Tuesday, October 9, 2012

USS Turner (DD-648)

Figure 1:  The Gleaves class destroyer USS Turner (DD-648) headed for the Brooklyn Navy Yard at Brooklyn, New York, for a scheduled refit and repair period in April 1943. Photograph courtesy of Bill Gonyo. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2:  USS Turner (DD-648) photographed from a blimp, 6 September 1943. Photograph courtesy of Fred Weiss; original print from the US National Archives.  Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3:  Photograph of USS Turner (DD-648) dated 18 January 1943, but actually taken several months later. This image was retouched by the wartime censor to remove radar antennas atop the ship's foremast and Mk. 37 gun director. However, the censor did not remove the SG radar antenna on the foremast.  Courtesy  Ed Zajkowski and Robert Hurst.  Click on photograph for larger image.     

Figure 4:  Captain Frank A. Erickson, United States Coast Guard (USCG). As the Coast Guard’s first helicopter pilot, Erickson flew badly needed blood plasma from New York City to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, in a terrible snowstorm to assist the wounded survivors from USS Turner, which sank off the coast of New York on 3 January 1944. It was the first time in history a helicopter was used in a life-saving emergency. Photograph courtesy of the USCG. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5: Then-Commander Frank Erickson, Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot No. 1, in the cockpit of a Sikorsky HNS-1 Hoverfly. Photograph courtesy of the United States Coast Guard. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 6:  Commander Frank Erickson poses with a Sikorsky HNS-1 Hoverfly. Photograph courtesy of the United States Coast Guard. Click on photograph for larger image.     

Named after Captain Daniel Turner (1794-1850), a naval hero from the War of 1812, the 1,630-ton USS Turner (DD-648) was a Gleaves class destroyer that was built by the Federal Shipbuilding & Drydock Company at Kearney, New Jersey, and was commissioned on 15 April 1943. The ship was approximately 348 feet long and 36 feet wide, had a top speed of 37 knots, and had a crew of 261 officers and men. Turner was armed with four 5-inch guns, four 40-mm guns, five 20-mm guns, five 21-inch torpedo tubes, three “Mousetrap” depth-charge projectors, and two depth-charge tracks on the stern of the ship.
After completing her shakedown cruise in Casco Bay, Maine, in early June 1943, Turner steamed to New York City to prepare for her first assignment, a three-day training cruise with the newly commissioned aircraft carrier, USS Bunker Hill (CV-17). After that, the destroyer embarked on her first wartime assignment, which was to escort a convoy across the Atlantic Ocean. On 24 June 1943, Turner left Hampton Roads, Virginia, and assisted in escorting a convoy to Casablanca, French Morocco, arriving there on 18 July. Turner left Casablanca on 23 July to escort another convoy back to New York City, which arrived there on 9 August. Later that month, Turner was part of a convoy to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, making a brief stop at Hampton Roads along the way. On the return trip back north, Turner rendezvoused with the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious and escorted the British ship to Norfolk, Virginia.
During the first two weeks of September 1943, Turner conducted anti-submarine warfare training at Casco Bay, Maine, and then returned to New York to prepare for her second trans-Atlantic voyage. On 21 September, the destroyer headed south to Norfolk. She arrived there on 23 September and the next day headed out across the Atlantic with a new convoy. After an eighteen-day journey, during which Turner made one depth-charge attack on a sound contact, the destroyer arrived at Casablanca on 12 October. Four days later, Turner left Casablanca and headed to Gibraltar to join another convoy. She reached Gibraltar on 17 October and after staying in port for two days joined convoy GUS-18 for the trip back to the United States.
On the night of 23 October 1943, while acting as an advance anti-submarine escort for the convoy she was sailing with, Turner located an unidentified surface contact on her radar. At approximately 1943 hours, only eleven minutes after making her initial radar contact, Turner’s lookouts made visual contact with what appeared to be a German U-boat running along the surface roughly 500 yards away. Turner immediately turned hard left and opened fire with her 5-inch, 40-mm, and 20-mm guns. Turner’s gunners scored one 5-inch hit on the U-boat’s conning tower, as well as several 40-mm and 20-mm hits on other parts of the enemy submarine. The U-boat began to dive and slipped beneath the surface before Turner had an opportunity to ram her. But as the U-boat dove deeper into the ocean, Turner began a depth-charge attack. Turner dropped two depth charges and both of them appeared to hit the water just above the submerged German submarine. As Turner kept moving over the area where the U-boat was, she dropped another depth charge off her stern. Soon after the three depth charges exploded, Turner’s crewmen heard a fourth explosion, the shock from which caused the destroyer to lose power to her radar systems, her main 5-inch battery, and her sonar equipment. It took Turner’s crewmen roughly 15 minutes to restore full power to the ship.
Once she re-gained full power, Turner began searching the area for evidence to corroborate a sinking or regain contact with the submarine. At 2017 hours, Turner picked up another contact on her radar, this one located roughly 1,500 yards off her port beam. Turner came left and headed toward the contact. Not long after that, crewmen on Turner’s bridge sighted an object lying low in the water. The crewmen on the bridge definitely identified the object as a submarine which appeared to be sinking by the stern. Unfortunately, Turner had to break contact with the U-boat in order to avoid a collision with another of the convoy’s escorts. By the time Turner was able to resume her search, the U-boat had disappeared. Turner and the destroyer escort USS Sturtevant (DE-239) remained in the area and conducted further searches for the submarine or for proof of her sinking but failed in both instances. All that can be said is that Turner probably heavily damaged the U-boat and may have sunk her, noting it only as a “probable kill.”
On 24 October, Turner and Sturtevant rejoined the convoy and all the ships continued their journey without further incident. The convoy then divided itself into two groups on 4 November. Turner took station as one of the escorts for the group that was headed for Norfolk. Two days later, Turner and the ships she was escorting safely reached port. Turner then left Norfolk to return to New York, where she arrived on 7 November.
After remaining ten days in port, Turner conducted anti-submarine warfare exercises at Casco Bay before returning to Norfolk to join another trans-Atlantic convoy. Turner left Norfolk with her third and final convoy on 23 November 1943 and brought the convoy safely across the Atlantic. On 1 January 1944, near the end of the return voyage to the United States, Turner’s convoy again split into two parts. Turner escorted the group of ships that was headed for New York City and continued in that direction. Turner arrived off Ambrose Light in lower New York Bay late on 2 January and anchored.
Early the next morning on 3 January 1944, for some unknown reason Turner suffered a series of enormous internal explosions. By 0650, the ship took on a 15-degree starboard list. Explosions (mostly in the ammunition stowage areas) continued to tear apart the battered destroyer. Then, at roughly 0750, a huge explosion caused the stricken warship to capsize and sink. The tip of her bow remained above water until 0827 and then she disappeared completely, taking with her 15 officers and 123 crewmen. After nearby ships picked up the survivors of the sunken destroyer, the injured crewmen were rushed to a hospital at Sandy Hook, New Jersey.  But the hospital at Sandy Hook needed vital blood plasma to treat many of Turner’s injured crewmen, plasma it needed quickly if those sailors were to survive.
Into this desperate situation stepped a remarkable man, Lieutenant Commander Frank A. Erickson, United States Coast Guard (USCG). Erickson had become the first Coast Guard helicopter pilot (Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot No. 1) in September 1943, flying the fragile Sikorsky HNS-1 Hoverfly helicopter. Erickson was a big believer in the future of helicopters, envisioning that one day they could be used for rescuing people on both land and sea. Erickson was also an instructor who trained 102 helicopter pilots and 225 mechanics, including personnel from the US Army Air Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard, as well as the British Army, Royal Air Force, and Royal Navy.
On 3 January 1944, Erickson received word that the hospital at Sandy Hook was in desperate need of blood plasma to save some of the surviving crewmen from the Turner disaster. Erickson answered the call for help by lashing two cases of blood plasma to the floats of his HNS-1 Hoverfly helicopter and flying from New York City to Sandy Hook during a violent snowstorm that grounded all the other aircraft in the area. Erickson successfully completed the mission and became the first helicopter pilot in the world to fly a helicopter under such conditions. It also was the first lifesaving flight ever performed by a helicopter. Many of those wounded sailors owed their lives to the plasma that was brought to them by a very brave pilot on board this new aircraft called a “helicopter.”
Erickson then developed the idea and the techniques for the practical use of a power hoist in helicopters. He demonstrated this near Jamaica Bay, New York, in 1944 as the pilot of the first helicopter to pick up a man from land on 11 August 1944; the first pick-up of a man floating in water on 14 August; and the first pick-up of a man from a life raft on 25 September. Those demonstrations led to an official commendation which he received in February 1945. His techniques in the use of the hydraulic hoist and related lifesaving equipment proved of invaluable assistance to military services and to non-military organizations. Erickson also proved that helicopters could be used for rescues involving the lifting of personnel, equipment, and cargo. His early demonstrations influenced the Army to use that equipment overseas and influenced the design of numerous helicopters in their developmental stages. He later also invented and patented a flight stabilizer for helicopters and developed inflatable pontoons for landing helicopters on water.
Erickson went on to have a stellar career testing and developing the use of helicopters with the Coast Guard and he pioneered the technique of landing helicopters on platforms that were built on board ships. He retired from the Coast Guard as a captain on 1 July 1954. He then went on to serve as the chief test pilot for the Brantly Helicopter Corporation while continuing to design a helicopter flight-path stabilizer. He assisted NASA’s Gemini program in developing a hoist system to lift an astronaut out of the water in emergency situations and consulted with the designers of the Coast Guard’s new 210-foot Reliance class cutters in designing those vessels’ helicopter landing pads. Captain Frank A. Erickson, a true pioneer in the history of aviation and a man possessed with limitless vision when it came to the potential of helicopters and their many uses, died on 17 December 1978 at the age of seventy-one.