Tags: Centenary of Naval Aviation
USS Turner DD 648 (April 1943)
0600L Aboard the Gleaves-class destroyer USS Turner (DD 648) the crew is either moving to breakfast or to stations in preparation for a 0700 underway time for the Brooklyn Navy Yards for a scheduled refit and repair period. Laid down in November 1942 and commissioned in April 1943, she is the second ship to bear the name of War of 1812 hero Captain Daniel Turner. With LCDR Henry Wygant commanding, she participated in three wartime convoys, engaging a probable German sub on the third:
On the night of 23 October, Turner was acting as an advance ASW escort for the convoy when she picked up an unidentified surface contact on her SG radar. At 19:43, about 11 minutes after the initial radar contact, Turner’s lookouts made visual contact with what proved to be a German submarine running on the surface, decks awash, at about 500 yards distance.
Almost simultaneously, Turner came hard left and opened fire with her 5-inch, 40-millimeter, and 20-millimeter guns. During the next few seconds, the destroyer scored one 5-inch hit on the U-boat’s conning tower as well as several 40-millimeter and 20-millimeter hits there and elsewhere. The submarine began to dive immediately and deprived Turner of any opportunity to ram her. However, while the U-boat made her dive, Turner began a depth-charge attack. She fired two charges from her port K-gun battery, and both appeared to hit the water just above the submerged U-boat.
Then, as the destroyer swung around above the U-boat, Turner rolled a single depth charge off her stern. Soon after the three depth charges exploded, Turner crewmen heard a fourth explosion, the shock from which caused the destroyer to lose power to her SG and FD radars, to the main battery, and to her sound gear. It took her at least 15 minutes to restore power entirely.Meanwhile, she began a search for evidence to corroborate a sinking or regain contact with the target.
At about 20:17, she picked up another contact on the SG radar – located about 1,600 yards off the port beam. Turner came left and headed toward the contact. Not long thereafter, her bridge watch sighted an object lying low in the water. Those witnesses definitely identified the object as a submarine which appeared to be sinking by the stern. Unfortunately, Turner had to break contact with the object in order to avoid a collision with another of the convoy’s escorts.
By the time she was able to resume her search, the object had disappeared. Turner and 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 probably the destroyer heavily damaged an enemy submarine and may have sunk her. No conclusive evidence exists to support the latter conclusion.
On the 24th, the two escorts rejoined the convoy, and the crossing continued peacefully. When the convoy divided itself into two segments according to destination on 4 November, Turner took station as one of the escorts for the Norfolk-bound portion. Two days later, she saw her charges safely into port and then departed to return to New York where she arrived on 7 November.
Now returning from that escort duty she has anchored off Ambrose Light, four miles southeast of Rockaway Point, Long Island. A strong wind has been blowing since the late afternoon of the 2nd with moderate snow, wrapping everything in white and muffling all sound.
USS Turner exploding
Without warning an explosion rips the main deck open, tossing the 5″ main mounts about like so many toys. The same blast takes out the mainmast and forward deckhouse and with it, the CO and most of the officers. Below decks is bedlam as fires rage and sailors struggle to rescue the injured and prevent the fires from reaching the ammo storage.
Across the bay at Coast Guard Station Sandy Hook, Coxsain Williams on lookout duty catches sight of the explosion through the snow-dimmed haze and sounds the general alarm. A 83 ft sub-chaser and 77 ft launch set off immediately for the scene and on arrival, the sub-chaser pushes its bow athwart the Turner, lashing itself to the burning destroyer to take aboard the wounded and burned. Sizing up the extent of the damage, the cutter’s skipper concerned about the possibility of another explosion orders the crew of Turner to abandon ship. In short order, 137 crew members are taken aboard and headed back when a second, more powerful explosion rips apart the Turner. The blast is so powerful it is felt up and down the New York and New Jersey coastline for over 30 miles, shattering windows nearby.
But the day’s heroics are far from over.
Many of the injured from the Turner had suffered grievous burns and were taken to the hospital at Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Hundreds of quarts of plasma and whole blood are required but not on hand at the hospital. The intense blizzard prevented ground and ship transport – and all airfields were closed. All was not lost though as a revolutionary new mode of transport was about to get its first, real world test as a life saver at the hands of a visionary, CDR Frank Erickson, USCG.
An early and vocal proponent of the helicopter’s potential, especially in a life-saving role since 1942, CDR Erickson was singularly responsible for setting up the first helicopter training school in 1943 at nearby Floyd Bennet Field in New York. Now on this snowy, hellish day he would face the challenge of his life to bring life-saving supplies to the survivors of the Turner. And in the process, prove the worth of the helicopter.
The Sikorsky HNS that he would use that day was a frail collection of steel tubing and fabric – nothing like the robust rotary-wing craft that fly off our decks today. A mere forty-eight feet in length and powered by a 180 hp engine, the HNS had a max speed of 75 knots in wind free conditions. The conditions today, as he hung up the phonecall from 3rd Naval District HQ were anything but that. We’ll let the Helicopter History site pick up the narrative from here:
Erickson flying the Navy new HNS (Sikorsky R-4) , Buno 46445, with Ens. Walter Bolton as co-pilot struggled with the controls fighting the gusting winds tearing through the corridors of downtown Manhattan. The dark blue colored craft was but a shadow in the swirling snow. Visibility was so low, Erickson observed, “We practically had to ‘feel’ our way around the ships anchored in Gravesend Bay. He battled the roiling snow-turbid winds in a steep approach over pilings along the shoreline to a landing in Battery Park. Bolton, just qualified as a helicopter pilot three days before, reluctantly left the aircraft to allow for the weight of two cases of plasma strapped to the landing floats. Erickson noted the “only way to get out was to back out. His forward passage was blocked; he could not take-off normally, forward into the wind.
Sitting in the helicopter’s pilot seat parked next to the Barge Office on New York’s waterfront, Erickson, with his left hand, rolled the hand-grip throttle. Gradually he raised the collective lever coordinating the twisting motions of his left hand and rising arm, watching closely that engine RPMs did not drop below 2150 or surge past 2250. The Warner R-550-3 Super Scarab engine provided him 200 horse power maximum. Erickson’s hands, arms, and feet moved in an uncoordinated cacophony of motion. Anticipating needed rotor blade pitch for balance, he moved the cyclic stick with his right hand. Simultaneously, with deftness, but gently, he alternated foot pressure gradually applying left rudder pressure to counteract the torque, keeping the nose pointing straight ahead into the park. This strange seated dance of the helicopter pilot was a reaction to the irregular rhythm beat of the sudden and variable wind gusts pummeling the frail fabric and steel-tube structure. Steadily, he kept the shaking helicopter in place and level as it struggled to rise into battering winds.
Igor ‘s nightmare, bouncing on its sausage like floats, suddenly leaping, rose vertically. Slowly, still climbing, it backed over the pilings before finally spinning around to the right and heading downwind. Paradoxically, this maligned craft started it first mission flying backwards. It was an appropriate entry into history for the helicopter. According to Erickson the “weather conditions were such that this flight could not have been made in any other type of aircraft. But for a helicopter, it was simple. So Erickson, with confidence in the helicopter, announced to the public that the flight was routine for the helicopter. The casualness of his comments did not escape the press. The New York Times, in an editorial dated January 6, 1944, echoed :
It was indeed routine for the strange rotary-winged machine which Igor Sikorsky has brought to practical flight, but it shows in striking fashion how the helicopter can make use of tiny landing areas in conditions of visibility which make other types of flying impossible.
No official reason was ever given for the root cause of the explosion. Initial speculation was bad ammunition but later theories centered on a possible U-boat attack based on a history of prior attacks in the general area. What is known is that on a snowy day from hell, a small piece of the war came to the New York/New Jersey shoreline and there was no shortage of guts, determination, seamanship, airmanship or bravery found wanting that day.
UPDATE: The culprit identified (h/t to reader Theodore) – the source of the loss of the Turner most likely was a MOUSETRAP ASW weapon that misfired. Not to be confused with HEDGEHOG which was deployed on the larger ships, MOUSETRAP was developed to take the place of Hedgehog for smaller ships such as patrol craft which could not withstand the recoil forces generated by that weapon. An 85 lbs. (39 kg) warhead was originally fitted, but this was too heavy to man-handle in rough seas. The warhead was changed to the lighter one of the Hedgehog, which had the added benefit of simplifying logistics. The mountings were usually fitted in pairs and could not be compensated for rolling. Not considered to be as effective as Hedgehog, but did give those smaller ships an ahead-firing weapon. The Mark 22 version was a MOUSETRAP projector similar to the Mark 20, but with eight rails, organized as four over four. Fired a pattern of about 80 yards wide (73 m) at a range of about 300 yards (274 m). 100 of these weapons were in service by November 1942. In addition to smaller craft, twelve Benson (DD-421) class and Gleaves (DD-423) class destroyers were each fitted with three of these projectors on the forecastle forward of the first 5″/38 (12.7 cm) mount. One of these destroyers, USS Turner DD-648, blew up and sank off Ambrose Light (Lower New York Bay) on 3 January 1944. The loss was attributed to MOUSETRAP projectiles with faulty contact fuzes.
First published here.