The Daily Press
January 4, 1970
STAND BY FOR A RAM
By Fred Tucker
Almost two and a half thousand years ago, Thucyides Is reputedly to have said: "A collision at sea can ruin your entire day."
The collision involving two 35,000-ton battleships during World War II spoiled what, until that instant, had been unable to accomplish in two years of slugging matches !
The night of Feb. 1, 1944, USS Washington was part of a task group on the prowl in the Japanese-held Marshall Islands. Accompanying her were other heavy units, comprising the fast-battleship bombardment group. They had been charged with a task of flattening Kwajalein defenses, prior to the assault landings. only a few days hence.
For four hours that morning they, including the newly arrived Iowa and New Jersey, had impudently cruised back and forth off the beaches of Kwajalein flinging shattering salvoes of both armor-piercing and high explosive 16-inch projectiles at the Japanese defenders.
The balmy tropic night was pitch black and gentle trade winds soothed exhausted sailors sleeping topside, in an effort to obtain relief from the stifling heat of the crew's quarters below. The task group was operating as usual, on a zig-zag plan.
Shortly after 0400 orders went out, via TBS, directing the Newport News-built Indiana to increase speed, pull ahead of the formation and fuel destroyers.
The 35,000-ton Indiana, then 2,000 yards off the Washington's port quarter, bent on more turns and slowly began to overtake the Washington.
At approximately 0420 the zig-zag plan called for the group to come left.
Apparently this fact had been overlooked when the Indiana was given orders to speed up and pull ahead of the group. Another way of explaining such a snafu is the time-worn phrase, 'There's always somebody that don't get the word.
As the Washington's officers of the desk issued orders to the helmsman. concerning the new course, he moved over adjacent to the binnacle. where he could watch the ship's swing, in order to inform the helmsman when to "meet her".
Shortly after the TBS crackled, "... Stand by ... Execute!”
Smoothly, the Washington commenced her turn, in what was a routine maneuver. The helmsman choked her swing and the Washington assumed her new heading.
Suddenly, out of the night, loomed the Indiana, on the Washington's port bow - on a converging course!
There was only sufficient time to sound the collision alarm, and pass the word," ...
“Stand by for collision, forward!" The engine telegraph was immediately rung up to emergency full astern, in a futile effort to take some of the way off the Washington.
Collision was imminent and horrified bluejackets on the bridge stood transfixed as the Washington's siren blared its warning and the general alarm emitted an electrifying bong, bong. bong.
They were powerless to do anything other than observe their momentum carrying them steadily toward the still-closing Indiana !
The pitlog on the Washington's bridge registered 16 knots !
With a deafening screech of grinding, crumbling steel - which echoed out into the inky darkness, reaching the other ships and alarming top-side watchstanders--the Washington's cutwater knifed into the Indiana's starboard side, just aft of midships. Sailors aboard both vessels grabbed onto able for support as the two behemoths' decks lurched and shuddered beneath them.
Amid a shower of sparks, the Washington continued to plunge forward, even the great bulk of the Indiana appeared unable to slow her down !
The sailors were witnessing a spectacle that will never again occur, due to the demise of battleships ... but they weren't thinking of this as they watched the mighty Indiana heel over to port, under the force of the Washington's savage thrust !
They stared in disbelief as the Washington relentlessly continued her forward plunge. The deck beneath them commenced heaving, in surges. as bulkhead after bulkhead telescoped in the Washington’s bow.
The air was filled with the crescendo of ripping, crumbling steel plates ... a show of sparks momentarily illuminated the collision area with a ghostly half-light.
By this time, however, the Washington's four giant screws were biting in, beginning to take hold ... the sea alongside was a cascading turmoil of white foam.
The Indiana, impaled momentarily by the Washington's bow, yet still having way on, suddenly ripped free, thus opening her damaged compartments to the sea.
She continued on her interrupted course across the Washington's bow. Thick, black fuel oil gushed from ruptured tanks, covering the sea like a deadly blanket--spreading with sinister swiftness that left observers with an impression the fuel oil itself seemed almost eager to blind and suffocate groping survivors in the water.
The Washington's bow had telescoped back 84 feet, and being higher than the Indiana's midships section, the complete main deck, anchors, hawse-pipes, chains and bow machine gun stations rested on the Indiana's main deck, where it dragged along the now-moving Indiana's entire starboard quarter like a giant scythe, crushing everything in its path, grinding sailors, machine gun batteries, quad 40's, the catapult and an airplane crane to bits!
The ear-splitting screech of tortured steel came to a sudden halt as the Indiana pulled out from under the Washington's shattered bow, leaving in its stead an almost eerie silence, broken only by the sound of the ship's auxiliaries--still humming away, as if nothing had happened.
Stunned bluelackets stared open-mouthed as the Washington's upper bow section, lacking the support of the Indiana, sagged--and though still attached to the Washington--went crashing into the sea, providing a ghastly looking, but effective, patch that offered protection for the already weakened bulkheads in her mutilated bow.
The Washington lay dead in the water--smack in the middle of Indian Country !
Throughout the Washington sailors to man their collision station, unhesitantly dogging themselves in, in compartments far below the waterline ... realizing, of course, that the ship could very well be on her way to the bottom--and they wouldn't know for certain until the sea's pressure crushed the bulkheads around them:
Damage controlled parties went about their duties smartly...already men were in the battered forward section of the ship, checking to determine which bulkheads would hold. Others were breaking out stout timbers with which to shore up weakened bulkheads and enable them to get the ship underway again--rather than remain a sitting duck for Nip submarines.
Destroyers were swiftly detached from the screen to provide cover for the helpless giants - and to pick up men from the water.
One, a lieutenant from the Washington, had been relieved from watch shortly before the collision, he had showered and was sitting on the edge of his bunk when the ship's loudspeaker came to life with the electrifying works: "Stand by for collision forward.”
Before he could regain his feet and attempt a dash for safety, the stateroom bulkheads began closing in on him !
Helplessly, he grasped the sides of his bunk for support as the bunk itself began to heave like a small boat in a choppy sea. He managed to draw his legs up under him - and awaited the end.
The next few seconds were only a blur. but to the young lieutenant clinging to his widely heaving bunk, it seemed a lifetime.
The terrifying noise of collapsing frames and girders - and the split second realization that he could now almost reach out and touch both sides of his rapidly compressing cabin were the last things he remembered until the outboard bulkhead behind him providently cracked open. His bunk wrenched up and out - through the opening that existed for a few seconds and tumbled end-over-end into the waiting sea:
The lieutenant clung to the mattress like a magic carpet as it bobbed on the turbulent water, buffeted about by the churning screws of the Washington .
He was picked up by a destroyer moments later. having suffered nothing more serious than a good dunking.
Others, however, were not so fortunate.
Musters were to reveal 10 officers and men missing ...only one was recovered, a young, well-liked officer.
His mangled body was removed from a jumble of wreckage by damage control parties who grimly carried him to the main deck where he would remain until burial in the sparkling hot sand of Majuro Atoll, a mere dot on the broad Pacific surface.
In an amazingly short time the Washington's crew had her underway and logging about four knots.
Majuro Atoll, in the Marshall Islands, offered the closest haven for the two cripples and a course was quickly plotted to take them there.
They could expect a violent reaction from the Japanese in retaliation for the pasting handed Kwajalein the day before and cripples would be the first targets pounced on.
The situation was similar to one experienced by the Washington and South Dakota, in 1942, while retiring from the third battle of Savo.
There, in a night surface engagement, Washington and Adm. Willis A. Lee had given the Japanese a lesson in radar-directed gunfire by smothering the Japanese battleship Kirishima in a storm of 16-inch salvos. The Nip battlewagon had gone down, as did an accompanying destroyer.
At daybreak. the next morning, enemy air groups eager for revenge flew search patterns far astern of the Washington and South Dakota. But the two battleships had been turning up close to 30 knots and were further south than the Nips thought possible. On the bridge of the Washington a plea was made to the engine room for even more revolutions. "Sorry," was the reply, I'm giving her everything she'll take now. There isn't another thing I can do !"
According to a machinist's mate on watch, it was then an enlisted wit piped up with the suggestion: "Oh yeah, everybody lean forward !"
The hearty laugh that followed did much to relieve the built-up tension.
The situation now was similar ... with daylight the search would be underway .
Shortly before daybreak a modified condition zebra was set, permitting many crewmen who had been manning collision stations, to go topside and see for themselves to what extent the Washington had been damaged.
The night was pitch-black, and when the sailors stepped out onto the main deck, the first thing out of the ordinary noted was the sound of the sea's turbulence.
Normally the silence is stunning.
Now, however, a boiling, frothing wake, extending out more than 100 feet on both sides of the ship, informing the awe-stricken bluelackets that damage to the Washington's bow was extensive.
Daybreak permitted them a closer look.
The ship's bow had simply disappeared forward of the mule.
Curious sailors observed that the ship's deck, hanging in the water, now acted as her cut-water. Its blunt surface pushed the sea aside, like a scow, rather than knifing it cleanly, as before.
The turbulent wake was creating a sound like the swiftly moving waters of a waterfall or rapids.
Stepping to the very edge, they looked down, noting that several feet of jumbled wreckage protruded forward of the drooped main deck section, the sea was crystal clear.
Visible, too, was the body of a seaman, clasped in the viselike grip of crumbled steel plates - the bluejacket's long black hair streamed out behind him in the water, as if he were facing a brisk wind, rather than the force of the sea.
The wreckage methodically worked back and forth with movement of the sea, slashing cruelly at the sailor, threatening to dismember him, as grim shipmates watched.
With each knife-like slash of the lagged metal it appeared the sailor was making a desperate effort to free himself. Onlookers realized he wouldn't be there long ... within the hour the sailor was gone ... alone, in an endless ocean, over 1,000 fathoms deep at that position.
Hour by hour the two cripples drew closer to Majuro - but there was still no easing of the tension these men had lived with for the past several years.
Additional lookouts had been posted. Some, using special goggles. peered directly into the sun, in an effort to pick up any dive bombers that had managed to elude radar and would make their attacks from out of the sun.
Nothing could be done about enemy submarines - and their dreaded 24-inch long lance torpedoes - the battleship sailors would have to rely on the vigilance of escorting destroyers.
Unlike 1942, however, (but still tempted to "lean forward") there was plenty of friendly air cover and the cripples finally entered Majuro safely.
Due to the collision. Washington's ground tackle was useless.
Captain Maher brought her smoothly alongside the Vestal, a repair ship and veteran of Pearl Harbor.
The Washington was soon moored and Vestal's experts poured aboard for survey.
After a short stay at Majuro, Vestal certified the Washington was seaworthy enough to make the passage to Pearl Harbor.
The Indiana had preceded the Washington to Pearl and already was in dry-dock when the Washington steamed past Ford Island and went alongside the giant hammer-head crane.
Weary sailors looked around them and noted Pearl hadn't changed much during the past year ... the Arizona, Utah and Oklahoma were still visible and escaping bunker oil from the hulks continued to foul the water.
The presence of so many civilians and dude ranch shore-duty sailors, with their stiffly starched whites, assured Washington bluejackets that the war was far, far away.
They would soon assume their usual No. 1 spot on the Honolulu Shore Patrol's "offense list" charged with such crimes as failure to salute to salute anything that moves, hats not squared, staggering ... and the healthy participation in any available brawl or free-for-all.
At their first opportunity to leave the ship, after entering drydock, Washington sailors walked over to the drydock in which the Indiana lay.
The Washington had opened her hull from the main deck to the turn of her bilge.
Oil-blackened compartments were visible from dockside as were dimly glowing light bulbs in the ship's interior.
The Washington tourists wondered how many men the Indiana had lost as their bow had scraped along her deck, raking it clean.
The Indiana's missing catapult, crane and gun batteries bore mute testimony to the horror of that night.
By now the Washington's crew knew their repair work would have to be made stateside. The extensive nature of her damage prohibited tying up a drydock in Pearl for such a long period. With the step-up in the Navy's war, more and more ships were arriving with minor damage, easily repaired there, and returned to combat. The really big jobs were sent to Bremerton or Mare Island.
While the Washington's crew members somberly stood staring at the Indiana's damage, they were shaken out of their reverie by the sound of tinkling bells - signifying the approach of a shipyard crane.
The hot rodders jockeying those giants around the Navy-yard were noted for their recklessness and apparent delight in drowning out the sound of movies being shown on deck of various ships under repair.
As the crane approached, the men noted it was carrying the port ear of the Indiana's Turret Three - just removed from the jumble of wreckage that was the Washington's bow.
A silence fell ... bluejackets from both battleships observed the business-like transfer of the turret part back to the Indiana ... many were thinking of the ten shipmates who wouldn't be returning home with them ...
The mere thought of home was numbing ... families they hadn't seen in years ... wives ... tender gear ...
They continued on their way, confident they would remain in the States at least six or nine months ... There were visions of 30-days leave, fresh milk, home-cooking and an opportunity to sleep once more as long as they desired.
Pearl Harbor was full of surprises and humming with activity.
Everywhere one looked workmen scurried about, cranes were constantly on the move and trucks scooted here and there. It had been that way since Dec. 7, 1941.
Flag-waving posters were displayed in every conceivable location - as were slogans. All designed to spur the workmen on to even greater efforts.
One poster was especially surprising to the Washington sailors ... it portrayed a sturdy yardbird, sleeves rolled up, face slightly grease-smudged. with a giant sledge hammer slung effortlessly over his shoulder.
The message this poster bore was surprising not only for the fact that it admitted the actual existence of lowly bluejackets, but was directed to the sailors themselves:
You Fight 'Em ...
We'll Fix 'Em!"
Neatly inscribed beneath the last line some disgruntled sailor had penned the words:
"So They Won't Work !"
Bremerton Navy Yard had the biggest surprise of all for them, however.
Already they were constructing a new bow which would be ready when the Washington was maneuvered in drydock.
Bremerton would have the Washington repaired and back into action in less than three months.
War, as General Sherman said, was still less than heavenly.