U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT MAGAZINE
Article from June 4, 1954
Then U.S.: Fire, Death - Sabotage?
Is something sinister behind the rash of accidents at sea in U.S. and British fighting ships? Are Communist saboteurs at work?
The BENNINGTON's tragedy, other incidents on British and American ships have got the world wondering.
Officials discount sabotage in the BENNINGTON's case. This story tells their reasoning.
Disaster aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. BENNINGTON immediately raised the question of possible sabotage. Trouble, strongly suggesting sabotage, in the past two years has plagued the carriers of the British Navy.
All indications pointed to accident and not sabotage in the case of the carrier BENNINGTON, however, as the official investigation got under way. Circumstances did not suggest any planned destruction. Everything pointed, instead, to equipment failure.
The BENNINGTON's explosion came at a time when a big carrier is most "accident-prone". The ship was launching planes. Much of a carriers equipment works at high speed during this operation. Catapults, deck elevators, hoists, communication devices are strained. This increases the chance of fire and explosion in machinery.
At the same time, chances increase that gasoline and oil fumes might collect somewhere. Quantities of explosive fuel are transferred from storage tanks to the airplanes just before a launching operation.
Safety measures make the danger from fuel vapors very remote, usually. But even a minor amount of fuel vapor in the atmosphere can contribute importantly to blasts and fires, such as swept the BENNNGTON's forward area, once there is an initial flare-up of some kind.
Exactly what happened, however, and why, will not be known until the Navy concludes its investigation.
Earlier, in April, 1953, the BENNINGTON had suffered a boiler explosion while on a training cruise in Cuban waters. Then, 11 crewmen were killed.
In this latest disaster, the loss of life was about 100 and the number of injured were nearly 200.
The basic reason why carriers have accidents is not hard to find. A big carrier is a floating airfield, crammed with complicated mechanisms, explosives, more than 100 airplanes and nearly 3,000 men.
All the hazards of a big ship are present, plus some special dangers. In the BENNINGTON's case, for example, suspicion centered on the catapult located on the left side of the ship near the bow, where the first explosion is believed to have occurred. Catapults are tricky, powerful pieces of carrier equipment that deal with terrific forces.
It was noted, in this connection, that the Navy's last big carrier fire, which occurred aboard the LEYTE in Boston, was traced to an explosion and fire originating in the hydraulic system of the ship's catapult. That disaster came last October, killed 37 men.
Below decks in a carrier, besides the engine rooms and boilers that any big ship has, there are vast storage tanks containing hundreds of thousands of gallons of gasoline and jet fuel, plus magazines crowded with tons of ammunition and bombs.
On the hanger deck, where planes are stored between flights, there is almost constant activity of the kind that breeds trouble. Planes are being shunted around, on and off big elevators that run up to the flight deck. Repair work, with acetylene torches and other gear, is going on. The gassing up and the arming of planes with bombs and ammunition, always potentially dangerous, are done there.
The flight deck becomes a perilous place when planes are taking off and landing. Crack-ups, with resultant fires and explosions, are not uncommon. Sometimes a plane's guns go off accidentally.
Most accidents involve one or two airplanes, a few officers and men. But, with great quantities of gasoline and ammunition being handled, the fire-control problem for the whole ship is always present.
Elaborate safety precautions are taken. The best fire-fighting equipment is provided. Damage-control drills are frequent. Considering the scope of the problem, carriers' safety measures as worked out over the years have proved remarkably effective.
Chances for sabotage obviously do exist on a carrier, in greater variety than on most combat ships. But the American Navy so far has had no trouble with Communists or saboteurs, ashore or afloat.
No hint of sabotage was found in the case of the LEYTE fire last October, or the BENNINGTON's boiler explosion earlier.
The British Navy has had some troubles-sabotage of a sort. Most old it has taken place on carriers, too. The EAGLE, a 36,800-ton ship, had four incidents between October, 1953 and March of 1954, involving damage to electronic gear, guns, communication and navigation equipment. The British carriers GLORY, WARRIOR, OCEAN and INDEFATIGABLE have had similar incidents. The British found in each case the trouble was caused by disgruntled sailors, bent on malicious mischief, rather than by trained saboteurs trying to put the ships out of commission. They concluded that the men were venting their resentment at cramped quarters, low pay, bad food and conditions in general in the postwar British Navy. Authorities in Britain promised to try to improve living conditions.
No "malicious mischief" has plagued the U.S. Navy's fighting ships. Traditionally, U.S. ships have been cleaner, with better accommodations and more comforts for the crews than the British have provided.
Life aboard an U.S. carrier is no picnic. There is hard work, noise, tension and as the BENNINGTON's case proves, ever present danger.
Some of the Navy's top officers have been concerned about the fact that ships and crews are being driven harder than ever before in peacetime, as the Navy strains to keep up with expanded commitments around the world. Carriers, as the main striking element of the fleet, have been on exhausting schedules.
Yet no one in authority has suggested that crews or individual sailors are discontented enough to cause important trouble. Nor has it been alleged that the Navy's uniformed personnel has been under any Communist influences.
The BENNINGTON's fire-control action was carried out swiftly and effectively, indicating efficiency and good morale.
The explanation of the BENNINGTON's disaster, thus, is expected to be found in the failure of some equipment, such as the portside catapult, or in a combination of equipment failure plus other factors. It will be up to the official investigators to determine whether carelessness by personnel also was involved.
As the disaster inquiry began, ranking officers tended to discount the possibility of sabotage. But the tragedy remains as a grim reminder that the Navy is using powerful and dangerous equipment in its ceaseless tasks of training and patrolling along the nation's shores.
THIS ENTIRE ARTICLE HAS BEEN RETYPED BY
JOE PIRES (former SK3 - 1965-1969)
A Special THANK YOU to Stan Walker for providing the data.