10 “Oops!” Moments in Naval History

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A Brief History

On July 3, 1988, the guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes defended itself against an attacking Iranian fighter bomber by firing 2 ship to air missiles.  The “attacking” jet was struck and shot down, but it turned out to be Iran Air Flight 655, an Airbus 300 carrying 290 people (civilians).  Sometimes when naval men make mistakes, people die.  Sometimes, the mistake is extremely expensive, or just highly embarrassing.  Here we list 10 of those moments when the naval brass would love to have a “do over.”  What incidents would you add to the list?  (Perhaps we need a sequel list?)

Digging Deeper

10. RAF Sinks Cap Arcona, et al, 1945.

In spite of British Army officials being notified that the Cap Arcona, Deutschland, and Thielbeck were carrying prisoners and with World War II in Europe about to end in mere days, the RAF sent 5 squadrons of Hawker Typhoon fighter bombers to attack the ships off Lubeck, Germany, sinking them and killing as many as 10,000 people, most of whom were prisoners of the Germans.  (Note:  See our May 3, 2014 article about this incident.)

9.  Leyte Gulf, 1944.

Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, Navy Cross recipient and later Fleet Admiral (5 stars), got suckered by the Japanese into leaving the US landings in the Philippines at Leyte Gulf to chase a decoy force well north of the area.  The lightly protected landing force survived only because of the incredible bravery of the men on the few smaller warships left in the area.  As US Navy top brass wondered where Halsey and his big ships were, a message sent to Halsey asking where he was included an add-on decoy message “the world wonders” causing irate embarrassment to Halsey.

8.  HMS Mary Rose, 1545.

A major warship, the Mary Rose was 33 years old when she sank, and over those years she had gained weight.  In periodic attempts to improve her fighting ability more and heavier guns were added, so that when the ship turned and heeled her open gun ports went underwater and the ship sank quickly, killing perhaps 365 men of the crew of about 400.  The idea of keeping gun ports closed until right before firing apparently did not occur to the crew, although they may have thought about it as every heavy piece of equipment on the ship slid to the low side accelerating the list and sinking.

7.  CSS Hunley, 1864.

The fact that the Hunley had already sunk twice, once when the skipper accidentally stepped on a lever causing the submarine to dive when the hatches were open, should have been a clue.  In a classic “Oops!” moment, the Hunley was sunk for a third and final time when attacking the USS Housatonic with a 90 pound explosive charge at the end of a 22 foot long spar.  Apparently the sub’s designers did not realize that a large explosion only 22 feet away could damage the sub.  All hands were lost.

6.  USS Greenville vs. Ehime Maru, 2001.

USS Greenville (nuclear submarine) was carrying 16 civilians and showing of an emergency surfacing drill where the sub rockets to the surface as fast as possible.  The thrilling maneuver was spoiled by the sub slamming into a Japanese fishery training ship, the Ehime Maru carrying high school students.  The Ehime Maru was sunk, and 9 Japanese died, including 4 students.  This occurred only 10 miles off the coast of Oahu.  On top of the collision blunder, the captain of the Greenville chose not to rescue survivors.  The captain of the sub received only minor punishment.

5.  “Whiskey on the Rocks,” 1981.

With the Cold War still going full speed ahead, Soviet Whiskey Class submarine S-363 ran aground on the coast of Sweden on 2 kilometers from the main Swedish naval base.  Aside from the blunder of running aground, the Soviet Navy was further caught violating Swedish territory and suffered the indignity of the sub’s captain being taken ashore by the Swedes for questioning and examination of the ship’s log and instruments.  The situation nearly developed into a shooting conflict until after 10 days Swedish tug boats pulled the sub free and the crisis was over.

4.  USS Forrestal, 1967.

An aircraft carrier supporting the air war in Viet Nam, the Forrestal was conducting refueling and arming of its aircraft on a crowded flight deck when a Zuni rocket was accidentally fired from an F-4B Phantom II, striking an A-4 Skyhawk waiting to take off.  The explosion and fire started a chain reaction of explosions and fires that resulted in the death of  134 men and (today’s dollars) a half billion dollars worth of damage.  Aircraft losses amounted to 21, and the ship was out of action for months.

3.  USS Vincennes, 1988.

During a time of high tension in a volatile area (the Persian Gulf) the US Navy shot down a civilian airliner.  Aside from killing 290 innocent people, this damaged the prestige of the US Navy and the United States in the middle of middle east tensions and the Cold War’s last years.

2.  USS Iowa, 1989.

The Iowa, lead ship of the greatest class of battleship ever produced, suffered an enormous explosion in the Number 2 turret when the gunpowder for the massive 16 inch guns blew up, killing 47 men.  Bad enough to have a disaster on a ship used as the face of the US Navy and getting those sailors killed, but it was made worse by the attempt of the Navy to blame the accident on a dead sailor by claiming he was a homosexual and intentionally set the blast.  The sailor was not a homosexual and did not set the explosion off.  The blast happened because of decades old powder bags that were deteriorating and leaking ether gas, creating an atmosphere ripe for disaster.  Only the quick action of a sailor who flooded a magazine kept the ship from blowing up and sinking.

1.  HMS Camperdown sinks HMS Victoria, 1893.

In a really massive “Oops!” moment, British battleship HMS Camperdown accidentally collided with British battleship HMS Victoria, which happened to be the flagship of the Mediterranean fleet, sinking the Victoria and massively damaging the Camperdown.  At the time, the 2 ships were only 6 and 8 years old apiece, and were among the most powerful ships in the world.  The death toll was 358 officers and men, with 173 injured.  Embarrassment and loss of prestige, priceless. (Note: See our June 22, 2014 article about this incident.)

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Historical Evidence

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Brassey’s Book of Naval Blunders (Military Blunders) (Paperback)

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.