Monday, August 25, 2014

The "Mighty Mo" is Free at Last: Part 2 of 2

By mid-morning on January 17, 1950, the battleship USS Missouri (BB-63) was now hard aground on Thimble Shoal near the entrance to Hampton Roads. A number of tugs were summoned, their numbers swelling to sixteen by the end of the day. Yet even with their concerted effort, Missouri remained stuck.

This created an extremely embarrassing situation for the Navy. The grounding was widely reported across the nation. Jokes were quickly forthcoming, not just from other branches of the military, but also from the public and even the Soviet Atlantic Fleet. With a highly visible situation, the Pentagon debated on using civilian or Navy resources for the recovery. In the end, Rear Admiral Allan Smith volunteered to take responsibility of the operation. He asked Rear Admiral Homer Wallin, a noted salvage expert, to assist him. Wallin was most famous for running the salvage at Pearl Harbor after the Japanese attack there. By 1950, he was in command at Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

Smith and Wallin quickly got to work, forming a basic plan to lighten the ship, dredge a channel, and wait for the next highest tide. A look at the charts indicated that the next tide that was as high as that on the 17th would be on February 2nd; the men had much work to do before that day. Before long, a small flotilla surrounded Missouri. These included dredgers, tug boats, barges, the large fleet oiler USS Chemung (AO-30), and the submarine rescue ship USS Kittiwake (ASR-13), which supported divers working on the site.
Orders were given to remove excess weight in order to lighten the ship. This was a tall order, given the size of the ship and the necessary requirements for providing for the crew. Missouri’s sailors were kept busy for the next few days. All of the ship’s ammunition had to be removed, with the giant 16-inch shells slowing the process due to their bulk and weight (nearly a ton each). Over 2.25 million gallons of fuel was pumped out to Chemung and other smaller oilers, plus water and other liquids. Food stores were limited to only what was needed for one week; over 280 tons were sent off-ship. In addition, sailors removed the anchor chains (each weighing nearly 100,000 pounds).
Moving a 16-inch shell

Unloading 5-inch ammo
In addition to removing surplus weight, work continued underwater to free the ship. Divers and dredging vessels worked to refloat Missouri. This in itself was a herculean task, but the problem of getting the battleship safely to deeper water once freed also existed. Here the dredging operations were paramount. A channel needed to be cleared from the site back to the main waterway, a distance of 2,500 feet. Work continued over the next week until favorable conditions could be had for a refloating attempt. Although ultimately not needed, additional plans included possibly running destroyers by to move more water under the ship. 
A diver prepares to go below. Over 650 man hours of diving went into the operation. 
This event was a national phenomenon, helped in part by the time that it was taking to free Missouri. Of course Virginia newspapers were reporting, but others further afield, such as the Daily Iowan, had coverage as well. With each passing day, the naysayers seemed to increase, some thinking that the famous Iowa-class battleship was now a permanent monument out on the shoal. The salvage work steadily continued until January 31, when the Navy attempted a major refloating operation. This “rehearsal” failed, largely due to the discovery that something was holding the vessel in place on the shoal. Due to this failure, it was decided to remove more weight from the battleship, including one of the 30,000-pound anchors.

The next day, February 1, another operation was undertaken. Twenty-one tugboats, along with the salvage lifting vessels USS Salvager (ARS(D)-3) and USS Windlass (ARS(D)-4) were involved in the process. The operation commenced at 0545. Within an hour, the battleship was afloat and soon after was taken away from its shoal prison and back to the channel. Signal flags were hoisted showing “Reporting for duty” and music floats across the water. The salvage operation had taken fifteen days, but Missouri was free and had been refloated a full day ahead of predictions. The battleship was taken back to Norfolk Naval Shipyard for inspection and repairs. 
Missouri coming into Norfolk Naval Shipyard a few hours after being refloated.
The dry dock inspection showed damage to the hull, with fuel tanks ruptured. A twelve-foot gash is visible, caused by a six-foot steel bar, likely part of a shipwreck on Thimble Shoal. 
An investigation began soon after the grounding, but it was only after the ship was freed that a formal Court of Inquiry was held. At first the only primary suspects in the incident were Captain Brown (CO) and Lieutenant Commander Morris (Navigator). Commander Peckham (XO) was the primary witness. As the court proceeded, Commander Millet (Operations officer), and Lieutenant Carr (Combat Operations Officer) were also named as defendants. The court was heated at times, with Brown’s counsel often on the offensive. But in the end, Brown took full responsibility, saying, “As captain of the ship, it was my duty to keep her safe and secure. And I didn't do it.”

After nearly a month, the inquiry finished and a court martial was ordered for Brown, Millet, and Morris. Carr was reprimanded, but was not brought to court martial. Brown was found guilty of neglect of duty and other negligence at his court martial and the captain was reduced 250 spots on the promotion list. He never held a command at sea again. Millet and Morris were also both found guilty of neglect of duty and were reduced on their respective promotion lists.

There are always the “what if” questions surrounding an incident like this, and hindsight often shows problems that should have been fixed or other courses that could have been taken. In the case of the Missouri grounding, it seems that a series of blunders, miscommunication, personality clashes, organizational confusion, poor leadership, and a lack of recent sea command on the part of the captain seem to have formed a perfect storm leading to a disaster.

*Readers can find the original salvage report online

No comments: