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H-029-5:  A Brief History of Major U.S. Navy Ordnance Accidents

Photo #: 80-G-276907 Pearl Harbor LST Explosion, 21 May 1944
Pearl Harbor LST explosion, 21 May 1944: Aerial photograph of Pearl Harbor's West Loch, showing the burning LSTs at berths T-8 and T-9. Some LSTs are manuevering in the foreground, leaving the vicinity of the explosions and fire, while other ships have yet to get underway (80-G-276907).

H-Gram 029, Attachment 5

Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC

April 2019

Although the explosion aboard the Iowa (BB-61) on 19 April 1989 was the last major U.S. Navy ordnance accident, it was unfortunately far from unique. During the 1800s, “ordnance accidents” were very common but usually killed only individuals or small groups of crewmen. It was the advent in the late 1800s of armored turrets, designed to protect the guns and their crews from incoming enemy fire, that caused ordnance accidents to become more lethal, as the explosions and fires would be confined within the turret. These explosions and fires frequently killed the entire gun and handling crews inside—unless the ammunition magazine blew up, in which case the entire ship would be lost.

The first major recorded ordnance accident in U.S. Navy history occurred on 23 August 1814 when Gunboat 146 blew up due to a magazine explosion, killing nine crewmen. (Of note, during the engagement between the Continental Navy frigate Randolph and the British ship-of-the-line HMS Yarmouth on 7 March 1778, in total darkness, Randolph blew up and sank with the loss of 301 of her crew including Captain Nicholas Biddle. Only four survived. The exact cause of the explosion is unknown but was either due to British fire or an accident involving the powder magazine during the battle.) 

For many years the most notorious ordnance accident on board a U.S. Navy ship was the explosion of a newly designed 12-inch gun called the “Peacemaker” aboard the screw steamer Princeton, with President John Tyler and 400 guests embarked, on 28 February 1844 on the Potomac River near Mount Vernon. When the gun burst, it killed the Secretary of the Navy, the Secretary of State, the President’s enslaved servant, and three others, and injured 20 more. By luck, President Tyler was below deck and was not injured.

A Reverse Chronology

  • 1989, Iowa (BB-61), turret explosion, off Puerto Rico. See attachment H-029-4 for more.

  • 1972, Newport News (CA-148): On 1 October 1972, the heavy cruiser Newport News suffered a high-order, in-bore explosion in the center gun of her number two 8” gun turret, killing 20 and injuring 38. While conducting shore bombardment near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) on her third Vietnam combat deployment, a projectile detonated almost immediately upon firing, due to a defective auxiliary detonating fuse, which blew the gun barrel forward, vented mostly back into the turret, and ignited fires within the turret. These burned more than 700 lbs. of powder in all three hoists, causing extensive damage to the center gun mount and necessitating the flooding of the forward ammunition magazines. The investigation determined that had the flames gone a few more feet down the hoists, the ship likely would have suffered a catastrophic magazine explosion, yet why the flames did not go further was undetermined. The damaged gun was removed, the port plated over, and the turret sealed. Newport News then continued her Vietnam deployment until December 1972. (Of note, on her first Vietnam deployment in 1967-68, Newport News, as part of Operation Sea Dragon, expended a record 59,241 rounds of high explosive ammunition, sinking 17 logistics craft, damaging 14 more; hitting 325 North Vietnamese coastal defense sites; and destroying bunkers, bridges, barges, trucks and roads. She came under North Vietnamese fire 17 times and was straddled by over 300 enemy rounds but never suffered a direct hit.)

  • 1952, Saint Paul (CA-73): On 21 April 1952, the heavy cruiser Saint Paul, while conducting a shore bombardment during her second Korean War deployment, suffered a serious fire in her forward 8” gun turret that killed 30 Sailors (This was the most casualties suffered by any U.S. ship during the Korean War, including any cause.)  The left gun in the turret was loaded, but the breech was open. It is believed that the gun captain mistakenly thought the gun had been fired and therefore ordered another shell rammed into the breech. This caused the gun to explode, detonating two other powder bags in the hoist and killing everyone in the turret. Before returning to Japan for repairs, Saint Paul conducted gunfire strikes on railroad targets near Songjin (today’s Kimchaek), North Korea and later in the deployment returned to the gun line. With eight battle stars in Korea and nine in Vietnam, Saint Paul was one of the most combat decorated ships in the Navy. She arrived in the Pacific in World War II just in time to have the distinction of firing the last major salvo of the war (at the Kamaishi Iron and Steel Works on 9 August 1945) and on her third Korean War deployment had the distinction of firing the last shell of the war (autographed by Rear Admiral Harry Sanders), timed to impact on an enemy gun emplacement just before the armistice took effect. She made five Vietnam War deployments and was hit once by enemy shore fire, on 1 September 1967, but suffered no casualties. (She’d also been hit once during the Korean War.)  She was even the star of the 1965 John Wayne movie In Harm’s Way.

  • 1946, Solar (DE-221): On 30 April 1946, the destroyer escort Solar was offloading ammunition at the Naval Ammunition Depot at Earle, New Jersey. One report claims a Sailor dropped a hedgehog ASW projectile, which set in motion a series of three explosions starting near her number two upper handling rooms. Her Number 2 gun mount was destroyed; the bridge, main battery director, and mast were blown aft and to starboard. (Actually, from the photo, it looks as if everything forward of the bridge is completely mangled.)  Both sides of the ship were opened to the sea, and a major conflagration broke out on deck. Nevertheless, the ship remained afloat and was eventually repaired well enough to be towed out to sea and sunk. Seven Sailors were killed and another 30 injured, along with about 90 dockyard workers. The skipper of Solar was Lieutenant Commander Gene La Rocque, who went on to be a rear admiral, before retiring in 1972 and becoming a very prominent critic of the Vietnam War and U.S. nuclear policy.

  • 1945, Serpens (AK-97): On 29 January 1945, the cargo ship Serpens (AK-97) exploded and sank off Lunga Point, Guadalcanal. Serpens was a Liberty Ship that had been taken into the Navy and commissioned in May 1943 but was manned by a U.S. Coast Guard crew. Three of her holds had been converted for ammunition stowage. The massive blast killed 196 Coast Guardsmen, 57 U.S. Army stevedores, one Public Health Service doctor, and a Soldier ashore hit by shrapnel. Somewhat miraculously, two crewmen on the ship survived. This was the largest loss of U.S. Coast Guard life in a single incident in history. Initially the explosion was thought to be due to enemy action, but after the war it was determined to have been an internal cause.

  • 1944, Mount Hood (AE-11): On 10 November 1944 in Seeadler Harbor, Manus Island, Admiralty Islands (near New Guinea), the new ammunition ship Mount Hood (AE-11) spontaneously exploded with 3,800 tons of ordnance aboard, obliterating the ship and every one of her over 300 crewmen. The largest piece of the ship found was 16 by 10 feet, and no human remains were recovered. All personnel topside on the nearby repair ship Mindanao (ARG-3) were killed and the ship was perforated by shrapnel, killing 82 of her crew. Twenty-two small craft and boats were sunk. Eighteen larger ships were damaged to some degree, including the escort carriers Saginaw Bay (CV-82), Petrof Bay (CVE-80), a destroyer, and four destroyer escorts. In total, 372 were killed (including 327 missing) and 371 were injured. The board of inquiry was unable to determine an exact cause. The only survivors of Mount Hood’s crew were a shore party of 14 men (a different report says 18) and another six men who left by boat shortly before the explosion. Two of these men were being taken to the brig ashore for court martial; their charges were dropped.

  • 1944, U.S. Naval Magazine, Port Chicago, California: On 17 July 1944 a massive explosion on pier #1 at the U.S. Naval Magazine, Port Chicago, California (on Suisun Bay northeast of San Francisco Bay) obliterated the Liberty Ship E.A. Bryant (which had about 4,600 tons of explosives on board) at the pier, tore apart and sank the Liberty Ship Quinault Victory on the other side of the pier, and destroyed the U.S. Coast Guard fire barge. The huge blast killed 320 people and injured 390. The dead included 241 Navy personnel, one Marine, five Coastguardsmen (on the fie barge) and 73 civilians. Most of the Navy personnel killed were enlisted African-American stevedores (202), as were 233 of the wounded.

The Navy board of inquiry was unable to determine a cause of the blast yet exonerated the white officers of any blame (there were no black officers then), implying that somehow the accident was the fault of the black enlisted stevedores. With the cause unknown, and no new safety procedures implemented, the black stevedores were ordered to resume ammunition loading. Several hundred (initially 328, then 258) of them balked in what came to be known as the Port Chicago Mutiny. Eventually, 50 of the Sailors were convicted of mutiny at court martial (initially receiving sentences of 15 years’ hard labor, which were significantly reduced on appeal and with the end of the war). Serious questions about the fairness of the trial were raised at the time (some by NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall, who went on the be the first black U.S. Supreme Court Justice) and the entire proceeding remains controversial to this day. The disaster did spur U.S. Navy leadership (led by CNO Admiral Earnest J. King) to accelerate the integration of blacks into more and more jobs in the Navy, including at the officer level. The incident (along with the West Loch disaster in May 1944) also resulted in massive overhaul of procedures and training for ammunition handling.

  • 1944, West Loch, Pearl Harbor: On Sunday afternoon 21 May 1944, 34 ships were in West Loch, Pearl Harbor, loading ammunition and supplies in preparation for Operation Forager, the invasion of Marianas Islands. Most of the ships were tank landing ships (LSTs), 29 of them tied up beam-to-beam in several groups, most of them already fully loaded with supplies, fuel and ammunition. At about 1508, an explosion occurred on LST-353 that set off a chain reaction of explosions and mass conflagration among the nested LSTs. Over the course of several hours, six LSTs would be sunk, and two more so badly damaged they could not participate in the Marianas operation. Three tank landing craft (LCTs) and 17 LVT tracked amphibious vehicles were destroyed aboard the LSTs, with many other small craft sunk or damaged. By one point, more than 200 men had been blown into the water, and some of the fires were not extinguished for over 24 hours.

A tight lid of secrecy was clamped over the event to keep the Japanese from knowing (despite the fact that many thousands of Pacific Fleet personnel at Pearl Harbor could see the massive pall of smoke). As a result, casualty figures and estimates vary widely. The official Navy figure for casualties was 163 killed and 396 wounded, but this does not appear to account for Marines or Army stevedores who were present. Different reports for the number of Marine deaths range from about 80 to 299 (some of the Marine deaths may have been rolled into Marianas casualty numbers). There appears to be no accurate Army stevedore count (or any count at all, for that matter). The Naval Board of Inquiry was unable to determine the exact cause but reached the conclusion that a mortar shell had gone off on LST-353, either because it had been dropped or because a gasoline fire had set it off. Mortar shells were in fact being offloaded from the LCT—piggy-backed on LST-353 (because the mortars on the LCTs had proved in training to be wildly inaccurate) and a number had been dropped by the inexperienced stevedores (who had received no special training), although none had exploded. There were also containers of high-octane gasoline on the LST decks. (Some of the containers were open, as gasoline was being used by Marines to protect weapons from salt corrosion.)  There was also welding going on, as well as credible reports of careless smoking—i.e., the whole thing was a disaster waiting to happen, and it did. Nevertheless, the surviving LSTs departed for the Marianas operation only one day late; additional LSTs were scrounged, and Operation Forager went ahead as planned and on schedule.

  • 1944, Turner (DD-648): On 3 January 1944, while anchored off Ambrose Light, New York Harbor, the destroyer Turner suffered a series of devastating internal explosions just after dawn. She quickly took on a 15-degree starboard list while continuing explosions in the ammunition stowage areas wracked the ship. After about an hour of this, a catastrophic explosion caused her to capsize and sink with 15 officers and 123 crewmen still on board. A U.S. Coast Guard Sikorski HNS-1 helicopter flew two cases of blood plasma lashed to the helo’s floats, which saved the lives of many of the 60 injured crewmen. (This was the first use of a helicopter in a life-saving role.)  The investigation never determined the cause of the initial blast, other than that munitions were being handled below decks.

  • 1943, Mississippi (BB-41): On 20 November 1943, the battleship Mississippi (BB-41) commenced a pre-landing bombardment of Makin Island when an explosion in the number two 14” turret killed all 43 men and wounded 19 more. The cause was determined to be a flare-back when the gas ejection system was turned off too soon during an attempt to re-load. Mississippi had won the gunnery Battle “E” numerous times and had a reputation as the fastest-firing battleship in the fleet. She would be back in action within two months. This was Mississippi’s second fatal explosion in turret number two.

  • 1926, Naval Ammunition Depot, Dover, New Jersey: On 10 July 1926, a lightning strike at the Naval Ammunition Depot, Dover (Lake Denmark) detonated 600,000 tons of explosives in one of the most massive explosions ever in the United States, destroying over 200 structures within a half mile radius, debris landing as far as 22 miles away. Smaller explosions and fires continued for several days. At least 19 people were killed (some sources say 21) and 39 or more injured. The dead included two Navy officers, two Sailors, an Army officer, twelve Marines, and two civilians. The Naval Depot was part of the larger Picatinny Arsenal, which stored massive quantities of ammunition left over from World War I. The explosion did have the one positive outcome of forcing the U.S. government to get serious about explosives safety.

  • 1924, Trenton (CL-11): On 20 October 1924, the new light cruiser Trenton was conducting gunnery drills off Norfolk when powder bags in her forward 6” turret exploded and started a fire. Every member of the gun crew was killed or injured. Ensign Henry Clay Drexler and Boatswain’s Mate First Class George Cholister were awarded posthumous Medals of Honor for attempting to dump powder charges in the immersion tank before they exploded, but Drexler was killed when the charge exploded and Cholister was overcome by fumes and fire and died the next day.

  • 1924, Mississippi (BB-41): On 12 June 1924, the battleship Mississippi (BB-41) suffered the first of two fatal turret explosions (the second was in 1943). During gunnery practice off San Pedro, California, hot gas that had not been properly ejected in a gun that had just fired ignited powder that caused a flash fire in the turret and asphyxiated all 44 members of the turret crew (and observers). When Mississippi was back in the roadstead and the turret was entered to remove the dead, one of the other guns was accidentally fired, with the shell narrowly missing the passenger ship Yale, killing four of the response team, and maiming several others. The turret captain, Lieutenant Junior Grade Thomas E. Zellars, USNA ’21, was found with his hand on the flood control lever, having closed the doors to the ammunition hoist and flooding the magazine, saving the ship from a catastrophic explosion with his last act.

A plaque, emplaced by Zellars’s classmates, in Dahlgren Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy, states, “Flaming death was not as swift as his sense of duty and his will to save his comrades at any cost to himself. His was the spirit that makes the service live.” The Sumner-class destroyer, Zellars (DD-777) was named in his honor, earned five battle stars in World War II and Korea, survived a kamikaze hit off Okinawa, and was transferred to the Iranian Navy as Babr in 1973. The original memorial marker to the explosion, which had fallen into disrepair in San Pedro, is now preserved aboard the museum ship Iowa, next to the ship’s number 2 turret, in which 47 crewmen were killed in an explosion in April 1989. Before he died, Captain W. D. Brotherton (skipper at the time, and found accountable by the court of inquiry) asked to be buried next to a victim of the explosion at Point Loma.

  • 1918, Florence K:  On 17 April 1918, the merchant ship Florence K, anchored in Quiberon Bay, France, with a cargo of ammunition and a 17-man U.S. Navy Armed Guard detachment on board, blew up and sank. Of the ship’s 75-man crew, 34 survived, many badly burned. Two U.S. Sailors assigned to USS Stewart (DD-13) were awarded the Medal of Honor for their efforts in rescuing survivors; the two were Ship’s Cook First Class Jesse Whitfield Covington and Quartermaster Frank Monroe Upton.

  • 1910, Charleston (Cruiser No. 22): On 27 March 1910, the breech block of the #3 3-inch gun blew out on the protected cruiser Charleston, killing eight crewmen.

  • 1904, Missouri (BB-11): On Friday 13 April 1904, the battleship Missouri suffered a turret accident during gunnery training off Pensacola that killed 36 men (including one Marine.)  A flareback in her port 12” gun in her rear turret ignited three propellant charges in the turret, asphyxiating most of the gun crew. Three crew members were awarded the Medal of Honor for preventing the fire from reaching the magazines and destroying the ship, including Chief Gunner’s Mate Robert E. Cox, Chief Gunner’s Mate Mons Monssen, and Gunner’s Mate First Class Charles S. Schepke.

When she was new in 1903, Missouri held the record as the world’s fastest battleship. William F. Halsey, recently graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, was on the bridge of the Missouri during the fire and as a result developed a severe dread of Friday the 13th, which as a captain and admiral affected when he would order ships to get underway (or not, if it happened to be Friday the 13th.)

  • 1903, Massachusetts (BB-2): On 16 January 1903, the battleship Massachusetts (BB-2) suffered a powder explosion in an 8-inch secondary gun turret, which killed nine crewmen. During the Spanish-American War, she missed the Battle of Santiago. She had been ordered to Guantanamo Bay to re-coal. She also ran aground twice and was eventually scuttled in shallow water off Pensacola, in 1921. The ship is now a popular dive site.

  • 1898, Maine: On 15 February 1898, the battleship Maine blew up and sank in Havana Harbor, an event that was blamed on the Spanish (by U.S. press) and which was a factor leading to the Spanish-American War. The explosion killed 260 crewmen on the spot, and six more died from their wounds. Of 89 survivors, 54 were wounded. An explosion of the forward magazine was responsible for the loss of the ship, although whether the trigger was external or internal has not been conclusively proven, despite multiple investigations. However, the preponderance of evidence suggests it was an internal accident. (For more on the loss of Maine, please see H-Gram 015.)  

  • 1892, Boston:  On 13 June 1892, 15 crewmen of the protected cruiser Boston were killed in a black powder explosion while the ship was undergoing extensive refit at Mare Island Navy Yard. Boston, commissioned in 1887, was one of the “ABCD” ships of the “New Navy” that brought the U.S. Navy out of the post-Civil War decline.

  • 1860s: Numerous “ordnance accidents” were recorded in the 1860s, particularly during the Civil War, but these generally only killed individuals or small groups, and were due to a wide variety of causes.

  • 1844, Princeton:  On 29 February 1844, a new 12-inch gun (the “Peacemaker”) burst during a demonstration firing aboard the new screw steamer Princeton on the Potomac River near Mount Vernon. The explosion killed Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer, Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur, Representative Virgil Maxey of Maryland, Representative David Gardiner of New York, Captain Beverly Kennon (Chief of Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repairs), and President John Tyler’s valet, a Black slave named Armistead. Approximately 20 others were injured, including Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, and Princeton’s commanding officer, Captain Robert F. Stockton. President John Tyler was below decks and was not injured. (He was socializing with Julia Gardiner, daughter of Representative Gardiner, killed in the explosion. Julia Gardiner later became President Tyler’s much younger second wife.)

Princeton was the latest and greatest in the U.S. Navy, designed by John Ericsson (who later designed the ironclad Monitor) and was the first warship with screws and machinery located entirely below the waterline to avoid vulnerability to enemy gunfire, as well as many other innovations, including an iron hull. The ship was initially armed with twelve 42-pound carronades along the hull, as well as one 12-inch long gun (designed by Ericsson and named the “Oregon” but made in England) that could swivel from side-to-side. However, Captain Stockton (the commissioning CO) wanted a second long gun and commissioned one to be made in Philadelphia, which when complete was named the “Peacemaker.” Both guns fired the same 12-inch 225-pound shot, but were manufactured differently; the Peacemaker was bigger, more impressive, but as it turned out, weaker.

On the day of the accident, Princeton departed Alexandria, Virginia, with President Tyler and about four hundred guests on board, including former First Lady Dolly Madison. The Peacemaker was fired three times on the down-river trip. On the up-river trip, it was loaded to provide a salute to George Washington when passing Mount Vernon, and burst on one side when Stockton pulled the lanyard. The aftermath was an ugly series of recriminations between Ericsson and Stockton, although the Navy Court of Inquiry whitewashed everything. The disaster did lead to major improvements in gun manufacturing technology (eventually leading to the “Dahlgren Gun”) but also had a profound effect on the course of U.S. history, as the replacement of Upshur as Secretary of State by South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun, a vociferous advocate of slavery, helped set the U.S. on a path to the Civil War.

  • 1829, Fulton: On 4 June 1829 the catamaran steam frigate Fulton (also known as Demologos) was destroyed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard when her magazine exploded, killing 30 men (48 including shipyard workers), wounding many others, and completely destroying the ship. Demologos was designed as the first steam warship in the world, by inventor Robert Fulton, who also invented the first commercially successful steamboat, Clermont.

Demologos was a paddlewheel catamaran designed to be a floating, self-propelled battery to defend New York Harbor during the War of 1812. The hulls were five feet thick, and the paddlewheel was between the two hulls, where it was protected from enemy fire; the steam engine was protected below the waterline. Demologos was completed after Fulton’s death, when it was re-named Fulton, and made successful trial runs in 1815.

As soon as the War of 1812 ended, however, the Navy decided not to put her into service. She was being used as a receiving ship at the time of the explosion. In many respects the ship was both ahead of its time and a technological dead end. Nevertheless, aspects of her design (double-hull protected steam powered paddlewheel) were incorporated in Union ironclad river gunboats during the Civil War. Her first commander was Captain David Porter and her only operational service was to take President James Monroe on a tour of New York Harbor.

Principal source is Naval History and Heritage Command document, “Casualties: US Navy and Marine Corps Personnel Killed and Injured in Selected Accidents and Other Incident Not Directly the Result of Enemy Action,” and NHHC Dictionary of American Navy Fighting Ships (DANFS) entries.

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Published: Fri May 03 15:10:10 EDT 2019