Friday, September 15, 2017

Gurney Edwards and the Day that Shook Norfolk

By Julius J. Lacano
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

(Photo by Rita Hayden/ Findagrave,com)
Among the trees, manicured lawns, and gardens of Forsyth Memorial Park in Winston-Salem, NC, lies the grave of Gurney Eugene Edwards. The inscription reads “Gone but not Forgotten” with a date of death of September 17, 1943.  This man was a casualty of the Second World War, but he did not die on the beaches near Salerno, far off in the Solomons, or even on Papua New Guinea. Instead, he died a hero on Naval Station Norfolk, the first victim of an accident that eventually killed 40, and wounded 386 others.

In this November 1942 oblique aerial photo looking north-northeast, the fire station (R-43) has not been built yet, but the row of wooden barracks and Hangar V-30, which would become total losses because of the depth charge explosions that took place ten months later, are clearly visible.  The red dot marks roughly where the explosions occurred on September 17, 1943, leaving a crater some five feet deep and 20 feet across. (National Archives and Records Administration/ Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Gurney Edwards. (Courtesy of Rita Hayden)
September 17, 1943, most likely started like any other day for Mr. Edwards, an assistant fire chief with the naval base fire department. Perhaps he was doing paperwork or conducting training for the men under his charge, but one thing is certain: around 11 am, he was alerted by an ordnance truck driver of a potentially deadly situation. The driver informed him that one of the depth charges he was transporting from Pier 2 on the Naval Operating Base to the Naval Air Station magazine area had fallen off the trailer and been dragged along the road. This same depth charge was now smoking due to the friction. Edwards jumped into action and boarded a fire truck alone. He raced to the scene and began trying to cool down the smoking piece of ordnance with a fire extinguisher, but it was all in vain. The depth charge exploded, killing him instantly and vaporizing his fire truck. This single depth charge then detonated 23 other depth charges containing over a ton and a half of the inherently unstable explosive Torpex.
The eastern side of the closest aircraft hangar to the accident scene, Building V-30, was blown away by the explosions.  Shrapnel also killed numerous personnel working on aircraft between the hangar and Chambers Field. Note the propeller sheared off below the hub on the nearest aircraft. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
While the initial blast created a crater five feet deep and a fireball 500 feet high, the subsequent explosions destroyed 33 aircraft, between 15 and 18 buildings, and shattered windows eight miles away. Fire trucks and ambulances from all surrounding areas, as well as many Sailors stationed on the base, rushed to the scene to lend assistance. They attempted to put out fires, evacuate personnel, shore up damaged structures, and search for both survivors and victims trapped in the rubble or caught outside.
As seen from the lower roof of Fire Station 2 (Building R-43, the three-story corner visible to the far left) looking north towards Chambers Field, the cleanup process has already begun just days after the incident. The barracks buildings were a total loss and those that remained standing were torn down. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
These innocent lives would not be the last lost to a Torpex mishap. The chemical compounds and characteristics that made Torpex so useful as an explosive also made it more unstable than TNT, another explosive known for its sensitivity. Less than two months later, Hampton Roads was again struck by tragedy when six African-Americans were killed in an explosion at Naval Weapons Station Yorktown. The losses at Naval Station Norfolk and at Naval Weapons Station Yorktown pale in comparison to the 320 lives lost, mostly African-Americans, exactly ten months later in an explosion in California. The Port Chicago disaster would go down in history not only for the loss of life and the destruction it caused, but also for the mutiny it inspired a month later and the metaphorical firestorm that would lead to the desegregation of the US Navy in 1946.
Only a month after the accident, hangar V-30 and the barracks complex have been razed, and it appears that construction has already begun on the barracks site. There remains however a dark area where many of the explosions took place. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
While those who lost family members in the explosion or who were victims themselves will never forget this harrowing day, the censoring inherent with wartime reporting caused the story to vanish from headlines in the coming days. Even now, there is no monument or memorial located on base to commemorate the tragedy. There is only a small memorial plaque for Gurney Eugene Edwards on the side of Fire Station 2, near the location of the disaster 74 years ago, the first victim of one event that has faded from memory during a war that cost the lives of tens of millions.
Building R-43, the newly-built fire station, as seen on September 17, 1943, from the side opposite the blast, which occurred about 40 yards away.  Although damaged, the station served as a natural command post for fire and rescue personnel during the recovery effort, and the building still serves as a fire station today. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Naval Station Norfolk's Fire Station 2 as it appears today. (Photo by M.C. Farrington)
The memorial plaque for Gurney Eugene Edwards, which is embedded in the south wall of the fire station.  (Photo by M.C. Farrington)

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Seventy-Five Years Ago: A Fallen Commander's Letter to his Son Inspires the Nation

A series of personal letters appeared in a pamphlet entitled Lest We Forget..., printed in 1943 by the Navy's Industrial Incentive Division to bring a sense of perspective to civilian war workers, many of whom were already exhausted by the pace demanded of them during the second full year of the war. 
USS Wasp (CV 7) appears on the Elizabeth River after an overhaul that began in December 1941.  She would operate in the Atlantic and Mediterranean until June, when more antiaircraft guns were installed at Norfolk Naval Shipyard before her departure for the Pacific. Lt. Cmdr. Shea's letter to his son was probably mailed just before Wasp's departure from Hampton Roads.  (National Archives and Records Administration)  

It is true that many of these workers had reason to feel underappreciated or even taken for granted.  Despite the dangers and drudgery of their jobs, however, they did not face imminent death like the end users of the things they were producing for the war effort, men like Lieutenant Commander John Joseph Shea of the USS Wasp (CV 7), the author of perhaps the most famous missive in the collection.  He wrote it to his son, Jackie, as he was leaving Hampton Roads in June 1942, bound for the Pacific.   

This illustration depicting five-year-old Jackie Shea appeared in the 1943 Navy pamphlet Lest We Forget.. (Author's Collection) INSET: A photograph of Lt. Cmdr. John J. Shea and his son, taken before he reported to the aircraft carrier Wasp (CV 7) in March 1942. (John J. Shea Collection, Courtesy of the Boston College University Archives)
June 29, 1942

Dear Jackie,

This is the first letter I have ever written directly to my little son and I am thrilled to know that you can read it all by yourself. If you miss some of the words, I'm sure it will be because I do not write very plainly. Mother will help you in that case I am sure. 
I was certainly glad to hear your voice over the long distance telephone. It sounded as though I were right in the living room with you. You sounded as though you missed your daddy very much. I miss you too, more than anyone will ever know. It is too bad this
war could not have been delayed a few more years so that I could grow up again with you and do with you all the things I planned to do when you were old enough to go to school. 
I thought how nice it would be for me to come home early in the afternoon and play ball with you, and go mountain climbing and see the trees, and brooks, and learn all about woodcraft, hunting, fishing, swimming, and things like that. I suppose we must be brave and put these things off for a little while.

When you are a little bigger you will know why your daddy is not home so much any more. You know we have a big country and we have ideals as to how people should live and enjoy the riches of it and how each is born with equal rights to life, freedom, and
the pursuit of happiness. Unfortunately, there are some countries in the world where they don't have these ideals, where a boy cannot grow up to be what he wants to be with no limits on his opportunities to be a great man, such as a great priest, statesman, doctor, soldier, business man etc.

Because there are people and countries who want to change our nation, its ideals, forms of government, and way of life, we must leave our homes and families to fight. Fighting for the defense of our country, ideals, homes, and honor is an honor and a duty which your daddy has to do before he can come home to settle down with you and Mother. When it is done, he is coming home to be with you always and forever. So wait just a little while longer. I am afraid it will be more than the two weeks you told me on the phone. 
In the meantime, take good care of Mother. Be a good boy and grow up to be a good young man. Study hard when you go to school. Be a leader in everything good in life. Be a good Catholic, and you can't help being a good American. Play fair always. Strive to win but if you must lose, lose like a gentleman and a good sportsman. Don't ever be a quitter either in sports or in your business or profession when you grow up. Get all the education you can. Stay close to Mother and follow her advice. Obey her in everything, no matter how you may at times disagree. She knows what is best and will never let you down or lead you away from the right and honorable things in life. If I don't get back, you will have to be Mother's protector because you will be the only one she has. You must grow up to take my place as well as your own in her life and heart.

Love your grandmother and granddad as long as they live. They too will never let you down. Love your aunts and see them as often as you can. Last of all, don't ever forget your daddy. Pray for him to come back and if it is God's will that he does not, be the kind of a boy and man your daddy wants you to be.

Thanks for the nice sweater and handkerchiefs and particularly for the note and card. Write me very often and tell me everything.

Kiss Mother for me every night.

Goodbye for now.

With all my love and devotion for Mother and you,

Your daddy
John J. Shea, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on January 30, 1898, earned a scholarship to Boston College at the age of 16.  He enlisted in the Naval Reserve on June 11, 1918, right after graduation, and became a naval aviator after completing training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Shea had been on active duty since 1930, serving from 1934 to 1940 as executive officer of Naval Air Station Squantum, Massachusetts.  

After a brief stint at the Bureau of Aeronautics in Washington DC, Shea reported aboard Wasp as assistant air officer in March, 1942.  Boston Globe columnist Joseph Driscoll, who sailed aboard Wasp during a convoy run in the Atlantic that spring, called Shea "the softest-spoken man on the ship."  "Only 43," continued Driscoll, "he had the athletic build of a football player, which he had been at Boston College. He was 6 feet tall, and hard and lean and shifty on his feet.  His freckled nose was dented from personal combat, and he had red hair."

Aviation fuel and ordnance fires consume the stricken aircraft carrier Wasp (CV 7) after she was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-19 off Guadalcanal on September 15, 1942. (Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph
Shea was declared missing after Wasp was struck by three torpedoes in the waters near Guadalcanal on September 15.  The citation of his Navy Cross, awarded posthumously, reads in part:

Lieutenant Commander Shea directed the fight against fires on the flight deck of the U.S.S. WASP, after the carrier had been crippled by the Japanese bombing attack which later caused her to sink. Lieutenant Commander Shea disregarded the danger from the fires, flying debris, and exploding ammunition to carry on his fight. When the water pressure failed, he employed chemical fire-fighting equipment in a desperate effort to extinguish a fire in a ready ammunition locker, and was leading out a fire hose to continue his efforts when a terrific explosion occurred. He was not subsequently seen by his shipmates.
(Boston College University Archives)
On September 16, 1943, Shea was declared legally dead, but by then, "The letter to Jackie" had long since taken on a life of its own. His sisters Dorothea and Cecilia, teachers in the Boston Public School system, had reprinted the letter in pamphlet form shortly after he was declared missing, and on October 27, 1942, the Boston Globe printed it, calling it "an inspiring memorial to American youth."  Newspapers across the country, as well as Life, Look, and Time magazine followed suit.  It also was featured in various government publications such as Lest We Forget... because Elmer Davis and his Office of War Information could never have dreamed up such a simple, powerful message that spread so quickly without governmental prodding. Shea's letter was imbued with a heartfelt authenticity that no government propaganda could match.
"You know," recalled Jackie to a Globe reporter ten years after his father's death, "the best part of the letter is that my father never could have known it would come to light even in the event of his death, so no one can doubt he meant exactly what he wrote."  

Although U.S. naval forces had struck a decisive blow against the Imperial Japanese Navy during the Battle of Midway in June, by September it was by no means apparent to the US Navy, much less the American public, that the tide had turned against them.  On New Guinea, Japanese soldiers were only about 25 miles away from Port Moresby, and closing, while on Guadalcanal in the Eastern Solomons, US Marines were facing stiff resistance in holding Henderson Field.  In the waters nearby, the IJN had sunk three American cruisers and one Australian cruiser during the Battle of Savo Island in August, topped off by the loss of the carrier Wasp and 193 of her men, including Shea, only five weeks later.  The message of honor, duty, dedication, and resolve he left his son became a message to the nation at a critical time.

After Shea's letter was donated to Boston College in 2001, the college's historian, Thomas O'Connor, said of its' impact, "The Allied forces were losing everywhere.  Hitler had invaded Russia. The Japanese were taking over the Pacific.  People were asking, 'where did we go wrong?' Then this letter came out and reaffirmed all the best values people thought we had lost."

The letter and the acclaim it garnered made young Jackie and his mother Elizabeth celebrities of a sort.  They appeared at numerous parades and other events, such as the launching for the new aircraft carrier Wasp (CV 18) on August 17, 1943, and then on May 20, 1944, when the light minelayer Shea (DM 30) was launched at the Bethlehem Steel Company in Staten Island, New York, little Jackie signed the bow.  NAS Squantum's airfield was renamed for Cmdr. Shea in 1946, and Jackie, standing at his mother's side, dutifully laid a wreath at its dedication. 

Elizabeth Shea, widow of Cmdr. John Shea, holds six-year-old Jackie Shea as he signs the bow of the light minelayer Shea (DM 30) at her launching in Staten Island, New York, on May 20, 1944. (Bill Gonyo via Navsource)
The light minelayer Shea (DM 30), seen here in 1946, was heavily damaged during the Okinawa Campaign in late-1944. (Ted Stone Collection, Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)
After graduating from his father's alma mater in 1958 and earning a doctorate in classical philology at Harvard University, "Jackie" grew up to be Professor of Classics John R. "Jack" Shea, and taught at Boston College for many years. He died on March 14, 2015, at the age of 78.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Military "Bearing" at CPO Heritage Days 2017

After a morning of classroom training, chief petty officer selectees line up to depart the battleship Wisconsin (BB-64) under the guidance of current chiefs who helped run the 17th annual Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Heritage Days, hosted by the Hampton Roads Naval Museum with the support of National Maritime Center Nauticus in Norfolk, Virginia. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)
Last week, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum wrapped up its 17th Annual Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Heritage Days, during which 798 first class petty officers who have been selected to become chief petty officers underwent training in naval history and the stories of famous CPOs of yesteryear in preparation for their advancement.  They also experienced quite a bit of intense, yet friendly competition among themselves. 
Fleet Master Chief Paul Kingsbury of United States Fleet Forces Command addresses chief petty officer selectees at Nauticus, the National Maritime Center that is also home to the battleship Wisconsin (BB 64) and the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.  Nearly 800 selectees, plus over 750 current and retired chief, senior chief and master chief petty officers converged on downtown Norfolk, Virginia, from August 22 through 24 during Chief Petty Officer Heritage Days.  (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)
Junior petty officers are typically "frocked" within days of being officially notified of their advancement in paygrade, sewing on their new rating badge relatively quickly after their selection.  Not so for chief petty officers, who undergo weeks of official and semiofficial rites of passage as selectees before their new anchors are pinned to their new khaki working uniforms.  After assembling ornate "charge books" to dutifully document their initiation-oriented tasks at the direction of "genuine" chief, senior chief and master chief petty officers, chief selectees virtually disappear from their regular lives into a khaki chrysalis until they reemerge for their pinning ceremonies.  Chief Petty Officer Heritage Days, held mainly aboard the museum battleship USS Wisconsin (BB 64), has become an important component of that transformation. 
Aboard USS Wisconsin (BB 64), Chief Aviation Structural Mechanic (Sel.) Caston Boyd holds a teddy bear representing another chief selectee from Fleet Readiness Center Mid-Atlantic, Chief Aviation Structural Mechanic (Sel.) Roman Blair. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)
Although most of the selectees serving in the Mid-Atlantic region who were not actually on a deployment  were able to attend, one selectee who was unable to attend because of illness was vicariously carried around in the form of a Navy teddy bear by his fellow chief selectees from Fleet Readiness Center Mid-Atlantic.  According to Chief Aviation Structural Mechanic (Sel.) Caston Boyd, who was taking his turn bearing the bear of Chief Aviation Structural Mechanic (Sel.) Roman Blair, his fellow chief select had been informed of the selection board results only after landing in the hospital with what turned out to be a diagnosis of leukemia.  "He was on his deathbed for a minute, but he's fighting and in good spirits," said Boyd, who added that he and other members of his command had visited Blair at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, the week before.             
While helping support CPO Heritage Days, Senior Chief Aviation Administrationman Tiffanie Simpson pauses aboard USS Wisconsin (BB 64) with a crocheted doll of herself in uniform.  (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)
Not all of the chief petty officer analogues represented someone unable to be there personally.  Senior Chief  Aviation Maintenance Administrationman Tiffanie Simpson of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR), there to support the event, brought along her own likeness in the form of a doll that was made for her by crochet artist Aniqua Wilkerson.  She had already collected several dolls by the New York-based artist before deciding to have one of herself in uniform made, in her words, not to show off, but to show her pride in being in the Navy.  

One of many light moments shared between the mess competition judges, HRNM Exhibits Specialist Don Darcy, incumbent Director of Education Laura Orr, and retired Senior Chief Cryptologic Technician (Administrative) April Maletz. In this case, a two-member contingent from the destroyer Gonzalez (DDG 66) vies for the CPO Heritage Trophy. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington)
After the judging of the chief petty officer selectee mess and guidon competition on August 24, organizer Tom Dandes receives a hug from the guidon bearer of the Airborne Command, Control, and Logistics Wing (CACCLW) mess, Chief Aviation Michinist's Mate (Sel.) Martha Mendoza. The master of ceremonies for the competition, Chief Fire Controlman Erifili Marsolais, waits to present the CPO Heritage Trophy for that day. Winners of the competition on the two previous days included Naval Recruiting District (NRD) Philadelphia and NRD Richmond, Virginia(Photograph by M.C. Farrington)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Seventy-Five Years Ago: Ready or Not, Here Alabama Comes!

Exactly six months after she was launched on the Elizabeth River, the ship's company of USS Alabama (BB 60) and guests assembled on her stern during the battleship's commissioning ceremony at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia. Note that  Turret Number Three has yet to be finished. (Naval History and Heritage Command image) 
Six months ago we briefly covered the launching of USS Alabama (BB 60) at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia.  Of course the launching of a warship does not mean she is ready for the Navy to take possession by a long stretch.  A great deal of fitting out had yet to be done over the spring and summer of 1942 to complete the 35,000-ton battleship, which was approaching fruition on this date three-quarters of a century ago.  

In any event, her commissioning ceremony took place six months to the day after her launching, ready or not.  This photograph indicates that for certain parts of the ship, it was the latter.  For example, notice that the battleship's Turret Number Three has yet to be covered with armor plating.  It is perhaps for that reason that nothing about Alabama's commissioning appeared in either of Norfolk's major daily newspapers that week.  Of course, wartime censorship regulations might have been a significant factor as well, but it is a pity that the event's particulars were not recorded by the press for posterity, as Alabama was the last battleship built at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. 

She would finally complete her fitting-out and begin shakedown maneuvers in Chesapeake bay in November.
The battleship Alabama (BB 60) is fitted out by thousands of workers at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia during the summer of 1942.  The former battleship Kearsarge, then utilized as a crane ship, is off her starboard bow.  Her 16-inch 45-caliber guns have yet to be installed, and construction of numerous antiaircraft gun tubs is still underway. (Naval History and Heritage Command image