Wednesday, November 21, 2018

One Century Ago: What Victory Looks Like

Standing on the battleship HMS King George V on the morning of November 21, 1918, artist R.C. Kimmel made a watercolor the American ships of the British Grand Fleet’s Sixth Battle Squadron (known as Battleship Division Nine of the Atlantic Fleet before joining the Grand Fleet just shy of a year earlier). The lead ship is USS New York (BB 34), commanded by E.L. Beach. Following are the battleship Wyoming (BB 32), commanded by Captain H.H. Christy; USS Florida (BB-30), commanded by Captain M.M. Taylor; USS Arkansas (BB 33), commanded by Captain L.R. de Steiuger; and the battleship Texas (BB 35), commanded by Captain Victor Blue. The squadron remained under the overall command of U.S. Navy Admiral Hugh Rodman during its service with the Grand Fleet, which was enjoying one of the greatest days in its history.  The German High Seas Fleet had finally come out one last time to face the Royal Navy; not to fight, but to surrender.
Although the title of this watercolor is “The German Fleet Enters Scapa Flow, 21 November 1918,” the artist R.C. Kimmel probably recorded this scene as the Germans met the Grand Fleet off the Isle of Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth, off the coast of Scotland.  After the German ships made anchor there and were inspected, they later made their way north to Scapa Flow in the Orkneys.  Along the left-hand side of the image are the words “6th B.S. [Battle Squadron, made up of Battleship Division Nine of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet]” and “5th B.S.” Along the right-hand side are the first three German ships of the High Seas Fleet, all battle-scarred veterans of the Battle of Jutland, coming in to surrender; SMS Seydlitz, Moltke, and Derfflinger, being led by light cruiser HMS Cardiff.  Heading in the opposite direction from the main fleet columns is the British scout cruiser Blanche. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum collection)
The American battleships were located right in the middle of the British Grand Fleet Northern Line, which was comprised of a column of 19 battleships, five battlecruisers, two cruisers, and 13 light cruisers. Six miles to the south was the British Grand Fleet Southern Line, consisting of 14 battleships, four battlecruisers, one aircraft carrier, one cruiser, and 12 light cruisers. Between them was a column of 71 German warships under the command of Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter in his flagship Friederich der Grosse. The German column was led by the light cruiser HMS Cardiff, which a correspondent for The Times of London described as being like watching “a school of leviathans led by a minnow.” 

While American destroyers began operating with the British fleet in May 1917, the reluctance of American admirals to disperse their battleships among the British fleet resulted in a delay in their deployment until a more satisfactory arrangement could be made. Battleship Division Nine, commanded by Admiral Hugh Rodman, arrived on December 7, 1917, and quickly began operating as the Sixth Squadron of the British Grand Fleet. In this painting by the celebrated Bernard Gribble, who also created the most well-known painting of the American destroyer squadron's arrival in May, USS New York (BB 34) leads the arriving ships, along with Wyoming (BB 32), Florida (BB 30), and Delaware (BB 28). Cheering their arrival is the crew of HMS Queen Elizabeth, commanded by Admiral David Beatty.  (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
British accounts of what the Admiralty dubbed “Operation ZZ” neglected to mention the presence of American battleships looming large over the subdued yet awesome sight. The Royal Navy obviously regarded the victory that day as theirs, but it was the United States Navy that made it possible. After all, American destroyers had played a key role in stemming the U-boat menace that threatened Great Britain’s food supplies. American know-how and production capability had created superior sea mines in numbers great enough to close off the North Sea to German U-boats. The battleships of the Sixth Battle Squadron had acted as a screen for the minelaying vessels that summer and early autumn. And of course, nearly half of the over two million members of the American Expeditionary Force had been brought to Europe on vessels of the U.S. Navy’s Cruiser and Transport Force.
The image on the left is a painting by artist Adolph Berens of Wilhelm II, who loved to be seen in the uniform of a Grossadmiral (grand admiral).  Of him, historian Gregor Dallas wrote, “The Kaiser looked upon the Navy as a personal possession­–unlike the Army–and any tinkering with is by the Reichstag, by the government, or even by the generals would raise his imperial ire.  This had given the Navy a degree of independence in Germany that not even the Army enjoyed.”  The image on the right is a postcard in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum collection that was sent from New York to Oklahoma during the war depicting how many outside Germany saw the Kaiser.  Note that President Woodrow Wilson is depicted as being the thumb among the "fingers of fate" tightening around the German monarch.  (Murwik Naval School, Germany/ Wikimedia Commons)
In some ways, Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II had begun the war the way wars began when kings ruled over the continent centuries before. Yet Operation ZZ was a thoroughly modern way to end it; not with sacking, burning, despoliation and subjugation. It was relatively bloodless, the outcome of the formalized cessation of hostilities mandated by an agreement by the loser to deliver the means to continue the war into the victor’s hands; an agreement worked out between the diplomatic corps of the Allies and the Central Powers.

If German officers such as Grossdmiral Reinhard Scheer, chief of the German Admiralty staff, had their way, however, the naval war would not have ended with the fleets coming together in such a clear, carefully choreographed way. Because Germany’s government was effectively under military control, high-ranking Kaiserliche Marine officers had a freer hand than their entente enemies. If Scheer’s plans to end the war his way had come to pass, the High Seas Fleet would have attacked during the middle of armistice negotiations. There was only one thing the admiral had not taken into account: His sailors would have none of it. 

Reinhard Scheer (The European Library/ Wikimedia Commons)

One month before the German High Seas Fleet surrender, Chancellor Prince Max von Baden accepted terms from President Woodrow Wilson as a precondition for concluding an armistice which included ceasing U-boat attacks upon passenger ships, and they were recalled to home waters. Scheer, head of the Seekriegsleitung, merely saw this as an opportunity to utilize them to augment the High Seas Fleet in a decisive blow against the Grand Fleet. Without informing Kaiser Wilhelm or Chancellor von Baden, he transmitted a battle plan via his chief of staff to Adm. Franz Hipper, commander of the High Seas Fleet. As commander of the fleet over two years before, Scheer had led the charge against the British during the Battle of Jutland and dealt more blows to the British than he received in return. He and most of his ships had also escaped afterward to fight another day, yet the memory of that tactical victory had long faded since as the blockade of Germany continued under the guns of the numerically superior Grand Fleet.

Adm. Hipper had also drafted his own plans to sortie and attack upon British supply lines. His chief of staff, Rear Adm. Adolf Von Trotha, described its rationale: “As to a battle for the honor of the fleet in this war, even if it were a death battle, it would be the foundation for a new German fleet of the future if our people were not altogether defeated; such a fleet would be out of the question in the event of a dishonorable peace.” 

Although Jutland had been almost exclusively a warship-to-warship engagement without air or subsurface elements, Scheer planned to employ seven Zeppelins for reconnaissance and approximately 25 U-boats to help even the odds. The operation, dubbed Flottenvorstoss, was scheduled to begin on October 30. Although unwitting of the German plans and unprepared for an attack made during armistice negotiations, many of the British naval officers would also have preferred a climactic battle to settle the naval war decisively, once and for all. Who among them didn’t want to become his generation’s Nelson?

“Would [a German attack] have really mattered by this date?” asked historian Paul G. Halpern rhetorically. “The American army was now in France in great numbers. The convoys were moving vast quantities of supplies with relative safety to the British Isles and France. The German army was in full retreat. What if traffic in the southern North Sea and Dover Strait was temporarily disrupted, or a few British or American warships were lost? The tide would not have turned,” he concluded, “and the German sailors would have lost their lives in vain.”

This fact was not lost on the German sailors who would be tasked with carrying out Hipper’s orders, which many regarded as a “death cruise.” Instead of sortieing to mount a decisive Mahanian attack to regain its honor and relieve pressure on the beleaguered German army, the High Seas Fleet, hobbled as it was both by the fevers of influenza as well as revolutionary fervor, was dispersed to separate ports, where the physical maladies and political unreast spread. On November 9, Sheer broke the news to the Kaiser that the navy could no longer be relied upon, to which the man known as the Supreme War Lord reportedly replied, “I have no longer a Navy,” which were the last words the admiral ever heard from his emperor, who abdicated the same day. Two days after that, the armistice was signed. Ten days after that, the three great columns constituting the greatest gathering of capital ships in world history converged near the Island of Inchkeith off the coast of Scotland.  As the sun went down that day, the Imperial German ensigns of the defeated fleet were lowered for the last time, under Royal Navy orders not to be raised again.  The German warships later proceeded north to Scapa Flow, where they were to remain until a final peace treaty was worked out. 

This painting made by Charles Pears in 1919 depicts several German warships at anchor in the Firth of Forth at sunset, possibly on November 21, 1918, only about nine hours after the scene R.C. Kimmel depicted. (Imperial War Museum)
At a naval review held in honor of the men of Battleship Division 9 the following month, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels remarked, “Sea power once again has demonstrated its primacy in making land victories possible. While the American dreadnoughts, an important part of the world’s strongest armada, were not given the opportunity to win a great sea victory, they did more: The cooperated in receiving the surrendered German fleet, which capitulated to the superior force of the allied fleets, and they will be received at home with all the honors given to valiant victors.”

Friday, November 16, 2018

Seventy-Five Years Ago: Torpex Strikes Again, Part 2

Was It Sabotage? The G-Men Weigh In

(Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)

By Gordon Calhoun
Museum Operations Division Historian, Naval History and Heritage Command

On the fifth day of the official inquiry into the explosion at Naval Mine Depot Yorktown, Captain James G. Ware of the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd) closed the proceedings to the public to discuss the new hypothesis that the incident might not have been an accident. Five officers from the Fifth Naval District’s intelligence office arrived and were briefed. Later in the day, Special Agents John Kissner and Fred Coote of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Norfolk field office arrived and were also briefed. The court then formally requested that the FBI investigate Remie as a possible Nazi agent. The FBI's Norfolk office was one of the Bureau’s newest. Stood up in 1940, agents were specifically tasked with assisting Hampton Roads base commanders with internal security and counter-sabotage operations.

The area at Naval Mine Depot Yorktown's Plant No. 2 area where the near-simultaneous explosions took place on November 16, 1943. Note that two distinct craters can be seen; one made by the initial explosion of Torpex within the Finishing or "cooling" Building, and the other by an adjoining TNT storage area that exploded as a result of the Torpex explosion. Although it was also surrounded by a high earthen berm, the building where the Torpex was originally mixed and added to the mines (middle of photograph) before they were transferred to the Finishing Building was heavily damaged.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file
The FBI agents discovered that Remie was a child born out of wedlock, had dropped out of high school, then entered the U.S. Army during World War I, later receiving an honorable discharge as a second lieutenant. After the war, he worked in his native Tennessee as a phone operator at a soldier’s home, before moving to Virginia to work at Newport News Shipbuilding and then at the Mine Depot.

The agents discovered that Remie was a real life Stanley Kowalski. He was a loner. He had a temper and liked to argue and lecture others about what was wrong with the world. He also liked to brag about his latest business scheme that would make him rich. At one point in his life, he expressed interest in joining the Industrial Workers of the World, a Socialist political front whose members had been accused of sabotage in World War I. He liked to read, particularly works on political theory and practice.

While working at Newport News, someone from Berlin sent him the book The Case for Germany by Arthur P. Laurie. Published in 1939, this book attempted to show that Nazi Germany was a peaceful, modern state, ready to take its place in the civilized world and not the war mongering, hate-filled empire that it had been made out to be.

An unidentified informant told the FBI that he saw Remie in possession of $3,000 in cash and showed it off to people. Considering that Remie only made $1.10 an hour, this was an enormous amount of money. All local banks from Williamsburg to Hampton were alerted to be on the lookout for a large deposit of money. But over and over again, witnesses in both Tennessee and Virginia told the agents that while Remie liked to fuss about what was wrong with the world, he never expressed any sympathy or love for the Nazis or any other extremist organization. They believed Remie to be a completely loyal, hardworking citizen who excessively exercised his First Amendment rights.

In their final report, Agents Kissner and Coote concluded the same. In their opinion, there was no reason to believe that Remie was a Nazi agent or was ever a threat to national security. They also believed that Remie was truly dead. There was no reason to believe that he had somehow miraculously escaped the mammoth explosion.

The Court’s Findings

After seven days of testimony and investigation, the court closed the hearing. It concluded that the Depot’s command staff had taken all necessary safety and security measures. The workforce had been properly trained and there were a sufficient number of Marines keeping a close watch over the Depot’s activities. It concluded that all brush fires were caused by the explosion and not intentionally set.

Mark 19 torpedo warheads are moved from a storage warehouse using flat rail cars on Naval Mine Depot Yorktown's extensive line of railroad tracks. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
 The court did make several points about the ordnance itself. A series of radiographic images of mine cases showed that the mine cases had serious cracks in the welds. Also, rail flat cars loaded with ordnance and parked next to P-2, should not have been left there.

As for Torpex, the court highly recommended further study. It noted that no chemical analysis were made of the Torpex produced at the Depot, neither did the Bureau of Ordnance mandate tests. It concluded that “no clue as to the cause of the explosion has been brought out by this investigation” and “no offenses were committed and that no blame is attached to any personnel.”

Despite the investigation’s admitted shortcomings, and despite the FBI’s report, the investigators still managed to conclude, “It is the opinion of this court that due to the United States being in a state of war, the potential presence of enemy saboteurs is indicated and the possibly of sabotage being the cause of the explosion cannot be overlooked. The absence of an explanation for the explosion based upon spontaneous combustion or chemical disintegration, accentuates the possibility of sabotage being the cause of the explosion.” In other words, despite all the evidence, the court went with the sabotage hypothesis put forward by the judge advocate and Kirkpatrick’s lawyer.

The Court is Overruled

Workers at the site of the explosion at Naval Mine Depot Yorktown remove debris from the site where the equivalent of 150,000 pounds of TNT detonated within a building at the Plant No.2 facility where torpedo warheads, aerial depth bombs and mines were stored to cool down and stabilize after having molten Torpex explosive added to them. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
When the findings reached the Bureau of Ordnance offices in Washington, D.C., the Bureau came to a much different conclusion. About seven months after the explosion, BuOrd investigators believed it was an accident after all. Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance Vice Admiral George Hussey wrote a secret memo to Fleet Admiral Ernest King concluding, “…this explosion resulted from an aircraft mine or similar explosive container being accidentally dropped or bumped against a hard and fairly sharp surface during handling.”

The memo stated that Torpex’s sensitivity was not necessarily to blame. Similar accidents occurred with bombs made only with TNT. The deciding factor in all these accidents was the fact that the bomb hit the ground at a very sharp angle, causing the explosive to detonate.

The memo confirmed that despite its inherent danger, naval ordnance depots and arsenals were too integral to the fleet’s success to slow down.

Editor's Note: According to a 1992 Department of Defense Explosives Safety Board report, three of the eight most deadly ordnance plant incidents of World War II, of which the explosion at Yorktown was not destructive enough to be on, involved Torpex and happened after both of the Torpex incidents that took place in Hampton Roads.  These included incidents in April and September 1944 at Naval Ammunition Depot Hastings, Nebraska, which killed a combined total of 18 and injured 63, as well as an incident in December 1944 at Naval Ammunition Depot McAlester, Oklahoma, which killed 11 workers.  "Due to a number of explosions of this nature," wrote its author, Edward P. Moran, "the U.S. Navy no longer uses Torpex."

This article originally appeared in Volume 14, Issue 3 (2010) of The Daybook, the journal of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. Special thanks to Mr. Doug Johnson, former Naval Weapons Station Yorktown Industrial Engineering head, for clarifying some details about Plant No. 2. Gordon Calhoun was editor of The Daybook from 1995 to 2014.


Thursday, November 15, 2018

Seventy-Five Years Ago: Torpex Strikes Again, Part 1

A Rude Awakening

At 12:27 a.m. on November 16, 1943, the accidental detonation of 104,000 pounds of Torpex (equivalent to over 150,000 pounds of TNT) destroyed two adjoining buildings at Naval Mine Depot Yorktown (now known as Naval Weapons Station Yorktown) leaving two craters, each more than 20 feet deep and over 150 feet wide.  The explosion shattered glass windows for miles around and could be heard as far away as Richmond, Virginia. Although the blast was almost 17 times more powerful than a similar accident that occurred at Naval Air Station Norfolk less than two months earlier that killed 30 and injured approximately 400, six mine depot workers died in the immediate vicinity of the blast and a seventh was killed in another building nearby, while six others were injured. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file photo
By Gordon Calhoun
Museum Operations Division Historian, Naval History and Heritage Command

Early in the morning of November 16, 1943, Captain Richard Kirkpatrick was shaken out of a deep sleep by a very large explosion. The retired naval officer, recently recalled to active duty as the commanding officer of Naval Mine Depot Yorktown, later reported that he gazed out his bedroom window in the direction of the explosion. He got dressed quickly, expecting a phone call any second. When none came, he dialed up the base operator and asked what just happened. Kirkpatrick was informed that one of the ordnance production plants had just exploded.

He rushed to the scene in his car to find his security chief, a Marine lieutenant colonel, and his executive officer coordinating hundreds of Sailors and Marines in fire and rescue operations. Two ships tied up at the Depot’s ammunition loading piers, the minelayers USS Salem (CM 11) and Weehawken (CM 12) rushed hospital corpsmen to the scene. Satisfied that the immediate situation was in good hands, Kirkpatrick proceeded to the blast area where he saw only a few brush fires, but a tremendous amount of debris and unexploded ordnance thrown everywhere.
An aerial photograph taken November 16, 1943, looking northwest, shows the explosion site at the northern end of the Plant No. 2, or "P-2" complex near the northern border of the mine depot, situated slightly east of Felgates Creek, which bisects the northern side of the reservation. Although the loading building directly to the south of the explosion site and warehouses to the north across Main Road sustained damage, it was limited by a high earthen berm that surrounded the Finishing Building, which was largely vaporized in the blast. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)   
When the sun came up, the picture became somewhat more clear. Rescue workers and security personnel saw two craters, each 25 feet deep and 150 feet across. Nothing remained of the building, or the trucks and the railroad flat cars parked nearby. All six men working in the building at the time, five African-Americans and one white supervisor, were killed.

A seventh person, a civilian foreman named James Seawell, was going over the night’s work assignments with his men in another building when the explosion threw him against the wall. A refrigerator then landed on his head. He died the next day, leaving behind a wife and two daughters.
James B. Seawell, the seventh victim. (Courtesy of Charlotte V. Wallace)

The building destroyed was one of four that constituted the Plant No.2, or “P-2” complex, which until recently had been the only facility in America that produced the British-designed explosive known as Torpex. The three main areas of the complex, one for the preparation of the warhead cases and measuring the Torpex ingredients, one for the melting, mixing, and loading of the explosive mixture, and an area for cooling the completed ordnance, were separated by at least 50 yards and high earthen berms. Components were transferred from one area to the next via conveyor belt.

Officially named the Finishing Building, but also known as the “cooling building,” the site of the explosion was the last stop for aerial depth bombs, torpedo warheads, and mines that had been loaded with Torpex in the nearby Loading Building, where petty officers from the Yorktown Mine School had poured the hot liquid explosive mixture into shell casings. The ordnance was then allowed to cool down at the Finishing Building into a more solid state over a period of several hours. Workers then moved the live ordnance from the Finishing Building on to rail flat cars or trucks and then shipped it off to the fleet. 

At the time of the explosion, there was 64,000 pounds of loaded Torpex ordnance inside the building, 21,000 pounds of live Mark 13 Mines on the flat cars, and 18,000 pounds of torpedo warheads and mines on trucks. In all, about 104,000 pounds of Torpex, or the equivalent of 150,000 pounds of TNT, blew the Finishing Building to bits.

Connected to the Finishing Building was another building that served a similar purpose. Here, workers received and stored TNT purchased from the U.S. Army, which was one of three ingredients used to make Torpex. Investigators concluded early on that this was the reason for two separate craters at the blast site. The first crater was the Finishing Building and the second crater was the TNT storage area.
Looking southeast, the obliterated Finishing Building site appears on the other side of Main Road (crossing the center of the image) behind thousands of stacked sea mine and depth bomb casings, many of which have been knocked askew by the force of the explosion. Some of the large storage warehouses in the area, many of which contained explosive ingredients and even finished ordnance awaiting transport, also sustained damage.  Had the building not been surrounded by a large earthen berm, the damage could have been much worse. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file    
The damage could have been much worse, but basic safety measures kept the explosion limited to a confined area. Specifically, most of the ordnance plants and warehouses had tall barriers of sand and dirt on at least three sides. As a result, most of the force of the explosion went harmlessly upwards. The placement of the Depot in a secluded place along the York River in 1918 was done just in case of such of an emergency.

Despite the precautions taken against an accidental explosion, there were serious concerns that this incident had not been accidental. Just two months before, a massive explosion at Naval Air Station Norfolk killed more than 30 Sailors and injured nearly 400. There was a tremendous amount of anxiety that German spies or submarines were active in the area. Within 12 hours of the explosion, the Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd) opened an investigation and convened a court of inquiry.

The Bureau of Ordnance assembled a board of three officers, Captain James G. Ware, Captain Allan W. Ashbrook, and Commander Ashton B. Smith, with Lieutenant Wayne Brooks as judge advocate and lead investigator. The board pursued two major avenues of inquiry.  The first was the production and nature of Torpex, attempting to determine if one of the bombs spontaneously exploded. The second dealt with the men who handled the explosives and whether or not they were handling it safely.

Investigating a Top Secret Explosive

A diagram shows the design of the Mark 18 torpedo warhead, which was filled with 660 pounds of Torpex at the Yorktown Mine Depot. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file
Capt. Kirkpatrick and his chief engineer led off the testimony by briefing the panel on the Depot’s mission of ordnance production and details of its Torpex manufacturing process. Investigators quickly focused on the latter. Kirkpatrick testified that after the British handed over the formula for Torpex to the United States in 1942, BuOrd selected Yorktown to be the first for domestic manufacturing. A new plant was up and running by spring of 1943 and within days, mines, bombs, and torpedoes loaded with explosives were being shipped out to the fleet.

Initially, engineers believed that 500,000 pounds of live ordnance a month was the maximum amount that could be safely manufactured. Within a few weeks, however, the demand for Torpex from the Navy and the U.S. Army Air Corps (Torpex was used in bombs for the 8th Army Air Force’s campaign over Germany) was so high that the facility was producing and shipping out more than four times that amount a month. Kirkpatrick and his staff believed this was too dangerous and cut back production to 1,400,000 pounds a month. 

One of the pictures from the inquiry shows Mark 19 torpedo warheads on a loading dock at one of the buildings at the mine depot. Although it might appear as though they were moved around by hand trucks, the warheads were actually moved via harnesses attached to overhead monorails. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Even with the lower production levels, live ordnance was piling up in the warehouses. Ordnance recently loaded with hot, liquid Torpex had to be stored somewhere in order to cool off. There was no special place for this stage of production. As a result, 105,000 pounds of live ordnance was stored within the P-2 complex and not a separate area. The court asked Kirkpatrick why this was the case, and he replied that there simply was not room anywhere else, nor was there time to build a new storage facility. It would be the first of many times throughout that since the demand for Torpex was so high and was considered such a critical tool for Allied war success, the production of the explosive was rushed. More direct complaints along these same lines came from the Depot’s ordnance production officer who testified that the machine used to make Torpex was flawed. He stated that the Depot’s machines came straight from Britain and were operated under the assumption that they were safe.

The court then turned its attention to the safety of Torpex itself and received conflicting answers. Kirkpatrick and others acknowledged that Torpex was somewhat more unstable than other explosives. The witnesses also stated that they were aware that leaking gas caused by Torpex production possibly caused the Naval Air Station Norfolk explosion (which was later determined not to be the case) and had taken all necessary steps to monitor gas leaks.

A civilian chemist from BuOrd later testified that Torpex passed accepted safety tests, namely an “anvil” test. In this test the explosive was dropped from a certain height on to a hard surface to see what would happen.  However, the Depot’s chief chemist, Lieutenant N.H. Bullard, testified that “[Torpex] was an explosive, the research upon which is still in the process of being developed.” Bullard went on to state that he was never fully briefed about the detailed properties of Torpex. His knowledge of the explosive amounted to some papers from British scientists that gave a general overview and a few briefings. There was some research that showed that Torpex was more heat sensitive than other explosives, but not much else was known.

None of those interviewed pointed fingers directly at each other, but many veiled accusations were made. All of the Depot’s senior staff had Navy lawyers at the hearing who were allowed to cross-examine witnesses as needed. On a number of occasions, the officers’ lawyers made sure that their clients were not being implicated. For example, when a third class petty officer stated that he had heard that P-2’s workers frequently dropped live ordnance, the executive officer’s lawyer got him to admit he had never actually seen a piece of ordnance dropped.

Given the number of Navy careers possibly in jeopardy because of the incident and to avoid any conflict of interest issues, the court called on the U.S. Army’s Chief of Ordnance to provide a more neutral assessment of the damage. The Army sent Captain Charles Ford from the Ordnance Department’s Safety and Security Branch to examine the blast site and testify.

Ford first stated that there was “mute evidence” to support his opinions.  The explosion was so powerful and in such a concentrated area that items like the remains of the building, the rail cars, human remains, or shell casings had literally been obliterated. Having stated that, he believed that the first of four separate explosions occurred inside the building. The first explosion led in quick succession to a series of three more. When asked for his opinion on how the explosion happened, he stated that “rough handling” by P-2’s workers “could have been a cause.” Ford added, that like the Depot’s ordnance officer, he was not sufficiently informed about the properties of Torpex and its sensitivity to being dropped or the effect of extreme temperatures.

Investigating the Workforce

Having found the evidence on the safety of Torpex inconclusive, the Court turned its attention to P-2’s workers to determine if “rough handling” of the ordnance was indeed the reason.

A photo taken at Naval Mine Depot Yorktown sometime in 1945 apparently shows vats used in the mixing of liquefied explosive ingredients as well as the pouring of the mixed ingredients into bomb casings. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Like many industrial activities in the United States during World War II, the Yorktown Mine Depot grew exponentially to meet the war’s demands. From a civilian workforce of 1,182 in December 1941, by November 1943 the Depot employed more than 2,300 civilian workers, including about 600 women and 500 African-American men. Working alongside them were about 900 active duty Sailors.

Although a few of the senior officers testified that they were of the opinion that some of the civilian workers, particularly the ones involved in manual labor, were not the most educated or qualified, they did not believe any were incompetent or reckless.

Commander Leon J. Manees, the Depot’s executive officer and safety officer, testified that the workforce was adequately briefed on safety regulations. The workers were subject to eleven different safety memos that covered everything from how to handle live ordnance to the dangers of smoking around live ordnance. Safety officers often asked random questions to test their knowledge. The Depot’s ordnance officer stated, “Personally, I have not seen any cases of unsafe handling of Torpex. I think that most people who handle it, treat it with the greatest respect.”

A few witnesses testified that they believed the Depot could have been safer. Two railroad engineers, for example, stated that when they worked on civilian railroads, hazardous cargo was handled with more care and more gently. A few other witnesses testified that they had heard that the P-2 workforce handled cargo recklessly, but admitted that they never personally witnessed it.

The court moved on from safety procedures to focus on the six men who were working in P-2. The work team in consisted of five African-American laborers supervised by a Caucasian named Jay Remie. Remie’s supervisor testified that he had hand picked this group out of a pool of several hundred workers, and had never had to correct any of them for safety violations. He stated that he had personally known all of the laborers since they were young boys.

Several witnesses were in agreement when they testified that the laborers were standing around two Mark 13 mines awaiting moving instructions, while Remie was in the warehouse’s office making a phone call. The call was made about twenty minutes after midnight. Seven minutes later, P-2 exploded.

One witness stated that Remie had called to ask where to move a mine. Others, however, were not so sure. The lack of any known safety violations and the lack of any hard evidence that Torpex was unsafe led some to believe that the timing of Remie’s phone call and the explosion was not a coincidence. The Depot’s judge advocate and Captain Kirkpatrick’s lawyer in particular believed that Remie’s activities were suspicious and strongly believed that Remie received the signal to set off the explosion as an act of sabotage. Not only did they believe that Remie blew up P-2 intentionally, the two lawyers were of the opinion that Remie escaped and was still alive.

Next:  Was It Sabotage?

Editor's Note:  This article originally appeared in Volume 14, Issue 3 (2010) of The Daybook, the journal of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.  Special thanks to Mr. Doug Johnson, former Naval Weapons Station Yorktown Industrial Engineering head, for clarifying some details about Plant No. 2. Gordon Calhoun was editor of The Daybook from 1995 to 2014.