Today is set aside to remember the men and women who lost their lives while serving the nation. The day originated as a time to honor and observe the ultimate sacrifice made by those who didn’t come home from the Civil War. It is now natural and proper that we should think of and reflect on the lives of those killed in battle from every conflict our nation has endured.
It is also right and proper that we spend this day honoring those who lost their lives not from enemy action, but by cause of accident, injury, or disease. Every death is tragic, no matter how it happens. Not everyone in service dies a hero in combat, nor needs to in order to be worthy of our indebtedness and remembrance for the risks that they took simply by being in the military.
The USS Mount Hood (AE-11) was a cargo vessel built in 1943 for Merchant Marine service, but acquired by the U.S. Navy for use as an ammunition supply ship. The ship was 459 feet long, weighed 13,910 long tons, with a cargo capacity of 7,700 long tons and a crew of 267 officers and enlisted men.
She loaded her first and last cargo of munitions in Norfolk, Virginia in August 1944 and set sail for the Pacific via the Panama Canal, arriving at Seeadler Harbor, Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea on 22 September 1944. For several weeks she sat at anchor in the harbor, dispensing munitions to warships preparing for the liberation of the Philippines.
At 0855 hours on the morning of 10 November 1944, something went horribly wrong. With approximately 3,800 tons of munitions of all types still in her cargo holds, and small vessels tied up alongside receiving ammunition and ordnance from AE-11 for transfer to warships, a small explosion in one of the midship holds was followed within seconds by the entire ship exploding in a massive inferno.
The ship disappeared in a dark cloud of smoke and fire. The shockwave of the blast knocked men off their feet at a distance of up to 4,500 yards. Twenty small boats were destroyed and sunk. About eighteen large ships in the harbor were damaged, some severely. The worst hit was the USS Mindanao (ARG-3), an engine repair ship anchored 350 yards away, as all sizes of broken steel peppered her broadside, punching holes in her hull, even below the waterline. Eighty-two men on the Mindanao were killed immediately and another hundred were injured.
The explosion was so powerful it made a crater on the harbor bottom 1,000 feet long, 50 feet wide, and up to 40 feet deep. Divers later found a piece of the hull in the crater that measured 16 by 10 feet – the largest piece of the ship ever found. No remains of the ship’s crew or sailors aboard the small transfer vessels were ever found.
Eighteen of USS Mount Hood’s crew were not on board at the time of the explosion, having gone ashore or to other ships in the harbor for various reasons. The remaining 259 perished. In total, 372 service members were killed by the blast, including 327 missing and presumed dead. The injured numbered 371. It was the second worst in-harbor disaster for the U.S. Navy in history, Pearl Harbor being the worst.
Eyewitness accounts of the day, including some in the user comments section, can be found at ww2today.com, but be forewarned you may find it upsetting.
A crewlist of the USS Mount Hood may be downloaded from www.jag.navy.mil (PDF, 12MB).
The USS Mount Hood accident is just one of countless tragedies that have occurred in our military history, in regards to both combat and non-combat related deaths.
The National Moment of Remembrance resolution, passed by congress in 2000, asks each of us to take a little of our time at 3pm (local) on Memorial Day each year “To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps’.”
Everyone stay safe today, and everyday. (Even if you are just staying home).
Question of the night: Who would you like the nation to remember today?