Tuesday, March 11, 2008

USS Mount Hood (AE-11)

Figure 1: USS Mount Hood (AE-11) off the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, 16 July 1944. She is painted in cmouflage Measure 32, Design 18F. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the US National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: USS Mount Hood underway in Hampton Roads, Virginia, 6 August 1944. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: Explosion of the USS Mount Hood at Seeadler Harbor on Manus Island in New Guinea, 10 November 1944. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: Mount Hood, smoke cloud expanding, just after she exploded in Seeadler Harbor, Manus, Admiralty Islands, 10 November 1944. Photographed by a photographer of the 57th Construction Battalion, who had set up his camera to take pictures of the Battalion's camp. From the collection of CDR. Lester B. Marx, now in the collections of the US Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5: Damaged ships at Seeadler Harbor after the Mount Hood explosion. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 6: Damage to the USS Mindanao after the Mount Hood explosion. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 7: Damaged minesweepers and the USS Mindanao after the Mount Hood explosion. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Named after a volcanic peak in Oregon, the 13,910-ton ammunition ship USS Mount Hood (AE-11) was originally laid down on 28 September 1943 as the freighter Marco Polo by the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company at Wilmington, North Carolina. She was renamed Mount Hood on 10 November 1943 and acquired by the Navy on a loan-charter basis on 28 January 1944. The Mount Hood was converted into an ammunition ship by the Norfolk Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, Norfolk, Virginia, and was commissioned on 1 July 1944, Commander Harold A. Turner in command. The ship was approximately 459 feet long, 63 feet wide, and had a top speed of 16 knots and a crew of 318 officers and men. The Mount Hood also was armed with one 5-inch gun, four 3-inch guns, and four 40-mm guns.

After a brief shakedown cruise in the Chesapeake Bay area, the Mount Hood was assigned to carry various types of ammunition to the Pacific. On 21 August 1944, she left Norfolk and headed for the Panama Canal. After transiting the Canal on 27 August, the Mount Hood proceeded independently to her destination, which was Seeadler Harbor on Manus Island in New Guinea. The Mount Hood reached Seeadler Harbor on 22 September and commenced unloading her ammunition and explosives to the other ships in the harbor that were assigned to the upcoming invasion of the Philippines.

At 0830 on the morning of 10 November 1944, Lt. Lester A. Wallace, the Mount Hood’s communications officer, along with 17 other men from the ship, were sent ashore to take care of several errands. At 0855, while walking on the beach, Wallace and his men witnessed a flash from the harbor that was followed by two quick explosions. All of the men ran to the whaleboat that brought them to shore and headed back to where they thought the Mount Hood was, but after a few minutes they noticed that there was no sign of the ship and that, “There was nothing but debris all around…”

The Mount Hood had exploded with an estimated 3,800 tons of explosives and ammunition on board. The first explosion caused flames and smoke to shoot up from amidships and then, within seconds, a second explosion set off the rest of her deadly cargo. A mushroom cloud rose 7,000 feet into the air and spread approximately 500 yards from the epicenter of the explosion. The force of the explosion carved out a hole in the bottom of the harbor approximately 100 yards long, 50 feet wide, and 30-40 feet deep. Some pieces of the ship landed more than 2,000 yards away from where the Mount Hood was moored and Navy investigators later found no fragment of the ship that was larger than 16 feet by 10 feet.

The blast, the ensuing concussion from the blast, along with the metal fragments from the Mount Hood itself, caused an enormous amount of damage to the other ships in the harbor. This phenomenal explosion damaged two escort carriers, a destroyer, four destroyer escorts, a high-speed transport, a destroyer tender, three cargo ships, an oiler, two repair ships, a salvage ship, a fleet tug, 16 small minesweepers, an unclassified auxiliary vessel, a covered lighter, and a fuel oil barge. In addition, nine medium landing craft (LCM) and a pontoon barge moored alongside the Mount Hood were destroyed. Although thirteen small boats or landing craft were sunk or damaged beyond repair, 33 were damaged but salvageable. One of the repair ships, the USS Mindanao (ARG-3), was anchored next to the Mount Hood and suffered 23 dead and 174 injured, as well as major damage to the ship itself. In all there were 45 known dead, 327 missing and presumed dead (bodies that would never be found given the size and severity of the explosion), and 371 injured. The only members of the Mount Hood’s crew that survived the carnage were Lt. Wallace and the 17 other men who were, by mere chance, sent ashore that day.

A Naval Board of Inquiry was convened to determine the reason for the blast, but it was never able to determine the exact cause. There were some reports that a Japanese submarine was in the area, but no evidence was ever found to support this claim, let alone that the Mount Hood was actually attacked by an enemy submarine. The Naval Board eventually ruled that the initial explosion probably resulted from a load of ammunition being set off when it was dropped into, or struck a hatch in the Mount Hood's number three or four hold. The Naval Board also noted that ammunition was being roughly handled in all parts of the ship, that some explosives were not being stowed according to Naval regulations, and that the crew was not properly briefed on critical safety measures. Finally, the Naval Board determined that the Mount Hood was not sunk as a result of enemy activity.

The Naval Board did find that the Harbor Master was guilty of situating the Mount Hood too close to the other ships in the harbor. The man was court-martialled, but he put up such a vigorous defense (citing dozens of pertinent factors regarding his decisions) that he was only found guilty of some lesser charges. Ultimately, he was just given a Letter of Reprimand by the Navy.

The USS Mount Hood was officially struck from the Naval Vessel Register on 11 December 1944. The ship served in the United States Navy a little more than four months before it was destroyed. The damage caused by the explosion to the other ships in Seeadler Harbor required more than 100,000 man-hours to repair. Approximately 48,000 of those hours were needed to repair the USS Mindanao.

When people think about naval warfare they usually think about the many warships that have fought throughout naval history, such as aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, etc. Few, if any, individuals realize that the mere act of supplying a fleet with the supplies it needs to wage a conventional war can be, in and of itself, a very dangerous job. The Mount Hood was assigned the critical and incredibly dangerous task of delivering large amounts of explosives and ammunition to warships in a war zone. No books or movies are ever made about such “mundane” tasks, yet the men who gave their lives on board the Mount Hood were just as important and just as brave as the individuals serving on board the other warships in the fleet.