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Sunday, July 14, 2024 - 06:26 PM


First Published in 1994


USS Mount Hood in 1944
USS Mount Hood in 1944.

Lost November 10, 1944


On this Memorial Day, I think about many people who have served in the military and especially the ones who have died during that service. Some of them are my family or served with my family. I owe my life to some of them.

I remember that my mom and dad both served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. My mom served stateside as a nurse for the most part. My dad served in the theater of battle as a navigator on a B-26 bomber. After a bombing run one night, his plane suffered damage, then caught fire and exploded. Someone closer to the base described the explosion as a “fire in the night sky”, one of the brightest lights they’d ever seen at night. My dad parachuted to relative safety with the help of a literal kick in the butt from the pilot. The pilot also survived. But the men flying nearby who spotted the fire and warned my dad and the pilot to bail out died as a result of the explosion. Without their courage and sacrifice, my parents would have never met and my brother and I and all our children and future descendants would not have been born.


I also think about my Uncle Kenzie who died in World War II. He was only 16 years old. He had joined the Navy at age 16 to be with his older brother Shelby, who had joined the Navy. To join the Navy before age 18, Kenzie needed parental consent. My grandparents did not consent, so my uncle got someone to fraudulently pose as his father for the consent paperwork. Once he was in the Navy, my uncle Kenzie found out that he would not be stationed and serving with his older brother like he had hoped. My grandfather Julian and grandmother Alice fought the US military bureaucracy over the fraudulent paperwork to get him out of the Navy and sent back home. The Navy finally relented and agreed to send Kenzie home. But it would take some time to finish the bureaucratic process and then arrange for his journey back to Talisheek, Louisiana.

Meanwhile, my Uncle Kenzie worked in the Navy on the USS Mount Hood, an ammunition vessel. He sent post cards to his parents. It was forbidden to disclose his location and operational details in unsecured mail. But my uncle sent coded messages in the post card pictures, so my grandparents knew he was in the Pacific theater fighting the Japanese.

The following comes from the description of what happened to the USS Mount Hood by retired Naval Commander Chester A. Gile…

On Nov 10, 1944, the USS Mount Hood (AE-11) blew up with 4,500 tons of explosives on board.

Conversations must have been choked off in mid-word, gestures interrupted in mid-air, thoughts ended at mid-point. One moment she was a ship teeming with life, humming with activity. Seconds later, she was a vast, black, billowing bier which momentarily marked the spot where 350 U.S. Navy men perished without a trace.

The disaster occurred in Seeadler Harbor, Naval Base, Manus, Admiralty Islands. All of the 350 officers and men on board were probably killed instantly.

Mount Hood was anchored in approximately 35 feet of water. The force of the explosion blasted a trench in the harbor bottom, reported by divers as being 1,000 feet long, 200 feet wide, and 85 feet in maximum depth. In this trench was found the largest remaining segment of the ship’s hull—a piece less than 100 feet in its largest dimension.

Destruction was complete. Nothing was found after the explosion except fragments of metal which struck other ships. There were no bits of human remains, no supplies of any kind, nothing that had been made of wood or paper, with the single exception of a few tattered pages of a signal notebook, floating on the water several hundred yards away.

The flying fragments from Mount Hood smashed into some 30 other ships and harbor craft, bringing the total casualties to nearly 1,000 killed and wounded. Some of the harbor craft simply vanished with all hands.

Most seriously hurt of the ships lying nearby was the patrol-craft tender, USS Mindanao, riddled from stem to stern as though she had been under heavy gunfire. All Mindanao personnel who were topside at the time were killed outright. Dozens of men below deck were killed or wounded. Deaths on this ship numbered 82.

The unrehearsed response to the disaster by rescue boats quickly sent from undamaged ships, and by the base medical facilities, was truly remarkable. Every available ambulance sped to the small-boat pier, to receive the injured and take them to the base hospital. Many of the victims had been blasted from their vessels into the water, and were covered with oil when carried ashore. Dozens of them received first aid treatment, including blood plasma, even before being carried from the rescuing craft.

The only survivors from Mount Hood's complement were a junior officer and five enlisted men, who had left the ship just prior to the explosion. Two of these men were being transferred to the Base brig to await trial by court- martial. (Charges against the prisoners were soon dropped on higher authority; these men were not brought to trial.) The others comprised the mail party, who were at the Base post office to pick up mail for Mount Hood, mail which would never be delivered.

Questioning of these survivors revealed that there had been some instances of carelessness among the crew in handling explosives. It was admitted that on more than one occasion, a sling-load of ammunition had struck against the side of the ship.

On the afternoon of 9 November, the day before the disaster, a Japanese reconnaissance plane had passed over the Base at great height. The presence of this enemy had been entirely undetected, until Momote airstrip was sprayed with a burst of explosive machinegun bullets. Apparently this was purely a gesture of contempt on the part of the Japanese. There were no casualties and no damage. But the presence of the plane did indicate that the enemy knew what shipping was in the harbor.

On the morning of 10 November, I had gone up the harbor in my capacity as Base Intelligence Officer, to the Aviation Supply Depot on Los Negros Island to get eye-witness accounts of the nuisance air raid on the preceding day. The Depot was about seven and one-half miles from the spot where Mount Hood was anchored.

My questioning was interrupted by a tremendous “BO-O-O-O-M.” It sounded as though a single beat had been struck on a gigantic bass drum—a drum a mile in diameter. There was a violent shock. The ground quivered as though in an earthquake. Looking down harbor, I saw a pillar of blue-gray smoke expanding and rising to a height of a mile, against the cloudless sky.

Mount Hood was anchored in a direct line from the sea through the entrance to Seeadler Harbor. There was therefore the possibility that she might have been torpedoed by an enemy submarine lurking outside the harbor. A check was made at the harbor entrance control post on Ndrilo Island, with negative results. The sonic detection gear had not detected any unidentified object passing into the harbor on the morning of 10 November. Antitorpedo nets had been stretched across the channel on the preceding night as usual.

But the control post supplied an interesting piece of information. The man on lookout in the tower saw a burst of light flash upward from Mount Hood “like lightning striking up.''' He called the Officer-of-the-Day and reported: “I think there’s a ship on fire in the harbor!” The officer questioned: “What’s that you say? What’s that you say? Repeat.”

The lookout replied: “I say I think there’s a ship on fire in the harbor.” Then, only after several seconds elapsed in this conversation, came the burst of the explosion.

I recall from reading that similar phenomena occurred twice in World War I. The explosions of the ammunition ships which wrecked Halifax and Archangel were each preceded by several seconds by an “upward lightning flash.” During those final seconds between the flash and the blast, the ships appeared to be undamaged.

There were no major combatant ships present in Seeadler Harbor on 10 November. However, there were about 200 other ships in the harbor—mostly auxiliaries such as cargo ships, transports, tankers, depot ships, etc., with a sprinkling of destroyers and destroyer escorts. It was fortunate that the disaster did not occur a month earlier, when the harbor was packed with vessels of the Seventh Fleet, staging for the invasion of Leyte. I have seen photographs showing some of the 995 ships assembled in Seeadler Harbor in mid-October 1944. One shudders to contemplate the havoc that would have been caused had an ammunition ship blown up in the midst of this armada.

Immediately after the Mount Hood explosion, a Board of Investigation was convened in USS Sierra (AD-18). The Board gathered evidence and heard testimony for one month. The possibilities of attack by submarine were ruled out. Air attack was ruled out also. … The final decision of the Board was that the explosion had resulted from unknown accidental causes.

Much later, another government body investigated the explosion of the USS Mount Hood. Although the report does not specifically name the USS Mount Hood, the circumstances described make it clear which ship was involved. The report detailed poor practices regarding how flammable materials and potential ignition sources were handled at the time. One potential ignition source was due to sailors smoking too close to flammable or potentially explosive materials. Ultimately, the tragedy and report led to safety improvements that may have later saved the lives of other sailors.

My grandmother Alice believed until she died in 1947 that her son had somehow survived the blast and would return home one day.