By January 1950, USS Missouri (BB-63) was the last of the Iowa-class ships still in service. Her fame as the site of the Japanese surrender and her patronage from President Harry Truman surely helped in this regard, as the other battleships had been decommissioned. Events would soon unfold that brought fame of a different sort to the “Mighty Mo.”
|USS Missouri (BB-63)|
After four months of overhaul at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Missouri was set to sail to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for exercises. Her commanding officer (CO) was Captain William D. Brown, who had only recently taken over command. A few weeks before sailing, the Navy requested that Missouri participate in some tests regarding underwater acoustic cables. To do so, the ship would sail between some buoys near Thimble Shoal, just outside the mouth of Hampton Roads. Captain Brown agreed to this request but apparently did not inform most of his officers, which would prove to be a grave oversight. In addition, the charts that the Navy had were marked with five buoys showing the acoustic channel, but a few had been removed, leaving only two in the water. Only the navigator was aware of this fact and did not effectively communicate this to the CO or to anyone else.
|Map of Hampton Roads, with Missouri's path marked|
On the morning of January 17, 1950, Missouri began to leave Hampton Roads. It was only near Fort Wool (Rip Raps) that Brown told his officers about the acoustic test. The officers appeared confused at this news. The captain then told them, “Go get yourselves informed!” The ocean current was strong that morning, so the ship’s speed was increased to 15 knots. A buoy was soon spotted and was identified as one of the acoustic range markers, but was incorrectly thought to be for the right side of the range. Captain Brown ordered the Missouri to steer to the left of this marker. As the acoustic range was close to the danger zone for the shallows near Thimble Shoal, this was a hazardous decision.
As the ship plunged ahead, the officers sighted two more buoys. These indicated a fishing channel, but Brown thought they were the end of the acoustic range. Several officers and quartermasters disagreed and tried to inform the CO of the approaching danger. Both the navigational officer and executive officer suggested that the ship be steered to the right, but Brown ignored them. Missouri came aground hard on the shoal. Her momentum pushed the ship 2,500 feet, finally resting several feet out of the water. As this event happened during a very high tide, the ship was soon high and dry to a considerable degree. The weight of the ship would lead to structural damage on the hull.
A combination of arrogance, miscommunication, and poor leadership led to this debacle. Even worse yet, this incident occurred within view of both Naval Station Norfolk and the Army brass at Fort Monroe. It took only 15 minutes to leave the entrance of Hampton Roads and ground upon the shoal. Getting Missouri free would take much longer.
Check back next week for part two of this story: the salvage and re-floating of Missouri.
(This blog post was written by HRNM Educator Elijah Palmer.)