By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
From the moment a ship is launched, the ocean is trying to sink it. Only the skill of the ships’ crew and the reliability of her machinery can prevent it. One hundred years ago, on Aug. 29, 1916, the ocean suddenly overwhelmed the crew and the technology of the U.S. Navy armored cruiser, USS Memphis (ACR 10) anchored off Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, driving her onto rocks a half mile from her anchorage, with the loss of 43 crewmen killed and another 204 seriously injured. Three of her crewmen were awarded Medals of Honor for their courage during the disaster. Although not sunk, the Memphis was a total loss, and was eventually scrapped in place, making her the largest active U.S. Navy surface combatant* ever lost as a result of “natural causes.”
The loss of the Memphis was a traumatic event for the U.S. Navy in 1916. Although outdated in terms of her operational design (three similar British armored cruisers had been lost at the Battle of Jutland May 31-June 1, 1916 with great loss of life, in addition to the three larger battle cruisers lost in catastrophic fashion at Jutland) the Memphis was nevertheless considered a large modern steel and steam warship, having been commissioned only in 1906, originally as the USS Tennessee. Her name was changed to Memphis on May 25, 1916, an action the superstitious considered bad luck. Memphis was 14,500 tons, 504 feet long, with a main battery of two twin 10” gun turrets and a secondary battery of 16 6” guns.
The court of inquiry and subsequent court martial of the skipper of the Memphis, Capt. Edward L. Beach, Sr., struggled to achieve consensus on the cause of the loss, ultimately attributing it to a combination of hurricane, seismic wave, and tsunami. Capt. Beach was found guilty of not having enough steam raised to get underway under short notice, although it should be noted that he had wanted to keep four of his 16 boilers lit off, but was earlier overruled by the embarked flag officer, Rear Adm. Charles F. Pond (ashore at the time of the disaster), citing Navy economy measures, so only had two lit. The conclusion that a tsunami was involved was considered a significant mitigating factor resulting in relatively light punishment, initially only the loss of twenty lineal numbers, which was further reduced to five by Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels. Capt. Beach went on to command the battleship USS New York (BB-34), deployed to Great Britain, at the very end of World War I. Beach’s son, Capt. Edward L. Beach, Jr., a highly decorated submarine officer in WWII, skipper of the nuclear submarine USS Triton (SSN-586) on her submerged circumnavigation of the earth in 1960, and author of numerous submarine best-sellers, wrote a book in 1966, “The Wreck of the Memphis,” which advocated the tsunami theory, and almost every account, including official Navy versions, ascribe the loss to a tsunami.
However, there were no seismic events recorded in the Caribbean anywhere near that time. There were two hurricanes which transited the Caribbean in the weeks preceding the disaster, and one south of Santo Domingo at the time of the event. Modern scientific analysis of wave and wind action strongly supports that hurricane spawned wave action was the cause, which also fits the detailed observations of survivors far more accurately than a tsunami. Another major contributing factor was that, although anchored a half-mile off shore, the water depth was only 45 feet, resulting in the ship hitting bottom multiple times as increasingly severe wave action built over the course of several hours, the resulting hull penetrations complicating her ability to get up steam before the monster 70ft complex wave, which could be seen approaching for over an hour, hit the already doomed ship around 4:40 p.m. in the afternoon. Had the ship been anchored in deeper water, she probably would have survived.
As the seas started to progressively build in the early afternoon, Capt. Beach promptly gave the order to raise steam as fast as possible, and the Memphis would have been able to get underway about 4:35 p.m. However, increasingly violent wave action and ship’s rolls resulted in water being drawn in through gunports, ventilators 50 feet above the waterline and eventually through the funnels, repeatedly putting out fires in the boilers, which compounded with other technical problems, prevented the ship from getting underway before the fatal wave hit and drove the ship onto rocks at the base of a cliff.
Twenty five of Memphis’ crew were lost when their boat was swamped attempting to return to the ship from liberty before getting underway. A valiant rescue attempt by the gunboat USS Castine failed to reach the Sailors; the Castine barely avoided being driven on the rocks during the attempt, but was able to get away and survive the oncoming wave. Three more of Memphis’ crew were washed overboard and drowned while trying to raise the ship’s anchor, and seven more died in the boiler and engineering spaces as boilers and steam lines ruptured. Eight more were killed in three boats that were lost trying to get to the shore after dark.
Throughout the ordeal, the crew of the Memphis demonstrated extraordinary valor, remaining at their stations and continuing to do their duty to the utmost to save their ship. Lt. Claud Ashton Jones, Chief Machinist Master George William Rud, and Machinist Charles H. Willey were awarded the Medal of Honor, Rud posthumously (At that time, a Medal of Honor was authorized to be awarded for peacetime bravery, which is no longer the case). All three remained at their posts in engineering despite scalding steam and rapid flooding desperately trying to get the ship underway. Rud was mortally scalded preventing a boiler from exploding, dying days later, while Willey’s citation credits him with carrying 106 incapacitated shipmates on his shoulders to safety. It should also be noted that hundreds of Dominican citizens ashore assisted in rescue efforts, especially Emeterio Sanchez, a local fisherman, who repeatedly dove into the water to rescue U.S. Sailors at great risk to his life, for which he was never officially recognized by the U.S. government.
The bravery of the crew of the Memphis was in keeping with the highest traditions of the naval service. However, although some lessons were learned about ship safety in hurricanes, more years and many more lives would be lost before the Navy’s technology and procedures would make the loss of warships to the sea a thing of the past. The USS Truxtun (DD 229) and USS Pollux (AKS 2) ran aground in a storm off Newfoundland on Feb. 18, 1942, with the loss of 204 crewmen. The USS Warrington (DD 383) sank during a hurricane off Florida on Sept. 13, 1944 with the loss of 248. A typhoon off the Philippines on Dec. 18, 1944 sank three destroyers USS Hull (DD-350), USS Spence (DD 512), and USS Monaghan (DD 354) and damaged 28 other ships, with the loss of about 790 crewmen, the worst disaster due to the forces of nature (and human error) in U.S. naval history.
Even today, although training, procedures, equipment, technology, and especially weather forecasting, have greatly improved, the ocean has not changed and remains as unforgiving of mistakes as ever.
* The U.S. Navy auxiliary, the collier USS Cyclops (AC 4) disappeared without a trace in the “Bermuda Triangle” in 1918 with the loss of 306 crew and passengers. At approximately 19,000 tons and 542 feet in length, the Cyclops was larger than the Memphis. Although weather may have been the cause of the loss of Cyclops, the disappearance and loss of all hands of both her sister ships, Proteus and Nereus, in late 1941 while on post-Navy commercial service (and also in the “Bermuda Triangle”) suggests a fatal structural factor as well.
* The USS Oklahoma (BB 37), sunk and capsized during the attack on Pearl Harbor, was righted, floated, and then sank in a storm while being towed from Hawaii to the U.S. west coast for scrapping in May 1947. At 27,500 tons, Oklahoma would technically be the largest surface combatant sunk by weather, but was an unmanned hulk at the time of her loss.