USS Wasp USS Hobson Collision - Worst Peacetime Naval Disaster
The Bow of the USS Wasp
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
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.
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