Tragedy of USS Memphis
On the afternoon of 29 August 1916, two U.S. Navy ships were at anchor in the harbor of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, when at 3:30 p.m. a series of very close tsunami-like waves inundated the harbor, driving USS Memphis (Armored Cruiser No. 10) ashore and almost wrecking the pre–Spanish American War gunboat USS Castine. The waves were so steep, reportedly 75 feet high, that they flowed over the armored cruiser, including the bridge and even the stacks, and repeatedly battered the warship into the harbor bottom.
The massive waves swamped Memphis as the Sailors in the engine rooms and fire rooms tried in vain to power up the steam engines to get the ship underway. Castine survived the storm by getting underway and steaming out to sea to weather the storm.
In less than two hours, Memphis was wrecked. Above the waterline the ship didn’t appear to be damaged, but below the surface of the water the ship’s hull was crushed, conforming to the rocks and coral on which she lay on the shore of Santo Domingo. The lower decks were flooded almost to the waterline, leaving Memphis stranded in shallow water.
The crew of Memphis battled to save the ship but the sea’s abrupt destructive action proved to be too much. Along with the loss of the ship, 43 Sailors lost their lives and many more were wounded. Three Sailors received the Medal of Honor for their heroic actions on that day: Commander Claud Ashton Jones, Chief Machinist’s Mate George William Rud (posthumously), and Machinist Charles H. Willey.
The U.S. Navy conducted three inquiries to investigate the tragedy. All three courts were conducted in the first weeks of September 1916. The significant findings of fact from the inquires include:
- Between 4:20 and 4:30, the heavy rolling of Memphis caused water spray to enter the stacks, hampering the attempts to power up the engines to get underway.
- There had been a tropical disturbance which passed south of Santo Domingo during the night before the tragedy. The disturbance produced no wind or other markers of severe weather but “produced the heavy swells which, coming in from the deep water to the shallow water of Santo Domingo City anchorage, cause the high seas and heavy seas that eventually dragged and wrecked the Memphis.”1
- The captain of the ship, Captain Edward L. Beach Sr., should have given the order to raise the steam to power the engines earlier; anchored Memphis in a safer anchorage; and taken steps to save the ship and recognized the emergency sooner.
The wreck of Memphis remained on the shore of Santo Domingo for 21 years until 1937, when sufficient ship breaking capability became available to salvage the ship.
Learn more in the NHHC Director's blog post on the Loss of USS Memphis.
Ship history note: Armored Cruiser No. 10 was originally named Tennessee; the ship was renamed Memphis in May 1916.
- Captain Edward L. Beach Jr. The Wreck of the Memphis. Canada: Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada, Ltd., 1966. (Quoted material from p281.)
- Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN). House Resolution 306: Recognizing the centennial of the wreck of the USS Memphis and encouraging the commemoration of such wreck with appropriate events and activities. June 10, 2015. https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-resolution/306.