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.


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