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USS Wasp USS Hobson Collision - Worst Peacetime Naval Disaster

Updated on February 26, 2015

The Bow of the USS Wasp

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On April 26, 1952 the aircraft USS Wasp (CV-18) was maneuvering 700 miles west of the Azores along with its compliment of support ships including the USS Hobson, a minesweeper-destroyer serving as one of the Wasp's destroyer escorts. A destroyer escort serves as a plane guard and screen for the carrier. Screen duty involves protecting the carrier from attack and whatever other tasks are assigned to the ship.

The USS Hobson

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Screen Duty - A Difficult Task for a Destroyer Captain

Carrier screen duty is one of the more nerve wracking tasks for a destroyer captain. It's his job to "keep station," that is maintain a constant position relative to the carrier. If the carrier turns suddenly the message is relayed by radio to the destroyer, but often the turn is almost instantaneous and the destroyer skipper has to be ready to respond. This is especially critical during flight operations because the carrier captain's job is to keep its bow pointed into the wind to launch or retrieve aircraft.

On the night of April 26, 1952 the Wasp launched a training flight of planes at about 8 PM (2000 hours in military time). As the Wasp was preparing to retrieve its aircraft, her commanding officer, Captain Burnham McCaffree planned to turn the ship into the wind to a course of 250 to 260. On the Hobson, the officer of the deck, Lt. William Hoefer, was planning accordingly. The ships were steaming at 24 knots and the Hobson was 3000 yards off the Wasp's starboard quarter (on the right side and behind the Wasp). The Hobson's captain, 32 year old Lt. Commander William Tierney, was new to sea duty.

The plan was for the Hobson to take a new station on the Wasp's port quarter and her sister ship, the destroyer USS Rodman, was to take the Hobson's previous station on the carrier's starboard quarter. In other words, the two escorts were going to switch positions.

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The Williamson Turn

Young Captain Tierney had recently received a communication from fleet headquarters that recommended executing rapid turning maneuvers to maximize efficiency. One simple way to accomplish this would have been for each destroyer to slow down and switch positions behind the maneuvering carrier. Tierney instead chose to execute a Williamson turn, also known as the lifeguard turn. The Williamson Turn was named after the man who designed it, a destroyer escort captain in World War II. The maneuver calls for a ship to go through a carefully timed turn with exact rudder positions and the result would be that the ship winds up in the same location where it began its turn. For lifesaving purposes this is an excellent choice. You wind up near the spot where a person fell overboard. But to change stations behind an aircraft carrier, the turn called for the Hobson to cross IN FRONT OF the Wasp, with tragic results. Tierney got into a heated argument with Lt. Hoefer, the officer of the deck, who thought that a fancy turn in front of the carrier would be dangerous. Eyewitness accounts have Lt. Hoefer stormed off the bridge in anger. As he did so, he instinctively turned down the radio receiver volume.

A Gathering of Errors

As the officer of the deck of the Wasp ordered right standard rudder, the glass on the pelorus (a compass repeater) of the Hobson was foggy, making it difficult to get an exact bearing on the Wasp. At the same time the surface radar on the Wasp failed. The wind shifted and the Wasp skipper ordered a ten degree course change. The message was relayed to the Hobson although no one can recall hearing it. Tierney on the Hobson ordered right full rudder, and then 30 seconds later ordered left full rudder. No one knows why he did this. The Hobson crossed directly in front of the 34,000 ton Wasp and was sliced in two.

176 sailors perished in short order and only 61 survived. On the bridge, 11 out of 13 survived. Young Captain Tierney either fell or jumped off the bridge into the water. He couldn't swim and perished.

What perished along with Captain Tierney is the exact explanation of what happened. We will never know. The Naval Board of Inquiry, held in May 1952, lasted nine days. The three admirals on the board concluded that the collision was caused by the young commander of the Hobson, William Tierney.

Because of the gaping hole in its bow, the Wasp steamed backwards to Gravesend Bay, New York at a speed of four knots. Her journey was further complicated because, as was subsequently discovered, she was dragging over 600 feet of anchor chain.

I served on the USS Wasp from 1968 to 1970, assigned to the navigation division. The story of the collision with the Hobson, 16 years earlier, still reverberated on the ship. As I stood watch on the bridge I could imagine the horrifying sight of a destroyer passing directly in front of us.The Wasp was decommissioned in 1970. The collision between the USS Wasp and the USS Hobson was the worst peacetime naval disaster in the history of the United States Navy. The USS Wasp acquired the unenviable nickname throughout the Navy as the "Can Opener."

Parts of this article are based on an article that appeared in Waspirit, the quarterly newsletter for those who served on the USS Wasp (CVS 18) "The USS Hobson's Tragic Date With Destiny" by Kit Bonner.

Copyright © 2013 by Russell F. Moran

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    • profile image

      JC Refuge 

      24 hours ago

      I had a good friend who was one of the survivors from the Hobson. A few years ago before he passed away he wrote an article for the Fall 2010 NavyCruisers.org issue http://www.navycruisers.org/fall10-in-this-issue.h... That link is for the table of contents of the issue. You need to contact the editor of the publication to have a hard copy of the article sent to you if you are interested. Very interesting. I understand that the crew believed Tierney was losing his mind before the incident and he demanded that the Hobson make the fatal turn. Then just before the ships actually collided, he leaped into the space where they were about to collide.

    • profile image

      Steve Barnes 

      45 hours ago

      My father was a Corpsman aboard the Rodman. At 95 years old he is still alert & active and has told several stories of the rescue attempt. He said one of the ships dropped landing nets in the water for the swimmers to grab onto, but the netting fell on top of some and held them underwater..?

      s.barnes1972@yahoo.com

    • profile image

      larry schultz 

      3 months ago

      i was a electricans mate aboard the wasp that nite,my memory of the events that happen are pretty nuch the same.

    • Judi Davis Barra profile image

      Judi Davis Barra 

      4 months ago

      My uncle, Richard A. Royce was on the USS Hobson. He did not survive. I never had the chance to meet him as the collision happened about a year and a half before I was born. I have seen many pictures of him that my mom had and am saddened that I never had the chance to know him. Does anyone out there remember him?

    • profile image

      russ@morancom.com 

      14 months ago

      I have no idea what you're talking about. Do you? This article is derived from factual accounts - are you aware the collision really happened? Too bad reality doesn't play out according to your fantsies.

    • profile image

      D. C. Haskin 

      15 months ago

      As a former Combat Information Center watch officer aboard destroyers in the fifties, this description of the incident sounds like a huge fantacy. The part about the two destroyers in plane guard stations is ,most likely accurate. However, a carrier already heading into the wind at 24 knots to either launch or recover aircraft is already committed to its base course and there is no need to have the plane guard destroyers already on assigned stations exchange places, or take other stations, except in preparation for a planned formation change upon completion of the air activities. A destroyer in plane guard station 1, 3,000 yards off the carrier's starboard quarter is considerably behind the carrier. Any maneuver that would bring it across the carrier's bow would require a considerable increase in speed just to catch up to the carrier. It might even needlessly require lighting-off additional boilers to obtain the necessary speed. Any man overboard maneuver would not be used in station keeping, or to take a new station. The only way I can see the destroyer crossing the carrier's bow would be if the carrier executed a base course change without first re-orienting the plane guard stations to a new formation prior to executing a base course change involving the carrier and its escorts. The story, as given, makes no sense.

    • profile image

      charles bearish 

      16 months ago

      lt. Hoefer was assigned to the USS Mercury aks 20 his office was next to my barber shop.....

    • profile image

      John 

      16 months ago

      My Uncle Bobby (Robert J. Ortlip) drowned on the Hobson when it collided with the Wasp. Would love to speak with anyone else who lost a loved one in this collision so many years ago. -John D. Favata

      My email is jdfavata@comcast.net

    • profile image

      Fran 

      17 months ago

      My Uncle Teddy was aboard the Hobson and was lost. My family was devastated. It happened 6 years before I was born. I appreciate the comments on here as I have researched this tragedy and just found general accounts. The fact he was never found still haunts my mother. He was her only sibling. Yesterdays Naval ship accident brings back the Hobson pain to her these many years later.

    • profile image

      Paul Edward Wells 

      18 months ago

      USS Wasp Second Class Electrician's Mate.The night of the collision of the USS Hobson and the USS Wasp. I remember playing Blackjack in the AfterGyro room when General Quarter's sounded after the collision. I remember you Nick Ippolito. I live in Fenton, MI.

    • profile image

      Nick ippolito 

      24 months ago

      I served in the E division of the USS Wasp. On the night of the collision

      I was the duty electrician. Things were quiet. I was sitting on the workbench in the shop when the collision occured . I received a call from the O.D. To send up as many flashlights as I could gather. I put batteries in about 50 flashlights and sent them

      Up to the Quarterdeck. When my watch finished at 2300 hrs., I went topside to see what was going on. I saw searchlights scanning the sea, looking for survivors, and the USS Rodman's and Wasp's lifeboats picking up survivors. There were differing accounts as to number of survivors. I understood the number to be 76. As for the toilet paper issue, mentioned in one of the above texts, we understood that all of our paper goods that were stored in the bow section of the Wasp, were destroyed, and that we had to borrow toilet paper from the carrier USS Leyte. The Leyte had to stay on duty in the Med for an extra 6 or 8 weeks while the Wasp was refitted with a bow taken from a mothballed sister ship, the USS Hornet. When we were arriving on station nearing Gibraltar, the Leyte sent two aircraft up and bombed us with toilet paper.

      On an interesting side note to the Wasp / Hobson collision, I was working out at a local fitness center two years ago. A retired navy captain saw my navy tshirt on and inquired about my navy duty. I mentioned my Wasp duty. He asked if I were aboard during the Hobson collision. I told him I was on board then. He said that his father-in-law was one of the survivors. Also, the Captain's brother-in-law is a two star Navy Admiral.

      I have had the pleasure of having coffee with the Captain and the Admiral on a couple of occasions during the holidays.

    • profile image

      rfmoran 

      2 years ago

      It's hard for me to imagine the horror of that night. My years on the Wasp were relatively peaceful, spent paying tag with Russian submarines.

    • profile image

      bob tyson 

      2 years ago

      I was an ABN aboard the Wasp on that fatal night & was on duty in the fuel gang. It was just a few minutes after 10pm when we started to turn into the wind to recover the planes that were on night training. At that moment I was in the "head" in our division quarters on the 02 level when all of a sudden there was a tremendous shudder of the ship. Instinctively I remember thinking that we had just "run aground", realized that was impossible as we were in the middle of the Atlantic, & then General Quarters was sounded. I ran to my position which was on the forward hangar deck & saw the sillowette of 1/2 of the Hobson sinking. Horrible sight. The next am during calm seas we sent out a party who measured the destruction to our bow. This info was relayed to Brooklyn Navy Yard where the USS Hornet was being brought out of "moth balls". The proper section that was needed was then cut out & when we finally arrived at the yard was then welded onto our ship, & off we went back to the Med. It was necessary to steam in reverse for quite a while due to high seas & the forward area was constantly being reinforced. It is now 64 years later & I'm reliving it as if it happened last night. I was on vacation a few years ago & ended up in Savanna, GA. While strolling through a park I came upon a memorial for the Hobson. I had no idea of the connection that it had with the city. I paused for a time & said some prayers for my departed shipmates.That toilet paper story is cute but inaccurate. We had plenty of toilet paper.

    • rfmoran profile imageAUTHOR

      Russ Moran - The Write Stuff 

      3 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Never heard the toilet paper story!

    • profile image

      ABC 

      3 years ago

      I was a crew member aboard USS Coral Sea (CV-43), about three days ahead of USS Wasp, headed for the Mediterranean. When Wasp lost her bow, we learned all the store of ship's toilet paper was destroyed when the storage locker was flooded. We heard the ship's office did a nice business in conserving paper forms...used for other purposes. USS Leyte was about six weeks late being replaced by USS Wasp, new bow and all.

    • rfmoran profile imageAUTHOR

      Russ Moran - The Write Stuff 

      3 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Wow. You were there for a part of history, a history I guess you wish you never had.

      When I was on the Wasp, from 1968-1970, people were still talking about it. We had yet another collision—with a tanker alongside, collapsing one of our plane elevators. This happened about a year before I reported aboard. My two years were peaceful, I'm happy to say.

    • profile image

      R P SWANSON 

      3 years ago

      I was aboard wasp during collision , many of aircraft were in the air , and wasp turned into wind FORWARD , to receive aircraft, about 20 knots , last to land was a banshee jet with 3 minutes fuel, engineering received a commendation for reverse hauling anchor chain up on deck , then we returned to Brooklyn yard where a replacement bow waited , having been cut out of a similar ship. we lost several bulkheads at bow from water pressure , during plane recovery, I listened to sound powered phone conversation , during this , and could hear , losing bulkhead # (something) falling back, shoring up bulkhead # (something) and there was much sound of metal tearing , and hammering . the suvivors were covered with diesel fuel , except one, a chief who had been on forward deck , and when bow half of hobson tilted up , was struck by an antenna of wasp , grabbed it and stepped off on our lower deck , he fell in with survivors muster , and caused disbelief , til he explained.

    • profile image

      Neal Hobson 

      4 years ago

      Mr. Moran,

      thank you so much for this interesting article. The USS Hobson was named after a direct relative of mine, Constructor Richmond Pearson Hobson (aka "Kissing" Hobson), a hero of the Spanish American War.

      I am planning on teaching my 12 year old son about his relative and the USS Hobson and you provided some great insight into this tragic event.

    • rfmoran profile imageAUTHOR

      Russ Moran - The Write Stuff 

      4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      It must have been horrifying, Stan. Thank you for your service.

    • profile image

      Stanley P. Merker, YN1(SS), US NAVY RETIRED 

      4 years ago

      I was stationed on board the USS CORRY (DD-817) at the time of the collision - all hell broke loose when it happened. We picked up bodies and survivors. One on the factors not mentioned was that we were operating under dark ship conditions. No lights were being used during the time it happened.

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 

      5 years ago from Upstate, New York

      Ahhhh - That seems more like it to me as well.

    • rfmoran profile imageAUTHOR

      Russ Moran - The Write Stuff 

      5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Thanks for dropping by and for your comment. Some reports have it that Tierney committed suicide.

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 

      5 years ago from Upstate, New York

      My Dad was a WWII Navy man. As Dad and I spent many evenings talking about his time on a ship, I sat enthralled as he described the many dangerous and perilous situations he went through.

      This was fascinating, tragic and sad but fascinating all the same. I also found it rather ironic that Captain Tierney was on board a ship yet did not know how to swim.

      Thanks for providing me an interesting read on my Saturday morning.

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