Saturday, September 15, 2018

Seventy-Five Years Ago: Tragedy on the Tow Way

Within the picture files of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum are photographs from World War II that remained classified until 2009.  At first glance, they might look like pictures taken after the attack upon Pearl Harbor.  Surrounding a huge crater on one side, fires rage out of control within the blackened skeletons of hangars with the gnarled and twisted remains of aircraft nearby, while on the other side, other fires smoulder from within the piles of timbers that were once barracks and chow halls. 
A group of officers (center) including Rear Admiral (upper half) Herbert F. Leary, who had replaced Adm. Manley H. Simons as commandant of the Fifth Naval District in May 1943, along with his chief of staff, Captain E.C. Raguet, observe rescue and recovery efforts at Chambers Field with his staff after an accidental explosion of aerial depth bombs at Naval Air Station Norfolk on September 17, 1943. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Looking south-southwest, Sailors attempt to move a station wagon that had driven into the crater left by a massive explosion of 24 aerial depth bombs that were in transit from Pier 2 of Naval Operating Base Norfolk to a magazine area on the far side of the east runway complex.  Several World War I-era barracks and a Chief Petty Officers' club in the background were reduced to splinters, while a newer brick fire station (R-43, also known as Fire Station 2) had most of its windows blown out. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)

As emergency personnel arrive, three casualties of the explosion at the southeast corner of Chambers Field at NAS Norfolk lie where they were felled by shrapnel from the explosion. Note the holes torn into the cowling of the TBF Avenger they were working on. The body of a dog caught by the explosion is obscured by the detached bomb bay door in the photograph.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
On a nearby aircraft ramp in front of the hangars, the bodies of Sailors lie where they had been standing moments before, felled in an instant by a wall of shrapnel that pierced the aircraft they were standing under as though they were made of paper.

Another view of the heavily-damaged Avenger near the southeast corner of Chambers Field. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
The shock wave of the explosion has clearly stove in the side of the Avenger and blasted way most of the canopy.  A dog that was standing under the aircraft still lies where it fell.  An unknown number of animals died in the blast. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)  

Two survivors look at the body of a dog, possibly a squadron mascot, killed in the explosion. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Although these photographs might look like they were taken in the aftermath of a devastating enemy attack, these pictures were not taken to document the carnage wrought by an enemy.  They were taken in the aftermath of a horrible accident that occurred near the main flight line of Naval Air Station Norfolk, right in the middle of Hampton Roads.
On the far side of the Avenger from the explosion site, a piece of shrapnel has torn clean through the center pontoon of a Curtiss SOC3 Seamew.  Thirty-three planes were affected by the blast, among those six were beyond repair, 15 required major overhaul and 12 were slightly damaged.(Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Friday, September 17, 1943, started out  as a normal day at busy NAS Norfolk. Besides preparing American and Allied air wings for the complicated business of carrier-based combat, antisubmarine patrols constantly transited NAS Norfolk to scour thousands of miles of the open Atlantic for U-Boats that continued to threaten the east coast.  The threat had significantly abated from the year before, when the German submarines taking part in Operation Paukenschlag (Drumbeat) had attacked merchant shipping just off coastal Virginia and North Carolina virtually unopposed.  Navy destroyers and Coast Guard cutters equipped with secret radio direction-finding equipment and bristling with guns and and torpedoes now plied the coasts day and night.  The enemy submariners also faced a violent storm from the sky if they dared surface for long.  Navy dirigibles and seaplanes scanned thousands of miles of open ocean, and Army Air Corps Liberators, Navy Privateers, and other patrol aircraft would swoop in to strafe the subs if they were caught on the surface.  Diving did not automatically mean deliverance, however, as many of the aircraft were equipped with depth bombs equipped with hydrostatic fuses that were just as deadly as depth charges that the destroyers and cutters carried.

Within the hangar deck of the escort carrier Santee (CVE 29), en route from Hampton Roads to North Africa to take part in Operation Torch in November 1942, squadron ordnancemen check Mark 17 depth bombs that will be used against enemy submarines.  The Mark 17s, which weighed 325 pounds each, contained TNT explosive, but less than a year later, the Mark 47 depth bombs, which were the same size yet 30 pounds heavier and contained the much more powerful Torpex explosive, were being hauled around on the same support equipment. (Lt. Horace Bristol/ Naval History and Heritage Command image
Naval Weapons Station Yorktown, across Hampton Roads and up the York River, kept the patrol aircraft well-supplied with these depth bombs.  Their lethality increased when the explosive within the mines was changed from TNT to the more powerful Torpex (derived from "torpedo explosive") after a new loading facility capable of handling the new explosive was established at Yorktown in December 1942.  Each 355-pound depth bomb carried approximately 252 pounds of Torpex.    

A depth bomb similar to the ones that exploded at NAS Norfolk, enclosed by its retaining brackets and held up by its hoisting lug. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
At about 11:00 am, a truck towing four dollies carrying six of these depth bombs each, enclosed in metal brackets, was on its way from from Pier 2 on the naval operating base and was passing the southeast corner of Chambers Field on the naval air station en route east towards weapons magazines on the far side of the larger East Field (today known as Chambers Field).  Though the exact chain of events is unclear, one of the 24 depth bombs partially slipped from a dolly and began dragging down Tow Way Drive.  A Marine sentry saw the wayward trash can-sized metal canister smoking, ordered the driver to stop, and either the driver or the sentry alerted the nearby fire station.  What is clear is that Assistant Fire Chief Gurney Edwards made a heroic but unsuccessful attempt to head off what would become the worst disaster in NAS Norfolk's long history.   

An investigative photo showing the depth bombs and the brackets that held them in place during transport(Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Many of the photographs taken in the hours and days after the accident by photographers from the air station's public relations office were marked "Confidential" and remained under wraps for decades, yet the Hampton Roads Naval Museum now holds over 100 of them, from pictures taken during the firefighting and first response to the investigative phase.  
An investigative photograph showing fatigue or damage to one of the depth bomb brackets. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Along with the tragedy of those lives which were lost and possible clues to what might have caused the accident, the photographers also documented the heroic efforts to limit the damage caused by the tremendous explosion, look for and rescue the survivors, and treat the wounded. 
NAS Norfolk personnel pick through the remains of a barracks that was demolished in the explosion. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
In addition to Seaman 2nd Class Elizabeth Korensky, the only female killed in the disaster, there were other WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) probably injured, as well as female civilian employees of the nearby Assembly and Repair Department of the air station, which was also damaged.  Here an unidentified female is assisted into an official vehicle for transport away from the area of the explosion. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Local delivery trucks were pressed into service to help deliver the wounded away from the accident scene. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)

At the damaged NAS Norfolk dispensary roughly 100 yards from the site of the explosion, stretcher bearers await admittance with some of the hundreds wounded in the accident.  many would be rerouted to the new Norfolk Naval Hospital compound established just south of the naval operating base (and today home to Fleet Forces Command), as well as Portsmouth Naval Hospital. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Navy doctors, nurses, and other personnel helping to assist the wounded (with the Sailor at the far left possibly wounded himself) at the NAS Norfolk dispensary discuss how to proceed while standing on the broken glass that covers the floor.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Sailors injured by the blast at nearby Chambers Field convalesce within the NAS Norfolk dispensary, which has itself been damaged.  Note the blown-out windowpane to the right. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)


Unknown said...

My grandfather, William L Bolding, was injured in this expolsion.

Unknown said...

My father was badly injured in this horrid explosion. Delayed “shell shock” caused him to be in a VA Facility for nearly 40 years. Changed my life forever.

bug said...

Many of those sailors that died had been ordered to push a plane out of harm's way after the initial explosion. My Dad was one of those sailors, and the only one who lived, although he spent 6 months in the hospital and had disabilities for the rest of his life. My parents had been married 6 weeks before this happened. Thank you for the wonderful blog post.

ER said...

My grandfather Troy Luna, known affectionately as TL, survived this terrible disaster. In his later years he often reflected upon that day and the horror of the aftermath. He remembered the ones who lost their lives with honor. He suffered permanent hearing loss from the explosion that day and never found peace with the secrecy that surrounded that day.