Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Space Sailors of Apollo 12, Before and After

Apollo 12 astronauts (from left) Pete Conrad, Richard Gordon and Alan Bean pause by a T-38 training aircraft at Patrick Air Force base the day before they were launched to the moon.  Each pilot spent nearly an hour aloft that day in individual aircraft, practicing aerobatics in preparation for their space flight. (NASA photo courtesy of Steve Milner)
By Steve Milner
Contributing Writer

Apollo 12 was an all-U.S. Navy crew. The astronauts had been test pilots at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland.  Pete Conrad then flew in earth orbit aboard Gemini 11 with Richard Gordon, after being launched on September 12, 1966. Conrad and Gordon had roomed earlier aboard USS Ranger (CV 61) from which they flew flight operations. From the outset, the two had established a close personal friendship that continued through Apollo 12 and beyond. Conrad had wanted Gordon to land on the moon with him, but astronaut rules dictated that a command module pilot had to have flown in space previously and Bean was a space rookie.
Lieutenant Commander Richard F. Gordon Jr., prime crew pilot for Gemini-Titan XI (GT-11), and Commander Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr., prime crew command pilot, pose for their official mission photograph on November 4, 1965. (NASA photo S65-58504 via NHHC Photo Curator/Flickr)
Compared to his two crewmates who were considerably more outgoing and known throughout the astronaut corps for speaking their minds, Bean was an introvert. All three astronauts would establish a solid friendship that continued back on earth for many years.
The Apollo 12 lunar Extravehicular Activity (EVA) crew members, Charles "Pete" Conrad and Al Bean conduct a simulation of the lunar surface activity at a training session held in the Flight Crew Training Building at the Kennedy Space Center on October 6, 1969. (NASA photo 69PC-0549 via NASA on the Commons/Flickr)
In my limited dealings with Conrad I found him to be cordial, when I worked at Cape Canaveral and was involved in the photo aspects of Apollo 12 and when I saw him at Hampton’s Air & Space Center (today home to the Apollo 12 command module) about 25 years after his lunar mission.  At that time we reminisced about the “good old days” at Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach. During our Hampton conversation he autographed my photo of his unmanned Skylab Workshop being transported to the launch pad (sitting in place of the third stage of the earlier moon-bound Saturn Vs) in 1973.
A modified Saturn V carries the Skylab orbital workshop into orbit in May 1973.  Over the course of its human occupation from May 25, 1973, to February 8, 1974, three crews visited Skylab, carried out 270 scientific and technical investigations and logged a combined 171 days on orbit.
Conrad was launched on the Skylab I mission aboard a Saturn 1B rocket (known as Skylab 2) with another all-Navy crew consisting of Paul Weitz and Joseph Kerwin from KSC’s Launch Complex 39B on May 25, 1973. The trio spent 28 days in the Skylab Workshop, conducting many medical and other experiments. 
Each of the three crewed Skylab missions from May 1973 to 1974 were staffed by three astronauts. Since these were the longest missions ever conducted in low Earth orbit up to that time, one of the top science priorities was to collect medical data on the effects of long spaceflights on humans.  Astronaut Joseph P. Kerwin, science pilot for the first manned Skylab mission and a medical doctor, conducted a physical exam for Astronaut Charles "Pete" Conrad, Jr., the Skylab I mission commander.  Kerwin conducted the exam in the crew quarters wardroom of the orbital workshop developed by the NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala, which also built equipment used for research. Conrad almost literally stands on his head in the weightlessness of space with only a restraint around his left leg holding in position. (NASA Marshall Space Flight Center/ Flickr)
Conrad was selected in the second group of astronauts and was widely regarded in the aerospace community and the astronaut corps as being quirky, comedic and an unpredictable person. But the overall consensus was that he was a top-flight pilot and aeronautical engineer. He had a confident manner that he sharpened during his test-pilot days, a trait that probably calmed his crewmates during difficult in-flight conditions.
Astronaut Charles "Pete" Conrad, Jr., Skylab I commander, smiles happily for the camera after a hot shower in the crew quarters of the orbital workshop of the Skylab space station on June 1, 1973. (NASA Marshall Space Flight Center/ Flickr)
Despite Conrad’s well-known colorful side and sometimes questionable language, this Princeton graduate knew how “to behave” when the situation called for him to do so. Even though NASA officials weren’t sure what he would tell the world when he first set foot on the lunar surface, they still didn’t prepare momentous words for him to recite.  In fact, noted Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci bet Conrad $500 that NASA would write his comments. Conrad said his would be original ones and he won this bet, but was never paid the $500, he said. Fallaci was visiting the Conrad family when she made the bet. (I remember attending a NASA news conference in Cocoa Beach prior to a different space mission that Fallaci and her good friend, actress Shirley MacLaine, attended).

The mission patch of Skylab I, emphasizing the harshness of space, was spot-on considering that the station was originally too hot to sustain human life. After launching to the station aboard a Saturn IB on May 25, 1973,  Astronauts Charles C. "Pete" Conrad, Paul J. Weitz and Joseph Kerwin made critical repairs to damage sustained when the station was launched, saving the program.  The mission included three spacewalks and lasted 28 days–twice the previous record for an American manned space mission–when it ended on June 22. (NASA on the Commons/ Flickr

Following their successful Apollo 12 mission, Conrad moved on to the Skylab Workshop program and commanded the first manned mission to it. When he retired from NASA and the U.S. Navy with the rank of captain, he worked for several aerospace firms and founded one that was trying to develop reusable space hardware. He tragically died at the age of 69, following a motorcycle accident in Ojai, California, on July 8, 1999. While appearing to be okay following this accident, he died a few hours later due to massive internal bleeding. Conrad is buried at Arlington National Cemetery and is remembered for his four successful space missions: two during the Gemini Program, Apollo 12 and Skylab I, logging nearly 1,200 hours in space.

Gordon remained with NASA and was the backup commander for the Apollo 15 mission. At that time Gordon thought he would command a future Apollo mission, possibly Apollo 18, which was later canceled, along with Apollo 19 and 20, due to budgetary constraints. He stayed in the Astronaut Office and helped design crew aspects for the Space Shuttle.
Captain Richard F. Gordon, USN, photographed in his Apollo 12 space suit before his mission in November 1969.  (Johnson Space Flight Center)
Gordon, who was selected in the third group of astronauts, grew up in Seattle and attended the University of Washington, where he received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Flying in the Apollo 12 command module alone, he orbited the moon 45 times and kept it flight ready for his crewmates to return from the lunar surface. Gordon logged nearly 316 hours in space, including his time as a Gemini 11 astronaut. He retired from the Navy as a captain and later had a varied business career, including being executive vice president of the New Orleans Saints football team. Gordon was 88 when he died and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
The crew of Skylab II (from right to left): astronaut Alan L. Bean, foreground, commander; scientist-astronaut Owen K. Garriott, left, science pilot; and astronaut Jack R. Lousma, pilot. This crew spent 59 days and 11 hours in orbit. (NASA on the Commons photo 72-HC-90/ Flickr)
Like Gordon, Bean thought he would command a future Apollo mission that eventually was canceled. Next, Bean trained for the second crewed flight to the orbiting workshop, Skylab (Skylab 2). He was launched to it on a Saturn 1B rocket with new astronauts Owen Garriott and Jack Lousma from Kennedy Space Center’s Complex 39B on July 28, 1973. Bean was chosen in the third astronaut group and had a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. He logged more than 1,500 of space flight. He retired from the Navy as a captain and became an artist more than a decade after he had landed on the moon with Conrad. Most of Bean’s popular artwork depicted highlights of Apollo missions. He died on May 26. 2018, at the age of 86 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Astronaut Alan L. Bean, commander of the second Skylab crew, participates in the final extravehicular activity (EVA) of that mission, during which a variety of tasks were performed. Here, Bean is near the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM) during final film change out for the giant telescope facility. Astronaut Owen K. Garriott, who took the picture, is reflected in Bean's helmet visor. The reflected Earth disk in Bean's visor is so clear that the Red Sea and Nile River area can delineated. (NASA image SL3-122-2612 via NASA on the Commons/ Flickr)
Apollo 11 might be better known as our nation’s first manned lunar-landing mission, but Apollo 12 pioneered a number of its own notable firsts.

Editor's Note: In addition to serving as public affairs officer for 17 years at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Steve Milner was also a public affairs contractor with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at Cape Canaveral during the manned Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Fifty Years Ago: Apollo 11 was a Tough Act to Follow, but Apollo 12 Made a Pinpoint Lunar Landing

Astronaut Charles "Pete" Conrad begins descending the ladder from the Apollo XII lunar module "Intrepid" in this photograph taken by lunar module pilot Alan Bean on November 19, 1969.  (Apollo film magazine 46Y/ Project Apollo Archive)
By Steve Milner
Contributing Writer

“Whoopie! Man, that might have been one small step for Neil (Armstrong), but it was a long one for me.”

So said astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr. as he slowly descended the ladder of the Apollo 12 lunar module, call sign Intrepid, on November 19, 1969, becoming the third person to walk on the moon’s surface 50 years ago.
In this official portrait of the prime crew of the Apollo 12 lunar landing mission taken in September 1969 we see (from left) Mission Commander Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr., Command Module pilot, Richard F. Gordon Jr. and Lunar Module pilot Alan L. Bean. The Apollo 12 mission was the second lunar landing mission in which the third and fourth American astronauts, both naval officers, set foot upon the Moon. (NASA on the Commons image S69-38852)
As planned, Apollo astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean landed their lunar module (background) about 600 feet from the Surveyor 3 spacecraft, launched to the moon two years earlier. On their second extravehicular activity (EVA-2) conducted on November 20, 1969, they removed some components for study on earth. (Project Apollo Archive)
Unlike Apollo 11, which missed its primary landing site, Apollo 12 touched down precisely as planned in the “Ocean of Storms,” about 600 feet from the unmanned Surveyor 3 spacecraft that had landed on the lunar surface two-and-a-half years earlier. The astronauts brought back some of Surveyor’s parts to earth for specialists to examine how well they withstood this harsh environment. While Apollo 11 named its landing site, “Tranquility Base,” Apollo 12 astronauts didn’t designate a catchy name for theirs, other than to refer to it as the geological, cratered “Ocean of Storms.”
The official crew insignia for Apollo 12, the United States' second lunar landing mission. The clipper ship signifies that the crew is all Navy and symbolically relates the era of the clipper ship to the era of space flight. The portion of the moon shown is representative of the Ocean of Storms area in which Apollo 12 will land. (NASA illustration)
Lunar Module Pilot Alan Lavern Bean, nicknamed “Beano,” had followed Conrad to the surface, while Command Module Pilot, Richard Francis Gordon, Jr. orbited overhead in their mother ship, call sign “Yankee Clipper.” Here, he would orbit the moon alone 45 times while keeping “Yankee Clipper” on target to receive his crewmates after their lunar stay.
The huge 363-foot tall Apollo 12 space vehicle (Spacecraft 108/Lunar Module 6/ Saturn 507) lifts off from Pad A, Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center at 11:22 a.m. on November 14, 1969.  The lightening strike that hit the space vehicle moments after launch was not captured in this image. (NASA on the Commons/ Image S69-58564)
Apollo 12 started on a rough, potentially dangerous launch from Kennedy Space Center on November 14, 1969. I can still see that incredibly long lightning strike as I watched it hit their Saturn V rocket at T+36 seconds, as it rose slowly skyward during a rainstorm. I wondered then why NASA had launched Apollo 12 in marginal weather conditions. At that time, some felt that this launch proceeded that day because then-President Richard Nixon was watching its liftoff at the Spaceport’s VIP site, three-and-a-half miles from Launch Complex 39A, and NASA didn’t want to disappoint him. I hoped that wasn’t the case; that the Space Agency would have jeopardized the astronauts’ safety for political reasons.
Dr. Thomas Paine, NASA Administrator, shields the First Lady, Mrs. Pat Nixon, from rain while the President and daughter Tricia, foreground, watch Apollo 12 pre-launch activities at the Kennedy Space Center viewing area on November 14, 1969. Following the successful liftoff, the President congratulated the launch crew from within the control center. (NASA photo courtesy of Steve Milner)
This lightning strike, measuring the length of the 36-story space vehicle, also struck and damaged its launch pad. Conrad correctly deduced later that as the Saturn V lifted off, it had trailed a column of flame and ionized gases that stretched to the ground, becoming the world’s longest lightning rod.
After the successful launch of Apollo 12, President Richard Nixon congratulates NASA and contractor personnel within the spaceport's Launch Control Center. (NASA photo courtesy of Steve Milner)
When this anomaly occurred, numerous spacecraft panel lights flashed simultaneously, signaling that critical systems aboard the Apollo 12 command module weren’t functioning and were damaged. Neither the astronauts nor their ground controllers had seen as many warning lights activated at the same time in their training mission simulators.
Not only did Apollo 12 have an all-Navy flight crew, but the Navy's Atlantic Fleet Manned Space Recovery Force (CTF-140) was dedicated to their survival. From their headquarters in Washington DC, Chief Warrant Officer James D. Parker of Pequot, Minnesota, and Lieutenant Carl J. Newberg of Hinsdale, Illinois, monitor mission reports from ships and aircraft of the Atlantic Fleet. (National Archives and Records Administration via Naval History and Heritage Command)
Despite this unexpected and scary situation, the flight crew reacted calmly and quickly, troubleshooting these anomalies, which included mostly false readouts. Fortunately, the lightning strike didn’t activate the Spacecraft’s launch escape system, (LES). If this had happened, it would have jettisoned their spacecraft away from its launch vehicle, and the spacecraft would have been, hopefully, carried by parachute to the ground, scrubbing the lunar mission. But the space vehicle continued safely to earth orbit. A second lighting strike also hit the Saturn V while it was en route to earth orbit.
Seen from the command module "Yankee Clipper," the lunar module "Intrepid" orients itself high above the lunar surface before deorbiting on November 19, 1969. (Project Apollo Archive)
Following mating with its lunar module and Translunar Injection (TLI), the astronauts began their three-day, nearly 250,000-mile journey to the moon. After orbiting the moon and separating their lunar module from their command module, Conrad and Bean descended to the moon’s surface. During their more than 31 hours on the moon, they conducted two Extra Vehicular Activities (EVAs), each lasting three-and-a-half hours, visited several craters, gathered 75 pounds of lunar samples and walked farther and explored more lunar terrain than Apollo 11 astronauts Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin had done.
The Passive Seismic Experiment (PSE) module deployed as a part of Apollo 12's Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP), which was deployed on five of the six successful missions. It consists of a seismometer surrounded by an apron of aluminized Mylar to reduce surface temperature fluctuations, recording moonquakes and meteorite impacts.  (Project Apollo Archive)
They also set up the nuclear-powered Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP), which quickly sent data back to earth. But among the Apollo 12 crew’s crowning achievements, in addition to the unique rocks they brought back, was their precise landing near the Surveyor 3 spacecraft.
The Anti-Submarine Warfare Support Aircraft Carrier USS Hornet (CVS 12) prepares to recover the Apollo Twelve Command Module following its splashdown southeast of the island of Samoa, November 24, 1969. (National Archives and Records Administration via Naval History and Heritage Command)
On November 20, Conrad and Bean lifted off in the ascent stage of their lunar module and rendezvoused and docked with their command module that Gordon was piloting. Four days later, they splashed down in the Pacific Ocean and were taken aboard the mission’s primary recovery ship, USS Hornet (CVS 12), the same vessel that had picked up the Apollo 11 crew. Like the Apollo 11 crew, Conrad, Gordon and Bean were isolated to ensure they didn’t bring back lunar germs.

Editor's Note: In addition to serving as public affairs officer for 17 years at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Steve Milner was also a public affairs contractor with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at Cape Canaveral during the manned Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

November 14-15, 1942: Night of the Battleships

The U.S. battleship USS Washington (BB 56) firing upon the Japanese battleship Kirishima, during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on the night of November 14-15, 1942. The low elevation of the barrels shows how the close range of the adversaries, only 7,700 m (8,400 yards), point blank range for the 16 inch/45 caliber main armament of Washington. (Wikimedia commons)
By Zachary Smyers
HRNM Educator

Late on the evening of November 14, 1942, two American battleships, USS Washington (BB 56) and USS South Dakota (BB 57), took on elements of the Imperial Japanese Navy (known as “The Tokyo Express”) in what has been referred to as The Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. The battle would be the first time U.S. battleships fought against a Japanese battleship. Much like the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the second battle would take place at night in complete darkness. 

William "Bull" Halsey (National Archives)
It was indeed a gamble for Admiral William “Bull” Halsey to detach his only two battleships in the area from providing protection to the carrier USS Enterprise (CV 6), but Halsey had promised the Marines on Guadalcanal that he would give them all he had. So, the six-ship task force under the command of Rear Admiral Willis Lee made its way towards Savo Sound where so many of their fellow Sailors had fought and died during the first battle.
Rear Adm. Willis A. Lee, Jr., USN, Commander Battleship Division Six. Pencil sketch portrait by Commander Dwight Shepler, USNR, December 1942.  (U.S. Navy Art Collection/ National Archives)

What Lee’s task force lacked in number of ships was made up for in firepower. Both Washington and South Dakota had nine 16-inch main guns which were capable of firing a 2,700-pound armor piercing projectile at long range. This, factored in with a precise fire control system and surface search radar, made the two battleships quite formidable.
USS Washington (BB 56) off New York City, August 21, 1942. Note barge alongside amidships and OS2U floatplane afloat off her stern. (Bureau of Ships Collection/ National Archives and Records Administration 19-N-33803)
The American task force was spotted by Japanese destroyers (there were three destroyers and a light cruiser) which were screening for the Japanese advanced force at 2300 on November 14. The advanced force, which was under the command of Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo, consisted of the battleship Kirishima (sister ship of the ill-fated Hiei), the heavy cruisers Takao and Atago; the light cruiser Nagara, and the destroyers Shirayuki, Hatsuyuki, Teruzuki, Samidare, Inazuma, and Asagumo. The objective of the advanced force was to bombard the Marines on Guadalcanal, while Rear Adm. Lee’s objective was to prevent that from happening.
The Japanese battleship Kirishima. (Kure Maritime Museum)
The evening’s silence was broken when Washington opened fire at 11:16 pm. The 16-inch salvo from the Washington was followed by a salvo from South Dakota. The first shots fired by the two American battleships at the Japanese had passed over their intended targets. Adjustments were quickly made in the gun houses onboard both ships, and 45 seconds later, the second salvo was fired. Officers on watch observing the surface search radar saw the image of the target flicker, which indicated that the 16-inch shells had indeed made an impact.
Chart of the second phase of the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, 23:30-02:00, November 14-15, 1942. Key: A- U.S. warship force: Washington (solid black  line) South Dakota (large dotted line), and four destroyers (small dotted line is route of Gwin and Benham) B- Japanese destroyer Ayanami C- Japanese light cruiser Sendai and destroyers Uranami and Shikinami D- Japanese light cruiser Nagara and destroyers Shirayuki, Hastuyuki, Samidare, and Inazuma E- Japanese bombardment force: battleship Kirishima, heavy cruisers Atago and Takao, and destroyers Asagumo and Teruzuki 1- Location of sinking U.S. destroyers Preston and Walke 2- Location of sinking Japanese destroyer Ayanami 3- Location of sinking, Japanese battleship Kirishima. (Angelus/ Wikimedia Commons)
As the battle continued, Washington’s secondary five-inch batteries began to engage targets as well. The Japanese destroyer Ayanami, which was part of the sweeping unit, opened fire which revealed its position. This made it even easier for Washington to track her, and Ayanami received several hits from Washington which damaged Ayanami’s propulsion system as well as set the ship on fire. Ayanami would eventually sink.
Surrounded by an oily sheen, the beat-up battleship South Dakota after the battle and two destroyers alongside USS Prometheus (AR 3) for repairs, probably at Noumea, New Caledonia, in November 1942. The inboard destroyer, with the distorted bow, is probably USS Mahan (DD 364), which was damaged in a collision with South Dakota at the close of the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on October 27, 1942.  South Dakota received damage in both that battle and in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on November 15, 1942. The other destroyer may be USS Lamson (DD 367). (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives, 80-G-36088)
Lee’s task force continued to track and fire on the Japanese ships when tragedy struck South Dakota. An electrical failure onboard the ship knocked out South Dakota’s radar, gyros, and the ability to fire her main guns. The ship became blind and incapable of being able to put fire on the enemy. The power was eventually restored to the systems, but by this time South Dakota was less than three nautical miles from the approaching Japanese ships. South Dakota was illuminated by search lights from the cruiser Atago, and the other Japanese ships along with Atago opened fire, scoring 27 hits.
Damage photograph of USS South Dakota showing shell hole in ship's side starboard, at frame 29-31. Taken after the naval battle off Guadalcanal, November 15,1942. (National Archives and Records Administration 19-N-42754)
While South Dakota kept the Japanese ships distracted, Washington was able to open fire on the Japanese ships and remain undetected. Firing a combination of five-inch shells, five-inch illumination rounds, and her 16-inch main batteries, Washington scored several hits on Kirishima at a distance of 8,400 yards. Due to the severe damage received from Washington, Kirishima eventually sank.
Rear Adm. Willis A. Lee is presented with the Navy Cross by Admiral William F. Halsey, during ceremonies on board a U.S. Navy warship in the South Pacific, circa January 1943. Rear Adm. Lee received the decoration in recognition of his achievements during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, November 14-15, 1942. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives)
Rear Adm. Lee and his small task force had prevented the Japanese from resupplying their troops as well as bombarding the Marines. For his leadership during the battle, Lee received the Navy Cross. Halsey’s gamble of dividing what little forces he had left had paid off and the Marines were eventually able to secure Guadalcanal. For the people of the United States, defeating the Japanese in a major land battle was a much-needed boost for the morale on the homefront. For the United States Navy, the battles that took place during the campaign for Guadalcanal were a series of very bloody lessons in how to conduct naval warfare at night against a seasoned enemy.
Back in fighting shape, USS South Dakota off the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, August 20, 1943. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command)
This huge Japanese torpedo, Type 93 (long lance), fired from a submarine, failed to hit its mark during the Guadalcanal Campaign. It plunged harmlessly ashore on the beach of Guadalcanal. U.S. Navy photograph. (National Archives and Records Administration Lot-801-27 via Naval History and Heritage Command/ Flickr)
USS Washington (BB 56) and USS Enterprise (CV 6) Transiting the Panama Canal from the Pacific to the Atlantic, early in October 1945. They were then en route to the U.S. East Coast to participate in Navy Day celebrations. (National Archives and Records Administration 80-G-K-6568)

Friday, November 8, 2019

Seventy-Five Years Ago: Gone in a Flash

An old naval aphorism goes, "Why die? Go supply!"

But warfighting is a dangerous business from stem to stern; whether at the tip of the spear or in the rear with the gear.

On the morning of November 10, 1944, Lieutenant Lester A. Wallace, a Naval Reserve communications officer originally from Atlanta, Georgia, learned this in a very visceral way after leading 13 of his men ashore from the ammunition ship Mount Hood (AE-11). Wallace was to pick up new communications manuals and his charges were assigned to pick up mail or receive dental treatment.
Smoke cloud expanding, just after USS Mount Hood (AE 11) exploded in Seeadler Harbor, Manus, Admiralty Islands, 10 November 1944. Photographed by a photographer of the 57th Construction Battalion, who had set up his camera to take pictures of the Battalion's camp. (Commander Lester B. Marx Collection, U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)
"We went ashore about 0830 (8:30 A.M.) and were walking up the beach," he reported later, "when a sailor, with a startled look in his eye, screamed: 'LOOK!', and pointed to seaward. There was a flash, followed by two quick explosions. We were knocked down, but scrambled to our feet and got back in the boat.”
The mushroom cloud marking the death of USS Mount Hood expands over Seeadler Harbor, Manus, Admiralty Islands, on the morning of November 10, 1944. (Collection of Commander Lester B. Marx, Commanding Officer of the 57th C.B. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)
One moment, Mount Hood was a 13,910-ton ship with a crew of over 300 men, loaded with over 3,800 tons of ammunition. The next, it was a smoking column of smoke and fire that ultimately stretched 7,000 feet into the sky and measured a half-mile wide at its base. The explosion carved a trench in the harbor floor 35 feet below the surface measuring over 300 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 30 to 40 feet deep.
Explosion of USS Mount Hood (AE 11) at Seeadler Harbor, Manus Island, Admiralty Islands, seen from USS Omanney Bay (CVE 79), located between four and-a-half and 5 miles from scene, one and-a-half minutes after explosion.  Released November 10, 1944. (National Archives and Records Administration image 80-G-289933)
In an instant, Lt. Wallace was rendered the only surviving officer of the 22 detailed to the ship. The 13 Sailors with him, along with four others sent ashore separately that morning, two of whom for pre-trial confinement, were left the only other survivors from Mount Hood's enlisted compliment of 296.
Small craft gathered around USS Mindanao (ARG 3) during salvage and rescue efforts shortly after Mount Hood blew up about 350 yards away from Mindanao's port side. Mindanao, and seven motor minesweepers (YMS) moored to her starboard side, were damaged by the blast, as were USS Alhena (AKA 9), in the photo's top left center, and USS Oberrender (DE-344), in top right. Note the extensive oil slick, with tracks through it made by small craft. (Copied from the War Diary, Manus Naval Base, for November 1944. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)
Not only was the entire ship destroyed, but nothing within 500 feet of the explosion survived intact, including eight landing craft mechanized (LCMs), and pontoon lighters being used to transfer ordnance, as well as 13 other whaleboats and other small craft, including auxiliary motor minesweepers. It was estimated that over 350 Sailors died in the instant holocaust, with 82 killed aboard the repair ship USS Mindanao (ARG 3), a former Liberty ship, which was floating only about 350 yards away from Mount Hood.  Around an equal number were injured in the blast.

Salvage and rescue work underway on USS Mindanao (ARG 3) shortly after Mount Hood blew up about 350 yards away from where the ammunition ship had been moored. Note heavy damage to Mindanao's hull and superstructure, including large holes from fragment impacts. View looks forward from alongside her port quarter. USS Mindanao had 180 crewmen killed and injured by this explosion. She was under repair until December 21, 1944. Small craft alongside or nearby include (from left) YPB-6 (probable identification), two LCVPs and YPB-7. (Copied from the War Diary, Manus Naval Base, for November 1944 U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)
Pharmacist's Mate Hunter Gammon, originally from Kerrville, Texas, was dispatched to Mindanao from where he had been working at a naval hospital on Manus Island, encountered "an unbelievable scene of human carnage with men still living with arms gone, legs gone, terrible wounds in chests and stomachs."

"Jagged metal shards were sticking out of the living as well as the dead," Gammon continued. "My medical team stayed on board this slaughterhouse until early evening doing our best to ease the pain and suffering of the victims."

The repair ship Argonne (AG 31) was caught 1,100 yards away from the explosion and was pelted with at least 220 pieces of Mount Hood. Over 1,300 pounds of debris was recovered from that ship and the waters immediately surrounding it alone.

Damage to Quonset huts atop the barge YF-681 from concussion from the explosion that destroyed USS Mount Hood. The barge is alongside USS Argonne (AG 31), which was also damaged by the blast. (Copied from the War Diary, Manus Naval Base, for November 1944. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)
Seabees stationed on Manus were also dispatched to Mindanao and other damaged ships still afloat in order to assist in repairs. One of them, welder William Meinders, told Sea Classics magazine in 2006:

It was difficult to accept the way our shipmates had died; that your mortality was so easily swept away–your life gone without a trace as if it had never existed. Words must have been stopped in mid-sentence, or caught in the middle of a thought the moment she blew. I guess they never knew what hit them.

The board of investigation convened to look into the disaster didn’t know what hit them either, nor could they reach an ironclad conclusion. Although they decisively dispelled theories about Japanese midget submarines or an air attack, another notorious culprit came to the fore.

Their final report released in December noted, “Evidence indicates the possibility of the detonation of TPX loaded depth bombs while it was being loaded into the number three or number four hold.”

Torpex. This was exactly the same type of munition that had caused Naval Air Station Norfolk’s worst-ever disaster in September 1943, and a similarly catastrophic accident at Naval Weapons Station Yorktown just shy of two months later. The casualty count from those accidents, particularly the one at Yorktown, were limited in scope due to the limited amount of munitions involved. This time, however, the unstable depth bombs were being handled within a huge ammunition ship packed with ordnance. Mount Hood was acting as a mobile ammunition depot in its own right, containing all the munitions being used by the Third Fleet at the time.

USS Mount Hood appears in Measure 32 camouflage pattern in a print by David Hendrickson. (HRNM Study Collection S2015.4)
USS Mount Hood (AE 11) off Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, July 16, 1944. She is painted in camouflage Measure 32, Design 18F. (Photograph 19-N-70330 from the Bureau of Ships Collection, National Archives and Records Administration)
Just a year before the disaster, Mount Hood had been the U.S. Maritime Commission C2 all-purpose cargo ship SS Marco Polo, but it had been converted at Norfolk Navy Yard into an ammunition ship.

Recommissioned on July 1, 1944, Mount Hood left Hampton Roads for the Pacific in August, arriving at Seeadler Harbor, Manus, on September 22, which was a major staging area northeast of Papua New Guinea for the invasion of the Philippines over 3,000 miles away.

USS Mount Hood (AE 11) underway in Hampton Roads, Virginia, August 6, 1944. (Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)
Mount Hood was struck from the naval register on December 11, 1944, but her name lived on in USS Mount Hood (AE-29) for nearly three decades until she was scrapped in 2013.  Today, original prints of both Mount Hood and Argonne reside in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's study collection, reminders of two overlooked support vessels that Sailors took directly into harm's way, giving the ultimate sacrifice three-quarters of a century ago.

USS Argonne, a Pearl Harbor attack survivor which also survived the Mount Hood disaster, was scrapped after the war. (HRNM Study Collection S2015.3)