Commander Powers Symington, Commander, USS Tacoma to Rear Admiral Marbury Johnston, Commander, Squadron Two, Cruiser Force
December 6th 1917.
FROM: Commanding Officer
TO: Commander Squadron Two, Cruiser Force.
SUBJECT: Report on disaster in Halifax.
1. Shortly after 9:00 a.m., on December 6th, 1917, the U.S.S. TACOMA was fifty-two miles from Halifax, when a heavy concussion was felt, so strong that the Officer of the Deck immediately went to Quarters. A great column of smoke was seen to rise in the air in the direction of Halifax.
2. This ship proceeded into Halifax and anchored off the city at 2:00 p.m. The U.S.S. OLD COLONY and Coast Guard Cutter MORRILL were in the port, and the U.S.S. VON STEUBEN anchored at about 2:30 p.m. While passing up the harbor, it was seen that a great fire was burning in North Halifax; that none of the houses facing the harbor on either side had any windows or doors; that the side of all the piers were burst open; several ships were ashore and others looked badly battered.
3. As soon as the ship anchored, I proceeded at once on board H.M.S. HIGHFLIER to tender my services to the Senior Officer Present Afloat. From there I went to the dock yard, and after considerable search, I found the Captain-Superintendent1 who had been badly wounded. I tendered my services to him and asked him if he would call on me for anything I could possibly do. I found the U.S.S. OLD COLONY tied up alongside the coal wharf, and that they had already started to do hospital work. I thereupon returned to the ship and ordered the Doctor of the TACOMA2 to take his whole force and equipment to the OLD COLONY and lend a hand with their work. As Doctor Hayes was the senior officer present, he took charge of the hospital work and handled the situation very well. I am forwarding herewith a copy of the report made to me by Doctor Hayes.3
4. I went ashore again to call on the American Consul-General, but could not locate him, so I proceeded to the office of Rear Admiral Chambers, R.N.,4 who is the Senior British Naval Officer in this port. He is in charge of convoy operations, but has nothing to do with the dock yard or the Canadian authorities. I tendered my services to him, and he accompanied me to the office of the General Commanding the District.5 To him I also offered any assistance which we could render. He informed me that the situation was very much confused, and that owing to the fact that the front of all stores and buildings were broken in, he was afraid there might be looting during the night and that as his men had been on duty all day, he would be very grateful if I would take over the patrol of the business portion of the city during the night so that his men could get some rest. I informed him at once that I would land two hundred men and would patrol the city from 8:00 p.m., to 8:00 a.m., the following, and, in conjunction with Commander Moses6 of the VON STEUBEN, we organized a patrol force, which force went on duty at 8:00 p.m., and patrolled the city until 8:00 a.m., the following morning when the force was withdrawn.
5. Early the next morning I reported to the General Commanding the District and asked if I could be of any further assistance. He informed me that mechanics were badly needed for putting up shelters for homeless people, so I organized gangs of five men each, headed by an artificer, supplied with tools for doing rough mechanical work. These men worked all day putting in windows and assisting anyone who was willing to work.
6. At 6:00 a.m., on this date, a very bad blizzard started, and blew all day until midnight the following night. While this blizzard was blowing, shipping in the harbor became very much demoralized and the dock yard authorities asked me for assistance. I detailed the Coast Guard Cutter MORRILL for this work and she went out the harbor to try and assist the American Steamship SARANAC which was reported ashore. While the gale was in progress, the Steamship NORTH WIND drifted into collision with the VON STEUBEN. Commander Moses tied her up alongside and held her there.
7. In the morning I was informed that the authorities would be very grateful if I would lend a hand in searching the ruins. I again landed a large party equipped with pioneer tools to assist searching the ruins. By Saturday, relief trains were coming in and I considered our services were no longer required, although the VON STEUBEN landed two hundred men on Sunday to continue the work of searching.
8. The circumstances prior to the explosion appear to be as follows. French munition ship MONT BLANC appears to have been loaded in the forward hold with picrates. Her No. 2 hold carried T.N.T. She appears to have had a deck load forward of benzol. Her cargo is supposed to have included between three and four thousand tons of T.N.T. She was coming out of the Bedford Basin through the Narrows at the same time that the Belgium Relief Steamer IMO, flying the Norwegian flag was passing through the Narrows in the opposite direction. The IMO appears to have been too far on the right hand side of the channel. There is some conflicting testimony as to the maneuvering of the two ships which can only be settled by a Court of Inquiry. The fact remains that the IMO rammed the MONT BLANC. The Captain of the MONT BLANC7 reports that almost immediately dense columns of smoke came up out of No. 1 hatch where the picrates were loaded. He saw at once that he was unable to cope with the fire and immediately abandoned ship. He got his crew into two boats and had sufficient time to get ashore on the Dartmouth side which took about ten or twelve minutes before the explosion took place.
9. H.M.S. HIGHFLIER, which was at anchor not far away, sent a boat to investigate. This boat was destroyed and the second in command and seven of the men killed. A big explosion took place at about 9:10 a.m., and the effects were terrific. A gun from the MONT BLANC was found three miles from the explosion. All of North Halifax and the suburb of Richmond were completely destroyed. Every building in the dock yard was wrecked. Hardly a house in Halifax or Dartmouth escaped injury. Great numbers of people were wounded by the flying glass and almost every window in the district was broken. Within ten minutes from the explosion fire started in all part of the wrecked district and very shortly the ruins were burning fiercely.
10. No estimate could be made up to the time I left of the property damaged or the loss of life.8 I am of the opinion that the dock yard will be of no further use before next summer, if then, and that the port of Halifax has suffered such a serious blow that it will very seriously interfere with the operation of the convoy fleet from now on.
11. Therewould seem to be three very obvious lessons to be learned from this accident. FIRST. heavy shipment of high explosive should not be permitted in any populous district. TWO. Benzol and picrates should not be loaded on the same ship with high explosives. THREE. When shipments of high explosives are underway, all traffic should be rigidly controlled so as to avoid the danger of collision.
12. I beg to invite your attention to the fact that the officers and men of the TACOMA, VON STEUBEN, MORRILL and OLD COLONY all worked hard in this emergency with a cheerfulness and a sense of discipline which was admirable. I believe that our efforts were appreciated by the people on shore, and needless to say we were very glad to do what we could.
/s/ Powers Symington
Source Note: TCy, DLC-MSS, Albert Gleaves Papers, Box 8. Document reference: “322-386-17-N.”
Footnote 1: Capt. H. N. Garnett R.N., and Captain-Superintendent Edward Harrington Martin.
Footnote 2: Acting Asst. Surgeon Oscar Hayes.
Footnote 3: The report was not attached.
Footnote 4: American Consul General at Halifax Evan E Young and RAd. Bertram M. Chambers, R.N.
Footnote 5: Maj. Gen. Thomas Benson, Canadian Militia.
Footnote 6: Cmdr. Stanford E. Moses.
Footnote 7: Capt. Aimé Le Médec of the Mont Blanc.
Footnote 8: 1,946 people were killed in the explosion and in the days immediately following. “Halifax Explosion Remembrance Book,” Nova Scotia Archives, Accessed on 20 November 1917, https://novascotia.ca/archives/remembrance/.