A Personal History
of the USS Salamonie
From May 1942 - Until April 1945
Contributed by Robert G. Gehrz, LCDR USNR (Ret.) 42-45
Chapters V and VI
Chapter V - Shore Patrol and Liberty in Morocco
Various groups of our convoy broke off for various ports as we approached Africa. We were brought inside the artificial port harbor of Casablanca and moored stem first to a breakwater. The bow was held in place by the anchor.
I recall that Gordon and I went ashore together on a half-day shore patrol tour from 1200 to 1600. We walked our tour of shore patrol, but did not patrol the Medina (walled old town). After 1600, we did not shop but did take a buggy ride. I recall that we visited the Sultan's palace and bribed a native guard to let us go into his garden. A package of cigarettes was the bribe. On the way back to the ship, I recall our walking on the right side of a boulevard of Palm Trees and witnessed an incident that I can't forget, but I hope you remember.
On the left side of the trees, as we walked back to the ship, there was a narrow street, a sidewalk and, lining the walk was a long row of open-front shops. All of a sudden, a thief ran from a shop with his robe flowing behind him. A shop owner flashing a large knife was chasing him. I recall that he plunged it into the back of the thief, who dropped dead on the sidewalk. Yelling, police whistles and the arrival of a French gendarme followed this. You and I kept walking back to the ship.
We returned to Norfolk after a very long voyage with old, slow ships and through very heavy weather. One of the 4-piper destroyers in our escort group was so battered by seas over the bow that the splinter shield on the forward deck was literally torn upward, opening the foredeck to the green seas. Fortunately this happened early in the 08-12 watch. Their Skipper reversed his ship's heading 180 degrees and steamed backward into the seas until the shipfitters closed the opening and welded it securely. That takes real seamanship for all hands! We were still at sea on Christmas Day.
Chapter VI- Fast Troop Convoy - Collision at Sea
Our activities after return to the States involved trips to Aruba and Texas. In February 1943, we sailed from Norfolk to New York and joined up with a large troop convoy headed for Gibraltar and points East to build up forces for the invasion of Sicily.
I believe that I was still a JOOD underway, but given more and more chance to conn the ship in convoy as part of my training. The Convoy Commodore was an admiral in the cruiser USS Philadelphia
This is the story of our collision with the, USAT Uruguay, a former South American cruise ship, at 0102 hours, 12. February 1943 in plus 3 time zone.
NOTE: On this day I stood the 18-20 dogwatch. At 1800, when I reported to the OD of the previous dog watch to relieve him, I found the Sal swinging left on a zig when all other ships were swinging right on a zag. The OD caught that promptly and with helm orders, managed to get Sal back on station in about 10 minutes, before I relieved him. He felt it was the helmsman's error, but I don't recall any further problem about that afterward. I stood the OD watch until 2000 with no further steering incidents, and then turned in to sleep.
Just after 0100, February 12th 1943, zone three time, I noted the following events.
1 - Sudden rapid blasts of the ship's whistle.
2 - Tremendous rumbling noise from the engine room below me and
vibration of the after end of the ship. I thought a torpedo had hit the screws. Later I found that the Captain had ordered a "crash reverse" to avoid the collision.
3 - A tremendous crash of metal as the ship's came together - our ship heeled a few degrees to starboard. It felt as though the bow rose up.
4- The wardroom pantry cupboards flew open and there was a loud crash of broken dishes as those hit the steel decks.
5- The General Alarm sounded long and loud.
6 - In collision drill, the next warning should have been the ship's steam whistle siren, but it was clogged with condensed steam and gurgled but did not sound. It was located on the stack right over my cabin.
7 - The Bosuns' Mates sounded Collision Quarters with their calls, but no one else recognized that call on the pipes and so nobody went to Collision Quarters. Instead all hands went to General Quarters (Battle Stations).
When Battle Stations were man- ned, all personnel were re-routed by telephone to Collision Quarters. My station was on the gun deck over the wardroom, and when the crew was mustered, I went throughout the after house to make sure that all water tight doors and ports were tightly shut.
Then I went to the bridge to report because of the massive confusion. At that time, a soldier from the USAT Uruguay was on the bridge in his skivvies, bleeding from a large cut on his forehead. When the Exec, who was acting OD, realized that this man was not a member of our crew, he was taken to see Dr. Garnett in Sick Bay. A news story later reported that he awoke lying on our foredeck under a starry sky. He saw two other men near him, stand up and walk, only to drop down out of sight. He chose to crawl on hands and knees to a safe place to walk on the deck until a crewman took him to Sick Bay.
This soldier was put ashore in Bermuda. A newspaper article about him a few months later reported that he was an army sergeant named Cecil Davis and that he had landed on the beach in Sicily and was killed there.
Here are a few other facts that I learned by hearsay but did not observe directly.
1 - At 0100 the convoy had orders to return to the base course and cease zigzag. All ships were blacked out and there was no moon.
2 - The USAT Uruguay was 600 yards on our port bow, and they had no lookout on her starboard bridge wing.
3 - AO-26 was carrying about 8 degrees left rudder because of the effect of the seas.
4- When 0100, the time of execution arrived, our helmsman at the Sperry electric steering wheel reported to the OOD, "Sir, our rudder is jammed!"
5- In the dark, the quartermaster tried to change the valve to provide hydraulic steering on the main wheel, but he still could not get a rudder response. Later official tests showed both steering system were OK.
6 - Lt. Babcock, OD, ordered the port engine ahead full, starboard engine back full, and sounded the collision warning on the whistle. I believe he was later criticized for not turning on the Breakdown lights.
7 - The Exec later told me that we were criticized for not having a man on the "trick wheel" in the steering engine room. However, the Captain was exonerated on that point because the ship's complement did not provide for such a position.
8 - Lt. Babcock called the Captain, who hit the bridge out of a dead sleep. He grabbed the engine room telegraph and signaled a "crash reverse1", known as "4 Bells and a Jingle".
9 - Because we were carrying 8 degrees left rudder, we slowly turned to port while the troopship made a 45 degree starboard turn to base course, which placed her right across our bow.
It appears that the Captain saved the Uruguay (with 5,000 troops aboard) from totally breaking up, because, even with Full Astern power, we penetrated her hull under her bridge, almost to her keel - halfway through. (A news report
later said that the troopship's concrete ballast kept Salamonie from slashing her in half.) Our foc'sle deck penetrated into her sick bay and withdrew as Salamonie's propellers pulled her away. The soldier previously mentioned was one of three who were pulled out on our foc'sle alive. In the starlight he saw two other men stand up, walk, and drop down (into the ocean). He crawled on his hands and knees to safety.
The total casualties as reported by Jules James, Rear Admiral USN, the convening authority of the Board of Investigation, were 7 dead, 6 missing 21 injured, a total of 32 Army personnel and 2 Merchant Marine. There were no casualties
Uruguay took on a heavy list, which could not be counter ballasted. AO-26's bow was crushed back to the #1 gun turret and the wreckage of our bulbous bow was shoved to the starboard side. The anchor engine and both anchors were lost and the ship was down by the bow.
10 - I was told by observers that, at impact, sparks flew 80 feet into the air. Fortunately there was no fire. The collision bulkhead, which was the forward bulkhead of our forward ammunition magazine, was bent inward against the 500 5" aluminum cartridge containers stowed there. Another fraction of an inch on many of those cases would have struck the percussion caps of the cartridges and exploded the whole magazine with shells and powder cartridges, inside the Uruguay. In addition, Numbers 1 and 2 cargo tanks on either side of the magazine were loaded with 100-octane aviation gasoline. One of the first actions to save the ship was the jettisoning of all the fuel in these tanks, which lightened the bow enough to raise it substantially.
11 - While chaos was all around, the bridge ordered Mr. Anderson, the 1st Lt., to sound all tanks. He and his men were removing cases of booze carried in the Boatswain's locker for officers clubs abroad, and storing them in his
stateroom. The collision had torn open the locker.
* * *
NOTE: Here I insert a copy of important aspects of this tragic event, from testimony at the Board of Enquiry, by the Officer of the Deck of USS Salamonie and Frank Bryant, Signalman of the Watch.
Members of this vessel's crew on watch (Condition III, Watch III) on the bridge were as follows:
OOD: BABCOCK, William F. Lt. USN
Jr. OOD: RUNG, Geo. J. Jr., Ens. DV-S, USNR
Signalman: BRYANT, Frank DeForrest, Jr. QM3/c
Quartermaster: MAISMAN, Robert W. S/1c
Boatswain's Mate: BURNER, Woodrow Wilson, BM2/c
Helmsman: BAIN, William French, S/lc
Lee Helmsman: JACKSON, Lonzo Gilbert S2/c
Messenger: FUDGE, John Robert SK2/c
Telephone Talker: HUGHES, Elden Ordway SK2/c
Life Boat Engineer: SNYDER, William Harrison F3/c
Lookout: BRITT, James Madison S2/c
Others on watch at the time were:
Eng. Officer: DUMOULIN, John L., LL D-M, USNR
Steering Gear Room: ROULHAC, Wm. Sterling, Jr. F2/c
I.C.Room: WILEY, W.K. EM3/c
After Lookout: PULLIAM, Wilburn, S2/c V-6
Depth Charge Talker: WAGNER, Varge Norman, GMl/c 0-1
Cont. Tower Talker: GREEN, Richard Earl, FC3/c
Lookout: CERAJEWSKI, Albine Thomas S2/c V-6
Cont. Tower Lookout: MAGYAR, Ernest Michael, S2/c
Cont. Tower Lookout: CHILDS, James Harry, S2/c
Cont. Tower Lookout: POWELL, Earl, (n), S2/c V-6
From the report made by Lt. William Babcock USNR, Officer of the Deck.
At midnight when I relieved the Officer-of-the-Deck (Ens. R. G. Gehrz, D-V (G), USNR, supervised by Lt. Cmdr. H.V.Anderson, D-M, USNR) the following conditions existed:
Steaming as before on Base Course 086 T. & Gyro, 102 pstgc., s/s 15 knots, 81 r.p.m. Zigzagging in accordance with plan #11 (Zigzag Diagrams, 1940). Boiler #1,2,3,4 in use for steaming. In company with convoy UGF-5, escorted by ocean
escort of USS Arkansas (convoy guide in position 41) and USS Philadelphia (SOPA in position between columns three and four and approximately 1000 yards ahead
of convoy). Convoy screened by Desron 15. Convoy Commodore in USS Susan B. Anthony (in position 31). Convoy formation: seven columns in line. Prescribed
interval 700 yards. No other ships in column seven. USAT Uruguay was in position 61. The position of the convoy was approximately thirty-six fifty-four North and forty-nine forty-three West.
From the written report of BRYANT, Frank, Signalman of the Watch:
About 0055, I was in the chart house, having been sent by the OOD to check again to make sure we were a light-repeating ship, there having been some discussion about whether #61 or #71 was, and a possibility of using lights to cease zigzag. I followed the lee helmsman into the pilothouse at 0100 as he passed the word, "Right to course 086" I noticed then that the rudder indicator was 8 degrees left. I watched the gyro repeater, and the ship instead of swinging to the right after 30 seconds, began to fall off slowly to the left.
The OOD checked the wheel and gave the word to shift to hydraulic steering. The QM began to make the shift and I personally checked him. I cut out the electric steering and checked the valve on the hydraulic steering to see that it was
closed. I was sure it was cut in, as I heard the click as the QM closed the valve. By this time the OOD was broadcasting a warning on the TBS for all ships to stay clear of #71 - our rudder was jammed. He repeated it over and over until we collided. At the same time, I heard the JOOD blowing the steam whistle.
After checking the valve, I moved toward the engine room telegraph. I heard the Captain coming out into the Pilot House through the curtain hollering "Back full". When I reached the engine telegraph, the port engine was ahead standard; starboard was back full. I put the port engine back fill and ripped the cloth that covered the Annunciators, in so doing. Then I went to the port wing. As soon as we hit, the OOD said, "Sound the general alarm", which I did. I went out on the port wing again. Then I heard the lookout report, "man overboard". I went to the rail and looked over but could see no one. I did hear plainly a man in the water crying for help. (Next day, USAT Uruguay reported 6 men missing).
I went down on the next deck and threw a life ring and two life jackets in the direction of the voice. (Varge Wagner GM1c ordered a life jacket to be thrown overboard toward the voice from the water and the Franklin life buoy to be released.) I still couldn't see him, but the voice was drawing aft. I returned to the bridge and told the Boatswain's Mate to pipe collision forward. Then I stood around waiting for signals. About 15 minutes later the telephone talker reported that a voice in the water could be heard astern. I reported that to the OOD, who broadcast the man's position and the ship's head to the destroyer. I gave Hesson, a striker, a megaphone and told him to take it aft and holler to the man to hold on and that a destroyer was looking for him back there.
NOTE: Each officer and man of the deck watch made a written report. BRYANT'S report; quoted above, is an excellent summary of the events on the bridge and is in agreement with reports of the watch standers at various stations around the ship. Other men on the deck watch heard the voice of the man in the water as the man (or men) drifted aft, but because of the darkness, he was never sighted.
The last cries heard by Salamonie crewmen were at 0126. The destroyer that was ordered to search for him, reported hearing cries. The destroyer's request for permission to use a searchlight, were denied by SOPA, since it would pose an extreme danger of attracting a submarine to the troop convoy. The man, (or men) was never found.
Back to the narrative by Bob Gehrz.
12 - When dawn came and damage had been assessed, the Commodore released a destroyer from his screen to escort the transport to Bermuda forthwith, fearing that weather might capsize the damaged ship with 5,000 troops.
13 - Another destroyer was released to protect the Salamonie, which appeared to be watertight. I heard that the Captain debated whether to "back" the ship 800 miles to Bermuda. This idea was abandoned because the main bearings were
not designed for such use and because it would be too slow. (We were 1,600 miles from New York).
Therefore, we proceeded ahead standard on the starboard engine and one third on the port engine. We steered mainly with left standard rudder. This went on for 3 days at slow speed, with no zigzag and with the crushed bow like a wing to
starboard. Another JO and I spelled each other for four hours every other four hours with a head set to the bridge to warn if the wreckage began to tear off side plates or dropped off endangering the starboard screw.
The other four hours on and off were spent by us dogged down in the bottom of the forward magazine with a talker to the bridge, observing shoring to report any danger of failure as the ship pitched in the swells and slowly moved
I recall the creaks and groans of the damaged bulkhead and the shoring. However, after 3 days the wreckage broke off and went to the bottom. Then we were able to increase speed and made Bermuda safely in 8 days.
14 - Since we had no anchors, Bermuda port Director sent a pilot to help us moor stem first to a buoy and then later move to a wharf in the old British dockyard across the bay from Hamilton.
I was on the bridge as a JOOD when the pilot came aboard for the Dockyard move. The Captain was looking out over the bay when a voice in the finest British accent said, "Good Morning, Captain". Our Captain looked around and saw a coal black Pilot. He refused to accept that pilot's services. A call to the Port Director's office resulted in the command, "Take our pilot or you cannot enter the harbor". Captain Von Heimburg acquiesced and we entered the harbor.
We were making temporary repairs at that wharf for about 6 weeks. The ship was trimmed so that the entire forefoot was out of the water. Our crew with help from dockyard personnel cut away all debris and fashioned a temporary blunt bow without anchors. Heating steel by using hand torches, fueled by old portable acetylene generators, they shaped plates.
Now and then officers could go up a hill to an officers' club. On the lawn were many figureheads from bows of old British sailing ships.
Three events are worthy of special mention.
1 - I took a group of men to a firing range to practice 20mm firing.
2 - Another U.S. oiler in the Bay lost a liberty party and the boat crew, a total of about 100 men, in heavy seas one night. The Exec sent me to that ship to express our condol- ences. Upon my return and during my OOD watch, our boat crews returned with the body of one of the drowned men. My sympathies caused me to have the body covered and tended 24 hours a day by one of my Division, with a rifle and in dress uniform, until the sailor's ship sent a boat for him.
3 - During our stay at the Dockyard, some passengers were sent aboard, including a Warrant Boatswain whose name I don't recall. On a certain day, I had the duty, and a younger officer was standing deck watch. About 0100, he came to my stateroom and awakened me to report that the electric range in the Wardroom Galley was on fire. Out of my bunk in my skivvies, you can be sure. The range top was covered in flames three feet high. The JOOD and his petty officer were using C02 to put it out, but the fire flashed back whenever they stopped. Smoke was thick. I knew where the master electrical cut-off was located in the passageway and threw off the current before someone used water! Despite protests, I opened all ports and got rid of the smoke. My fire school training helped, and I knew that in addition to C02, we had to gradually cool the range with water without ruining it and flooding the compartment.
I ordered several pails of cold water and several clean mops. We sponged the range for a half hour or so and kept flames down with C02 and got things under control. I never logged the event or told Lew Johns (Exec) until he took me to dinner in San Francisco 30 years later. He forgave me since everything had worked out and was under control. I thought that reporting the matter might draw a Board of Enquiry!
The reason for the fire was this: the Warrant Bo'sun, mentioned earlier, returned from Liberty drunk as a skunk. He wanted to make some coffee and turned on every electrical control on the range - ovens included. Also our cooks had the habit of cooking hamburgers right on the range top, which had circular steel plates over the electrical elements. They seldom if ever removed the plates to clean up the grease, which seeped down to the elements. Then the drunken Bo'sun couldn't find any coffee, forgot about turning off the range and went to bed. In an hour or so, the range top was red hot and on fire from the grease.
Next morning, Lew asked why we didn't have any warm cereal, and was blandly told merely that the electricians were fixing the range.
When temporarily repaired, the ship sailed for Norfolk, and took a station wagon on board for use in Baltimore, then sailed up Chesapeake Bay to the Maryland Dry-dock Company at Baltimore. On arrival the hull was checked in a
floating dry-dock for keel and underwater damage, then returned to dockside where the yard built a new shaped bow, installed new anchors and windlass and repaired all the other damage.
We all were granted leaves and I went home, and became engaged to be married. Upon my return I found we had a new public address system, a surface radar (SG) and some other useful items. After repairs we sailed back to Norfolk and Lt. Babcock was transferred to other duty and I was promoted to the position of
regular Officer of the Deck Underway.