Maritime Monday for April 1st, 2013: Burn Baby, Burn

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March 31, 2013



On the afternoon of 21 May, 1944, while Army Ordnance troops loaded
mortar ammunition on the fantail of LST-353, there was an explosion…

In May of 1944, preparations were underway for the US Marine invasion of the island of Saipan.  The planned invasion force for the first act of Operation Forager, the conquest of the Marianas, consisted of of two Marine Divisions, a US Army Division, and the required force and support units from an amphibious armada of nearly 600 ships and craft.

In West Loch, Pearl Harbor U.S. Naval Base, more than two dozen LSTs were tightly clustered while their hulls and decks filled with ammunition, supplies, and materiel.

imageThe fires burned for more than 24 hours. One-hundred and sixty three men lost their lives, another 400 were injured.

rt: 22 May 1944, the day after the explosion

A subsequent Naval Board of Inquiry never determined the exact cause of the disaster. But it concluded the initial explosion was caused when a mortar round aboard LST-353 detonated during an unloading operation because it was either dropped or went off when gasoline vapors ignited.

The incident — together with the Port Chicago disaster two months later (below)— led to major changes in weapon handling practices within the United States Navy. +

The Disaster at West Loch, 21 May 1944


Damage at the Port Chicago pier, California,
after the ammunition explosion in 1944

The Port Chicago disaster was a deadly munitions explosion that occurred on July 17, 1944, at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in Port Chicago, California. Munitions detonated while being loaded onto a cargo vessel bound for the Pacific Theater of Operations, instantly killing all 320 sailors on duty at the pier and injuring 390 others.

Seismographs at the University of California, Berkeley sensed the two shock waves traveling through the ground, determining the second, larger event to be equivalent to an earthquake measuring 3.4 on the Richter scale.

The Navy asked Congress to give each victim’s family $5,000. Representative John E. Rankin (D-Mississippi) insisted the amount be reduced to $2,000 when he learned most of the dead were black.

Congress settled on $3,000 in compensation, and interred what little remained of the victims in a local cemetery with tombstones reading “Unknown, US Navy, 17 July 1944”.


loading of munitions onto merchant ships bound for the war in the Pacific
National Park Service

see also: An explosive chapter in America’s history


The Indus steam-ship partly destroyed by fire,
in Messrs. Wigram’s dry dock, Blackwall, 1852

page from the Illustrated London News

info: The Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle For 1852


SS Morro Castle (1930)

Morro Castle was a luxury cruise ship of the 1930s that was built for the Ward Line for runs between New York City and Havana, Cuba.

On the morning of 8 September 1934, en route from Havana to New York, the ship caught fire and burned, killing 137 passengers and crew members. The ship eventually beached herself near Asbury Park, New Jersey, and remained there for several months until she was towed off and scrapped.

The devastating fire aboard the SS Morro Castle was a catalyst for improved shipboard fire safety. Today, the use of fire-retardant materials, automatic fire doors, ship-wide fire alarms, and greater attention to fire drills, and procedures resulted directly from the Morro Castle disaster. +


The General Slocum ablaze, passengers leaping into the East River

Knickerbocker Steamship Company’s PS General Slocum was a passenger steamboat built in Brooklyn, New York, in 1891, where she operated as an excursion steamer. On June 15, 1904, the General Slocum caught fire and sank in New York’s East River.

At the time of the accident she was running under charter to St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church with  1,342 people on board. Of whom, an estimated 1,021 did not survive. The loss of the General Slocum remains the worst maritime disaster in New York City’s history. +


The General Slocum (image courtesy Gare Maritime)

Panicked passengers found the ship’s few emergency measures in sorry shape: life vests, which had been left tied to the outer decks since the Slocum’s construction 13 years prior, were rotted through from weather damage and crumbled to pieces. The lifeboats, if they weren’t rotted through and completely useless, were found to be either chained or even painted down to the deck.  +


Recovery workers scour the banks of the East River
for days afterwards, looking for additional bodies


The stricken General Slocum sinks into the Long Island Sound

image“At 10:20, just 40 minutes after the Slocum had left her pier, fire broke out. A northerly breeze swept the flames rapidly toward the ship’s stern, where the passengers huddled in terror. Capt. Willam Van Schaick beached the blazing steamer, now an inferno, on North Brother Island*, where her stern lay partly submerged in 30 feet of water. Many men, women and children were drowned as the leaped over the sides into the water; hundreds more died in the burning furnace of the hull when the hurricane deck collapsed…”



New York Times


slideshow: Passenger Ship Accidents Since 1900


Full resolution ‎(1,847 × 1,379 pixels)


This view of the New York Harbor shows Ellis Island behind the General Slocum

see also: A Look Back at the General Slocum Disaster


The Staten Island Ferry: its story, from sail to steam

The Westfield disaster on July 1871, a boiler explosion that killed over 80 people, underscored the risks of early steam travel in the crowded waters of New York harbor. It remains the worst of several disasters in the Staten Island ferry’s long history.


Recalling a Brooklyn Disaster Otherwise Forgotten

On Dec. 19, 1960, a disastrous fire broke out aboard the Constellation, an aircraft carrier in the final stages of construction at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Fifty shipyard workers were killed, and at least 330 others were injured.

The troubles aboard the Constellation began with an improbable series of events.

A forklift operator who was moving a metal trash bin on the hangar deck accidentally pushed the bin against a steel plate. The plate shifted, and sheared off the main plug of a tank carrying 500 gallons of diesel fuel. The fuel cascaded through holes in the steel flooring to decks below. When it came in contact with “hot work,” perhaps a welder’s blowtorch or blisteringly hot metal, it began to burn, and then set a latticework of wooden scaffolding on fire…



see also: 1960 US Navy Aircraft Carrier Constellation Hangar Deck Fire


In pictures: London’s decade of change

The Cutty Sark is a British clipper ship built on the Clyde in 1869 for the Jock Willis shipping line. The opening of the Suez Canal (also in 1869) meant that steam ships now had a much shorter route to China, so Cutty Sark spent only a few years on the tea trade before turning to the trade in wool from Australia, where she held the record time to Britain for ten years.

Purchased by retired sea captain Wilfred Dowman in 1922, later transferred to the Thames Nautical Training College, Greenhithe in 1938 where she became an auxiliary cadet training ship alongside HMS Worcester. Converted to museum ship in permanent dry dock at Greenwich, London in 1954.

On the morning of 21 May 2007, the Cutty Sark, which had been closed and partly dismantled for conservation work, caught fire, and burned for several hours before the London Fire Brigade could bring the fire under control.

The fire which caused £10m damage to the Cutty Sark was sparked by electrical machinery; an industrial vacuum that had been left running for 2 days. +

The vessel has been restored and was reopened to the public on 25 April 2012.

Cutty Sark on wikipedia


Fire-gutted hull of Cutty Sark; Greenwich, May 2007


Luftwaffe raid against the Allied naval base at Bari in Italy

“Little Pearl Harbor”: The Disaster at Bari, Italy

On the night of December 2, 1943, German Junkers Ju 88 bombers attacked the port of Bari, which was a key supply centre for Allied forces fighting their way up the Italian Peninsula.

Hits on two ammunition ships caused explosions which shattered windows 7 mi (11 km) away. A bulk petrol pipeline on a quay was severed and the gushing fuel ignited. A sheet of burning fuel spread over much of the harbor engulfing otherwise undamaged ships.

Twenty seven cargo and transport ships ships were sunk in the overcrowded harbour, including the U.S. Liberty ship John Harvey, which was carrying mustard gas.

John Harvey was not hit, but was showered with flaming debris, caught fire and blew up.

The presence of the gas was highly classified, which increased the number of fatalities, since physicians—who had no idea that they were dealing with the effects of mustard gas—prescribed treatment proper for those suffering from exposure and immersion, which proved fatal in many cases.

The port was closed for three weeks and was only restored to full operation in February 1944.


The Morning After the Big Raid at Bari, Italy


Slaughter at Bari, Southern Italy. 2nd. of December 1943


Deadly Mystery at Bari
on Historic Wings


SS John Harvey sunk and caused a terrible disaster,
but it was one which led to a major medical breakthrough.

SS John Harvey, Saviour of Millions

Air raid on Bari
on wikipedia


Ammo Ship Explosion in Archangelsk, Russia on February 20, 1917 during World War 1
Estimated number killed 1,500

Munitions explosions in the environs of Archangel, Russia during World War I:

The first explosion occurred at the wharves of Bakaritsa on the River Dvina when the freighter Baron Driesen (alternately referred to as Baron Drizen) of the Northern Steam Shipping Co. docked on October 26, 1916 carrying war supplies and munitions which ignited, setting off a series of fires and other explosions on nearby ships also loaded with munitions.

The second explosion occurred January 13, 1917 at the port of Ekonomiia located on a delta island in the River Dvina when the ice-breaking ship Semen Cheliuskin bearing roughly 2000 tons of munitions exploded.

Disaster at Archangel Traced to Robbery at a Brooklyn Pier

NY Times; December 1916


Morehead City Ship Explosion, 1961

On September 26, 1961 the USNS Potomac (T-AO-150) arrived at the aviation fuel terminal in Morehead City, North Carolina.

About 5:20 p.m., she began discharging its 101,000 gallons of cargo, which consisted of aviation gasoline and JP-5 jet fuel. Around 6:35 p.m., gasoline also started flowing overboard. The ship’s port sea suction value was open, and fuel was flowing from it.

Three men in a 14-foot wooden boat were fishing near a nearby railroad bridge. Smelling the fuel leaking from the Potomac, they began to row to safety, but the boat struck a wire cable hanging in the water. The collision stopped their boat, which contained a lighted gasoline lantern. There was a flash, and then the fire started.

Two men were killed in the subsequent explosions. The forward part of the ship was declared a total loss. A disastrous waterfront fire was avoided by the prompt heroic action of Potomac crew members, United States Coast Guard personnel, and U.S. Marines, who prevented the fire from igniting large fuel storage tanks adjacent to the pier. +

Morehead City Ship Explosion, 1961
on Legeros Fire Blog


The passenger ship TSMS Lakonia, sailed by Greek Line, was on a Christmas cruise on December 22, 1963 around 11 pm while the ship was about 180 miles north of Madeira when fire broke out…

keep reading on Cruising the Past

TSMS Lakonia
on wikipedia


article: The Final Voyage of the TSMS Lakonia


A total of 128 people died in the Lakonia disaster, of which 95 were passengers and 33 were crew members. Only 53 people were killed in the actual fire. The rest died from exposure, drowning and injuries sustained while diving overboard

More on Cruise Ship Fires and Explosions


The USNS Harland Sanders (built originally as the oiler MV Bork Bork in Goteburg, Sweden in 1957) is one of the strangest stories of the Vietnam War.

Commissioned into the US Naval Reserve in 1966, then re-named by the navy. The ship’s new moniker was noticed by a Manhattan advertising executive browsing the New York Times.

He brought the ship to the attention of the Kentucky Fried Chicken Corporation, who agreed to sponsor the refitting of the vessel as a mobile supply, rest and relaxation berth for US army and naval personnel active in operations against the Viet Cong.

In a joint event staged by the US Navy and KFC, Elvis Presley was hired to christen the vessel before it steamed out of Las Vegas and embarked for Vietnam in January, 1967. Unfortunately, news footage of the King’s dock side acapella serenade to the crew, “Have you heard the news, there’s good chicken tonight” is lost.

USNS Harland Sanders served in the South China Sea and in the Mekong Delta between 1967 and 1968.  The ship is unique in operating the first floating fried chicken restaurant that included a helicopter deck to airlift breasts and thighs to GI’s on the ground in SE Asia. These chicko-copters are mentioned fondly in a number of Vietnam war memoirs.

“After a long day of smoking weed in the jungle, those chicko-coptors sure were a sight for sore eyes. Charlie don’t deep-fry.”

–Corporal Lance Bantam; Bowling Green, Kentucky; 101st Airborn


Only their hairdressers know for sure.

On 25th July 1968 the ship was at anchor off the village of Hung Ree when a fire erupted in the galley. The subsequent explosion rained hot grease, chicken bones, and cheap plastic toys down onto a nearby hamlet; injuring 11 villagers. The crew and all GI’s on board were safely evacuated.

After the dreadful disaster, plans for construction of a sister ship, USS Ettore Boiardi, were scrapped.

In Other News…


Austal/General Dynamics Announces Radical Redesign of Littoral Combat Ship to be Based on Women’s Footwear

In October 2012, Austal/General Dynamics was awarded a contract to build the first of two units from its design for a the new Littoral Combat Ship, just in time for the Fall Season. The heel of the future USS Stiletto was laid on 19 January 2013 at Austal USA’s boutique in Mobile, Alabama.

see also: Dutch Navy Expresses Interest after Successful Test of Prototype


In an effort to boost female enlistment, The US Coast Guard
announced Friday that Johnny Depp will be named Admiral


Long rumored to be bored by retirement, former Coast Guard head Thad Allen issued a press release last week announcing his plans to open a chain of nautically-inspired miniature golf courses.

“Cap’n Thad’s Goofy Golf” is scheduled to open its “flagship” location in  New London, Connecticut in time for the 2013 summer season.


Adventures of the Blackgang on tumblr
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