“It’s a cold February in ’73.”, by: Jim Elliot
This is one sailors account of the tragedy that struck the USS Basilone, and took from her seven of her finest.
This must not be taken as a factual account. No, I have tried as best I can to gather as much factual information on the explosion, its cause, the people involved and the outcome as I could. I’ve researched every possible avenue, without any results.
This leaves me no alternative but to post this in a personal format, until such time as I can gather the facts.
There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that any errors, falsehoods, omissions, or outright lies found to be in this account, I take full responsibility for, and apologize in advance for them. If there is anyone out there with a better account or with information you’d like added to this, please do not hesitate to contact me, I will edit this to include any and all submissions.
It’s a cold February in ’73.
The USS Basilone DD824 sits Pier side behind the Destroyer Tender Puget Sound on Pier II. Having recently returned from the World Cruise of ’72, the Basilone was readying her self for some major Preventative Maintenance. From stem to stern, she was needing work. BM’s $ HT’s were replacing handrails and CO2 bottle brackets and various other duties. The engineering spaces were no better off, at this point all four boilers were overdue for Fireside/Waterside maintenance. This for you non-engineering rates, means tearing down the boiler, inside and out and generally cleaning it, repairing any damages found and putting it back together. Along with this are all the pumps and turbines, valves and gages and various other items that need to be repaired. Usually this takes a good two to three weeks of non-stop work.
This is with the full compliment of BT’s, at this time we are several men short, and therefore have to make longer shifts to get the work done on schedule. Lots of us are ship bound, meaning our families are not in the area so those of us who had families here were allowed to break and go home, the rest of us stayed; some worked, others slept. It was the 30th of January, and we had ¾’s of number three boiler done, but hardly any work done on four. Bravo 1 was slightly better off than we were and lent us bodies to get number three buttoned up and Hydro’d. It was a very stressful time for us BT’s, our Captain had informed us that we had a training mission and Burial at Sea Ceremony up coming and the work had better be done and the ship ready for steaming by the 5th of Feb.
This shouldn’t have been an issue for us, since we were nearing the end and finishing up, we thought – No Problem! But the boiler had its own ideas…and a day and half later we couldn’t get the Hydro to hold. You seem in order to be steamable, a Modified “M” class boiler had to be able to hold a desigh pressure of 615 PSI for a specific amount of time, number three wasn’t even close…so we had a problem! It was found that there was dampness in the area of the hand hole plugs on the super-heater mud leg, assuming that maybe a couple of hand plugs were loose, we slugged them down and tried again. Eventually replacing all the gaskets on all the plugs. This went on for two days straight, we were pushing the deadline and time was running out. We didn’t believe we would make it, and this was a bitter pill for us to swallow, seeing as how this would be a first, as far as we knew, that the Basilone would not be able to fulfill its duty.
The Engineering Officer, LT. Hatch went to inform Commander Twonley, who needless to say was not thrilled, and made his dis-satisfaction known; furthermore he made it clear that we would indeed fulfill our obligation, and as you all know now, in true Basilone determintation and can do attitude, we did.
The Morning of February 5th, 1973 turned out to be a sunny one, though cold and breezy it was a beautiful day to get underway. Fires were lit in numbers 1 and 3 boilers at 0600. In Bravo three, our moods were to say the least, apprehensive, and though no one said anything the general feeling was one like that of an expectant father…if you know what that’s like then you know how we felt.
As the day progressed we all started to feel a little better and carried on with a standard Saturday watch duty section. The Senior First Class BT1 Herrold, made a swap in watches, he preferred the 4-8, but had the 8-12 so he changed with BT2 Clark, and also swapped out the Burner man and Check man…which were Mike Zajackowski(Satch) and Jim Raun instead of myself and Ron Lee, we were the light off crew. So in a way we got screwed on a 6 hr watch, but it turned out to be a blessing…All day we steamed that boiler, and at about 1530 we go the call to light fires in the super-heater and bring it up to 800 deg. And bring it on line, after the burial ceremony we were going to play shoot’em up with other ships in the area.
This was a non-essential mission and I have to say we could have bowed out on this, and in my opinion, had we done so the tragedy might never have happened.
Thing’s get a little fuzzy from here on - I don’t trust my memory to be exact on the events that occurred from this point - so I’ll give you what I do remember.
There were four bodies laying outside the B3 hatch, people were already there and I was yelling for someone to get blankets for the guy’s – they’re skin was peeling - and it was like 30 degrees or less with the wind…it didn’t seem very long until Sam Jackson and I went down the outboard hatch and started securing main steam stops, fuel oil and feed water valves…BTC Swoyer, was below having been in the vicinity when the explosion occurred, I believe he had been in the oil lab…his hands were beet red and blistering…Someone was telling him to get to sick bay - but he initially wasn’t having any of it, finally he relented and left.
I can’t remember exactly who was there…I’m sure that anyone that was supposed to be there was there, no doubt…anyway Sam heard yelling above the in-board hatch and we went up to see what was up, people were trying to get the door to th gun-shack open – it was either locked or jammed, once we got it open we found FTG2 Kelley – FTGSN Thimmer and FTGSA Rogers laying on the floor…they were beyond any help. The Gun Shack sat directly about the No.4 boiler, so the steam and heat made that space a virtual steam oven.
Use whatever imagination you have and you still won’t come close to what these guy’s looked like…May God Bless
Once we made our way back to Newport, under our power I might add, thing’s went sort of screwy – and for a while we just cleaned up ship-shaped whatever we could…we were told not to mess with anything until the BAT from Boston Naval Ship Yard could investigate, so then we went to Quincy, to the yards…
The Results of the investigation, as far as I remember was three 2” super heater tube’s had been porous and thought to have been leaking into the super-heater firebox, once the super-heater reached 700 degrees. It was believed that the weak tubes ruptured and the water flashed to steam causing the boilers to blow out and the super-heating casing – which cause the Steam drum to dump, sending water and steam out these tubes at a high velocity. (again, this account is what I can remember, it may not be entirely correc)
This is as much as I can recall, like I said before, if there are any of you that have more information or a different remembrance of events, please let me know.
For BT1 HEARROLD, BTFN RAUN, BTFN AZJAZCOWSKI, BTFN HARDIN, FTG2 KELLEY, FTGSN THIMMER and FTGSA ROGERS.
Tell “Manila” John B when you see him, who you are and that you’re Basilone Sailors
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