Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Infamous Grounding of The USS Missouri

The Infamous Grounding of The USS Missouri
Thimble Shoal Snags A Battleship

Not only are we staying in Virginia for this post, we're still close enough to Thimble Shoal Light, Fort Monroe, and Buckroe Beach to people-watch from the deck of a Battleship. Think I'm kiddin' about the battleship? Read on...

The Battleship in question was the legendary BB-63, the USS Missouri. Anyone who knows anything about World War II knows about 'The Mighty Mo' as her crews affectionately called her. USS Missouri was the last battleship to be completed and commissioned, kicked serious boot-aye in the Pacific Theater during the last eight months of WWII, wreaked serious havoc in Korea during the Korean War, and, in her modified and modernized late 1980s form, added cruise missiles to the 2000 lb high explosive 16 inch shells fired by her 9 gun main battery and continued opening cans of high explosive whup-ass during Desert Storm

Her best known role, of course, was acting as the venue for the signing of the Instrument of Surrender in Tokyo Bay, officially ending World War II. She's now a much loved and oft visited museum ship in Pearl Harbor.

Her most infamous incident, however, took place right here in The Old Dominion, in The Chesapeake Bay a mile and a half from Thimble Shoal Light and a mile off of Old Point Comfort, when her captain inadvertently ordered his helmsman to run her aground on The Horseshoe...one of the two sandbars that flank Thimble Shoal Channel to form the channel's namesake shoal.

'Huh????' You ask. 'He did what??' Yep, you read that right. And we'll get to it...but first a quick coin-pocket history of 'The Mighty Moe...'

She was ordered in 1940, over a year before Pearl Harbor, as the third Iowa class Battleship though she actually ended up being the forth Iowa class BB commissioned. Her keel was laid on Jan 6, 1941, she was launched on Jan 29, '44 and commissioned on June 11th of the same year. When she was launched, BTW, a young lady by the name of Margaret Truman broke the traditional bottle of bubbly against her bow. Her dad was a Missouri Senator by the name of Harry S. Truman. Keep those facts in mind. They'll play an indirect part in the events to follow.

Her shakedown cruise and battle practice was on the Chesapeake bay, and after completing them, she departed for The Pacific on November 11th, '44, transited the Panama Canal on Nov 18th, and arrived in San Francisco about a week later to be fitted out as the Fleet flagship. She steamed for Pearl Harbor on December 14th, arrived at Pearl on Christmas Eve, 1944, and steamed for the war zone on January 2nd, 1945...she'd have about 8 months of war to fight.

But those were eight busy months. She screened the Carrier Lexington when her air group made the first air attacks on the Japanese Home Islands since the Doolittle Raid, provided heavy fire support at Iwo Jima, returned to provide a screen for more carrier strikes against the Japanese Mainland, escorted the badly damaged USS Franklin part of the way home, provided heavy fire support at Okinawa, participating in that campaign for three months during which she assisted in the sinking of at least one sub, shrugged off a Kamikaze attack with minor damage, and rode out the typhoon that ripped the bow off of the heavy cruiser Pittsburgh, again with only minor damage to herself. While she was at it, she also shelled the Japanese home islands on multiple occasions, a task that she was in the middle of when the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

A welcome and familiar sight for the US forces during WWII, Korea, and Desert Storm...The Mighty Mo's  main battery firing. Here Turret II sends a trio of 16 inch shells towards North Korea during that conflict. The North Koreans wouldn't see what was coming until it got to 'em...Those big beasts could lob a shell weighing as much as a Volkswagon Bug about 20 miles.

Her best know role...the venue where World War II was officially brought to a close.

Then came he biggie, the one she's most remembered for, on Sept 2nd, 1945, when she hosted the surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay.

After the war she was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet and based in Norfolk. She carried the Turkish ambassador's remains to Istanbul upon his death and 'Carried The Flag', providing a show of strength during the Greek Civil War (A task that would now be assigned to one of the carriers...this was also the first mission designed in part to contain the spread of communism).

She sailed up, down, and along the East Coast on training missions and generally became the pride of the Atlantic Fleet, and the darling of the residents of the East Coast as her huge and distinctive silhouette became a common sight to beach goers along the coast (Us Virginians, passengers on the Chesapeake Bay Ferries, and visitors to a then much smaller Va Beach and the beaches along the shores of the lower Chesapeake Bay got to view the 'Mighty Moe' up close as she steamed in and out of Hampton Roads...one of those things I'd love to have been around to see.)

And then came January 1950.

When WWII ended there was a massive reduction in the Military and by 1950 the Missouri was the last battleship still in commission due to the simple fact that she was President Harry S. Truman's favorite. After all, she was named after his home state and his daughter had christened her. When you're President you can pretty much push to have your favorite naval vessel remain in commission. Or, as was the case here, absolutely refuse to allow her to be decommissioned, against the advice of The Secretary Of Defense, Secretary Of The Navy, and Chief of Naval Operations at that.

So, as 1949 became 1950 she was still in commission, and in fact had just undergone a four month long overhaul at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, which was completed in mid-December '49. This fact made the events to follow a bit akin to bending your dad's car just after he got it tuned up, detailed, and repainted. Multiplied by about a thousand.

She'd also just gotten a new commanding officer. Captain William D Brown had just taken command of her on December 10th, 1949. Captain Brown had been in the USN for three decades, had amassed a very distinguished career, and had several commands under his belt. Only problem was, all of that command experience was in subs and destroyers, making Missouri the largest vessel he'd commanded by far.

He took her out on December 23rd for what was likely both a shakedown cruise after her overhaul and a familiarization cruise for himself, cruised around off the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay for a day or so, and returned to Norfolk on Christmas Eve. Out and back, negotiating the turn that Thimble Shoal Channel hooks at Thimble Shoal Light without the slightest hitch both inbound and outbound. She was scheduled to be beside her pier until January 17th, 1950, when she was to head for Guantanamo Bay for a training exercise.

Four days before their departure for Guantanamo Bay a manila envelope was delivered to Captain Brown, containing a request for Missouri to participate in a test of a new acoustic identification system that was in the very early development phase. Ultimately the system would allow sonar operators to identify contacts by electronically comparing the contact's propeller and machinery noises with stored sound signatures.

To accomplish this test they laid acoustic cables on the bottom of a stretch of Thimble Shoal Channel, marked the acoustic range with a quintet of buoys, and asked the captains of ships departing Hampton Roads during a given period of time to sail through the acoustic range. The 'Mighty Mo' was one of the ships tapped to participate.

Participation was voluntary, Captain Brown had a few thousand tasks to accomplish in the four days before departure, and really didn't have time to personally deal with some test of some new-fangled electronic device that the Navy was playing with. He gave the envelope's contents a cursory look-over and handed them off to his Operations Officer, Commander John Millet. Comdr Millet gave the request a little more attention, then lateraled it to The Mighty Mo's navigator, Lt Commander Frank Morris. Somewhere in all of this Passing Of The Envelope, the request to participate in the test was given the 'OK', at the same time inadvertently kicking off one of the premiere clusters of the peacetime U.S. Navy.

The next day...January 14th...The Missouri's command staff met to discuss the game plan for their Guantanamo Bay cruise as well as to briefly..very briefly...discuss the acoustic range test. The range was set up so that any ship transiting it would pass through a course marked by five buoys...originally marked by five buoys, anyway. These buoys marked the entrance and exit as well as making the edge of the range. There were a couple of problems though. First, the range was laid out at the extreme edge of the channel, real close to the invisible (From the surface, anyway) line where Thimble Shoal Channel's 50-60 feet of water suddenly became The Horseshoe's 10-20 feet. Compounding this little problem, for reasons unknown the five buoys that had marked the range had been reduced to two buoys. This change was made about two days before Captain Brown took command, before he had so much as an inkling about the acoustic range test. Frank Morris knew about the change, but even though he knew the three buoys had been removed from the range, he hadn't been authorized to remove them from the chart.

This little bureaucratic screw-up was probably why both Captain Brown and Comdr Millet left the conference with the impression that the acoustic range was still marked with five buoys. When Morris told both Captain Brown and Comdr Millet about the change at the conference, the two them were probably looking at the chart, and the three missing buoys actually appeared to still exist. The stage, as the Old Fella says, was set.

January 17th, early morning. The Tidewater area had been enjoying one of those unseasonably warm stretches of weather that Virginia occasionally manages to score during the winter, with temperatures in the fifties, sixties, and even a couple of seventy degree days...1-10-50's 72 degree temperature still stands as the record for that date in Norfolk. The temps headed back down to slightly more seasonable, but still not awful levels, with it hovering somewhere in the low 40s as the Mighty Mo's crew got ready to head for Guantanamo Bay.

As is customary in all major ports, a harbor pilot was to take her out, and veteran harbor pilot R.B.McCoy came aboard, discussed the particulars of the departure with Captain Brown and the rest of the bridge officers, and prepared to take her out. Capt Brown and his staff headed up to level 8 of the forward mast structure, where a bridge identical to the main bridge on level 4 existed, because it provided an excellent vantage point for conning the ship through the often congested lower Chesapeake Bay. And at 0725, The Missouri eased away from the pier, and headed out into the channel.

Missouri's fourth level bridge, the bridge that Missouri was normally conned from. That's the outer bulkhead of the navigation bridge to the right. The 8th level bridge, where she was being conned from when she ran aground, was identical (With the exception, of course, of the Navigation Bridge not being there.)

Lets grab a quick look at some vital stats as she heads out under the able hand of Mr McCoy...they'll be of interest here real shortly. When Missouri eased away from her pier, all of her magazines were chock full of ammunition, all supplies, equipment, and crew were aboard and her fuel tanks were 95% full. She was displacing 57000 tons, with a draft of 35' 9" at her bow, and 36 ' 9" at her stern. In short, normal set-up for an Iowa class BB heading out to sea. As long as she makes it out to sea...

Thirty minutes later, as they cleared Elizabeth River Channel Buoy 3, McCoy handed command back over to Captain Brown and departed for shore aboard a pilot boat, and Captain Brown had full command. He probably ordered turns for a quarter speed ahead and then ordered a new course of 053 degrees, the course recommended to him by Frank Morris...the course that should have run them through the acoustic range with no problem at all.

After giving course and engine orders he turned the con over to his Officer of the Deck and headed to the chart room, where Ensign E R Harris and the Mighty Mo's Executive Officer, Commander George Peckham, were tracking their course. Upon entering the chart room the Captain informed Ensign Harris and his executive officer that they were about to run the acoustic range, Guess what? This was the first either of them had ever heard of it. A couple of minutes later the Captain returned to Missouri's 8th level bridge, resumed the con, and called for his morning and forenoon watch officers. When they arrived he also told them that they were getting ready to make a run through the acoustic range. In reply the two officers...Lts Hatfield and Arnold...just gave him a pair of confused expressions. Captain Brown gave their confused looks a disgusted look and told them to 'Go get yourselves informed about what's going on'.

I'll pause here for just a sec to note that when none of your officers have any clue about what's going on it's probably time to back up, regroup, and have a quick pow-wow to inform them of what you should have informed them about in the first place.

The Missouri's chart room

Back to the action...Lts Hatfield and Arnold went to the chart room and examined the chart...you know, the one with the three nonexistent buoys on it...to try and get with the game plan. They remained confused about some aspects of the exercise, but when they returned to the bridge Lt Arnold did spot an orange and white buoy about 1000 yards away. Capt Brown and his Ops officer IDed it as a marker for the starboard side of the acoustic range, and a course correction was ordered and made. Missouri's bow was swinging so she'd pass to port of the buoy, which by the way, did not mark the starboard side of the range. It marked the port side of the range...the side at the very edge of Thimble Shoal Channel. At the same time, a discussion as to just how fast they needed to be going for the acoustic run to be effective was being carried out. It was decided that any steady speed would work, and Capt Brown ordered the engine room to 'Make Turns for 15 knots'. At about this time, the Missouri's executive officer was passing through the chart room and glanced out to see another pair of spar buoys getting closer by the second.

'For Gods sake, Watch it...!'

The two buoys he'd spotted marked a shallow fishing channel that traversed the Horseshoe, but Captain Brown had also spotted the buoys and misidentified them as marking the end of the acoustic range...he had, in fact, ordered a course correction that would split the middle between them. In doing so, though, he wasn't getting ready to run the range...he was running across it (If he even got to it) at an angle and Missouri was heading for The Horseshoe with a bone in her teeth...

On the bridge, Commander Peckham, Lt Arnold, Ships navigator Frank Morris, and several others knew exactly what the pair of spar buoys were...and most importantly what they weren't. Morris was the first to suggest coming to starboard, Commander Peckham made the same suggestion and Captain Brown ignored both of them despite the fact that he was being told otherwise by several officers who'd seen these same buoys regularly as they steamed through Thimble Shoal Channel on repeated occasions. 

On the left, a chart from 1950, showing the course Missouri took out of Hampton Roads and her final grounding location, and on the right, a satellite image of the same area with the course and grounding location drawn on. That's the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel...actually part of I-64...mid-frame in the satellite pic. On both the chart and the map, the solid line represents her actual course and the dotted line represents the course that she should have taken.  Take a look at the scale of miles on the Sat. pic and you can see how close she was to Old Point Comfort.                                                                              The chart's from the USS Missouri Salvage Report, prepared by the U.S.Navy made available by and used Courtesy of the Historic Naval Ships Association.
At a quarter after eight Missouri headed out of the channel into shoal water, a fact that everyone but Captain Brown seemed to know full well Several people tried to bodily drag him into the loop.
Commander Peckham sent a message to the bridge stating that he was entering shoal water and needed to come to starboard right then...but the talker who delivered the message apparently mumbled it, and Brown apparently didn't ask for clarification. Or maybe he didn't ask for clarification because Frank Morris was in his other ear saying 'Sir, we're entering shoal water, you really need to come to starboard like, now...or words to that effect. Later Captain Brown would say he didn't recall either conversation...

Morris probably inwardly huffed in disgust, went out on the bridge wing, took a bearing on Thimble Shoal Light...which was off of their starboard bow at an alarmingly and increasingly wide angle rather than a couple of points off of the port bow as it should have been...took another bearing on where he estimated The Point Of No Return to be, and likely went wide-eyed and pale even as his hair stood on end. As a general rule, proper naval etiquette is always called for on the bridge of a U.S.Navy warship, but he'd just found an exception to that rule.

He ran back into the bridge proper pointing and gesturing towards the bow...and anything off the bow... shouting 'Sir!!! We're entering shoal water!!! Come right...come right!!!' Annnnnd...Captain Brown still didn't believe him. Not only did he not believe him, he told Morris...remember, the ships Navigator, who'd steamed through Thimble Shoal Channel on multiple occasions?...told Morris that he needed to calm himself and that he had absolutely no idea where they were. But a tiny prick of rationality must have surfaced at the same time he was berating his navigator, because he told Commander Millet to double check Morris' position. 

Pity the Mighty Mo's poor helmsman, Quartermaster Travis, as all this was going on. He was at the helm, in the Navigation Bridge, or pilot house, an enclosed compartment in the middle of the 4th level bridge containing the helm, and helmsman, therefore semi-isolated from the bridge command staff. Helm orders were received over a headset from the Captains Talker on the bridge proper. Barring an imminently life and ship threatening event the helmsman of a U S Navy ship can't do anything as far as maneuvering the ship unless he gets a helm order. Whadaya want to bet Travis had also steamed through these waters a few times himself, and absolutely knew what was about to happen, despite having to peer through narrow view-ports ts see out of the bridge windows. He probably felt more than a little relief when Brown finally told him to come to starboard, to a course of 058 degrees, even though he knew it was too late.

The navigation bridge, where the helmsman...Quartermaster Travis on that fateful Jan 17th of 1950...actually steers the ship, steering by helm orders given by whoever has 'The Con', or responsibility for actually navigating the ship.

And within the space of a few seconds, even as Missouri hurled herself onto The Horseshoe at a shade more than 12 knots and accelerating, several things happened at once. There wasn't any noise to speak of...thankfully all of Thimble Shoals is sand and mud...but there was a sickening sensation of being bodily lifted, something absolutely foreign to the crew of an 889 foot long 57000 ton battleship. Even as they felt themselves lifted upward a frantic message came from her exec... 'Come right immediately...twist ship!!!'...but smoke like clouds of mud were already roiling from the sides of the BB as well as rolling up in her wake. Captain Brown yanked the engine room telegraphs to 'All Stop! to save both the props and the engines as everyone on the bridge leaned forward involuntarily, bracing themselves on whatever was handy as she decelerated slowly. Remember that 57000 tons? It was now 57,000 tons of pure momentum as, at 0817 on 1-17-50, The Mighty Mo shoved herself about three ship-lengths across a sand and mud bar named 'The Horseshoe'. Three ship lengths for the Missouri, BTW, is around 2600 feet, or roughly a half mile. She finally came to a stop on an even keel with seven feet of her waterline out of the water and her hull solidly encased in The Horseshoe's bottom mud.

USS Missouri aground about two hours after she ran aground, with a couple of fleet tugs and a pair of harbor tugs standing by to assist

Composite photo showing just how far out of the water she was. The numbers are draft marks, and the dark paint designates her normal waterline...normally no more than a sliver of dark paint would be visible. She had been lifted more than seven feet when she went aground.    The two photos used here, as well as the photo above are from TH USS MISSOURI SALVAGE REPORT, made available and used with permission of the Historic Naval Ships Association.

Engineering officer Lieut. James Forehan, as well as Ensigns Fredrick Koch and Robert Walters, who were assigned to the Mighty Mo's engineering section, were on deck when she slid herself onto The Horseshoe, and they knew one thing that was happening...all that mud that her hull was burrowing through was getting stuffed into the cooling water intakes for the engines. As she finally slid to a muddy stop they hauled freight down to the boiler room and spun the valves controlling oil-flow to the boilers to 'closed' before Missouri's four big steam turbines, which were in the process of being shut down, could overheat due to lack of cooling water and lock up tight. All three men would have commendations added to their records for their quick action.

In the movie 'Backdraft', the 'Career Dissipation Light', an imaginary orange light that an individual can see flashing at the corner of his eye when he's screwing up to the point of trashing his career, is mentioned several times. Ya know what? As The Mighty Mo ground to a stop a half mile onto The Horseshoe Captain Brown's Career Dissipation Light was flashing...and it had gone into overdrive. Not only was she hard aground, she was hard aground almost within sight of Norfolk Naval Base, and the numerous Admirals there-in as well as very much within sight of Fort Monroe and any number of high-ranking Army officers (I've been told there is somewhat of a rivalry between those two branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. Trust me on this...this was like Christmas Day all over again for The Army). On top of that, she was in plain full view of The Media, any passengers on the Chesapeake Bay Ferries, the crews of any ships entering or exiting Hampton Roads, and a good large hunk of the civilian population of the area.
USS Missouri aground with Old Point Comfort in the background...she was aground barely more than a mile off of the beach. This was taken a day or so after her grounding, as she has a boiler lit off to provide steam to her #8 turbogenerator  Photo from the USS MISSOURI SALVAGE REPORT, made available by and used with permission of the Historic Naval Ships Association

Damage reports were taken, messages were sent to Norfolk Naval Base (They could have almost used light signals or semaphore they were so close) informing them of the problem and requesting assistance (Spell that 'Tugs...lots of Tugs) and what had to be one interesting set of phone calls was made to the various involved commands to let everyone know what was going on.

So how were they gonna get out of this little 57000 ton, half mile screw-up? Know how, if you manage to sink your car in mud you can get someone with a truck and a tow chain to pull you out? Well this wasn't going to be anywhere near that easy...

An attempt to pull her off the bar was made that morning...I mean it couldn't be but sohard, right? Just tow her back out through the channel she made as she bulled her way across the bar.

Yeaahhhhh...No. Didn't work. They apparently tried to do just that, and they might as well have been trying to tow Fort Monroe itself. Missouri didn't budge. Another attempt to refloat her was to be made that evening, at the next high tide. One problem...she went aground at high tide, and during an unusually high tide at that. That evening's high tide wouldn't be as high. Things weren't looking good.

Meanwhile, ComServLant (That's Commander, Naval Surface Forces, Atlantic, or the Admiral commanding all U S Navy surface ships on the Atlantic.) Rear Admiral R.H. Good, went aboard to get an idea of just how bad the situation was. He probably wasn't in a real good mood at that point in time...see he'd just been told about the Acoustic Range test. As in 'Just Been Told'. As in he hadn't been informed about the course or the request for ships under his command to traverse it. It wouldn't surprise me if his thought process at that moment wasn't something like:

'So let me get this straight...one of my ships is hard aground because one of my captains decided that a channel dug for fishing boats was big enough for him to take a battleship through while he was off course while trying to take her through an acoustic range that I didn't know was there for a test that I hadn't approved because I wasn't told about it in the first place. Just freakin' perfect'

Yeah...bet that generated lots of interesting discussions.

Admiral Good went ashore after having surveyed Missouri's predicament and approving the evening's attempt to pull her off...it couldn't hurt, had already been scheduled,and might even work. Good, however, had a sneaking suspicion that it wasn't going to be that easy, and that getting Missouri off the sand bar was going to be a major operation. So he started organizing resources and personnel, and about 1630 that afternoon moved himself and several other officers, including the Admiral who was ComCruLant (Commander, Cruisers, Atlantic) and the Commodore of the Norfolk Navy Yard, aboard Missouri for the duration, however long that may have ended up being. They immediately began long range plans while at the same time assisting with preparations for that evenings attempt to free her. Nineteen hundred hours arrived...Several tugs ran tow lines to her and butted their bows against her forward hull, all ahead was rung for in multiple engine rooms, big marine diesels growled, lots of white water was roiled at multiple sterns...and The Mighty Moe didn't budge. This was gonna take awhile.
As noted above, Admiral Good already suspected this would be the case, and plans for the salvage operation were well under way before the second failed attempt. What was to follow, BTW, was to be just as much of an an exemploary bit of organization, resources procurement and plan execution as the grounding itself had been a...well...cluster.

First thing they'd have to do was remove about 12,000 or so tons of weight to reduce her draft, first by removing the majority of her fuel. As the tugs were making their second abortive attempt to pull her off the Horseshoe, the fleet Oiler USS Chemung ( AO30) was standing by to begin removing fuel from the Missouri's bunkers. This operation started almost as soon as the tugs had cast off.

Meanwhile. Missouri's crew was working to get at least one of her main generators going so they could have power...they had a big diesel emergency generator running for essential equipment, but if they were going to be aboard...and stuck there...for an extended period of time they needed to have power and water. Remember me saying that all of her intakes, etc, were packed with mud? This included all of her steam powered turbo generators, which I'm betting were cooled with seawater just as her engines were. Her #8 main turbo generator was apparently the easiest to access and clear (It's condenser was packed solid with sand). A crew worked on it until about 5PM, getting it cleared and back on line, allowing her to have normal power. A big Fleet Tug was along side to provide seawater for firefighting and throne-flushing, and she was close enough to Navy Base, Norfolk that all of her needs...including fresh water...were available with only a slight delay. Habitability-wise, she was ready for the long haul. Now they had to get he off the freakin' sand bar.

Using a pair of fleet oilers, they removed most of her fuel oil (Three tanks couldn't be pumped dry because, as it turned out, they were now open to the sea), and using a combination of brute strength, cranes, and barges all of her ammunition and powder (Including the huge 16 inch shells for her main armament) were removed, as well as basically anything not essential and not permanently attached to the ship.

While all of this was going on, divers went in the water and determined that she hadn't damaged her propellers or rudder, that there was no major damage visible to her hull (This was confirmed when her lower compartments were sounded and found to be dry) and that she was hard aground (The thought 'No Duh' comes immediately to mind.). The U S Army Corps of Engineers dredge USS Comber arrived the day after the grounding and started dredging on the open side as the AOs and other auxiliary vessels removed as much weight as they could (She'd still be about 4000 tons heavier than they wanted when they tried to pull her off on the 20th. Two other attempts ...on the evening of the 18th and morning of the 19th...were canceled because Admiral Good and company knew they wouldn't work.)

So on the morning high tide on January 20th a quartet of big fleet tugs bridled themselves to her stern and pulled while six more tugs pushed, three on either side of her hull, and again roils of white water surged at their sterns as their engines rumbled at full power...and again, she was just as solidly immovable as Old Point Comfort, visible only a mile or so off of her port side. Yep...this was gonna take a while.

Aerial view of the unsuccessful attempt to refloat Missouri on the morning of January 20th. Note the white water astern of the tugs...their big marine  diesels were screaming, wide open, at all ahead full, props roiling white water at their sterns...and Missouri wasn't budging.                                                                                                                                                 This photo from THE USS MISSOURI SALVAGE REPORT, made available by and used with permission of The Historic Naval Ships Association
Color photo of the tow for the Jan 20th attempt to free the Missouri being set up, taken from her bow.

More meetings were held, Tide Tables were consulted, and the Salvage team determined that the next high tide high enough to assist in getting Missouri off of The Horseshoe would be on Feb 2nd . They had about ten days. The Navy had some work to do.

They also had a unique problem...publicity, and not the good kind. Missouri had run aground in full view of the general population of the Hampton Roads area. Even though the area's population was a fraction of what it is today, it was still the most densely populated area of the Commonwealth.(Northern Virgina hadn't yet become become the megalopolis it is today and surpassed Hampton Roads and wouldn't for decades to come). Public statements had to be made and the Media (Who had already published and broadcast some pretty negative articles) had to be kept informed, so Admiral Good and his staff went out on a limb and stated to the press that they were going to pull her off of The Horseshoe on February 2nd. Now they just needed to figure out how they were going to do it.

The answer was, of course, with lots and lots of resources and effort, and with several different methods all working in concert. They needed a channel fifty feet deep and 150 feet wide all the way from Missouri's bow to deep water. Of course they couldn't dredge directly beneath her, so divers were assigned to tunnel beneath and parallel to her hull, to break up the bar and allow her to settle as well as making the sand under her hull, which had been compacted to the consistency of really poor grade concrete, more pliable and likely to yield when they tried to move her. They also dug out around her rudder and propellers and stern...especially her stern

The trick would be to unstick her stern, as she was harder aground from just aft of amidships back than she was forward, so in addition to dredging and digging beneath her stern, pontoons would be used to assist in getting her stern off the bottom. While most of her fuel and a good bit of her ammunition and stores had been removed before the first attempt to move her on Jan 20th, not all of her ammunition and stores had been removed, so the rest was taken off according to a schedule so it'd be off-loaded by Jan 31st . Keep in mind that they had to coordinate this operation with all of the other operations going on alongside of her.

Eleven sets of beach gear...Special sea-anchors and cabling that ran through blocks and winches that had been anchored to Missouri's after deck to...hopefully, at any rate...allow her to assist in pulling herself off ...were also utilized as were the aforementioned pontoons (Four pair...one pair at the bow and three pair at the stern). Underwater explosions were even used to help break up the sand and lift her off. And don't forget the tugs. Fifteen of 'em with six of them astern pulling, and nine at her bow either pushing or twisting.

Trust me on this, it was far more complicated than it sounds here, and this why the Navy ran what was, in essence, a full dress rehearsal early on the morning of January 31st. The test run (Which they were hoping would actually be a successful attempt) started before sun up in heavy fog, with glass-calm seas. The 'In heavy Fog' part ended up being a bit of a problem. The six tugs that were the towing unit drifted northward a bit...to port of the Missouri...causing one of the towing unit tugs to cross over the Beach gear from one of the two submarine rescue vessels, causing that vessel to have to slack off . 

Meanwhile, over a thousand feet away at The Mighty Mo's bow they were finding out that (A) the harbor tugs that were pushing side-wise to twist her weren't powerful enough for the job, and (B) that the wash from the fleet tugs that were secured parallel to Missouri's forward quarter, roaring at full power, was making their efforts even less effective. On top of that one of the tugs snapped her towline, which likely caused a few seconds of excitement as the broken end of the cable whipped back. Everything else worked as it should, but Missouri was still hard aground.

Diagrams of both the unsuccessful Jan 31st attempt to free her as well as the successful attempt on Feb 1st. The lines not attached to a tug are the lines going from BIG gasoline powered winches on Missouri's stern deck and fantail to the beach gear anchors. Two sets of beach gear were anchored to submarine rescue ships...one on either side of her stern. The primary difference in the set-ups...the one that made the difference...was the way the twisting unit, tasked with twisting her from side to side...was set up. They did such a good job on the Feb 1st attempt that the towing unit tugs didn't have to even exert any pull to free her. They just towed her out through the channel dug for that very purpose.                                               Diagrams prepared by the US Navy for the USS MISSOURI SALVAGE REPORT, made available by and used with permission of The Historic Naval Ships Association.

The decision had been made to try to pull her off on the morning high tide each morning from Jan 31st to Feb 4th (IIf they hadn't gotten her off The Horshoe by the fourth, 'More Drastic' measueres would be called for. Specifics of just what those measures would be were not noted.) At any rate. it was obvious that, if they didn't want Missouri to became a permanent part of the view from Old Point Comfort, that they'd have to make some adjustments before next morning's high tide. Some more weight was removed and the twisting unit's harbor tugs were switched out for a trio of big fleet tugs that were rearranged so they were pulling at a right angle to her starboard bow as a unit rather than butted up against both sides of the bow, in the bow unit's wash as the smaller tugs had been in the original game plan. All they had to do was wait for high tide the next morning...

...Which dawned clear with a twelve knot wind. AT 0530, the twisting unit was brought up to full power, assisted by the beach gear on the port bow...in fifteen minutes they'd twisted her 10 degrees. They were shifted to her port bow and again roared up to full power, big diesels bellowing. This did the trick...she swung to port so quick that the tugs had to back off.  Then the pulling and towing units took their turn and, with almost no effort at all, she slid off as smoothly as a hockey puck sliding across the rink. For the first time in nearly three weeks...and 24 hours earlier than the media had been told...she was floating free.

Wish this was a better pic...she's been pulled off the The Horseshoe, and tugs are turning her to head for Norfolk               Photo from THE USS MISSOURI SALVAGE REPORT, made available by and used with permission of The Historic Naval Ships Association.

Success!!  Missouri's eased into dry dock about six hours after she was refloated.                                                          Photo from THE USS MISSOURI SALVAGE REPORT, This photo and the one below made available by and used with permission of The Historic Naval Ships Association.

While all of the preparations on board Missouri were ongoing, the dredges had been hard at work dredging a half mile long, 150 foot wide, fifty foot deep channel all the way out to Thimble Shoal Channel. All that was left now was casting off all of her beach gear and towing her through the newly dredged channel and back to Norfolk...this was accomplished with only a couple of incidents...one of the tugs snapped her towline (And only some serious ship handling kept that from being a fiasco) and one of the pair of pontoons broke free, one of which sank and had to be recovered. Missouri was in dry dock, with various and sundry Naval Brass types examining her bottom and scratching their chins meaningfully by two thirty that afternoon.

Damage was minor...the outer hull plates of her double bottom had been bent inward and separated when she struck a still unknown submerged object, breaching her outer hull in a couple of places, breaching a trio of fuel tanks and causing minor flooding, and her bilge keels had been slightly damaged. There had been no injuries of any kind to either her crew or the crews working on refloating her...that itself was a remarkable feat.

Trust me on this...this was well deserved   

What about Captain Brown? You ask. Oh, the Brass was not happy with him at all. He was Court Marshalled (And plead guilty...seriously what other choice did he have? He basically ordered them to run aground through sheer arrogance and refusal to listen to anything anyone was trying to tell him). As a result he was relieved of command of anything other than a desk and his position on the promotion list was moved back 250 places, pretty effectively ending his career.

Missouri, of course, went on to be fight in the Korean War, and be decommissioned and recommissioned again to serve in the Gulf War, making her one of the last Battleships in active service.


The U S Navy was not at all happy about the publicity that the Missouri’s grounding generated, but they really weren’t amused by the coverage the grounding received in the Soviet Union. Within 24 hours fairly detailed if not entirely accurate reports of the incident appeared in the Russian news media, and a satirical and demeaning article, complete with pictures, was published in ‘Red Fleet’…the official magazine of the Soviet Navy. Considering the fact that this was decades before satellite news feeds, and nearly a decade before satellites in general, quite a few people were most interested in just how so much detailed information made it behind the Iron Curtain so quickly.

Of course, if they thought The Media was a problem then... imagine what it would have been like had, say, the USS Ronald Reagan run aground in the same location sixty or so years later.

Remember all of those unseasonably warm days leading up to Jan 17th? Well they continued, probably not disappointing the crews working on getting Missouri off of The Horseshoe at all. During the two weeks and change that she was aground, temps only dipped barely below freezing overnight once...on the 20th, the morning that the first organized attempt to free her was made. Not only was it cold that morning, there even a little freezing rain falling. The temps only dropped into the thirties 4 times during the period, with highs in the fifties, sixties, and even seventies during the day, when the majority of the work was being done, and lows ranging from the 40s to, a couple of times, the sixties for the majority of the period. Precipitation-wise, they didn't make out as well. It rained for at least a portion of eleven of the sixteen days she was aground. 
Running aground in such a public location was a definite double edged sword. While the Media gave the Navy fits, she was aground in protected waters and calling for resources was almost as uncomplicated as calling for a tow truck (Really, really big floating tow truck(s)). While not all of the resources used to refloat her came from Norfolk...some resources came from as far away as Panama, as well as other East Coast bases...her location only a few miles from Norfolk Naval Base, as well as 'The Amphib. Base' as what was then 'Amphibious Base Norfolk-Little Creek' was and is known to Tidewater area residents, made the operation far easier than it would have been had she been grounded on, say, Diamond Shoals off of N.C.'s Outer Banks.
Though most of Missouri’s fuel was removed before any serious attempt to refloat her was made, some had to remain…since her #8 turbo-generator was made operational, one boiler had to remain lit to generate steam to spin the generator’s turbine. Normally power generation duties are split between several generators, but this couldn’t be done on Missouri while she was aground due to clogged cooling water intakes and sand-crammed condensers, so her #8 turbo  generator had to carry the entire load for almost three weeks
Had this incident happened this day and time it would have been considered a potential major environmental disaster, an issue that wasn’t even considered a factor back in 1950. Still, an oil spill definitely could have ended up being a problem…remember, three of her fuel tanks were open to the sea and they were only a couple of miles off of the beach. The saving grace, of course, was the fact that oil is lighter than water and it was the bottoms of the tanks that were breached, so the fuel floated on top of the water that entered the tanks. The salvage crews were unable to lower the liquid level by pumping, but they were likely able to pump the majority of the oil out of the tanks. When the attempts to refloat her were made, the liquid level in the three damaged tanks was lowered by pumping high pressure air into them. Difference between ‘Then’ and ‘Now’…had this occurred in, say, 2010 rather than 1950, environmental issues would have been a major concern, to the point, very likely, of delaying the operation considerably.

The worst of the damage to Missouri's hull, caused by an unknown object which opened three fuel tanks to the sea as her hull dug it's way through a half mile of The Horseshoe's sand and mud. To this day no one knows what she hit. Her  starboard bilge keel can be see in the upper right portion of the frame. Had this happened today, environmental concerns would have likely added months to the salvage effort.                                                                                                     Photo from THE USS MISSOURI SALVAGE REPORT, made available by and used with permission of The Historic Naval Ships Association.

When the salvage crews removed Missouri's fuel, anchors, ammunition and stores, among other items, to remove weight from the ship, one of the 'among Other Items' was her crew. Her crew numbered well over a thousand, there fore comprised 80+ tons of removable weight. Special consideration had to given to removing her crew, though, and not because of any physical obstacle to doing so...the reason was a purely psychological one.

One of the long-standing traditions of the U.S. Navy is standing by your ship until it's obvious that there's no way to save her. Removing her crew early in the operation could have been a huge blow to their moral, therefore they were taken off aboard other vessels on Jan 30th, the day before the 'Dress Rehearsal' and returned to their ship after she was dry-docked.


Speakin' of putting Missouri in dry dock...The Navy had to do a bit of rearranging first. The dry dock they needed was occupied by BB66, The USS Kentucky...

Ahhh...I can hear everyone saying 'Wait a minute, Rob...you said that Missouri was the last BB launched and commissioned. And 'BB64 (USS Wisconsin) had the highest Navy BB Hull Number...so How???

Simple...USS Kentucky was under construction, and well along in the process at that, when WWII ended. In fact she was still under construction...sort of...when Missouri ran aground. At this point, knowing that the dry-dock would be needed for Missouri and not being sure what they wanted to do with Kentucky, construction was halted, and Kentucky's hull was floated out of the dry dock to allow Missouri to be dry docked for repairs.

As for Kentucky, over the next nearly a decade she was tapped to be converted into a 'Guided Missile Battleship', one of the conversion plans arming her with sixteen Polaris Missiles. As unique and awesome a weapons platform as that would have made her, that old bugaboo, budget, ended up killing her. She was sold for scrap in 1958. Her story, along with that of her sister ship, USS Illinois, is well worth it's own post

USS Kentucky's uncompleted hull being towed out of dry dock to make room for USS Missouri


For literally decades after Missouri's grounding, there were rumors that she'd sustained poorly repaired major damage, some of which was never really repaired at all. Specifically and supposedly her keel was badly bent, twisting her hull and limiting her top speed to fifteen knots, and that this twisting of her hull had cracked one of the Barbette supporting one of her gun turrets, putting it out of action.

Before I continue, allow me to stop and say 'Really?? Really people??' The Mighty Mo stopped a kamikaze, shrugging off the impact with little more than scratched paint. Does anyone realize just how much force would be required to twist her hull at all, much less in a manner that would limit her speed and crack a gun turret barbette?

Back to the show...There was a crack in the outer facing of the armor, but it was well less than an half inch deep and far forward of the area where her bottom sustained some minor damage. When she was being recommissioned back in the 80s, engineers checked her internal bulkheads, and found no damage...trust me, if she had hit hard enough to cause a major crack in an armored barbette, there would have been visible damage below decks. The crack was basically cosmetic, caused by the heat treating method that The Midvale Company, who made the armor, used in it's manufacture. In simple terms it was cooled too quickly causing surface cracks...the crack was filled with underwater epoxy and repainted.

As for the damage to her keel...there wasn't any. Her bilge keels were what was damaged. The bilge keel...a pair of stabilizers made of 3/8 inch steel plate welded into a 'V' at the round down where the side of the hull becomes the bottom...was bent and warped a bit, and was an easy fix.
Speed restrictions? What speed restrictions. When she underwent sea trials for her recommissioning, she maintained 32 knots...that's just shy of 40 MPH...for four hours. Without even breaking a sweat.
So, no, there was absolutely no major or unrepaired damage at all.

<***> LINKS <***>

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1950_USS_Missouri_grounding_incident But of course there's a Wikipedia article about the grounding!

http://hnsa.org/doc/bbmosalvage/index.htm The Historic Navy Ships Association has the full salvage report from the grounding on line. A truly interesting read (And the source of the vast majority of the information I used for this post). Be sure to check out the photos section as well...The site itself (And the association itself) pretty much redefines awesome. Their archive of historic documents and manuals is legitimately ginormous! And...with that thought in mind...

http://www.hnsa.org/index.htm  Historic Naval Ships Association homepage. They have literally thousands of historic documents and manuals in their achives...one of the best resources for anyone with any interest in U. S. Navy history on the net.,

http://www.navweaps.com/index_tech/tech-037.htm Article that goes in to great depth about the rumors of unrepaired damage and the infamous crack in the Barbette. Written by Richard Landgraff for the ICPA Newsletter...

http://www.militaryfactory.com/ships/detail.asp?ship_id=USS-Missouri-BB63   A good informative article about The Mighty Mo' from militaryfactory.com

https://www.reddit.com/r/WarshipPorn/comments/aibvn4/us_battleship_uss_missouri_bb63_surrounded_by/  Article from the Subreddit 'Warship Porn' about the grounding, with lots of good commentary and a couple of links that I missed. You can easily loose yourself ofr a very enjoyable afternnon or evening in this subreddit, BTW...especially of you're a Naval History buff!

And to finish this post off, Missouri's main battery...all nine of her 16 inch guns...firing off of Hawaii during a Naval training exercise.



  1. Great job on the artical about the grounding of big mo. I have been fascinated with naval vessels sinse I was a small child. Big mo and her three sisters were in a class all by them selves. It's too bad we have not used one of them as a flagship for our Navy. Cheers!

  2. Your picture of the Kentucky is not the correct one. That is the Kentucky being sent for scrapping. You can tell because her bow has been removed. It was removed in the late 50s to repair the Wisconsin after it had collided with the destroyer Eaton. The correct picture of the Kentucky being towed out of dry dock to make room for the Missouri is at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:USSKentuckyBB-66.jpg. Another picture of the Kentucky being towed for scrapping is at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Kentucky_%28BB-66%29#/media/File:USS_Kentucky_towed_to_breakers.png.

    1. Thanks!! I'll switch the pics out so the right one's up.

  3. One thing you only lightly touched on was the Army brass at Ft. Monroe, whose Officer Club had one of the best views of Missouri having almost 2 weeks of absolute hilarity at her expense. I read somewhere that the toasts they raised to her were something else.