Held Hostage By A Cargo Of Bombs

Ammunition Load On Aircraft Carrier
Sailors of the aircraft carrier Intrepid (CVS-11) load a pallet of bombs transferred to their ship from an ammunition ship off Vietnam in October 1966.

Most military historians agree about the critical importance and sacrifice of the Merchant Marine of the Allied nations in winning World War Two but very few mention the role civilian ships flying the American flag have played in the wars since. Dr. Salvatore R. Mercogliano, a professor of History at Campbell University and a SUNY Maritime College alumni, has taken the first step to rectify this oversight with his new book “Fourth Arm of Defense Sealift and Maritime Logistics in the Vietnam War“. The book is only 77 pages and has many sections that are page-turners but don’t let brevity fool you because the book is dense with facts and well researched historical context. A must read for officers of all four branches of military service.

Here is a short except from Dr. Mercogliano’s book which can be downloaded free of charge from the Naval History and Heritage Command via this link.

Fourth Arm of Defense, SS Badger State Excerpt

FOR MERCHANT MARINERS,  ammunition across the Pacific Ocean could be a dangerous endeavor. The States Marine Lines C-2 freighter SS Badger State sailed from Bangor, Washington, bound for Vietnam in mid-December 1969. Soon after departure, the ship’s steering system began leaking hydraulic fluid, compromising the operation of the rudder. Heavy weather in the North Pacific rocked the ship, causing her to roll repeatedly more than 50 degrees.

Rough seas often buffeted the MSTS ships making the transit to Vietnam, but Badger State’s case was especially worrisome since she carried 6,109 tons of bombs in her holds. Author William R. Benedetto, in his history of this event, noted, “in the annals of maritime history… no other ship has ever been held hostage by a cargo of bombs.”

The Navy depot in the states had loaded the ammunition during a rainstorm that soaked the wood used to secure the cargo (dunnage), and prevent one bomb from banging into another. Two days out to sea, the crew discovered bombs breaking loose and knocking about the holds. The mariners were not comforted when they remembered advice published in the May 1968 issue of Sealift, the official publication of MSTS:

Ordnance experts and others knowledgeable about such matters as unarmed bombs, will be quick to reassure the laymen that there is little to fear from a bomb or projectile as long as there is no detonator attached. But, despite all the evidence that it is virtually impossible to explode one, that an unarmed 1,000-pound bomb is about as lethal as 1,000 pounds of cabbage, it is nevertheless nerve-racking to be riding a ship with even one such bomb adrift in a cargo hold.

Concerned, Captain Charles T. Wilson altered course and headed the ship toward a safe haven
in the roadstead at Midway Atoll and requested an escort in case he and his crew had to abandon ship. Making matters worse, Badger State encountered a severe storm on Christmas Day.

The next morning the crew peered into the ship’s holds and made a terrifying discovery; several dozen 750-pound bombs were rolling free and causing sparks as metal hit metal. At 0940, an explosion blew off hatch number 5 and opened an 8-by-12-foot hole in the starboard hull. Soon other bombs broke loose, starting a reaction that threatened to ignite another hazardous cargo: 10,640 barrels of fuel oil. The captain ordered abandon ship.

Crewmen lowered a lifeboat and as they worked to prepare it for operation, the boat drifted aft down the starboard side. Suddenly, bombs started to spill out of the hole in the hull and rain down on the boat. Some men leapt into the sea while others remained on board.
Paul C. Kinney, in “The Fate of Badger State,” which was published in the October 1981 issue of U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, described the scene as it unfolded:

A 2,000-pound bomb slid out nose first very quickly and, narrowly missing the boat, fell into the water. When the ship rolled back to port, a second bomb, having gained momentum in the starboard roll, came out of the hole in the manner of a ski jumper. This bomb hit one crewman in the head driving him out of the boat. The bomb then landed squarely in the laps of four other crewmen. As the bomb landed in the boat, then about one-third full of water, someone yelled, “Let’s get the hell out of here.” In one continuous motion of the bomb landing in the boat and the remaining crewmen rushing to the outboard side, the boat capsized.

Those men who made it out of the boat entered frigid 56 degree water lashed by heavy winds. Fortunately for the survivors, the Greek freighter MV Khian Star had arrived on the scene and her boats came to their rescue. In the end, however, only 14 of the 40-member crew survived. Considered a hazard to navigation, gunfire from a Coast Guard ship later sank the crewless Badger State.

A Coast Guard investigation blamed the catastrophe on faulty loading materials and procedures; the tendency of the ship to “snap roll,” which put great stress on the bomb restraints; routing of the ship through the rough waters of the North Pacific; and, not least, the severity of the storm.

Even as Badger State and her crew suffered their fate, MSTS had taken steps to improve the handling and transportation of ordnance. That same December, the Concord Weapon Station in California loaded SS Azalea City with ammunition, but in this instance the cargo was secured in 226 specially designed and reinforced 35-foot containers. This method of moving ammunition minimized cargo handling, reduced costs, and speeded up the loading process—it took only one day to load Azalea City.

The sacrifice of Badger State’s merchant mariners in support of the war effort did not go unnoticed. Just after noon on 31 August 1970, the President posthumously awarded Boatswain Richard D. Hughes of Badger State the American Merchant Marine Seamanship Trophy, which was presented to Mrs. Richard D. Hughes and her daughter at the Oval Office. The citation read that Hughes had displayed “distinguished seamanship under great stress . . . during the explosion which cost him his life.”

The following men lost their lives in the disaster:
Mohamed T. Al-Muwallad, Wiper
Gilbert F. Baker, Chief Engineer
Nick Barbieri, Oiler
Sam A. Bondy Jr., Third Mate
Bennie L. Brown, Steward
Joseph Candos, Able Seaman
Leonard Cobbs, Chief Mate
Charles E. Coe, Messman
Nelson Fabre, Able Seaman
Ali A. Gazaly, Messman
Edward C. Hottendorf, Able Seaman
Richard D. Hughes, Bosun
John H. Jenkins, Galleyman
Edwin L. Jones, Messman
William K. LaFayette, Radio Officer
Konstantinos Mpountalis, Electrician
Richard C. Murray, Ordinary Seaman
Francisco C. Nunez, Oiler
Raymond W. Reiche, Second Assistant Engineer
Floyd K. Rilling, Able Seaman
Jose A. Rodriguez, Second Electrician
Leonard J. Scypion, Fireman-Watertender
Calvin R. Smith, Oiler
Kinnie Woods, Third Assistant Engineer
Robert A. Ziehm, Second Mate

This excerpt of the book  “Fourth Arm of Defense Sealift and Maritime Logistics in the Vietnam War” was republished with the permission of Salvatore R. Mercogliano and the  US Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command.