few decades, such hearings have led to acquittals, possibly to some extent due to improper charging. Some Navy vets think the accidents were the end result of a watch system that allows only short sleep breaks and generally an under-manned fleet.

The aircraft carrier Wasp limped home after the accident with the bow torn off. Source.
Why has all this so caught my attention? Because an uncle of mine, Captain Burnham C. McCaffree, was the commander of the aircraft carrier Wasp in 1952 when the huge ship ran over the destroyer Hobson. The accident has been called the Navy's "worst peacetime disaster."
On the night of April 26, 1952 the Wasp launched a training flight of planes at about 8 PM (2000 hours in military time). As the Wasp was preparing to retrieve its aircraft, her commanding officer, Captain Burnham McCaffree planned to turn the ship into the wind to a course of 250 to 260. On the Hobson, the officer of the deck, Lt. William Hoefer, was planning accordingly. The ships were steaming at 24 knots and the Hobson was 3000 yards off the Wasp's starboard quarter (on the right side and behind the Wasp). The Hobson's captain, 32 year old Lt. Commander William Tierney, was new to sea duty.

... Young Captain Tierney had recently received a communication from fleet headquarters that recommended executing rapid turning maneuvers to maximize efficiency. One simple way to accomplish this would have been for each destroyer to slow down and switch positions behind the maneuvering carrier. Tierney instead chose to execute a Williamson turn, also known as the lifeguard turn. ... to change stations behind an aircraft carrier, the turn called for the Hobson to cross IN FRONT OF the Wasp, with tragic results. Tierney got into a heated argument with Lt. Hoefer, the officer of the deck, who thought that a fancy turn in front of the carrier would be dangerous. Eyewitness accounts have [it that] Lt. Hoefer stormed off the bridge in anger. As he did so, he instinctively turned down the radio receiver volume.

... The Hobson crossed directly in front of the 34,000 ton Wasp and was sliced in two. 176 sailors perished in short order and only 61 survived. On the bridge, 11 out of 13 survived. Young Captain Tierney either fell or jumped off the bridge into the water. He couldn't swim and perished.
Lt. Hoefer told a court of inquiry convened under three admirals the next month that he had shouted: "Stand by for collision."

My uncle Mac explained the accident as he understood it, pointing to radar failure on the carrier.
Capt. McCaffree, an Annapolis graduate, was asked who had control of the Wasp at the time of the collision and the skipper replied: "I did."
All this took place when I was a small child. My mother recalled going to New Jersey to accompany her sister, Uncle Mac's wife, to the hearing. Although the sitting admirals decided that the disaster was the destroyer commander's fault, understandably the accident stalled out the Captain's naval career. He went on to command the Jacksonville Naval Air Station for awhile and retired in Florida. I remember him as a stiff, dour man, not much like this smiling photo from an earlier time. His son who carries the same name went on to a successful naval career, ending up a rear admiral.

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