Press Notice Issued by Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels
[Washington, D.C., 21 May 1917]
Secretary Daniels said to-night:
“This morning I have out the distressing statement that two nurses, who were going to Europe had been accidentally killed on the steamship Mongolia Sunday afternoon.1 That was all the information that had been received at that time. To-day the Mongolia returned to New York to bring the bodies of Mrs. Edith Ayres and Miss Helen Burnett Wood, the two nurses who were killed, and the fuller particulars were learned from the officers at the New York Navy Yard who boarded the ship in the upper bay. The particulars of the fatal accident, which is deeply deplored, is thus furnished by the ordnance officer from New York2
“When about 100 miles to sea, in accordance with the usual procedure, guns were fired to test mounts, ammunition, and to practice the navy crew in their use. The guns were of the 6-inch caliber for which the shell and powder are loaded separately into the gun. The powder charge is contained in a brass case and there held in place by a pasteboard wad, distance pieces, and a brass mouth cup that fits closely, thus making a moisture-tight joint in order that the powder may always give the velocity and pressure intended. When the gun is fired this brass cup is propelled some distance, sometimes whole and sometimes in pieces, but always in front of the gun. Several nurses who were watching the firing were sitting on the promenade deck some 175 feet abaft and 10 feet above the gun. On the third shot the brass mouth cup struck the water peculiarly, boomeranged directly back to the ship, struck the stanchion near where the nurses were sitting and broke. Its pieces instantly killed Mrs. Edith Ayres and Miss Helen Burnett Wood, of Chicago, Ill.3 The firing was stopped at once and the vessel returned to port to land the bodies.
“This method of sealing the cartridge cases has been used in the Navy for many years, certainly for 15 years of more, and that such an accident, as this wad one, could occur had not been even considered by ordnance experts.
“An investigation has been ordered and its finding will enable the department to fully ascertain the cause and provide the remedies to prevent possible recurrence of the accident.”4
Source Note: Casualties Aboard Steamship “Mongolia.” Hearings before the Committee on Naval Affairs United States Senate, Sixty-Fifth Congress, First Session, Pursuant to S. RES. 71. (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1917), 7-8.
Footnote 1: “Sunday afternoon” was 20 May 1917. A third nurse, Emma Matzen, was struck and injured by the fragments of the brass mouth cup. She recovered from her injuries. In his diary, Daniels wrote that the head of the Bureau of Ordnance, Adm. Ralph Earle, was “so depressed & it was distressing.” Daniels added: “Statement made in newspapers,” which is presumably the press notice printed here. Ibid.
Footnote 2: The commander of the U.S. Navy’s Armed Guard stationed aboard Mongolia was Lt. Philip Seymour. The ordnance officer quoted here was probably Lt. Cmdr. John N. Ferguson, inspector of ordnance in charge of the naval ammunition depots in the New York Naval district.
Footnote 3: According to the “Proceedings of a Board of Officers Appointed to Investigate Injuries to Certain Army Reserve Nurses,” neither nurse died “instantly,” but both died “almost immediately” after being injured. Casualties Aboard Steamship “Mongolia.” Hearings before the Committee on Naval Affairs United States Senate, Sixty-Fifth Congress, First Session, Pursuant to S. RES. 71. (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1917), 19-20.
Footnote 4: A Board of Investigation appointed by the Commandant of the New York Navy Yard was held on 21 May. A record of its proceedings and finding can be found in Casualties Aboard Steamship “Mongolia.” Hearings before the Committee on Naval Affairs United States Senate, Sixty-Fifth Congress, First Session, Pursuant to S. RES. 71. (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1917), 9-19. The Senate ordered that there be an investigation of the incident on 28 May. That investigation, conducted by the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs, began on 2 June 1917, and concluded on 13 June. In a comment about this investigation in his diary Daniels wrote: “Some Rep[ublican]s disposed to be ugly.” DLC-MSS, Josephus Daniels Papers, Diary, Roll 1. The record of its proceedings runs 240 printed pages and went into questions of the quality, production, and testing of ordnance and shell fuses used by the Navy and supplied to the Armed Guards, the incidence of premature explosions, the equipping of guns on merchant steamers, and the use of the brass mouth cup to prevent moisture from getting into the powder charge and to seal the powder charge in the gun barrel. As a result of the accident, Adm. Ralph Earle, decided to replace the brass cup with a composition cork cup covered with “cavity paint” to make it moisture-proof. That cup, Earle asserted, would blow into small pieces when the shell was fired.